Xingyi And The Myth of The Defensive Martial Art
Around a decade ago, I attended a seminar with a famous Shanxi
Xingyiquan master. Aggressive and direct, Xingyi is one of the few
boxing arts known to have been used in preparation for organized
warfare. Its emphasis on straightforward practicality was combined with
enough subtlety to earn a reputation as one of the original Chinese
“internal” martial arts.
After the seminar was over, I bought a T-shirt to commemorate the occasion. According to the text on the back of my new shirt, I was now an unofficial member of “The International Association of Defensive Martial Arts”.
Nevermind that we had spent the last 6 hours eviscerating each other with spears, sabers and bayonets, metaphorically speaking. Nevermind that, according to the principles of Xingyi and all other respectable combat arts, the use of purely defensive techniques is forbidden. Despite all this, in public, we were expected to present ourselves as practitioners of self-defense. Not offense. Why?
There are two explanations for this incongruity; as usual, one is popular and the other is true. We may as well start with the popular rationale: that martial arts were designed and intended for defensive purposes.
This is primarily a modern ethical assertion, disguised as a historical thesis, and consequently there is hardly any evidence to be refuted. Karate-do and Aikido, to cite two specific examples, are often represented as defensive martial arts today. Their founders’ own words reject this characterization. It is true that the arts were not to be used for starting fights; however, this is not because they were envisioned to be “defensive martial arts”, but because they were not “martial arts” at all!