The autumn leaves are falling like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are always two cups at my table.

T’ang Dynasty poem

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~


Saturday, October 22, 2016

Who's Martial Art is it Anyway?

With the world wide diffusion of martial arts, can we still say that Judo for example is still Japanese; or that Wing Chun is still Chinese?

Dr. Ben Judkins over at Kung Fu Tea explores this question. An excerpt is below. The full article may be read here.

“Inoue said the Japanese style of judo traditionally focused more on quantity rather than quality, trying to instill a tough mentality. But in Europe, which Inoue describes as “the mainstream of judo today,” judoka train more efficiently.

“A balance between efficiency and inefficiency and a balance between scientific things and unscientific things — you have to look at those, otherwise there’s no progress for our game,” Inoue said.

“We’ve switched our mind-set that way.”

“Inoue Determined to Help Japan Keep Pace.” Japan Times, 5/2/2016.


Introduction

Who owns a martial art?

On the surface this question would seem to have an obvious answer.  Most of these systems come with a specific name (kendo or taijiquan), and they fall into generally accepted categories, such as Japanese Budo or the Chinese martial arts. The very act of describing these systems in the English language seems to underline an obvious fact.  The martial arts are best understood as the technical and cultural property of the previously mentioned nations.  It is all a matter of common sense.

Unfortunately “common sense” has a nasty habit of transforming itself into complex assumptions that no one ever questions.  For students of nationalism, a fairly modern political ideology spread and popularized in the 19th and 20th centuries, an assertion like the one above might begin to raise eyebrows.

While Chinese citizens during the Qing dynasty were certainly aware of the existence of the state and their responsibilities to it, most contemporary accounts indicate they did not think of themselves as members of a unified, polyglot, “Chinese nation” during the late imperial period.  Instead they were much more likely to organize their identity around lineage groups, regional locations and patronage networks.  Strong feelings of national identification didn’t really grip the populace until the founding of the Republic in the post-1911 period.  And yet many of the traditional martial arts (including systems like taijiquan and wing chun) were already well established through local and regional networks prior to the rise of the “the nation.”

The case of “Japanese” Karate makes an even better case study of the complex relationship between the emergence of hand combat systems and national identities.  As many of us already know, this art first came to Japan from Okinawa.  There it went through a process of fundamental transformation, rationalization, and even renaming, before it was determined that it could be a vehicle for the new strain of Japanese nationalism that was then insinuating itself into the martial arts.

So does that mean that Karate is originally an Okinawan martial art?  Possibly.  Yet again the story is more complicated than our nationally focused narratives might suggest.  Hand combat was particularly popular in a couple of areas of Okinawa, and it is not clear to historians that all of these practitioners shared a common style.  And various arts from Southern China (including White Crane Boxing) likely played a critical role in popularizing these modes of hand combat in Okinawa.

So does that mean that Karate is really a Chinese art?  Probably not.  When we push historical arguments to their logical conclusion we find that knowledge about a practice’s “genetic origin” are often unhelpful in understanding how a community actually understands itself and functions today.

While a regionally focused approach to understanding the development of the Asian martial arts shows a lot of potential, the ancient origins of individual techniques have little bearing on their current identity.  This point seems obvious enough.

When a modern American undergoes genetic testing and learns that a certain percentage of his DNA originated in Poland, he may be able to claim previously unknown Eastern European ancestry.  Yet he can’t really claim to now possess a “Polish identity.”

That is a matter of deep cultural knowledge and life experience.  If you are depending on a blind genetic test to discover some aspect of your genetic heritage, we can safely assume that it plays little role in your actual cultural identity.  Nor would most people make the mistake of conflating these two categories when talking about genealogy.

So why do we tend to conflate similar categories when discussing the martial arts?  Why do we routinely assume that some quirk of our wing chun practice shows its deep “Chinese heritage,” particularly when hung gar and taijiquan people do things very differently in similar situations?

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