Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, there are still two cups at my table.

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 ~

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

The Top Figures That Shaped Modern Martial Arts

Over at Kung Fu Tea, there is a two part article on the authors list of the top ten figures that have shaped the modern martial arts. Part 1 may be read in full here. An excerpt is below.

As the saying goes, “amateurs borrow, professionals steal.” That adage certainly holds true in the world of blogging. Of course the real key to the exercise (both on-line and in life) is to focus on “incremental improvements.” That is why we now have well over 100 Wong Fei Hung films. Nor would many of us trade ‘Once Upon a Time in China’ for the 1959 serial ‘Wong Fei Hung Trapped in Hell,’ simply on the grounds that originality equals enjoyment.
All of this brings me to the topic of today’s post. I recently ran across an article ambitiously titled “2017’s Top Ten Asian Martial Arts Figures” or something like that. The premise sounded fascinating but I was disappointed to discover that it was little more than a list of CEOs of the most successful MMA fight promotion companies in Asia. I like MMA and kickboxing as much as the next guy, but this seemed like an oddly narrow view of the “Asian martial arts.” That is especially true in a year when China and Japan openly feuded about changes in middle school martial arts curriculums and Chinese social media was overrun with challenge matches pitting traditional master against more “modern” challengers.
Beyond that, the historian in me feels that focusing just on 2017 might be a bit narrow. I think a more interesting question might be, who are the top ten (non-mythological) figures who shaped the development of the modern Asian martial arts?
Answering that sort of question is always a challenge. We are, after all, the products of specialized training, and a subject like “Asian Martial Arts” is impossibly broad. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try. It is a fun thought exercise, and it may reveal something about the way that we imagine and value the martial arts in the current era. If nothing else it might serve as the basis for a great reading project!
So here is my list of the top ten individuals who have helped to shape the modern Asian martial arts. Note that this is not an exercise in finding the top ten fighters. That would be a totally different sort of list. Also, this post is long enough that I will be presenting it in two parts, so check back later this week for part II. [Note, Part II is now available here.]
Kano Jigoro (1860-1938). I doubt that my first selection will cause much controversy. Kano Jigoro was a professional educator, the first Asian representative named to the International Olympic Committee, and one of Japan’s most important modern martial artists. As a youth he studied multiple styles of Jujitsu at a time when the popularity of such practices was flagging. Yet Kano’s faith in the value of the martial arts in the modern world was unwavering. He even had a chance to demonstrate them before the former American president Ulysses S. Grant when he visited Japan in 1879.
Today Kano is best remembered for the creation of Kodokan judo in the late 19th century and its subsequent explosion of popularity in the 20th. His organization was one of the first to establish a truly global network of schools. Further, many western servicemen sought out judo training during or following WWII, ensuring that this would be the most popular Asian martial art on the global stage during the middle decades of the 20th century. Judo would even be chosen as the first Asian sport accepted into Olympic competition.
Yet Kano’s impact on the martial arts world extended well beyond his own style. In Japan he used his background as an educator to lobby for the inclusion of martial arts such as kendo and karate into school curriculums. This was a critical step necessary to popularize the Japanese martial arts and make them a truly mass phenomenon. Of course it also opened the way for their eventual appropriation by nationalist militants.
Kano also reached out to international audiences by writing about judo in English and explicitly laying out his philosophical and historical understanding of the Japanese martial arts. His schools were the first to introduce the now familiar standardized uniforms, colored belts and dan ranks that are part of almost every modern commercial style. It was largely Kano’s vision of the social function of these fighting systems (or at least what American audiences understood it to be) that came to dominate pop-culture expectations of what a “proper martial art” is. Even if you have never studied judo, there is a very good chance that you have picked up some of Kano’s world view. And that is why he is opening our list as one of the most influential personalities in the modern martial art. If you are interested in learning more see John Stevens’ The Way of Judo: A Portrait of Jigoro Kano and his Students (Shambala, 2013).

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