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 ~


Sunday, February 16, 2020

Standards, Norms and Rules in Martial Arts

When Kendo was created from a diverse universe of kenjutsu styles, decisions had to be made. What would be included and excluded, what would be the standards and norms?

These were important decisions because those fundamental items dictated how everything would look and act from then on.

The rules in Judo from the 60's are much different than the rules in force today and Judo looks different. Judo and BJJ have the same basic skills, but operate under vastly different rules, and we clearly see the outcome.

Does your organization have a standard of performance set by headquarters, that all of the are expected to follow, or is each satellite school free to interpret the martial art as they see fit; or maybe something in the middle?

These are important and fascinating questions. 

Below is an excerpt from a post that appeared at the Kung Fu Tea blog that discusses this very topic. The full post may be read here. Enjoy.

Why do the rules matter?
Recently I was invited to help organize a local martial arts gathering and tournament.  I have never done anything like this before (most of my organizational expertise is concentrated in the academic realm) but it seemed like a good cause, so I said yes. Little did I suspect that this new item on the to do list would have me going through my bookshelves looking at some of the classic texts on the development of international trade systems.  It seems that organizing a tournament, or really any event that brings a diverse group of practitioners together, is a lot like creating a set of trade rules.  

Or, to be more specific, several similar debates will come up, and most of those are actually about the institutional standards that you are planning to adopt rather than the more practical problem of how they will actually get implemented.  Within the martial arts we invent games to encourage training and play, but the rules are for fight over.
My specific project faces two sets of challenges.  First, this is a new event, so we cannot just fall back on the old standby of “lets, do it just like we did last year.”  With no inherited institutional memory, one is forced to think carefully about all sorts of rules, standards and goals that might otherwise be taken for granted.  Yet on a more fundamental level, an inherent tension exists between the goal of bringing a large group of people from diverse preexisting organizations together, and then organizing a single game that they can all play.
The rules of games are, by their very nature, exclusionary.  They structure participants’ incentives, demarcate permitted and proscribed techniques, create systems to officiate a contest, and describe the sorts of competitive equipment that can be used in minute detail.  In some cases, the rules of a contest may specifically exclude certain groups from play (perhaps those under 18 cannot join a tournament, or certain divisions are reserved specifically for female athletes). Yet it is ultimately the rules of the game that advantage certain sorts of player and strategies and disadvantage other.  It is our rules, as much as our athletic excellence, that creates winners and losers. And knowing that one’s preferred goals, techniques, strategies or equipment is disadvantaged by the rules leads to different, less visible, forms of exclusion.
This is precisely why so many discussions in the martial arts come down to debates about rules.  Yet even when we leave the sporting realm behind, we find that standards of practice and behavior still shape the day to day experience of most traditional martial arts.  Drawing on some of the current debates in Wing Chun, we might contest the degree of contact that is permissible in Chisao or sticky-hands training. Do we play to first touch, or should every exchange end with someone on the floor? Alternatively, other instructors are attempting to shift the art’s standards of practice in even more basic ways. Given the repeated failures of the traditional Chinese martial arts in ring (by which I really mean on YouTube), some instructors favor a reorientation of the art towards basic skills training on the one hand, and more modern forms of sparring on the other. They argue that this will produce more competitive fighters who can stand up to MMA trained athletes in the octogon.
Others question whether that is (or should be) the goal of traditional Wing Chun training.  Training to win in these sorts of situation naturally advantages certain kinds of specialists, and yet many individuals were drawn to the traditional martial arts precisely because they offered a more well-rounded view of physical culture, health and culture.  Hence when we debate the goals and norms of practice within the Wing Chun community, the actual questions being invoked are often much larger than points of pedagogical efficiency.  Again, the adoption of new standards of practice create winners and losers.  By in large individuals who have specialized in competitive sparring have not been able to specialize in sticky-hands to the same degree, to say nothing of the more esoteric aspects of “internal training.” There are only so many hours in the day and we all have to make hard choices as to how to allot our training time. The idea that one person can really be an expert in all areas, that mastery sidesteps comparative advantage, is among the most pernicious myths of the martial arts. 

There are always economic consequences to shifts in practice. Some careers and schools will prosper, others will recede.  Our community’s standards of practice are contested precisely because they create winners and losers.

Live by the Sword
One of the really interesting things about the renewed interest in combative weapons training (whether in the Chinese martial arts, HEMA or lightsaber combat) is that very often these debates over values and standards can be observed directly in the material culture of the community in question.  Does your organization mandate the use of fencing masks in pairs practice? Or does it instead expect its students to “learn control?” If armor is worn, how much?  The use of nylon training blades allows for a generally less expensive kit.  Metal wasters, in contrast, require practitioners to invest large amounts of money in specialized gloves, plate gorgets and heavy padded jackets.  Thus, the increased realism of the metal blade comes at a very real economic cost.  And in any case, the same high-tech armor that allows one to compete “in a realistic way” also enables a wide range of behaviors that are probably not very credible from the perspective of the historical battlefield (intentionally seeking double strikes in certain HEMA tournament settings comes to mind).
One only has to visit any HEMA Facebook group to find elaborate discussions of these issues, many of which are distilled down to questions of material culture (“Should we create more specialized fencing helmets to allow for more robust thrusts to the face?  What types of gloves should be mandated, or prohibited, in this event?”) Yet these debates are rarely ever focused solely on questions of equipment design. Instead they often place the competitive nature of modern HEMA tournaments into direct opposition with the sport’s more academic and historically sensitive roots.  Debates over training blades, masks and gloves are often spirited exchanges about what sort of place the HEMA community should be.  Once again, this will impact both the social status of economic fortunes of many established or up and coming teachers.  Its very difficult to be a true expert in both aspects of the arts at the same time.
Unsurprisingly, we see similar discussions within the lightsaber combat community.  Should we restrict the wall diameter of the polycarbonate blades to 2mm, or allow the heavier 3mm blades?  Should fighters be able to compete with no gear (Ludosport), minimal gear (mask and gloves, as in the Sport Saber League), full gear (add elbows, knees, chest, as is required by the French Fencing Federation), or are we going to send our athletes out in heavy head to toe protection (the Saber Legion)?
This choice is more than aesthetic, though aesthetics are often explicitly invoked in people’s justification for one standard or another.  Most lightsaber leagues prohibit thrusts as polycarbonate tubes do not flex, and they are unwilling to impose the same barriers to entry on their athletes as the Saber Legion, whose armor tends to be much more extensive and expensive. Ludosport, on the other hand, carefully restricts and monitors the techniques of their fighters so that their game can be played safely no safety gear. But that end up imposing a different sort of barrier to entry in terms of the time and training that is necessary to ensure that each fighter has fully internalized the sports physical culture on a subconscious level before ever stepping foot in the ring.  As a relatively new sport, each school of Lightsaber Combat is forced to debate and establish all of its own standards.  Indeed, they use these standards to differentiate themselves from each other in an increasingly crowded landscape.
As a historian of the martial arts, I should also point out that there is nothing particularly new or post-modern about this situation.  Both Hurst and Bennett’s discussions of the practices that would eventually lead to modern kendo note that the early Tokugawa period was marked by heated debates about the benefits of various sorts of training gear (the bamboo shinai, the gloves, masks and chest piece, all of which evolved separately long before being brought together into a single standardized kit.) At that time a number of traditionalists noted that the habits and mindset of martial artists engaging in competitive fencing with safety gear was moving farther away from the requirements of the battlefield, not towards it.  In contrast they continued to advocate the use of wooden bokken and training by Kata. In their view these more abstract forms of training perpetuated fewer myths about the realities of combat.
The contestation and fragmentation of standards of practice within a given community is not a new phenomenon.  Indeed, the fact that they create economic or social winners and losers suggests that a degree of market fragmentation may be the natural order of things.





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