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 ~

Saturday, February 01, 2020

The Old Masters Sucked

Below is an excerpt from a thought provoking article that appeared at The Martial Poet. We almost all take it on faith that our ancestors in martial arts were giants and the standard of practice today makes us amoebas by comparison. Is that right? 

The article explores that question. The full post may be read here.

Models of cultural comparison can be problematic, in that they often lead to gross overgeneralization and emphasize the differences between cultures while neglecting their similarities. With that in mind, cultural gaps are one of the major sources of misunderstanding in traditional martial arts.

East Asian cultures are largely Confucian-based, and one of the primary tenets of that belief system is “filial piety”, i.e. ancestor worship[2]. This translates to respect for both tradition and authority[3]

Parents and grandparents are held in very high esteem, and family lineage scrolls are prized possessions. The same is true in martial arts, where lineage is used not only to determine Ryuha or style, but, in many cases, quality as well. Some lineages, especially more direct ones to an original source, are of greater prestige than more obscure sources, even if the resulting technical skill is the same.

This bleeds into the narratives about Okinawa’s martial arts pioneers as well. Books such as Richard Kim’s The Weaponless Warriors and The Classical Man, Nagamine Shoshin’s Tales of Okinawa’s Great Masters, and Mark Bishop’s Okinawan Karate gives us stories full of superhuman feats including levitation[4], puncturing walls with fingertips[5], and kicking ceilings that are over four metres tall[6].

Certain common narratives–for example, the disciple who is rejected several times by the master before ultimately being accepted as a student, or the sickly child who becomes healthy because of their training–are archetypes that are not meant to be taken as literal truth. Buddhist texts often do the same, using identical stories in a wide variety of biographies. In the tradition of Chinese training manuals, authorship was commonly attributed to a long-dead historical figure as a form of tribute[7]–and again, it was understood that this was not meant to be taken as literal truth.

So what are we supposed to understand when reading the obviously embellished tales about the great martial artists of the past? And, realistically, how would these figures have fared in the world of modern martial arts?

Most Things Improve:

In a Ted Talk titled “How Not To Be Ignorant About The World”, Professors Hans and Ola Rosling discuss the misconception people often have that the world is going to hell in a hand basket[8]. The reality is that most things across the world are improving.

Across all sports and physical activities, feats of speed, strength, and endurance are routinely being rewritten by today’s athletes. Roger Bannister’s four-minute mile was a groundbreaking accomplishment, but entirely unremarkable by today’s standards. In 1920, roughly a century ago, the winning time in the 100 metre dash at the Olympics was 10.8[9]. In 2016, the person who finished last in the finals did so in 10.6 seconds[10].

It would be absurd to believe that, for some reason, Karate is the only exception to that trend. While the old masters were, by all accounts, outstanding for their generation, it is hard to believe the common sentiment that they would be superior martial artists if a time machine could transport them to today’s epoch.


Steve said...

It's an interesting argument and does have some value. Here's a caveat: the "old masters" didn't have the distractions we have. No video games, TV, movies, etc... .Training was, in many cases, their sole avocation. I started in 1968. I trained three hours a day. Every day. My grandkids train three days a week, then they do other things (soccer, gymnastics...). Training time builds quality. OTOH, at least a certain portion of the "Old nasters" were probably self-promoting frauds. A couple of years ago, I read a magazine article extling the virtues of Grandmaster "X". I knew him. He was a fat, worthless piece of crap. Twenty years fromnow, someone will read that article and get a completely wrong idea. And that's how it works.

Rick Matz said...

Thanks for visiting.

It's a provocative subject to be sure. We live in the best of times with access, sports science, etc.

Some of the tales from the past is simply marketing and hero worship.