Martial Arts America, Chapter One

Martial Arts America, Book Cover



Capital 'F'or some time there has been a trend in the United States toward physical fitness. However, not everyone is completely satisfied with some of the more popular fitness programs. There are, for example, those who feel that jogging is beneficial, but that it is also boring. Weight training, in the traditional "iron works" sweatshop or the modern health club, offers health and strength benefits, but for some, this, too, leaves something to be desired. Then there are those who find aerobics an enjoyable way to improve fitness, but even they would prefer an exercise program with more purpose. In an effort to find something that meets their fitness goals in a unique, enjoyable, and potentially practical way, many turn to martial arts.

Asian martial arts are as diverse as they are popular. In the United States you can study fighting and martial arts from China, Korea, Japan, Okinawa, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Vietnam, and India.

The Chinese arts offer more variety (comprise more individual styles) than most of us can even imagine. They range broadly from the direct, often linear, rapid-fire, in-your-face wing chun, to the gymnastic and acrobatic modern wu shu, to the graceful, almost hypnotic t'ai chi ch'uan. And literally hundreds of distinct systems and styles fill the space between these three.

Then there are Korean arts that focus primarily on high kicking (those less flexible need not apply). The requirement for flexibility is one reason so many young people take up tae kwon do, Korea's national martial (and now Olympic) sport. (The vast number of schools doesn't hurt the art's popularity either.)

Japanese karate came from Okinawa. Because of this, Japanese and Okinawan martial arts are often lumped together. But karate is not the only art to come from the Land of the Rising Sun. Japanese and Okinawan arts also include extensive classical weapons training as well as a suite of grappling styles (primarily judo, jujutsu, and aikido). Their weapons systems include bladed, impact, and throwing or projectile weapons like the classical Japanese sword, the grain flail or nunchaku, and the bow and arrow.

Indomitable in spirit, the Philippine islands have repeatedly endured foreign rule. Fighting arts and systems there developed with a strong focus on survival, so there is considerable emphasis on weapons training. Often the training in other Asian martial arts moves from empty-hand to weapons, but in the Philippines, just the opposite is true. There, the student begins with sticks and knives and moves to unarmed training. Among Filipinos there are nearly as many systems and styles as there are villages and masters. Still, they all fall within three major groupings: kali from the southern end of that island nation, arnis from the northern end, and escrima, practiced throughout the middle of the island chain. Here, too, the number of systems or distinct styles within these three major genres of Filipino arts number in the hundreds.

I haven't even scratched the surface here, and I've only touched on some of the better known Asian arts. Among the plethora of other martial arts available to us today are the increasingly popular Brazilian jiujitsu; Brazilian capoeria; Malaysian bando; Korean tang soo do, hapkido and hwarang do; Japanese iaido; Indian kalaripayit; Okinawan kempo and Chinese kenpo; Japanese kendo; Chinese kuntao; Indonesian pentjak silat; French savate; and muay thai from Thailand. Of all these and more that are available (and again, this is the briefest of lists) stand-up striking arts such as karate remain the most popular in the United States. I use the term "karate" here in the most generic sense to mean, as it is defined in Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary, any "Oriental art of self-defense in which an attacker is disabled by crippling kicks and punches." Kung fu, tae kwon do, and a host of other arts are included under this broad definition.

Martial arts may be studied and practiced solely for fitness; however, what makes them an attractive alternative to other fitness programs is what they offer in their four main areas of expression: sport, philosophy, art, and self-defense. Historically, each expression developed in response to specific needs, and by looking at each one we can get a better feel for the broad attraction that the martial arts hold.

Traditional sport-karate
Traditional sport-karate

Martial Sports

For the practitioner and spectator alike, martial sports (particularly sport karate, tae kwon do, and wushu) are probably the most exciting facet of the martial arts. They are certainly the most visible. But to see where the "sport" fits into the art as a whole, we need to examine not only what martial sports are, but also, what they are not.

Any martial sport is, first and foremost, a game played by martial artists. Certainly, it is a game with martial roots and emphasis, and there is little doubt that what is being demonstrated can be effective, but it is still only a game. There are rules that control the techniques, targets, and degrees of contact allowed the participants. These artificial limits are used to insure the safety of the players, but because of these limitations, martial sports can, at best, represent or show only a fraction of the strategies, tactics and techniques that are taught and practiced in the art as a whole. In this respect, martial sports are like war games. Just as war games cannot fully represent the reality and depth of war, martial sports cannot represent the reality and depth of their respective arts.

The point here is that the highly visible sporting aspect of any martial art – sport karate, Olympic tae kwon do, full-contact kick-boxing, mixed martial arts (MMA) and so on – represents only the smallest part of that art. Much like the tip of an iceberg, the sporting element is the most visible, but it is not truly representative of the art as a whole. Martial sports are a part of the martial arts – not vice versa.

Still, with the right approach, the proper attitude, and the appropriate forum, participation in sporting and competitive events can contribute positively to the development of a well-rounded martial artist. Like other artisans, martial artists enjoy having their work appreciated. Martial games provide a platform for demonstrating the artist's skill. They offer the practitioner a chance for recognition among his peers. More important, sport competition provides an excellent opportunity to exchange ideas and learn from others of differing perspectives, styles, and opinions. This alone is reason enough for participating in the sporting aspect of the martial arts.

Martial Art Philosophies

A number of practitioners devote their lives to martial art study primarily for self-cultivation. Through their practice of the art, they seek to attain some glimpse of the "Wisdom of the East," as set forth in the various philosophies of Taoism, Buddhism, Zen, and the like. For example, many practitioners describe karate-do (the way of karate) as a journey that begins with the physical and ends with the spirit. The goal, for them, is development of the spirit. How? Through physical karate training. In this way, karate-do parallels hatha-yoga with its self-purification through physical application.

The incorporation of the contemplative, meditative, or philosophical elements into the art may have evolved as teachers began to see a need for morality among its highly skilled practitioners. As practitioners became increasingly capable of inflicting pain and substantial bodily injury – some form of control, some personal means of tempering physical conduct and actions – became necessary. The Japanese attempted this by developing the military-based moral code of bushido that eventually became the basis of ethical training for all of Japanese society.

For some, their art provides a sort of meditation in motion. This, they hope, will lead them to discover the wisdom needed to understand both themselves and the often unintelligible world in which they live. What they seek from the art is a philosophy of life, a code to live by, a discipline in an otherwise undisciplined world.

Hatha Yoga
Hatha Yoga
Traditional sport-karate
Iaido – Meditation in motion.

While the American melting pot welcomes new thoughts and ideas, it does not welcome them all. For example, for many Americans the idea of using martial art training as a means of discovering or formulating a philosophy to live by fails for at least two reasons. First, ours is a heterogeneous, highly diverse, and pluralistic society. We have, for example, numerous alternative avenues for those wishing to study Eastern culture, thought, and philosophy (and without having to break a sweat doing it). Second, and more important to some, Asian martial art philosophy is deeply entwined in Eastern mysticism and religion. As such, its spiritual and religious elements are often anathema to those holding other religious beliefs (this aspect of the art is addressed in detail in Chapter 11).

Aware of this potential cultural conflict, many American martial artists dismiss the religious overtones of their arts and concentrate on those aspects that will enhance mental concentration, improve sensitivity to differing degrees of threat, and increase awareness of the interaction between attitude and performance.

Martial Arts As Art

Interest in martial arts is also found among those who pursue martial art study as art. These individuals are interested in learning martial arts not for self-defense or sport, but as art forms. The student who studies a martial art as an art form is typically one who is also interested in the classical traditions, religions, philosophies, and meditational aspects of the art – areas that are generally of less interest to those studying the arts for practical self-defense. (Please note that I say "less" interest – not "no" interest.)

For myself, studying martial arts as art forms sounds a little like practicing basketball just for the sake of "the game." Doesn't a person practice basketball to "play the game?" True, we cannot go about beating people (playing our game), but we can participate in a variety of exercises that bring us closer to that reality. One who wishes to take up martial arts as an art would very likely enjoy the study of martial ways like classical aikido, iaido (a Japanese sword art) or kyudo (the way of the bow and arrow), or some other less practical martial art, such as Yang-style t'ai chi ch'uan (as commonly practiced for health – physical and mental). By "less practical," I mean that to most Americans, the study of weapons like the sword or the Japanese bow and arrow are not very practical for self-defense because, for example, they cannot be stored, carried, or otherwise kept readily available for use if needed.

Hatha Yoga

A martial art is an "art." It is not, however, an art form. It is a skill acquired by experience, study, and observation. Also, it is something you can enjoy and participate in almost your entire life. But again, it is, first and foremost, an art of self-defense. Why else is it called "martial"?

Martial Arts For Self-Defense

Despite the attraction the other areas of the art have, self-defense remains the primary motivator for most who begin martial art study. I say this because even those who pursue martial arts for the reasons already discussed often say that they also took up the arts for their self-defense benefits.

Self-defense is not simply a pragmatic motivation for studying the arts, for beauty and art are inextricably intertwined in this, the original purpose of martial art development. Self-defense study is simultaneously stimulating and relaxing. It challenges us, demands more, and it rewards our efforts. In more than one way it is like health insurance. Practitioners are rewarded because not only do they benefit from the strenuous physical exercise, they also benefit from the skills and abilities they develop – skills that prepare them, should the need arise, to defend their lives and the lives of their loved ones. This kind of health insurance simply isn't available anywhere else.

The difference between those who "also took up martial arts for their self-defense benefits" and the student studying primarily for self-defense, is motivation. For all the other avenues self-defense-motivated martial artists may eventually take in their walks down the martial path, for all of the other interesting and exciting things they may eventually explore as they stay the course, one thing remains constant: the desire for confidence in their abilities to protect their families and themselves. This, coupled with the desire for excellence in this area, remains the martial artist's primary motivation for study and participation in the art.

Why Martial Arts?

Martial arts are so broad that they can be studied and practiced for fitness, sport, artistic endeavor, self-defense, or all of the above. This breadth of expression is part of the attraction they hold. But let me give you in one word, why most people take up martial arts: choice. We all lead busy lives, and making the most of our time is important. Most of us recognize the need for exercise but find most fitness programs just boring hard work. Martial art study and training is hard work, but while it is also good exercise, it is anything but boring. But martial art study offers something else that few exercise programs can match: confidence. Other exercise programs may strengthen your body, giving you more confidence in general, but martial art training breeds a level confidence that springs only from the knowledge that you are not easily threatened or intimidated. In the street or in the board room, you now have choices. Untrained, you have no choice but submission. Trained, and you choose whether to yield or stand your ground. This kind of choice is available only to those who first choose to study martial arts.

Three Bullets
A warrior may choose pacifism. Others are condemned to it.
Our  emphasis  is  on  the  practical.
©Copyright Bob Orlando, 1993-2016
All rights reserved
Last update:  Aug. 6, 2016
by Bob Orlando
Web Site of Bob Orlando: Instructor in Kuntao-Silat (Chinese kuntao and Dutch-Indonesian pukulan pentjak silat), author of two popular martial art books: "Indonesian Fighting Fundamentals" and "Martial Arts America: A Western Approach to Eastern Arts"; and producer of four martial art videos: Fighting Arts of Indonesia, Reflex Action, Fighting Footwork of Kuntao and Silat, Fighting Forms of Kuntao-Silat. Offering practical martial arts instruction to adults living in and throughout the Denver metropolitan area including, Lakewood, Littleton, Morrison, and Golden Colorado.