Martial Arts America, Chapter Three

Martial Arts America, Book Cover


    Yip Man1 admitted himself that he changed wing chun from what he had learned and continued to modify the art up until the day he died.

— Dennis Dickens, 1995    
Inside Kung-fu magazine    

Capital 'O' f all the obstacles the American martial artist encounters in his quest for effective self-defense, none loom larger than the giant called preservation. Preservation of an ancient skill is a noble objective, and it has its place in the martial arts; however, for the modern martial artist, such a goal is often counterproductive. Beginning with a look at preservation in general (listing, briefly, the types of things we preserve and why), this chapter moves quickly to an examination of one place where this otherwise admirable effort is at cross-purposes with the goals of today's self-defense-motivated martial art practitioner.

Yip Man Yip Man, 1893 - 1972


Preservation: A Universal Need

There is in man a universal need to preserve elements of his past. This includes both accomplishments that we're proud of and atrocities we're ashamed of. Good and bad, all of them give meaning to life and chronicle the human experience.

We preserve, for example, important acts and significant historical events – events that, although they occur once in time, impact lives and alter the course of history. Historical declarations like the Magna Carta, and the American Constitution and Declaration of Independence fall into this category. Places that remind us of the past (both famous and infamous) also warrant preservation: the Parthenon, Machu Picchu, the Roman Coliseum, the Jamestown settlement, and, yes, even Dachau and Auschwitz. These events and places remind us of where we've been, cause us to reflect on where we are, and to consider where we're going. They also remind us of where we should never tread again. The timeless works of past masters like Da Vinci, Michelangelo, and Rodin enrich our lives with their artistic power. The classical compositions of Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach represent great peaks in musical history. These great works, along with those of literary giants like Shakespeare, Cervantes, and many others, all merit our efforts to save, protect, and preserve them.


But events, places, and great works of the arts and humanities are not the only things we preserve. Past skills are equally worthy of protection. Although some are no longer needed for the advancement and prosperity of society today, many are worthy of preservation because of their significant contributions to our history and development. Japanese sword smithery, Damascene and Toledo metallurgy, Roman engineering, and many others fall into this category.

Beyond commemorating our past, preserving ancient skills enriches and even safeguards our future. For example, powered vessels using satellite-based global positioning systems (GPS) have largely replaced sailing ships and the need for compass and sextant. However, modern advancements aside, it is still in our best interest to preserve these ancient mariner skills, for who can say with certainty that we will never need them again?

Because of their contributions to mankind's development and history, we preserve significant acts, events, great works of the arts and humanities, and skills of man's ingenuity. Likewise, because of their contributions to their arts' development and history, there are also things that martial art practitioners preserve. Here are a few.

Where Preservation Makes Sense
The preserved techniques of the Japanese sword, the bow and arrow, and the halberd, found in the martial ways of iaido, kyudo, and naginata-do, are examples of ancient arts where preservation makes sense. It makes sense because their skills are no longer taught as martial arts for self-defense. Practiced now as martial ways, with an emphasis on character building and the development of inner peace, what were previously combat arts now play very different roles in society.

Rodin's Thinker Rodin's Thinker

Preservation of arts like these make sense because their development as self-defense systems ceased long ago. Their devolution from martial arts to martial ways – hastened by the increased effectiveness of modern weapons – rendered these once potent classical Japanese weapons impractical for self-defense in twentieth-century urban environments.

Practitioners of these arts may dispute the contention that they are no longer effective for self-defense, arguing that the weapons in question are still lethal. In this, they are correct; the Japanese katana or sword is, indeed, a formidable weapon. However, there are compelling reasons why weapons like the sword, the staff, the halberd, and others are, nonetheless, impractical today as self-defense weapons and systems of personal defense – principally, the difficulty in transporting and accessing them.

Japanese naginata on a bus

Realistically, carrying around a six-foot staff or eight-foot-long halberd in one's car or on a crowded bus is simply impractical – not to mention quickly whipping the thing out when you need it. Carry a samurai sword with you down the street and you will very likely be stopped and questioned by police so frequently that you may never arrive at your destination.

Ancient Japanese arts aren't the only ones facing this reality. The idea of carrying even some of the smaller, more exotic weapons, like the Chinese deer-antler knife or butterfly sword, or Filipino kris under your coat or in your briefcase is none too practical either – especially if they're ready for use (sharpened). For arts and weapons like these, preservation makes sense because their value as self-defense weapons and systems of combat has long since been surpassed by their cultural and historical value. From the modern martial artist's perspective, preserving these arts is no problem. For us, the issue becomes a problem when people try to preserve arts that are still capable of providing practical self-defense.

When Preservation Destroys
Regardless of the motivation behind your desire for preservation, the fact remains that preserving any truly effective self-defense art inevitably destroys (rather than preserves) the very attributes and characteristics that make it a candidate for preservation in the first place. Study martial arts long enough and you realize that what made past masters great was not how they preserved their teachers' arts, but their willingness to adapt and change them. This is a large part of the reason they were masters and the principal reason the arts they practiced remain effective. These men of vision realized that hanging on to the old ways of fighting meant certain doom – for them and their way of life. Adapting to change was, and still is, the only way to survive – in business, in everyday life, as an individual, and especially as a martial artist.

This desire to preserve the teacher's art is not just a Japanese, Chinese, or Korean thing. Many fine practitioners from any number of Asian cultures fall prey to what is otherwise a noble goal. For example, I know instructors of both Indonesian and Filipino extract whose stated purpose in sharing their martial art knowledge is the advancement and preservation of their (or their teacher's) heritage and culture. I fully support the preservation of one's heritage and cultural traditions; however, I think it unreasonable to expect those of another culture to adopt the same goal for a culture that is not their own. If, for example, a Brazilian teaching jiu-jitsu seeks to preserve his Brazilian heritage and culture as part of his instruction, is it reasonable for him to ask his German-, Lithuanian-, and Mexican-American students to also preserve his cultural heritage? I think not. If, on the other hand, one's martial art is actually a martial way, where the purpose is self-improvement, perfection of character, or spiritual enlightenment, then preservation is, again, reasonable.

Preserving Adaptability – An Oxymoron
Let's begin by asking ourselves this question. Does the preservationist do his masters a service or a disservice by preserving their techniques – exactly as they were taught? I believe that if we are dealing with a martial art (one that still claims self-defense effectiveness), then we do them grave disservice.

Taking a self-defense or combat art and preserving it – freezing it in time – is like taxidermy. You take an animal that is vibrant, exciting, and full of life. It may be beautiful, powerful, cunning, or breathtakingly terrifying. Preserving it (remember, you have to kill it before you can preserve it), reduces the beast to a mere shell of what it once was. On the outside, it may look like its former self, but in reality it is less – much, much less – than what it was in life. There is a world of difference between a live 10-foot-tall, 1,200 pound grizzly bear and one displayed in a museum. In the diorama the grizzly stands: clean and well groomed; without scent, sweat, or smell – well preserved, but lifeless.


I remember finding a small beetle once. It appeared to have a body made of iridescent gold and silver. Each section of its body was delineated by a thin black line. It was incredibility beautiful. I gave the beetle to a friend who thought she would preserve its beauty by sealing it in plastic (we both thought the creature was dead). Placing the beetle in the liquid plastic, we discovered it was, indeed, alive! By that time, however, it was too late and the beetle died. Amazingly, as the creature expired, its beautiful shell diminished and all the gold and silver vanished. It looked now like an ordinary bug. You see, the real beauty (or terror) in any living thing is in its life. A martial art is exactly like that!

Consider boxing. Does anyone believe that Julio Caesar Chavez could have beaten Hector "Macho" Camacho using the preserved techniques of past boxing greats like John L. Sullivan or Jim Corbett? Of course not. Boxing is a self-defense art. Its weapons are limited to the hands, but it is a self-defense art nonetheless. I say this because boxers hit each other – all the time. If a boxer does not defend himself against his opponent in the ring (even in practice), he will have his head handed to him. Every sparring session then, is a self-defense lesson, and boxers know that you cannot fight today's fighters with yesterday's techniques.

You can still honor past masters without preserving the techniques of their art. Instead, we acknowledge their contributions and their skills. We honor Jim Corbett and John L. Sullivan, but we no longer box as they did. We build on their foundation and preserve the timeless principles of the masters' art, but we must not remove the very life from their art by preserving its techniques. An excellent example of what can happen when you do is found in modern jeet kune do.

John L. Sullivan John L. Sullivan, 1858-1958.

Sabres And Samurai

In this life, the only sure and constant is change, and martial arts must change as well. The cavalry sabre evolved into the foil of the gentry because gentlemen rarely, if ever, faced armored opponents. When a gentleman used his weapon, it was not against someone wearing, for example, a breastplate. The foil was designed to penetrate cloth and flesh, not armor, and techniques for its use evolved accordingly. The development of the popular samurai sword followed a similar path.
The foil and sabre The foil and sabre
Before the Tokugawa Shoguns, most Japanese swords were much heavier, for they were designed to smash through armor. With relative peace restored to Japan, the samurai wore less and less armor, thereby changing the requirements for the sword. Blades were made both lighter and sharper because they needed only slash through lightweight materials to inflict their disabling or killing blow. Schools of kenjutsu and iai-jutsu developed wholly new techniques because of this evolution. The use of two swords also became practical because you no longer needed both hands to hold the weapon in an attempt to drive it through the armor that formed the "turtle's shell."


Martial art training and study preserve the tradition of change by adapting to the ever-changing combat environment. In peacetime, "combat-proven techniques" (i.e., military and counterterrorism techniques) are reserved for those needing them. This does not exclude them from the civilian martial artist's arsenal; it just keeps them in context. The preservationist's goal is commendable, but it is ill-conceived when it comes to effective martial art systems and techniques.

We honor past martial art masters by continuing the tradition that is the strength of their arts – namely, the tradition of adaptation and change. Filipino and Indonesian martial arts remain effective today because of that tradition. Do that, and you pay the greatest honor to those masters and their arts. Preserve their arts in their original form and, rest assured, in just one generation you will have reduced them to little more than museum pieces. Were they to return from the dead, I believe the great masters would much rather see their arts still alive and growing than preserved and lifeless.


  1. Yip Man (1893-1972) was grandmaster of the wing chun style of kung fu. [Return to reference point]

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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.