Wednesday, October 3, 2012

In Defense of Traditional Systems

In Defense of Traditional Systems

By Michael Rosenbaum

If you were to look up the word “traditional” in Webster’s New World Dictionary you would find the following definition: “handed down by, or conforming to tradition; conventional: also tra-di’tion-ar’y or [rare].”

Studying the traditions of one's chosen style of fighting helps us to not only gain technical insight but it also helps us understand the circumstances that brought forth a fighting art's development. But more importantly by coming to understand the development process inherit to a fighting art you also gain insights into the worldviews and ethics which were present during the system's formation. Views that often contrast the ones held today. For instance many people enjoy the sport of fencing but the contemporary fencer’s mindset is quite different than the one held by their 16th century counterpart. Today the ideal of being killed in a duel of swords is not very probable but for those who practiced the “noble art of defense” some 400 years ago it was a very real threat. To draw your sword against an opponent was to literally take your life in hand, therefore hand-to-hand combat was not something one took lightly.

Lately it has become in vogue to devalue the traditional fighting arts based on assumptions which overlook the time, place and reasons for their development. One contributing factor to this miss-understanding is that contemporary practitioners often misstake the tournament floor as being one in the same with the hostile environments for which many traditional combative systems were developed. And by making this assumption the differences between traditional and modern styles of training are overlooked. Hence we forget the tournament style of fighting is designed for use in a win or loose environment, one with established rules and regulations. In contrast to this traditional combative arts are intended for use in an environment that has no rules and is concerned with the issue of surviving a life or death engagement. For instance although a sport karate-ka may have superior kicking skills than a Filipino martial artist, if the two were to fight outside of a ring and the Filipino practitioner were to use a bolo knife, kris, or balisong then all that would be required is one well placed thrust or cut and the match would be over. Thus you have two different systems concerned with two entirely different outcomes of an engagement. One being competition, the other combat.

There also is a trend today to reinvent the martial arts based on consumer appeal, or the popularity of full contact fighting. A good example of the latter being the ever popular no holds barred fights such as UFC, K-1 etc. Without a doubt the fighters who engage in these matches train in a dedicated manner and are very skilled at their chosen style of fighting. However, full contact fighting is not something new to the martial art's world. Wrestling, boxing and pankration were all practiced by the ancient Greeks hundreds of years before Christ was born. And these traditional contests were no holds barred events in the fullest sense because gouging to the eyes, strikes to the throat, breaking an opponent's fingers, even trampling a downed fighter were all allowed during these contests in which participants fought naked, outdoors, in the hot summer sun and with no time limits. Therefore we haven't reinvented the wheel, we've only rediscovered it where as full contact fighting is concerned.

When discussing the effectiveness of traditional fighting arts we should consider that with the history of hand-to-hand combat dating back to prehistoric times there is little that hasn’t  been discovered by previous generations of fighters.  Moreover the assumption that all traditional combative systems are obsolete usually proves to be far from fact, especially for those intended mortal combat. Tradition does not mean to stop progress nor does it mean to curtail martial prowess. Tradition instead is a way to maintain integrity and keep alive a standard of training that was developed not in the light of the latest martial arts fad, but instead in the arena of life and death. It is only when the equation of combat is removed from the traditional fighting art that it becomes ineffective.

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