A discussion of fighting with two swords in a western fencing text.


I saw a documentary on the resurgence of interest in the western historical martial arts called “Reclaiming the Blade.”  It is interesting stuff and I really enjoyed it.  I think that there is a more general resurgence of interest in the western fighting arts going on right now and this documentary certainly gave me some insights as to what might be going on.

One tangential point that I found my mind coming back to was the efforts that these students made to distinguish the “western” martial arts from the “eastern” ones.  As near as I can tell most hand combat students do engage in this sort of rhetorical behavior (regardless of the style they study) and it probably serves to advance group identity formation.  The slightly disturbing thing, however, is that a lot of the assertions that get made about the “other” aren’t terrible true when one starts to dig beneath the surface.

The great truth that should be evident to any martial artist is that there is a profound equality between people.  All human bodies move in more or less the same way; all soldiers, no matter who well trained, are vulnerable to the same sorts of injuries.  It has been my own personal observation that when the gloves really come off and people decide to really hit or hurt one another all fighters, both eastern and western, suddenly look pretty similar.

Likewise, there are certain psychological similarities that transcend culture.  We all fear death and dishonor, maybe to different degrees, but no one likes these things.  And given that the martial arts are a social system, there are only so many ways to teach them.  They can be taught through oral traditions relying on a rich body of sayings, forms and drills to convey the essence of a combat system under the gaze of a watchful teacher.  Or essential insights can be recoded in a book and that book, as well as individual coaching, can be transmitted between teacher and student.  Even if the teacher disappears the book remains as an artifact of the original combat system.  And when you get right down to it there aren’t really all that many other options.  Either you choose lineages or literacy, or possibly some combination of the two.

Practitioners of the historical European schools of combat, whether buckler and back-sword or rapier, are rightly proud of their manuscript tradition.  While the original western martial arts disappeared in the 18th and 19th centuries, a library of medieval and renaissance texts have survived.  The modern practice of these systems seems to revolve around the rational reconstruction of these texts as much as anything else. Practicality is prized but historical authenticity seems to be the primary mandate.

It is not easy to reconstruct a fighting style from a book, but advocates of this system seem to take great comfort in the “authenticity” that this approach affords them.  They are seeing what combat systems were like when they were actually used, and fighting skills were a matter of life and death.  In this way they avoid the “telephone game: and slow accumulation of pointless flourishes and faults which seems to plague other system (usually eastern ones).

Such implicit critiques do not go unanswered.  The practitioners of the eastern martial arts, by in large, take a lot of pride in their lineages.  They point out that direction of movement, force and intention are really the key to any fighting technique, and these things are essentially impossible to put in a book.  As a matter of fact, most books don’t even try.  But you know what works?  A teacher.  Someone who has actually experienced these nuances themselves and can explain them to the next generation.  So it is really a continual line of transmitted bodily awareness and experience that make up many traditional “eastern” arts.  This all gets suspiciously close to the Mahayana Buddhist tradition of direct “mind to mind” transmission of the “Buddha nature,” and it probably explains why debates about the authenticity of a given lineage are so likely to turn nasty in the Chinese martial arts.

Occasionally armchair intellectuals also get into this discussion.  We are constantly reminded that literacy was restricted in medieval China, and most practitioners of the martial arts, even in the 19th century, were functionally illiterate.  Of course this was also basically true for Europe, but that fact is rarely remembered.   It has been asserted countless times that the history of the Chinese martial arts is a mystery as no one capable was present to write them down.  Those martial arts training manuals that did exist were closely guarded by a group’s teacher and given only to his most trusted disciple.  They were not really read to the school, rather they functioned as a sort of talisman, assuring the group of the Sifu’s legitimacy and deep arcane wisdom.

This sort of view has become common sense, but a quick comparison with the European martial arts shows that it may no longer apply, if it ever really did.  In reality there have always been a fairly large number of individuals who were both literate and interested in martial matters.  Why should this be?  It was the wealthy who needed a means of protecting their investments and their station in society.  They created militias, they hired martial arts instructors, they underwrote revolts or stabilization attempts and we know more about these historic individuals than many hand combat students might suspect.

For instance, the end of the Ming dynasty created conditions where many elite young men decided that the defense of the nation or the community was to be the focus of their careers.  Shahar, in his wonderful volume on the history of the Shaolin Temple, reviews in great detail close to a dozen major fighting manuals that were written by knowledgeable soldiers and civilians in this brief period.  These works were every bit as detailed and insightful as the great European sword manuals, and they were read by individuals all over the country.   In fact, one of the things that students of Chinese Martial Studies had, until quite recently, forgotten was how incredibly popular this literature was, all the way up through the first half of the Qing dynasty.  The initial emergence of these texts helped to spread a very identifiable martial culture that seems to be coterminous with the late Ming period.

A page from an important Ming era martial arts treatise, recently restored, translated and republished by a group of historical fighting enthusiasts in Singapore.

But it is true that for most of the 19th and 20th century these books sat neglected in China, just as they did in Europe.  Lately that has begun to change.  Chinese martial artists are coming to realize that they too have a great martial manuscript tradition, and it is not nearly as remote or arcane as the 1970s Kung Fu films might lead one to believe.  In the 1980s and 1990s Taiji students became interested in the writings of General Qi Jiguan’s on boxing and the so called “Taiji Classics.”  Other martial artists have focused on General Yu Dayou’s writings on staff fighting, or Cheng Zong You encyclopedia of Shaolin Fighting methods.

These once arcane authors seem to be going through something of a resurgence and currently enjoy a popularity in martial circles that they have not seen in hundreds of years.  One group in Singapore is even working to make translations and modern publications of these texts available to the English speaking world for the first time ever.  Their webpage is well worth a visit, and they offer reconstructions of classic texts of the Ming and Qing dynasties on topics as diverse as single and double saber, long and short swords, pole, spear and 20th century dadao (big knife) training.

What is even more interesting is that the emergence of these ancient texts on weapon fighting coincides with an increased interest in full contact and combative weapons sparing in Chinese martial circles.  Individuals, such as those in Singapore, are attempting to reconstruct practical fighting systems from the pages of these books, often leaving behind traditional notions of lineage and instruction in the process.

In short, an interest in combative weapons sparing and historical study seem to be driving a convergence in the training methods of many eastern and western martial artist.  I think the most interesting question to ask in why?  Given that these appear to be genuinely distinct movement, what sorts of factors can account for this sort of innovation on both sides of the pacific?  I have a few thoughts (globalization and technology), but I would love to hear your suggestions.