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Evolution In The Martial Arts

Scientists generally agree that at one point in the Earth's history dinosaurs were the big kids on the block. They did their thing, eating veggies and shoots and chasing down smaller, weaker kids – and eating them. They were the whole shebang – they were the schizz.

Then they were gone.

Evolution is a stern Mistress and she gladly takes advantage of any little cosmic event, such as a meteor crashing into the Earth and changing the world climate, to improve her children. Hell, maybe she's a nasty bitch and has a sadistic streak a mile wide – we really aren't too sure of the facts of how and why the dinosaurs disappeared. But disappear they did.

Martial arts are, in a sense, dinosaurs: they ruled the Earth at one point. If you didn't know how to fight you were likely either someone's slave or you were dead. Not a lot of wiggle room there. Everyone had to fight – men, women and children – just to survive.

Then we got “culture”. We got manners. We got politics. We started lifting our pinkies when we sipped our Earl Gray tea and told lies to each other across the conference tables. We no longer needed to fight – we had armies for that now, specialists. People we PAID to fight. It was the metaphorical meteor striking the globe.

… and the arts began dying off …

We invented guns and missiles and bombs. We learned how to wipe out an entire city with one plane. Hand-to-hand combat was relegated to small skirmishes in towns and cities. Specialists gave up specializing, teachers found other things to do. Schools of martial arts tried adding meditative, spiritual and sport aspects to their offerings to better coincide with peacetime pursuits and to avoid censure by conquering governments.

The dinosaurs were trying to evolve in order to survive.

The Boxer Rebellion put an end to a way of life, a final nail in the coffin of old-school hand-to-hand fighting. It was the Atomic Winter for the arts.

But like the sharks and the alligators that we still have with us today, remnants of the martial dinosaurs can be found if you know where to look. They might not look much like their ancestors but they're a living, breathing representation of them, a placeholder if you will, a reconstruction of the ancient ways performed according to the best possible guesses we can make to fill in the missing pieces. While many schools and styles totally disappeared there was a common thread running through the arts, no matter what their country of origin or style of fighting. This common thread was the fact that there are only so many ways to strike a human body, only so many variations on defensive movements you can make. We're still more alike than different, we humans, and the fighting skills we learn in our given lands translate out quite closely to those of all the other lands.

Of course, HOW we reconstruct those ancient arts determines to a large extent how effective they are today. If we stick a thigh bone where a wrist bone is supposed to be we have a weird-looking creature that could never have functioned effectively. If we instead take the time and effort to research the fossil record and use liberal doses of common and scientific sense we can build a pretty fair representation of what the creature looked like back in the day.

Sadly enough, some martial arts that seemed to evolve enough to survive have actually over-evolved - they've become something very different than the original, bearing little in common but a scientific name. This is what many say is happening to Taijiquan: with the misrepresentation of the art by “non-scientists” the fighting element is rapidly being lost to the feel-good, New Age model of T'ai-Chi.

The dilution of the gene pool isn't limited to 100-year-old arts, though – even MMA is in the process of evolving into something unrecognizable from it's origins, despite it's youth. It began as a re-creation – a willful blending of several bloodlines to create a bastard child – and I say that with all due respect to MMA. Most present-day so-called “traditional” arts bear little resemblance to their forebears – they have been cross-bred to a fare-thee-well until the only usable clues we have to their original form is in yellowed books and manuscripts. The oral transmission is gone, the paper-trail is sparse and they didn't have YouTube back in the day.

Evolution is change, and according to Taoist philosophy change is inevitable. That doesn't mean we have to like it, nor that the change will produce something better.

We can only hope.


Martial Arts | Martial Arts Philosophy


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