“A Prize Fight”, Henry Thomas Alken, c.1820 (source)
Go Anthro: Re-defining the Martial Arts Written by Corey O. Audio by Jonathan Fader

“What’s Krav Maga?” On its surface this is a simple question, put forth innocuously enough by a co-worker or acquaintance who is either genuinely interested or just trying to engage me in casual conversation. However, if you are like me, with a border-line pathological need to explain things accurately, in detail (I tend to be verbose), then addressing this question becomes an exercise in frustration:

  • Me: It is a self-defence system developed by the IDF.
  • Them: Oh, a martial art? Like karate!
  • Me: It isn’t really a “martial art”; we aren’t trying to fight per se, we want to deal with a variety of threats quickly by…
  • Them: I did some boxing, is it like that?
  • Me: There are punches, but that’s only one component that we…
  • Them: Ah, cool, like an MMA thing?
  • Me: Krav is less about winning a fight and more about escaping or controlling so that…
  • Them: My son is 6, he should learn that to deal with bullies.
  • Me: Sure, if you want him to blind or cripple other kids.

As with anything, people try to cram elaborate descriptions into smaller frameworks of understanding based on their existing knowledge or exposure, rather than taking in new information and expanding their outlook.

Roots of Misunderstanding

Part of the problem that I run into, and have since I shifted from Wing Chun Kung Fu to Krav Maga, is that the average person possesses a very abstract notion of modern “combatives” (hand-to-hand fighting in general). They tend to think of the activities under that umbrella term as fitting neatly into one of three generic, usually pop-culture-informed, sub-groups: Boxing, Wrestling, or Martial Arts. (MMA often replaces Boxing these days, and Jiu-Jitsu edges out Wrestling in barstool discussions)

While current popular sources such are Wikipedia are far more nuanced and expansive at this point, the Western (perhaps global) concept of these sub-groups initially carried strong connotations of place of origin and specific methods. For example, ask anyone on the street what “boxing” is and they will at least know it is done with one’s fists, and the same question asked with regard to “wrestling” will very likely get you a WWE or Lucha Libre reference in the answer. The Britannica (the encyclopedia folks) website entry for “Martial Art” presents this opening paragraph: “martial art, any of various fighting sports or skills, mainly of East Asian origin, such as kung fu (Pinyin gongfu), judo, karate, and kendō.”

I see some gaps in this…

  1. Geographically situating your definition in “mainly” East Asia immediately detracts from any styles or systems that developed in other regions (eg. Kalaripayattu from India, Capoeira from Brazil, and all European swordsmanship.)
  2. Noting “sport” first, before the more general “skill,” implies that these activities are intended as hobbies, competitions, or play. (they do discuss combative usage later in the entry)
  3. Apart from a sentence about “spiritual development” applications at the end, the entry assumes combative uses only, ie. fighting. (in fairness this is generally accurate, but we are going for specifically accurate)

Merriam-Webster doesn’t fair much better with their extremely general definition: “any of several arts of combat and self-defense (such as karate and judo) that are widely practiced as sport.” Note that, here again, the two examples are of East Asian origin (and both from Japan!)

Gaining Insight

What’s the practitioner of a combat tested, military/security/law enforcement-base, self-defence system from Israel supposed to do?!

Well, I’m going to go ahead and offer my own characteristics by which to conceptualize the idea of “martial arts”, based on my own research and personal experience (as well as a lot of Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest films). Allow me to get academic and liberally apply some Anthropology to this subject, starting with an operational definition (which is a fancy way of saying “define what this is so we all know we are talking about the same thing”), then breaking that down into useful sub-categories. I offer the following inclusive (more general and forgiving) and exclusive (focused and unforgiving) versions of my definition:

Inclusive: “Any activity derived from a combative origin that is taught or learned in a systematic fashion.”

Exclusive: “A combative activity which possesses, or is informed by, a philosophical underpinning derived from the traditional religion, culture, or cosmology of its place of origin, contains both ritual and practical elements, and is taught or learned in a systematic fashion.”

In the inclusive definition, I allow for modern usage as a sport, meditative practice, cultural tradition, or exercise, as long as the activity was originally developed for fighting (Tai Chi = Yes. Yoga = No.) Beyond that, all I care about is that the martial art in question is passed on systematically, meaning that there are repeatable techniques or methods applied when the art is employed, rather than just wild flailing in the moment. Thus someone who developed expert fighting skills by way of getting into numerous bar fights would not be practicing a “martial art” under this definition. For the theoretical martial art of “BarFightDo” to be admitted, we would require someone teaching/practicing a progressive set of reliable punching, bottle smashing, chair throwing techniques for all practitioners (perhaps more on “Jailhouse Rock” later).

For the exclusive definition we are looking at only combative systems (sorry, Tai Chi, you out!). Furthermore, we want these combative systems to have a traditional philosophical basis. These could take the form of social ideals, such as the elements of the Chivalric code (as well as other bygone social traditions) still evident in Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA). Or they could be more mystical, as we see with the Chinese concept of Wuxing (五行), five elements theory, and Qi (氣), vital life energy, that are referred to in a variety of Kung Fu styles. We also want to observe that the style contains both ritual and practical components prior to labelling it as a “martial art.” That is, “martial arts” should exhibit at a least a few techniques and practices, or portions thereof, that are largely symbolic or affectatious, as can be seen in examples such as bowing or prescribed clothing (eg. various keikogi (稽古着), HEMA/fencing jackets, and Capoeira abadás). These are taught and trained alongside the practical activities, such as punching a heavy bag, physical conditioning, or repeated drills, and in some cases incorporated together, as can be seen when a practitioner pretends to drink from a nonexistent cup during a Drunken Fist Kung Fu form. Finally, as with the inclusive definition, we require that a “martial art” is taught/learned systematically.

Further Clarity through Categories

We must also consider the how the aforementioned philosophical basis informs the practical application and training of the art, which leads to classification of a martial art as “traditional” or “non-traditional.” By my observations and training the characteristics of each are as follows:

Traditional: Historical practice or ideal modern practice involves the use of forms or kata (choreographed patterns) to train techniques, often involves meditative activities, and is based on religious or cosmological beliefs that inform the application of techniques. For example, in several styles of Kung Fu the interaction of the five Chinese elements determines that “Water” type block techniques, which are sweeping and redirecting, should be used against any fierce and directly aggressive “Fire” type attacks.

Non-Traditional: Modern practice involves training techniques directly (ie. in drills rather than performing rote patterns.) The training focuses on technical prowess/efficacy, mental and physical fitness, and promotes competitive edge (or aggression when called for). Application of technique is informed by practical understanding or common analogy, often scientific in nature. For example, knowing that certain angles provide better deflection or leverage, and using elements of psychology in self-defence training.

Armed with these two distinctions, we are more able to use the inclusive definition of martial arts with more specificity. Appending Trad/Non-Trad allows us to communicate a great deal of meaning in our definition (even to lay audiences who will assume certain qualities when presented with the word “traditional.”) Some simple examples of this are:

  • Non-Traditional Martial Arts: Wrestling, Boxing, Kickboxing, MMA, etc.
  • Traditional Martial Arts: Karate, Kung Fu, Kalarippayattu, Escrima, etc.

These categories are fluid, meaning that “traditional” styles can be trained in a “non-traditional” manner, new “non-traditional” styles can be created that incorporate “traditional” elements, etc.. It should also be noted that rarely do two different schools or instructors teach the same style in exactly the same way; this even holds true for subsidiary schools started by advanced students when compared back to their parent school.

Individual cultural backgrounds, and the culture of the region in which a system is practiced, will greatly influence the presence or absence of a style’s “traditional” and “non-traditional” features. In modern usage, we also see examples of different religions or cosmologies being layered over the original ones. In a similar vein, cross-training in different styles, or combining styles, will often lead to a blurring of traditional lines, intentionally or otherwise.

Adjectives Assemble!

To further clarify our meaning when discussing a given martial art, we must have a means by which to indicate a few important qualities without getting too wordy. Luckily, the English language is already good at this (thanks Greek and Latin!), we can take any martial arts activity and slap an adjective on the front to immediately elaborate upon what we mean by “martial art.” There are a plethora of commonly over-used buzzwords out there, some are useful, such as “reality-based”, whereas many are pure marketing nonsense, for example (*sigh*) “street-proven.” But one has sort that component out for oneself as conversation and context dictates, the purpose of this post being to empower communication rather than to foster “purple prose.”

From here on out things get very “thought experiment-y”, if that is not your thing, ponder what you have learned thus far and bail out. I take no offence. If you want to change the world with new concepts, trudge ever onward!

Seeking the Bridge

Even with both an inclusive and exclusive definition defined, and the additional categories of traditional and non-tradition appended to those descriptions, and a well-thought-out adjective or two tossed in, until we establish common shared understanding we are still discussing something relatively abstract. Uttering the phrase “Krav Maga is a self-defence-based non-traditional martial art” hasn’t really cleared anything up. Thus, particularly when speaking to a lay audience, a more radical tactic may be required to transfer accurate ideas from mouth to mind.

Instead of seeking more nuanced definitions and challenging people with that pesky “expanding their outlook” burden, perhaps it is wiser to rebuild from the ground up and incorporate more accessible language from the get-go? We take the old criteria of our two definitions, and replace those with concepts with a wider frame of reference. Keeping the trait of “martial arts” being at least somewhat rooted in combative activity and systematic in teaching (still not random actions), the other features are somewhat adaptable. Where once we assessed a style for the presence of ritual and practical elements, we will now look at the teaching/training methods as a whole. In place of philosophical underpinnings as a meaningful feature of a traditional/non-traditional system, why not simply goals? The larger context of religion and cosmology, be it past or present, global or regional, will now be summed up in an analysis of the activity’s background.

  • Goals – Winning, Self-defence, Fitness, Discipline, etc.
  • Methods – Cardio, Drills, Sparring, Fighting, Kata, etc.
  • Background – Cultural, New, Modified, Sportified, etc.

Applying these new criteria to some common martial systems allows for easy comparison:

BoxingWin (within rules)Drills, Conditioning, Sparring, Gym/Road Work, Learning RulesWestern Morals, Sportsmanship, Historical Competition.
Krav MagaSurvive!Drills, Sparring, Conditioning, Training Under Duress, WeaponsMilitary, Aggression, Conceptual Self-defence
Tai ChiHeal the BodyKata, Meditation, Qi BuildingChinese Cosmology, Taoism, Buddhism
Muay ThaiHarm the Body (of the opponent)Drills, Conditioning, Sparring, Learning RulesThai Cosmology/Culture, Rituals, Historical Warrior Class

Effective Categories = Understanding

Now that we’ve drafted some new criteria, allow me to group some common elements together in logical categories that could replace the mundane notion of “martial art.”

  1. Martial Art – Okay, so the first one is “martial art” itself, sorry, but it still has meaning. This covers what we would have previously labelled “Traditional Martial Arts.” The system maintains traditional training methods, as well as some traditional philosophies and mysticism.
    • Goals: Health, self-defence, personal growth, lose ego.
    • Methods: Kata, drills, master-student bond, weapons, some mysticism, some philosophy, some meditative activity.
    • Background: A multitude of cosmologies and religions, any culture or country.
    • Eg. – Kyudo, Kung Fu, Capoeira, Aikido, Kalarippayattu, etc.
  2. Self-Defence System – Encompasses the systems that have generally removed the extraneous features, most if not all, in order to be effective in “real” applications, abandoning any prior meditative or philosophical aspects.
    • Goals: Survival, escape, maim/subdue/discourage assailants.
    • Methods: Drills, practical applications, sparring, “anything goes,” weapons.
    • Background: Developed from combat, based on body mechanics, aggression is essential.
    • Eg. – Krav Maga, R.A.D. programs, S.P.E.A.R. system, etc.
  3. Martial Sport – These are the styles and systems that have removed the lethal components in favour or developing techniques and strategies that excel in point-sparring contexts.
    • Goals: Competition, health, personal growth, be the best.
    • Methods: Some kata, drills, modified attacks, training to win, lethality removed, rules added.
    • Background: Some philosophy, derived from combatives, elements of performance.
    • Eg. – MMA, HEMA, Kendo, Karate, Tae Kwon Do, Judo, etc.
  4. Martial Fitness – The category for the styles that have been almost completely de-fanged. Their techniques have been modified to the point that they are great for cardio, but in many cases they only mimic real strikes.
    • Goals: Fitness, health, toning the buttocks.
    • Methods: Modified attacks and blocks, favours rapid succession and heart rate over power and efficacy, stances used for stretching and “feeling the burn.”
    • Background: Often newly created styles or modified kickboxing/boxing, origin in combative techniques.
    • Eg. – Tae Bo, “Cardio kickboxing,” “Aerobic boxing,” etc.

Referring all the way back to the intro conversation, my default description of Krav Maga as a “Self-Defence System” is now fully justified by a whole bunch text (which also stands as a diagnosis of my aforementioned pathology). Now I just need these categories to catch on out in the real world! Of course, as nothing is truly black and white, there are several styles that straddle categories (I’m looking at YOU Judo and Jiu-Jitsu), and any given system could be taught or trained in a self-defence, sporting, or martial art manner at different schools. Combat Tai Chi exists… ’nuff said.

Why Did I Read All of This?

This post grew from my idle contemplation of what a martial art is and how people negotiate that term in their mind. Adding Anthro and stirring vigorously led me to the conclusion that the existing definitions are somewhat outdated with regard to how these activities are presented, represented, practiced, and idealized in the modern world. Especially considering how much of the modern popular conception of “the martial arts” is still based on the Othering of Asian cultures and general Orientalism (a patronizing attitude toward Asia and the Middle East), it feels like time to re-conceptualize these activities to encompass all combatives, regardless of their methods and origin, on equal footing (except, perhaps, Martial Fitness).

Written by: Corey O. – UTKM Orange Belt

Audio by Jonathan Fader

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