Grandmaster Lung, a native of Henan, knew what hardship was. Since he was young, he was bullied on the streets and was involved, albeit without intention, in the local gang culture. As a way to survive, he learned quickly how to defend himself. Each experience offered him something new, or validated what he already knew. Indeed, combat was the crucible and the catalyst for his combat system. When he reached adulthood, he enlisted in the army, where he excelled. Later, he commanded the army and taught his methods to the troops.
When he retired, he lead the local militia, and established himself as the local defacto expert in martial arts.
Master Fah had similar military experience, but his aim was to build community and shape new generations using his skill in Martial Arts. He believed that Martial Art held the key to both personal and national strength.
When arriving in Grandmaster Lung’s town, Grandmaster Fah recognised the authority of Lung. He knew he couldn’t challenge Lung in his own town until he had beaten him and proclaimed his own method superior. For a number of weeks, Fah trained diligently whilst observing Lung’s students for hints of weaknesses.
Fah realised that Lung used his legs more than his hands and preferred to distance himself from his opponents. This meant he was highly agile, even for a man of his maturity, but he was weaker if his legs or arms were grabbed.
Of course, this is an intentionally fictional tale, but it portrays many of the established mythology found in the Martial Arts.
If we deconstruct the story, we may use it as an example of how much of what we learn in the martial arts is data we take for granted, and is largely unvalidated.
So Grandmaster Lung had learned his method through experience. Concrete experience. But here, we have to assume that
- Lung was capable of realising which specific course of action lead to the outcome,
- And was capable of understanding which options had been implicitly omitted from the skillset as alternatives.
If anything, we may recognise that Lung’s Mental Model of his method and his system as a whole, was built based upon his biases. His experience validated his attributes and established which one’s worked against particular people with particular attributes. If I were to win against someone taller, weaker and more mobile, could I then credibly apply the same method against someone shorter, stronger and less mobile?
The answer is that Traditional methods cannot answer this question. The content of a traditional system has already been prescribed, and with such a prescription, all answers must come from it. As the saying goes, if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
And this perception component is crucial. Numerous psychological biases demonstrate the problems involved in perception and induction. Take for example, the necker cube. This illusion demonstrates the type of interpretation biases involved in perception. Indeed, perception is not an act simply of viewing, but of interpretation. And most interpretation is based upon expectation and experiential/historical data personal to an individual.
A further example shows how cultural conditioning comes into play. Schröder’s stairs can be viewed in two different ways, either from below or above the staircase. Most western people from first-world countries are quite habituated to recognising the image as a staircase. However, one study showed how showing the same image to tribesmen demonstrated that there was no recognition of the stairs, but rather simply as an angular pattern. Again, when we expect to see something, we may recognise it.
Further evidence of the cognitive bias involved in perception (if any more were need) comes in the form of test subjects who were given a pack of cards with the colours changed with the suits. Cards which were of spades and clubs were coloured red. On first instruction, the test subjects were not able to identify a difference. After they were informed that the card designs had been tampered with, then they were able to routinely spot the changes.
So this suggest that perception is defined somewhat by expectation, and in the latter example, we may see how new information can change perception, despite the physical cards not changing.
The question is, already, what do we have that suggests the output of Lung’s experience was valid? Or applicable to anything other than those specific events?
So returning to our story, Lung taught martial arts to the military. We assume that this means his method was sound, but his selection as commander might have been based upon social motives and relationships rather than, as we assume at first glance, the superiority of his System.
We must ask: where are the listed fatalities associated with his troops? Did they apply them in hand to hand combat? What basis do we have to say that the system benefitted the troops and contributed to positive outcomes? Again, ‘battlefield-tested’ is a common, if empty, phrase – often cited, and recited, but rarely capable of being substantiated.
Moreover, further argument is usually given within this frame: that the combat system’s efficiency and function is proved by its transmission. It is assumed that, because the founder survived to pass on his system, that he must have been effective. So what did he survive? If anything, the survival of the system is proof only of the networking skill of the founder, but suggests little about the efficacy of the methods contained within the system.
Master Fah’s motivation was establishing his method in contrast to Lung. It was different by design, and lead to the invention of greater variety. If we multiply this effect, of the motive of the founder to establish something of his own, then we may potentially realise why there are systems that are different by design.
In this instance, the skillset difference was credible, he spotted the weaknesses in Lung’s System and exploited them. After proving his method to be superior, he immediately set about teaching the populace.
Yet Fah’s only aim was to beat Lung. How can we credibly say that it is capable of beating the myriad of attributes and skillsets it might encounter in the wider world? The answer is, we cannot say with certainty.
In this rather short discourse, I’ve outlined some of the layers involved in the invention of martial arts, and at each stage we can see the distance from a path of true certainty gets wider and wider.
In the practice of the martial arts today, we hear many of these uncertainties described as facts, and taken as authority. Yet much as of what we have is taken purely on trust – trust for our teachers, trust for our ancestors.
A martial art has been designed and originated based upon the same elements of creativity involved in any ideation. It involves selection, filtering and preference. Definition is perhaps the greatest form of exclusion – in order to say what something is, we must say what it is not.
In my next article, I shall take a look at the method involved in ‘Experimental martial arts’, so as to overcome some of the issues presented here, and embark on a method of how experience and reflection can come to generate knowledge with greater concrete certainty than that available from any authority figure. We place curiosity as our motivator, reality as our guide, experience as our teacher.