Posted by: B Gourley | July 7, 2010

Evolution in the Martial Arts

The school of martial arts that I have studied most extensively, Gyokko-ryu Koshijutsu, is said to have origins in a lineage that arrived in Japan with exiles from China during the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 AD). While I have no way of knowing how accurate this version of events is, the narrative is consistent with the overarching events transpiring at the time. Gyokko-ryu seems to have been developed by people that practiced a form of esoteric Buddhism, and the late Tang Dynasty was marked by persecution of Buddhists. It is possible that some of the fleeing Buddhists made their way to Japan carrying with them various elements of their culture, including their martial art. One can see in the Japanese culture of the Warring States era a great many references to Chinese culture (e.g. concepts from Sun Tzu‘s Art of War seen in Japanese writings on strategy.)

An interesting question is how martial arts with a common ancestor such as this school of Japanese kobudo and more recently developed Chinese martial arts can look almost nothing alike. This might come as no surprise to an evolutionary biologist. After all, chimpanzees and humans share common ancestors but look alike only at the crudest level of granularity (e.g. basic body symmetry.)

These martial arts, too, display a fundamental level at which there is a considerable degree of commonality. Over the past year I have taken Tai Chi as a means to help rehabilitate injuries and to get greater insight into Chi. While, at some level, Tai Chi looks nothing remotely like the kobudo I have practiced for years, there is a level at which there are  shared common principles. Among these common principles are: a.) keeping the spine in its natural alignment; b.) standing and stepping in such a manner as to maintain balance (i.e. do not stand with one foot’s longitudinal axis intersecting the other foot); c.) point the knees in the same direction as the toes when bending the knee-joint (failure to be able to heed this is one of the major causes of knee problems among American martial artists of both systems); d.) the hands should be active inside the shoulders (where they are strong, not wide where they are weak); e.) use twisting of the hips to power strikes.  

However, at a more superficial level these martial arts look nothing alike because they have constantly been shaped by the culture, physiology, technology, and geography of the place in which they are active. Cultural factors could include norms. For example, consider a culture in which it is strictly taboo to attack from behind or in which multiple persons simultaneously attacking a single individual is unheard of. The martial arts developing in such a culture would likely be far less globally aware than those evolving in places without such norms. Religion also influences the character of martial arts.  Zen Buddhism, which clearly offered benefits to warriors with respect to developing a mindset conducive to combat, also left its imprint on how martial arts developed and evolved. It is easy to miss the influence of culture on the martial arts because culture is nearly invisible. We go about our lives carrying out certain activities in certain ways without noticing the underlying informal rules that govern us.

Physiological evolution can result as martial arts that have historically been practiced by individuals of relatively diminutive stature have been adapted to a broader populace – including much lankier and beefier individuals. Longer limbs are both a gift and a curse. They offer a range advantage at the cost of a joint that is more vulnerable to its own leverage being used against it and which makes it more difficult to get under an opponent’s center of gravity for throws. These evolutionary adjustments may or may not be consciously developed. They may simply be the unconscious attempt of an individual who has an atypical body (vis-a-vis those who developed the art) to make techniques work that are not ideally suited to that individual’s frame. However, as that person passes on the art to students, his or her unconscious adaptations will also be passed on (to students who may or may not benefit from them.)

The technology that influences the development of the martial arts is, of course, primarily arms and armour. The Japanese sword used by samurai of the Feudal Era did not just evolve in response to a process of optimization of the killing process, it also influenced the martial arts that guided its wielding. Straight blades that favor thrusting evolved into curved blades that allow for a much broader repertoire of cutting techniques, and the thrust of the martial art shifts to accommodate. In old martial art schools, one often notes that the vital points of the body that are attacked usually correspond to gaps in armor.

Geography also plays a part; as martial arts practiced primarily aboard ships are likely to differ from those practiced in the mountains. Geography also influences weapon development, and, as mentioned above, weapons influence the martial arts.

It should also be noted that martial arts adapt to the purposes for which they are used. I once read an answer by Jet Li to an interview question. He said that over the years the purpose of martial arts had shifted and morphed from combat to things like health and well-being and even entertainment, and the nature of these arts changed to optimize for their new role. I don’t remember the question, but I suspect the question was of the nature of why there are so many techniques in kung fu movies that have no combat feasibility whatsoever. He seemed to be acknowledging that the martial arts of the motion picture industry looked little like combat martial arts because they were optimized for visual appeal not survival of a combative engagement.


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