Posted by: B Gourley | May 20, 2011

The Business of Budo

National Geographic  ran a fascinating story in its March 2011 issue entitled “Battle for the Soul of Kung Fu“. The piece was largely set around a profile of a highly skilled practitioner who faced the dilemma of whether to be true to the martial art tradition he had learned or to go into the Kung fu film industry.

It seems that traditional Chinese martial arts have seen a lot of tragedy. There have been numerous attempts to completely destroy the practitioners of these arts over the years, quite notably  and most recently, during Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Now all most of us know about Chinese martial arts fall into one of two categories: internal forms such as Tai chi and the acrobatic (and impractical) Kung fu of movies. I am skeptical of many of the critiques I hear about Kung fu because they seem to be based on the movements observed in films that are optimized to camera frames and audience titillation and not to the forms optimized to combat. I once read a quote by Jet Li that martial arts took different foci in different eras, and, in the modern era, the focal point is entertainment. I believe he was answering a question about why the Kung fu of movies seems ridiculously infeasible. The National Geographic article offers a quote from the profilee, “There are no high kicks or acrobatics,… Shaolin Kung Fu is designed for combat…” Those who have seen portrayals of Shaolin Kung fu in movies or by performance troupes will know that what he is talking about is something different from what they witnessed. Anybody who has engaged in sparring knows that one cannot succeed with moves that require one to move an order of magnitude more distance than the opponent to get a weapon on target- even if one is very fast (unless one’s opponent is comparatively vastly unskilled, incompetent, or easily bedazzled.)

So the NG article talks a lot about the huge business that Kung fu has become, and how a corresponding cheapening of the art, its values, and its traditions has taken hold. For example, cashiers dress as monks to sell Shaolin trinkets and tea. In Dengfeng, the area of the Shaolin Temple, the business has become vast, but there is an inevitable concurrent whoring out of the art.

I think this problem is not by any means restricted to Chinese martial arts. With respect to the Japanese arts, with which I am more familiar, it is exceedingly rare (perhaps impossible) for an individual to make a decent living off of teaching traditional martial arts without bastardizing something. This may take the form of constantly handing out rank so as to produce 10-year-old black belts. Budo is not about the need for constant external validation, and, if you are constantly feeding and expanding such needs- whatever you are doing, it is not budo. The budoka should be humble and must be willing to maintain the struggle for self-betterment even without being recognized. In fact, being humbled is part of the training because one cannot reach the pinnacle of budo if one worries one iota about how others perceive one. People concerned about other’s perceptions become paralyzed by the fear of being bettered or the loss of face of momentarily being bettered. Of course, exceedingly few individuals will keep up the brutally hard work of budo without such validation, and doing so requires a mental toughness far beyond any requisite level of physical toughness.

So those who wish to be true to their art will have to accept teaching as an aside to a “day job”, and those who insist upon making a career of budo will kill their art.

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