Posted by: B Gourley | November 24, 2011

Don’t Know Much About History?: Polemology, Hoplology, & the Anthropology of Martial Arts

History intrigues me, but I’m a skeptic, and, as such, all history for which I was not personally present is suspect. This may sound a bit coo-coo, but I prefer to think of it as having a high bar for “knowing” something. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not one of those people who denies the moon-landing. When in doubt, I pay homage to Occam’s razor, and, thus, believe that most probably the moon-landing transpired more or less as is contained in the history books. [Yes, I say “most probably” and not “certainly.”  Sorry, if you wanted a “certainly” you would have had to take me along for the ride.]

Humans tend to be terrified by uncertainty and to crave certainty. This is fundamental to our nature. Given the vastness of what we don’t know and the dearth of that which is known with certainty, we must “know” a great deal more than we know simply to get by. In order to get through life, we have to treat the highly probably as certain in making decisions. Still, as I’ve said many times before, I fear the tyranny of certitude among those with similar beliefs  more than those whose beliefs differ from mine but who are undeluded (i.e. don’t think they know with certainty that which is not- or cannot be- known.) At any rate, we built an information society, so concerned are we with knowing and the futile attempt to avoid surprise (avoiding surprise comes more from minimizing our expectations and developing the ability to adapt to unforeseen circumstance than it does from foreseeing the future).

Interestingly, there is a proclivity to accept that which is documented as “true” and to treat anything undocumented as “myth.”  This may seem reasonable, but it creates its own problems both with respect to how we treat myth and how we equate the documented and the true. 

We have removed the neutrality from the term “myth” and made it a euphemism for lie. It’s true that myths, as we know them, are by-and-large factually untrue, but that doesn’t mean they are devoid of truth, or, more properly, of worthwhile lessons. Consider the story of the Trojan horse contained in Virgil’s Aeneid and Homer’s Odyssey, and spread through other texts. In the story, the Greeks are finally able to penetrate the impenetrable Troy by offering the Trojans a gift of a horse sculpture as a peace-offering as they pretend to withdraw their forces. Inside the horse was small contingent of men who open the gates for the army. There is a considerable range of opinion on the degree of truth contained in this myth. However, even if it is completely false, the story contains truths about human nature that do not require factual truth to be worthy of learning. 

 Because of our craving for knowledge we’ve arrived at an information age in which almost everything is documented because great efforts have been made to make it easy and cheap to document events. Many of us have cameras everywhere we go as one of many functionalities designed to capture information within a pocket computer/phone. Our information age experience has jaded us with respect to documentation, and many overestimate the capacity of past generations to record events. Take covert operations activities. Today we may be able to know the truth of these events because, while the information may be classified, it’s collected, rigorously documented, and saved for posterity. However, this is a relatively new trend. In past times, it could be a fatal move to collect and store information. 

Even where historical documentation takes place, historical accounts sometimes remain suspect. It is commonly suggested that history is written by the victors, and thus we expect histories to reflect a glorification of victors and villianization of the defeated. While it may not be true that history is always written by the victors, it does quite often reflect the perspective of some entity, which may or may not jibe with the truth. As I’ve mentioned before, there was a common belief that is still being propagated that Bodhidharma brought martial arts from India to the Shaolin temple in China (later to be passed along further to the east). This is now believed to be untrue, but what exactly is true cannot be known.

This brings me, admittedly via a long  meandering route, to the question of what one can know about the past of old martial arts if one believes history to be suspect.  I think one can learn a great deal more that is true via an anthropological approach in which one seeks to learn about the general nature of warfare (as opposed to historical detail) by way of the evidence provided in the techniques of a martial art. There are more specific terms for the study of war and combat including “polemology” and “hoplology.” Both of these terms came into “common usage” in the 20th century, and hoplology focuses more specifically on combative behaviour, while polemology addresses the study of war in a broader range of activities.

Consider how combat lessons learned have been translated into technique from the dawn of time. We have an early homo sapiens intent on clubbing another to death due to competition for resources or dominance within the group. We expect that survival disfavors those defenders who try to run backwards away from the onslaught by the forward moving attacker (a readily recognized losing move that, yet, is instinctively popular) when compared to those who use motion that mitigates the attacker’s advantages and gives them fewer opportunities to continue the onslaught. From this we can see the importance of the selected stance or posture. If one makes it more difficult to reach vulnerable targets, makes it easier to move to safe spaces,  and keeps one’s limbs in position to redirect/intercept incoming attacks one is better off. From a mental perspective, one who doesn’t succumb to their fear, but rather is able to move against the attacker with a counter-attack, has a better chance of survival.

I’ll now turn to a specific ryū-ha, Gyokko-ryū Koshijutsu, for examples of what I have been talking about. Historically speaking, there is not a lot known about this school of martial arts. As far as documented information, there is a list of the heads of the school which dates back to a supposed founder who created the art sometime in the late early to mid sixteenth century. There is one fairly famous martial artist, Momochi Sandayu , who is said to have been the second head of the school. Provided it is true about Momochi Sandayu being involved with the school, there is a little known about his life. However, as I indicated, I don’t take even this basic information without a grain of salt if for no other reason than that I can imagine an incentive to spread disinformation as a survival imperative during the eras in question. (e.g. Momochi was apparently on the side opposing of Oda Nobuo, son of Oda Nobunaga, and, thus, was on the weak side in an asymmetric war.) 

However, there is a set of techniques, handed down by some set of people, that has an internal consistency to them, and contained in these techniques are a good deal of information about what the former heads of this school thought was important to know.

There are some important points that I believe are relatively common among martial arts. For example, one may note that the techniques all put one in the role of defender. It is, of course, assumed that individuals will practice skillful attacks as a means not only to be useful to combat but also to be an effective training partner when learning the technique. One can imagine a few explanations for this defensive focus, which are themes that will recur in the balance of this post. One thought is that one practices defense because that is what one anticipates facing in combat. A second explanation can be found in a belief that defense holds a great advantage in that one can be flexible while the enemy must be committed. The final explanation is that one practices defense because, by putting oneself in the worst case scenario, one develops the highest level of skill. Certainly today a martial artist would expect to be on the defensive because there is a very slim sliver of the population for whom it would be at all acceptable to take offensive action against another.

I will now address just a few of the specific lessons emphasized in Gyokkoryū that include:

1.) not leaving a hairbreadth of maai (interval) between receiving and one’s counter-blow. One may think of kata like Dan Shi and Dan Shu that blatantly emphasize this, but it is also important in the kihon happō techniques and other kata (e.g. Sakanagare.)

2.) kick diverting is an essential skill. This speaks to either a popularity of kicking attacks or a perceived vulnerability to them. Kicks in arts of this era tend to be between ankle and gut height and to be very direct (as opposed to more recent martial arts in which high kicks and acrobatic moves are valued), and so we are talking about motions that use one’s leg to deflect kicks off-line or occasional low counter-strikes with hands.  

3.) related to #2, the importance of being able to effectively move when caught on one leg is crucial. One may think immediately of hichō no kamae, but, with a number of techniques in which one is engaged in kick-counters or kicking, one is momentarily on one foot in several kataKata such as Keō and Ketō demonstrate what I am talking about with respect to the need to be able to transition smoothly to a stable position when one finds oneself attacked as one is on a single foot.

4.) the use of a deception in which one leaves an apparent vulnerability, but maintains a position in which one can readily move to counter attack. This is most explicitly seen in Kokū, but it is revisited in kata like Renyo. Like point #1 above, this speaks to the maai of the technique- in this case one leaves a lag where it suits one. There is also a valuable mental lesson in this as one must be able to be still in moments of duress.

Stepping back to some of the more general points of emphasis of Gyokko-ryū, there is a great deal of focus put on two types of attacks that are not always seen in other schools. First, there are a number of kata featuring attacks from behind. Again, I cannot know whether there is a focus upon rear attacks because it was a common type of attack in the era in which the school developed, or whether it was thought that if one can handle such a disadvantage one will be ready for anything. I suspect it is a mix of the two. The same can be said of the school’s emphasis on mutō dori (techniques in which one is unarmed against an armed attacker.) The bulk of the middle level scroll involves mutō dori as does all of the highest level scroll.

To recap, I don’t know much about the history of Gyokko-ryū, and even what is documented I don’t take as absolute truth. However, there is an internally consistent set of techniques that presumably came from somewhere, prior to the current generation of teachers who I’ve learned from, that offer what I’ve experienced to be valuable guidance with respect handling various attacks. For that, I am greatly appreciative of whoever passed these techniques along and I can only hope, through diligence and effort, to learn as much of what they tried to transmit as possible.

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