Posted by: B Gourley | June 12, 2012

A Martial Art as an Endangered Cultural Treasure

Taking power in the 1970s, ruling over a land that was the once proud seat of power for a vast empire, the man called Brother Number One, a.k.a. Soloth Sar, a.k.a. Pol Pot, went on a killing spree. By way of horrific authoritarian governance and outright executions, he killed about 1.7 million people.   Owing to the popularity of the film The Killing Fields  and a book by its star, Haing S. Ngor, people know that doctors and other intellectual elite were targets of this holocaust. However, there were numerous other targeted groups. In fact, the vast majority of Buddhist monks were killed. Martial artists were among the persecuted. Few teachers survived either by going into exile or through extreme secrecy. Said to have been developed by the armies of Angkor and believed by some to be the predecessor of all Southeast Asian martial arts, Bokator almost died out. Fortunately, a master instructor, San Kim Sean, returned from exile and gathered together the remaining elderly instructors in order to restore the art. However, we’ll probably never know what insights were lost.

Unfortunately, Cambodia is not that unusual with respect to experiencing a period of persecution of martial arts teachers. There have been many such periods in China over the years. The most recent of which was Mao’s Cultural Revolution that lasted about a decade during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. Often these persecutions corresponded with rising opposition to Buddhism, a religion which, in some cases, expanded in parallel with martial arts (as witnessed with Shaolin monks and the Japanese sōhei.)   During the late T’ang Dynasty, when the tides turned against Buddhism, there were said to be Chinese martial artists who brought their martial arts to Japan as they entered exile. These styles became the root of some Japanese arts. Meir Shahar describes the late Ming destruction of the Shaolin monastery in his authoritative book, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion, and the Chinese Martial Arts.  

Japan and Okinawa also saw bans on martial arts at various times, notably during the transition into the modern era – at least for those outside the warrior class. Master teacher of karate, Gichin Funakoshi, wrote about his days of practicing in secret in the late 1800’s in his book My Karate-Dō. (This was before the post-WWII ban that was actually imposed by the Occupational government.)

Admittedly, I’ve been torn in my views about lost elements of culture, and whether they should be left to die or not. There is a lot of concern about languages that are dying. Scholars are making recordings of elderly speakers to “save” these languages. I wonder about the efficacy of such projects. I don’t know much about linguistics. Perhaps these languages they might one day be restored (whether their would ever be any interest in doing so seems less likely to me.) I don’t believe this is the case with martial arts. Once a lineage is broken, I doubt a martial art can ever truly be restored. (I know there have been attempts to do so with dead martial arts not only in the Far East but perhaps even more so in Europe.) Where it may be that in language what lies on the line is the critical element, in budō what is of value always slips through the interval between the lines. This isn’t to say the activity of “reviving” a martial art is not of value, but, to my mind, it is the practice of anthropology and not the practice of a martial art.

Why worry about these losses? I’ve quoted Ralph Waldo Emerson many times before and my favorite essay is his Self-Reliance. (As always, I’m aware of the irony of quoting from this essay.) In it, Emerson writes that, “Society never advances, it recedes as fast on one side as it gains on the other… Society acquires new arts, and loses old instincts.” There is a proclivity to think that humanity is all about progress, but we lose a great deal in the process. If one took ten random educated people from an advanced industrialized nation and dropped them separately into the wild with nothing but their individual wits, I doubt more than eight would be alive in six weeks. Starting fires, building sound shelter, acquiring food (even recognizing what is food on a bush or a carcass), and self-healing are skills that are beyond most people today, though these skills are just living for many aboriginal people, people who can’t do calculus or even recognize whether Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian is the pop icon of the day. 

Washed up on an isle uninhabited by man? How long are you good for?

I guess I still haven’t answered the question, who cares? They call it progress because today’s ways are superior to the old ways, right? Well, I wonder if humanity isn’t becoming pettier as we become increasingly divorced from primal living, and thus increasingly dependent on the perceptions of others and the operation of technology for our sense of confidence and self-worth. There is a sense of empowerment that comes from knowing you have the ability to live of your own capacities that is unlike being skilled in other domains. As things stand, we are becoming more knowledgable but weaker of mind, more productive but less self-reliant, busier but less in control of our own ship, wealthier but less able to live simply and to find joy in small things.

Budō is about self-reliance and the ability to live of one’s own resources, and as such is part of a crucial, yet at risk, body of knowledge.


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