Martial art is a large blanket term that captures many different activities. Everything from old people doing Tai Chi (purposely misspelled) in the park to people fighting in the UFC is labeled as martial arts. These are really different pursuits, and I honestly don’t know if they should be all be under the same umbrella term. So let’s talk about the strictest way to define martial art. Next article, we’ll broaden our horizons, and expand out our definition.
So let’s start with the first word. Martial is derived from “Mars” the Roman god of war. Anything with the adjective martial should, therefore, be indicative of something from war. This means the sole purpose of a martial art should be in eliminating the enemies’ ability to do war unto you. It also means it will involve the tools of war. In previous times, this would be swords, armor, cavalry, bows, and whatever technology is appropriate for the time period and culture in question. The unarmed portion, that we now tend to think of as martial arts, was a minor portion of a historic warrior’s training. It was a very bad situation if you ever were without your weapons on a battlefield. Unarmed attacks and defense would have been an option of last resort option.
This stricter definition would not include any of our modern martial arts that focus on the spiritual, health, or sport based applications. That is not to say that those activities don’t have merit, but only that it doesn’t fit the definition of martial art in the strictest sense that we’re using here. It also would not include anything self-defense based. Using this really strict definition, 99% of what we do and call martial arts, aren’t martial. Here are some examples of why they wouldn’t be.
Self-Defense is messy and can be physically violent. However, if it’s a good self-defense school/system, then there should be talk (and maybe practice) of awareness, avoidance, and de-escalation. If your self-defense is only focusing on the physical part, you are missing the broader picture. It has been said that if your self-defense focuses only on the physical part, your self-defense sucks. That all being said, self-defense is not combat. Most self-defense situations are going to be social violence. The root cause of the event is going to be one person proving their bigger and stronger and more right than the other. Usually with witnesses to make sure everyone knows the result. Even if it is resource violence, at the first opportunity, you’ll leave. That’s not the way war-based, martial arts work.
In war-like situations, you may not have the ability to leave. In fact, it might be required that you push forward. The reason you’re in this situation is also, not about the “self.” It’s not a personal attack. It’s about something bigger. You’re in combat for a larger reason, king, country, … money. Whatever the cause.
Sport Martial Arts
They can be called combat sports, or something similar, but these are the martial arts that put opponent vs. opponent in some sort of area, and everyone involved agrees to a set of rules. This would include MMA, Sport Kickboxing, Olympic Judo, and Taekwondo. I guess we’ll now include Olympic Karate, as it will be in the next Olympics. I would also include the Western Sport Martial Arts of Boxing, Wrestling, and Fencing.
The main reason these don’t fit our strict “martial” definition is that there are rules. I understand why there are rules, and although they can be quite dangerous, they are designed to reduce the probability of permanently injuring the other participant. I’m not using the “my art is too dangerous for the ring” excuse, but everything that’s outlawed in, say…the UFC can end things quickly (and cause serious damage), are immediate breaks, like fingers strikes or strikes to the back of the head. Wartime situations would, again, have the culturally/temporally appropriate weapons and armor, and would use any technique that worked, specifically because of the damage it caused.
Civilian Martial Arts
Okay let’s face facts. We live in a world where fighting for survival, or food, or protecting ourselves and our communities from ravenous hordes of rampaging marauders is not a real concern. By all measures, we are living in one of the most peaceful times in human history. It’s not perfect, but it is better than it was before. Besides that, I’m going to bet that most people reading this are going to be in the more peaceful parts of our world. The United States is more peaceful now that in nearly any time in its history, scare tactics from politicians and media aside. This gives us much more leeway to explore the more artistic sides of life. We can use war-like activities as hobbies. We can explore the side benefits of martial training, such as spirituality and physical fitness. We even have the luxury of creating specific activities that, based on the martial practices of the past, concentrate solely on these other benefits of training. However, they are then, no longer martial.
Based on this, the narrowest of definitions, almost nothing that we martial artists practice today qualify as…martial. But that is only one part of the term, and it does not include how the term has evolved. Next article I’ll include the art portion of martial art, and see if we can broaden our horizons somewhat.