Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Breather from battle Suwon Martial arts performance Suwon South KoreaYe do style or short sword style.

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WESTERN notions of the martial arts have been heavily influenced by the film industry. Brick-breaking and surreal acrobatic feats make a good spectacle, and Bruce Lee and Jean-Claude van Damme achieved stardom by exploiting it. But western audiences know next to nothing about the martial arts. So Jigoro Kano, the founding father of modern judo, learned to his cost when he gave demonstrations in Japan and America.

The Japanese were impressed by the gracefulness of his art; in America his audiences were bored. Only when extroverts began breaking bricks in public, and demonstrating full-contact karate, did Americans sit up and take notice. Yet there is far more to the martial arts than the aggression of karate.

They cover a whole range of things from Japanese archery, with its emphasis on Zen Buddhism, through the slow dance-like movements of Chinese tai chi to the combative kicking of Korean taekwondo. Apart from the obvious distinction between weapons-wielding and empty-hand disciplines, the martial arts can be separated broadly into those that are "hard" and those that are "soft".

The soft ones include tai chi and aikido. They stress the development of ki (the Chinese qi), "internal spirit", and are characterised by smooth, gentle movements. Those that are hard include karate and kung fu. They put more stress upon physical development and fast, violent movements. It is the hard arts that excite westerners.

So much so that taekwondo and karate are now the most popular styles in the world, practiced by perhaps 30m enthusiasts in 120 different countries. Like judo, both taekwondo and karate seem likely to be accepted as Olympic sports. They will probably move even further away from their origins in the martial arts and closer to western ideals of sporting conflict. That would be a pity. It may seem odd, but the martial arts, even the hard ones, are not about conflict.

Consider the Japanese word for the martial arts as a whole: budo. It means, literally, "the way to stop the spear". Less esoterically, it means "to stop fighting", as does the Chinese word for the martial arts, wushu. The true aim of the martial arts is to avoid conflict; it is best summed up in one commentator's description of aikido as "the honourable art of getting the hell out of the way". The aggression, if there is any, is controlled. In the eyes of good practitioners self-control allows them to find a path around conflict.

To some westerners this seems pseudo-philosophical bunkum, but East Asians take it seriously. Most, if not all, of the martial arts are inextricably linked to the three main East Asian religions, Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism. They started as self-defence systems, but more than 2,000 years of refinement have turned them into a way of life.

In recognition of this, the Japanese masters of the early 20th century put the character for "way of life" (do) into the name of their disciplines. Ju-jitsu ("the art of giving way") became judo ("the gentle way"), karate became karatedo, aiki-jitsu became aikido. For martial artists it mattered less what form you studied than that you made it a way of life. All the martial arts, hard and soft, aim at a non-aggressive state of harmony.

For westerners this may seem odd: in karate, you will see people in starched white uniforms fighting each other and letting out the odd blood-curdling scream. "Harmony"? But the aggression is (or should be) carefully controlled.

Psychological studies have confirmed this: the more advanced students have much less aggressive personalities than the average person. Nor are injuries commonplace: out of 250,000 judo practitioners in America, only around 70 (0.03%) a year report any serious injuries, much fewer than in most active sports. This is because, along with the physical activity, comes an education in East Asian philosophy.

That is not everybody's idea of fulfilment, not least because a westerner needs a lot of patience to absorb all the alien notions of unity and consensus. The award of a black belt comes near the start of an education in a martial art, not the end. Yet qualifying for a black belt usually takes at least three years (see table)--long enough to put most westerners off.

East Asians find the traditional ideals of the martial arts far more compatible with their outlook on life (even though it was the Japanese who encouraged the development of judo as a sport and the Chinese who encouraged kung fu in the film industry). Struggle up at 5am in China, for instance, and you will find the parks and roads crowded with people practicing the flowing forms of tai chi.

To find out if there is anything for them in this, many westerners have turned to "The Art of War" (Delta; $8.95) by Sun Tzu, a 2,000-year-old best-seller. The Japanese equivalent, Miyamoto Musashi's "Book of Five Rings" (Bantam, $9.50), has been marketed as the Japanese version of the Harvard MBA. The growing interest in such books is a belated acknowledgment by westerners that the philosophical side of martial arts may not be tosh after all.

Many East Asians say it is no coincidence that their countries, home to the martial arts, have achieved greater economic success than other Asian countries. The more chauvinist describe Japan's extraordinary economic success as aikido in action (the aggressor being America). But economic success may not be the only benefit of a martial-arts way of life: Yukiso Yamamoto, a famous aikidoist, found it helped his marriage too.


Source Citation
"A way to stop the spear." The Economist [US] 15 May 1993: 114. Academic OneFile. Web. 6 Apr. 2010.
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