The Changing Tides of Martial Arts in East Asia

We martial artists in the West sometimes gaze East with a sense of gratitude and wonder in our hearts. While we struggle with cultural differences and strive for legitimacy, we are also tempted to assume that the birth countries of China, Japan, and Okinawa are somehow above these problems. We suspect that while some modernization is occurring, by-and-large the classical arts are still alive and thriving.

Alive…yes. Thriving, perhaps not as much as we would hope. Globalization is a juggernaut and while some westerners choose to look into the deep past of Eastern countries, more and more Asian youth look toward our western way of life. They, like us, have tasted the convenience of technology, the pleasure of quick rewards, and the lure of fame and recognition.

Modernization is fairly evident on a national scale, but to understand how it is affecting the martial arts I would point you to the studies of a few notable artists who have been there and seen it.

Recently Mario McKenna posted a link to a very well produced documentary regarding Kung Fu (the ancient martial pursuit of China). The movie is entitled Needle Through Brick: The Vanishing Art of Traditional Kung Fu. It follows the path of a handful of Kung Fu experts, exploring how they came to learn their art and what they are doing to spread it. The film also examines the life of young, modern artists and how they perceive martial arts in the world they live in.

Watch more free documentariesIt’s very interesting to hear the younger Kung Fu players discuss the difference between traditional kung fu and sport kung fu, and how they actively choose sport. The older generation struggles to find ways in which to preserve their heritage while keeping new generations interested.

It seems that in China most of the more antiquated quanfa arts are pushed into the background and seen as twilight-year pursuits. Instead they are replaced by high flying acrobatics and stunts like those performed by Shaolin troupes. The athleticism and dedication is impressive, but quite devoid of the original martial applications.

Okinawa As Well

In an article entitled “The Okinawan Karate Myth“, Jesse of KaratebyJesse describes some of his findings during trips to Okinawa, and shares stories of the younger practicing generation there.

In the article Jesse introduces us to a youthful competitor referred to as Ushi Kun. Ushi Kun does very well at tournaments and attends a well respected karate school. His dedication to the art is unquestionable. However, he and his dojo-mates revolve their entire study around winning competitions. Things that are classical (like kobudo) or foreign (like boxing) are seen as uncool and even slightly embarrassing for anyone participating in them.

When Jesse attempts to interact with the students, bringing his traditional and diverse background, he is mildly mocked and tolerated as someone who “doesn’t quite get it”.

The main issue, as Jesse explains, is that Ushi Kun and his fellow karateka are not peculiar in their mindset. In fact they represent a healthy portion of their generation.

Not All But A Lot

Youth in Japan, Okinawa, China, and Western Countries are all beginning to look more and more alike. The sight of a 15-year-old absorbed into their cell phone, texting away is now a near global one (in the developed world).

Of course, this is not to say that no true classical arts can be found in their countries of origin. There will always be something uniquely authentic about the far East when it comes to budo pursuits. However, propagation of classical arts is now more about the individuals passing it on rather than the country of study. If a lineage is preserved well it will retain it’s value, even if it happens to cross the ocean and arrive in the hands of an occidental. If a lineage is not preserved well, it will be a sham in the hands of any proponent.

It may sound like I am opining about days lost and the misguidedness of youth, but that’s not my intention. Instead my goal is to reveal a more accurate understanding of how martial arts fit into current society. New generations face the same kind of obstacles as generations previous, and as technology increases so does the sheer volume of things to occupy people’s time.

Quick rewards will always be tempting, and exciting sport will always attract more people than tradition.

Ultimately it is up to each of us to decide where we would like to take our arts, regardless of our place of origin.