10/06/2007 11:03pm, #1
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- Sep 2007
You Are Not a Historian, So Think Before You Speak
I am sure for the more intelligent and informed among you, the title is not exactly a revelation. If my experiences are even close to correct, however, a majority of the martial arts populace needs this message hammered into them......
Look at any online forum and you will come across posts or threads with such gems as "TKD is 2000 years old", "jumping kicks are for kicking people off horseback", "Shaolin is the root of all martial arts". I could go on and on with this sort of idiocy, hell I could fill a whole post with them, but I digress. Why do we see this sort of thing parroted by the faithful masses? Because ignorant instructors who want their style to be more than it is have to justify their choice with made up nonsense. When a prospective student comes knocking, what better way to get their mouth watering for your style than telling them fantastic tales of the styles creator and its obviously ancient history and lineage?
This has of course led to thousands of people espousing various ideas and theories as to the histories and practices of different arts. Hell I was guilty of this myself quite some time ago. A bachelors degree with a strong focus on Asian history cleared up that problem for me. At this point, I'd like to offer some pieces of advice for the martial arts history enthusiast.....
1. Your instructor is not a reliable source of historical information. Unless your instructor is someone like Dr Karl Friday or Prof William Bodiford of course. My first jujutsu instructor loved to talk about the samurai and history of old Japan, but the truth was he really had no clue what he was talking about. He thought because he read a few books about it he was a qualified expert on the matter (more on the book subject later). Your instructor should be a wealth of information on techniques and your school, but unless he has academic credentials it stops right there (to an extent). A martial arts teacher is not a historian, please get it into your head.
2. Think before you speak about something. If you heard something about a style on a forum, book, tv, whatever, try processing that piece of information in your brain before spewing out drivel on a forum. Let's take the kicking people off horseback thing I noted earlier. It is a common myth on any TKD forum and is still peddled to this day. Now, switch your brain on and think. On a battlefield, the warriors that rode horses were generally the elite, with lots of money and training. The horse was trained as an offensive weapon as well as transport. The horse and rider were armoured. The horseman would have had at least a sword, but also commonly a bow, or spear, mace or any number of weapons. Here is you on the battlefield facing this horseman. Now, assuming you too were wearing armour, that's roughly 25-30kg extra. So, even ignoring all above, still think you can jump up and kick someone off a horse? No, you couldn't, and with the above factors you would either be missing limbs, skewered or shot by a rider who wouldn't even need to slow down for you. It doesn't take a PhD in history to figure something like this out on your own. All it takes is common sense. So next time try using a bit of critical thought instead of being a mindless parrot, you will look like far less of an idiot.
3. A book that you picked up at the store is not gospel. Jesus, this is one that really annoys me. Let's leave aside the idiots such as Ashida Kim and Phil Elmore, if you believe their crap you probably wouldn't even be here. You pick up a book at the store and it seems legit, telling you all about the history and culture of ___ style. You assume because it is a book that the information inside is accurate. WRONG. Just stop right there. It is because people don't stop at this point that we hear so many wild tales and such on the internet, because someone read it in a book. So before you run to the register to purchase, who is the author? What are his credentials? Hot tip here - being a black belt in ___ style does not mean you have the knowledge to write a book on history!!!! The next thing to look at is the references page. If it is a history book, there should be heaps of them. Here is a little secret though: lots of references are great, but they have to be the RIGHT references.
I'll compare two books I know well to illustrate my example: Secrets of the Samurai, by Rattie and Westbrook, and Samurai, Warfare and the State by Dr Karl Friday. Now, the fact that the second is written by someone with a doctorate in the field is a good start. Compare it to the authors of the former which are philosophy majors and aikidoists. Anyway, references. If you look at SotS, there are plenty of references, but they are all ENGLISH language books. So, the information in SotS is at best 3rd hand information. This begs the question, how accurate were the sources they took their information from? How well did they check? Since Rattie and Westbrook are not from the field of history, how good was their investigative process?
Now, let's look at SWatS. Firstly, it is a much smaller text than SotS. Look at the reference section, however, and you can see it is (if memory serves me right) 2-3 times larger than SotS reference section. Look at the sources themselves, and apart from references to texts regarding European warfare, they are all Japanese.
So, looking at that information, which would you treat as a more reliable text? Oh yes, SotS may be thicker and look more "authoriative" but as you can see from looking at the two with a more critical eye that it is clearly inferior as far as accurate information.
Magazines are also worth mentioning here. We have martial arts magazines in Australia that have "history" sections which may seem quite accurate to the unsuspecting reader. Unfortunately just because it is titled "history" does not make it so. To give an example, a recent grappling special edition of a certain magazine told the history of the Gracies, including Masahiko Kimura's involvement. Funnily enough, all it says was that he trained with them and wanted them to set up a school in Japan. There was no mention of the famous challenge where Kimura snapped Helio Gracie's arm with ude garame, or that the Brazilians had reportedly brought a coffin to the event for Kimura. You can't write history and just leave out the bits you don't like (that's for governments to do :P). I have also read articles that border on the ridiculous when it comes to history. "It was said that...." Well, who the bloody hell said it? If you can't write something in a history article that is more than oral tradition, you are only adding to ignorance. So take ANYTHING written about history in a magazine with a grain of salt, because they sure as hell don't provide sources for what they write.
4. Do not talk about history unless you have proof. This is a big one. I have seen so many people on forums say things as though they are fact. Yet they never have any evidence. So ninjutsu has an unbroken lineage to the 13th century? Do you have proof of that? The Shaolin temple was really a front for rebels? Where is your evidence? A chinese "master" defeated an unnamed Russian boxer in the early 1900's. Well, where are the records, and what were their names??? See what I mean? This brings me to my next point...
5. Hearsay is NOT proof. Ok, yes I will pick on the ninjutsu guys here. You saying that Hatsumi has proof of Togakure ryu dating back to the 13th century IS NOT PROOF. Making up excuses that he has the scrolls but does not want to show them IS NOT PROOF. This is the same for the continued (and ridiculous) arguements about who teaches "the real Wing Chun". Unless you have some sort of hard evidence, your teacher telling you he was the favourite student of Yip Man and that he was the only one that learnt "the real stuff" IS NOT PROOF.
I will add a small disclaimer before I finish up. When I talk about going on something someone has said, I mean someone who is qualified only to teach martial arts. Like I said, if your teacher is Karl Friday, or say a Chinese historian who teaches tai chi, fair enough. But always be sure to be accurate if you are going to quote them.
My naginata teacher gave our class a wonderful piece of information some months back when he said (and I paraphrase here) that we should always be careful when speaking of style, technique etc to state that "this is my opinion" or "I was told this by ___ sensei", never just blurt it out as though it is fact from your own mind.
Last edited by Yamaarashi; 10/08/2007 2:08am at .
10/06/2007 11:25pm, #2
This is a fantastic article, and yes I have been amazed about how once you tie a black belt around someone's waist they tend to believe they are an authoritive source on events from hundreds of years ago. If I may add a piece of information. Beware of kempo lineages that claim they go back to Japan in the 1200s, James Mitose was a con-man and was not a reliable source.
10/08/2007 7:41am, #3Bravo. Excellent article with much food for thought.
Some minor comments:
1. Reading one of Robert Smith's books recently (it might have been Ba Gua) I noticed that the reference section only listed books by R. Smith except for one by R.Smith & Allen Pittmen. I just wondered if there were any other sources/opinions.....(smirk)
2. I remember reading about TKD and it's fabulous millenia heritage but later I read about a 3rd Dan Shotokan under Funakoshi travelling to Korea to found a local Shotokan club after which it materialised into TKD. Yep, the chappie was actually Korean and reverted to his Korean name and decided to Korean-ise Shotokan. You disagree? I don't care. Kitai Son won Gold in the Marathon at the Berlin Olympics for Japan. He was actually Korean and his country was under Japanese hegemony. He later reverted to his Korean name.
3. I read it in a book so it must be true. Well, I've just finished reading a bio of Sugar Ray Robinson and it's full of holes. It does bear a foreword by Ray junior but it's still poor. It includes a record of his Ring Contests but that's just lazy and plagiarised from the original Autobiography. Of course to the unknowing, it would lend credence to the author (tip; don't bother, do read Sugar Ray's autobio instead.
4. Tai Chi. Reading some of this caused me to reflect on the ability of the Masters. One of the Yang's was obviously far to fat to do low posture techniques (I can empathise). The lesson? Let the Form fit the Student. (Personally, I'd still like to play like Jimi Hendrix but that's never going to happen). In revision, the Masters could always jump higher than the World High Jump record holder. Funny that...
Well done to Yamaraashi and Thanks again.:icon_bigg
Last edited by Eddie Hardon; 10/08/2007 7:44am at .
10/08/2007 10:36am, #4
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- Aug 2006
Excellent article . There have been way to many times that I have heard people quote some sort of MA myth as if it were the absolute truth.
I agree with the statement that if you are going to peddle third hand info then use the My sensei told me this or this is my opinion line.
Now I do have a question...
Anyway, references. If you look at SotS, there are plenty of references, but they are all ENGLISH language books. So, the information in SotS is at best 3rd hand information. This begs the question, how accurate were the sources they took their information from? How well did they check? Since Rattie and Westbrook are not from the field of history, how good was their investigative process?
Now, let's look at SWatS. Firstly, it is a much smaller text than SotS. Look at the reference section, however, and you can see it is (if memory serves me right) 2-3 times larger than SotS reference section. Look at the sources themselves, and apart from references to texts regarding European warfare, they are all Japanese
In this section it seems to me that you are saying that if the reference is from anything Japanese it is legit. If so could you elaborate on that a bit.
If that is not what you mean I apologize ...that is just the way I interpreted it.
10/08/2007 3:51pm, #5
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- Sep 2007
Thanks for the responses guys, glad you like it. As to your question jtk, I'm not so much trying to say that just because a reference is Japanese that it is true, I am more trying to point out the fact that SotS is a book about samurai martial culture and history, yet there is not a single (ok maybe one or two, I don't have the book here with me) Japanese reference. How can one write an accurate book on history when you haven't even looked at primary source material?
10/08/2007 4:10pm, #6
Originally Posted by Yamaarashi
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- Aug 2006
I just went thru my copy of Sots and see that there are quite a few Japanese sources cited in there.
Now I understand that for this to be a book about a countries culture and MA that the material used should have made up the majority of the references should have been japanese.
But what do you think would be an appropriate % to use?
10/08/2007 4:15pm, #7
Excellent article, Yamaarashi.
10/08/2007 5:29pm, #8
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- Jun 2005
It's interesting that so much is made of Kung Fu as a part of Chinese culture, when most scholarly books on Chinese culture don't even have Kung Fu, Shao Lin or even swordsmanship in the index. Mostly, they mention the boxer rebellion, but even that is referred to as a group like the Masons (mystical Mumbo jumbo, etc) and less about the actual style of fighting. Quite different than a history of Japan, which has plenty of references to the Samurai. Many of us were raised up watching all the Ming/Ching movies and after a while, started to think these were guys that actually had some kind of impact on history-i.e., the Hung Gar school led the resistance against the oppressive Ching court, etc.
10/08/2007 9:28pm, #9
Originally Posted by jtkarate
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- Sep 2007
SotS is a far more general text, but if I recall correctly there is alot written on oral tradition and the like. Alot of "it was said that..." and such, which doesn't require primary source material and is ideal for propagating myth. I really wish I had it here to give some concrete examples.
Despite it being a general text, however, it should have (in my mind at least) a large majority of Japanese sources. The fact that it doesn't makes it nothing more than a general gist of samurai culture and history, because the lack of proper investigation by the authors means the book contains many inaccuracies.
By the way, can anyone think of a batter title for this article? I couldn't think of anything good and I'm still not crazy about this one.
10/09/2007 8:43pm, #10
Nice article. Good job, Yamaarashi.