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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 .