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The Devolution of the Martial Arts In The 20th Century.
By: Rev. William Wong, ND, Ph.D., Member World Sports Medicine Hall of Fame and World Martial Arts Hall of Fame.


Throughout the history of the martial arts, a time spanning some 4 to 5 millennia, development and evolution have been naturally intrinsic to the arts. Since the end of the second world war, the martial arts have become so popular that more and more people are involved in the arts now than at any other point in history. With this popularity, the nature of the arts have changed from ones which gave their skills to seekers who first had to prove themselves worthy to arts that have sold themselves to whomever has the money. That adaptation to the open marketplace has produced several changes.

The most marked of which are:

  • A general lowering of performance standards to meet the physical abilities and limitations of the “Joe Average” student.
  • A devolution of the arts with loss of technique and combat mentality to suit the requirements of becoming a martial sport instead of remaining a martial art.
  • Worst of all, the dropping of spirituality from the practice of the arts.

Many western martial arts teachers who originally learned some spiritual principles and practices in the 1950’s and 60’s while training in Asia had dropped the study and application of spirituality after a while, calling it so much hocus pocus. Spirituality has also been dropped to meet the demands of the marketplace. People are in for what amounts to recreation and anything that smacks of being religious may drive away students. Of the non-recreational students, many are in the arts just to learn how to “bust heads” and they want to do that without the principles meant to guide the use of the skills. These factors and the commercialism and hype that became part of the arts caused the stagnation of technique and guiding philosophy leading into the devolution of the arts in the latter half of the 20th century.

We can’t escape the reality of the martial arts being taught in the competitive open market place. Economic theory relates that as services improve competition increases. Perhaps the rendering and the availability of the martial arts have improved over the last 60 years but, this has happened at the cost of the traditional content of the arts.

As caretakers of traditions hundreds or even thousands of years old, we need to insure that the spark of future evolution (true technique creating and not just style blending) is brought back into the arts. (To my eyes only the Wing Chun / JKD and Kali traditions are evolving forward). We need to make sure that the guiding “light” of spirituality is placed back into the martial arts. In that way, we can ensure the existence of the arts we love for the millennia to come. We must not be blamed by future generations for having lost so much of our skill movements and so much of our philosophy that all we have left to hand to them is a way of tournament brawling.

What Has Been Lost?

Whenever we wish to evaluate a system of beliefs, and each martial arts is a system of beliefs, we need to go back in time to the origins of that system and attempt to discern what the original intent of the founders were. Discovering the truth of original intent is a principle that is applied to law, philosophy and religion. Rediscovering the original intent leading to the development of the martial arts will begin to point the way towards our rediscovery and recovery and this leads to the advancement of our arts in our today.

Man has been fighting bare handed and with weapons for as long as he’s been on the planet. But, systematized fighting based on particular principles (i.e. for exercise, chi circulation, emulating animals and demi gods etc.), is as best as we can tell some 5000 years old.

Most martial arts systems today can trace their origins back to China and to the 5th century BC Buddhist monk Damo (in Cantonese, Bodhedarma in Sanskrit). He, through meditation and revelation gave the monks of an obscure and hidden monastery called Si Lum (Shao Lin in Mandarin), their first pugilistic exercise form. Being from India, a country then with a highly evolved martial tradition, Damo was likely familiar with that countries highly spiritual fighting forms. From those origins the monks at Si Lum and their imitators evolved most of the nearly 2000 systems of martial arts found in China. (There are some 1500 known systems of Gung Fu, internal energy pugilism and wrestling in China. Add to that number a conservative estimate of 200 to 500 secret systems of training not yet revealed to the world outside the small groups, towns or provinces in the interior and west of China and you get round about 2000 distinct systems). As the monks traveled, were exiled or sent abroad, they taught their arts. This teaching spawned the empty hand fighting arts for most of Asia.

Let’s put things into perspective. To help understand the time frame better let’s put a western frame of reference up for comparison. Around the time of the Greek philosopher and scientist Pythagorus, and David the King of Israel is round about when Damo traveled from India to China to teach and reform Buddhist practice. At the temple of Si Lum, Damo found the monks were so lazy and out of condition that they could not properly perform their meditative and prayer duties. Also since supplies for the remote temple had to be brought to the temple via road, the monks were easy prey for bandits and highway men. These conditions led peaceful cloistered monks with a philosophy of non violence to develop the worlds deadliest martial arts. By the time of the western middle ages, legend had it that one Si Lum monk was the equal of 1000 regular troops. This number of legend is likely very overblown but it serves to show the reputation of Si Lum.

Each art developed at the monastery was meant to fulfill certain criteria. The art had to:

  • Strengthen the body.
  • Draw in and circulate chi.
  • Be effective and deadly in application so as not to cause undo or lingering suffering before the death of an opponent.
  • Provide the advanced exponent the ability to meditate during movement.

There was a progression from the physical to spiritual emphasis in the arts which can be expressed in the graph below.

physical to spiritual progression

The physical is the path to the spiritual and as one increased the other decreases. In the shift there is no loss of physical prowess, but with the application of accumulated chi power the dependence on pure muscular strength is diminished greatly.

It is this progression from physical to the spiritual; from being purely warrior to being the warrior / scholar or warrior / priest that has been lost. The combination of the warrior / scholar is still shown in the hand salute Chinese martial artists give; but while the form is present for most who give the salute, the essence is gone.

Scholar controls Warrior salute
Scholar and Warrior are Equal Salute
Scholar controls the Warrior
Scholar and Warrior are Equal


The open hand is the priest or scholar. the closed fist is the warrior, the two exist together as Ying and Yang do completing a whole. Further it can be seen that the warrior is sometimes covered by the scholar. This means that philosophy and spirituality of the scholar rules the warrior and guides his use of the arts.

The martial arts without the accompanying spiritual philosophy is only the road to empty machismo and bravado. There will be no inner fulfillment or revelation from movement patterns, no discovery of the inner meanings of life which the masters locked away in set patterns of action. Some teachers have said that there is no truth in set patterns of movement but those teachers while likely highly “book” educated did not have enough spiritual attainment to have come to those realizations. As good as they might have been in their skills, as versed as they may have sounded in philosophy, they were locked into the physical realm. The ancient masters did hide philosophical and spiritual truth in movement and only years of application and meditation can reveal those secrets. These are truths that have to be realized, they cannot be simply taught by mouth or action and understood.

Many students will ask of a teacher who has come to realizations why he does not teach all that he has discovered. The answer comes in the saying: “What I tell you, you will forget. What you discover for yourself you will always remember”. With the emphasis on the purely physical side of the arts, many never realize they are missing an entire aspect to their martial arts. That aspect would make their arts whole.

Some oriental sounding platitudes are spouted by most martial arts teachers. Most of it is weak pap and about as eastern as chop suei (which was invented by a white man in San Francisco in the late 1800’s). What passes for philosophy in most martial arts schools would shock the ancients with its shallowness.

What Else Has Been Lost?

As the market orientation in the martial arts became stronger and more and more people with no martial spirit came into the arts, the teaching done needed to reflect the consumer in order to retain him as a student. Teachers needed to do this to stay in business. So the martial arts became a combative sport, a recreational activity that needed to be safe not unlike flag football when compared to pro football.

This reflection of a recreational minded instead of a serious minded clientele in the martial arts led to the deletion of crippling and killing techniques from the arts. Along with those deletions came rules to further take away valid techniques when tournament rules barred: kicking below the waist (i.e. groin, knee, shin, instep), techniques to the throat, eyes temporal / sphenoid area etc. Since these techniques are barred from competition most schools don’t even teach them in class. Most of the black belts now have NEVER even been taught the techniques and they don’t know that they don’t know! These are the skills that are the most effective in real combat. Many teachers counter this argument by saying that they do teach the killing and crippling techniques. They just don’t allow their application in competitive fighting. If you don’t practice a technique under “game” conditions until it is an instant response to a given stimulus then just “knowing” the technique will not aid in it’s application because the motor patterns will not have been ingrained into the nervous system. It takes a minimum of 3000 correct performances of a technique against real opposition to create those motor patterns and instant responses. Most of the real fighting techniques are given no where near that degree of practice today, students won’t stand for the boredom, the hard work or really getting hit even with protective gear on! They’ll quit the school and go where the techniques and rank is more easily acquired.

Add to the lack of killing and crippling techniques the fact that penalties are given in contests for excess contact or overly aggressive behavior, and you’ve watered down a fighting art into a panty-waist sport! Can any such thing as overly aggressive behavior exist in a real fight when your life is on the line? MA magazines often carry stories of accomplished sport fighters who get there heads handed to them during real street fights in encounters with untrained muggers.

After Bruce Lee died stories abounded about this martial artist or that martial artist who could have “taken” him but did not because they were “friends”. (Given Lee’s well known temper these “friends” would have never dared say anything of the like while he was alive). One close martial arts “friend” of Lee’s even told GQ magazine in the 80’s that we’ll never know how good Bruce really was because he never entered competition!!! To this Lee would have answered that tournament fighting was like swimming on dry land. His senior students remember Bruce’s practice of walking into bars, telling whoever was with him not to to get involved unless some pulled a knife or gun. He would then walk up to the biggest roughest dude in the place and make disparaging remarks about the mans ancestors, his girlfriend, his mother, his personal looks or sexual habits. When the fight was over, Bruce would be the only one left standing and anxious to go to another bar!. (Bar room brawls with Wing Chun or JKD run some 30 seconds to 2 minuets for a multi opponent fights). That was real life application. Unless a fight has NO rules, NO limitations, and your life, limb or property is non the line it’s not a real fight! With relatively little training in combatives, if cops can train under “game” conditions for encounters like that , why can’t dedicated martial artists?

Further, unless a martial art can meet the criterion of helping you survive and win such a fight, it’s not a real combat art! Posing, clean points and dancing do not help people survive real fights. Proper technique, cool aggressiveness, and a guiding marital intent do!

Next we look to: “Restore the Lost” starting with Spirituality.

Suggested Reading:
Principles of Personal Defense, by Col. Jeff Cooper Paladin Press. 1989 revised 2006.
Movement And Meaning, by Eleanor Methany, McGraw Hill 1969.
Introduction to Human Movement, Hope Smith, Addison - Wesley 1968.
The Art of War, martial artists translation by Hanshi Stephen Kaufman, Tuttle 1996.

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