Here’s a prickly question for you: how do you determine if the man who runs the Kung-fu school up the street is a total hack? This is going to be a long article. I’ve been mulling it over and considering common patterns for some time. Every example I use, and I do mean every example, has been very carefully considered.
Unfortunately I don’t have a decisive answer for you. The problem in separating good martial arts from mumbo-jumbo and rank amateurism remains the same now as it was in the 50s: most of us have no real-world experience to draw on. On the one hand, it’s absurd to argue that we can’t develop effective martial arts just because we haven’t been in combat. We know how the human body works, which means we know how to make it stop working. Most of the old masters didn’t have anything like anatomical science to draw on. On the other hand, there are plenty of people who come up with absolutely terrible approaches in spite of this. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves: what do I mean when I say martial art?
My definition will be this: a martial art is a system of movement developed to allow its practitioners to reliably incapacitate or kill another human being using the power of their own bodies. Some of you may bristle at this already. A number of iaido schools, for example, try to claim that kata are not practice for killing. My response? Put a human being in the space where you move the sword. If they don’t respond, will they be killed? The answer is yes. This is tantamount to a U.S. Marine claiming that plunging his bayonet into the dummy repeatedly is not practice for killing. Iaido creates this gap to show that it’s more about self-improvement and clearing the mind than bloodshed, separating it from iaijutsu and kenjutsu. But to pretend its techniques aren’t potentially lethal is something I can’t do.
Certain things go out the window immediately. Olympic or sport fencing has to go because its system has little to do with combat. The “right of way” rule is particularly obtuse: if you and your opponent both stab each other in the throat, one of you does not get off without a scratch just because it was “your turn.” Double-hits are a serious problem in swordfighting, and any system which makes little or no effort to eliminate them has to be discarded. Wushu, for all its athleticism and technical skill, has no place as a martial art because many of its movements are made purely for aesthetic value. Close observation of a wushu “fight” will show you that the practitioners often aim away from their opponents from the start.
Both of these teach many of the skills needed in a true martial arts school, but they’re not martial arts. And that’s not a mark against them! Olympic fencing is billed as a sport, and so it is. Wushu is China’s unique form of stagefighting, and they’re not claiming it’s more than that. In both cases, the idea that these pursuits are “martial arts” is a mistake made by people watching from the outside.
When you start looking into people who say what they’re doing is martial arts, the fog rolls in. Charlatans labor under the full weight of the Dunning-Kruger effect. They know enough to think they know it all, but not enough to know how wrong that is. Often, at least some of what they say is workable or even good martial arts. It rarely represents more than a small portion of their repertoire, but it’s there. Dumping more slag into this rusted crucible, the vast majority of people don’t have the ability to judge good martial arts. They haven’t been instructed either, after all. Most assume that grace, control and overall mechanical skill make a good martial artist. But wushu has all three in spades and yet it’s a horribly impractical way of using any weapon in a real fight. In short, just because someone looks good at first glance is meaningless. A good martial artist will have significant mechanical skill, but there’s way more to it than that. So how the hell do you figure out who’s a modern swordmaster, and who’s just a stagefighter with convincing talking points?
First, be suspicious of anyone who claims his style makes him invincible. A practitioner who doesn’t believe in his own method isn’t to be trusted, but anyone who needs to discredit other schools to shore himself up is probably a poser. It’s a matter of “My way is best” versus “My way is the only one.” Especially in weapon-based martial arts, every technique has the potential to kill. Getting jabbed in the forehead or whacked across the gut and realizing that represents your own death teaches humility damn fast. A skilled practitioner should be confident, but because they recognize that they’re more skilled than average and that fear will get them killed as easily as pride. But if you ask whether they’re 100% certain they can beat an equal opponent, the answer will always be “Of course not! We wouldn’t be equals if I could!” Remember, the most competent people usually underestimate their own abilities.
Second, be wary of anyone who won’t give a straight answer to critics. If they invoke their experience over you or insult you instead of addressing your points, it’s a serious warning sign. I say “warning sign” instead of telling you to dismiss them because martial artists are only human. Think of all the times you’ve seen someone resort to ad hominems in a Facebook debate, even though there are plenty of logical counterarguments you can think of instead. A good technique can be explained in clear terms and either works in many situations or will be carefully marked out as highly specific. But just because you don’t get that explanation is no proof it’s not there.
In the same vein, be cautious of anyone who leans too heavily on “the old masters.” The sword is not more complicated now than it was in the 1500s, and quite aside from that there are no completely intact martial lineages. Let me repeat: there is not a single school of martial arts with a completely unbroken line of transmission from master to student. And if the person is a HEMA practitioner, they’re full of it: HEMA itself is only a few decades old. We have absolutely no way of knowing that anything we’re doing is as it was originally intended. If they try to tell you that you don’t know better than Johannes Liechtenauer, remember that they have no better an idea what Liechtenauer intended than you do. They haven’t met him either, they’re just fans of his book. Their techniques are isolated things that can be evaluated on their own merit, the same as everything else in the universe. It wouldn’t be HEMA if we weren’t trying to stick to the treatises, but anyone who’s completely sure of their interpretation shouldn’t be trusted. This in itself doesn’t mean much, though, since plenty of skilled practitioners will “invoke the master” out of respect or habit. Appeal to expertise is a valid argument, and they may simply have forgotten that they only have their gut to tell them that the expert’s opinion matches theirs.
Some advice will show a total misunderstanding of the weapon or body part it involves. Even this isn’t one hundred percent reliable, but most of the time it’s damning. One instructor often tells people they should move the sword so as to “push the other person away.” The “technique” for this involves pushing the sword forward across the opponent’s left shoulder. I say across, not against. Think of cutting a steak: how much damage do you do to the steak if you run the knife over its surface without applying downward pressure? More to the point, this doesn’t work. Get a friend and have them stand facing you. Get a broom handle and try to push them to the ground by running the broom handle past their left shoulder. I think you’ll find the only thing that happens is that they turn to the left. Let’s go back to the steak. How many times have you started cutting one, only to have the son-of-a-bitch slide across the plate with no more than a nick? You have to pin it in place and force it bear the pressure before the knife actually goes in. This individual says to cut this way “so the other guy can’t stand up and resist it.” But the opponent’s urge to remain standing is what allows the cut to have lethal effect in the first place.
This person claims to be a kenjutsu practitioner. The school is a fabricated one with no koryu lineage, and so couldn’t be kenjutsu even if it were good swordsmanship. What’s conspicuous about this is that traditional samurai clothing as worn by kenjutsu practitioners usually involves two or more layers of clothing, including a jacket of dense silk. Silk is tough enough that the Mongols wore it under armor in order to catch arrows. It doesn’t cut easily, and I would not trust even the finest, sharpest blade to hurt a man wearing it just by passing over it. So let’s imagine that you are a samurai engaged in a duel. Your opponent tries to push you down by running his blade over your shoulder. At worst, he cuts open your clothes and nicks your shoulder a bit. Annoying, but no more. His move does, however, make you reflexively twist your hips inward faster than you normally would, giving extra power to your diagonal cut as it cleaves through his left shoulder, opens his aorta and exits his body near the right hip. He dies of shock and blood loss in seconds as you move safely out of range.
In this scenario, you have also fought poorly. Attacking your opponent with a cut in the same instant as he cuts at you, but not aiming your cut to deflect his or moving off the center line to avoid it, is bad swordsmanship. But because your cut was still a proper cut whereas he attempted to use the katana in a way it’s fundamentally unsuited for, you won. There is no worse technique than one that allows a bad swordsman to defeat the technique’s user safely. Be on the watch for things like this.
This instructor and others also like to appeal to “real” combat and “the real deal” without ever allowing this consideration to drive their training. This person has openly stated that their school doesn’t do sparring because it’s too stressful and makes it harder for students to pick up technique. Think about this for a second: if performing attacks on a friend in a quasi-competitive environment is too stressful, how can these students have a pigeon’s prayer in an eagle eyrie in a real fight? And no, of course they’re not actually going to get into a sword duel in 2017. But I’m not the one bringing up “the real thing” and then trying to make my training “stress-free.” Do you think bodybuilders or marathon runners or competitive shooters stop training when they feel stress? The answer is no, and even the competitive shooters don’t necessarily intend to use their skills in a gunfight. Practicing anything with the goal of attaining skill will be stressful, so stress is never a valid excuse to limit training. This is only one particular (or, at any rate, “official”) reasoning. Other pseudo-practitioners have their own excuses for talking a lot about how heavily their approach emphasizes the real thing and then ignoring it entirely.
Further signs of this: tempo (or timing) and distance are often completely ignored in hack circles. In legitimate schools, for example, technique is performed with both practitioners within striking distance and moving with realistic timing. One person does not pause or artificially slow their movements in order to allow the other to perform a technique. This is true even in koryu, where kata are thought of as cooperative rather than competitive. If multiple opponents are involved, the “victor” (a role which exists uniformly for all techniques in every martial art) will at least seriously incapacitate one opponent before going after the other. If the victor just deflects a strike from the other man and turns away, you’re looking at a bad technique. If you keep watching, you’ll notice this man often does nothing while his ally is killed, instead of immediately opening the “victor’s” spine to the air. This is literally just stagefighting, where the enemy acts in ways which make no sense to allow a “hero” character to win. It’s not good martial arts. Other examples include making many strikes after the enemy makes one and then waits for the “victor”, and attacks which cannot be extended far enough to actually hit the enemy. Normally it’s simply that you aim short of the person because you’re not actually fighting and you don’t actually want to injure them.
There are a multitude of other red flags, but for now I’ll close with this because it’s the most common of all. Be suspicious of anyone who either ignores or tries to contradict the importance of any physical trait. Having an advantage in reach, speed, strength or endurance are not engraved invitations to victory, but all of them help. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a liar or incompetent. If two swordsman are equally skilled, the one with the longer sword will win in most situations, unless his opponent is markedly faster, but he may be able to play defensive until he can gain the advantage if he has better endurance, and so on and so forth. Skill is usually the single most important thing, but not always. If my opponent has five times my skill but I have five times his speed, I will win purely because he can’t possibly respond in time to defend himself. But I’m not sure it’s physically possible for one human to be five times faster than another (unless the other is a baby), and if it were then the question becomes, “How did I get that fast with a sword without developing any skill with it?” Regardless, acting as if speed and athleticism don’t matter is one of the most enduring myths of martial arts.
If speed didn’t matter, martial arts would never have taken a backseat to guns. And, like the rest of what I’ve said, that’s just the harsh truth. Later I’ll cover further warning signs, and try to answer an even messier question: how do you identify good martial arts?