Martial Arts Heritage is as Global as it is Personal

By John Clements
ARMA Director

This is the most difficult piece I've ever written about the subject of martial arts. Probably no matter what I express here it's going to be misread by someone somewhere. But no less, here it goes: Every January, I receive a wave of New Year applications for ARMA memberships and inquiries for introductory sessions at my Iron Door School of Arms. Invariably, there's always at least one person who feels the need to express in the section on why they are interested that it's because they want to pursue "white martial arts". ...Ugggh. Needless to say, I delete such applications and emails.

Now, one could certainly make a case that it's simply poor wording choice on the part of the individual and what they really meant is that they are interested in the authentic Western fighting methods of their own European ancestors. Fair enough. It's a reasonable interest for anyone to want to know about a past they feel some connection toward. But, the phrase "white martial arts" is loaded with certain implicit insinuations and subtexts I'd just prefer to avoid. My first instinct is to respond, "Riiiggghttt... I'm not gonna touch that."

As with any other historical styles, these are fighting arts self-evidently from a specific geographic, cultural, and temporal region. It’s certainly “occidental.” Why assign any other label? Personally, I'm not going there. I see it as unnecessarily divisive. It's neither welcoming nor inclusive and I refuse to dignify it (I even had a falling out with a close colleague over just such an attitude). Similarly, those individuals whose inquiries express a certain resentment or grievance towards the popularity of more established and widely known martial arts traditions of other cultures strike me as characters with whom I wouldn't get along or care to be associated. To me, it's as ignorant as insulting different cuisines or different music. And I write this as someone who when a teen on several occasions was told to my face with veiled derision how "you in the West had no martial arts."

I have heard the phrase "martial arts of the orient" (as opposed to Occident) but I never heard of anything being referred to as "yellow martial arts" or "brown martial arts" or, for that matter, by any other color or racial grouping, nor do I wish to see it start. Yes, most fighting arts are designated as being from particular nations, lands, or regions that historically were both ethnically and culturally homogeneous. But again, so what? I perfectly understand the excitement someone feels when they learn that their ancestors actually documented sophisticated martial art systems that can be practiced once again. I entirely relate to the sense of pride in realizing that martial arts weren't something limited to a few places on one part of the planet. But, I also equally understand the sense of wonder and curiosity felt by anyone from anywhere wanting to explore and gain prowess in "exotic foreign" teachings out of a warrior past. I have tens of students around the world, from Korea to Israel to Russia, and it's no different for them to learn 14th century Kunst des Fechten or La Destreza of the Spanish court than it is for my Lebanese neighbor to be interested in kenjutsu or kung fu. (Though to be honest, I do tend to roll my eyes at modern Westerners so infatuated with being samurai or ninja that it becomes their entire self-identity.)

I suppose that as a modern American, whose ancestry is Italian, Sicilian, German, and English, I don't readily identify with any one ethnic or national affiliation when it comes to what Renaissance martial art sources I enjoy studying. Yes, my ancestry is entirely European, but so what? My style of study is the systematic fighting arts of Western civilization during a specific time known as the Medieval and Renaissance eras. It is the "noble art and science of defence" --and among the most sophisticated and effective ever devised. They are unequivocally the martial arts of Western civilization (just as its Asian counterparts are those of Eastern civilizations). Not only that, but I do not know of a single historical source of Renaissance martial arts teachings that could not essentially be described as being "Latin," or connected directly to Judaeo-Christian ideas of chivalry (itself undeniably connected to per-Christian Germanic, Nordic, and Celtic concepts). But even then, it owes a tremendous debt to the Greek within the "Greco-Roman" and we cannot for an instant ignore Slavic martial contributions, either.

But what of that loaded phrase "white martial arts"? Why should I find it troublesome? I'll leave it to the reader to explore that on their own, but I will say with regard to the martial arts of Renaissance Europe, we certainly are talking about a body of literature reflecting fighting methods and self-defense systems produced by people who were undeniably Caucasian, sure. But so what? Should anyone today really care one way or the other? (What exactly, I wonder, would the applicants I reject make of the fact that there are black Africans prominently featured training in our 15th and 16th century sources? or the frequency of brown-skinned icons of Saint Maurice in knightly armor? or the contribution made by Jews?) It's funny, but when I was a child and would see martial arts films or historical epics I had no problem either identifying with or not identifying with the warriors and duelists on screen, because as a child I was more or less oblivious to it. Ethnic identity, racial affiliation, et cetera, was irrelevant to the fact that I was seeing heroic fighting men overcoming injustice with skill and courage. I think I never outgrew that even as I came to discover and promote the very subject I do.

Amusingly, ascribing a racial component to our craft is as irrelevant as it is incongruous. One does not have to go back many centuries or generations to find extreme prejudice and hatred between the very groups that make up what the minuscule number of applicants whom I reject would like to call "white martial arts." There was enmity between Celts and Latins, Scots and English, English and Irish, between almost anyone within the Italian states, and among nearly endless other peoples from Spain to the Baltic and Belgium to the Balkans. I'm quite sure a 16th century Venetian, for instance, would have plenty of rude and crude insults to give any number of Lombards, Flems, Burgundians, Basques, Bohemians, Britons and what have you. Plus, nearly all of them at one time or another were going to war with Turks and Saracens (who were busy fighting themselves). None of which matters the slightest today to our work in recovering and reviving forgotten martial skills. Incidentally, the Latin word for greater groups of humans such as tribes, nations, or what we call peoples, was gentes. It's worth nothing that they had an understanding of these things and yet did not obsess over them.

In an age when they had Scottish masters presenting French fencing, or Florentine masters teaching in Scandinavia, Flemish masters teaching Spanish fencing at the Court of France, and Spanish masters teaching in Italy, not to mention knights from most anywhere traveling across the continent to engage in tournament contests, labeling things now with modern nationalistic identities is all but meaningless. Arguably, a case can be made that it's actually difficult to refer to "Italian" martial arts excepting in regard to those authors originating among the Italian city states. The same can be said for those sources originating among Germanic states or kingdoms, or rather, those that were under Germanic political control at the time their teachings were recorded.

So again, as a modern American, from a country that did not have a 'Middle Ages" or experience "the Renaissance," I'm fascinated with European history from those times. (And I don't really relate to my European colleagues who seem insistent upon limiting themselves to focus on source works produced within their own country —what they see as their "ancestors.") Though, I will confess that more than once I have put it to some American obsessed with being a modern Western samurai, "So... you really revere this discipline from a social and religious structure that essentially said, 'honor your ancestors' ...hmm... wonder what your instructor thinks of your  doing that?" The point being, no culture is immune from its particular history of prejudices and bigotry and we shouldn't pretend otherwise. Besides, the martial arts of Asia are much more than just those of the "Orient" but includes ones from the larger Pacific rim, the Indian subcontinent, Persia, and elsewhere.

Now, it's absolutely understandable if someone says that because of their family background, or even lineage, they feel a direct cultural connection for the personal combat disciplines of their own nation or distant relations. Hence, someone in Japan would naturally be more inclined to study traditional Japanese styles, or someone in the Philippines would be regularly exposed to Filipino arts, and so on. But here's where I will make an observation: you don't have to be Russian to dance well in a Tchaikovsky ballet, or be English to perform admirably in a production of Shakespeare's Hamlet, or be Italian to make great pizza. You don't have to be a native of India to enjoy an excellent curry, be Swiss to build a fine watch, or descended from samurai to practice jujitsu superbly. You might be able to better read directions for performing a samba if you know Portuguese like your grandparents, but that doesn't mean you can dance it better. None of this kind of information is held genetically, none of this kind of knowledge and wisdom is dependent upon our family tree and indeed, none of these activities favors a particular genotype. Further, most often little to none of the skills and talents involved is cultural, let alone any longer exclusive to one community, clan, neighborhood, household, or whatever. While there is no disputing that the origin of certain fighting styles could favor indigenous physiques and temperaments, benefit from its original milieu, or be aided by the footwear and garments once worn by those inhabitants who developed it, this is much less true today. Bottom line is, neither race nor national identity plays a part in how we learn and what we achieve in any combat discipline. What matters is individual effort and attitude.

In many cultures, the primal idea of a connection between ethnicity and virtue was expressed by the term "blood" —as in, bad blood, impure blood, mixed blood, half blood, family blood, etc. Today, this is anachronistic, to put it mildly. We've replaced it with debates over nature and nurture. While it's perfectly true to point out that a particular fighting style may contain techniques or elements better fitting the overall physical build of its native fighting population, the diversity of human physical form is such that one can find matching body types among different peoples around the globe. That some methods of fighting or some arms and armor developed more in isolation than did others, also renders any indigenous advantage assertion irrelevant today. Not to mention that our global culture, combined with the ease of international travel, allows people to readily share in even the most obscure and secretive fighting methods from antiquity with ease.

This is why I love the Master Joachim Meyer's statement in 1570 on the necessity of knowing how every man fights, because even though we all move differently and all think differently, everyone must attest that all fighting comes from a common basis. So true. Yet, I will confess that I get a tremendous enjoyment out of crushing people's misconceptions about Medieval and Renaissance combat skills. I immensely enjoy educating people out of their ignorance about the craft that is my life's work, especially when they have thought themselves wise about all matters "martial art." Too long the definition of the term has been entirely synonymous with meaning popular Asian fighting styles, and I am more than happy to have played a large part in changing that. But when I do inform people, I do it out of the love of history and heritage I hold as a scholar and practitioner.

I will share an anecdote: I once had a conversation over breakfast with a respected modern Japanese samurai. His being both a well-traveled veteran martial artist of a noted tradition as well as a senior citizen, I was curious to put a question to him. I premised my question with the statement that: given how —in terms of arms and armor and military methods— the samurai of the year 1250 were not identical to the samurai of the year 1450, who were certainly not the same as the samurai of 1650, let alone those of 1850 or 2015, what exactly then, I asked, was the 'fighting tradition' he was practicing and preserving? The response I received through his interpreter was remarkably reassuring. He told me that it was "none of them and all of them." His answer was exactly the response I had wanted but hardly expected to hear, for I have long held the very same view towards the pursuit of my Art. I also believe in the modern world this is true for study of all of the world's martial arts "traditions."

To use an analogy: My wife is proud to share her grandmother's delicious recipe for Cajun chicken stew knowing full well that those who attempt it will never match the delightful subtlety of flavors that she grew up with. This doesn't stop her from offering others the opportunity to at least attempt to enjoy some version reminiscent of what she so fondly remembers from her youth. That with every occasion she makes the dish, she herself knows that although her own version is not exactly identical, it is less important than using the same ingredients and following the right steps to produce and share something both comforting and delicious. Traditional martial arts study is much the same. We are not those who once developed and employed these methods out of necessity. In most cases we are far removed from them and the environments in which they existed. Like the samurai master above, we are all modernists even as we try to hold connection with the past; whether or not it is our direct ancestry isn't the point.

If we refer to German martial arts or English martial arts, or to Swiss or Spanish, to Norse or Hungarian, there's no issue involved any more than there is to point out that Japanese martial arts were conceived and practiced by natives of Japan. It's no more relevant than to note that Thai food was originally created and eaten by Thais or French cuisine by the French. Were there times when particular Asian martial arts traditions were not taught to "outsiders" from other lands? Absolutely. There hasn't been a culture on Earth that hasn't been guilty of its own form of ethnocentrism at one time or another. But I don't see anybody holding a grudge about it. As Bruce Lee himself showed, if you value a tradition or part of a heritage as worthwhile, then share it proudly with whoever will learn. Does it matter anymore if you are "1/16th" this or zero-percent "that"?

I've had some experience in this matter myself in my dealings with the World Martial Arts Union (WoMAU) as the official representative for Renaissance martial arts —albeit seated as the delegate from Poland. How did I as an American citizen with minimal Slavic ancestry come to represent the country of Poland as being singled out for a diverse international craft that at the time was pan-European and even now is still being reconstructed in efforts around the globe? The answer has to do with the fact that the organization is associated with the United Nations as an official body of UNESCO and every and all activities therein are by default seen through the prism of the modern nation state. Since there are such things as Chinese martial arts, Korean martial arts, Malaysian martial arts, Indonesian, etc., etc., then any other fighting style must also be directly associated with a nation state and its national ethnic body. Obviously this is not the case, especially with a revived and reconstructed art from centuries past with zero surviving pedagogic lineage. This assumption wrongly ignores centuries of demographic, cultural, social, and political change, not to mention other assorted upheavals and the evolution of military technology.

The WoMAU wanted to recognize the legitimacy of Renaissance martial arts study and include it, but their organizational structure required every representative to be affiliated with a nation state. Poland was not yet represented in the Union, and, as it was, I had study groups in there. That Poland was not a major participant in the historic changes occurring during the Renaissance era is arguable, but what is not deniable is its connection with and great contributions to combat skills from the Middle Ages and continuing well into the 17th century. (Besides, it's not like the Union could select people from every EU nation from out dozens of fledgling HEMA groups to represent every major historical source style now being studied. Better to get an individual already experienced in teaching internationally who can represent the subject both physically and scholastically at a high level while also possessing deep knowledgeable of other martial traditions.)

But the point is that there was a real prejudice in the misguided (though well-intentioned) assumption by the Union's founders that every martial art tradition comes to exist only within individual nation states or is limited to one ethnic grouping. It's taken considerable effort on my part to communicate to my fellow delegates the fact that historically, the martial arts of Renaissance Europe, though regional, were largely transnational. It's current study and recovery transcends any one country, nation, ethnic body, or organization.

The pleasant irony to all this is of course that the supposedly traditional Asian martial arts are themselves the beneficiaries of the spread of a global culture that has given them such international recognition and popularity over the past six decades or so. It was only modern international trade, travel, and communication that brought about such an exchange. Even more so, there are many delegates in the WoMAU from European and Middle Eastern countries who represent specific Asian martial art styles that were only introduced to their countries in the mid 20th century. In that regard, they can hardly be called the "traditional" fighting art of those nations, let alone be considered in any way indigenous (though they do reflect modern aspects of their parent styles). By contrast, unlike Renaissance martial arts study, the various member styles of the WoMAU also enjoy official state sanction and government subsidy on behalf of their country of origin. Their fighting styles are considered to embody intangible cultural heritage of their nations —regardless of what minority portion in their society actually studied them in the past.

Regardless of all this, what the Union delegates of different styles and nations share in common is a sincere love and respect for martial arts in all its diversity, and the goal of educating how it is an important part of the humanities. We all come together in celebrating both the distinctions and similarities among the world's martial cultures and the mutual challenge faced by preserving traditions in the modern world. I never heard anyone ever express that their martial art was black or brown or yellow or “non-white”. Same goes for anyone ever saying their fighting style was Taoist or Islamic or Buddhist or Christian (indeed, it would be inappropriate). Though the delegates have their own private and public curricula, and in many cases their individual style is hardly the only art from the country they represent, they nonetheless stand in for all of them.

In this regard, one has to admire a South Korean program that offers free scholarships to youths from around the world to come study Korean martial arts without promotion of any ethnic, ideological, or cultural agenda other than the benefits of fitness and discipline. They are sharing their martial culture with pride, charity, and good will.

It's actually a curious phenomenon: that the rise of global pop culture, mixed martial art sports, and eclectic fighting styles has caused traditionalists to band together and share what was once exclusive and private, all in the understanding that representation is stronger when done as a group. In doing so, in celebrating and promoting, we've come to see things as less about specific "ancestry" than it is about our general forebears of different cultures being members of a human species. (Interestingly enough, this is something I've always taken as tacit acknowledgment that true diversity is only intellectual and cultural). Our "forebears are literally those who came before us and by that regard we share a common human heritage."

Ultimately, recognition of the universal elements of martial arts practice among peoples around the world teaches an appreciation for both our differences and commonalities that serves to remind us of our shared humanity. It's absolutely right to feel a certain sense of pride when you feel some type of cultural or ancestral connection to some positive achievement and accomplishment that contributed to human civilization. But those feelings should not arise merely because you see some familial or ethnic lines at work, but only because you personally share the very values and virtues of those contributions. The difficulty in this comes when doing so requires us to weigh the historical context for admiration against our own modern perspectives of what we consider values.

One of my students in Asia once said they were asked by someone in their country why they were studying a Western martial art rather than a native one and he told me that without a moment's hesitation he replied, "Why not? They study ours." He added that no one should try to make him feel he had to defend his preference any more than he had to defend that he was interested in Western movies, music, novels, or food. He's absolutely right. There is an absurd assertion sometimes pushed by radicals that anytime you celebrate or enjoy aspects of another ethnic culture you're somehow doing so without "permission" when what you are really doing is recognizing and sharing in it as something of value for everyone.

Renaissance masters and schools of defence did discriminate in who they taught fighting skills to —and rightly so. But they did it based upon whether a person was of poor character, questionable virtue, or criminal inclination —which is something every reputable combat art does. As a historian and a teacher I don't see it as my job to do anything other than present the original martial material accurately as much as is possible, and do so with regard to its original physical and mental context. In this case, I believe that means without regard to anything except for its principles, concepts, and ethics of self-defense. The sources for Renaissance martial arts teachings do not refer to themselves and their Art "racially" and thus neither will I. Those who have a need to do differently are not going to find a sympathetic place in our fellowship.

It's said that heritage is a matter of descent, really. We're all every one of us descended from some people from somewhere. Go back far enough and we're all interrelated. Go back only a short while and it hardly matters. I sympathize with the sentiment that there is a certain "unspoken rule that only non-Occidentals be allowed to express any 'civilizational consciousness'." At some point this is going to have to be acknowledged, one way or anotherBut it is shared values and the virtues of shared ideas that binds us beyond kin. 

I have long been proud that our club, the ARMA, was the first, and still one of the few, to affirm for its members a specific Credo of Renaissance martial arts studies: Respect for History and Heritage, Sincerity of Effort, Integrity of Scholarship, Appreciation of Martial Spirit, and Cultivation of Self-Discipline. Note that first phrase includes the word "heritage" —which is about the thing that we as moderns inherited from the past. It is not referring to something that was kept within a family, a tribe, a clan, nation, state, or a "race." It is about educating ourselves in the inheritance of history, of lessons about who and what came before us regardless of who we ourselves are or where we came from. Ancestry is not necessarily your heritage, and your heritage need not be ancestral.

All the world’s martial arts represent parts of our shared global history. So, celebrate and respect your heritage whenever and wherever you find virtue in it, but let others do the same with it as well. Heritage is as global as it is personal.


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