ARMA Editorial
The Process of Learning Lost Martial Arts

By Mike Cartier
ARMA South Florida

We had an interesting discussion in one of our Study Group sessions concerning the relevance of the historical source manuals to the learning of martial arts and most particularly in the pursuit of historical armed combat.

Both a student friend and I, each long time martial arts practitioners, have had personal experience trying to recreate from a manual or book a certain art or element of an Eastern art and then checking what was applied against the actual teachings from a certified instructor. We both found that we were woefully off the mark, there is always a myriad of small detail that's lost --and this was after studying literature that was quite extensive and fairly precise that we were rather familiar already.

We fell upon the view that it is must be entirely impossible to really learn a martial art from only a manual or book. The transmission of the knowledge just cannot be given properly in any written [or illustrated] form. Imagine the effect this would have if we were hundreds of years removed from the reality [combat necessity] of the art and its teachings and these books were not even trying to truly transmit their entire art in written form? This in fact is the case with most of our Renaissance martial arts manuals.

Considering the "unwillingness" of the old texts to really give over all the system in their work, any argument about who's interpretation is more historical or not is really rather mute, since the answer would have to be none. Everyone now training has to take some sort of license with their interpretation in order to achieve actual workability of the material being studied, otherwise they will not even come close to learning and understanding it.

Applying in our practice the knowledge we acquire is the only way to truly test the knowledge, and we have to interpret the given sources in order to apply it. So, really the notion of just studying one system or manual until you master it is off the mark, because you cannot get any one particular system from a manual without taking liberties of interpretation with it (interpretations which have to be based on something). In the process, we therefore end up making whatever we study not the system, but instead our idea of the system. Even though we may put together many techniques, that does not a true historical system make. Doing this of course does make any issue of who is being more historically accurate in their study or any source kind of pointless.

There are deep underlying theories and concepts to any martial art, and while there are systematic teachings within the historical source texts we study, in my opinion there is not a true "system" in any manual I have seen, merely described bits and pieces of a system. We are left to fill in the blanks ourselves as best we can following our own interpretations and reconstructions. No matter what happens, in a very real sense, we end up recreating our version of that system and, ultimately, not recreating the actual extinct system. Perhaps then the best we can do is reproduce workable aspects of the fighting arts, that we actualize through training and practice, then develop into our interpretation of the system. What we have created is our interpretation of that our understanding of that art-which is perfectly valid, but then no one can claim ultimate historical accuracy or purity. The best we can do is construct modern interpretations.

Also when we consider the living martial arts traditions that we can test, (Japanese, Filipino, Chinese, Western fencing, etc.) we can see the watering down of the martial/military aspects as they undergo the civilizing and civilianizing transformation of time. If a lot of these arts cannot emulate the martial past of their own respective methods, even with maintained lineages, how can we imagine that we can recreate the battlefield arts of our ancestors without surviving schools and under conditions where we are not applying it in anywhere close to the same manner as they were? Every martial art adapts to its application, that's why some styles train so much harder than others: they are trying to make up for the fact they cannot apply the art in its true application with out causing injury.

Even today when people spend half of their lives studying in an extant traditional martial art system they will interpret the material slightly different from another instructor. If now, we could be so close to existing systems and still miss the mark in our interpretations imagine what's happening over a time span of hundreds of years of separation from extinct arts and their real combat application. Who are we to imagine we have recreated the actual art? The historical source manuals are only part of the puzzle to be solved. Even in the days when these manuals were written there were respected instructors with conflicting theories who would likely have challenged the teachings in some of these texts, and surely would critique severely our current interpretations of them.

Yet, we do have a special advantage over the fighting methods of old: as part of our learning process we have the ability to stand back and look carefully at many of their teachings from a wide scope-geographically, chronologically, technically and culturally. This aids us in filling in those blanks we have to rediscover.


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