Saturday, 18 July 2015

The steady westernisation of Asian combat arts

An old friend of mine will be fighting in an octagon tomorrow, in a mixed martial arts match against someone with whom he shares a mutual hatred.  I've just found out that another old friend is currently in a medically induced coma, because he developed a brain haemorrhage whilst training in a gym.  The two things are connected by the way our culture practically worships the ability of one human being to dominate another by physical force.

I remember seeing an argument, on one of the many comment threads I see online, about whether Brazilian jiu jitsu or Japanese jujutsu is superior.  I'll leave aside the reasons for this kind of comparison being futile.  What interested me was that one participant considered Brazilian jiu jitsu to be inferior to "good old, dump 'em on their head, British jujitsu."  My initial thought was that the jujitsu which has been practised for over one hundred years in the UK is essentially Japanese, but I almost immediately changed my mind about that.

I've always said that a combat art, or any cultural import, will be shaped according to the environment in which it finds itself.  Boxing, for example, was originally a sporting competition with very little in the way of rules.  Headlocks (referred to as "head in chancery"), kicks, throws and grappling were all allowed.  We know this because accounts of some of these bouts still exist.  The Marquess of Queensbury rules removed these from the modern sport, and added boxing gloves.  Interestingly, the addition of gloves enabled fighters to hit harder without damaging their hands, and deaths in the ring increased accordingly.

The point is that we seem to have a history of associating combat methods with sporting competition, and there being a winner and a loser.  There is no philosophical pondering, no agreed code of conduct: there is only a winner and a loser.  Whether they were originally steeped in the principles of Zen, Taoism, Confucianism or other philosophies that are not native to the UK, imported Asian martial arts eventually lose that context and become "westernised".

Cage fighting contests are, perhaps, the most visible example of the westernisation of combat sports.  Muay Thai is one of the most widely used arts which make up the striking component of MMA, but the tradition of Ram Muay (a dance used to show respect for one's trainer) is rarely seen.  Brazilian jiu jitsu is often used for the grappling component, and is derived from Japanese judo, but I have yet to witness the fighters showing respect by bowing to each other.  The rather modern tradition of trash talk is the antithesis of the traditions surrounding many martial arts.

Even in competitions featuring traditional martial arts, I see those who win their categories lifting trophies and raising an index finger to reinforce the point that they are number one.  Are those who fought bravely, but did not win a trophy, being shown their due respect?  When I see such behaviour, I can't help thinking that, on their way to winning a prize which has little real meaning, these fighters have lost something far more important.

I have no wish to hurt another person, just to win a trophy or prize.  I can't condemn those who do but, to me, it's something which is ethically suspect.  The behaviour of the crowds watching these spectacles is even more worrying for me.  They actually want to see one human being beat another to a pulp, and shout loudly that one should hit the other even harder.  The spilling of blood prompts cheering, and the brutal destruction of a fighter becomes a cause for celebration.

Maybe I have picked up more of the philosophy and less of the fighting content of the Asian combat arts.  I believe that there is no victory in hurting, possibly causing permanent damage to, another human being.

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