Traditional vs Non Traditional Martial Arts

There is a long standing debate between different factions as to which is superior, traditional styles or non-traditional styles, in martial effectiveness. Honestly, I think it is a silly debate. There is no such thing as a traditional “style”.

Traditional is a reference to method not curriculum.  Any martial art can be traditional or non-traditional based solely on the method it is taught.

Let me illustrate this by looking at several systems that bear these labels.  Many people might say that Xing Yi is a traditional style because is “old” and boxing is “new”.  Likewise they would say that Karate, Taekwondo, Aikido and Judo are also traditional, while wrestling is non-traditional.  This is ridiculous because Taekwondo didn’t exist till 1955, Aikido was formed between 1920-1930’s, Karate in the late 1800’s; while boxing was around in the mid 1700’s and wrestling existed even further back than that.  So clearly age isn’t a qualification of “traditional” status.  The correct terms to describe this would be “modern” vs “ancient”

So, then others might want to qualify an art as “traditional” based on its deviation from its original methods and curriculum.  This is also ridiculous because in order for any martial art to retain its effectiveness throughout history it has to change its emphasis in response to the changing methods of attack and defense.  Change is one of the, if not the most, basic concepts of martial art.  My art, which is considered by all to be traditional, has undergone many changes throughout the centuries to become what it is today.  This is how an art is born.  It starts with a single idea, and grows into a robust and comprehensive system as it encounters new stimuli that it has to deal with.  Also, if you look at boxing and wrestling, they haven’t changed all that much since their inception and would still be considered traditional by this standard.  The correct terms to describe this would be “original” vs “developed”.

Still others would classify an art as “traditional” if they wear sashes/belts and fancy uniforms.  Well, lets see… Tai Ji doesn’t wear belts and all styles of kung fu accept their uniform as official, but it is just a mandarin suit — regular street clothing of the day.  Boxing’s uniform is a pair of shorts, has been for a long time.  That doesn’t work either.

So, how do you classify an art as traditional?  Is it the presence of forms?  Nope, because (to my knowledge) Aikido and Judo don’t have them.  Let’s start by defining the term “traditional”

  1. Existing in or as part of a tradition; long-established.
  2. Produced, done, or used in accordance with tradition.

So I propose that a traditional art is any art that is characterized by the adherence and/or respect for traditions past from one generation to another.

I think that if you consider this definition, you realize that it is the method of instruction and attitude of the practitioner that defines an art as traditional and that may change from one art to another.

So, please, let’s dispense with unnecessary labels that distract us from the important things and lets instead keep seeking higher development in whatever art that you happen to love.

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About Shifu Read

Primary instructor,
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One Response to Traditional vs Non Traditional Martial Arts

  1. Tony Franklin says:

    My friend, I believe you hit it square on the noggin!
    I think it is man’s nature to be devisive and say things like, “Ours is better than yours!”
    I see the same thing in religious denominations… the Church, the body of Christ, should be unified. Yet we see a multitude of denominations saying, “We have it right and you others are wrong.” Find the common ground and share insights. Same with martial arts. Labels… bah! Rather, does it work? Yes? Cool!

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