05 November 2015

Some Thoughts on Martial Arts and Body Culture

An interest of mine is “Body Culture” (German: "Körperkultur"); basically, the study of cultural ways of moving. Here in Korea where I live, I can often very easily recognize a non-Korean from afar or from the back simply by the way they walk. I can also often accurately recognize Koreans that grew up abroad or lived abroad for a long time. Body movement is “regional” and can be acquired like an accent. Something I am slowly researching is how cultural ways of moving affect martial arts. I've already written a bit about it with regards to the “sine wave movement” on this blog and am currently working on a book about the topic (but it will still be a while before it's finished as I'm focusing on my PhD at present). For this short post, I want to show a small example of the relationship between a culture and their way of moving in the martial arts. The indigenous religion of Japan is Shinto.

Although Shinto does not have specific moral “doctrines,” it has a type of moral aesthetic. To quote Shinto priest Motohisa Yamakage: “Shinto conceives of good and evil in aesthetic terms, likening them to straight and curved lines. To the Japanese sensibility, a straight line is inherently beautiful. It need not be rigidly straight, but its emphasis should be forward and positive, signifying organic growth, clarity, and honesty” (The Essence of Shinto: Japan's Spiritual Heart, 2012:44, 45). There is an assumption people have about Karate—that Karate's linear movements developed for practical purposes based on the idea that the shortest distance between two points is a straight line. What if Karate movements evolved to look the way they do not primarily because of their practicality, but because the cultural “sensibility” is that straight lines are “good,” while curved lines are “evil”? One can see something of this in the difference between Karate as it is practiced in mainland Japan where Shintoism is particularly emphasized, as opposed to on Okinawa.

I propose that while this might be a weird concept to accept for people unfamiliar with body culture, it becomes less strange once you start to look at the dances cultures. I have asserted before that there is a connection between Korean folk dance, Taekkyeon and ITF Taekwon-Do. They all share a particular Korean three-beat rhythm and a peculiar “bounciness”, or what is known in Korean folk dance as “verticality”. When one looks at Japanese performing arts and dances, one can also see similarities with Karate. Neither is it surprising that Chinese martial arts and Chinese performing arts (Chinese opera) greatly overlap.

The idea that in the traditional martial arts we move in certain ways, that kata or patterns are performed in particular ways, strictly based on efficiency or practicality of technique is an assumption. I'm not denying that practical considerations are indeed part of the way the martial arts move, but one cannot deny the influence of a cultural context of the martial arts—of body culture. There are reasons all the martial arts around the world do not look and move the exact same way. If it was all about the most “effective” technique, then there should have been much more uniformity. The cultural context has a big influence on the body culture, and in turn on the martial arts that developed in those cultures. Body culture may be influenced by such obscure things as an aesthetic appreciation of straight lines over curved lines, or the cultural folk rhythms, and many other variables.

What does this mean for martial artists? For one, there is a difference between a martial art which is embedded with a cultural heritage as opposed to a pure (if such a thing exists) combative system. The next time you practise Taekwon-Do, or Shotokan Karate, or Whin Chun, or Capoeira, or Savate, to name just these few martial arts as examples, know that you are not simply learning fighting techniques, you are also learning a particular cultural way of moving your body—you are in fact learning a body culture.

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