05 January 2022

What is a Postmodern Martial Art?

In an essay I posted on the Soo Shim Kwan-blog in December 2020 I mentioned as a footnote the idea of postmodern martial arts. In the middle of 2021, while on a martial arts podcast about that post, the interviewer asked me about that postmodern martial arts comment. My answer on the podcast was rather sparce because to answer such a question would really require at least a cursory exposition of what Postmodernism is and only then can one attempt to define what a postmodern martial art would look like. Since our time on the interview was already coming to an end, I kept my response brief. However, the postmodern topic again passed by my radar recently when in two of my university classes this past semester I spent a few units on Postmodernism. This made me think about postmodern martial arts again, so I decided now might be a good time to ponder the topic once more—here in writing.  

What is a Postmodern Martial Art?

 by Dr. Sanko Lewis 


Image Source 
Different modernist worldviews
promised utopias, but delivered
dystopian regimes.

Let me begin with a brief—and very simplified—introduction to Postmodernism. Postmodernism is a Zeitgeist (“spirit of the time”). Zeitgeists are basically a ‘paradigm’ or ‘worldview’ and is detectible in the many ways that it manifests in society, culture, art, and even technology. The postmodern Zeitgeist emerged around the 1960’s out of an earlier Zeitgeist, known as Modernism. The “post-” prefix in
Post-modernism does not mean that it appeared after the end of Modernism, but merely that it emerged after the start of Modernism. Aspects of Modernism is still very much active today; nevertheless, Postmodernism has become hugely prevalent in many aspects of society at large. Without going into too much of the history of these Zeitgeists, let’s suffice to say that Modernism promised Utopias but delivered the world wars and the exploitation of natural resources. Against this background of the Holocaust and Hiroshima, a cynicism and scepticism emerged which is at the core of Postmodernism. Put simply, Postmodernism rose in reaction to the ideals and values of Modernism.

Some important postmodern themes are:

  • the questioning and doubting of Grand Narratives,
  • the breaking-down or crossing of boundaries and borders,
  • decentralization and discontinuity,
  • and recycling and repurposing.

These themes manifest in many ways. I will discuss the themes and some of their manifestations as they relate to martial arts.


Premodern and Modern Martial Arts

However, before we do so, it is important to make a quick distinction between premodern and modern martial arts.

Zhang Sanfeng observing
a fight between a snake
and a bird.

Premodern martial arts are those martial arts that is thought to have developed in “ancient times” and adhere to a premodern worldview; for instance, the believe in an animistic force (such as qi), esoteric tribal (i.e., in-group) knowledge, and techniques inspired by phenomena in the natural world, such as natural cycles and animal behaviour. It is often believed that the martial art and its “secrets” have been handed down in a lineage from master to disciple over hundreds of years and numerous generations. An example of a “traditional” martial art might be Taiji Ch’uan, which adhere to the theory of qi-power, the natural cycles of yin and yang, and the folklore of the Taoist monk Zhang Sanfeng who witnessed a fight between a snake and a crane.  

On the other hand, modern martial arts are based primarily on a modern scientific understanding of motion (Newtonian physics) and the human body (physiology and biomechanics). Techniques are sourced from what “works” (although this is questionable), rather than handed-down secrets. That does not mean that modern martial arts are not transmitted from one generation to the next, but the relationship is one of coach and athlete, rather than traditional master and disciple. Although ITF Taekwon-Do occasionally regresses to premodern customs, as a whole, ITF Taekwon-Do is a modern martial art that was deliberately modernized by its founder. There are no secrets only available to the insiders; credibility through lineages has been replaced by certificates from an international governing body; magic energy made way for Newtonian physics, and poetic animalistic moves became standardized biomechanical techniques.  

Both traditional martial arts and modern martial arts place their faith in their chosen Grand Narratives. The term “Grand Narrative” refers to a “big story”, i.e., a standard explanation, for how things work. The Grand Narrative in premodern martial arts is the lineage and the inherited tribal wisdom and associated philosopy. The ancestral line is the centre of the system and what legitimizes the practitioner’s knowledge and skill. In the case of modern martial arts, the Grand Narrative is often some form of technical manifesto which is legitimized by a governing body. For example, ITF Taekwon-Do has a technical manifesto known as the “Theory of Power” and the related canonical technical explanations which provides a “scientific model” for the system. This is in turn interpreted and supposedly updated by the Technical Committee of the ITF (whether at a local governing body or international governing body level). In theory the Technical Committee is (or ought to be) populated by people that are highly experienced in the system and have relevant qualifications in, for example, physical education, sport science, biomechanics, physiology, physics, etc.

Both premodern and modern martial arts are structured within boundaries. Premodern martial arts function as intangible cultural artifacts—like traditional dances. The cultural context, such as an ethnicity, tribe, village, or family is its boundary; it is what separates it from another martial art systems. For instance, Taiji Ch’uan is a Chinese martial art that can be differentiate into five (literal) family styles: Chen Family Style (i.e., the version of Taiji Ch’uan developed by the Chen family of the Chen Village in Henan province); Yang Style; Wi Style; Sun Style; and Hao Style. Modern martial arts often define their boundary by their specialization, such as being a striking art or a grappling art, a combat sport or military close combat system, and so on. Modern martial arts seldom claim to be “everything.” Both Judo and Boxing are sports, but clearly within their own spheres: the one would not claim to be a striking system nor would the other claim to be grappling system. Although Taekwon-Do may have some throws and ground techniques, it is ultimately a striking art. Similarly, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu may have some techniques from a standing position, but it is on the ground where it comes into its own.


Postmodern Martial Arts

With the preceding context we are ready to dive into the notion of postmodern martial arts. I will propose three examples of postmodern martial arts: Hapkido, Jeet Kune Do, and what has become known as mixed martial arts. And I will discuss each of these in relation to the postmodern themes that I outlined earlier.



Hapkido is a modern martial art in the sense that it is one of the “modern” systems that developed in the early 20th century out of a premodern heritage.

Choi Yong Sul, the "founder" of Hapkido

During the Japanese occupation of Korea, a young boy named Choi Yong Sul was taken to Japan. There he became a house servant to Takeda Sōdaku, the founder of Daitō-ryū AIki-jūjutsu. At the end of the occupation, Choi returned to Korea and started teaching what he called, among other names, “Yusul” (the Korean rendition of “jujutsu”). As the system evolved, so did its name, and eventually the name “Hapkido” became most popular. While originally based on a Japanese system, Hapkido has evolved dramatically. From early on, techniques that are foreign to the original Daitō-ryū AIki-jūjutsu, such as an extended arsenal of kicks-and-striking techniques, were incorporated from various local (Korean) and foreign martial arts. Hapkido also developed numerous weapon systems influenced from local and foreign, such as Chinese and Japanese, systems. Hapkido is a discontinuous martial art—a bricolage of techniques repurposed from various systems; i.e., “crossing of boundaries and borders”. Additionally, Hapkido still adhere to aspects of premodern martial arts, such as the concept of qi (known as “gi” in Korean) that features centrally in Hapkido’s technical philosophy and practice. Yet it is also acts like a modern martial art—claiming to be a self-defence system based on a technical manifesto of Newtonian physics and biomechanical principles.

Image Source

At first, Hapkido adhered to a strong lineage starting with Choi Yong Sul, but by implication connected to Takeda Sōdaku and his Japanese system. However, Hapkido quickly reimagined itself as a Korean system, and incorporated not only Korean techniques but also Korean philosophical concepts. The lineage with Choi Yong Sul is still acknowledged but as of today there are over 60 governing bodies in South Korea alone, making it very much a fragmented system. It is not a surprise, then, that the technical syllabi are practically unique from school to school, with little standardization worldwide.

Most Hapkido schools present themselves in the way of premodern martial arts with a long lineage, a particular ethno- and cultural quality (i.e., Korean), a master-disciple pedagogy, and even qi-cultivation techniques. However, these elements are questionable, and may rather be understood from the postmodern theme of “recycling and repurposing.” It is difficult to say to what degree Hapkido is Japanese, rather than Korean, not to mention the incorporation of techniques from other systems such, for example, Sambo (Russian wrestling) and various Chinese styles. The master-disciple pedagogy of tribes and villages is not how Hapkido is taught today—rather, Hapkido schools are mostly often businesses and the students are clients. And it is not quite clear how many instructors actually believe that qi is essential to Hapkido techniques. In many Hapkido schools the idea of qi and even qi exercises such as abdominal breathing exercises, often performed at the beginning or end of a class, seem more to be an addendum than truly part of the system. Techniques are better explained through physics, biomechanics, and physiology rather than Taoist principles.


Jeet Kune Do

Jeet Kune Do is the martial philosophy of Bruce Lee.

Apart from martial arts, Bruce Lee 
was also a cha cha dance champion.
Image Source

Lee’s family was involved in Cantonese opera, which includes various disciplines ranging from acting to singing to martial arts. Hence, Lee was exposed to these performing arts and even performed in some rolls as a child. While in school, Lee learned boxing and as a teenager he started learning Wing Chung Kung Fu under a grandmaster of the style Yip Man, who claimed to be part of the direct lineage to the Yim Wing-chun after whom the style was named. Lee also added the Cuban dance cha-cha-cha to his extracurricular activities. Lee relocated to the United States where he started to teach martial arts—basically his version of Wing Chun, but here Lee would be exposed to various other martial arts. For instance, Lee learned Taekwon-Do kicks from Grandmaster Jhoon Rhee (father of Taekwon-Do in the USA).

In 1964 Lee had a fight with a Chinese martial artist, Wong Jack-man, in Oakland, California. According to Lee the reason for the dual was because he was teaching martial arts to “outsiders” (i.e., Americans), which was not allowed by the Chinese community. Although Lee claimed to have won the fight, he was disappointed with his performance and concluded that his traditional martial art skillset was too formalized and, hence, limiting. This led to a journey of abandoning tradition for what he called a “style of no style.” His goal was not to create yet another system of fixed techniques, but rather a “philosophy” that embraced the idea of “using no way as way”; i.e., not being limited to any particular martial system but rather incorporating whatever works from any system, based around a number of technical and strategic principles such as efficacy and interception.

Bruce Lee learned Taekwon-Do kicks from Jhoon Rhee

This exemplifies the postmodern questioning of Grand Narratives. Lee questioned both tradition and lineage (“discontinuity”) and started to research and incorporate other martial arts into his system, including those of European origin such as European fencing and savate (a French martial art). Thus, Lee manifested another postmodern theme: “the breaking-down or crossing of boundaries and borders,” which he was also doing, according to his account, by not only learning from other cultural systems but also teaching “outsiders”. Sourcing from different martial arts also exemplifies the postmodern theme of “recycling and repurposing.” Bruce Lee was clearly a postmodernist, and his methodology was one of deconstruction. Lee named his approach Jeet Kune Do.

Today, many people who practise “Jeet Kune Do” are not doing it as a postmodern philosophy. Rather, they have reverted to premodern martial arts notions of lineage and other fixed training methodologies. Nevertheless, there are still people who follows Lee’s postmodern “way of no way”.


Mixed Martial Arts (aka Hybrid Martial Arts)

As the name suggest, mixed martial arts are literally the result of sourcing skills from different martial arts to form a hybrid or eclectic system. In other words, it is the individualized practice of mixing techniques together, often to create a personalized “rounded” skillset that can defend at different spheres of engagement: striking, clinch, and ground. One might combine Boxing, Taekwondo, and Judo; or Muay Thai and Brazilian Jiujitsu; or any other combination.

Image Source

This mixing of styles from different systems and even different cultures is a manifestation of the “crossing of boundaries” theme in Postmodernism. Furthermore, as there is no respect for an actual ancestral lineage nor a true governing body, mixed martial arts is essentially decentralized. Practitioners can jump from one school or system to another at whim as soon as they have “collected” a skill or technique that they wish to add to their skillset collage. Mixed martial arts training is discontinuous in nature—this doesn’t mean that the practitioner is not continually training, but simply that they are not necessarily loyal to a continuous lineage as is the case with premodern martial arts or the dedicated specialization in modern martial arts. There is a scepticism in mixed martial arts that questions the validity of traditional (i.e., premodern) martial arts as well as the myopic focus of the modern martial arts, but when valuable techniques or skills are identified, they are dislodged from their original context and repurposed to the new non-traditional context.

A sport known as “Mixed Martial Arts” (MMA), epitomized by the UFC (Ultimate Fighting Championship), has emerged. This sport is in many ways similar to modern martial art combat sports—it is nevertheless postmodern in its mixing of a serious sport with the pomp and pageantry of the entertainment industry.


Embracing a Positive Postmodernism

I’m certain, that many martial artists would feel offended if I were to say that their practise is postmodern or even that they could benefit from being more postmodern in their training. For many people, Postmodernism has become a swear word, often associated with Relativism and Nihilism; hence they associate anything “postmodern” with meaninglessness. Unfortunately, this is due to a common misunderstanding and inadequate understanding of Postmodernism. It is not the case that Postmodernism is anti-truth, as is often claimed. Postmodernism’s protest of Grand Narratives does not mean that there is no truth, but rather that reality is too multifaceted to be explained by a singular framework (i.e., one Grand Narrative).

The parable of "The Blind and the Elephant"
exemplifies the postmodern understanding of truth
that is approximated through different points-of-view.
Image Source

A postmodern pursuit of knowledge is one that allows for many points-of-view. In martial arts terms we may call it “cross-training.” It is the realization that there is no ultimate martial art, but rather that we can learn from many martial arts. And in fact, it is such an ability to view the world from different points of view that brings us closer to reality. As such, simple “cross-training” is not enough. For instance, mixed martial arts are postmodern in their cross-training, but they are often spiritually superficial, as they still tend to cling to singular goals, such as a modernist ideal of winning at all cost. Mixed martial artist could benefit from expanding their “cross-training” to other “spiritual” disciplines such as finding ways to include a “spiritual discipline” or “moral culture” or even meditation in their training so that they don’t just train how to fight, but also pursue becoming better human beings (goals often pursued  within premodern martial arts). It is here then where I want to connect this essay with the essay which I wrote just over a year ago on “Pre-Rational, Rational, Trans-RationalViews of Martial Arts”.

It is my conviction that there is value in becoming transmodern martial artists that incorporate the best of both premodern and modern martial arts paradigms and develop systems that are truly beneficial at various levels. I believe that one can do this within existing systems or individually within one’s personal martial arts journey. It requires, however, honesty, humility, and open-mindedness. Honesty to admit what doesn’t work within your system; humility to learn from other people and other sources; and open-mindedness to explore the unfamiliar.

I do make a distinction between simply a postmodern martial artist and a trans-modern martial artist. The former can easily become haphazardly fragmentary, without any over arching cohesion. Or, simply busy with deconstruction* without reconstruction. However, if the postmodern journey is a positive one, where the deconstruction is also generative, then it may be of the trans-modern sort: a creative journey of development that synergistically brings together principles and ideas across various styles and disciplines to create something deeper and richer.

*Deconstruction is a postmodern methodology for analyzing the underlining assumptions and contradictions within a system.

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