The Universalness of Martial Arts
-by Chuck Dervenis
Inside Karate, November 1986
(On the cover, the first appearance of Jean Claude Van Damme, with the caption: “Jean-Claude Van Damme: Will this new star outshine Chuck Norris and Bruce Lee?”)
"Is it coincidence that the boxing style of the ancient Greeks of 2,000 BC is strikingly similar to the kung-fu style of modern wing chun? Is it coincidence that the joint locks and throws of Japanese jujutsu may be found in many medieval European manuscripts written in the 1500s?"
Sweat running down his forehead in a salty river, the Spartan pancratiast struggled mightily with his opponent. The man, a Northern Greek, struck at his exposed ribs with an extended knuckle fist, but the Spartan faded back, diffusing the intended blow. Moving quickly, he seized the man's hand, blocking the next strike with his elbow. With a wrenching movement, and a quick shift of his body, the Spartan spun his opponent's hand around so that the man's thumb pointed down and elbow up. With a grin of triumph, the pancratiast applied crushing pressure to the side of his opponent's wrist, attacking the joint and driving the Northerner's face into the dust. He moved into a hold-down pin, the opponent halting his struggles, defeated.
Two thousand years later, in a country seven thousand miles away, a ninja would use the same technique to overpower and escape one of his sword wielding samurai opponents. The ninja had been taught the technique by his father, who had told him that the technique had been passed down through the ages and was called hon gyaku, main reversal.
Is it coincidence that the boxing style of the ancient Cretans of 2000 BC is strikingly similar to the kung-fu style of wing chun popularly taught today? Is it coincidence that the joint locks and throws of the prestigious Japanese jujutsu ryu may be found in many fading medieval European manuscripts written in the 1500s? The answer to these and any similar questions is an absurdly simple, "No, of course not." Human physiology is the same everywhere; I hope I do not sound too trite when I say that there is nothing new under the sun.
Anyone with more than a passing interest in the martial arts should take the time to research the martial worlds of ancient and medieval Europe, India and Northern Africa. Even a brief examination will yield a good amount of information. In today's age of Oriental masters and superhuman ninja depicted on the screen, it is hard for most people to visualize and concede that the ancient Romans, who managed to conquer a good portion of the world, probably did in fact know something about martial arts. A true martial artist, however, should rid himself of preconceptions and search throughout history, and in all cultures, for the answers to his questions. He should, in other words, adopt a universal attitude.
It never ceases to amaze me how much bigotism, egotism and down right "narrow mindedness" exists in the martial arts community today. One would expect better from a group of people who purportedly are in the process of pursuing enlightenment by means of mental and physical understanding and discipline. Several years ago I was discussing the evolution of Western swordsmanship with a fairly well known instructor of traditional Japanese martial arts. This person stunned me by stating that he frankly didn't care what was going on in Europe, whenever; that it could teach him nothing, and that what he had and would be taught contained all the martial knowledge he would ever need. What is amusing is that his instructor (one of the most well-known and popular martial artists today), while visiting this author in Greece, was delighted to see the many similarities in technique with his own style that the wall paintings and statues of the ancient Greeks depicted.
The cinema and popular fiction are constantly telling us of the superhuman bravery and technique of the Oriental masters, of the recorded feats of the samurai, of their dedication to their lords, and the many fierce battles fought by these warriors. Granted, these stories are noble and the men to be admired, But what about the men led by the Spartan King Leonidas at Thermopylae, who numbered only four thousand, yet stood successfully against three hundred thousand Persians? Can it be that they knew nothing of martial arts? Or what of the men of both faiths who died vainly in the Crusades? Were they also incompetent as warriors? Before going into specific comparisons of different systems, it is of interest to point out that there are two inherent types of body motion historically observed in the martial arts worldwide. One approach utilizes "hard," sharply-impacted movements and relies on muscle tension and the shifting of one's hips in a linear fashion for the delivery of a technique. The other is more flowing, uses the body in a relaxed and fluid manner, and depends on the momentum of this unified motion of the entire body for the generation of power. Generally, the newer martial arts use motion of the first type, while the older disciplines use motion of the second type, thought this may not always be the case. For example, karate, hard-style kung-fu and judo are all "type 1” disciplines, but so was ancient I Cretan boxing. Modern western boxing uses a primarily “type 1” motion, but there is much "type 2" movement visible in the sport as well. On the other hand, many disciplines considered "elite" or semi-mystical (such as aikido, bujinkan dojo ninjutsu and various internal kung-fu systems) use a “type 2" method of body motion. So did ancient Greek pankration and medieval North European grappling. To illustrate this argument, let us look at specific techniques from various time periods One of this author's favourite comparisons is between bujinkan dojo ninjutsu, a discipline at least 800 years old, and various classical and medieval European systems. A primary example is the technique called "hon gyaku" in ninjutsu that was described in the introduction of this article. This technique is found in most of the "joint-attacking" traditions of today, including various jujutsu ryu, Korean hapkido and Chinese chin na, It may also be seen depicted in a statue dating from 500 BC, on display at the National Museum in Olympia, Greece, birthplace of the Olympic Games. The statue shows a woman from the town of Lapith fending off her attacker using this technique, a movement the sculptor no doubt witnessed from one of the pancratiasts training in the nearby arena. (For those not familiar with it, pankration was an Olympic competitive event — I avoid the word sport — in which the contestants would fight each other, totally stripped and no holds barred. Not surprisingly, pankration was given a semi-religious atmosphere and the victors were considered almost god-like. Legends tell us that many of the competitors could rip small trees apart with their hands).
Another interesting similarity between ninjutsu and pankration is that both systems have the concept of suki, weak points in motion. For example, a standard ninjutsu counter to a throwing technique is to simply allow yourself to be thrown, grabbing on to one of your opponent's weak points as you are swept up. In most cases, this refers to an eye, an ear or a handful of hair, and this approach has two results, one is that the momentum of the throw is interrupted, and the second is that the opponent is seriously injured in the process. This approach was also used in ancient pankration. A very famous statue depicts two combatants in contest, with one having seized the other by the wrist (while having turned him upside down), raised him up into the air and readying to bash him into the ground. His opponent has calmly grabbed the other man's genitals, the first weak point to be found. There is no doubt as to who would be more seriously hurt should the aggressor initiate the slamming attack.
Another standard joint technique is called in ninjutsu ura gyaku, and refers to an outward twist of the wrist so that the back of the wrist and the elbow may be simultaneously attacked. This technique may also be found in most of the popular systems today. The author found this technique shown in the Athens National Museum as well as in several Dutch manuscripts written in the early 1600's.
Not to neglect "type 1" motion, one of the most famous frescoes in the Athens Museum is entitled, "The Boxing Children," and dates back to 1600 B.C. A student of wing chun kung-fu would quickly recognize the boxers' stance, their timing and distancing, and even the technique used; a deflection of the attacking punch with the elbow and simultaneous counter punch to the eye. On the other hand, students of judo would quickly recognize the depiction of tomoe nage found in a Dutch manuscript of the 1600s.
It would be easy to go on and on with more examples of this type from other geographic areas, such as India and Egypt, but it is quite superfluous to belabour the argument.
There is one more point that needs to be made. If I have managed to stimulate the reader's interest in the various similarities prevalent among diverse martial cultures, he should not get too caught up in it; nor should he try to associate style A of a particular region and time with style B of another. There is no way to trace a worldwide development of martial arts, nor can one say with certainty who did what when. Any interpretation of historic artefacts is always open to the individuals speculation, and it is unwise, even foolish, to assume otherwise. Rather, the reader should think of this approach instead: People develop specific skills based on their individual needs and restrictions of the moment. These restrictions may include local topography, dress, cultural and religious limitations, and the general level of enlightenment of the populace. Any development of martial skill generally is brought about by an immediate need or purpose, then usually evolves into some other form. Karate is a perfect example. Originally developed by the people of the Ryukyu islands as a linearly based system of dealing with slower moving armoured opponents, it is presently evolving into a more flowing, more circular and much faster type of motion.
Many readers will suggest that, despite the similarities in physical technique, the introduction of Zen, Buddhist and Taoist concepts (as well as the element of ki), constitute a spiritual discipline in the Oriental martial arts not found anywhere else in the world. This author is not quite so sure of that. There are too many depictions of "Divine Intervention" in the warrior sagas of the West and India to simply write off the possibility of these men having achieved states of heightened awareness and ability. Look at the incredible feats and the superhuman strength associated with the heroes of these sagas. Can it be that they, too, had discovered what we today call ki, and simply considered it mind-body unification? Or is it that they, who lived so close to death, had achieved a state of enlightenment similar to those that dedicate their lives to the martial arts in our day and age? Perhaps these warriors, who considered themselves Divinely inspired, really did by means of faith tap into a portion of what may be universally divine and achieve "superhuman" prowess. Or did the authors of these sagas make these stories up? This author has no idea. Perhaps it is true; perhaps not. But then again, Schliemann did discover Troy, didn't he?
As specific examples of my arguments in this article, I have used comparison shots of various disciplines from different time periods and geographic areas. The reader is encouraged to search for himself for any further information he may require. Museums and history books are always a good source, as well as the various classic sagas that have come down to us through the ages (take a close look at the Iliad; the student of yarijutsu, spear fighting, will find many useful techniques there). The author hopes he has achieved what he set out to do when writing this article: give martial artists an incentive to keep an open mind.
About the author: Chuck is a regular contributor to Inside Karate.