To simplify a rather complex history, it is relatively safe to say that Chinese martial arts, like martial arts across the globe, originated as combat method. It was used on battlefields, and then as self-defense method, for dueling/personal honor and other “private” motivations. In China, it became associated with the JiangHu (江湖), literally “rivers and lakes,” a marginalized sub-culture. All this is to say that in ancient China, martial art training was frequently the defense against an often cruel and savage world. In short, the men who originally practiced these methods lived in a world very few of us alive today would recognize or understand.
During the Ming Dynasty, empty hand fighting techniques merged with gymnastic, meditative and other spiritual practices. Teachers began to see connections between Buddhist and Taoist concepts and their martial arts practice. In the modern period, both the New Culture Movement and May 4th Movement also caused the reevaluation of the roles of Chinese martial arts in society. They became physical culture, exercise, cultural preservation, and recreation. All these trends co-existed, intertwined, cooperated and conflicted, and often never clearly vocalized nor with a conscious awareness.
Of course, the original intent, unrestricted combat between trained fighters was never completely severed from the tradition. Nor did it really lose its utility. Our society has remained violent and is still inhabited by professional criminals. Street effective self-defense skills remain a relevant aspiration for all people, regardless of their age, sex, social condition or profession. In a minute I will also discuss another important role keeping our fighting skill plays in the larger picture.
All this is to say, that in today’s modern society, martial arts can indeed be seen in a larger picture. Once, only as fighting skills for the able-bodied men who could endure the training, today martial arts can offer benefits such as the improvement and maintenance of health, the development of ethics and virtue, self-discipline and confidence. The training can benefit everyone, regardless of age, sex or physical condition. However, I must stress this point. It must retain its usefulness as practical self-defense.
When a student joins a martial arts school, regardless of their other interests or goals or whether they say it or not, they expect to learn to defend themselves. They trust their instructors with their lives. How often have we heard about martial arts students being seriously injured or killed in street confrontations? The answer is all too frequently and this is unacceptable. It is unethical and immoral to advertise self-defense training without offering instruction that accepts the reality of true self-defense.
Additionally, for all their talk of spiritual development, etc., those who embrace the mystical and ignore the practical application fail to understand that martial arts without the fighting aspect is an empty practice that leads to self-delusion. Taking a thrashing and learning ones real skill level is in itself a Buddhist lesson. A hard one, but an important lesson none the less. Insecurities hide behind elaborate facades that are best torn down by live training. Nothing crushes the ego more than knowing your real place in the grand scheme of things.