“You Keep Using That Word,
I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means”
This is part of my continuing series of articles discussing the practical training and application of Chinese martial arts. While their intent is not to insult, they are indeed intended to make the reader reexamine what they practice and how they practice it.
In conversations involving martial artists all you have to do is bring up boxing, kickboxing, Muay Thai (Thai boxing), wrestling or mixed martial arts and the inevitable response will always be “those are sports.” In most cases, when a martial artist uses the term “sport” it is in a pejorative connotation. Some explanations are just silly. Others have more thought out responses; that they have a referee, rules regarding what can and can not be done, “safe” venues, no weapons, etc. My initial response to all of these is usually the same, if you can’t stop a punch, kick or throw in a controlled, “safe” environment, what hope would you have in an uncontrolled fight of life-or-death?
However, there is a more complex response as well. I just never use the word “sport” and I simply don’t believe in it. Many years ago I had a similar attitude to what I perceived as “sport” but I was fortunate enough to train with a Judo instructor who introduced me to the terms Randori and Shiai. In the Chinese martial arts, there is sadly no similar construction in popular use. There is no corresponding theoretical construction.
If you attend a Judo contest, the proper Japanese term for such and event is Shiai (試合). Popular dictionaries will give you a variety of definitions for this term; a match, a game, a sport. However, a Judo historian might remind you that the founder of Judo, Dr. Jigoro Kano, often rendered the term as “死合” which could be translated as “mutual death.” In Kano’s mind, Shiai was the ultimate (reasonable) test of application; what could be done against a trained, resisting opponent in a live environment. It was a struggle, to be taken deadly serious, as if your life was on the line (because it might be).
Some with more of a striking inclination might question Kano’s format, but they’d have to remember the limitations on testing striking in an age before much of the safety equipment was developed. Additionally, you could also argue that Muay Thai (Thai boxing) is the ultimate (reasonable) test of striking, yet it is also referred to as “just a sport.”
Whether you use the term Shiai or “sport,” there is the reality that many martial arts students will never have an interested in any sort of organized competition. For this very reason, the coexisting pillar of Kano’s Judo, called Randori, might in fact be MORE IMPORTANT.
Randori (乱取り) is a term used to describe free-style practice. It certainly applies to what is commonly termed “sparring” but also encompasses all “live” drilling. Randori may be contrasted with forms/hand sets and other prearranged drilling, implying a freedom from structured practice. Among the possible translations/interpretations of Randori is “ordered chaos.” It is impossible (and unreasonable) to recreate the exact conditions of a life-and-death struggle in practice, but there are approachable forms to train skill.