Do you not believe in progress?

23 Dec

In the Chinese martial arts, students are often thrilled with stories about their legendary ancestors. Stories about effortlessly defeating challengers are common currency. We are told that back in those glory days, those men had extraordinary powers. We most certainly know that many of those great masters were undefeated! Right?


Nostalgia appears to be a deeply rooted human instinct. We seem to fondly remember our past, and are inclined to believe that “back in those days” things were somehow “better”. Back in those days, people learned the “real stuff” and they had time to practice it! And lest we forget, those methods were “proven on the battlefield”. Or so we are told?


A quick survey of Chinese history may leave one to wonder if the past really was the “good old days”? Malnutrition, poor hygiene, a lack of quality medical attention, opium addiction and pervasive poverty would suggest a lot of the martial artists of the past were anything but elite fighters or athletes? As for their methods being “battlefield tested”? Joseph W. Esherick’s landmark examination of the boxer uprising “The Origins of the Boxer Uprising” (1988) suggests that folk magic and carnival tricks were often passed off as legitimate martial arts. The “boxers” were not martial artists as we understand them, but rather believers in a variety of protection rituals which they believed would make them from the weapons of the Western powers.

“One Shandong master promised that the techniques could be learned in a day; another said seven or eight days; a third more rigorous teacher claimed 103 days but still noted that is was ‘much easier than the Armor of the Golden Bell”

So, we must ask ourselves, honestly, are we learning the techniques that were practiced by legitimate men of combat, or have we just inherited the “cons” used to attract the young, uneducated peasants of the Yellow River floodplain?


Putting that all aside, we have to ask an even more pertinent question; do you not believe in progress? Do you really think that everything was “better” back in the past?

We often hear about the legends of early boxing. Reading about the bare knuckle days, we are told those men fought three, four or five times the number of rounds a modern boxer did! They fought without gloves, and with wrestling as well. It all sounds very good until you read about how a man of about 160 lbs studied fencing, invented a strategy called “the jab” and then won the heavyweight title of the world. Perhaps those legends were not as skilled as we initially believed?

The footage above is not as rare as many assume it is. There are several examples of early boxing caught on film. Ask yourself honestly how any of these “champions” would fare in the modern ring?

Above is classic Savate (French kickboxing) footage. Again, ask yourself how the performances compare to modern martial artists?

Finally, footage of Muay Thai, the “king” of stand up striking styles. It is less than 100 years old. Compare it to modern Muay Thai?

When it comes to martial arts, we seem to assume “older is better”. Yet, we don’t use outhouses, we go to see modern doctors, we use electricity and computers. So do you really not believe in progress?


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