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It isn't that people
are ignorant, it's that
they know so much
that ain't so
                        Will Rogers

Lies, Damned Lies and Martial Arts Myths(1)

On this page:
Complex Influences | Warning signs | Complex vs. Simplistic vs. It's About Something Else | Spotting the Difference | Elitism vs. technological/industrial considerations | Myth of the Noble Loser | Further Resources

Several people who are Chinese, or have lived in China, have explained to me why Chinese martial arts movies (like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero) use wires. This special effect allows the actors to fly through the air, casually carry on conversations while perching on bamboo stalks and leap tall buildings in a single bound; however, such acts are unrealistic to the Western eye. The Chinese logic is the chi of legendary kung fu masters  was so great that they were able to do these feats with ease. So, to that audience, these acts are no more incredible than watching Peter Pan fly. They know it is a fairy tale and feats like these are part of it. Therefore, like a Westerner watching Peter Pan, they automatically suspend disbelief from the start.

Would a Westerner complain about the realism of Peter Pan using wires? And then proceed to explain that "real" flying involves jumping like Superman...the way they do it in his style?  Or take the position of  believing that Peter Pan's sword fighting was the ultimate sword-fighting system? A system that was battle tested against pirates! (Combat Lost Boys Fu ... just sounds so macho doesn't it?) 

With this in mind, one must wonder why so many Westerners accept as credible, the myths, half-baked explanations, misconceptions, historical inaccuracies and downright lies regarding the Eastern martial arts. Wild assertions are commonly made with blatant disregard for historical, sociological, technological or physical facts -- and people readily accept them as gospel. Then, without checking the facts themselves, they pass on these same falsehoods to the next generation of students.

There are, in fact, some misconceptions so ingrained into the martial arts culture that people actually become upset when they are refuted with actual facts or historical documentation. (Try talking to a a Tae Kwon Do practitioner about the "ancient" history of his art). These points of refutation might not be as sexy or steeped in tradition as the myth, but they are documentable and far more credible.

Thing is,  practitioners believe learning these misconceptions are part of the martial tradition. Are they? 

Or are they part of another, more modern set of assumptions, machinations, maneuverings and money money making schemes? These elements are very much part of martial arts culture today. These non-martial arts behaviors and motivations are often cloaked under the guise of traditions, history and school protocols. While many of the lies are passed on out of ignorance and without malice, that is not always the case.

There is an old French saying that translates to "begins as a dupe, ends as a rascal"  People's motivations change over time. And just as often so do the stories they tell, in order to reflect these new motivations.

In any human endeavor we must always keep in mind that humans are involved. That seemingly stupid comment reminds us that human beings operate from many different motives -- and not all of them are benign. As such  even though they march under the guise the highest and best intentions, one must still keep a wary eye out for people using systems for their own benefit and personal gain  Having said this, it must also be also remembered that not all gain is financial. Quite often, perceived power and control is as valued as gold.

With this in mind, we need to take a closer look at the information that we are being given.

Complex Influences
Much of what is taught as martial arts history and tradition is complete balderdash. And yet, how are you to know? 

The only sure-fire way to prove or disprove the information is to do massive amounts of research into a country's history and culture. And most of what you learn by doing that will have nothing to do with the supposed fighting system that you are learning(2). But, by doing so, you will begin to see the conflicts between what is being presented and what really is the truth about a culture or history. A shorter, faster version to confirm the information that you are told is talk to someone from the arts origin nation and ask them about what you are being taught regarding language and culture. You often get an entirely different take when you discuss these subjects with a person from that culture who is not involved in the fighting system. The most obvious example is what words mean. In martial arts circles words are often spun off in totally unknown directions to native speakers A person who speaks the language, grew up in that culture, knows the word and its implications is often shocked and appalled to encounter how the martial artist is both pronouncing and using the word. This is especially true in the creation of preposterous and aggrandizing titles. When a native speaker has never heard of a great and glorious title, you know something is wrong.

Having said this, it is important to realize that any society runs on a complex set of interrelated influences, issues and factors. The average person  in a society isn't really consciously aware of the depths, even though they are part of everyday life. This statement applies to both social and technological issues. People have a vague idea how things work, but without specific training or experience they just tend to take what is in front of them for granted (Can you explain the details of power generation? Or do you just assume the lights will turn on when you flip the switch?). What we are saying people are indoctrinated into  cultural traditions that they have no real understanding of. Realistically, the average person, doesn't really need to know all the subtleties. And yet, the meaning will be recognizable when explained. While knowing this "short-hand" version is not in and of itself bad, if you are presenting yourself as an authority on a subject, then you had better have a deeper grasp of the subject than the average person.

Let's take the idea of "tradition" and see how what we just said about depth applies. It is important to realize that even the most simple traditions are never just about one thing. What can seem banal on the surface has much deeper implications. For example, the life rituals that one passes through like graduation, marriage, etc., are already in place within the culture one is born into. As the person matures and accomplishes certain tasks these rituals are performed to mark the occasions. Although we're talking general here, for the sake of clarity, we'll use High School graduation as an example. Let's start by pointing out that the student has accepted the standards that lead to that ritual. (i.e. to get to graduation that person stayed in school, passed classes, etc.). That is twelve years of training and conditioning that has already occurred.

To start with, ever wonder where these academic standards come from? Much less what went into making them?  (Other than complaining about having to learn the name of the capitol of Paraguay in Social Studies). The thing is, a whole lot of other people had spent a long time fighting and fussing over the hammering out what you were taught. If you didn't wonder, then you were again operating along cultural behavioral standards without understanding why you were doing what you were doing. If you wondered and asked, you were probably given a simplified, but valid reason. One that if you were like most teenagers, you immediately dismissed as stupid. But the idea that you accepted the information  -- with or without bitching -- without knowing why is important to this point.

Let's move to the ritual itself. Usually, the person entering into these milestone rituals has not been there before (how many times did you graduate high school?)   Therefore, he/she is again engaged in the following of established protocols without understanding them. The ceremony has been created by others -- and with people other than just the graduate/initiate in mind. The ceremony gives a set of protocols for everyone to follow under these circumstances. While it is a new event to the person undergoing the ritual, those seniors in attendance have previously undergone the ritual. The event also indoctrinates juniors into what will be expected of them in time. In short, it gives everyone an established roll to play. Furthermore, the protocols of the rituals, while varying in form, are generally consistent in intent, meaning and symbolism across the culture. For example, the cap, gown, diploma, beaming family, the long boring speeches and the inevitable pranksters are there, no matter where you graduated from.

Let's now move onto the significance of the ceremony. Graduating from high school is a rite of passage. It marks, not only the accomplishment of the individual, but the acknowledgement and acceptance by the larger group of the person's new condition. (My little baby is all grown up and graduated!) It is as much a mark of achievement as it is formal rite of acceptance by the greater "tribe." What's more, is that by undergoing these ceremonies, not only is the person granted a different status, but that person's behavior is now expected to reflect and conform to that new status. By passing through that ceremony you gain greater freedoms, but also greater responsibilities and expectations. Graduating from High School is one of the acknowledged steps into adulthood.

Bet you never thought just graduating from school was so complex did you?  And that was a short version.

Using that example, you can see that there are all kind of standards and cultural assumptions involved in even the most simple and mundane facet of life.  What is important to realize, is that the "deeper meanings" of  these traditions will be immediately recognizable to someone from that culture, even if they have never thought about it before. Did anything I say about graduating from High School strike you as horribly wrong or out of cultural context?  Or did it make sense, even if you hadn't thought about it that way.? With any tradition, ritual, protocol or expected behaviors, all you have to do is scratch the surface and these depths will begin to be revealed.

So why is knowing this important? Let's put this next part into religious terms. While the congregation may not be expected to know an issue on these deeper level, the priest sure'n hell better know.

The person who is a teacher, mentor, leader, etc. not only  needs to understand the "whys" and "wherefores" of what he/she is teaching/preaching, but when called upon to do so, he had better be able to explain it in depth. And that explanation must fit within the cultural/professional/field's understanding of the subject. By this I mean the same way that the implications of graduating high school was immediately recognizable to you, his explanation had better be just as legitimate, based on deeper understandings and recognizable by someone else who is familiar with the subject.

Warning signs
How would you know if what he is telling you is legitimate? This is especially the case if you are used to accepting short-hand explanations about things that you are not particularly interested in-- but think you have to have a passing knowledge.

One of the fastest ways to spot when something is wrong with what a so-called "expert" is telling you  is when  it is too shallow and simplistic.

When what you are hearing sounds something like the average teenager trying to explain the significance of the graduation ceremony, you'll know something is wrong. When you hear someone explaining in only the most generalized terms the superiority of what they do something is wrong. When the same people  denounce the  inferiority of what others do not only in the same generalized way, but spending more time going on about the teacher than the information,  something is wrong. When what you are hearing is vague, but "ancient knowledge," covering hundreds, if not thousands of years, something is wrong. When something -- especially a cultural standard -- is presented as an incontrovertible fact, something is wrong.

All these explanations lack depth and understanding about what is involved in the subject, much less life. Real life is never that simple or shallow. Not now, not three hundred years ago.

 Unfortunately, most of the stories being passed around in MA circles is just that. They are very one dimensional and they often, either flat out contradict cultural conditions or ignore them. What's worse is how the rewrite history. This statement applies even if it is the instructor's "own" culture that he is teaching "round eyes" about. Sad to say, a significant amount of the revisionist history and lies about cultural standards starts with the foreign " masters" and nationalists -- not their students.

Keeping in mind this idea of a qualified person being able to explain the depths, we must question the veracity of the information coming from "white" instructors about how "it is done in another culture." If it is normal that people don't know their own culture in depth, how deeply do you think they will have researched another? Much less such a specialized field as military culture? 

This is where most people really fall down with what they are telling you. They can tell you all about the advantages that these ancient warriors had, but they can't tell you anything else. How can someone know so much about one aspect and literally nothing about other cultural and historical events that shaped those conditions?

Complex vs. Simplistic vs. 'It's About Something Else'
While some might consider people's tendency to simplify a condemnation, it's not. Realistically, society and human existence is just too big and complex for everyone to know everything about it. You can't possibly know it all -- even within their own culture. It is how we humans cope with the overwhelming vastness that is existence.

Many people combat this by investing the time to learn a particular slice. They specialize in a topic or area that interests them. What is important to notice is that having an in-depth understanding in one  particular subject is a lot of time and effort. It doesn't just happen by default. There is no "I'm a black belt so I automatically know the history of this art." With any subject the closer you look, the more there is to it. Talk to anyone about their career specialization or their hobby and you will find an incredible depth of knowledge regarding complexities and details. Having said this, in regard to issues that are not our area of specialty, people tend to accept simplified explanations and go on.

Where it can become a problem is if the simplified version has been spindoctored. In fact, quite often these mythological histories and outrageous claims become more popular than the truth. These superficial and erroneous explanations pass for legitimate knowledge about a subject, -- especially when they are presented emphatically and with a confidence bordering on arrogance.

In this case, what the person believes to be the truth is not only simplistic, but false. It needs to be pointed out here that by the term simplistic, we don't just mean rudimentary in conceptualization, but also very limited in scope. That is to say that while such understandings tend to be shallow, they can also be deep, but very narrow. While usually these two concepts work hand-in-hand, that is not always the case. Someone can be deeply informed on such a narrow view of a subject that they ignore all the other factors and instead only focus on information that supports what they want to believe.

For example, someone who wants "self-defense" to being only about knowing a particularly ferocious fighting system doesn't want to even learn about other factors. In fact, he quite often dismisses them with cliches, hostility, contempt and bravado. How many times have you heard "I'd rather be judged by 12 than carried by 6" or "There aren't any rules in a streetfight" as an excuse not to learn the legal realities of using this deadly fighting art? The way that phrase is commonly used is a prime example of dismissing the realities and complications that arise from violence And yet it is often incredible how much time and energy  these people spend learning how to mutilate their fellow human beings. This laser width view is still simplistic, because it excludes any other factors than what he wants it to be about.

Having said this, you might be wondering about the people who would accept this kind of propaganda. Well, there is a very crude term that applies here: You can't rape the willing. This blind acceptance of this kind of simplistic information and grandiose history is especially common among those who are motivated by other reasons than the pursuit of legitimate historical knowledge. These believe it because they want it to be true.

And they want it to be true for reasons having nothing to do with the martial arts.

Spotting the difference
A true grasp of a subject is neither shallow nor narrow. For example, not long ago we met a collector of the toys known as Hot Wheels. Now you would think that there is only so much to be said about toy cars. "It's just a toy" right?  However, this man's familiarity with the subject was stunning. What's more, his knowledge ranged over a vast collection of subjects that were germane to the topic. He knew everything from paints, run history, designers, designer's career history, manufacturing specs, run sizes, prices, company policies and PR, as well as market trends among collectors. When asked he could immediately provide references and documentation for what he was saying. He spoke intelligently for hours on the complexities and elements that went into creating something that most people dismiss as "just a toy."

That's what knowing a subject really looks like. Even an area of specialization has great scope and depth, because it includes many different influences

For example a historian specializing any particular location/group or era will be able to tell you in detail the many different factors and social issues that influenced his/her area of expertise. Such a person will be able to tell you of social changes, technological developments, cultural standards and economic, environmental, political and international upheavals. A person like that will be able to tell you as much as is known about the social stratification, customs and mores of the different levels of society during different periods. And more importantly, such a person will not only tell you what other experts agree on, but what they disagree on (and why), what the field knows for sure and just as importantly, what they don't know because no documentation exists. This kind of person also tells you what areas the experts are speculating about (i.e. "We think this is what happened/happens")

Now compare this to someone whose blanket claims that the samurai (or ninjas) acted a particular way. Or that an entire social class categorically thought a certain thing. These people make claims that can cover nearly a thousand years of the conduct of millions of people. And yet these same folks cannot intelligently discuss the Meiji Restoration, much less the cultural dynamics that lead to it or resulted from it. But boy, oh boy can someone like that tell you about bushido and the "ancient warrior code" that they follow.

It should also be pointed out that knowledge of a subject doesn't need to presented with arrogance and hostility -- especially when a) dealing with one's peers or b) challenged. This type of behavior is commonly mistaken as competence in the field, when it is in fact, most often used to cover a lack of knowledge and understanding. A person with such an understanding will not have any trouble discussing, not only the complexities, but also the influences on a subject. If that's the case, then why become cranky when what they are saying is questioned? Perhaps most revealing in their absence, a person who does know the subject should be able to discuss the problems and limitations inherent within the subject. When someone refuses to discuss these or becomes irritated when you bring them up, it is an indication that something else is going on.

Elitism vs. technological/industrial considerations
Quite often excessive claims are made on issues related to the martial arts. While they do have basis in fact, the claims far outstrip the realities of the situation. These claims are often used by people who are affiliated with the item/system to boost their own status. Unfortunately, while it impresses some, such exaggerated claims are fundamentally offensive to others in the same field. If whatever the fanatic is claiming is superior, really was that much better than those others, then it would have spread farther than it did.

A prime example of this is the katana. It is commonly put about that the katana is the "best" sword ever, both in manufacture and application. There is absolutely no question that the 100 fold process of the master Japanese swordsmiths is an incredible process. The manufacture of the blade as well as the other component parts, such as the tsuba (guard), were refined to levels that no other nation in the world took them. They are without a doubt beautiful works of art.

Having said that, did you ever wonder why the Japanese had to refine swordsmithing to such a high level? Much less why the sword took on such incredible importance to the Japanese? There are more pragmatic and documentable reasons than most people know or would have you believe. Reasons that have nothing to do with what you are told in martial arts schools.

To begin with, the sword, in any culture, has sociological/spiritual implications. Look around and see how many representations of swords there are in national, cultural, religious contexts. (For example, in the United States for the symbol of justice is a woman holding the scales of justice and a sword. This symbol can be seen in courtrooms everywhere in the nation). Swords are also symbolic of kingship and authority around the world. This idea combined with traditionalism, while not being the only issues, are important factors in the reverence the Japanese culture had for the sword.

What is just as relevant to both the high level of craftsmanship and the nigh-unto-fetish about the blades  is both the poor quality and the scarcity of the available iron. Iron ore is nearly non-existent on the island and then, like today, iron largely had to be imported. As such, when using local iron an extreme level of craftsmanship was needed to make a quality sword. It was the 100 fold forging process that increased the carbon content turning it into quality steel and creating a sword that would withstand use. With neither a modern industrial base or quality ore, this forging process was not only a long and complex process and a closely guarded secret, but an outrageously expensive one.

This also explains the fanatical emphasis on the sword preservation as generational artifacts. This even to the point of their preservation by creating a sword fighting style that didn't damage the blade (i.e. no edge to edge contact). Swords were, in that culture at least, nearly irreplaceable.  

With these factors in mind, it is still no exaggeration to say that Japanese swordsmithing was taken to incredible levels. That is categorically a true statement.

What is not true, however, is that these are the "best swords" ever.

Other countries with better steel produced equally effective and beautifully crafted blades, Damascus and Toledo were renowned for the artistry and craftsmanship of the blades they produced. Were they as finely and laboriously wrought? No, because they didn't have to be. The starting quality of iron was superior. The product they produced was high enough quality for the conditions and technologies they faced, including -- unlike Japanese swords -- having to penetrate equally well crafted iron armour and heavier, layered protective clothing. In addition, these swords had to withstand edge to edge contact with other swords, attacks from a wide variety of heavier weapons and strikes against shields. Conditions that katanas did not have to face.

What is also important to understand is that the fact that unlike the Japanese katana -- which remained fundamentally unchanged for centuries -- weapons in other parts of the world constantly changed. These constant changes were in response to ever-changing technological influences (e.g. clothing, armour, armament and tactics). All of which were continually evolving and improving to be more effective under local conditions. Nor can the influence and physics of fighting from horseback be underestimated in the development of the weapons of an area.

Japan, being both isolated and isolationist, did not undergo these changes as dramatically as other areas. Therefore, it could be reasonably said that Japanese swordsmithing took the course of perfection of one type of sword rather than the evolution of swords -- as happened in other parts of the world.

Could the katana, despite the incredible craftsmanship, have withstood battlefield conditions of other parts of the world any better than the local swords? No. In fact, despite the quality of manufacture, because of different fighting styles and equipment the katana would not have survived any better on the battlefield than any other sword. If not far worse. This is especially true in fighting systems where heavier hacking blow were utilized and -- despite the claims of some who are riding on the coattails of Japanese sword fighting styles -- edge to edge blocks were common. Different fighting styles utilized different physics. The local swords were designed to withstand those conditions.

Therefore, the unilateral claim that the katana is the best sword ever is not just an overstatement, but an untruth. It fails to take into consideration the immensely complex factors that go into weapons technology and application.

But, if within the martial arts world you ask about swords, you are almost guaranteed to be told "the katana is superior." Yes siree Bob, dontcha know that's the case?


It is not my intention to disrespect Japanese swordsmithing abilities or fighting styles with this example. But rather to show that there are other factors involved than what people in martial arts circles are telling you. The example I used here is very much demonstrable through chemical and industrial means. Carbon quality of a locally produced steel is a chemically provable fact. One glance at Japan's iron mining production numbers and the economic figures regarding  internationally purchased iron (3) show the influence these factors would have had on Japanese swordsmithing.

There is nothing mythological, esoteric or shrouded in mystery about these facts ...and yet these demonstrable influences are routinely ignored.

However, by ignoring these inconvenient realities and refusing to do research via credible sources, a foundation is laid for either no research at all or lazy research. One that encourage a blind acceptance of the party line and never thinking outside the box. If someone is willing to disregard science and industrial realities, how willing will that person be to deny that other things are going on?

Thus far we've only addressed ignoring demonstrable realities in the pursuit of creating a mythology of superiority. We're not even talking about claiming to be teaching cultural nuances from a place you've never been, claiming to know traditions you have not researched or promoting martial arts revisionist history yet (wait until you hear about how Tae Kwon Do is  based on the ancient  Silla warriors). But now it is time to move onto the...

Myth of the Noble Loser
In the 1980s a little known comic book series found a formula that turned it into a goldmine for Marvel Comics. Until that time the X-Men had been a small, second string comic series to the larger, more popular series -- like Spiderman, the Hulk and the Fantastic Four. The formula? Persecution for being different. With this spin X-men comics tapped into a hither fore unsuspected well of feelings among fans that rocketed the series to prominence in the comic book world...and eventually into Hollywood. Where the theme of persecution for being different still continued to garner success.

Although there are marked differences between the comic book world and the martial arts world, the idea of underdogs fighting back against overwhelming odds has firm roots in both. What else they have in common is the idea of these underdogs having to hide their superpowers from the oppressive outside world, until it is time to reveal oneself for battle for GOOD™. That horde of evil doers is going to be in big trouble for messing with the disguised superhero.

In the martial arts there countless stories about secret fighting arts that locals used to defend themselves against conquering invaders. Of farm implements used to battle and defeat trained warriors. Of arts that are not only honed to deadly perfection against the weapons and fighting styles of the invaders, but have taken the best parts of the invader's system and blended them into the system.

But despite all these fanciful claims, the bottomline remains...they were still invaded and conquered. Basically people who used peasant weapons stayed peasants

Furthermore, they remained so until something major happened, like another invader, social/political/ economic changes in the invader's home country (making it difficult to maintain their imperial holdings), the locals stopped fighting among themselves or the home team got a hold of the same weapons as the oppressors. We're not talking about winning a battle or two, we're talking about what it takes to win a war and drive out occupiers(3)

What is important to realize is how often, in the minds of those who have other agendas, the oppressor and the oppressed are blended into one idealized fantasy. Okinawan improvised weapons were never part of the samurai's arsenal

Demonstrable results

What is more important to realize however, is that such extravagant claims destroy your credibility with regular people. Who, even though they might not know the subject, will suspect both the veracity of such outrageous claims and your motivations for making them.

This attitude encourages more misconceptions, more blind acceptance of misinformation and encourages baseless feelings of superiority

A similar in nature, if not in detail, set of over-simplifications and gross generalizations exist in many of the off-shoot branches from martial arts. Topics such as reality based fighting system, combat (fill in the blank), knife fighting, modern (again, fill in the blank) women's self-defense and the many other spin offs and variants, while not claiming the "traditional" title many of these claims are as far removed from any kind of legal, social, ethical, military or street reality as the traditional arts they so look down on as being impractical for "real" fighting. That's an interesting claim as they spend as much time in fantasy about what is involved in violence as those systems they dismiss.

What they also are, however,  are far less elitist.

How many people take great personal gratification, almost to the point of superiority, in practicing "ancient warrior traditions" ... or at least practicing something that is supposed to be. This behavior often goes so far as to aping another cultural standards, ideals and using another language's terms. More common however, is  learning the "history" of this great and noble art. A history that is quite often a total fabrication.

Return to top

1) With apologies to P.M. Benjiman Disraeli who actually said "There are three kinds of lies: Lies, Damned Lies and Statistics" Return to Text

2) There are two common counters to debunking research by unscrupulous players. First is to fall back on the idea of "martial tradition."  That is to say, "Well, yes, the culture does it that way, but the warriors did it the way I told you."  That's a really slick way to justify unsubstantiated information. The idea being that such traditions were outside the mainstream culture and that is why such interpretations are a) not known to the natives and b) don't show up in credible research sources. The second, excuse  -- and the reason for a) and b) -- is because this fighting system was a closely guarded secret. So secret, in fact, that the locals never even heard of it. Much less the supposed family, clan or warrior group whose system it was. Now that's really secret. Short answer on this topic is don't even get me started on "secret fighting systems." The longer answer is found on the rest of the page explaining that even so-called "secret" rituals work within cultural context. Return to Text

3) Link to the CIA World Fact Book regarding natural resources of various countries. Or if you are more technologically minded, USGS report on Japan's mineral resources Return to Text

4) Magellan may have been killed, but the Spanish rule over most of the Philippines lasted well over 300 years. Okinawan improvised weapons might have worked to surprise and kill an obnoxious samurai, but they couldn't stand up against a sword in the hands of a trained and ready fighter. It is an indisputable fact that people who used peasant weapons stayed peasants. Return to Text

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