The Problem with Styles

Bruce Lee didn't like styles. He didn't even like his own style, Jeet Kune Do, called a style. His point was that a style was essentially a set of unchanging guidelines that did not react or adapt. Like the "ancient knowledge" I've already discussed, some martial arts styles were perceived to be perfect, complete, and above reproach. A martial artist essentially has to conform to the techniques used by the style.

Bruce Lee
Bruce Lee started with Kung Fu, but eventually founded his own "non-"style, Jeet Kung Do

There are many parallels in other disciplines. You can't just decide what reality you want to choose when you're a scientist. Science is the continuous, self-correcting cycle of observing nature and attempting to explain it. Anyone who practices science is expected to abide by the results of the experiment or study. For example, if your experiment determines the age of the earth to be 5 billion years old, you can't just say "I don't like that" and throw it away. In science, the truth is paramount. Therefore, the scientist adapts to evidence.

Likewise, a martial artist needs a framework in which to learn. A new student must adhere to the codes of conduct for the classroom. Even people with an inherent distrust of styles have to admit that there must be some framework to base the teaching on. How, then, can you learn without a style? What advantages does it confer?

Bruce Lee eloquently used the analogy of water. If you put water in a cup, it "becomes" the cup (at least in shape). If you put it in a pot, it "becomes" the pot. It reacts and flows according to the situation. Water can yield to pressure, or crashes against something. Even though water is usually considered soft, anyone who has done a very well executed belly-smacker into a pool knows it can be very hard as well.

Whether or not styles are good or bad is not really worth debating, in my opinion. Given the entire breadth of martial art techniques, a style is simply a set of techniques loosely tied together into a theme. Karate is a style. Tae Kwon Do is a style. Other styles include Aikido, Hapkido, Kung Fu, Jui Jitsu, Krav Maga, Sambo, and many others. Each style can have variations with it, such as Shotokan Karate vs. Okinawa Karate. Each style has its own set of traditions, rules, and techniques. To compare styles is extremely difficult, and probably not worth the effort to do so. What criteria would you use? The obvious one would be whoever's style could beat up all the others. But, in what case? One on one? With weapons? In some cases, it's almost a "rock, paper, scissors" affect, where some styles are better in some situations, and others are weaker. Would you compare which styles have the most practitioners? Which ones train the hardest? Which ones make the martial artist a better person (it is, after all, a way of life, not a means for life. Martial artists don't all aspire to be in the next professional fighting championship.)? In other words, styles are neutral. It doesn't make sense to try to compare styles, and more than likely the style that would be regarded as the best would just so happen to be the same style practiced by the person making the comparison.

If no one style is the "best", then how do we choose a style? Why are there styles at all? Part of it is certainly cultural (ie. Korean and Chinese martial arts). Styles were the product of their people, and, just as cultures differed, so did styles. Styles also focus what the students learn. This is important because we can't know everything about fighting. In order to make it more manageable, skilled fighters created systems, which evolved into styles, to teach others their techniques for fighting. As the styles evolved, the techniques became very diverse and there is considerable overlap between styles.

What's the problem with styles, then? Well, there really isn't. Where the problem lies is in the application of style. Like I said in the beginning, the issues arise when the style becomes perfect, complete, and above reproach. This isn't the problem of the style, but in the way the practitioners apply it. There is probably a sizable subset of martial artists who have proclaimed their art to be the best of all styles. It is certainly a bold proclamation, but not uncommon. It isn't strange to believe that what you have chosen to do is the best.

Though natural, there are several problems with this. Something that is Perfect does not need to be changed. Once you make the connection that something is perfect, you no longer attempt to revise it. The danger is that you will stop testing it. There is no weakness. There are no avenues for improvement. You must "follow the path" to achieve this perfection, and failure means that you have not "followed the path" well enough. This is a slippery slope where eventually the highest state of achievement is unattainable, simply because any failure is immediately blamed by our divergence from the path and not the path itself. It is extremely difficult for me to imagine that there are things of our devising that could not be improved.

A great example of this comes straight from the origins of martial arts, and that's the art of warfare. Without getting into any debates on the relative morality of war, is it safe to say that we as a species have ever achieved the perfect system for war? When we had bronze weapons, iron weapons came along and made bronze obsolete. Any army that did not have iron weapons was soon defeated. Likewise, with the Macedonian phalanx, a revolutionary style of fighting, Alexander the Great's armies swept through the Persian Empire. The Roman Legions defeated the Phalanxes of Greece. Longbows trumped the simple bows and arrows of their time. Heavily armored knights ruled the battlefield of their days, but disappeared after the invention of firearms. Huge armies of musket wielding soldiers reigned for hundreds of years until the familiar accoutrements of war began showing up. Artillery. Bombs. Airplanes. Grenades. Tanks. Battleships. Carriers. Missiles. Intercontinental ballistic missiles armed with multiple independently targeted thermonuclear warheads. As scary as all that it, it does have a few valid points. How we wage war is a constant, ever-evolving process. You cannot argue with the notion that because of this, we can now destroy stuff on a level that the not even the ancient Greeks thought their gods capable of. Because we continually adapted and evolved our style of warfare, we have made it extremely capable.

If the technology of warfare has evolved for thousands of years, then can we believe that some martial arts have been around for that long, unchanging and perfect? The martial arts have almost certainly evolved, and they have been doing so since they were first created. It is not tenable for some martial arts to claim perfection, or to even claim that they are not changing. An unchanging martial art is effectively stagnant, and its practitioners are limited by its traditions and techniques. This doesn't mean that they are bad techniques, or even that the art itself isn't effective. However, martial arts, like any art, is enriched by a constant spring of new ideas and perspectives. To declare an art perfect or the best is denying that further advancement.

The martial arts are not on so grandiose a scale, or even as sobering a subject as modern war (though personal self defense will quickly surpass any other concerns if it should become necessary). It is very important to realize that knowledge is a continual process that should always be expanding. Sometimes, it is important not just to expand the art, but to rediscover parts of the art that were forgotten or neglected. There are some dangers with this mindset, though. Change for the sake of change will certainly lead to a dilution and marginalization of the art. There is an important point I mentioned earlier, and that's the notion of validation. It may be that everything in the art is perfect (as it can be), and that there is no good reason to change anything. This is fine as long as there is a good reason. More than likely, most martial arts already have a set of techniques that are very well validated, and have good reasons to back up their use. The problem is when a teacher makes the implied assumption that everything is already ideal. The best teachers can say why a technique is ideal, rather than "my instructors taught me this way." They may very well have, but they did because they knew it was the right technique (and why), not just because their teachers did it.

Bruce Lee was afraid that the arts were turning into immobile, inadaptable entities. Students were forced to bend to the style, but the style was not able to adapt to match all situations. He wanted the "style" to be the student's, so that everything the student did was natural for him or her. I.e., "become the cup." My personal philosophy is somewhere in the middle. Any new student needs a framework for learning. Even Jeet Kung Do has evolved into a more-or-less specified style based on Bruce Lee's original writings. Styles also offer the traditional aspects that are hugely important for students. There is nothing good that could come from teaching students how to hurt others without the philosophical discipline that martial arts almost universally provide.

A style should also have the capacity for change, but only when necessary and appropriate. Like a scientific theory, the basics should only apply as long as they can explain or produce a result in a specific way. A lot of purists may find this concept distasteful, but the mere application of tradition should not prevent needed changes. A good example would be a case where new scientific evidence indicates that a certain stretch or exercise does more harm than good. (Note that I use evidence, not proof. Science is the most powerful concept ever created by our species, but it does not deal in proof. There can be a great deal of certainty even without proof, though.) A style should reconsider the exercise or stretch, weighing the importance of the stretch within the confines of the traditions of the art with the significance of the scientific evidence.

I want to reemphasize that styles should not be moving targets. They have their own rich history, etiquette, and techniques. To adapt a style to the whim of the current instructor would not be appropriate. However, what keeps a style relevant and effective is it's willingness to validate and adapt. You won't find too many armies out there practicing the cavalry charge. In order to stay relevant, all armies had to adapt to the new technologies. The martial arts may move more slowly, but the same principles apply.


  • Lee, B. Tao of Jeet Kune Do. Santa Clarita, CA: Ohara Publications, inc., 1975