The Assumption of the "Superior" Ancient Knowledge

There is no doubt that the martial arts contain a huge repository of knowledge. This information is passed down in many ways, from writings to traditional forms to verbal instruction. The wisdom contained in this massive repository is probably quite impressive, and I doubt a true measurement of its many techniques, strategies, and ways of combat and peace is possible. However, this mystique can create a false sense of authority. There are quite a few martial arts out there that lay claim a body of secret ancient knowledge, passed down for thousands of years. Only the disciples of the art will be shown these furtive and mysterious secrets. The fact that the martial arts are drawing on a "secret" body of ancient wisdom is itself not extraordinary, but the nature of this knowledge is what we must question, if only because these revolutionary techniques remain secret. The martial arts are as old as warfare, and that is probably as old as modern mankind. Ancient warriors must have had a system of combat, armed and unarmed. I would love to know what kind of fighting system the ancient Spartans had. Surely, they had to have had their bag of tricks, or techniques, as robust and varied as any modern martial art.

Spartan Shield
When the ancient Spartan Dieneces was told that the opposing Persian's archers were so numerous that their volleys blocked the sun, Dieneces responded, "Then we will have our battle in the shade..."

What we think of as martial arts, though, with their fighting systems and codes of conduct (or philosophies), probably originated in the Zhou Dynasty (1122-255 BC) by Huangdi, known as the Yellow Emperor. He was the first to write about martial arts, and supposedly founded the oldest known style, chang quan (long fist). Most branches of martial arts trace their roots back to these ancient styles.

Often times you will hear some people relate their style of martial art to this pool of ancient knowledge. Style X was founded forty-three million years ago, and therefore must be better and the newer Style Y. If you think about it though, this doesn't necessarily mean anything at all. When was the last time you heard a doctor bragging about using a medical technique that was thousands of years old? What about an engineer trying to build a bridge with 14th century knowledge? Certainly, there is some logical problem here, because an assumption of ancient-ness doesn't mean anything about its integrity. I would much prefer to cross a bridge built with 21st century knowledge, and I highly doubt I would consult a doctor still using medicine from a thousand years ago. This doesn't mean that all ancient knowledge isn't good or valuable, but the mere fact that it is ancient does not imply any intrinsic validity. (Some things, like astrology, have lasted far longer than their usefulness would suggest!)

We're talking about combat systems here, though, so maybe there might be some validity to it. The question is, does it make sense that the ancient people, in this case the Chinese with Huangdi, possessed a knowledge that is superior to our own time? They might have done a lot of fighting back then, and they were probably very good at it. Most of the techniques of the Huangdi combat system have probably been lost or, more likely, simply absorbed into modern martial arts. In this sense, the ancient body of knowledge is still around. It does become hard to believe, though, that they had achieved mastery of all aspects of the martial arts, but not everything else. Even though civilization had already flourished for several thousand years by that time, we were still quite primitive. If we extrapolate what we consider the total sum of technological sophistication of the human race during the times the traditional styles were first formed (up to 255 BC), it becomes hard to conclude that the particulars of ancient wisdom could have been that much more advanced than our own. It isn't like we would have somehow lost this ancient body of knowledge, considering that mankind has fought almost constantly since then, and is now capable of warfare on a level that was not even conceivable during those ancient times.

It should also be noted that most martial arts are essentially closed systems. Only loyal disciples were given "secret" knowledge. Considering this, there was comparatively very little input into the system. Modern science thrives precisely because it is an open community, where inferior ideas are mercilessly shot down in favor of consensus agreement based on evidence. Input is essential in any open system. Consensus is not a guarantee of accuracy, but the enormous success of modern science is proof of its validity (because science is verifiable).

Stack of Books
Real knowledge - you could have conquered the world with this in the ancient times.

So where then does this myth come from? That the martial arts embody this pool of ancient wisdom is a very common belief. My problem with this line of reasoning is that it implies that this wisdom is so great and profound, that we are no longer capable of deriving it ourselves. Really? Education has reached the highest level ever. The mind works in principle like any muscle; the more you use it, the better it performs. If a mind in the 20th century figured out how to fuse an atom in a thermonuclear fusion bomb, then a similar mind ought to be able to figure out how to properly perform a wrist throw. There isn't anything especially difficult about anything in the martial arts, in principle. For everything that mankind has learned or figured out once, then mankind is surely capable of figuring it out again. Some concepts are more difficult, to be sure, and it doesn't imply that anyone knows them all, but it means that there is no "sacred domain" of knowledge.

It seems that this concept of ancient knowledge is more a status symbol than anything. It is as if someone can legitimize his or her art by saying that it is thousands of years old. Well, astrology is pretty old too, but I wouldn't be using it to predict anything serious (or, well, anything not-serious either). My opinion is that, like science, knowledge should be a self-correcting, continual state of learning. The moment you put something down in stone, it will soon be out of date.

Astrology
Astrology excels at making vague generalities and unsubstantiated notions sound "sciency".

This doesn't mean that the martial arts don't have a huge body of difficult to grasp knowledge. It does! In fact, I would say it would be practically impossible for any one person to get a fraction of it. The point is that there isn't anything special about it. If you compare it to a more scientific subject like Physics, it may not be obvious, but it is, when you come to the basics, just a collection of relationships, facts, and predictions.

Just because this knowledge isn't somehow supernatural, or at least more advanced than our own time, doesn't mean that it isn't marvelous in itself. People have a tendency to consider "normal" stuff as mundane and boring, and are inclined to believe in "something more." While I wouldn't argue that something more wouldn't be interesting, it would be a shame to discount the sheer magnificence of our own world. So the "ancients" knew a lot but didn't know how to fly with a thought. They still knew a lot more than many of us, even if we are capable of learning it as well. Besides, as a famous astronomer, Phil Plait once said, "I like reality the way it is, and I aims to keep it that way." Our universe is plenty interesting without old masters that have death rays of Qi and can jump over small mountains.

For example, a simple thing that some would consider a secret is the art of relaxation. It is not a difficult thing to think about doing, but it is an extremely difficult concept for some people to get and apply. Even as you read this, unless you have practiced the martial arts for a while, you probably don't know exactly what it means. Relaxation during physical exertions (oxymoronic as it sounds) is the key to increasing your abilities. A simple exercise that I like to do is to ten pushups every minute for an hour. Between each set is stretching and relaxation. At the end, I have done 600 pushups. It sounds like a decent amount, but when done properly, it is actually pretty tame on the exercise scale. (If you don't believe me, I have led new students through this exercise. If asked beforehand if they could do 600 pushups in an hour, they would have flatly denied it!)

References

  • Phil Plait's Bad Astronomy: http://www.badastronomy.com/: March 22, 2006
  • Gabbert, J. Compendium of Ancient and Midieval History. Winchester, MA: Barnes and Nobles, 1991
  • Warry, J. Warfare in the Classical World. New York, NY: Barnes and Nobles, 1993
  • Herodotus, the Histories, translated by Selincourt, A. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 1972