It seems that as soon as people aren’t forced to depend on their martial abilities their martial arts become leveled and „intellectualized“. This phenomenon can be observed in the military (formerly THE breeding place for unarmed and armed combat) as well, where knowledge of unarmed combat diminishes because the use of firearms lead to a completely new type of warfare thus requiring a different combative training for soldiers. Direct hand to hand combat unarmed or with sticks, knives, swords, lances etc. just isn’t present in todays wars.
In most martial arts unarmed combat is based on the same principles as armed combat (at least in most Chinese martial arts and karate). Only the tool (spear, sword, blunt weapon, „empty“ hand) requires a minimal adaptation to specific circumstances. Firearms however aren’t based in body mechanics…
Whereas martial arts were once studied by people used to hard physical labor (soldiers/mercenaries, craftsmen, settlers, farmers) and being trained in small groups (martial arts schools of armed escorts, military training) in the course of time a „reorientation“ came about. Soldiers/mercenaries hat no use for the „old“ training anymore because arms and warfare changed and the social structure changed therein that civilians weren’t forced to fend for their lifes anymore especially since most took their combat training from the military and taught it in private environments. Industrialization and urbanization did their part.
It did happen very fast that martial arts where taught by overly intellectual „academics“ that neither knew physical labor nor ever had to prove their skills. In some traditions importance was attached to the development of certain physical attributes but often these where perceived as „too strenuous“ and either omitted or not intensively enough trained in. Standing in a deep Mabu or a form of the „standing pillar“, every day 1-2 hours?
Makiwara training 1 hour daily? Work with heavy tools (sticks, weapons)? 1 hour of form training in deep stances?
Many of the things we know as „basic techniques“ or „basic kata“ today serves foremost physical strengthening and motoric education. In case of doubt someone that is used to physical labor will have to endure less than an overly intellectual student but without building a martial arts body nothing will come from it. Daily sweating, daily pain are basics for every martial art.
Now to the important part: One has to learn to attack other people in full contact and to use ones body and that is where many many fail. Protectors are more than counterproductive in this matter.
Different martial arts developed different methods to teach this. Chinese martial arts for example utilize close distance (tuisho) without striking then close distance with striking without prior contact what leads to the teaching of grabs (chinna) and throws first and punches later. They are teaching the fundamentals first and then the expansion, because it doesn’t matter whether I punch or act with a weapon the principle stays the same.
Bridging ( to get into the zone of attack or receive the attack) is, as I said, an advanced concept in Chinese martial arts. Equally the concepts of receiving. In this practice drill one learns to attack using everything at ones disposal and to make hard contact with the opponent whereas the risk of injury stays very low. If one has understood receiving at a distance the attack can become more random and less cooperative without increasing the risk of injury because the „receiver“ of the attack constantly gets better at receiving. In Chinese martial arts the receiver has internalized the body mechanics already when he learns „bridging“, in karate he learns them through receiving attacks in partner drills and kata in addition to makiwara practice.
It all depends on body mechanics and the methods of receiving. To internalize the body mechanics (in karate chinkuchi and gamaku) hard physical training is a necessity. To learn the methods of receiving demands correct images and body mechanics. If „hard physical training“ and/or „images“ are dropped the martial art is as good as dead. What remains are people trying to do everything with force or people that theorize all day long (there the force guys are actually more effective).
Hard physical training calls for a commitment towards martial arts because only like that one can work hard daily over years. Correct images require a close bond with a teacher that knows these images. To learn body mechanics and the forms of receiving a teacher that knows both and lets one feel both is necessary. As student one needs the tactile feedback of the teacher!
When one thinks about this one can understand pretty easily, I think, why such a leveling of martial arts came about. Often the training of physical attributes was neglected, „intellectuals“ hypothesized about martial arts wrote books and founded „institutions“ and „associations“. They talked about martial arts instead of training and sweating for themselves. These people were regarded as „great teachers“ and former (and even todays) social systems forbade to call them into question (if people like Choki Motobu or Zhao Daoxin did it they became hated). The institutions and associations in turn produced many students that spread the „martial arts“ of the „great teachers“ over the world but there wasn’t much „martial“ in it anymore…
For me this raises the precise question what one can/has to do to ensure that the own martial art is preserved? I am lucky enough to have good and motivated students but I am only 1x a week in the dojo to teach them. This time is spent on correcting images/forms of receiving/combat principles. Daily hard training like I experienced it is omitted (even though they are fortunately doing it on their own). It is a big difference if this happens in a group or if one has to pull oneself together alone.
How can this kind of daily training for decades be handed down? It is clear that organizations can’t do this. It is clear that one needs a strong teacher-student-bond but how can one ignite the spark to burn for a martial art in a student? Daily training for decades?
For me it was „I want to be able to do that“ at first, later I realized that it was good for my body and especially my spirit. Then it became natural to train 3-4 times a week (and I mean alone). Everything depends on this inner motivation.
Maybe my motivation is that I can come into contact with my „inner child“ through the physical side of training but this would mean that spiritual education belongs in there at a certain stage. All people I know that are this long in martial arts are dealing with this side in one way or another. May it be that it is this inner battle (or inner child) that keeps martial arts alive even when external circumstances like war or dangerous surroundings are not there?
May it be that this part of us holds the spark of martial arts?