Traditionalism vs. Modernism

Tony Annesi

Everyone builds on tradition; it is just that some of us shore up the foundations and some of us reconstruct using new materials. Some of us do a little of both

The original founders of the arts we call "traditional" may very well have refrained from calling their creations "traditional" because their arts were in the process of developing at the time. We do not talk about traditional football or baseball players because no one practices a form of these sports using older rules, uniforms, or other conventions as separate from contemporary football or baseball. We call "traditional" those who keep alive arts not in current use. A bow and arrow expert might be considered a traditional warrior if he used his weapon in circumstances where others would use M-16's or AK-47's. He would be a traditionalist because in contemporary times, bows and arrows are not used, nor even practiced for use in war. In this sense, all Asian martial arts are traditionalistic.

In self-defense, traditionalism means little. We do what is necessary in self-defense, not what is our art. We do not make sure our wrist reversal looks like the version taught in aikido or Hwarang-do or ju-jutsu or Shorinji Kempo, nor do we make sure we apply a wrist reversal instead of a punch (just because we studied a grappling art) if the punch would be more appropriate. In self-defense, we use whatever we know, whether or not it is recognizable as an art, let alone a traditional art. In self-defense, we are all contemporary eclecticists.

What passes either as traditionalism or modernism is the method of training. All methods of training are shaped by the goals an adherent wishes to achieve. A tournamenteer who trains for open tournament may be referred to as a Modernist, while a Traditionalist, it is said, trains for closed tournaments, but both are using arts in a way which preserve at least a vestige of combat (and are thus Traditionalists), while neither is preserving the art as combat (thus both are Modernists.) Both are developing their arts, but in their own milieu and at their own pace. Practitioners develop their art to improve and achieve within their own goal-structures. The labels which they adhere to themselves do not label their arts but their attitudes.

Traditionalists are in the unfortunate position of having labeled as a "traditional" art that which is no longer in use for actual combat. Those traditionalists who wish to popularize the martial arts, by expanding the influence of their style or the attendance of tournaments, etc., seem to belie their own term for themselves because they wish to popularize the practice of those arts which are no longer used in combat but which can be practiced for many other reasons. Thus, they wish to put into use for other goals that which is no longer used for the original goal. Traditionalists who wish to popularize also wish to become Modernists in that they desire a new use for old practices. Of course, there are those traditionalists who do not wish to apply their arts to modern needs at all but to preserve them for the sake of historical accuracy. These are not really traditionalists in my view but classicists, or perhaps preservationists.

Traditionalism implies an inheritance. Ironically, even modernists have some sort of inheritance; no one has created his own style who has not drawn at least somewhat from existing styles. A modernist would just as soon ignore or at least find fault with his inheritance. A traditionalist recognizes and honors his inheritance and sometimes is limited by it. But the term "traditionalist" should not always imply that a practitioner cannot adapt or change. The act of honoring one's inheritance means that one checks back on what one already has before venturing into the new. Both Funakoshi (founder of Shotokan) and his teacher Itosu (leading instructor of Shorin after Matsumura) changed their arts, but they did not do this haphazardly, rather they employed a great deal of study and tried to improve their art within their tradition. In this respect, one might call even Bruce Lee a traditionalist.

Lee started with the traditional Wing Chun, at first modifying it only slightly to be able to deal with longer-limbed and stronger Americans. From there he went on to develop the more or less modernist Jeet Kune Do, but he always honored his tradition. He had the utmost respect for both his instructor Man Yip, and his senior William Cheung. To this degree he can be considered a traditionalist. To the extent that he wrote about traditional training as bunk, he of course is not honoring tradition. But note that the arts he referred to as the "classical mess" were not his own arts. Not having grown up in these traditions, it was easy for him to poo-poo them, much as people in the Japanese arts which I grew up in poo-pooed Chinese martial arts, much as some people in Korean circles belittle Japanese arts or people in Chinese circles laugh at the simplicity of Korean styles. If one does not understand a system nor develop within it, one can easily find fault with it. This Bruce Lee did and because of it we consider him a rebel and a non-traditional Modernist.

In my opinion, had Bruce Lee withheld his judgment until a later date, he would have recognized that some of those techniques which seemed useless in combat are often simply misunderstood because exposure to in-depth instruction is lacking. Lee should be credited with criticizing martial artists' wholesale belief that externally perceived applications would work literally as taught, and with criticizing the slowness with which Asian instruction revealed what really did work, but one should not assume that the validity of these criticisms implies that all aspects of traditionalism are nonfunctional or purposeless.

Lee's articles, and later his JKD, set a precedent for the development of modernist martial arts. Traditional martial arts were becoming more eclectic due to tournament competition but Lee blew them wide open with his articles in the 1960's. He then advocated a style which was not a style and an art which was not an art. That is fine for the brave advanced practitioner who is interested in the essence of the martial arts as combat arts and enters into that essence without a blueprint. But, Bruce Lee was an experienced martial artist who taught, by and large, experienced martial artists. He had fundamentals to draw on and so did his students. Nowadays people with little experience immediately want to jump into their own eclectic art because they want to be "free". They are simply jumping into a less experienced format, using a blueprint which has not yet built buildings, one which is, in fact, being adjusted as it is printed.

Even eclectic modernist arts have to have a form in order to be communicated. Bruce Lee's "classical messes" were probably over-stringent in insisting that a certain form not be varied and that variance from that certain form should equal stylistic excommunication or damnation to the hell of supposed ineffectiveness. I contend that traditional martial arts produced tested blueprints from which we may expand, grow, and adjust. I am a traditionalist, for instance, because I find the traditional blueprint to have unexpected depth and detail. Movements that I have been repeating for two decades hold new things for me each year. This does not mean, however, that I shut off innovations from the outside. But I contend that innovations, whether from outside a style or from within, innovate from some tradition. Styles do not form from thin air. The question is how extremely do new innovations vary from the tradition of origin? Did not baseball arise as an innovation from cricket? Was not American football an innovation from rugby? Do we not get checkers from chess, automobiles from carriages, calculators from abaci, aerobics from calisthenics, and traditional budo itself from ancient battlefield bugei?

All innovations come from some tradition which has to be developing at some rate. During the slow developmental periods, perhaps the innovations within the art of origin went off on a tangent so that, to contemporary ways of thinking, there was no real improvement. Then some single innovation or group of innovations opened the door to a new, more rapid period of development in which more innovations flowed. Bruce Lee is responsible, I think, for accelerating innovation in the martial arts and should be applauded for it, however, one should not assume that the martial arts were not developing and changing anyway, albeit at a slower rate.

The traditionalist should respect the innovator to the extent that he/she is contributing to the martial arts. The modernist should respect those who wish to study more slowly and in more depth that which is already established. Personally, I respect both. I consider myself an "innovative traditionalist" because I do not believe in staying solely with one's "inheritance", I believe in building on it. Most traditionalists, by in large, look to the hallowed figures of the past. These are the great men of whom we are the feeble descendants. Modernists, conversely, believe that those were the feeble men of whom we are the great descendants. I respect both traditionalist and modernist but concur with neither extreme. Rather, I choose to look toward the future by standing on the shoulders of giants.

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