A group of blind men heard of a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the town, but none of them were aware of its shape and form. Out of curiosity, they said: “We must inspect and know it by touch, of which we are capable”. The first person, whose touched the trunk, said, “This being is like a snake”. Another, his hand upon its leg, said, the elephant is like a tree-trunk. The next, hand upon its side, said, “it is like a wall”. Another who felt its tail, described it as a rope. Ancient Parable
What is the best fighting system? Whatever your answer, how do you prove it?
Like the blind men, we are all groping, constrained by our limitations. They were only able to put their hands on a small part of the whole. We are all similarly limited in every area of knowledge and understanding. This is why wisdom begins with a perception of our limitations.
For instance, I am always out panning for gold (how best to invest my time to get the capability to fight well), sifting for little bits of insight, but I’m only sifting at this one stream. We are on a planet with 7 billion people, and there are over three thousand years of recorded human history (never mind pre-literate societies).
What are human beings capable of in terms of fighting? Is the limit what we in the West think, with our science and our sports records? Or have there been or are there people who are capable of things that have not been photographed and documented? Until the early 1800s, no one had any idea there was something called infrared. But there are animals such as bats that can “see” parts of the infrared spectrum. For most of human history, there was this invisible world we had no idea existed. The same with ultraviolet light and very high ranges in the audible spectrum (dogs hear it, but not you).
“There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio,
Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”
When I hear people making confident statements about the “truth,” often in the realm of fighting and who or what is the “best,” I have the urge to roll my eyes. Such and such is the best fighting method. You can’t be good unless you do X. This is especially tiresome as many of the loudest and most confident commentators clearly know next to nothing! They are armchair quarterbacks.
In fighting, there are various sets of “certainties” discussed on the internet based on the limits people observe in fighters who fight professionally. Do you think these professional fighters are the best there have ever been, or even the best now? I remember when the Ultimate Fighter show appeared in 2005 and the tagline was that the prize offered to the winner was “a six figure contract,” I was like, ooooh. 20 years laters, and further along in my career, it doesn’t seem like such an astronomical figure any longer! I personally know many people who make six figures sitting at a desk, not risking concussion and CTE. Is this six figure salary the bait you use to attract the best fighters in the world?
Do we think that it’s the best people on the planet taking Xu Xiaodong‘s martial challenges in China? Everyone who is any good at Taijiquan as a fighting system or other “Classical” styles are taking these challenges? Are the most deadly hand-to-hand fighters in the world fighting in the K1 or the UFC? Or are those people bodyguards for heads of state? Or protecting billionaires? Or are they living peaceful balanced lives doing something totally unrelated to fighting for a living?
You know what? None of us have any idea!
Over the years, I’ve met some people who trained for the ring. I’ve trained with some. I’ve also trained with “martial arts masters.” And I’ve seen some stuff and felt some stuff. And it has left me wondering! The more I learn about “Classical” systems, the more I realize that there is a whole underground of people who have learned so-called Classical systems who never “show off” in public. They are not exactly “in the shadows” either. They are just living their lives, but yet also have what can only be called “superpowers.” Except they are not supernatural, just based on varieties of ancient technology which the West is only now getting around to studying and “confirming.”
Just because Western science hasn’t studied it yet doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Many Western doctors thought acupuncture was nonsense just a few years ago. Now you can get it covered by your insurance at Kaiser. Acupuncture is just the tip of this spear of ancient Chinese knowledge. And let’s through in India and all the other dozens of countries who have fighting traditions going back hundreds and even thousands of years. To run a modern scientific study costs a bunch of time and money, so this approach is only applied to areas of study in which there is a likely payoff (Intellectual property like patents and drugs to be sold) or where there are wealthy donors involved. So not everything that might get studied gets studied. My observation is some cheap and simple things like Apple Cider Vinegar or garlic have amazing health benefits but they are not prescribed by doctors in hospitals by only by people engaged in “pseudo-science” (read “traditional knowledge handed down through culture”).
Ironically, a lot of the current state of opinions about Classical martial systems have their root in Bruce Lee’s 1971 article “Liberate Yourself from Classical Karate.” This is where he coined his well-worn phrases for Classical systems: ” Classical Mess” and “Land-swimming.” It was a scathing attack, rooted in truth, but Bruce didn’t know everything and hadn’t experienced everything.
I wonder how Bruce would feel now? Even his beloved Wing Chun is ridiculed. In reality, he was incredibly proud of his Chinese culture. And PS he only studied Wing Chun in Hong Kong for about a year and a half – he never even learned the dummy. A lot of his Jeet Kune Do idea was him filling the gaps in his game left by having had to leave Hong Kong before he finished his study of the system. He had a try-this, try-that approach which had its benefits and drawbacks. A smart man full of energy, he pushed his body to its limits and accomplished a great deal, but he also apparently ate hashish like M&Ms and treated his body like a lab animal.
Many if not all of the Chinese fighting systems are anywhere from influenced to built upon Taoism, including Wing Chun. The more I learn about Taoism as a philosophy, the more I realize that prize fighting is the last thing you’d find a Taoist doing! In fact, this was one of the many points of tension in Bruce Lee – he was a big fan of Taoism, yet he also clearly thirsted for fame and had an unquenchable drive to be able to beat anyone in a fight. This latter drive I think led him to the edge, physically and mentally. I really hope he would have transcended this urges and needs as he matured. The Bruce of 1972-1973 described by Wong Shun Leung makes me a little sad, but based on everything I’ve seen and heard and read, it rings true!
So what is the best fighting system? There is no such thing. There are systems and there are people training in them and any fight is a product of that moment, and an infinitely complex formula comprised of the condition of the fighters, their motivations, their training, size, weight, etc, etc. The great thing that happens as you age (and I wish Bruce could have reached this point), is you realize how little questions like this matter to your life. No matter how “good” you get, there is always someone better. There are always two people who are better than the one person. In any fight, the tide can turn when a weapon is produced. Or friends join in.
The continued value of martial arts as we age is complicated. Its the challenge of any difficult attainment and how striving changes you. There are longevity benefits (or pitfalls). There is the social element. It can be fun, in the same way volleyball is fun. It can be a focus of your thought which enriches you the way studying anything can improve your mind. There are philosophical elements, and the spiritual. Martial arts can be an infinite source of self-development. But only if you “invest in loss,” and “learn to lose,” and get over the ego-driven fear-based elements that may have led you to these arts and technologies.
Great blog Steven, I really appreciate your no-nonsense approach to martial arts. I studied Wing Chun briefly some years ago, looking to get back into it. Are you familiar with the Gu Lao tradition? Its an intriguing system which seems to simplify the system to the bare essentials.
Yes – the first instructor I studied with was Stanley Jue in Cambridge Mass back in 1999! I can’t say I got very far – it was just a few months. Who will you train with?