Factors in Mis-transmission in Martial Arts

(The following is another extract from my forth-coming book: ‘Form & Function – the Making of Martial Art’ I hope you enjoy it and it gives some flavour of what to expect from the book itself)

Many Factors, Many Reasons


There are many reasons for the mis-tranmission of a martial art over its lifetime.  From generation to generation, even within a shared ethnic culture, these might include:

  • Difficulty in passing on objectively, the subjective experience of real combat garnered by an individual master fighter.
  • So too, there is often a mis-match between a master’s physical ability and degree of talent for articulation.
  • Withholding of information until student of sufficient character/talent may be found is also a common practice, the downside of which is that it may not be possible to find a student who lives up to the standards of the teacher.
  • Then again, the founder of a new system/variation on old system may have unique set of attributes, not shared with any student acquired during lifetime –  the founder of Serak Silat, Pak Serak might be viewed as a fine, though inverse example of this difficulty, given his art was at least partly defined by his adaptation to having one withered arm, and one crippled leg, on opposite sides of his body.
  • Lack of documentation – particularly significant in case of death of headmaster of any system, prior to full disclosure of knowledge to a successor, and where tradition is oral transmission i.e. the case for the vast majority of arts prior to the 20th Century.


In the case where an art is being promulgated in a culture not its own, other specific difficulties arise.  Perhaps the first, and most obvious problem in this category is that of language difficulties – the barrier posed by teacher and student not speaking (or speaking imperfectly) one another’s native tongue gives rise to many opportunities for misunderstanding; though the obvious gulf is the one between occident and orient, the dilemma may be equally severe between oriental cultures e.g. Okinawan & Japanese cultures.

There may well be a lack of motivation to fully share between cultures – often natural suspicions exist, especially the representatives are from cultures and nations that have a history of conflict.  This is not only significant from the donor side of the relationship – the receiver may be equally wary of fully assimilating or converting to a foreign form.

Sometimes there is a lack of context when an art is taught in a wholly different culture and physical environment.  Here are two quite different, but equally pertinent examples:

– An excellent Kalis teacher of our acquaintance, studies under a very famous Muay Thai Ajan.  This Kalis teacher lives in a city in the American Mid-West, where snow and ice on the ground is the norm for at least half the year.  He loves Muay Thai for its combative attitude and effective training method, but cannot bring himself to tell his teacher he cannot imagine applying this art in his own home environment.

– Shotokan karate – in the early years of promoting his personal version of Okinawan te in Japan, textbooks show Gichin Funakoshi Sensei’s form to be relaxed and relatively very small frame (as Shorin systems go, that is).  In the post-war era, Funakoshi made a decision to follow Jigoro Kano Sensei’s lead (the founder of Judo) in attracting the young to his art, by introducing competition.  At the same time, his system and other Japanese martial arts, such as Judo began to acquire many Western students amongst the occupying powers’ troops.  American students in particular were, on average, larger than their Japanese counterparts.  The art rapidly changed to become more tensile, power oriented, devoid of its pressure point technique and much larger in frame, presumably to suit the cultural expectations held for a ‘powerful’ art by both Westerners and the young people of Japan whom he wished to attract to training.

Radical differences between racial somatotypes can force changes to technique also. The average American is not only considerably larger, but like all Western Europeans, generally lacks the lateral flexibility in the hips common to most Oriental people.  This is mostly due to the relatively sedentary nature of Westerners, combined with the availability of more living space in the average Western home and the design of Western chairs.  This has to affect the training of kicking techniques and low crouching postures and techniques, such as Silat’s generic sempok and depok techniques and the ground hugging techniques of Harimau Silat.  This can lead to altered teaching order of the progression of technical material within the syllabus, thus altering the weight or status given to techniques, or the changing of technique to accommodate Western students.

Too Much, Too Young

In the early days of teaching Westerners in the West by Orientals, teachers were able to restrict students to a stricter diet of basic techniques e.g. if you were a Caucasian karateka in the U.K. in the 1950’s, 60’s, and early 70’s, you would have noticed in training, and even in competition, many fewer techniques in use.

The dominant kicking technique in those days was the maegeri, or front kick.  One of the truly great early British karateka, Terry O’Neill, one of Enoeda Sensei’s senior students, caused a sensation in the early 1970’s when he pretty much introduced the mawashigeri (roundhouse kick) into competition.  He won several tournaments with this surprise tactic before other fighters learned to guard against and counter it adequately (not that stopped him winning, by the way – after all, talent will out).  Another example would be, that teachers in southern California in the 1980’s and 90’s must have felt under pressure to:

a)  make stronger claims for their arts than they might otherwise, or

b)  present advanced, or exotic, techniques as fundamental in their efforts to compete for students; southern California could be characterised as the navel of the martial arts universe in the latter half of the 20th Century, having as it does an extraordinary proportion of the world’s most senior martial arts teachers.

Another factor giving rise to less than ‘authentic’ transmission from the late 1950’s and early 1960’s was the overly rapid promotion of Western students in order to have representation abroad.  Since that time many martial arts have been going the way of Ju-Jutsu in the latter half of the 19th Century, when Jigoro Kano took his decision to create Judo as a result of seeing Ju-Jutsu dwindle to a handful of traditional ryu, most with no more than a dozen adherents at the time.  Naturally when an art is threatened with extinction, teachers will strive to keep it alive by whatever means necessary.  If that means presenting the art in radically altered form to people for whom it is a culturally alien artifact, who can blame them?  Teachers are, after all, human, and tend to have developed the habit of eating regularly, just like their students.  And who is to say, that an accomplished artist shouldn’t hope to prosper as a result of all the blood, sweat and tears shed in the acquisition of their mastery of the art.  Anyone who has been around the arts as long as I have, will naturally have heard all the stories of Americans, particularly in the post-Korean war period, getting on a plane in Seoul as a 1st Kup or Kyu, or even a 1st Degree Black Belt, and getting off the plane a 4th Degree Black Belt.

In many cases this may have been sanctioned only by the individuals themselves, or by their teachers, and certainly need not have been motivated by any wish to misrepresent or defraud.  After all, Occidentals are just as status conscious as Orientals, particularly when purchasing a service such as tuition; the criteria and cues establishing that status are however, not necessarily the same.  How many Americans or Europeans, searching for tuition in the arts will go to Bill at one end of town, rather than Fred at the other, simply because Bill is a 6th Degree Black Belt, while Fred is say, a 4th Degree?  The fact that they may practice entirely different arts, subject to radically different grading structures is irrelevant to Joe Public, who will generally choose the teacher of apparently higher status, meaningless though that may be.

On the more negative side, two further points are worth considering:

a) many oriental teachers in the past gave inflated ranks to Westerners, on the basis that this would not compromise their standing in their own community.  Firstly, it didn’t matter what paper they signed, their students were aliens, and no other Oriental person would recognise the rank on the strength of the certificate alone.

b) Secondly, no other Oriental would care what rank another Oriental had bestowed on a foreigner.  The perfectly valid thinking behind this says why shouldn’t a teacher who, by Western material standards has been poor all their lives, effectively sell supposed ranks (that would only confer status amongst other Westerners), when they themselves couldn’t ‘buy’ their skills by anything other than discipline, hard work and suffering?

©John Mellon M.A., and The Martial Arts University, 2011.  Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited.  Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to John Mellon M.A. and The Martial Arts University with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

About themartialartsuniversity

In daily training in the martial arts for the last 53 years; teaching almost daily for 43 years. Hold teaching ranks in 27 martial arts, Master ranked in 4 arts, Headmaster of 3 systems, the Founder of 2 arts, and the co-Founder of 2 others. Has been the official Technical Advisor to Profs. Wally and Leon Jay of Small Circle Ju-jitsu since the 1990's. Assistant Headmaster of Small Circle Ju-jitsu and the co-founder and joint Headmaster of Small Circle Concepts with Prof. Leon Jay. Has three Bachelor degrees and a Masters Degree in History. Experienced writer - published or featured in all of the UK martial arts magazines and in Inside Kung Fu in US, as well as: Esquire; She; Elle; Woman's Journal; Health and Fitness; Zest; Marie Claire and The Independent (UK national daily newspaper). Has been featured on BBC and ITV news programmes as expert on weapons defence and usage in relation to law enforcement issues. Former CPO (Bodyguard), and still active as a Bodyguard trainer.
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