If you treat some friends to opera tickets you and they may be disappointed. It all depends on which friends you invite. For example, if your group is comprised of a singer, an actor and a dancer and they’ve never heard of opera (it’s just an analogy, after all) then all three of them will think that there wasn’t enough singing, acting or dancing to suit them. It takes a bit of imagination to understand that opera is, well, opera.

Movies are the modern equivalent. I have known people to see movies as basically music or camera shots or a script.  As a writer I tend to see movies as just a bunch of human beings “fleshing out” the story on the page. It’s inevitable.

So parents see the martial arts as character building; cops see it as restraints; young men as kick ass and attractiveness; older people as exercise; promoters as money; teachers as a legacy. That would seem to cover it all but really these are only a fraction of the many faces of martial arts.

For one thing all of these only exist in the realm of popular immediate culture, what’s hot right now. Like most consumer culture there’s no memory and not much perspective. The comparison I use is that of a chessboard with its 64 squares. Each of these is an attribute and the only thing that really irritates me is the tendency to cut out an individual square and parade it as the whole board.

Martial arts may indeed have started out with a single minded goal such as a means of destruction ,but as time passed they acquired more meaning. Like democracy that started with only white males there has been a continual growth of the perimeter and those who become enfranchised are as much a part of the process as anyone else.

Martial arts, to a Chinese for instance, is living history. Their grandfathers and great grandfathers died in those battles doing those moves. More people have given their lives in Chinese military campaigns than have fallen in battles on most continents, at least before modern mechanized mayhem started. But I have known of teachers who wondered if the Chinese knew anything about fighting. To a scholar martial arts is an embodiment of a philosophy of virtue. It is a morality beyond the techniques. To a doctor it is a canny blend of exercise and qigong, a health maintenance system where proponents brag about how old their teachers are and how long and long-lived is their lineage.  To the Chinese politician martial arts is a force. The 20th century would have been written differently without the influence of martial arts. There is no doubt.

To the reclusive it is a self-contained package, a complete and three dimensional disciple. To the right person it is community, structured yet flexible where people might acknowledge their martial ranks in direct contradiction to their outside social status.

It is weapons work, exercise, self defense, sport, art and all the other things, too. But there is a difference . You cannot market martial arts as history, at least not to most people. So its real meaning is already diluted. You can’t market it as a philosophical study except at the simplest level, a sort of moral cook book with recipes. It can confuse people when it’s not about report cards, or doing the splits or looking good. Like so many things the top line of benefits is replaced by the bottom line of experience.

I could, of course, be talking about other aspects of culture such  as art, dance, religion, politics or even opera. In many cases you can do nothing about the devaluation of culture. But every day when a martial artist starts to practice, he or she can choose to blend the diverse meanings. It can be done in a single movement or even no movement at all. Next time you are standing there about to begin practice, realize that the curtain is just about to go up on you performance and make it sing.

One Response to “Opera”

  1. patrick hodges says:

    Could never have said it better!

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