Martial’s Many Faces

If you look up “love” in the Oxford English Dictionary, you’ll get hundreds of words in the definition. Love means a lot of things to a lot of people.

art_manyfacesmartialbIf you look up “martial” in the same volume, you will also find many variations on the definition. But unlike the definition of “love,” the martial entry is not exhaustive, and this can cause some confusion.

For example, at my school in Santa Cruz, California,  students train martial arts, martially.

However, in the last few years I’ve opened some classes with a health orientation. This causes a bit of a paradox. People come in to improve their balance, gain strength and, generally, support their health. At the same time, they politely disdain the idea that they might be engaged in martial training. Now I’m from old school, so I refuse to let this go. To me, practicing Tai Chi, for instance, without reference to the martial, is like trying to build a house without studs.

The trick, I think, is to expand their definitions. Even the most basic meaning, which people still forget, is that martial means war or battle, not personal combat. It is an art form that derives its meaning from its association with that all too human, activitiy: war. For the non-martial artist I try to translate this as  concentration, seriousness, focus. Martial, in this case, means ‘be aware of what you are doing,’ ‘go home and practice,’ and ‘do Tai Chi the justice of remembering the names of the moves.’

Another unexpected definition speaks to the idea of martial presence. When the martial artist enters a room, she projects a presence. In Yang style Tai Chi, for example, the very first move, Ward Off, correlates to this quality. I once saw Yang Jun demonstrate in Chen Village. In front of an audience of Chen style skeptics he began a Yang style Tai Chi set that felt so big, so expansive that everyone should have moved back a couple of feet. Presence.

Another strong argument for not shying away from the martial  is that–technically speaking–you can’t fully practice Tai Chi without referring to the martial. Balance, strength, structure, intent and function all come together only where everything is meaningful, and nothing is whimsical. Without seriously examining the moves, without martial eyes, the legs don’t bear the weight, the hands don’t express the waist, the concentration is diffused. The gestures are hollow.

Another point is that true martial artists do not distinguish between defense and offense, consequently, they are not about hurting people (offense) or getting hit (defense.) The Chinese see this interplay of “offensive” and “defensive” moves as rhythmic extensions of Yin and Yang. For them the martial is not scary, and not violent. More the opposite since the very word Wu (martial) is composed of “stop” and “fight” combined.

A final image: that of the warrior departing after having presented his lady with a single flower. Martial Arts reminds us that life and death are bound in an aesthetic of profound beauty. While this is difficult to find in daily life, the rich vein of it in martial arts can greatly enhance what might otherwise be a dull and vapid approach to health.

Leave a Reply

What do you have to say?

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.