By Armand Pei
His forearm is under my chin. I can feel the blood supply to my brain waning; I hear the sweat drops drumming on the mat and my opponent’s controlled breathing. The choke is tight and expertly executed. My umpteenth attempt to escape fails and, in a matter of seconds, my jaw will shatter and I will pass out. The smallest misjudgment can lead to permanent injury or death.
Using my right hand, I gently tap my partner’s arm to let him know I am accepting defeat. As he releases his grip, my blurred vision slowly comes back. How many times have I been defeated during today’s class? I have surely lost count.
I roll back onto my knees, give a slight bow, shake hands and I smile, remembering the overly proud and arrogant man I used to be.
I’ve been a martial arts and combat sports enthusiast for twenty years (assuming I was six years old when my dad showed me my first Jackie Chan movie…) My dad would often tell me about his undefeated schoolyard record and read me bedside tales about great warriors from ancient dynasties. In a strange way – and despite my parents emphasizing the dangers of fighting throughout my formative years – I grew up convinced that, one day, I would be an invincible warrior. Sure, part of me still believes that I’m on my way to becoming one, but the path ahead is very different from what I originally had in mind.
Survival of the fittest
In a viral video posted on Chinese social networks earlier this year, a combat Tai Chi master was knocked out in 10 seconds by a mixed martial arts (or MMA) fighter.
My dad sent me the link to that video on WeChat just hours before it was taken down under governmental pressure, writing “中国武术不行“– “Chinese martial arts are no good”. Most people shared this view. The others argued that martial arts are not designed for competition but for war. Or that it is about the practitioner, not the style. Or simply diverted the conversation to its philosophical virtues.
I don’t think anyone was genuinely shocked by the outcome of that fight. Instead, the whole debate was led by bruised egos seeking to defend their legitimacy as martial artists or by the uneducated onlooker who had been trying to prove to the world that Shaolin monks could not really fly and finally got to look smug and say “I told you so”.
What’s the point of it all?
For my part, I was more surprised by the buzz itself. How could the outcome of a sports competition be related to the “legitimacy” of a martial art?
A common mistake people make when defining martial arts is thinking of it as a set of techniques that should work in real life. But learning a martial art is not about learning techniques. The physical and mechanical tricks that we call techniques are simply ways to teach how to be and remain disciplined and resolute under pressure.
Martial arts are also not about winning fights or defending oneself. Instead, competition and sparring are ways to learn how to respect, spare and forgive. The fact that daily training shapes your body a certain way, that it gives you tools to cause harm and win fights is really just collateral, albeit collateral that should be carefully channelled.
Competitive combat sports and self-defence styles are modern day versions of martial arts, with the same fundamental teachings of respect and humility. The main difference from the more traditional styles is that these newer forms are more heavily influenced by a need to entertain and make money: the appeal of being the most feared, the fittest, the strongest; the title of “baddest man on the planet”, even reports of Wing Chun fighters beating up bigger men, all of this is marketing. Mayweather vs. McGregor a.k.a. “the Money Fight” is just the latest example of martial arts as spectacle. Are we really supposed to take it as a serious examination of the “legitimacy” of their respective boxing style?
Now, I am a big fan of all forms of martial arts and would love others to be as interested in it as I am. But seeing what these sports are turning into – in the name of popularity and viewer ratings – I can’t help but wonder, aren’t they missing the point?
The fighter’s dilemma & a wine-drinking cycle
When I get asked “what martial arts would you recommend?” I try to understand why the person wants to learn in order to guide them to the style I think will suit them most. 99% of the time, the answer has something to do with being able to incapacitate a potential attacker – the remaining 1% is something about fitness and meditation. When finally, I recommend that someone try out Krav Maga or Muay Thai, there is always that little voice in my head saying, “What if that person deliberately hurts someone else?”. But while many get into martial arts with the intent of spreading violence in one way or another, the paramount concept they are taught is how they should never resort to it.
Sure, it seems counter-intuitive that martial arts students should avoid making use of the things they learn – it pretty much goes against every other educational doctrine. But that would be missing the true lesson being learned. Martial arts teaches self-mastery. It teaches you how to avoid fights by foreseeing dangerous situations and stifling the monster inside you if you’re ever unlucky enough to be in one. Diffuse the situation. Run away if you need to. Don’t fight.
Martial arts are an ode to life, not violence – but accepting this takes a special rite of passage.
As a teenager, I would imagine myself in the ring against world boxing champions, having my name announced by Michael Buffer. I would see myself challenging “thugs” in the neighbourhood just to prove a point and I would train in my basement with friends, trying to catch up with those visions. But while I knew – deep down – that violence should never be an option, it took a completely unexpected metaphor for me to start understanding it: when my father was describing to my uncle the six stages of wine appreciation:
- I am not able to drink
- I do not know how to drink
- I am able to drink
- I know how to drink
- I know how to stop drinking
- I am able to stop drinking
By replacing “drinking” with “fighting”, it was like a light clicked on in my mind. I was simply in stage two of a lengthy journey, one that would ultimately end with a crucial seventh step: I do not fight. Learning how to dish out violence was part of the initiation but it would eventually come out of the picture.
It all becomes much easier if you know from the start that the ultimate goal of training in martial arts is to stop fighting against others, and instead, to improve yourself by helping others improve. Unfortunately, too many martial arts practitioners refuse to get to stage five – I know how to stop fighting – and pursue a path of technical domination rather than technical perfection. I used to be one of them. But I’ve since discovered that a sincere thank you from your opponent after a gruelling fight, the sense of mutual respect and the reassurance of self-control, is infinitely more gratifying than any victory of physical domination could ever be.
When winning stops being the objective and mutual progress is your daily victory, you can no longer be defeated. In our twenty-first century of daily glorified violence, this is more important than ever before.