I Hate “Martial Arts”

When asked by interested friends and colleagues about my pastime, I hesitate to use the term “martial art”. I know of course that Shakespeare famously declared that “ a rose by any other name would smell as sweet” but, then again, semantics can be important. Only a generation ago the “cripple’ merely described a person with a disability. Nowadays most sensitive human beings balk at this pejorative term, considering it at best distasteful, at worst grossly offensive. Similarly, the term “martial art” has connotations that, I believe, send out  the wrong signals.

I will argue that the roots of the phrase itself render the phrase “martial art” inappropriate to describe what I do, but equally important is the popular imagery the term conjures up.  To the man on the Clapham omnibus, “martial art” means men with pingpong balls for eyes performing super-human feats in tacky seventies TV programmes. Alternatively, the movie image is the badly dubbed hero performing unbelievable acts of acrobatics in ludicrously large-collared shirts. The terms “Kung Fu” and “Martial Art” in this context are interchangeable. The other popular image is found in the tabloidese “martial arts weapon” as in “…assaulted him with a martial arts weapon…”- none of these associations fills me with any comfort at all.

These connotations alone are surely reason enough to seek an alternative term. But now to the phrase itself. First, “Martial”. Deriving from the Roman god of war, Mars, the term literally means “of, or pertaining to war”. Although some practitioners may be serving members of the armed or security forces, most participants in our ways are, by thankful dint of the “peace premium”, unlikely to engage in such barbarities as armed international conflict. Whilst many instructors may like to think of themselves as latter day samurai (a bit of a paradox anyway considering the strict feudal system governing the Bushi class, contrasted with the peasant origins of karate) their contact, or likely involvement with war is, frankly minimal. To classify myself as “martial” therefore endows me with either a nobility or barbarity (depending on your view of war) with which I cannot empathise. 

Now to the tricky issue of art. Sun Tsu may have spoken of the “Art of War” but, even assuming this popularly held translation to be accurate (I’m no Chinese language scholar but it is my experience that many such abstract concepts are difficult, if not impossible to translate directly) he was talking of grand military strategy.  You may wish to draw your own conclusions as to the validity of the term ‘art’ in that context, but grand campaign strategy is certainly not in my syllabus - at least not up to sandan! Similarly it is common English usage to describe pugilism as ‘the noble art’. Noble it may be, but I take issue with the term ‘art’ in this context too. A useful definition of art is “the translation or interpretation of one form of reality via the medium of another form, for the benefit of either the perpetrator or the observer”.  So whatever your personal view of Damien Hirst’s avant-garde installations, the fact that they represent some issue or aspect of the artist’s perception of life, by this definition makes them art.

Fighting can in many ways be thought of as a science. Such disciplines as physiology, biomechanics, physics, and - in a perverse, destructive sense - medicine are all embraced. Science requires that an hypothesis be tested, then refined according to experimental results. Kumite is one very powerful experiment. The hypothesis: “my personal combination of skill, physiology, fitness, and application will be sufficient to defeat my opponent”. The other aspect of good scientific experiment is control of the variables involved. Several different rounds of kumite, against a variety of opponents will provide the requisite control. The human brain is well capable of sorting out the key variables here and usually of refining the approach accordingly. Science to many is the very antithesis of art. Karate clearly cannot be both. Can it?

At this point, if not before, many readers will cry “foul” and point to kata as a manifestation of art in karate. Sorry folks. Kata, the ritualised attempt to copy that which has gone before, owes nothing to the creative arts. Kata are about precise replication. Art can never come from such order. Creative art can only come from chaos.

Some may argue that the alleged transformation of karate from a “Jutsu” to a “Do” marks its entry into the world of art. Etymologically, Jutsu and Do both refer to a way or path - a means to an end. Even if you argue that the end in a “do” is a spiritual one, such self-indulgent thoughts still do not lead to anything interpretive or representative. Still no art.


So, “martial” and “art” both prove inadequate or inappropriate. The connotations associated with the phrase in its entirety are also undesirable. How then should we classify or describe karate? I admit that any descriptive term is beset with objections or difficulties. A term is needed that imparts a moral acceptability to fighting - moreover to the study and practice of fighting with the aim of improving its efficiency in the despatch of my opponents!  How can I convince my karate colleagues that I am willing to “get my hands dirty”, whilst persuading my more genteel, sensitive acquaintances that what I do has a moral validity?


The term I prefer is “Combat Discipline”. Other readers may have their own ideas.


Martyn Skipper March 2001