It is a joy to be reading at the moment the autobiography of Gichin Funakoshi, founder of Shotokan Karate. It's called "Karate-do, My Way of Life," and it's a real insight into the life and the mind of one of the true greats of martial arts.
In the book, Funakoshi talks about changing the names of Karate kata, and indeed significantly changing the kata themselves. Though a strict traditionalist, he had this to say:
Let me assure the reader that I labor under no misapprehension that the names I have chosen are changeless and eternal. I have no doubt whatsoever that in the future, as times change, again and then again, the kata will be given new names. And that, indeed, is at it should be.
It is common in martial arts for people to become very focused on the tradition of their art. Many people would argue, with plenty of justification, that this is an essential part of what becoming a martial artist is – an immersion in the tradition of the art. Without it, what exactly would we be? Glorified street brawlers?
Yet as in all things, health requires balance. For our martial art to be healthy, we must respect the tradition, but not make of that respect a blind obsession that forgets our traditions were themselves created from what went before. Martial arts are living things, and living things should adapt and grow.
Sometimes, growth and adaptation comes from a carefully considered, fully discussed and thoroughly worked out step.
A few years ago, I worked with my son Gareth on the strengthening of the traditional TaeKwonDo syllabus we had taught for a number of years at London Chinatown TaeKwonDo, and had inherited pretty much unchanged from a much respected lineage back to the founder, General Choi. We strengthened it by introducing much more practical self defence work, including perhaps most importantly work on restraints. TaeKwonDo, molded together during the appalling barbarity of the Korean War, began as an art for soldiers – soldiers who had direct, brutal and often repeated experience of hand to hand combat to the death. There was little scope for learning restraints – and indeed such learning might have been a life-threatening distraction.
TaeKwonDo as it was originally taught has so very very much for the modern citizen in countries like the UK, in its structure, its tradition, its fitness and health giving aspects, its discipline, focus, and its potential for personal development. Yet as what Alex Gillis so aptly terms the "Killing Art," it does lack a recognition of the circumstances of most of its current students. Were we to teach them only the killing art, without other options, surely we would be culpable should they kill someone unnecessarily when defending themselves, for lack of training in less lethal options. So we, experienced martial artists with hundreds of students learning from us, and after long debate with our fellow instructors, introduced some extra elements to address that.
But change is not always so formal. In fact, I would venture to say that it is rarely so. Names, especially, change in translation and change from teacher to pupil. I have a great example from my own Tai Chi teaching. Recently, my friends David Cunningham and Richard Northwood mentioned that they break down whole postures into distinct parts, and get their students to give those parts their own names, as an aid to learning the postures and each part of the transition from one to another. I do this too, and a little while ago I was asking students in Redditch to go through a section of the Yang Style Short Form, as it came up to "Part Horse's Mane." Now I don't need to explain the move in full for the purposes of this article, but what I do need to say is that to begin the move the practitioner spreads their arms apart, and lifts their right hand out and back beyond their right shoulder, with the palm turning up. It's an expansive gesture. I had encouraged the students to "name the parts," and experienced student Mike Coleman shouted out "flying handbags!".
Everyone laughed, and the idea of swinging our handbags out and back over our shoulders was so evocative that the name stuck. I have used it countless times, and it works perfectly as an indicator of what to do.
Then yesterday I learnt something interesting. We were talking in Mike's class about how useful the phrase was, and Mike said: "you know what? I didn't actually say that. What I said was 'fly hand back.' But you repeated it as "flying handbags" and that seemed to stick so I just left it at that."
So we have introduced a new term, and a new way of teaching that movement. It's based entirely on some mis-heard words. We've come across it by accident, rather than design. And yet.... it works fine. In years to come, this term I am sure will be used many times and will probably be used in classes taught by people who are at the moment my students. It is entirely possible that even its mistaken origins will be lost, and it is quite likely that, in time, it will be superceded by something else.
Funakoshi would no doubt be smiling.