If you are a practitioner of a traditional martial art system, it is likely that you are familiar with the aggressive self-promotion tactics used by some modern sports-based martial arts systems. Hints and allegations about the ineffectiveness of traditional martial arts systems run the full gamut from subtle jabs to outright knocking-on-your-door-challenges.
Case in point is the much publicised recent defeat of a self-proclaimed Tai Chi master at the hands of a professional MMA fighter in Chengdu. Some may complain about the current environment but I actually appreciate it. I appreciate it because it is challenging to be a traditional martial artist today. It is the kind of environment that stimulated the development of most traditional martial arts in the first place.

I think that for some time, many traditional martial arts have been relaxing on the proverbial couch and the current state of affairs is what the doctor ordered to help them to shed some weight, get off the couch and take themselves seriously again. This environment stimulates thought. It stimulates training. It stimulates the development of iron fists and steel minds.

Today, it is far easier to join with the crowd and kow-tow to the large corporations and organisations which promote MMA-style events. Their marketing strategies are so comprehensive you can almost smell the brain-washing from the other end of the room.

I have spoken about the relative effectiveness of sports-based systems like MMA in self-defence situations before and I may sum up these points in a future article, but today I would like to focus on some of the sweeping principles that I have learned in my career which have made my traditional training effective. I hope that it can encourage and strengthen other traditional martial artists out there.

Now is the time to become strong and to surf the tsunami of misinformation until it undermines itself and breaks its power on the rocks of reality.
I have inherited a pair of swords from a distant family connection which were deployed during the South African Boer War (1899 – 1902). Both are high-quality English steel sabres. One is a dress-sword, the other is a full combat sword. I absolutely love them because they essentially represent the pinnacle of Western sword-making technology (and they are part of the history of my family).

I say that they represent the pinnacle of Western sword-making technology and I’m sure that some of you may be thinking quietly to yourselves,

“But we are so much more technologically advanced now. Surely swords made today are superior?”.

I say no.

Let me explain why. Swords are no longer relevant as a battlefield tool. Swords made today do not have to be functionally efficient because soldiers do not rely on them to survive. We rely on guns to do the job now. In the late 1800s, soldiers still relied to a large extent on a functional sword for their survival. If the sword didn’t work too well, Joe Bloggs wielding said sword may not make it back to his wife and kids. This dependence on the sword’s effectiveness drove the technology and the manufacturing process to ensure that the swords were the best damned swords that could be made. It’s a true testament to the sword’s quality that mine is still near razor-sharp today, over 110 years later.

I joke with my students that if there ever was such a thing as a Zombie Apocalypse, I wouldn’t wield any of my small collection of modern replica swords, even the combat steel Jians or Daos that I train regularly with.


I would reach for the family sword.

The 110 year old grandpa.

Because I know what drove the people who designed and made it. It wasn’t looks, it was functionality in the face of deadly threats. And no, I don’t believe in the Zombie Apocalypse.

I like to compare traditional martial arts to my family sword.

Old? Yes.

Dated? It’s a deadly weapon, not a fashion accessory, mate.

Flashy? Pragmatic.

Functional? You’d better believe it.

Most martial arts were developed to cope with deadly threats. They had to function or the life of the practitioner would be forfeit. It was a little bit like natural selection. The systems that endured worked or the practitioners would be killed off.

A traditional martial art is not a dead system as some people may believe and as the modern propagandists would have you think. One of the central principles of some of the more modern martial art systems is that a student’s fighting response should be made up of technique which they have made their own and that useless technique should be discarded.

The paradigm in a living traditional system is similar in that a student’s actual combat response is invariably made up of technique which they have appropriated for themselves from the usually comprehensive curriculum available to traditional students and should not be made up of elements that do not work for them.

The one key difference is that the elements which do not work for them at their present level are retained in the training program and trained diligently.
Due to the depth of traditional systems, many of the techniques and approaches are too subtle and refined for a beginning or even an intermediate student to effectively appropriate and use as part of their combat response. To abandon these techniques and approaches completely would undermine the student’s effectiveness when they reach more advanced levels. This approach of abandoning advanced techniques just because they don’t work for a student at one point in their career leads to a combat response which can become over-simplified and stagnant in the intermediate or advanced levels.

Students of living traditional systems should also be studying the present environment and adapting their combat response to suit. Most traditional systems have more than sufficient depth and content to allow a great deal of adaptation to more modern threats.

So don’t adopt an insular or rigid approach in your perspective as a traditional student.

Look at what others are doing.

Look for things that challenge you personally and then understand how your traditional system can rise to that challenge.

Another consideration is training quality and training time. To properly do justice to a traditional martial art requires a huge time and energy commitment.

Many traditional martial arts do not actively compete in sports-based competition fighting, so practitioners are often unfamiliar with the sporting environment. Don’t let this unfamiliarity turn into naivete. Do not march into a competition-setting as a traditional martial artist who trains ten hours a week and expect to wipe the floor with a professional sports fighter who trains forty hours a week. if the traditional student decides that they would like to compete, they should bear in mind that training commitment counts for a lot. Traditional martial arts training demands at least the same amount of dedication and training time as the more modern sports-based martial arts.

Written by Lester Walters, Head of Chinese Martial Arts and Health Centre Australia