How The Martial Arts Evolve

by Jason T. Fry, 2nd dan in HapKido

Some people wonder why there are so many different styles of martial arts. Even within a style, there are often different “schools” that may they teach Tae Kwon Do, Hapkido, or Karate, but do things differently from other schools of the same name. In this sense I am talking about a school as a “kwan” in Korean, or a clan of classes that are part of an organization. Some styles are different because they originate out of different countries, representing how a particular country’s earliest peoples may have worked out how to defend themselves. Others are the result of changes over time.

Martial arts are a lot like language. Groups of styles can be attributed to countries, like Hapkido and Tae Kwon Do for Korea, or Judo and Karate for Japan. Within each country, different styles could still be different languages, just like many countries have different languages spoken. There are 23 official languages in India and many indigenous languages spoken alongside Spanish in Central and South America. Different schools can be thought of as dialects, still the same style, but with minor or major differences to distinguish it from other schools. Some moves may be totally different or the way a kick is executed slightly changed, but otherwise recognized as the same way of fighting.

Then of course the individual class is like an accent. We all speak in the same dialect as our “kwan,” but we may do things differently from one class to another. Our accent is often the result of our instructor; the particular way he/she prefers to do techniques is passed on to us and we all adopt that way of doing things generally.

But it goes even further. Each of us has our own individual way of speaking: a cadence, a quirk, a set of phrases or words we may use more than others. We each also have our own way of doing our particular martial art. Some of us might take advantage of our flexibility and prefer higher kicks or acrobatic movements. For others, like a lot of us in Hapkido, we might make adjustments for age or injuries and alter techniques to be easier on certain parts of the body. Maybe we try to avoid some techniques altogether. Our martial arts speech patterns become important as we progress because it becomes a defining characteristic of who we are as martial artist. As we spar our classmates, they will become accustomed to how we “speak” and recognize advantages or disadvantages in the way we do things. We may develop bad habits in our particular execution of certain techniques and require a kind of “speech therapy” to correct issues to make us a better martial artist.

But with all the training and correction that we may go through, it is important to remember that our personal martial arts expression is the result of thousands of years training passing down knowledge to hundreds and hundreds of instructors, evolving and changing along the way to the set of skills you know possess. You are simultaneously a completely unique martial artist and inextricably connected to generations of martial artists that have come before you. And who knows? Maybe someday you will teach your own class and all of your students will learn your particular martial arts accent.