I always find the labels ‘traditional’ and ‘modern’ misleading because something that’s current and popular, like Brazilian Jiujitsu, is actually quite old in comparison to some of the martial arts we would call traditional, like Aikido or Taekwondo. But even recently created martial arts are built on older traditions, so where do we start dating a martial art from? From the day it was named, or from the arts the proceeded it? If it’s the later then all martial arts are the same age and have existed (potentially) forever.

Another way of differentiating between traditional and modern is using the self defence vs sporting dichotomy, however so many martial arts exist in a grey area between the two – take Muay Thai for example, that I don’t think that’s a good way to do it either.

Here’s something I saw written by Alexander Ewlad on the Martial Arts Studies Facebook group in a comment:

“For me, one of the best, i.e. concise and precisely written and kind of encompassing scholarly starts on traditional martial arts was and is the following by Moenig & Kim (orig. 2018; republished as a book chapter 2021):

[T]he expression ‘traditional martial arts’, which has become very fashionable, is one of the most misrepresented and misused terms in the general discourse. ‘Traditional’ projects an image of a long history and of continuity throughout history, without change. In reality, most modern Asian martial arts are only a few hundred years old or are an evolutionary product of the twentieth century. On the other hand, some western combat sports, such as boxing and wrestling, actually have traditions as long as, or longer than, most modern, popular Asian martial arts, and nobody would ever classify them as ‘traditional martial arts’. The term ‘traditional’ seems wholly reserved as a reference to Asian martial arts. However, to the contrary, many present-day East Asian martial arts developed only recently, and are not ‘traditional’ by most definitions. Most traditional martial art proponents do not consider sports as having any philosophical aspects, as being mostly irrelevant, and as ‘merely’ a physical activity without any spiritual merits. Surveying the available literature on martial arts reveals that leaders and practitioners of traditional martial arts have often monopolized the discussion about philosophy, educational values, and realism in martial arts training; labelling the sports aspect inferior regarding educational benefits in addition to being unrealistic for real combat“ (Moenig & Kim in: Hong & Li, 2022: 43).
Original reference
Book reprint/republishing

You might also like to listen to the lecture, Inventing Traditional Martial Arts a lecture by Prof. Peter Lorge from one of the Martial Arts Studies conferences.

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The 2024 Martial Arts Studies conference will happen in June in Cardiff, UK.

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