Send us your question

Do martial arts in the West still need to look Eastward?

Martial artists in Western countries are bound to look Eastward for inspiration…but is it necessary?

Many Westerners have a romantic view of Eastern martial arts
Many Westerners have a romantic view of Eastern martial arts

One aspect of the martial arts that I’ve always found tiresome is the attitude among the inner-sanctum types that ‘the West is crap’ and that all Westerners (except themselves, being ‘honorary Easterners’) are blundering philistines, and all Western institutions are superficial and devoid of sensitivity. This deprecation of one’s own culture and idealisation of another is an easy way for insecure people with questionable identity to make themselves feel somehow special and important.

Martial art is not the only facet of life where we see this phenomenon. As a medico, I come across people who are scornful of the worth of established medicine and seek solace in the tradition and wisdom of Eastern medicine.

Some time ago, a lady of my acquaintance rang and told me: “I’ve just moved from one side of town to the other. It’s too far to go to my Chinese traditional medicine doctor and I can’t find another in this area. Do you have any ideas?”

I suggested she ask at the Chinese grocery store, but she already had: “They all just look at me strangely and say, ‘What do you want to go to them for? We all go to the Western doctor’,” she replied.

It seems that for every Westerner looking longingly towards the East, there is an Easterner doing likewise towards the West. It’s worth asking: if Eastern culture, wisdom and traditional medicine is so flash, how come the East isn’t filled with cultured, wise and happy people?

The burgeoning improvement in the health, education and standard of living in the East seems only to have occurred in the few decades since Western industrialisation, education and health systems have been adopted there. Technologically speaking, at the time of the Roman Empire, East and West were at level pegging. How come, then, 1500 years later, the Western imperialists were able to sail up the Yangtze River and use superior firepower to force their opium on the Chinese population, creating a ready market by addicting the locals?

In my opinion, it was the inherent difference in the two cultures that explains history.

China embraced the Confucian system of hierarchy, in which all power must be respected by those without it. The father must be profoundly respected by his sons, no matter how much of a loser he might be (forced respect, no matter how persistently demanded from one’s children, won’t make a genius from a moron).

The ultimate instruments of power are knowledge and money — and in Chinese culture, both were hoarded within families or institutions. If one family possessed assets or knowledge that gave them an edge over others, it was the only thing that stood between them and grinding poverty. For example, if a martial arts instructor developed a technique that others didn’t know, he would guard it closely, only revealing it to his elder son or, if he had none, to his most trusted student, and then only when he was aware of approaching death. This culture meant knowledge and money had little circulation, which minimised both technical innovation and commercial development.

Westerners, however, were unable to either hang on to their money or keep a secret. In Japan, the secret of making superior steel was preserved within the bosom of a few families for hundreds of years, whereas in Europe the secrets of making Toledo steel spread around Europe within a few generations.

Around the turn of the 20th century, industrialisation had become established in the East. As a result, instead of being trapped in grinding poverty on a farm for their entire lives, workers were able to move to the cities and obtain work in factories or construction. While the wages were pitiful and the conditions dreadful, for many it was a better life than back on the farm. They had the money to buy more than the basic foodstuffs needed to sustain life, so more jobs were produced, which in turn produced more money, and so on. Individuals with their wits about them were able to become affluent, even rich, regardless of their humble origins. The old secrecy barriers broke down.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the martial arts. It’s no coincidence that judo, karate, Wing Chun, aikido and many more martial arts appeared in their modern forms at this time. Rather than struggling under a yoke of family tyranny and near poverty, martial arts practitioners found that there was an increasingly affluent middle class that was willing to pay well for learning the martial art families’ secrets.

Judo was the first martial art to break out of the Orient and it took the world by storm about one century ago — President Theodore Roosevelt was a judo Brown belt. We have all benefitted by the subsequent widespread dissemination of martial arts knowledge, and martial arts, too, have benefited as a result of Western involvement.

Neither culture is better than the other. With Eastern knowledge and Western can-do, the world is a better place.


Dr John Jory is a registered medical practitioner and sports psychologist with 55 years’ experience in martial arts. He has a 5th Dan in hapkido under Grandmaster Sung Soo Lee, a 2nd Dan in judo with the IJF and is the founder of Rolling Thunder Martial Art.

Read more expert opinions here.