A complete system?

So you train in a martial arts system. Ok. But what does that mean? Miriam-Webster defines a system as “a set of interacting or interdependent components forming an integrated whole”. That definition works pretty well for me. I think defining the concept of system in regards to a martial art is important, as there is a large difference between a system and a collection of techniques. A system implies a larger context- a tool that can be used to solve a variety of problems and a method for using that tool. Calling a martial art a system to me says a number of specific and important things.

First of all it says that there are rules to follow, for both training and application. In Goju concepts like “rise, sink, spit, swallow”, angular movement against incoming linear attacks, keeping the elbows in, all  both constrain and generate movement and application. These rules should be applicable to all elements of the system, they should be simple enough to learn quickly, and they should be easy to communicate. Then one needs to work on a deeper understanding of the system to see how these rules play out in different situations, how they generate answers to problems.

Second, it says there should be a reason for each part of the system, and you should be able to relate that piece to the larger whole. For example in Goju Ryu we have a variety of supplementary exercises, like work with the chishi or tetsu geta. These certainly improve fitness, but that is not their point. Instead, they develop specific muscle groups and connections (as well as breathing, etc.) that support the techniques of the system. If you cannot relate the exercises back to fairly specific elements of the system’s application, it is probably a good bet you don’t really understand their purpose very well.

This is consistent for all elements of the system. The stances support the tactical choices. The power generation supports the techniques used. The techniques support the strategy imbedded in the system and its kata. These are all interrelated- each part supports others, and practiced properly they create a unified whole.

So, thirdly, it says that since the parts are not stand alone items to understand them you need to have some understanding of how they fit into the whole. Using Goju Ryu again we have a practice called kakie, a form of push hands. I often see it done very hard, almost as strength training. When I see It done that way I know that the teacher does not really understand it. Kakie is an interactive practice. It develops sensitivity to your opponent and control of their center, among other things. The system has other methods of strength building. But without an understanding of the whole it is easy to apply inappropriate emphasis to the components. It is like using a chisel as a screwdriver. It works but it is not the right way to use the chisel and can leave the chisel unusable for its proper job.

Fourthly it says that details matter. Small details can make a large difference, but they must be understood to be trained properly. Various Okinawan systems use a neko-ashi dachi, often called a “cat stance”. In it the weight is primarily on the back leg, the butt is stuck out a bit, the shoulders are over the hips, and the front heel is raised slightly. But if the shape is all you understand it is easy to emphasize appearance over content. I often see the front heel lifted sharply or the toes pointed. While that may look nice it creates tension in the calf and possibly around the knee and hip joints that changes the weight distribution and slows down the leg for both kicking and moving. This contradicts the reasons for using the stance. You need to understand why things are being done to train them without devolving into stylization over function. The details are in the function, not the appearance.

Higa Seiko

Higa Seiko




Therefore, and fifthly, it means you have to be very careful about adding, removing, or changing the parts since the influence of changes on the gestalt of the system is often hard to see. For example in the Shoreikan lineage of Goju Ryu there are 10 toitsu fukyu (standardization and dissemination, often called “training”) kata, like gekisai, gekiha, etc..  Most have accompanying paired sets which generally position opponents directly in front of each other. Toguchi sensei said that he added them to make learning Goju easier (among other things) and because Miyagi sensei had said that was how he wanted the system to develop. But because of how they move they train people to stay directly in front of their attacker. This is contrary to the basic tactics of Goju, making many parts of the system ineffective and therefore, in my opinion, denatures the system. Good intentions can have unexpected consequences.

Finally, a system has boundaries, parameters. These systems were designed by people, not gods, and are finite. I think that is a good thing. Too many options is more likely to lead to a freeze than a good solution. In our kobudo I joke with my students that we really only have 5 or so techniques. That is because the same mechanics and concepts are used over and over again. It creates in some ways infinite variation, but in a very simple fashion. For example we use the same mechanic for a naname uchi with a bo, with sai, or with any other weapon. This can be hard to see, as the shifts demanded by the different tools can easily mask the commonality of the mechanics if you don’t have a good overview of them. But they are not hundreds of different techniques, they are just a few adapted to different circumstances. When I see different weapons or techniques taught in a format that requires memorization of dozens or hundreds of separate items I see that either the teacher does not understand the system or there is no system, just a collection of techniques masking as one.

This last can really trip people up. Martial arts are full of assumptions, and of fantasy. Many people have an image of what a system holds. A “complete system” is sometimes defined as containing striking, grappling, groundwork, and (sometimes) weapons. I find that an interesting definition, as it gives a list of components but does not address system as a concept. Indeed, not all systems will conform to what people wish for. For example I once helped teach a class at the Kaosiung Police training center with Liu sifu. Afterwards he got a variety of questions. One was about how to use Feeding Crane to safely subdue or control a subject, something very pertinent to the police officers present. Sifu’s answer was enlightening: “Someone asks me this every time I come here. I don’t know. Feeding Crane does not have subdual or control techniques, we practice quickly causing a lot of damage to the enemy. I can’t teach you how to just control with Feeding Crane.”  Since it is a bad idea for police officers to severely injure, blind, or kill someone they are arresting, the answer was not that satisfying for some of the people present. But that does not mean that Feeding Crane is not a complete system, it means that that system’s boundaries didn’t contain what the questioner wanted. That is not a fault of the system. Our bodies do not have gills. Personally, I find this frustrating, as I would really love to be able to dive without SCUBA gear. But that is not what this system contains, so I’m stuck with it.


So the definition of system in the martial arts is very important. It is not something that includes what a given person thinks they need. It is not a list of components at all. It is the concept behind the practice, whether or not the practice is a unified collection of training and application methodologies that, working together, generate a simple and consistent way to solve the problems it was developed to solve. This is very different from a collection of techniques. A collection of techniques implies that you have to collect specific solutions: if a person attacks this way, do this then this. A system means that the body and mind are being trained to generate solutions on the spot, instead of needing to have one pre-made.

My experience of classical martial arts systems (Goju, Feeding Crane, Jigen Ryu, among others) tells me that they are strict In their details for reasons beginners often cannot see. The gestalt of the system takes a while to open itself up to a serious practitioner and changes to that gestalt can prevent the system from working well. A poor student, a poor teacher, or, and they certainly do exist, a poor system, and a good result may never come. But if the student works hard, the teacher has the background to convey, and the system is good, they create possibilities that a collection of techniques, no matter how interesting, never can.

4 thoughts on “A complete system?

  1. How are art and system reconciled? Of course there are artistic systems in painting or sculpting which students learn, but art often is about pushing boundaries or transcending the system…it’s the intangible within the system that is learned via feel not just by understanding of human biomechanics as an engineered system that allows practitioners to go beyond. Generally, poetry cannot be learned without passion. Similarly with martial arts. How often have I heard: he has very precise technique but lacks fierceness in application…” I suppose art could be considered the interpretation and adaptation of a system to a particular individual or circumstance by feel or trial and error, infusion of personality and individual nature into practice, and understanding the emotional, mental, and physical state and nature of an opponent as well as oneself–all of which in a small way kakie seeks to cultivate.


  2. Josh, interesting question. I would suggest that any art- music, sculpture, etc. requires technique first and that a system is a way of generating technique. For example if anyone suggests there is no system to free jazz I would ask them to hand an instrument to a novice and have them join a session of professionals. It would be a disaster. The novice would not have the training to work creatively within the bounds of the system, the system being Western scales and modes, rhythms, the ability to listen and respond to what the other players are laying down, and the particular approach free jazz takes to all of these. He would just make noise, not jazz. I believe that we often confuse creativity and self-expression. Self-expression would be the noise created. It may have passion and personality but is fundamentally groundless. Creativity is difficult- it involves, as you say, transcending boundaries, creating something new. It requires a deep and then transcendent understanding of technique, understanding the boundaries so well that changing or breaking them becomes natural. It Is not, in my opinion, available to dilettantes. By creating a framework for developing technique a system gives the opportunity for creativity, the opportunity to use that framework to ask questions that have not been answered and possibly to use those answers to change the boundaries. Passion and dedication provide the impetus for learning and then for taking what one has learned and making it their own, for asking the questions. A collection of individual techniques- for example learning a bunch of individual songs as opposed to the musical theory and background that unify them- does not allow for the opportunity to be creative, it is just a lot of stuff to memorize. It doesn’t give you tools to work with, just a bunch of one-shot solutions to specific problems. So system is the tool, perhaps, and art is what the tool may allow the dedicated practitioner to create.


  3. Good answer, Fred. It’s kind of like when we say…”now that you have your black belt, you can start learning”–meaning one needs to have a command of the basic system before one can learn how to improvise and create one’s own interpretation within the system (as you imply in your answer)


  4. Hi Josh, thanks. Yes, and a certain level of improvisation does not imply mastery, it is just a step on the way. It is a taught skill- using the system to generate answers does not happen in a vacuum, or mysteriously, how to do it initially has to be taught. Being able to improvise is a journeyman skill, a facility with actual use of the system. Creativity is something more. I guess this idea is also summed up pretty well in the shu-ha-ri model. I happen to think that very very few people ever reach the ri stage. Getting that kind of command of the system and then having the capacity to engage creatively, to create something new not riff, is a rare combination. Kandinsky vs. a kid with paints; they both might look the same to someone who has no understanding of what is being done, but a slightly trained eye will see something radically different. .


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