Different cultures have different ways of treating weapons and martial arts. Bound up in historical, legal and cultural cornerstones, a society’s relationship with weapons speaks to deeper underlying norms. To reach a higher level of worldbuilding in the art of writing, think about how your culture views weapons and warfare. Here are some real-world examples of the influence of weapons and martial arts and how they are reflected in society.
Historical European Martial Arts tend to be technical and weapon-oriented. HEMA schools focus on developing the body mechanics, attributes and tactics necessary to employ their preferred weapons. Armoured combat is field of study in itself, as practitioners seek to strike at gaps in the armour and/or close in to wrestle the opponent to the ground. Unarmed combat is limited to wrestling and grappling, and may be treated as a separate school, or as a supplement to weapons work, especially for armoured combat.
This flows from the martial history of Europe. HEMA was originally employed on the battlefield and in judicial duels. There was little reason to train in empty hands in preparation for battle. Empty hand applications would be limited to emergency self-defense in the heat of battle or in response to an ambush. There was little need or time for line infantry to learn sophisticated grappling methods that they may not ever use; they just need to know enough to cover likely scenarios. But a knight is more likely to find himself grappling with a hostile armored knight on the field, so he would have greater need for grappling techniques. As he has years to train in the martial arts during his time as a squire, there is no problem with separating weapons and unarmed training. When fighting a man in armour, punching is almost useless if your hand is not also armoured, so bare-handed striking doesn’t show up often in HEMA. HEMA pays little attention to conscious self-development, because that was not its purpose. The goal of HEMA is to teach the practitioner how to wield his chosen weapon—everything else is secondary.
Traditional Chinese Martial Arts approaches the martial question from the opposite direction. It starts with unarmed training and routines first, then graduates to weapons work. Through static postures and forms, the practitioner develops strength, speed and flexibility—and also discipline, perseverance, and qi. Some modern teachers view weapons as a training tool to better refine body mechanics for unarmed work. When the practitioner understands the body mechanics of his art, he can apply them to all fields of combat: striking, grappling and weapons. With TCMA, the practitioner becomes the weapon—the weapon is simply a tool, an extension of his will.
What is called Traditional Chinese Martial Arts today originates mainly from arts practiced in the Qing Dynasty and the Republic era. They came to prominence in a time when cold weapons had been almost completely replaced by firearms in the military, and traditional armour was becoming obsolete. Swords and spears were still used in combat—but mainly in the hands of bandits, warlords, gangsters and local militias, not by the ‘official’ military. In this era, when cold weapons were seldom used on the battlefield, martial arts turned to self-defence and, later, entertainment and self-development. Only a rare few extant martial arts—taijiquan among them—were actually used as battlefield arts, in an era of cold weapons and melee warfare.
HEMA seeks to preserve and recreate the methods used in life-or-death combat, be it on the battlefield or the field or honor. TCMA seeks a more holistic approach to development, using the fist to develop universal attributes. Chinese opera troupes used martial arts as a means to dazzle their audience, and from this storied history comes wushu, martial arts as performance art. Though wushu may draw on traditional arts, wushu-specific moves are modified to enhance their aesthetic qualities. HEMA doesn’t have a similar enduring tradition of mass entertainment.
HEMA is focused on the weapon. TCMA is focused on the man. We can see this most clearly in comparing HEMA to the internal martial arts.
HEMA training emphasizes learning guards and techniques. The internal martial arts emphasizes the Six Harmonies: learning how to move the body as a single unit, then on harmonizing mind, intention and energy. HEMA spends much time learning how to respond to incoming attacks. While IMA does that, it also spends as much time, if not more so, on cultivating internal awareness to develop proprioception and full-body power. Qi is an integral component of IMA. HEMA—and the West—has no analog.
In the differences between martial traditions, we see a snapshot of the differences between cultures.
The West is external- and individual-oriented. The empirical method, the foundation of the scientific method, is based on observation of the external world. Western culture elevates the strong, self-reliant man who uses tools to impose order on nature. Western religions—Christianity and the pagan faiths that preceded it—are centred on worshipping external deities and participation in communal rites. Magical or blessed weapons feature heavily in Western myths, such as Excalibur and Mjolnir. This external orientation is echoed in Western culture and entertainment.
China is internal- and harmony-oriented. Qigong, traditional Chinese medicine, and similar practices are based on observation of the internal world, the intersection of mind, body and spirit. The superior man is the man who has cultivated values and qualities necessary for the functioning of a communal society. Chinese religions—specifically Daoism and Buddhism—emphasise self-development and seeking harmony with universal principles. Although magical weapons also play a role in Chinese culture and entertainment, greater emphasis is placed on cultivating, acquiring and using internal power through meditation and esoteric practices. It’s telling that even in modern cultivation fiction, story loops focus on the character developing internal power to become stronger, as opposed to seeking out powerful weapons or items.
Different cultures, and different arts within these cultures, will have different orientations and areas of focus. The external martial arts, for example, don’t normally emphasise the metaphysical elements of Chinese culture. Even the Chen Practical Method, a school of taiji quan, eschews the cultivation of qi and other mystical attributes in favour of combat effectiveness. Likewise, a high-level practitioner of HEMA may in time develop the sensitivity, timing and stickiness that is consciously trained in TCMA.
Many Japanese koryu, or traditional martial arts schools, emphasise sword work. The katana is the weapon of the samurai, and the way of the sword is the way of strategy. However, the sword is only a sidearm. On the battlefield, samurai were far more likely to employ the bow or a polearm. Nonetheless, the samurai always carried his swords everywhere he went. Footwork, timing, angles of attack and other such attributes are all derived from the sword. By learning the sword, the practitioner learns the mindset and the body mechanics for all weapons and techniques in the school. The core body mechanics needed to cut a man down with a katana are the same mechanics for slashing with a naginata, which are also the same body mechanics to strike an enemy with a hammer fist or to lock him up in an arm bar. This lends to accelerated training time and enhanced skill retention, which is highly useful for a warrior class expected to be ready to do battle for their entire lives—which may include maintaining law and order and capturing criminals in times of peace. There is also a significant psychological component to koryu training, with practitioners developing calmness, focus, awareness and adaptability. As with HEMA, some older schools of koryu from the Sengoku Period also have an armoured combat component, reflecting battlefield realities of the past.
Though the orientation is on the weapon, the attributes and body mechanics cut across different fields of combat. Beginners may focus on techniques, but high-level practitioners develop mindset. There is no break between weapon and and empty hand techniques. When Japanese pop culture highlights the mystique of the katana and the skill of the samurai, it is a distorted reflection of real-world samurai training and realities.
The Filipino martial arts has a similar weapons-first approach. The new student is handed a stick on day one, and all his training will flow from stick movements. Some schools use the stick as a proxy for the sword, while others distinguish between stick and sword. Later the student graduates to using empty hands and other weapons in the school, building upon the body mechanics and attributes first developed in stick work. A core attribute that applies to all FMA schools is the concept of flow: the ability to fluidly and smoothly transition from one movement to another, adapting seamlessly to whatever the opponent presents you, while setting up your next move.
The Philippines is a blade-based culture. Blades are everyday tools, used in agriculture and food preparation—and combat. Disputes between men are also settled with blades. A signature FMA move is defanging the snake: striking the opponent’s weapon hand. On the battlefield, it disarms the enemy and sets him up for a finishing blow. In a duel, it clearly demonstrates who is the superior fighter without killing someone and triggering a blood feud between rival families and clans. There is no armoured fighting component in FMA, for the simple reason that the Philippines is too hot to wear full body armour in the European, Japanese or Chinese fashion. Armoured combat is simply a matter of striking unarmoured targets. Hollywood loves FMA because it allows the choreographer to set up intricate combos of strikes, counters and disarms—which is itself an exaggeration of FMA flow and weapons training.
What does all this mean for a fiction writer?
Worldbuilding must be seamless and organic. It is critical to maintaining suspension of disbelief. You will not, for example, see Japanese-style koryu emerge in a setting based on medieval Europe. Many koryu schools are derived from the katana, whose signature shape and construction method was a response to the poor-quality iron sands found in Japan. The iron ores of Europe enabled the creation of stronger steels, facilitating the creation of full plate armor. Japanese armour has openings that can be attacked with cuts at specific angles, whereas European armour has openings that can only be attacked with thrusts—and even then, the European knight would also wear mail and an aketon under his plate, further limiting the damage. Japanese katana are curved to facilitate cuts; European war swords are straight and narrow to attack openings and pierce mail.
While it can be interesting to see a Japanese samurai struggle to adapt koryu to fighting European plate armour (and you can see this in my Dungeon Samurai series), martial arts that cannot defeat the arms and armour of a setting will not survive the test of battle.
Going deeper, the orientation of a martial arts also reflects the orientation of the culture. People live and act by cultural norms, and these norms influence everything from etiquette to religion to aesthetics to martial arts. An internal- and harmony-oriented art is not going to arise in an external- and individual-oriented culture. A culture whose predominant religion focuses on worshipping an external deity will not give rise to a martial art that emphasises internal self-development to become a god. The only ‘internal’ martial art from the West that I’m aware of is Systema, and the Mikhail Ryabko lineage of Systema is rooted in Orthodox Christianity—or, more precisely, Esoteric Christianity or Christian Mysticism, whose practice is internally-oriented as opposed to the external orientation of other Christian denominations.
Cultivation is fundamentally a Chinese genre. Chinese culture possesses the internal and harmony orientations necessary to give rise to martial traditions, practices, philosophies and sciences that make cultivation possible. Although Japan may appear to come close, Japanese metaphysics does not emphasise the development of personal ki / qi the way the Chinese do. Western cultural orientation is diametrically opposed to Eastern orientation, which goes a long way towards explaining the lack of a cultivation tradition in the West.
Saga of the Swordbreaker, being based on Chinese cultivation methods, must therefore be placed in a setting based on Chinese culture. There are foreign cultivation methods in that story too, and they reflect the cultural norms of their origins. Hailing from a society influenced by real-world Chinese culture, and being a practitioner of internal martial arts, the protagonist Li Ming would naturally fight according to the norms and customs of his culture, as well as the tactics and strategy of IMA.
Is Western cultivation possible?
It might be. I’ve seen Western energy and breath work practices that draw inspiration from Eastern approaches before spinning off into their own lineages. Systema suggests that a martial art based on Christian mysticism—an internal practice to achieve connection with an external deity—can arise. Such a Western cultivation approach is not going to look like Eastern cultivation, or any existing cultivation method today. It will require practitioners to set aside the external and tool orientation of the West and adopt a more hybrid approach. It’s not out of the question; I just haven’t seen it executed well.
Maybe someday I might just dive into this question.
For now, though, Saga of the Swordbreaker is my primary cultivation series. Back it on IndieGoGo now!