The widespread practice of traditional East Asian martial arts outside of military or self-defense contexts is a relatively recent phenomenon. Only during times of peace and stability has it become possible for civilians to pursue such practices purely for sporting or self-development purposes.
Western interest in traditional martial arts began during the late-nineteenth century with a growing fascination surrounding ‘The Orient’ and practices such as Jujutsu. This curiosity was bolstered further throughout the mid-twentieth century when many Europeans and Americans returned home following decades of global military conflict, having studied martial arts abroad. Many of these first-generation ‘masters’ seemed to possess incredible skills, newfound wisdom and methods of internal development so far absent from the western combat sports of the age.
This fascination with the mysterious east reached fever pitch with the Kung Fu craze of the seventies featuring Bruce Lee at its center and the subsequent Ninja craze of the eighties. With an explosion in interest, many schools and styles attempted to legitimize their lineages by researching and in some cases inventing backgrounds and mythologies.
Since this boom period of traditional martial arts, the same phenomenon has also been observed in the east. Some scholars even suggest that it was influenced by the western construct of martial arts narratives!1
That leads us to the question, why do we find such pervasive myths, archetypes, and stereotypes within the practice of martial arts? This article intends to answer just that.
Martial Myths and Legends
Military fighting styles were often documented through manuals and formal training materials. In contrast, civilian self-defense systems served as a means of protection for the poorer peasant classes, usually taught informally through family, regional or monastic lineages. Historically, teaching was often secretive, disguised as calisthenics, farming practices, or even dances such as, the ‘Lion Dance’ or ‘Capoeira’.
With the vastly lower levels of literacy the world over prior to the twentieth century, many martial arts traditions, their history, and tales were transmitted orally. These folk tales would therefore have been subject to human exaggeration, misinterpretation, embellishment as they were retold.
Frequently, such stories have grown to the level of myths i.e., those that go beyond the realms of what we consider physically possible. Examples include the Taijiquan founder Zhang Sanfeng’s transcendence to immortality and Bodhidharma meditating alone in his cave for decades while his gaze literally burned holes into the walls. In contrast, legends are at least considered to be grounded in reality. Such as Yim Wing Chun fighting off gangsters for her freedom or Miyamoto Musashi defeating Japan's greatest swordsman with a piece of wood.
While both myths and legends possess an undeniable appeal, transforming mundane truths into powerful stories, these tales also serve a martial function. Often, they act as vehicles of transmission for cultural knowledge, spiritual wisdom, moral and even physical teachings. Basically, they can provide practitioners with a deeper understanding of their art and guide their practice.
The concept of such ‘fables’ is not a phenomenon exclusive to martial arts or East Asia either. They can be seen across almost all cultures, serving as inspiration and moral/ethical guidelines, from Ancient Greece to Norse mythology and Ancient Indian epics to African folklore.
Within the confines of present-day traditional martial arts, myths and legends may act as inspiration for personal growth and mental transformation. They may also serve a physical purpose, teaching specific principles and techniques or helping followers to foster a sense of continuity and belonging by connecting them to a shared cultural heritage real or imagined.
As myths and legends have been retold countless times, the lines between truth and fiction have frequently become blurred. In martial arts circles, where mysticism and adventure often play prominent roles in the motivation to learn (initially at least), recurring patterns emerge in relation to real-life figures.
The early twentieth century saw the development of archetypal theory, in particular the work of Carl Jung. He suggested that there are certain “universal elements” such as character and story types that connect with listeners and readers for psychological reasons, regardless of background, language, and location.
Although Jung’s archetypes are primarily focused on fiction, history has shown us that, with frequent repetition of true stories, we tend to shape even real-life figures into archetypal characters. Some common examples include:
• ‘The Hero’- a courageous, morally upright and unshakable warrior.
• ‘The Mentor’ - a wise, old teacher who imparts ancient wisdom, skills, or knowledge to the hero.
• ‘The Creator’ - a character with boundless imagination and exceptional skills, often depicted as ahead of their time.
In fact, so prevalent are these archetypal characters and events in ‘real life’ martial arts tales that scholars have identified recurring features. One even goes as far as outlining a set of ‘plot points’ that occur in founder legends. These include:
1. “Claims of mixed ethnic ancestry, typically resulting in the founder being bullied as a child.
2. The founder being taught an ancient, covert art by a family member in order to overcome illness, persecution, or personality defect (especially temper) or by a family friend in order to repay a debt to the founder’s parents.
3. The founder’s exceptional devotion to training, leading to rapid advancement (typically a master’s rank at a young age).
4. A final lesson in humility from a mentor figure.
5. Finally, superhuman exploits against forces of evil.”4
While the development of these myths and legends in martial arts are usually positive (or at least harmless), creating role models and figureheads for our practices may lead to negative stereotypes.
For example, some may consider ethnicity as a factor that lends legitimacy to an instructor’s skills. In this author’s own experience, newcomers to martial arts will often prefer to learn from an instructor that better fits their preconceived notion of how a ‘master’ should look, sound, or act. Usually, this is based upon fictitious portrayals and martial mythology rather than ability or skills.
Stereotyping may also reinforce attitudes of exclusivity, creating social barriers and isolation between communities. One famous example being the ‘true story’ of Bruce Lee’s group of instructors in San Francisco’s Chinatown in the Seventies. Allegedly, they forbade him from teaching ‘secret Chinese methods’ to undeserving westerners even though that was not an issue at the time.5
Similarly, stereotypes of martial arts and artists represented in film and media may also misrepresent, exaggerate, and completely invent skills and techniques for dramatic effect (for example, the ‘No-touch KO’ that uses only Qi power). While this can enhance the entertainment value, it can create misconceptions about the practicality and effectiveness of certain techniques in real-life self-defense situations.
On an individual level, the canon of martial arts myths and legends may inspire practitioners to cultivate discipline, honor, and self-mastery. They also often provide a framework for personal growth and transformation, fostering virtues and character development. Meanwhile, they can extend beyond the individual, creating a sense of belonging and shared identity within a community. By connecting followers to a shared culture or heritage, these tales strengthen the bond among martial artists and reinforce values and principles.
However, the stereotypes stemming from such mythology in the modern world may present positive and negative outcomes for the martial arts instructor or student. These aspects must be navigated with care to avoid fostering disbelief and distrust and to ensure the practicality, safety, inclusivity, and continuation of traditional martial arts.
1 Frank, A. D. (2008). Taijiquan and the search for the little old Chinese man: Understanding identity through martial arts. China Perspectives, 2008(4), 104–108. https://doi.org/10.4000/chinaperspectives.4754.
2 Paul Bowman (2016) Making Martial Arts History Matter, The International Journal of the History of Sport, 33:9, 915-933, DOI: 10.1080/09523367.2016.1212842.
3 Adapted from Jung, C. G. (1991). The Archetypes and the Collective Unconscious. United Kingdom: Routledge.
4 Adapted from El-Shamy in Green, T. A., & Svinth, J. R. (2003). Martial Arts in the Modern World. Praeger.
5 Roe, A. J. (2023). Legends of the masters: Unraveling Fact from Fiction. YMAA Publishing.
The above is an original article by Augustus John Roe author of Legendary Masters of the Martial Arts: Unraveling Fact from Fiction, Publication Date October 2023, YMAA Publication Center, ISBN: 9781594399626.