Having followed a few discussions lately on styles that may go back to the "past", mention was made of whether these might have an unbroken lineage of teaching going back to time "X".
This started me thinking. When we talk about unbroken traditions what do we really mean? Even if a tradition or style has survived with an unbroken line of teachers, generation to generation, perhaps what is more important is whether it is unaltered or unchanged.
Looking at any system that has been survived and been passed down over the years, it will have changed even if only superficially as the people, or rather the mindset, context and goals of those that practice the art change. Once something changes beyond a certain point it is arguably no longer what it was and therefore is something new and different having broken away from the original. At this point is the line broken, changed or both?
In Japan the oldest Bujutsu Ryu have survived many generations in unbroken lines going back to the 15th and 16th Centuries. However some have changed a great deal in that time, things have been added and other thing removed. While others have changed very little or what changes have taken place have not altered the Principles of the whole. In the same time other Ryu have died out.
Any system or method, is primarily a way of passing on information to the next generation. They are a way to gain understanding of the Principles of combat that were viewed as important by the founder of that system. Once the balance of the system shifts to different Principles or goals then the system is changed and flow of the original teaching is broken, even if the actual lineage of teacher to teacher continues.
What does all this mean? That one should consider the way that one asses different sources of information.
Looking at Talhoffer for example we see the images unchanged as they were when first drawn, though of course our interpretation of what they mean is what really matters. Of course interpretation is key in learning any skill, that is as true today as in the past. Of course most of the manuals were record of systems meant for those already initiated in methods of that system, or else were advertisement brochures intended to obtain patronage. However the information we see is itself unaltered.
I could also have a teacher who instructs me in Talhoffer methods who come from an unbroken line of teachers going back 500 years, but how much has the teaching changed in that time? The previously made point, that information changes as it is passed on intentionally or not; rather like in a game of Chinese whispers, comes into play. In this hypothetical situation, we can’t say for sure how much of what is being passed on to me by my teacher is true to what Talhoffer taught.
It should not be forgotten that people like the idea of things that go back a long way into the past. It adds weight and credibility. Of course this is a valid point. However there is also a temptation to misuse it. Consider how many Asian martial arts claim or at least imply lineage going back hundreds of years, even when the actual evidence is only traceable back a century or even less. Or that certain techniques or methods can be traced back to some distant time in the past to give them credibility. Someone I knew who was practising a Chinese art that practised high kicks of various types. They told me that while they recognised that doing these high kicks was not a good idea in a modern context, that they were practised in that system because they had been developed hundreds of years ago; to use against mounted opponents! There are many points this raises which lie outside of this current piece, though it serves as an illustration
None of this is intended to be an answer or suggest what is right and wrong, rather to remember to keep an open and honest mind.
Consider that even where the lineage is real, that does not of itself mean that the system has more worth than something "newer".
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