The Theory of Karate Evolution

The following article is a theory I have developed regarding the evolution of karate techniques.  It is not a research paper; I don’t have sources or references.  This is simply an idea I have regarding how techniques in karate became to be what they are today. As an homage to Darwin, I will call it The Theory of Karate Evolution.

The Theory of Karate Evolution inspired by Darwin
The Theory of Karate Evolution inspired by Darwin

When first starting karate, we learn basic techniques: blocks, kicks, stances, punches and strikes.  It is easily understood how kicks and punches are used. However, traditional blocks and other strikes with the hands seem too elaborate.  For instance, a low block starts with the blocking hand by the ear. The other hand will be low. The block ends with the blocking arm above the knee and a reaction hand at the side. This motion seems a bit too much to be effective.  I am not arguing the purpose or usefulness of basic techniques. Rather, I am offering a theory as to their origins.

I argue that a low block is not really a low block. Nor a high block is not really a high block, etc.  Not only that, they were never meant to be what we call them today.  These moves were given labels. These lables evolved into ‘blocks’ or ‘spear hand’ in order to simplify them and teach them to a larger audience.

Start at the Beginning

In order to understand this theory, we must go back in time to the beginning of martial arts.  Fighting methods began their development thousands of years ago for just that purpose, to fight.  Whether to defend oneself or in warfare, martial arts first started for use in combat.  After a while, some people became very proficient in fighting and others wanted to learn from them.  These first martial arts teachers would teach their fighting styles to 1 or 2 students and would consist mainly of actual fighting.

A short time after fighting methods began being passed down from teacher to student, forms or katas began to be developed.  The purpose of these forms was for students to train more when they don’t have a person to practice with.  They also served as a blueprint in order to pass on information.  There were no manuals or YouTube videos to reference at the time.

The Introduction of Forms

Forms continued to be the main source of knowledge sharing for many years.  In fact, in karate, I would argue that they continue to be so.  Around the turn of the 20th century is where I think things start to get interesting.  Wars and global conflicts introduced more people to these fighting systems and the interest in learning them soared.  In order to appease the masses, these systems needed to be formalized so as to be taught to large groups easily.

Rather than teaching long intricate forms and their corresponding application in combat, they were broken down into individual, single techniques in order for students to learn in smaller steps.  Think about it.  If you had to teach a form with 50 movements to a group of 50 students who meet a few times a week, you would have to break it down into small chunks.  

These single techniques became standardized and given names corresponding to what they look like. Hence a “low block” is called low block because that’s what it looks like.  The application of the movement is more likely an armbar or throwing motion, but it is much easier to call it a “low block”.  These labels also made it easier to document techniques when writing became more prevalent as a way to pass on knowledge.  If you say low block to a karate student, they can visualize it easily and most would think of the same thing.  If you say armbar or throw, there are many things that come to mind and everyone would likely think about it differently.

COVID Will Cause The Next Karate Evolution

COVID will cause karate to evolve further
COVID will cause karate to evolve further

Fast forward to present times and now these labels are the standard.  A low block as defined at the beginning of this article is in fact a low block.  Right or wrong, I feel like the majority of basic hand techniques we do are mislabeled.  I am not suggesting we stop doing them or call them something different.  I just suggest we take the time to understand things better and respectfully question the origins of techniques that don’t seem to make sense from a practical combat situation.

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