The phrase “martial arts” is a buzz word used by everyone. The ‘martial’ component derives from ‘Mars’ – the ancient Roman god of war. The ‘art’ component implies something that is created. The idea of “martial arts”, however, is much deeper than it may seem. Any kind of fighting or self-defense system is as much a science as it is an art. This is because in real life, in contrast to dictionaries, art and science are inseparable friends.
Let’s check the definitions first. According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, art can be broadly understood as “something that is created with imagination and skill and that is beautiful or that expresses important ideas or feelings.” Creation and expression are the key words here. In this regard, it is worth mentioning Bruce Lee who viewed martial arts as “honestly expressing yourself.” Science is defined as “knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws especially as obtained and tested through scientific method.” The key word here is knowledge, while “scientific method” includes experiments and observations. In other words, science is learning through experiments and observation.
As suggested earlier, art and science can be reconciled. Consider cooking, for instance. Is a science or an art? Many would agree that cooking is both a science and an art. Even it we consider the “real scientists”, i.e. people engaged in scientific, research and academic activities, they display creativity too. Only the product of their work is intellectual, not physical (like in case of sculptors, painters, artists, etc.). Similarly, if yon consider “real men of art”, they must acquire certain skills and knowledge – that is learn – before they can create a piece of art. So scientific goes hand in hand with artistic here.
The same principle applies to martial arts, which can be a misleading term sometimes. Any martial art is a science. A side kick, or yop chagi, in taekwon-do will be powerful and effective if the hips, knees, and feet are all engaged at the correct angles. An irimi nage throw in aikido requires a lot of precision in controlling the opponent’s inertia and using your center of gravity. The technical examples are literally countless. Each and every technique requires thousands of repetitions and hours of learning before it can be truly mastered and become automatic. This process of acquiring skills is science. Furthermore, with martial arts there are always new things to learn, there will never be a moment when you will know everything, This is like being a lifelong student, and this is science too. Last but not least, like in “traditional science”, in martial arts you need to try, test and challenge things that don’t work best for you. And this is science also.
After acquiring at least the basic skills, you can start being creative. For instance, during the free sparring you select those techniques which are best in terms of timing, speed, power, surprise, etc. In other words, you start improvising. Such process of creative improvisation is art. As an another example, during a training you try to make your traditional forms as aesthetic, elegant yet at the same time powerful as possible. This is art too. As Ron Goin nicely put it in his blog post on martial art vs. science: “some people will practice their martial art with the same sense of intensity and personal expression as a dancer who practices ballet.” Finally, facing an unexpected attack in an unfamiliar environment forces you to be creative and inventive, which is also art.
To summarize, any martial art is both an art and a science. I like the guitar analogy here. First you need to learn basic chords, rhythms, finger style picking, etc. After a while you can start playing others’ songs, and eventually improvise and create your own music, The processes of science (learning) and art (creation) are intertwined here. The same goes for martial arts – there is no art without science, and vice versa.