If we look at all arts and skills, not only those related to Martial Arts, few have truly passed into oblivion. People still sew by hand, people still hunt with bow and arrow. People still fire pottery in kilns. Some folk forge their own swords or other metal works using hand pumped bellows. People still play lutes and lyres. Granted, some of these things are resigned to a very rare few. Many of the old ways have been augmented by modern technology. More people use a sewing machine than a needle and thread. Most glassblowers use automated furnaces, and even more glass is made by machine. You can print the finest lettering from your computer, yet some folk still study the craft and art of calligraphy. The arts themselves have not passed away.
We might lament the radically dwindling number of followers of any given art or skill. The ever-decreasing number of practitioners seems to suggest interest is waning, and that the art or skill will slip into the abyss of the past. However, there may be something else at work.
I will use Wing Chun as my primary reference, as I have more familiarity with it. Ip Man is credited with Wing Chun’s revival. It was thought this traditional Kung Fu was all but dead until Ip Man came along. However, we must note, according to various text records it appears Ip Man had little more than 20 students in his lifetime. His real revival claim is the development of the Ving Tsun Tong Fellowship, later to become the Ving Tsun Athletic Association – the VTAA that survives to this day. Still, I think there might be something else at work.
Ip Man was an infant during the first Sino-Japanese War (1893 to 1895). He was a teen during World War I. He survived the Sino-Japanese War of 1937. That war caused him to move to Hong Kong. He was witness to World War II (1939 to 1945). During WW II he was building his small Hong Kong school and gathering together the tiny band of documented students. In the 1950s, he took on Bruce Lee. Lee went on to make himself, and thus the art, famous during the 1960s. Likewise, Ip Man began building the VTAA during that time.
Following the cessation of WW II the entire industrialized world was experiencing unprecedented growth. They were the Baby Boom years. Industrialization, ramped up for the war, turned its eye on peacetime. There were jobs aplenty. The 40-hour workweek was a new innovation. Hourly wages were up. The general populace of all industrialized countries grew healthy and enjoyed some comforts. Middle classes began to emerge or strengthen all over the globe.
Might the mid-20th century resurgence in some Traditional Martial Arts have benefited from this more robust economy? It may be possible that any person having good Wing Chun training during the 1950s and 1960s would have been poised to be the Grandmaster that saved the art from death simply because people had the time and money to enjoy laborious and lengthy hobbies.
We are currently experiencing a time of global austerity. Middle classes are being squeezed out of existence everywhere. People work longer hours for essentially less income.
Technology has reduced the length of time it takes to smelt metal. Time is money. A forger may wish to make his products the old way, but he has to crank them out at cheaper cost per unit to make ends meet. He has to finish this job and get on to the second, and the third, as quickly as possible. In many cases, this is not a bad thing. However, this may make the practice of traditional arts and craft skills difficult.
Money is tight. Time is short. In many of the articles I have recently seen, one common thread is the cost of providing the Traditional Arts. Property is increasingly expensive in this Post-Baby-Boom world. The Global Financial Meltdown, in large part caused by the real estate markets, has made property expensive. Rents for studios and schools are high. This forces the Instructor-Owner to charge higher rates. With money tight, higher rates means fewer students. To fit in more students to keep rates low, the operator may move to shorter classes.
Likewise, given the need of the average person to work more and shell out less, shorter classes at lower rates fits the bill. This gives rise to what I would call the Lesser Arts, MMA, Kickboxing, and the like. These arts do not require years. They do not focus on the exactness of form, lengthy repetition, internal arts, history, and a host of things most Traditional Arts consider mandatory. It is a down and dirty form, geared specifically to the time squeezed and pocket pinched world in which we currently live.
I believe it is possible interest in Traditional Martial Arts is not waning. It is certainly prevalent in our media. If interest is not dead, the arts themselves are not dead as long as there are a few who keep the heart beating long enough for the patient – the general population and economy – to gain the strength to participate.
President Bush Jr., on national TV, praised a woman for working three jobs to make ends meet. Work is the order of the day. Playtime is a thing of the past. Perhaps the demise we should be lamenting is that of leisure time and spending money. Without them, people may want to enjoy a Traditional Martial Art, though they may not be able to.