This is the first of a two part interview conducted by Mark V. Wiley of Hunter B. Armstrong, IHS Director. The interview was initially published in “Martial Arts Talk” by Mark V. Wiley, Tuttle Publishing, 2000.
Hoplology is a rather strange term and one that certainly is not in wide use today. Yet, it is an important science when studying the combative arts. What exactly is hoplology?
We have both a formal definition, which we hardly ever use, and a more realistic one - the study of the evolution and development of human combative behavior and performance. In short, hoplology is the study of how people fight, why they fight, and how different cultures manifest those behaviors. Essentially, what we are doing, and have been doing, is looking at human fighting and trying to really delineate the natural aspects of it, as well as the dysfunctional and unnatural aspects.
Hoplology sounds like a truly encompassing study of the universal art of combat. A name that comes up frequently when researching the roots of hoplology is Sir Richard F. Burton. Is he the founder of this research method?
Sir Richard Francis Burton was definitely one of the forerunners of hoplology. We have found references to the word prior to Burton’s use of it. In Greek, the root word, hopl refers to armed or armored. When Burton was doing that kind of work, from the 1850’s through to the 1880’s, there was another fellow, B. Henry Lane Fox Pitt-Rivers, who was also doing hoplological work, if you will. However, I would have to say that it was Burton who was the real father of hoplology.
Hoplology appears to be a lot like anthropology, although anthropologists tend to focus their studies on the culture of an event and not on the practice of it as much.
Hoplology was developed in a period when anthropology itself was really starting to grow. At that time, I think the people who were doing what we now call anthropology were, for the most part, amateurs. At the same time, in almost a parallel development, there was hoplology. I think at that time these two fields really weren’t separated, and probably they shouldn’t be separated now. But somewhere, probably after the wars in Europe in the late 1800's and World War I, warfare, fighting, and the study of [war] took on a very bad taste. As a result, researchers began looking at human cultures almost without regard to the fighting behaviors of those cultures.
Now Burton, on the other hand, was very interested in people’s fighting behavior. He was a widely published author of a number of travel books and books on the cultures he had visited, as well as on weapons and fighting manuals. His most famous book on this topic is The Book of the Sword. He did a number of military training manuals and was himself considered a master swordsman in Europe.
Was Burton from England?
He was from England, and he spoke several languages fluently. He trained in schools of Italian fencing, French fencing, etc., and he was a British military officer who saw limited action in India. He was also in combat in Africa. He received a face wound from a spear through the cheek while in Africa. So, he was a man who both had experienced battle and had a deep, abiding interest in it. Again, his great curiosity about human behavior in general carried over into human fighting behavior.
Burton was interested in both the weapons and the use of the weapons—the whole context of that behavior. What happened after this period was that the study of weapons kind of took on an artefactual perspective. There are plenty of great weapons museums in Europe and Asia, but generally speaking, there is very little interest in how the weapons are used. The weapons are generally looked at and studied for their size, their shape, their morphology, where they were found, what groups used them, and so on.
They are basically collectors and curators rather than practitioners.
Right. And in this context, they are essentially museum shelf implements. That has been the predominant study of weapons since Burton’s time, and even now.
We, members of the International Hoplology Society, were in India in 1986 for a month-long field survey. We were trying to see what areas would be worthwhile for doing a longer-term study. We went through a lot of great Indian museums, just fantastic pieces. But people from the museums just had no idea how the weapons were used. On the other hand, if you go out on the street, there were still people around still who knew how to use them.
The late Donn F. Draeger was one of the first Westerners to seriously research, practice, and write about Asian combative systems. He was also the first torch holder, so to speak, of hoplology since Burton. How did Draeger get involved in hoplology?
What happened, as far as the study of hoplology is concerned, was that Donn Draeger came on the scene in the early Fifties, shortly after World War II. Draeger, of course, had been a career marine officer who saw action throughout the Pacific and in Korea, had done intelligence work in South America after the war, and had been studying Japanese martial arts of one type or another since the age of seven. He had started in one of the old jujutsu classes, I think in Chicago. So he had quite an extensive combative background. After WWII, while he was stationed in Japan, he became associated with the Kobudo Shinko Kai—the Classical Martial Arts Preservation Society of Japan—a research society, which he was allowed to join. By that time, he had already begun training in Japanese classical martial arts. In that organization, he formed the international branch. Of course, the Japanese, being as inward-looking as they are, pretty much ignored what he was doing, so he broke it off and formed what became the International Hoplological Research Center.
Where did Draeger come across the field of hoplology?
Draeger was an incredibly gifted athlete. He was probably a world-class athlete as far as genetic capabilities. He was also a very intelligent fellow, very well-read. He was near genius, if not genius; in fact, in combination of capabilities, I would have to say he was genius. Draeger was incredibly well-read across a broad area, from engineering to cultural studies. Essentially, his interest was in weapons and warfare. Having been a combat marine, he had seen more weapons and warfare than most people of our [later] generation.
Draeger came upon the word hoplology in his readings of the early European hoplologists themselves, essentially Burton. Many of us who later knew Draeger and worked under him often joked of him being the reincarnation of Burton. Unfortunately, Draeger didn’t have quite the language capabilities of Burton; he had the language capabilities of a Marine. Actually, he was a very erudite fellow, but he often came across as a jock. And I think this is part of the reluctance of serious academics to take him seriously, as they would look at this fellow and see someone who was obviously a jock. Unless he was in his professorial mode, they would consider him to be a meatball. I have been in on a few of the academic challenges he received, and he was formidable.
Wasn’t Draeger doing something through the University of Hawaii, or connected to it in some way?
Not the University of Hawaii, but the East West Center, a graduate institution at the University of Hawaii. I think he received two grants there. Essentially, they were cross-cultural studies grants. At the same time, he was also doing a project for the Bishop Museum in Honolulu in going through their collection of Polynesian weapons. He did a pretty extensive morphology survey of the weapons they had on hand. It is a pretty dry piece, basically a physical description of all of the weapons. And while he really couldn’t get into the use-actions of the weapons, he did offer some hypotheses of how these weapons might be used, based on biomechanics and the known combative aspects of Hawaiian or Polynesian cultures. Surprisingly, he was probably the foremost expert on Hawaiian weapons until his death, although he was relatively unpublished in this area.
I, for one, never knew this, and I have all of his books. Why didn’t he publish more on this topic?
We actually do have some of his writings on it, but they are more in the form of notes and things along those lines. Part of the reason is that Hawaiians are as secretive as anyone else, and he was asked not to release anything until he had gotten permission from the Kahunas he was working with. He died before that happened. But his research work on those weapons is the foremost work on Polynesian weapons ever done.
Draeger lived in Japan for most of his adult life?
He was based in Japan. At the end of World War II he also spent some time in China.
Really? Since he wrote so little on Chinese systems, I don’t think most people are aware of his research in China. Do you know in what part of China he stayed?
I know he was in Shanghai for a short time, but I couldn’t tell you for how long. He was later based in Tokyo. I believe he was what they call riffed out as part of the reduction in forces that was going on after the war, and he actually did not serve a full-career term in the Marines as a result. He was riffed, I believe, in 1956. He took his discharge in Japan.
At that time, he stayed in Japan, although he had first done some work for the Marine Corps and the Department of Defense in South America on some kind of special duty. But after that, what he basically concentrated on was his martial arts training and writing. During that period, the early sixties, he was doing some of his earliest writings, articles for Strength and Health and Muscular Development magazines, published by the old Bob Hoffman empire. He did some articles on Shindo Muso Ryu jo, as well as some stuff on Oyama karate. It was really the first introduction of non-pop martial arts to the Western world.
When did Draeger begin his extensive travels and doing his extensive research throughout Southeast Asia, India, and other places?
I guess his seminal studies in that regard were while he was still in the Marine Corps. When he was doing work with the military, wherever he went he was either challenging or checking people out. I think his early researches , as it were, were more in the form of “Let’s see what you’ve got, and I’ll show you what I’ve got.” As he went on and got more serious about actually finding out about these systems, his approach was smoothed out, and he became much more sophisticated as a researcher. But I know by the mid- and late-fifties he had a much more sophisticated approach to what he was looking at and seeing. It was also somewhere during that period that he started getting more interested in the weapon arts, as versus the purely empty-hands stuff.
I think most people are familiar with Draeger’s background in judo. What other martial arts did he study while in Japan?
Draeger was a grappler, first and foremost. The guy was roughly 6'2" and ranged in weight from his peak as a judo man of 215 pounds to around 195 later, when he specialized in weapons training. He was a real solid guy. When I first met him, he was fifty-five years old and could still squat 500 pounds. That’s pretty impressive for anybody, much less a 55 year old guy.
As you are probably aware, he was associated with Mas Oyama in the early days. He was not a member of the Kyokushinkai, but he helped Oyama out in his books and with some of his PR work. Draeger was also associated and co-authored some books with Nakayama of the Japan Karate Association. Again, he wasn’t really a karate man at all, and never really formally entered any of the dojo or training schools of that time, but he often did train with those people. So, he had a pretty good grasp of what they were doing, and being a formidable athlete—and a combative athlete at that—he could pretty much hold his own in anything he went into new.
Again, looking at his background as a combat Marine, somewhere along the line I think the same realization came to him that has come to a lot of us who have gone on that track: reality says that the last thing I want to do in a real fight is do it with my hands empty. So, he was introduced through, I believe, one of his judo teachers to Shindo Muso Ryu under Shimizu Takaji Sensei, who was head of that ryu at the time. From there, he was introduced to the Katori Shinto Ryu. This was the basis of his weapons training.
Draeger has done a wealth of research that has yet to be published. I am curious that although he had been to China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, the three books he published on Chinese martial arts featured two masters and systems from Malaysia and one from Indonesia. Why did he choose to write books on three Chinese systems in Southeast Asia?
Well, of course, at the time Draeger was writing his Chinese martial arts books you couldn’t get into China. Also, the Chinese martial arts that you can see in Hong Kong, he was not real impressed with. He had seen much better stuff when he was in Shanghai. He had seen much better stuff when he was in Malaysia. As far as the Taiwan stuff goes, I suspect that because he was such close friends with Robert W. Smith, he stayed clear of it; Taiwan was Smith territory, so to speak. When they collaborated on the book Asian Fighting Arts, essentially, Smith took the Chinese and Southeast Asian realm and Draeger did Japan and India. I think part of it was just out of friendship with Smith and part of it was the political situation in China. He had, and we have of his, a tremendous amount of material on Chinese culture, history, and fighting systems.
Draeger also went to India a few times and did extensive research there. Again, he wasn’t able to publish his research on that region before his death.
No. Again, when he went to India it was in the earlier days. And we have some of his notes. At that time he was primarily interested in the grapplers, so most of his information on the Indian arts was in the grappling. He did gather some information on the weapons and armor, but it was in a more primitive form than he would have done later on. So actually, when we did our India trip, it was really part of a program that Draeger had originally outlined. When I first joined up working under him in 1977 or 1978, one of the long-term plans was to do a long-term field study in India, particularly Northern India. We kept putting it off for this reason or that reason. We did do a trip to Sri Lanka, which ironically turned up absolutely nothing. Then a couple of years later, they had a major civil war. The only thing we could find was modern wrestling. But we couldn’t find anything regarding classical or traditional wrestling systems. It could be that we just didn’t look in the right places at the right time. But later on, of course, we found out that they are very combatively capable people.
It is widely known that Draeger spent a good deal of time in Malaysia and Indonesia, and he wrote three books on silat. Did his research ever take him into the Philippines?
Draeger did go into the Philippines. Again, I think his original trip into Southeast Asia was from Japan through the Philippines, then down into the Indonesian and Malaysian areas. I really couldn’t tell you why, but he found the Indonesian and Malaysian fighting arts to be of greater interest than those of the Philippines. I don’t know enough about the Philippines arts to say whether it was because they had already predominantly moved from classical into modern systems, or what. Indonesia and Malaysia, when I was there in the late seventies, were still fairly pristine. You could still see fighting arts that were for fighting. Since then, of course, we now have silat oloraga for sport tournament fighting, a complete distortion of what the classical systems were.
What are some of the tools, or what is the primary methodology a hoplologist takes into the field with him when documenting a fighting art?
The biggest point is perspective. This was something that Draeger really drummed into all of us who worked with him. There are terms he used and borrowed from aspects of behavioral studies: emic and etic. The emic observer is the observer who is part of the culture being observed. Etic means you are an outsider looking in. The problem with observing any outside culture is your view is distorted by your own culture.
Right. So it was very important to Draeger that if you were going to go study fighting systems in any culture, you better have a good grasp on fighting. If you are going to go to a new culture, there is not much you can do about being a member of that culture’s fighting arts, but if you have an understanding of the basic biomechanics and behaviors of fighting that are normal in human beings, you’ll have a better understanding of what you are seeing. Of course, the whole study has been aimed at finding out what those behaviors are. And we have found these behaviors to be universal. So, the primary tools are having as emic a perspective as possible. If you are going to go look at a weapons fighting art, being a karate man doesn’t do you much good; you have to have a weapons background. In particular, Draeger was also concerned that the observer was trained in a fighting system that was aimed at combat as versus sport.
The challenge there, when you go in, is being objective. If you are Joe Black Belt and you are a big, tough guy from the States and have been training in Japan for a few years, and you go to Malaysia, for example, where the average guy is half your size and half your weight, then your first impression is likely to be, “Well, I can take that guy.” That was certainly natural for me, and was something that Draeger kind of slapped out of us all of the time. He was adamant that we look at these things as objectively as possible. He was constantly pushing on us that we were not seeing everything, that (1) we were only seeing what they wanted to show us, and (2) we didn’t really fully understand in what context this system was being used. At that time, I was primarily a karate man and into Japanese weapons arts. A karate guy, especially a modern karate guy, is used to training on a nice, smooth, hardwood floor. But look at what these guys are training on: mud or loose dirt. Draeger would tell us that a hardwood floor karate guy would have no idea what it’s like to train on that kind of ground. It is something that is easy to miss. And frankly, it took me a while to catch on to these little things and try to figure out how the material differences worked. We had to learn to really look, to see all the actual physical differences in the training context. And these are relatively easy to see compared to the cultural differences.
Exactly. Context is the most important thing to consider when viewing a fighting art. You wrote an article about this idea where you mentioned how you viewed an apparent empty-hand silat system in Malaysia that looked impractical. Yet, it was designed to be used with a kerambit held in the hands; of course, had you known this, the movements would have made better sense.
Right. The Western mind and especially British sense of fair play is to stand up and say, “Okay, you and me, let’s stand up and go toe to toe.” Whereas in Asia, a real fight means that probably real weapons are going to be used. This means that you don’t want to stand there and exchange blows with your opponent; you want to kill him before he can hurt you. This is a totally different mindset in dealing with an enemy from what the American or Brit has as an idea of as a fair fight. When I was a kid, before the karate movies came out, when we got into schoolyard fights, you never kicked. It was considered cheating or dirty fighting to kick, and only girls kicked. Of course, now it has completely changed, as the martial arts movies constantly remind you. Everybody kicks now.
And that’s a cultural thing, an evolution of the fighting culture. That is something you have to learn: to stand back and remove the blinders from your own culture and objectively look at other cultures. These things are hard for a normal human being.
It was impressive to watch Draeger because he was so capable. Most of us were in total awe of him physically. It was amazing how he could go in there and charm these people into showing him their stuff. When we went in as mid-twenties to thirty-year-old guys, there was still a fair amount of testosterone coming out of us, and they would tend to look at us as young guys as challenging them. Draeger could go in there and in just a very smooth manner convince them that he thought their system was the best in the world, and they would show him things that otherwise we would never be able to see.
At the time you were going into the field with Draeger, you were going into basically uncharted territory as far as the martial arts are concerned. Assuming, then, that you had an open mind and were entering the field with a proper perspective, you still had to locate the fighting arts. How was that end approached in an area like rural Indonesia or Malaysia?
Aside from perspective, the standard tool for going into a culture where there had been little research was to show them what we did. You couldn’t go into a village and say, “Hey, we want to see your fighting system.” The first thing they are going to do is say, “Yeah, we’ll show you our fighting system,” and go at you for real. So, what we did in a lot of cases, as silly as it may sound, we would go to a local coffee shop, which often was kind of an outdoor shack, and drink coffee. And maybe if we were in that village for a day or two we’d actually go out and do some training. But what almost inevitably would happen was that we would show them something. And often when they saw what we were doing, they’d want show us what they did. The exchange basis seemed to work pretty well. A number of times, we would be in places where absolutely nothing seemed to be going on, and we’d do some kind of training. Somebody at a table would say, “Hey, my uncle does something like that.” And that would be a kind of key into getting into seeing somebody’s system.
Quite often, in the more industrialized areas of Malaysia and Indonesia, we’d talk to members of that culture who would absolutely swear that nothing like that was being done any more. Or there is only kung-fu, and that is only done in movies. Or, no fighting silat, only sport. Yet, we could go out into the kampung somewhere and find people who were still doing old-style training.
Part of the hoplological study of fighting arts is their classification. Was Draeger able to design a practical fighting arts classification system that was easily put to use when doing such research?
We have a macro analysis system for weapons and systems. Draeger had started one for unarmed fighting systems, and we had been working on it for years. In the late seventies, when we started Hoplos, the first newsletter for the International Hoplological Research Center, there were about four or five of us in Japan—Meik Skoss, Larry Bieri, Phil Relnick, and myself—who were at one point going through monthly courses with him. We would go out to Draeger’s village at Narita, and spend all day Sunday in his apartment being instructed on the how-to’s of hoplology—everything from weapons morphology to systems analysis. As we got more skilled in that, we actually became involved in developing the systems analysis method. Even now, that is ongoing.
Don’t you find such classifications of fighting arts to be rather limiting in their stereotypical classifications of systems? After all, just because a system chooses to employ a sword with a curved edge doesn’t necessarily mean that the system couldn’t be applied to a straight-edged sword.
The system analysis was purely meant as a field tool to provide a shorthand idea of how a system or weapon was being used. It was to be a backup for photos and video. For example, we would look at a weapon, its striking edge or point, the target it was being aimed at, and how it moved to the target. So, for example, you say a curved sword. Well, it is a cutting-edge weapon, and its aimed effect on the target is to achieve some type of trenchant action, a cut; generally speaking, the blade moves through an arc. If we look at a spear, you are not looking for a trenchant action so much as a perforation or penetration effect on the target, and the spear point is going to move to the target in a line. All right, so these were the basics of it, and you can pretty much define any weapon in that manner. Now, perhaps you can also take that curved weapon, and use it similar to the spear, but it wouldn’t function in as effective a manner as would the spear. And I think you would be hard put to find a system that strictly used a curved cutting-edge weapon, such as a saber, in a manner like a spear, and vice versa. So, that is basically what the system and weapons macro-analysis was used for; it was not supposed to be clearly defined, black-and-white descriptions of weapons-use or the weapons themselves.
This is something we’ve run into throughout hoplological descriptions and also in any field of human studies or human behavior. There is the tendency to look at these things when they are written down in black and white as saying it is black or it is white and there is nothing in between. Our feeling is that everything is in shades of gray.
In hoplology, then, we are real fond of the word “continuum” in regard to fighting systems, particularly with the evolution of systems still going on. So, you can still find fighting systems that are being strictly used for combat in the jungles of Malaysia, but very few of them. Most of the silat now is undergoing an evolution into sport. This is true in Japan, China, India; anywhere you go, there are transitions going on.
When we say a system is primarily combat-oriented, meaning not sport-oriented, it is toward the combat end of a continuum that runs from pure mortal combat at one end to solo non-conflict at the other. That doesn’t mean that that combat system has no use in sport. Vice versa, you can look at a combative sport like boxing, for example, that has strictly been evolving for sport for over a hundred years now; it doesn’t mean that boxing can’t be used in a fight. It just means that boxing is most effective for what it has been evolving for. So, these are the problems with describing weapons and systems.
Now, the nice thing about weapons is that since they are hard, material objects, they are a little easier to describe in the sense that we can ascribe them to specific uses. If you look at the Indian talwar, you are probably not going to jump to the conclusion that it should be used in sport fighting. On the other hand, take a look at the Japanese bamboo shinai used in kendo. The man doing kendo is likely to say that the shinai is a bamboo sword. It is not a bamboo sword; it doesn’t even come close to looking like a sword, although the Japanese people who do kendo still like to call it a bamboo sword. However, it has no use or application in its movement, or in its shape and structure any similarity to the real weapon. As a material object, the weapon is a lot easier to look at in that regard. And that really puts the lie to a number of systems that claim to be strictly a combative system… the weapon says not.