Is Lightsaber Combat a real martial art – and what can asking this question unlock for us?

This article is based on two sources:

Lightsabers Long Exposer by Brian Neudorff. Licensed under CC BY 2.0 via Flickr

This is a follow up to Eight reasons to train in Lightsaber Combat (even if you don’t agree it’s a real martial art).

One thing that really came out in the feedback to that article was some tension over whether Lightsaber Combat is a real martial art or not. 

So initially, I decided to explore this question, with reference to the work of two scholars who also practise martial arts: Dr Martin Meyer and Dr Ben Judkins.

However, this led on to some troubling reflections on modern-day martial arts in general – and a conclusion that we should probably be asking the same question of all of these arts – not just singling out Lightsaber Combat . . .

To start off though, here’s what Martin and Ben have to say on the subject . . .


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Ben Judkins’ analysis – Is Lightsaber Combat a real martial art?

Ben is a scholar and Wing Chun practitioner, who also enjoys practising Lightsaber Combat. He’s highlighted a few areas where LSC might be criticised as “unreal” – and come up with an answer for each one . .


1. Lightsabers are not real weapons

Obviously Lightsabers don’t actually exist. But Ben points put that some of the weapons used in the “real” martial arts are functionally obsolete – which is a different kind of “unreal”. For example, our chance of being attacked today with a naginata (a halberd-like weapon with a blade mounted on a long handle) – or a bow and arrow – are not that much higher than our chance of being attacked with a Lightsaber.

Ben also points out in an interview with Inverse that: A 36-inch heavy polycarbonate [lightsaber] blade can smack with a lot of force […] That makes it pretty much identical to any other weapon you’d use in training.

MMA claims to be more “realistic” than other martial arts – and yet it’s (understandably) full of safety rules which are not found in a real fight.

In any case, Ben argues that simulating real conflict is not the primary aim of most martial arts training – Equally important has been the building of physical strength, mental toughness and a tactical toolkit in environments that are quite different from what might be encountered in an actual attack.


2. Lightsaber Combat is based on a fantasy story / movie

Samurai and Geisha by Arol LIghtfoot. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr

Again this is true. But as Ben points out, much of what we know about past military battles and personal duels also comes from unrealistic movies and other media representations, and not personal experience.

Furthermore, the traditional martial arts, have always been tied to the closely related worlds of folk history and storytelling.

So again, it seems unfair to demean LSC without also asking some careful questions about other arts.


3. LSC doesn’t have the same ethical framework as many martial arts

The traditional martial arts tend to have strong ethics and codes of conduct, which make them a popular choice for students seeking to “better” themselves, or their children.

Meanwhile, LSC is not grounded in any “real” religious or cultural framework of ethics. However, Ben’s research has found:

a surprising degree of dedication on the part of many of the students […] it is clear that many students are approaching lightsaber combat as a key organizing symbol in their lives. The weapons may be fictional, but the feelings that are invoked through practice are authentic and profound. Nor are the sorts of mentoring relationships that students seek from their instructor any different from what one might find in a traditional martial arts institution.


4. Lightsaber Combat is just theatrical

On one level this is correct. But Ben argues that most martial arts have a strong theatrical element:

Pencak silat Betawi style performed during Betawi wedding ceremony.Rawasari, Jakarta, Indonesia. by Gunawan Kartapranata. LIcensed under Creative Commons via Wikimedia.

For example, throughout Asian history, archery did double duty as a cornerstone of public ritual as well as being a critical military skill [Selby 2000: 27-87]. Even the periodic military exams held by the Chinese government in the late imperial period tended to draw a large crowd and functioned as public spectacles as much as a rational mechanism for choosing the best military recruits (well into the age of the gun).

Nor can we forget about the important social place of practices such as ‘wedding silat’, dance-like capoeira matches or the public performance of traditional martial arts styles on the stage of southern China’s Cantonese Opera.

And some LSC schools are not even interested in the “theatrical” side anyway. Ben points out that some schools are more into the theatrical or “cosplay” side, but others

are working quite hard at taking techniques from traditional martial arts and adapting them to the use of stunt sabers and then creating pretty rigorous martial art systems around that. 


Ben’s conclusion – Is Lightsaber Combat a real martial art?

Ben says, The answer is almost certainly yes […] Hyper-real combat practices can be authentic martial arts.


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Martin Meyer’s framework 

Outside his academic work, Martin Meyer practises MMA and Kickboxing. As part of his current research, Martin is developing a framework for defining whether a practice is a martial art or not. At present, his framework comprises five criteria.

Here’s a summary of how Lightsaber Combat matches up to his criteria . . .


1. It has to be a fight between two humans

Martin argues that in a genuine martial art, the fight must be between people, and not include animals, monsters, machines and so on. So things like Mas Oyama fighting a bull; and war battles between army units are not martial arts.

Martin acknowledges that some martial arts are said to have come from watching animal fights. However, the actual development of this into a martial style still takes place through training and teaching with humans.

The lightsaber is the weapon of the Jedi and Sith, who are human. In any case, a LSC class as we know it is of course taught and practiced by humans.


2. It has to be transmitted through teaching/training and physical experience

According to Martin’s framework, if the art is transmitted only through computer games, books, martial arts apps or similar, it’s not a real martial art. The training also has to be systematic, so things like bar brawls don’t count.

Lightsaber Combat as taught through classes meets these criteria.

In the movie A New Hope, here’s Luke Skywalker training against a Remote, with Obi Wan instructing him:

Interestingly, Han Solo is heard to say at the end of this clip, Look, going against remotes is one thing. Going against the living? It’s something else. Which of course echoes common conversations heard in martial arts circles about realism in training . . .


3. It has to be designed for a specific fight setting

Lightsaber Combat is certainly designed for use in a specific setting – albeit a fantasy one. Some would see this as an argument against it being “real”. However, that’s the whole point Martin is making – most martial arts are designed for a setting that’s unrealistic in one way or another.

For example, some arts or styles are taught mainly for competition, and are therefore bound by competition rules – such as not allowing punches and/or kicks to the head. Other arts teach sword techniques which assume that the enemy wears samurai armour. Neither of these approaches can be called “realistic” in a modern martial sense.

It’s hard to argue that lightsaber combat is any less “realistic” than forms of some traditional martial arts, where the presumed setting is that your attacker is very compliant – and/or attacks slowly and/or softly – and/or leaves their punch suspended in mid-air while you apply a technique to their static arm . . .


4. Every attack in the system has to have a defensive move that can counter it (auto-immunity)

Kalarippayattu by Leelavathy B.M. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia

Martin explains that a true martial art assumes that there is no technique that can’t be defended against; and both fighters generally operate under equal conditions. This means that:

Dense self-defense systems do not provide auto-immunity, because the attacker is advantaged per surprise effect, superior body strength, armament or outnumbering. Then training aims to compensate these advantages.

[…] Ninjitsu also is not auto-immune, because it is designed for battle and assassination purposes – it seeks favouring fight settings (by surprise, camouflage, armament, (booby) traps etc.).

If you watch a lightsaber duel, you will see participants striking, parrying and countering in a way that looks like any more conventional form of swordfighting. Martin explains that defences and counters are often developed during training through experimentation – this can be an important aspect of LS training.


5. It must have a self-sufficient cult identity

This is so self-evident it doesn’t even need explaining! Lightsaber Combat belongs to Jediism as surely as Sumo belongs to Shintoism.

Jediism may be a fictional religion, but it is seen as a valuable, coherent belief system by some people.


Martin’s conclusion – Is Lightsaber Combat a real martial art?

So according to Martin’s framework for assessing what makes a “real” martial art, Lightsaber Combat is clearly valid.


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Conclusion – What can asking this question unlock for us . . . ?

I tell Ben about this article. He replies thoughtfully:

Yes, it’s not that hard to argue that this is a martial art.  But the question then becomes, so what? Arguments of the type “this is an example of X” are just not very interesting.  More important is to ask, where has it gone, and what has it done?  What does X reveal about the martial arts, or society, that we did not previously expect?

To use a Zen metaphor, definitions are like boats.  Their only purpose is to get you to the other bank of the river.  And once there the real work of description, exploration and theory begin.  So what use is an old boat?

You’re starting to come to the realization that there’s less difference than one might expect between the experience of practices that are hyper-real versus those that are historically grounded. You’re taking your first steps down an interesting path.  Keep taking the additional steps, and move beyond questions of definition.  What do you see . . . ?

He’s right! But what does this open up . . . ?

And then I realise that the attacking of “other” martial arts for not being real is the theme I’m looking for. Many practitioners are obsessed with achieving reality in their martial art. Their art has to be more real than the other clubs in town, or even the rest of the world.

A nasty manifestation of this, is being openly vicious about other arts, styles or clubs for being ineffective or unrealistic. Or writing spiteful comments on other people’s YouTube videos. Or proclaiming that lightsaber combat isn’t a real martial art when you don’t actually really know what it is. 

Another, perhaps more socially acceptable side, is seen in the many “Martial Arts Fails” video compilations that circulate around. Or the entertaining pastime of laughing at McDojos (“a school that teaches a watered-down and impractical form of martial arts in the name of making money”)   

Sure, people criticize inauthenticity in other fields (“Why I left yoga”). But I don’t think that preoccupation with attacking the non-real “Other” is anything like as prevalent in most other arts and activities.

So why are many martial artists obsessed with seeing their own art as “real”, and others as “not real”? I don’t know the answer, and it’s probably for a load of complex reasons.

But one possibility that springs to mind, is that it’s well known that the things we attack in others, are often the qualities we don’t want to face up to in ourselves.

Are martial artists are more troubled than most, by the fear that what we do is not real?

mma-1369784_640If you learn to draw, you draw pictures. If you learn to play tennis, you play tennis matches. These are obvious, real applications of the art, which students can access right from the start.

But if you learn a martial art – you don’t often (if ever) actually practise the “real” application of it, which would be an encounter with genuine violence. Sparring, or anything else bound by rules, isn’t “real” in that sense.

And even real fighting isn’t necessarily real. Rory Miller says,

Many martial arts, martial artists, and even people who fight for real on a regular basis have also only seen a very small part of this very big thing. Often, the best know one aspect very well, but that is only one aspect.

[…Violence] is as complicated as hell. If you ever really wanted to get a handle on just one piece – interpersonal violence – you would need to understand physics, anatomy ans physiology, athletics, criminal law, group dynamics, criminal dynamics, evolutionary psychology, biology and evolutionary biology, endocrinology, strategy and even moral philosophy. [It’s a] great big complex mess.

            – Meditations on Violence pp1-2

So on one level we may just be repressing the uncomfortable awareness that we’re wearing pyjama-like training uniforms, using anachronistic weapons and abiding by safety rules that don’t exist in “reality”.

On another level, perhaps we’re troubled by a sense that the ultimate object of our study – violence – is something we’ll probably never fully understand or engage with for real.

Either way, this could cause us cognitive dissonance (mental discomfort caused by holding two or more contradictory beliefs, ideas, or values at the same time). Cognitive dissonance hurts, and we’re naturally drawn to relieve the discomfort. So how can we square this with ourselves? One way is to belittle others. Fulton J Sheen said:

Criticism of others is thus an oblique form of self-commendation. We think we make the picture hang straight on our wall by telling our neighbors that all his pictures are crooked.

The starting point for this article was curiosity. Because I saw so many unkind comments on people’s facebook pages, which were nothing to do with the original article, but only to do with whether LSC (or subtypes of LSC) were real or not. I also deleted a couple of similar comments off this website, because they were mean and added nothing to the conversation.

Even though martial arts practitioners (in my own experience) are generally such kind, open-minded, non-judgemental people. 

Martial arts is a mysterious field that where our questions can continue opening up forever. So it’s appropriate that it wasn’t enough to just answer the simple, original question – Is Lightsaber Combat a real martial art? Instead, we can use this question to open up further, more interesting questions – including exploring some possible reasons why many martial artists seem to be so preoccupied with pinning down the relationship between their own art, other styles and the intangible realm of reality . . .


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Dr Martin Meyer works as coordinator for teacher training at the university of Vechta and as a secondary school teacher (German language, computer science and physical education). Aside he’s been elected speaker of the Commission for Martial Arts & Combat Sports (Kommission’ Kampfkunst & Kampfsport) within the German Society of Sport Science (Deutsche Vereinigung für Sportwissenschaft). His research centres on  sociological, psychological and hoplological* aspects of the Martial Arts and Combat Sports.

* Hoplology is a fairly recent science that studies human combative behavior and performance.

Dr Benjamin Judkins earned a doctorate in Political Science from Columbia University.  He has taught at the University of Utah and his research and teaching has focused on international relations and the political economy of globalisation.  In The  Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (State University of New York Press, 2015) Ben examines the various social, economic, political and cultural forces that helped to shape the emergence of southern China’s unique fighting systems during the tumultuous 19th and 20th century.  He is also the editor of the blog Kung Fu Tea.

With big thanks to Ben Judkins, Martin Meyer and Andy Wozniak for feeding back on the first draft 🙂

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