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Zach_MB's picture
How Important Is Lineage?

I don't think that it's too complicated of a question, but how important do you feel that a clear lineage is to the legitimacy of your karate or any martial art? It seems like everybody and their brother takes the time to back their school/club to a name that everybody will recoginize. But as long as your art is effective outside the dojo and is teachable inside, then should it really matter?

Wastelander's picture

I was once told that "teaching lineage only matters in classical music and traditional martial arts." Personally, I think that lineage CAN be a good indicator of the quality of material that should be in a given curriculum, but that doesn't mean it always IS. Then, of course, you have people who claim lineage that can't be backed up, and no matter how good their material may be, that is shady behavior and a huge red flag. For me, lineage is important in that it tells me that an instructor has learned a specific curriculum, and isn't lying about his or her experience. After that, as a friend of mine likes to say, "the proof is on the floor." A century from now, people will be talking about how their lineage traces back to Iain Abernethy, or Kris Wilder, or Taira Masaji. Lineage changes over time.

Katz's picture

Lineage shouldn't matter : As Wastelander says : "the proof is on the floor".

But martial arts take time. You won't always know what is really being taught after just one full class. Beginner's stuff might not tell the whole story. And there are so many martial arts out there, people need to be able to quickly decide what the art they're looking into is about. Lineage tells you what style it is, what teaching methods it uses, etc.

Lineage is all about marketing. Although most of us don't like it, without it, there'd be no-one to train with, so we have to do it. :D

css1971's picture

I've trained with sporty styles like shotokan and with traditional karate styles like shorin and shito-ryu.

Frankly, the average level of teaching (here in the west anyway) is close to abysmal at all of them. There are great teachers out there but whether the style had a lineage or not was completely irrelevant as far as I can see. Lineage is just used as a proxy for quality, except it's no guarantee.

The teacher is what matters.

Marc's picture

When it comes to the practicality of any given martial art (or anything for that matter), lineage seems entirely irrelevant, at least at first glance. Either it works or it doesn't, right?

Well, if everybody can verify that it does work, then that's perfect. No lineage required.

But let's think of a technique that is said to be lethal. Say, poking a finger into some vital point on the lower right of your left little toe kills after 20 days and 6 minutes. - "What? No way! I mean, how do you know that?"

Now lineage might become interesting, because, which answer sounds most convincing to you...?

  1. "Here let me show you. If you would be so kind as to lift your foot a little... no, the left one, please..."
  2. "I know it works. I done it several times."
  3. "I know it works. The guy in that movie done it."
  4. "I learned it from Master Koutoumukei who said that it works."
  5. "I learned it from Master Koutoumukei who was the innermost student of the son of Master 荒唐無稽, who is said to have used it in the war several times."
  6. "It's an established technique of our martial art's style. Here let me show you in this book, written by Master 荒唐無稽 himself."
  7. "Sounds crazy, I know. But western doctors even have a name for it: It's called the O.U.C.H. effekt."
  8. "It is wll known. Even the medieval English soldiers practiced it. Was very effective when attacking a knight on horseback from below."
  9. "I do not know it. It's just some legacy move we practice as a tradtion."
  10. "Here, wanna try on me...?"

I could go on. laugh

The point is, you would not want to prove it for real (except maybe on the guy himself). So you would want some kind of credibility instead. Lineage is _a_ possible way of stating credibility. Especially if it is only one or two generations to the original source.

Also lineage has a role to play when we talk about bunkai. If you have an application that has been inherited by some sensei from his grandfather who founded the style or even invented the kata, then that's interesting.

Same goes for the historically correct form of a kata. If we have a video of a kata performed by, say, Funakoshi who learned it from Asato who learned it from Matsumura. Then we can be more certain that the performance resembles the original version than if we see a performance by some guy in a dojo today who says he's doing Shotokan Karate. ("Shotokan" claims a lineage going back to Funakoshi in some way, but not every generation in between is known to that chap.) He might even perform the kata the exact same way. But lineage does matter in terms of trustworthyness of your sources in historical research.

All the best, Marc  

Paul_D's picture

It seems important to a lot of people (judging by the amount of time on other forums people spend arguing about it).

Personally, I don't care if it was created 400 years ago or 40 years ago.  I don't care what name you give it, I don't care where you learnt it, or who from, and I don't care how many black and white photo's on the wall you have of Japanese men who died long before anyone in the dojo was born. All I care about is what the man in front of me on the mat is teaching me.  I have been taught some of the most ridiculous nonsense you could ever imagine by people with high ranks in legitimate arts that can trace their lineage back generation after generation to the founder.  And I have been taught some fabulous stuff by arts that are younger than I am. I accept that there is no way to pressure test anything, short of going into pub every week and starting fights, but the problem with that is the first time you come across something that doesn't work, you probably won't survive long enough to tell anyone.  And even if it was pressure tested 400 years ago on a Japanese battle field, that doesn't mean it will work in 2015 against a different enemy in completely different circumstances.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

We had a similar discussion on this topic back in 2012 (and yes I am very impressed with myself that I remembered it!).

The whole thread is a good read and my first post can be found here: http://iainabernethy.co.uk/comment/4339#comment-4339

The text below is key I feel and inline whit what others have said in this thread:

“If we stick to idea that a “lineage link” is legitimate when “my teacher said I was a teacher” then having a linage is a reasonable indication of a chain of quality instruction and that has to have value. It’s far from being the only consideration though and it’s certainly not the most important.

People should do not mistake “linage” for “ability”. We see that a lot where people claim that just because they have trained with a given person that legitimises what they do. The only real measure is “effect”. If you want to know if a person can punch well, then get them to punch. Asking them about their “family tree” to ascertain their ability is flawed in many ways. This is particularly true if the lineage they have is political or familial and not based on ability.

Another problem with lineage is when it is used to stifle progress. If potentially positive developments are shunned in a desire to keep a “pure lineage” then that will ultimately lead to stagnation (as we can see in much of modern martial arts). I cover this problem in some depth in this article: http://www.iainabernethy.co.uk/article/styles-are-they-killing-karate

“Lineage” as a by-product of quality instruction has to be positive. “Lineage” as political control, nepotism, or as means to discourage progress is obviously negative.”

All the best,


Ian H
Ian H's picture

Iain Abernethy wrote:
People should do not mistake “linage” for “ability”. 

I think the better way to see it is "lineage = opportunity".  

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.  You can send a student to a great sensei, but you can't make him learn the profound lessons of martial arts or the fine skill of being a good teacher.  But if he takes that opportunity and makes the most of it, then his lineage is something to be appreciated and sought out by the next generation of students.

Kevin73's picture

Most of the time, I see lineage arguments as a way for people to try and "prove" that what they do is "the best".

My art is XXXX years old

My instructor learned from Master So-and-so, the founder, and teaches the "true" style

Master So-and-so left style x and style y before founding his own style, but didn't learn the "real secrets" of style x and y, so style x and y are better

I have heard it often when someone has traced a lineage to a famous fighter or founder of a style.  They aren't going to fight for you in that dark alley.  It is up to YOU to make the art your own and make it work.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

Ian H wrote:
I think the better way to see it is "lineage = opportunity".

You can lead a horse to water, but you can't make him drink.  You can send a student to a great sensei, but you can't make him learn the profound lessons of martial arts or the fine skill of being a good teacher.  But if he takes that opportunity and makes the most of it, then his lineage is something to be appreciated and sought out by the next generation of students.

I think that’s a good way of looking at it. As you allude to, there could always be the “weak link” in the chain though that would see a person being a part of the linage and yet not have a meaningful learning opportunity. For example:

The Founder is a good teacher and teaches Pupil X. Pupil X eventually becomes Master X

Master X has linage and skill; but is a poor teacher who has not got the skills, character or temperament to pass on what he has learnt.

Pupil Y learns from Master X who – lacking the teaching ability of the founder – is not able to develop the skills of Pupil Y in the way the founder would have been able to.

Pupil Y therefore has a strong lineage, but a greatly reduced opportunity to develop himself.

Kevin73 wrote:
It is up to YOU to make the art your own and make it work.

Absolutely! In this article from 5 years ago I listed “Failing to judge personal training by personal results” as one of the three biggest mistakes in karate practise:


All the best,