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The De-Evolution of Kenpo

There are many people seeking to define their place in Kenpo and as such, either embrace or reject many descriptors of the various interpretations that have evolved from the original mainland progenitor. To emphasize their positions, many have created various associations supported by their interpretations to validate their particular point of view.

I have personally clouded the issue by publicly making distinctions between what some see as the “mainstream” versions of Ed Parker’s work versus others. I have further muddied the waters by being public enough in discussions to attract the ire of those born into a system that didn’t exist when I began. Clearly, everyone from their own perspective may choose to see the universe in their own terms, but Ed Parker taught me sound logic should be the deciding factor regardless of source or origin.

Ed Parker himself made many distinctions in all of his teachings and created in his own evolution, various incantations, philosophies and directions within the students exposed, and instructed during different periods in his life. Add to that an instructors willingness, or lack thereof, to share specific information with some and not others, creating additional downstream variances.

In other words, the “so-called evolution” of Ed Parker’s Kenpo is as convoluted as a conundrum wrapped in a riddle and punctuated by an enigma of inconsistent tolerances, at best. The question itself implies the existence of a singular evolving Kenpo philosophy from Ed Parker’s beginnings to the present day. This is obviously and completely incorrect.

The art that is the most visible and the most codified at his death was his commercial art, known by some, and described by Ed Parker himself as “the study of motion” or Motion-Kenpo. Perhaps a better descriptor would be “Motion-based Kenpo.” Nevertheless, this philosophy spawned by the desire to create commercial success, necessitated a less restrictive and conceptual driven vehicle that would be open to everyone, of all ages and circumstances. Thus it came into being specifically for that purpose, and has been quite successful.

I wrote an article years ago about the evolution of the arts and Ed Parker’s commercial version of Kenpo based on motion, making a case for its existence much as other arts had “de-evolved.”

The problem is not one of evolution, but a diversion for the sake of mass-market appeal. Once accomplished, the vehicle becomes an independent entity unto itself with practitioners declaring their version to be “THE art” instead of simple “A version of an art.”

History lays witness to the creation of judo to mass market the more destructive combative Japanese Jiu-Jitsu. The many houses of Qung-fu ultimately evolved into mass-market appeal Wu Shu, while the original variations of the fluid Chinese Martial Science somehow begat the rigid limited information original Okinawan and Japanese empty hand arts.

Then or finally, sport based or cultural models came into being, once again for mass-market appeal. Take note of “ken-do” from the samurai sword arts, or “Aiki-do” as well from jiu-jitsu as other examples of this historical process. Koreans nationalized their arts much like everyone else, spawning the sport “Tae Kwon Do” in the fifties over the lesser known and much more combative functional “Hapkido” or even “Tang Soo Do.”

It should come as no surprise to anyone in the ultimate self- gratification, quick, fast food, commercial market of America that an abridged version of any art would appear and achieve mass- market appeal and success.

Ed Parker Sr. was a genius that loved the many different arts he studied and dissected, but he also was an entrepreneur and astute businessman. This clash between successful business mandates, and the deeper meaning and teaching of any art/science will never be resolved because the mass market devotees will, in general, not admit their place in histories evolution.

For most, it is counterproductive to business, and necessitates the admission that their accomplishments, although perfectly valid, may not be the highest standard available. This is especially true when ones credibility and identity are predicated upon the efficacy of their own product for sale.

In any other business, this would be obvious. Few suggest that McDonald’s is a bad place to have an occasional meal. Their restaurants are plentiful and located most everywhere in the world, consistent in presentation, quality, price, and will keep you from starving.

No one describes them in the business world as “exclusive fine dining.” Recognize however there are other less plentiful chain family restaurants as well, whose offerings are of higher quality than McDonald’s but with the accompanying prices to match, yet still not yet meeting that “fine dining” description. But, for upscale gourmet quality there is always a special restaurant where chefs have honed their craft for many years, and dining is exquisite, however these places are rarely large chains or franchises.

People choose the level they want. Many would rather just go to McDonald’s because it’s reasonably priced, you know what you’re getting, and they’re local, close, and convenient. Does this sound familiar? I’ve often been asked the question, You’re too far away, “Can’t you recommend a school closer to where I live?” To them it’s like saying, “Isn’t there a McDonald’s near me?”

Mass-market martial arts are no different from any other mass market entity. From Kempo, to Kenpo, to Krav Maga, to Tae Kwon Do, to judo, etc. They are all “easier” and more convenient relative to other more intense, and more demanding precursor arts. That is not to say an individual instructor cannot excel beyond the vehicle, but that is much less likely to happen for a couple of reasons.

Most teachers are those born in the systems they now teach, and therefore bring with them all of its built in limitations. In addition, someone who has worked long, and hard to achieve a level of mastery would be unlikely to teach other than what he was taught. Much like a gourmet chef after years of study, would be less likely to open up a quick burger joint, and flip patties all day on a grill.

So you see historically speaking, the existence and success of commercialmotion-based kenpo karate should not be a surprise to anyone. Much like, there are cars that come off an assembly line that are just transportation, or better with a little more quality and amenities, and high end luxuary brands, but all are still assembly line vehicles. But then there are cars singularly built by hand by skilled craftsmen. So, in after the adequate transportation there are upscale better versions of common brands where more attention to detail, and commitment to quality also provide a better quality vehicle, that cost more than the mass brand, but far less than the hand made. Free market concepts make room for all, whether its cars or martial arts, and the same business principles apply.

Ed Parker was no different, and in fact provided various versions of his arts at every step of his personal evolution. The dominant versions were always dictated by external sources, as well as his personal preferences.

It is not generally known, but to some degree, Ed Parker’s creation of mass-market Kenpo-Karate was instigated by a personal tragedy. Approached by eventual business partners to create “Action Karate Magazine,” Parker became the victim of others questionable business practices that ultimately forced him into bankruptcy to protect his family and property.

Although this was not the only reason he created commercial kenpo-karate, clearly it had a significant impact when you have a wife and five children, and you make your living selling the martial arts. The degree of impact may be debatable, but his own admission of “Urgent necessity” to protect his assets leaves no doubt of the connection. This is not to negate Parker’s ultimate goals of proliferation, which existed long before the bankruptcy was necessary.

However, to assume that the creation of a diversion art to sell, changed Ed Parker’s personal evolution and his personal art would also be a mistake. He always separated what he did from what he promoted and sold. Witness some of the many mechanisms not present or articulated in the commercial kenpo-karate art that were clearly visible in Parker’s own execution.

So adopting the single time/evolution line from the beginning to what an individual may have been exposed to is a dubious perspective at best. There is no one Kenpo-Karate, nor is there a single timeline, and in fact Mr. Parker created and taught versions that were not any form of “karate” at all. Every time Parker taught someone and changed something from what he had taught another, he fractured his own timeline by creating a divergent lineage, all valid from within and from its own perspective.

Even so, interpretations are not created equal. As Parker’s knowledge grew, it caused a shift in the sophistication hierarchy of every version or lineage. What was state of the art in the fifties was “old kenpo” in his own words in the sixties and seventies. When he taught someone something, and found a better way to do it and taught it to someone else, he pushed himself and older material further into history, and made it by comparison less effective material. This concept is true of any activity taught similarly outside of the martial arts as well.

My own personal timeline was also in a state of flux to the same extent as Parker. As my teacher, when Mr. Parker changed, so did I as he dictated. I remember him teaching inward blocks by cocking the blocking hand to the ear, and launching linearly from there. “Phonetic Blocking” he called it then. However when he studyed with Ark Wong and others, the blocking action changed to a more circular movement away from the head, as he began to understand “indexing” or “phrasing” of the movements. Both methods worked, but the latter was and is infinitely superior evolving from the former.

Therefore, for me, there is no “original kenpo,” only an on going process of understanding what he wanted and how he wanted it, as I was forced to evolve with him. Few did. Most from the fifties still do some version of fifties kenpo, and those splinters from the sixties are the same way. The seventies brought on the many tailored methods that shattered the myth of a Kenpo Style, giving way to a “conceptual system” of teaching. When you interject his free form motion based commercial product into the time line you began to see the same phenomenon that beset other arts in history.

A clear alteration and mass market adjustment that removed or never placed significant information in its structure, to insure a less demanding and complex abstract vehicle that allowed all students and teachers to seek their own level of competency within the limitations of the chosen vehicle. When you consider this commercial kenpo-karate vehicle, unlike traditional arts, allowed and promoted students and teachers “tailoring” for their own personal preferences, you began to see why the wide existence of disparity is so ever present, and why it cannot be considered a “style.”

No one in Ed Parker’s Kenpo-Karate has a definitive way to do anything, from a basic stance to an inward block. In spite of what some may think, you cannot freeform teach your way to mastery of a physical science. You may however, achieve a level of competency that is acceptable to you, the customer-client, and be awarded rank for that achievement. So long as you’re content, than the vehicle has done its job, and you will take responsibility for its effectiveness, (or not) because you tailored it.

To that end, soft tissue strikes, rakes, claws, and eye pokes are dominant themes in the commercial vehicle. This is because they insure at the base level, there will be some measure of success should the student ever have to attempt to use it. Few seem to recognize, they knew how to poke someone in the eyes the day they signed up.

Based in many respects on Women’s Self-Defense Courses Mr. Parker was teaching in the sixties, these movement made sense from that perspective, particular at that point it time because of a heavy gender bias when it came to self-defense that still exists today. But a small statured women hitting a man in the throat for grabbing her shoulder, will be greated much differently by authorities then when it is two men of reasonably the same proportions and ages.

The problem has always been in the separation of the arts when the mass-market version reaches significant proportions. Then it takes on a life of its own, and its practitioners declare it the ultimate, despite its roots.

None of Parker’s black belts students who studied previously, to my knowledge, were interested in the new motion diversion, and none to my knowledge teach it. Most avoid criticism from the “motion born” by simply not pointing these things out.

Ancients like Myself, Chuck Sullivan, Dave Hebler, or Stephen LaBounty, etc. have extended their own interpretations from their eras teachings, experiences, and lineage. Some, like myself, have given it a new name; others simply keep calling it “Kenpo.”

Kenpo as a term, an art, as a so-called style has de-evolved into a generic self defense activity, and you never know what you’re going to get until you try it – and that could change by your next lesson.


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