Tag Archives: orientalism

I just found this blog and I absolutely love it. Here’s my writing question. Through an alternate universe / time travel situation, I’ve got a man trained in kendo (and experienced in modern American combat) going up against a Rennaisance Italian Duke in the Duke’s home turf. A terrified Victorian lady is standing by with a pistol that she more or less knows how to use, to help out our modern man. Any opinions on how you think that might go?

Not well for him. Kendo will teach you how to handle a katana. It won’t teach you how to use a sabre, rapier, or whatever stray implement of death and dismemberment was convenient.

It would be like asking, “my character has spent the last 25 years mastering Blackjack. How would they fare in a Texas Hold ‘Em tournament?” Yeah, they both involve cards, but it’s the wrong skill set, with an entirely different set of considerations.

So, if he’s not using a katana, all of his training is worthless. He’s literally trained in the wrong weapon.

If he is using a katana, he’s still screwed, both because of the weapon itself and because of his training. The katana is not designed to deal with the kind of combat Italian school fencing delivers. It simply isn’t agile enough. Generally speaking, the katana isn’t a particularly adaptable weapon. Take it out of its native environment, and it suffers.

His training is a problem because, well, he’s trained in Kendo. Kendo is not, and never has been a practical combat form. It’s the modern descendant of Kenjitsu, which was the art of murdering people with a katana. The problem is, as with a lot of European sword schools, Kenjitsu basically died out with the sword on battlefields. (Specifically in the mid 19th century for Kenjitsu.) Modern Kendo and Iaido salvage some techniques and katas from Kenjitu, but the result is similar to modern reconstructionist European techniques; potentially lethal, but nothing that compares practitioners from when they were living combat forms.

There’s an added wrinkle here: because of the social structures at work in Japan, particularly the insular nature of the class system, it would be literally impossible for your character to obtain training in Kenjitsu.

You know the cliche: “the right tool for the right job”? In this case a katana, and Kendo in general, is the wrong tool.

There’s also a pretty strong whiff of orientalism coming off this post. Best to kill that now.

There’s nothing particularly special about the katana. I know, this flies in the face of all the anime you’ve ever watched, but
when we’re talking about the sword itself? Technologically? It’s a
fairly standard early iron age longsword.

There’s nothing particularly special about Kendo. It’s a sword form. You can kill people with it, but that’s not saying much. The biggest problem with Kenjitsu is that it was an insular style. It evolved to deal with other people who were using similar weapons, held similar combat doctrines, and had similar training.

European sword forms evolved in an environment with far more diversity, and the result were far more adaptive combat styles. They expected people to pull weapons and techniques they weren’t familiar with. For your Duke, the question wouldn’t be, “what is this sword? It’s like nothing I’ve ever seen before.” Because he’d certainly seen curved single edge blades. It would be, “why is this guy so terrible at using it?” Assuming he didn’t simply think, “filthy peasant” before running him through and going on with his day.


I don’t understand everyone’s obsessiveness about dancing and fighting? Am I the only one?

No, you’re certainly not the only one baffled by this. I’d have to check, but we got something like five or six asks in October regarding using dancing. It’s also not the only oddball topic that keeps coming up. We also get a bunch of are characters losing arms and/or eyes. The frequency for these is just weird, and the answers don’t really change. Which can lead to a little irritation.

I don’t actually know where it’s coming from, but I can make some educated guesses.

Most of the time, when it does pop up in fiction, dance fighters get presented as superlative masters of combat, and it’s ultimately a cheat. The literary equivalent of a munchkin picking up random skills because it might let them trick the DM into giving them a +1 BAB.

Of course, the world doesn’t work that way… but I can certainly understand people clinging to this idea because it’s what makes their character a special unique snowflake.

This can be especially attractive to writers who want to create a character that can fight proficiently, but don’t want to have to put the time into developing their skills… the character’s skills, though I suppose that statement could apply to either one.

So, here I am, once again, saying, “nope, dancing will not make your martial artist a better fighter.”

The other strand of thought seems to be, because some styles, like Wushu, look light and floaty, there seems to be the idea that the movements are light and floaty. And, therefore, any ballerina can perform Wushu because it’s what they’ve already been trained in.

They can’t, because martial arts and dance are graded on a different metric. It’s like taking a term paper and trying to use it in two separate classes in different departments. Dance is about looking good, while practical martial arts are about breaking another human being. You don’t want to break people when dancing, because that’s generally frowned upon, and you don’t care about looking good as a fighter because not dying is (usually) a higher priority.

But, it keeps coming up, because they saw a ballerina doing terrible martial arts on TV.

Michi’s got two more approaches on top of this, and since she’s trying to limit her keyboard time…

You have writers that latch onto it because they think it’s an unexpected twist. Even though, now, it’s rapidly turning into a cliche. Because dancers or cheerleaders aren’t in “real sports,” you get, “but, surprise, they’re secretly super fighters.”

What neither of us have been saying is they can’t learn martial arts, but, at best, it’s not a quick way to skip the learning curve. They still have to learn all the aspects that their training in a different form of physical exertion didn’t prepare them for. Dancers, cheerleaders, and many other sports derided for being “girly” aren’t actually any less physically taxing than say football, baseball, or combat. There’s definitely crossover between the two, but the devil is in the details. We need to accept that a girl doing martial arts doesn’t make them any less feminine, just as training to become a ballerina doesn’t make a man any less masculine. However, having your super fighter be a professional dancer is also not a means of keeping that character inside a feminine archetype to make them feel more acceptable.

Alternately, trying to write a martial artist can be intimidating, if you’ve never really gotten to know any. But, a dancer can just be anyone. If you’re hung up on the Orientalist idea that all martial artists are zen masters with a degree in philosophy, the idea of, “but my dancer can do it,” can be pretty appealing.

Of course, very few martial artists are actually zen masters, nor do they automatically gain mystical insights into the universe. And, of the two of us, it’s the Eagle Scout, not the third degree black belt that’s more likely to write the posts on philosophy, morality, or ethics.


My character is someone who is skilled in the German School of Fencing aka German Longsword and she is in environment where most of the people she would fight wield katanas. Besides the general differences in structure and construction of the longsword and the katana, what should I take into account when I write fight scenes where her opponent is wielding a katana? Would the curved, single-edged blade of the katana be a disadvantage against the longsword?

Assuming the setting is historical Japan, a European longsword will shred katanas in combat.

I know I’m going to irk the Kendo practitioners with this, but when you compare Kendo and German School Fencing, Kendo is a much slower form.

(And, before someone chews me out for this, I’ll say again, what I said six months ago, “a katana isn’t slow for a katana, it’s slow for a sword.”)

The katana needs to be wielded with finesse to protect the blade. In theory this is true of a European sword, but non-Japanese blades are (generally) a lot more durable. European fencing will call for you to do things with the blade that a katana just can’t survive.

The reason for this is usually simple metallurgy. Historically Japan, never had access to large supplies of high quality iron, the iron they forged the katana from would have been discarded as scrap in most of the world after the eleventh century. The blade was folded to bring the carbon content down into a manageable range, but the result was (in comparison to sword technology elsewhere) fragile.

If your setting is fantasy, then they might have access to the same metallurgical resources as your fencer, meaning they could produce weapons that would not shatter in combat. But, if that’s the case, the katana design isn’t likely to emerge.

It’s possible the original katanas were copies of the Chinese zhanmadao. Both date to the 12th century, and share an obvious visual similarity. The difference was the zhanmadao was intended as an anti-cavalry sword, and was roughly twice the size. If you want to run with that, then you’d be looking at a setting where katanas were wielded against mounted combatants.

The other possibility is, if your fantasy Japan doesn’t suffer from the metallurgical problems the real one did, that their martial style would change drastically.

I’ve seen non-Japanese alloy katanas used in an approximation of saber and cutlass styles. It isn’t ideal, but it does make the katana into a much more effective weapon, when dealing with a German School combatant. Depending on your setting, you might want to push that approach over traditional Kendo.

The other major option is jumping straight over to Chinese weapons like the Jian and Dao. Youtube has some fantastic Dao forms from modern Wushu. This can help keep the intended exotic tone of the setting, without devolving into orientalism. (And as always, take a look at Edward Said’s book, Orientalism, for a long list of things you probably want to avoid.)


I’ve noticed that while Asian fighting styles tend to viewed as martial “arts”, European fighting systems tend to be described more in a more scientific light (“scientific boxing”, fencing, etc.). Which view do you tend to prefer?

I prefer to avoid indulging in Orientalism as much as possible. Here’s the thing, maybe it’s because, literally, all my hand to hand training has come from cops, but physics, physiology, and psychology have been just as important in explaining all of it.

Now, Orientalism itself is a practice of ascribing mystic qualities to Middle Eastern and Asian culture and societies. This includes the general idea that Asian martial arts are somehow not as scientific as European ones.

If you really want to dig into this more, Edward Said originated the term. His book on the subject, conveniently titled Orientalism, is a fairly fundamental text in the field of post-colonial studies.