The invention of tradition (karate edition)

by John Q on March 8, 2006

CP Snow once said that all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century, and his only error was to limit this claim to Britain. The great majority of real traditions having been swept away or reduced to irrelevance with the rise of capitalism, the 19th century saw the rise of a whole set of new ones, which were then fixed in shape by the system of nation-states, each with their own newly-codified language and officially sanctioned history that took shape at the same time[1]

Via Barista and an interesting link on the theatrical origins of the ninja, I came to this great piece by Craig Colbeck on Karate and Modernity, a lot closer to my own interests than black-clad stage assassins. Although the jargon is a bit heavy going in places, there’s a pretty clear argument to show that the Okinawa karate tradition developed in the late C19 and was derived from China.

Living in the 21st century, and in Australia, I can’t say I’m too worried about the invention of tradition. Anything more than 100 years old is old enough for me.

fn1, This process began a bit earlier in Britain and France and still hasn’t reached finality, but the crucial period, including German and Italian unification and the creation of the US in its current form, took place between 1850 and 1900.



des von bladet 03.08.06 at 6:11 am

Where did CP Snö say that, though? Google’s only source is the last time you quoted it on th’ Timber.


abb1 03.08.06 at 6:27 am

…all ancient British traditions date to the second half of the 19th Century, and his only error was to limit this claim to Britain.

Yes, I can see it – 19th century. Fomenko’s New Chronology is not radical enough.


chris y 03.08.06 at 6:44 am

Brian Aldiss wrote a story in the late 1960s in which the world was initiated as a laboratory experiment in January 1901 (our time) by an Alien who looked like Queen Victoria (d. Jan. 1901). All previous history was an artifact introduced into the experiment to add verisimilitude to an otherwise bald and unconvincing narrative.

Nevertheless, Snow or whoever is probably broadly right, allowing for rhetorical flourish.


belle le triste 03.08.06 at 7:05 am


John Quiggin 03.08.06 at 7:23 am

DvB, having quoted this for ages, I’ve finally tracked it down. *The Masters* has an Appendix on the history of the colleges, which includes the line (p 309 in the Penguin edition):

“Nine English traditions out of ten, old Eustace Pilbrow used to say, date from the latter half of the nineteenth century” (Pilbrow is one of the college Fellows in the novel)


des von bladet 03.08.06 at 7:39 am

Thanks, John!


Stephen M (Ethesis) 03.08.06 at 9:27 am

Interesting. From the Egpytians on, there has been a stress on how old a tradition is. Kind of interesting to compare with the modern fad, which is that the shorter a tradition, the better.

As for karate, the current word was invented in the 1900s … and the modern kata aren’t much older than the word.


des von bladet 03.08.06 at 9:42 am

Stephen #7: Kind of interesting to compare with the modern fad, which is that the shorter a tradition, the better.

The answer’s in the question, isn’t it? Things that fetishise the old or ‘authentic’ make a point of not admitting their modernity, even if they have more than plenty of it. New Age religions and plenty of ‘therapies’ of dubious provenance are still out there asserting their own ancientness while smelling of wet paint.


MikeN 03.08.06 at 9:53 am

Great book by Eric Hobsbawm and Terence Ranger, “The Invention of Tradition”, covering the kilt and the Welsh Eistedfodd among others

John Prebble’s “The King’s Jaunt” shows how many ‘authentic’ Highland traditions were created by Walter Scott

And “Ploughman’s Lunch”


chris y 03.08.06 at 9:59 am

Not just Britain, to be fair. The Ciabatta was invented in response to a newspaper competition in the 1980s.


Simstim 03.08.06 at 10:22 am

There are plenty of times when invented tradition fails to take hold, look at Lymeswold for instance.


Dylan 03.08.06 at 10:54 am

#4: “traditions that are older but not necessarily better for it”: if you read the link closely, you’ll see that that event (Guy Fawkes day in Lewes) seems to have been regularly started only near the end of the 18th century and took off in the first part of the 19th century. So it’s a little earlier than suggested in the quote, but not 1605 either.


jlw 03.08.06 at 11:07 am

Fortunately, in the U.S. we honor our ancient republican traditions, such as the unitary executive and the right to arbitrary domestic surveilance.

And don’t forget the inclusion of “under God” in our pledge of allegience, the introduction of which is lost in the horry mists of time.


Peter 03.08.06 at 11:11 am

Did not Karl Marx somewhere define “tradition” as “the collected errors of past generations”? Or was Marx himself just an invention of the 19th century?


Hogan 03.08.06 at 11:35 am

Or was Marx himself just an invention of the 19th century?

I thought it was the other way round.


des von bladet 03.08.06 at 12:32 pm

As Hegel may or may not have said somewhere, “History repeats itself; the first time as an unregarded TV docu-drama, the second time with an elaborate pseudo-historical legitimation apparatus. And ninjas!”


Jim Harrison 03.08.06 at 12:58 pm

Ironically, the tradition of insisting that traditions are mostly recent is actually quite old. Centuries before Eric Hobsbawm, philologists like Lorenzo Valla and Isaac Casaubon were demonstrating that ancient texts weren’t ancient at all.


Nick Miller 03.08.06 at 1:02 pm

Wow, that ends that. Jim Harrison brought his silver bullet. ;)


John Emerson 03.08.06 at 3:45 pm

Also Bruce Lincoln and Perry Anderson’s brother.

Bjork: “When I was in high school in Iceland, on Friday afternoon we’d buy a bottle of vodka and spend the weekend drinking it. This has been our tradition for a thousand years.”


Kenny Easwaran 03.08.06 at 3:57 pm

Is this really an effect of capitalism destroying ancient traditions, or rather just that traditions rarely get very ancient without having been transformed radically? I mean, try to think of Indian food without tomatoes, potatoes, and chili peppers – and that’s what it was like just a couple hundred years ago!


John Emerson 03.08.06 at 4:03 pm

“I come from a country where, from the age of 15, you drink a litre of Vodka every Friday straight from the bottle.

I watched my Grandparents doing that and it’s my pattern, just like it’s been my family’s release for a thousands years. Alcohol is how people in Iceland lose themselves, switch their conscience off and run riot.”

Accurate citation


Simstim 03.08.06 at 5:11 pm

Des, surely you mean robot-pirate-ninjas… with lasers!


des von bladet 03.08.06 at 6:45 pm

Simstim: Nah, I’m pretty sure that was Marx. (And a pony!)


SusanC 03.08.06 at 7:11 pm

I’d like to recommend Marshall Sahlin’s essay on the invention of tradition in Waiting for Foucault, Still


MDP 03.09.06 at 11:50 am

“Many scholars” agree that only one genuinely ancient martial art exists today:

It is common knowledge that there are no nations whose martial systems have survived in an unbroken chain to remain in physical practice or in theory today as they were in ancient times. …. There is however one exception to this rule. It is the People of Israel. …. Many scholars have confirmed this. …. Twelve Tribes dance steps and the form and shapes of the Hebrew letters contained deadly martial applications forgotten by virtually the rest of the world’s Jewry.


kwanzaa 03.09.06 at 3:07 pm

I think this is a good argument for Kwanzaa.

Some people look down on Kwanzaa claiming it is a “made up holiday” and hence lacks the authenticity of “real holidays.” But if the majority of traditions are of such recent vintage, then this argument completely falls apart.

I’m just saying …


John Quiggin 03.09.06 at 8:14 pm

Quite right, Kwanzaa. In fact Christmas is the classic example of a tradition invented in the 19th century.


John Emerson 03.09.06 at 9:50 pm

No, Bjork is right. The Icelanders have been getting shitfaced for a thousand years. Fact.

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