What does “gentle” mean in “Gentle Art”?

In a previous post, I discussed whether or not Brazilian Jiu Jitsu qualifies as art. Finding the words to explain how a sport in which two opponents attempt to force the other to quit or lose consciousness or use of a limb for a few months could possibly be a thing of beauty can be difficult. Elucidating on how this art can then justifiably be described as the “gentle art” is even harder.

Most simply, one could say that “gentle” refers to the lack of strikes in Jiu Jitsu, though it is important to point out that Jiu Jitsu not involving strikes only came about as a way to allow for competition without injury and in a manner that allows for the art of grappling to be displayed. But lacking an emphasis on strikes is not the only gentle thing about Jiu Jitsu. “Gentle” also applies to some of the philosophy behind the art.

“Arte Suave” – Portuguese for “gentle art” and the direct translation of “Jiu Jitsu” – is the nickname given to Brazilian Jiu Jitsu (and the title of a fantastic documentary reminiscent of skateboarding videos). In adopting the name into the local language, Brazilians learning Japanese Jujutsu and Judo were also adopting the actual ethos of the art. This is in direct conflict with most Western adopters of martial arts who prefer to refer to the martial art as the traditional, Eastern name. I would argue that in doing this, the words originally used to describe the martial art are lost as they instead become a name (much like my name, Adam, somewhere down the line meant “red Earth”). Instead, an American (or Canadian or Englishman or Australian) learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu sees the martial art differently, through the lens of his own culture, and uses the techniques in whatever way he decides. For some, they see Jiu Jitsu as a way to win medals and learn only the techniques they decide will allow them to do that. For others, they mix in similar sports like Wrestling or Judo and create a new style. For others still, they use the techniques in MMA. It is not surprising that Jake Shields’ “American Jiu Jitsu” is described as more aggressive, more top-oriented, and more influenced by collegiate wrestling. Catch wrestling, the American grappling system most like Jiu Jitsu, is described by Josh Barnett as being just like Jiu Jitsu but more violent. I’m not arguing that a more aggressive grappling system is good or bad, mind you. Only setting up that the culture the techniques of Jiu Jitsu are being taken to are used to whatever ends the practitioners decide. American society, with collegiate wrestling and Catch, tends to be more aggressive and rough with combat arts, and the way that Jiu Jitsu has manifested in many Americans’ styles of it shows that.

If one were to watch Arte Suave, he or she would observe that the culture of Jiu Jitsu is relatively playful and relaxed, and the clips of sparring matches show guys enjoying the art and technique, rather than smashing each other and grinding each other out. Seen in American Jiu Jitsu, and in the original Western art of Catch, there is no or much less gentleness involved. I would argue that sparring matches in the American schools I have trained in are more focused on “winning” and tapping out training partners than just having fun and enjoying the art, but that would be conjecture. However, you can choose to agree with the feeling as a general statement if you want.

This isn’t to disparage these martial arts or styles of Jiu Jitsu. In my personal style of Jiu Jitsu, I adhere to a lot of the same principles as American Jiu Jitsu and Catch. These styles are extremely effective, as are any martial arts that are practiced with full speed, full contact sparring and competition. I mean only to draw a distinction between different martial arts to illustrate a point. The “Jiu” in “Jiu Jitsu”, the gentle part, has been lost in translation out of Japanese and Portuguese. When people begin their training, they see Jiu Jitsu as a bunch of submissions that can maim an opponent in a number of ways without ever thinking of “gentle” as a part of it.. They do not see that the beauty of Jiu Jitsu is in the technique, not the destruction, until much later in training. If you have trained long enough and spoken with advanced belts, you have heard tell of how much learning to relax, breathe, and slow down is in improving. So, while I am not trying to say that we are wrong to be less gentle in learning Jiu Jitsu, it would appear that those most practiced in the art see it as a virtue.

Many reasons drive people to learn Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Some people just want to stay in shape, others want to win medals, others still compete in MMA, more still want to learn street applicable self defense or stay safe as police officers. In every situation, the techniques of Jiu Jitsu will be used differently. What’s important to see in Jiu Jitsu techniques is that all of them will work with relatively little intensity or pain for the opponent provided the technique is done properly. In Jiu Jitsu, you can dominate and even leave an adversary unconscious without leaving a bruise on his body. It is important to learn the techniques of Jiu Jitsu at a level of understanding that allows this “gentle” method of overcoming an opponent because, when the time comes that you need to cease being gentle and really defend yourself in a fight or a match, you can be whatever amount of gentle you need to control the situation. You can add in punches, throws, slams, elbows, knees, immense amounts of pressure, shoulder and neck cranks – whatever the situation needs to be resolved and keep you safe (and is legal if the situation isn’t a real fight) as you see fit because you have mastered the technique without any force at all. As long as you adhere to that technique, you can control not only your opponent but the intensity of the situation itself. As Bruce Lee says, “You must be…like water….Water can drip and it can crash.” If you can learn to be effective at a drip by relying on perfect form, you can decide when to crash.

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2 thoughts on “What does “gentle” mean in “Gentle Art”?

  1. Great comparison with Catch wrestling, and brilliant induction of the way language plays a role in our approach to the art. Well done. Thank you.

    • You’re welcome! I find it hard to believe that not translating the name “jiu jitsu” into our language doesn’t make the actual meaning of the term cloudy to guys who want to learn it to fight. It’s called the gentle art because it’s most effective when you’re relaxed, calm, and intelligent about your actions.

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