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My (human) society is a feudal society (think the late Middle Ages in Europe - not very original for a fantasy world). It has still not had an industrial revolution (though that is not very far), but has access to somewhat good tooling and beasts of burden stronger than the ones we have on earth.

It is quite often plagued by wars between states/territories. Some places are also exposed to attacks by hordes of magical beasts.

My world has two types of supernatural abilities: Magic, which is about controlling the mana outside of your body; and Art, which is about controlling the mana inside of your body (and, at higher level, infusing it into things you touch).

While Magic requires a talent which is extremely rare in humans (about 1 person in 10,000 has talent for magic, though since it is so rare, it is usually never found, and most people having talent for magic never learn anything about it), Art is way easier to learn:

  • with a few months training in Art in a military setting, about 50% of people are able to achieve at least a very low level of Art.
  • with some 5 years of training, that figure goes up to 90%

Additionally, since it is mainly a work of introspection, it doesn’t need expensive resources (apart from the necessary knowledge).

That basic level of Art doesn’t allow one to have a superhuman capability, but it:

  • gives a better understanding of one’s body and control of one’s strength
  • allows one to build up strength more easily and efficiently. (In general, one will be able to use 1.5 to 2 times the strength they’d have access to without Art.)
  • gives better reflexes.
  • makes one somewhat less susceptible to illness.

The techniques and information needed to train Art are hoarded by Noble families, some specific families, and some organizations. Since a better technique will allow one to achieve a higher level of Art, the best techniques are held by famous bloodlines, and their close retainers and do not spill out. In particular, most of the population has no access to Art at all.

The problem is that this is very inefficient: since Art makes one stronger, it boosts efficiency on all manual work. In particular:

  • Farmers learning Art would allow them to take care of bigger fields.
  • Soldiers learning Art are generally superior to normal soldiers.
  • Construction work, in particular, is heavily boosted by people being able to carry way heavier loads.

That would greatly balance the cost of teaching it (even though the low alphabetization would create a need for teachers).

Moreover, a watered-down, low-efficiency technique spilling would not be that problematic, as long as it is worse that what other Noble families have better techniques, you do not have to worry about it being stolen.

So why has nobody thought of teaching Art to regular citizens, or at least soldiers, when it would increase productivity and military strength so much?

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    $\begingroup$ "with a few months military training, about 50% of people are able to achieve at least a very low level of Art" and "nobody thought of teaching art to regular citizens, or at least soldiers" does not seem to coordinate with each other. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 29 at 18:44
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    $\begingroup$ @Nephanth then this is not simply "Military training". It's "Training in Art" while in military. Otherwise it makes impression that most soldiers are already learning the Art. $\endgroup$
    – Alexander
    Jul 29 at 18:47
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    $\begingroup$ In an agrarian society without much food surplus and the ever-present risk of failed crops, the common folk cannot afford to take several months off, let alone 5 years, to simply do training. Children start working to help the household as soon as they are able as a matter of survival. $\endgroup$ Jul 29 at 19:04
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    $\begingroup$ Technically, in a feudal society commoners are serfs and NOT freemen, which is a higher status. $\endgroup$ Jul 30 at 13:23
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    $\begingroup$ why do you call it martial arts in the title? your description doesn't seem to make Art martial. $\endgroup$
    – ths
    Jul 30 at 20:55

15 Answers 15

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Most of the solutions provided aren't particularly good.

The reason why is because in our world we actually did have a place and period where "Art" was widely available and practiced in a feudal society. I'm not sure if the parallel is intentional or not, but reading the "body mana", my first instinct is to shorten it to Chi. And of course, the connection between a martial art as per the title and a magical art that controls a bodily flow of energy, I can't help but think of Karate, Kung Fu, and other forms of martial arts from that region.

Think about it. For starters, even if we don't have magic in our world, as far as feudal (and many modern) east asians were concerned, it's real, at least in their minds, they think it's real and has the effects you describe. Oriental martial arts have a very strong spiritual component where practitioners try to control the mana in their bodies through breathing, body motions, conditioning, meditation etc etc. And the results are there to some degree. The dynamic meditation aspect of an oriental martial art helps people relieve stress, it's physical exercise, there's often a focus on having proper posture, and on being good for back and joints (again, whether true or not, most people from the region believed it), so obviously a practitioner would have good health, and based on our stereotypes, a lot of people in the Western culture think of east Asians as being very healthy.

A lot of concepts taught in oriental martial arts are about using biomechanics to amplify existing strength, and I've seen it in practice. My teacher, a thin 60 year old gentleman of about average or slightly less height, manages to throw around men twice his size and half his age with ease, due to technique and instinctive understanding of anatomy (and they're not just playing along, I've tried resisting and he knows how to deal with that). So there is the strength aspect.

And like I mentioned before, there is a great emphasis on spiritual and mental development through meditation and similar practices. A calm mind is a mind that can see things coming more easily, can anticipate an opponent's moves, notice patterns. There's the enhanced reflexes aspect.

So all of the reasons regarding time, cost, literacy, etc, aren't compelling reasons because in my opinion, most people familiar with oriental martial arts, Avatar: The Last Airbender or generally has been exposed to the waves of fetishization of east asian culture, would be able to recognize the parallels. Somehow, in our world a rather large region had peasants practicing and having widespread access to (what they believed to be) an Art similar to what you describe. I'm not saying every Asian peasant knew kung fu and could decapitate someone with a skillful toss of a straw hat - but it was a common thing for people to practice. Or at least, it was not uncommon. Karate specifically was developed as a response to a weapons ban, so peasants can figure out a thing or two on their own. Especially if the Art is more pronounced than the biomechanical benefits I outlined above, practitioners would be able to further refine it and spread it through trial and error (due to having much more noticeable feedback).

It might sound like a long winded way to say that "your premise doesn't have a way to work the way you intend it to". And to be honest, when I sat down to write, that was going to be my conclusion. However, in the process of writing, I did have several thoughts occur to me. While martial arts were developed and practiced all over the world, and certainly there's no shortage of spiritualizing and ritualizing martial arts, the east Asian martial arts are unique in just how intertwined they are in religious/spiritual aspects (and they do have their origin in a form of meditation practiced by Buddhist monks). The more important point is that the rest of the world didn't develop the same thing despite the benefits I outlined above. Even if the benefits are just in the mind and not an actuality, the east asians were not uniquely superstitious.

However, there is a very simple reason why, for example, European martial arts, while rich in history and technique, don't have the same dimension and focus on cultivating chi or mana. And the reason is religion (and to some degree culture). While the buddhist/taoist/confuscian (and in Japan, shintoist) mix of worldviews makes trying to fight using chi a very natural concept in the east, in Europe, the influence of the Christian Church makes it very natural that such an Art can't take off. I know of two influential modern traditional Christian priests who outright condemn Karate, Kung Fu and Yoga as a form of sorcery and devilry (that would be Fr Chad Rippiger, an influential Catholic exorcist, and soon-to-be-declared-an-Orthodox-saint Fr Daniil Sysoev). Rippiger claims to have exorcised people who were influenced by demons for practicing such things, if I recall correctly. While opinions of a couple traditionalist priests doesn't make for dogma, you can imagine that despite the Spanish Inquisition being 99% Myth (see Wikipedia entry for Black Legend of Spain, or the BBC documentary), such an Art as you imagine wouldn't be very welcome in a feudal europe.

So that's one venue to go with. For whatever reason, the religion or culture of the common people makes them afraid or distrustful of using magic. They believe it corrupts the soul. Or maybe they see how the people who do use the Art become progressively bigger jerks (nobles are jerks already, and it's not uncommon for people to get prideful as they become better at something. Think of how many stereotypical martial arts teachers act like insufferable snobs that beg for a smacking in various films). It could be that the aristocrats are more pragmatic, cynical, or educated, and that they don't share the same apprehension. It could also be that the nobles and the peasants are of different cultures, which is not unheard of. Ireland and Norway did not have nobility from their own cultures for a very long time, due to being ruled by England and Sweden respectively. Or England itself being ruled by Norman invaders. Perhaps in the region where your story takes place, the Art using nobles (who had a great advantage from using the Art) took over the region and subjugated the local population, who are resentful and mistrustful and don't want to engage in practices the nobles do, out of fear of being assimilated and having their own culture wiped out.

Another possible solution (again from real world parallels, this time of DEMONS :) ), since there are magical creatures, it could be that there are certain creatures which are attracted to hunt Art users. Perhaps one's mana grows and develops through the use Art, which creates a mana spike, making the creatures that normally ignore humans, hunt them. Nobles would be living in castles, and have their bodyguards, and have much more advanced techniques. But the peasants who do practice the Art and live in (sparsely populated) rural areas make themselves a very tasty and easy target. Perhaps the nobles have the means and the resources necessary to ward off the creatures, or mask their enhanced mana signature. Or, if mages use external mana, an Art user who cultivates a greater bodily mana, becomes a sort of walking battery or conduit for them. If society gets to a point where Art users are common enough that mages can use criminals and undesirables, then there would not be such fear, but it would be a bumpy road since it would be the best of the best who pioneer the path.

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You can't just set up a dojo and expect people to come in.

with a few months military training, about 50% of people are able to achieve at least a very low level of Art.

The problem is getting peasants to have the time to undergo military training. They would need to not be working in the fields, or doing construction work, until they master Art for Art to be useful.

In times of war, you might conscript a few peasants and teach them art. But there is a huge gap between knowing something and being a good teacher of that thing, so in time that knowledge would be lost outside of proper schools.

Before modern times, martial arts were learned mostly by soldiers and monks because they had the time to practice it. Sometimes someone who was not a soldier or a monk would learn martial arts, but keeping a school requires a lot of people and dedication, which only organizations such as the monasteries in ancient China, and military throughout the world could provide.


As for why not every soldier would learn it: just because you are a soldier does not mean you will know everything there is to learn about every kind of soldier. In medieval times you had regular soldiers who would have the bare minimum training to go to war and function as ok warriors, and you had knights who were trained from childhood to be great warriors. Likewise in the East: many adults would learn how to handle spears and stay in formation, but only a few select people - usually from specific families - would be trained to become samurai from an early age. Notice that knights in the west and samurai in the east were all associated with nobility.

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    $\begingroup$ Peasants have more time than you would expect, usually during winter, and more holidays and breaks scattered throughout the day. Since Art is an introspective process/exercise, you would not need a lot of light, so you have maybe an hour sundown as well if you want. $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Jul 30 at 0:22
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    $\begingroup$ Also children generally have plenty of time. $\endgroup$
    – jaxad0127
    Jul 30 at 3:09
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    $\begingroup$ @jaxad0127 Not during those days. If you can walk, you're working in the field, unless you're a noble and being fed by other farmers/farmers' children. $\endgroup$
    – Nelson
    Jul 30 at 8:17
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    $\begingroup$ Once again, severe overestimation of the amount of time medieval people spent working. Especially children. They most certainly did have time to play and "as young as they can walk" included only minor chores and tasks to get them used to helping out. representingchildhood.pitt.edu/medieval_child.htm $\endgroup$
    – Henry Shao
    Jul 30 at 11:46
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    $\begingroup$ This is nonsense, medieval peasants had significantly MORE free time than modern office workers. $\endgroup$
    – Peter
    Jul 30 at 16:04
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Citizens Don't Possess The Necessary Capital To Train

There are things in life that require investment, both initial and continuous. As a more relatable example, in our time you can learn basically anything on the web, but you need to have the required capital to do so even if people take it for granted. You need electrical power, internet access, a modern enough computer device to browse the web, spare time in the day to use your device, be able to read, and have the money to maintain that access on top of daily living. You also need to be motivated to actually finish learning something, as any student struggles with.

Martial arts training among commoners would suffer from the same base issue, lack of resources I'll place into 2 categories:

  • Access: you can't train in arts you can't get

    1. Markets: You've already touched on upper society hoarding techniques for themselves. They have ample reason to do so, namely ease of reign over physically weaker subjects. They don't really stand to make a profit selling techniques to the poor even if they were so inclined, so what's the incentive to open the market? Beasts of burden like cows, oxen, mules, horses, etc already do most of the heavy lifting in farming, pulling plows and carts of goods. If armies are made up of normal peasants on both sides, the privileged class can restrict their own involvement to their own leisure and warfare won't change. No need to risk your next 20 years of noble reign challenging other fighters only to die to a rain of peasant arrows or javelins.
    2. Literacy: All the training manuals of the world are useless if you can't read them, same as any book or website. Even if you can read normally, it doesn't mean you can properly understand the material. Take a college upper division level textbook of physiology, even though a highschooler is literate they won't understand any of the jargon and advanced concepts within because that vocabulary isn't part of what they learned. This kind of learning would be included in a noble's education, but not a merchant's or clerk's.
      • Books can also be restricted to older more "cultured" languages or dialects not commonly spoken among peasantry. Something like Latin perhaps, passed down within various orders and cultured fellows but fallen almost entirely out of use among normal folk in daily life. Without first learning the language, you can't learnt the arts.
    3. Trainers: If martial arts is circulated among the nobility, then which among them would stoop so low as teach peasants for hours a day? Even among non-hereditary lower nobility such as knight retainers, they naturally have duties to attend such as guarding or patrolling. They'd also make a hell of a lot more working for other nobles instead of for peasants.
  • Resources:

    1. Food: Diet makes a big difference. You can train twice as hard as someone else at the gym, but if they are on a high protein diet with supplements while you eat nothing but porridge and bread, they are going to make significantly more progress. Peasants living off the grains of the fields and maybe some dairy from the cows are able to keep them selves healthy, but such a limited diet won't facilitate much training progress. Fish helps for protein, but Japanese sailors were still found to lack the stoutness needed to use their new warships bought from the British despite a large diet of fish. You need meat, fruits, vegetables, eggs/dairy consistently at at least 2 meals a day with decent portion size for optimal muscle training. That adds up quickly to be expensive, if there is even enough higher class foods in the village market. Most villages only slaughter animals annually for festivals, not like today in mass butcheries to provide meat for every supermarket daily.

    2. Time: You need time every day to train where you still have some energy. Tending the fields, herding animals in the hills, and maintaining a farm made of and sustained by wood is backbreaking labor dawn till dusk. You have to get water from the well every morning in buckets because there are no pipes. Then for every meal after if you don't have a barrel or cistern, which even then needs to be refilled at some point. Chickens and other animals need feeding. Horses need grooming. Herds need to rate grazing pastures, requiring them to be round up and walked over. Fields weeded. Irrigation ditches cleared. Fences repaired. Pests killed. Tools repaired. Firewood cut down and chopped. Grain harvested, transported, ground, and made into flour. Baking the flour into bread or boiled to make porridge. It is a busy life from before sunrise to dusk, leaving little time or energy for training. Even basic things take longer with low technology like heating up your clay oven to cook, you have to start a fire, feed the fire wood, heat the oven, take the fire out, clean out the soot/coals, then put the dough in to cook. It all adds up. Even if you have time, you are going to need your energy for the next day since if you don't work you don't eat and your home gets cold.

    3. Weapons and Gear: You can't train sword fighting well without training swords/wands, padded armor, and a good field at the bare minimum. Training with real swords risks crippling injury and also dulls the blades to the point of ruining them. Dummies are alright for beginners, but hardly teach how to fight in melee. At the same time, a swordsman with no proper sword is just as useless. A swordsman with no armor can waste 10 years of training in seconds to some random guy with a spear or a bow. You need the complete package of tools, with no corners cut to get a good useful swordsman. Then multiply that for as many different types of martial arts you have. Training and outfitting more people, as would happen if you wanted to train many peasant martial artists is just super expensive and resource intensive. In an age when most people paid their taxes at least in part as literal grain, the tax revenue of an average fief isn't exactly going to buy you an army fast.


Edit: I forgot one last thing: the quality of the manuals themselves. The scientific method and what we know as elementary drawing today hadn't been invented yet. Getting information out of them would be far more difficult that ready any modern textbook (not that easy even today) simply because the idea of perspective and charts doesn't exist. Outside of master architects few else even had a clue on how to accurately portray procedures on paper. Much less a set of motions in perspective and anatomically correct. Go through a few bad copy jobs from scribes and what details were imparted might be lost. Combined with a lot of stories and glorification, as was common in many surviving medieval manuals they aren't exactly concise easy skim material for a new reader.

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  • $\begingroup$ I was about to write an answer but yours kinda covers what I was about to say. To practice martial arts, you need some expensive resources that wouldn't be worth to spend on anyone. $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    Jul 30 at 7:22
  • $\begingroup$ I love the protein part. I hadn't thought about that at all, but it really is a limiting factor, especially since hunting is very dangerous because of magical beasts $\endgroup$
    – Nephanth
    Jul 30 at 23:05
  • $\begingroup$ The magical beast aspect, depending on whether or not they are edible might actually be a possible elitism mechanism. Either the meat or some part of the beasts are highly beneficial for martial training, but you need a strong or wealthy enough mentor to get your supply while you are starting out. Perhaps without certain magical beast parts from a mature beast, some magical aspects of a high tier martial arts manual wouldn't work. $\endgroup$
    – yolo man
    Jul 31 at 4:00
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Selection, privilege and paranoia

You can flip your scenario: mastery of Art makes one powerful. Those in a position of power in your society are those with high mastery of Art; they became “noble bloodlines” by gaining this knowledge and then restricting it to their kin. Because each family knows that their position of power hinges on secrecy, they have no desire to share Art with common folk. Because they’re filthy rich, they don’t really care about farming or construction - they will always have enough for themselves, and a few starved peasants are none of their concern.

Of course, each family could choose to train an Art-enhanced army and attempt a coup over the others; indeed, there are constant rumors in the paranoia-infested high society halls that this is precisely what is going on. Maybe it’s true, but no family has dared to show their hand yet, as they all assume the other families have a (potentially greater) secret army of their own. In this way, it serves a similar role to nuclear weapons in our society today - assured mutual destruction. This further fuels the secrecy and paranoia of the noble families, who see every unusually self-possessed milkmaid and every remarkably efficient bricklayer as evidence that their rivals are training commoners in Art to overthrow them. Thus every hint of Art outside the noble families is ruthlessly persecuted, and as a result any natural emergence of Art in the general population is stamped out before it can develop into its own discipline.

In an alternate timeline, Art might have had widespread adoption, and the wealth and welfare of society would be immeasurably higher. But the families keep their stranglehold on power, and crush every tendril of growth to protect their privilege, and only challenge each other within the bounds of what still presents no dangers to the institution of aristocracy as a whole.

This miserable state of affairs will continue until the commoners finally rise up and cut the bastards down, presumably after developing their own form of Art disguised as folk dancing.

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    $\begingroup$ Aw bollox now I want a short story about taking down an aristocracy built on rhythm-based magic with clog dancing. $\endgroup$
    – Guest
    Jul 30 at 8:46
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    $\begingroup$ Interestingly, these noble families might be interested in widespread inefficient teachings, training everyone to believe there's a single, specific way to use Art (which is significantly inferior to and completely perpendicular to their own practices). This allows them to reap the benefits of enhanced population, while still ensuring that they're far above everyone else... and also makes it harder for others to close the gap, as well (since they would have to first unlearn their own Art before they can begin to learn a better one). $\endgroup$ Jul 30 at 20:09
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    $\begingroup$ With the slow and low volume of postage it would be pretty hard for those outside the know to collaborate with those from afar and research the true path. Once something is considered "common sense" it is very hard to dislodge in the minds of the populace, whomst would otherwise practice and fund civilian martial arts. $\endgroup$
    – yolo man
    Jul 31 at 5:08
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    $\begingroup$ Yes the potential for psy-ops is endless - get the clergy to denounce thinking about the physical body as sinful, so that the type of introspection that would help you develop Art is shunned! Spread prejudices that fragment the behaviour of commoners so it’s harder to work together on a shared discipline - X thing is unladylike, Y is a forrin thing that we don’t do, etc.! Love @JustinTime-ReinstateMonica ‘s idea of misdirections. $\endgroup$
    – Guest
    Jul 31 at 8:42
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Frame Challenge: Every Commoner does ART!

  • with a few months military training, about 50% of people are able to achieve at least a very low level of Art.
  • with some 5 years of training, that figure goes up to 90%

This figure doesn't preclude that there are not other forms of art than martial arts. All those commoners actually practice some sort of incorporated magic, and it makes them stronger - and all the more valuable!

Think the farmer. He starts to train the art of farming at a young age and once he is an adult, he actually is an accomplished farming artist on their own. His art is focusees on strengthening his body against illnesses and withstanding the elements. It also allows them to dig faster with the hoe, and set the plants in a harmonious pattern that actually increases yield magically.

A smith after their apprenticeship actually imbues magic into their product, making them more resilient and harder to break and making the metal easier to work. In fact, without magic, some of the processing doesn't even work!

Now, if everybody can do magic to some degree, why doesn't everybody become a soldier? That's because most common magic arts are so ingrained in them, that they have to relearn everything from how to walk and breathe to how to eat! That is what military training does: to make them learn the established military arts, they have to unlearn the various field arts and pretty much re-wire them! Some people are easier to learn the new arts. But with enough training, you can make everybody into a soldier.

Limiting the unlimited resources

But how to limit the higher training that you need for real magicans and mythical generals? Well, everybody is magical, but not to the same degree.

Aptitude plays a big role. The Aptitude needed to learn the most basic arts, like the farmer's resistance to cold or the soldiers endurance is comparatively low. But not everybody has the same level of aptitude: some farmer might be literally impossible to tire, while his neighbor only can hold up the concentration for a ew hours before he needs a little rest. People who think they might have the needed Aptitude to learn higher arts might subject themselves to rigorous examinations that can get them to access higher training...

Training is another part of the formula: if you train kids from an age when one can barely hold their chopsticks, they might be able to punch through a wall and jump over them by the age they hit puberty. That training advantage a young noble has because they can pay for the tutors is hard to catch up to if the farmer's kid only starts to get training after the first examination when he is around 10.

Tutors also are a limited resource, especially good ones: You will easily find a tutor for the art of a smith, but finding a tutor that is skilled enough to do the whole Punching through walls thing is HARD: all those trainers are already contracted to the nobility. It would take a lot of ambition and re-invention of ourselves to cultivate a martial art of your own that can best those honed and refined techniques that the established tutors hand down to their pupils. Like... becoming a hermit.

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Your world sounds a lot like a wuxia world, so the typical answer from those worlds applies here:

Literacy: If peasants can't read, they don't know what's on the manual.

  • Problems with this answer: Depending on the content, it can be read out loud and taught verbally to the peasants.
  • Possible solution to the problem: The language used in the manual is archaic and in mysterious phrases and saying (like Chinese chengyu), so you need EXTRA effort to understand it. This slows any classroom learning.

Distribution: Much like Literacy, you'd have to have a way to distribute the information. While imprecise rumors travel fast, anything long and exact will need to be written down. Two forms: public notice and pamphlets. The latter is impractical, so that's one avenue closed. Which leaves you with public notice, either stuck on a wall for all to see, or read out loud by someone publicly. Both ways can also be ruled out by a reason of your devising.

Nutrition: Depending on your world, access to calories and proper nutrition can be a problem. The average Chinese peasant at the time of most wuxia stories are short, and the same can apply to the people of your world. If they only have enough to fuel their workday, they won't use extra energy to further train their bodies.

Time: This isn't as big of a problem as you might expect. Farm work is hard work, but it is not all day, and given your description of training for Art, it's not something that you can't do in the dark. The only limitation is how tired you are after work and if you have the calories to fuel that training. Furthermore, when everything's frozen over in the winter and you're stuck inside, you have basically an entire season to train and, once again, available calories is your limit.

The above applies to peasants. Justification is much harder for soldiers as to why they don't even have low quality Art, especially since whatever "normal" training they might receive pales in comparison to the benefits received from learning Art (other than the ability to fight as a single unit, and discipline).

You might try the literacy solution, and if the employer of the army is poor, the nutrition solution as well.

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Who has a few months just to blow off on training? There is always work to be done. Children are put to work as soon as they can shout at birds to scare them off the crops.

Even with that, food is limited. People's growth is stunted. The lack of food and the endless grinding exhaustion leaves people too drained to think of doing things otherwise. (Reenactors on farms comment that days of labor often left them too exhausted to think straight.) The level of ambition to take off a few months is not there.

Besides, there are not bigger fields just to be taken. You'd start a fight if you tried to claim your neighbor's fields, and the unclaimed land is both inferior for farming and dangerous from wild animals.

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  • $\begingroup$ I like the idea of the lack of space! The lack of time though, basically depends on the lord's investment capability. If the lord is rich enough, he can conscript them into mandatory training and cover it, as long as he can suck even more resources from them afterwards $\endgroup$
    – Nephanth
    Jul 30 at 17:01
  • $\begingroup$ Lords were notoriously short on money, because all he had was what he could get pre-training to save. $\endgroup$
    – Mary
    Jul 30 at 22:41
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Being able to perform the Art is much easier then being able to teach the Art.

Thus whats limited is a suitable supply of (good) teachers. For people to able to perform Art they need it unlocked by someone who can perform magic (who you state are rare). Thus there is a very limited supply of teachers who can get people past the first hurdle. They can also can pick and choose who they work with. I'm sure a lot of the teachers would prefer teaching some noble persons child (while being kept in nice house with good food and paid well) over teaching the masses of poor people who can't pay for the training.

There may also be large numbers of con-artists who pretend like there unlocking your ability to do Art (while taking all your money). If you don't have a reference for what some with Art can do, you may think you have the ability when you don't (well you only have to believe long enough for the con-artist to get away). After being conned once you may not want to do it again and may tell everyone else the whole thing is a fraud putting off other people from signing up.

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Current methods for teaching Art are are intolerably annoying.

You need to make your body hairless, and not by shaving; by plucking. Super annoying songs must be sung at all hours. You do not need to carry a burning hot brazier between your forearms but you do need to carry a nickel between your knees, back and forth, hundreds of times. If it falls out you have to start over. It is like Miyagi's training method in the Karate Kid except instead of waxing classic cars and painting fences on a California afternoon, you are doing months of mindless, uncomfortable, humiliating tasks with no obvious point to them.

It is though the the method of teaching art was designed to make everyone quit. It was.

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Other answers are great (limited resources, no basic training like reading for low level farmers, etc)... I don't think I've seen one thing mentioned:

A Caste System

What is India's caste system?

The system which divides Hindus into rigid hierarchical groups based on their karma (work) and dharma (the Hindi word for religion, but here it means duty) is generally accepted to be more than 3,000 years old.

Your society has a system where people are what they are born. Work and Duty keeps them there and those in the "lower" castes wouldn't be worth the extra time to train.

At the top of the hierarchy were the Brahmins who were mainly teachers and intellectuals and are believed to have come from Brahma's head. Then came the Kshatriyas, or the warriors and rulers, supposedly from his arms. The third slot went to the Vaishyas, or the traders, who were created from his thighs. At the bottom of the heap were the Shudras, who came from Brahma's feet and did all the menial jobs.

Break society in castes that don't intermingle... and set the lower castes as unworthy of the time, effort and prestige of the privilege's of Art.

How does caste work? For centuries, caste has dictated almost every aspect of Hindu religious and social life, with each group occupying a specific place in this complex hierarchy.

Rural communities have long been arranged on the basis of castes - the upper and lower castes almost always lived in segregated colonies, the water wells were not shared, Brahmins would not accept food or drink from the Shudras, and one could marry only within one's caste.

The system bestowed many privileges on the upper castes while sanctioning repression of the lower castes by privileged groups.

Often criticised for being unjust and regressive, it remained virtually unchanged for centuries, trapping people into fixed social orders from which it was impossible to escape.

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Option One: Desire

In modern western society, nearly everyone has the capability and resources to become physically fit. The reasons for doing so are legion: increased capacity for physical labor, increased lifespan, decreased medical problems, increased confidence, increases to perceived attractiveness, etc etc.

Why, then, is most of modern western society experiencing an obesity epidemic? Because it takes work to be physically fit. If I can play games with my siblings or work, if I can relax after a day's labor or work, if I can spend a holiday chasing tail or work, what do I choose? For many people, work is not the desired choice. Not everyone is as motivated to improve as Naruto, and even he has limits.

Option Two: Perception of Progress

I'm a goju ryu karate black belt. It took me seven years to reach that point. If I were to give an exhibition of skill to a group, any group of any age, there will be members of that group who think the skills are cool and have a desire to learn it themselves. Of those that actually do attempt to learn, many are quickly discouraged by the training. They show up to a dojo and are taught boring, unimpressive things. How do you make a fist? Where do your feet go? That's not what drew them to learn- they want to do a spinning jump kick! They want to dodge punches! They want to break boards with their bare hands!

The reality is, the fundamentals of any martial art are not flashy, and they must be mastered first. Likewise, mental techniques in wuxia worlds are not usually flashy. Beginners become discouraged when they spend hours practicing and don't think they are making progress.

Option Three: Skillset

Some people are naturally more adept at a given skill than others. With martial arts, there are those who are naturally flexible, and those (like me) who are not. Some find it easier than others to get into physical shape. Some struggle to remember techniques. Given enough time, nearly everyone without significant handicaps can get there- but for some, the time required is the deal breaker, or they become discouraged when those around them progress faster than they do.

Martial arts also utilize different muscles than other forms of manual labor and exercise. This should be the case for mental disciplines in a wuxia or cultivation type world. A farmer is used to certain mental activities, and the mind can be resistant to change.

Option Four: Risk

If you know Art, are you more likely to be conscripted into an army? Will you be dragged away from your family? If the Fire Nation attacks, will they round up everyone with any Art skill and kill them? If Mr. Paranoid succeeds his father, will he crack down on those who know Art for fear that they pose a threat to his rule?

If you know Art, will you be expected to work harder? Work longer? Will you be forced into leadership positions you may not want? Will you be given the difficult jobs at the construction site, or the dangerous ones? Can more experienced individuals track you down or sense you, once you have skill in Art?

Does training Art hurt? Is it uncomfortable? Is it ever embarrassing when you first start out? Do you have to let your teacher into your head, or let them touch you, or let them take control in some fashion? There are many ways it could be 'risky' to train.

Other options

There are plenty of others as well. Does it cost money to train? It adds mobility to the lower classes if they have any power; do the upper classes want competition? Does training require use of limited resources? Does it burn extra calories, or mentally exhaust the practitioner, or require use of chi/qi/magic that is in limited supply throughout the world/region?

There are plenty of possibilities, but the biggest advice: mix them. Don't give a single reason for the status quo, combine several complimentary reasons, thus widening the net to catch the majority of measly peons with delusions of grandeur before they realize their dreams.

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Having the art makes you worse at shield walls.

The arts generally make you individualistic, flowing, and overt. This is terrible for shield walls. Groups of soldiers with spears and shields massively out perform soldiers with cheap arts. The martial artists may be twice as strong, but they're not strong enough to resist the ten soldiers with spears that can fit in the space of one person doing common arts.

Elite martial arts can clash less, so the nobles can outperform shield walls.

The art feeds of ambient magic

The art uses external magic to make internal magic. If all your peasants are art users the location will have much less ambient magic for nobles. In addition, the low quality of the art will burn magic much less efficiently.

As such, it makes no financial sense to waste magic on farmers and soldiers and construction workers.

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There is one more solution. Trainig need 6 months for average person. Peasants/workers can have month per year free time to do something, mostly at winter, and thats not enough, even if train for 10 years. But if someone have talent for that then can achieve. that can be one per 10000 peasants/workers. Families will search for that natural talents and then hire or kill them before they be too strong. Natural tallented ones can be big source of power for family if found - with talent they can easy train up to very high level and if properly leaded then have mental connection with family and even be joined into.

If add to equation some kind of genetic predisposition for Art and Magic then most talented can born in families.

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    $\begingroup$ The question is about finding a reason why Art isn’t more widespread, not how to make it more widespread. The goal is to make the asker’s world believable, not to change it. :-) $\endgroup$
    – breversa
    Jul 30 at 9:41
  • $\begingroup$ If You kill most people with talent then is less spreaded :) You kill not obeying ones directly and obeying ones in duels/fights/training. $\endgroup$
    – Kamitergh
    Aug 2 at 14:19
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Attaining a proficiency in this technique costs money.

A common trope in Chinese martial arts high fantasy ("xianxia", literally "immortal heroes") fiction is that training your chi requires the use of external sources of chi to add to your own, and that the most commonly used form of this are special rocks or crystals imbued with chi, which are also used as the most common currency by the magic-wielding nobility - and that it's a currency with considerable purchasing power when compared to the "mortal" currencies used by the common people.

Sure, you might be able to train your people up to peak-human abilities over the course of a month or two, but if the cost of that is the consumption of enough currency to buy years of food for them, it suddenly stops making a lot of sense for them to do so. You're burning lots of money for limited gains; the only people to whom it'd make sense to spend that much money might be wealthy merchants or other bourgeoisie, who have the money to burn making sure that their children are able to pursue all their talents.

And, naturally, the higher you go, the more expensive and rare the resources you need to consume to further advance your power are; the Peach Trees of Immortality might only bear fruit once every thousand years, for instance.

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  • $\begingroup$ I'm aware of the wuxia trope, but I cannot go this route in thos this world, from question: "Additionally, since it is mainly a work of introspection, it doesn’t need expensive resources " $\endgroup$
    – Nephanth
    Jul 30 at 17:08
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These are my answers to "So why has nobody thought of teaching Art to regular citizens, or at least soldiers, when it would increase productivity and military strength so much?":

  1. You can't just reserve a building for teaching Art to people. People actually have to come.
  2. You'll have to convince the people who don't want to learn Art to learn Art. Yeah, sure, there are some people who will go willingly, but some people can be as stubborn as a mule.
  3. Okay, if you reserved a building, and actually got people to come and learn Art, bravo. But, if farmers come to learn Art, what would happen of the crops? The poultry? The livestock?
  4. Supplies, supplies. Even if you DON'T think you'll need supplies, you WILL need supplies of some sort. Rugs, mats, lamps or candles, stuff like that.
  5. Really, do you think that nobody has thought of the idea of teaching civilians, or at least soldiers, Art? Do you actually think that government could be THAT stupid? Now, I'm not trying to be impolite here, but let's get realistic. Most likely, the government had tried teaching civilians, or at least soldiers, Art, but it didn't work, so they laid off the idea. Most likely.
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