Coming out of the previous Purple Stage, aka the Tribal Stage, of martial arts practice, the student begins to wonder about individual power and skill when pit against other foes. Whereas the Purple Stage focuses on a group of students and its master teacher, the Red Stage focuses on what the student can and cannot do, and how the student’s abilities relate to the wider adversarial world.

Red Stage martial arts practice is ubiquitous throughout the world in every culture and time period and naturally arises out of Purple. Those of us who lived through the 1980’s may remember a great example of a Red martial arts school from the movie The Karate Kid, the Cobra Kai. What was their slogan? “No mercy!” The class was taught by an ex-marine whose sole claim on power was his ability to dominate his students physically, verbally, and socially. Power was his. Students judged their own power in relation to the teacher’s and the senior student’s, who also happened to be the arch enemy of the protagonist, Daniel. The important difference between Red and the Orange Stage that comes later is the preoccupation with purposely hurting opponents. Orange Stage martial arts deals with competition, achievement, and technical skill, not with hurting opponents in friendly competition. Red deals with martial efficacy and the ability to inflict pain for the purpose of destruction to one’s enemies. Sometimes the difference is subtle and unclear, but it is there.

The more dangerous the society is in a given time period, the more common Red Stage martial arts will be. Practitioners at this stage existed at various times in both the East and West. During the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in Okinawa, for example, banditry and gangs were on the rise and local police forces were needed to keep it under control. Both the fighters on the police force and in the gangs needed a Red Stage outlook on martial arts to preserve their safety and prosperity. The same could be said for parts of Los Angeles, California and Detroit, Michigan today. Expanding this to other troubled parts of the world only changes what arts are practiced and who is participating in the conflicts, but not why.

Eventually, if a student is lucky, circumstances will allow this view of martial arts to expand into the next stage, Amber. After World War II, many of the original Okinawan masters were killed in the fighting, and their teachings became scarce. Students would gather to try to recreate what they were taught, and they often had different teachings from the same person. The nostalgia for the “old ways” and the gossip about who was taught what and why became the focal point of martial arts practice for them. Since Okinawa was now under US control, the gangs and bandits were less of a problem, and Red essentially became obsolete.

Parallel stories exist and will exist again and again on both the societal and individual level as they relate to martial arts. Once a student’s environment no longer calls for fighting to survive, the student often turns toward an attempt to preserve and pass on what was. Here we see a classic progression from Red to Amber.