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Brief History of Martial Arts


Martial arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of training for combat. Though studied for various reasons, broadly speaking, martial arts share a single objective: to defeat a person physically or to defend oneself from physical threat. Some martial arts are linked to spiritual or religious beliefs/philosophies such as Buddhism, Daoism or Shinto while others have their own spiritual/non-spiritual code of honour. Martial arts are commonly associated with East Asian cultures, but are by no means unique to Asia. Throughout Europe there was an extensive system of combat martial arts, collectively referred to as Historical European martial arts, that existed until modern times and are now being reconstructed by several organizations while Savate is a French kicking style developed by sailors and street fighters. In the Americas Native Americans have a tradition of open-handed martial arts, that includes wrestling and Hawaiians have historically practiced arts featuring small and large joint manipulation, a mix of origins occur in the athletic movements of Capoeira that was created in Brazil by slaves, based on skills brought with them from Africa.

While each style has unique facets that makes it different from other martial arts, a common characteristic is the systemization of fighting techniques. Methods of training vary and may include sparring or forms (kata), which are sets or routines of techniques that are performed alone, or sometimes with a partner, and which are especially common in the Asian and Asian-derived martial arts,[1].The word 'martial' derives from the name of Mars, the Roman god of war. The term 'Martial Arts' literally means arts of Mars. This term comes from 15th century Europeans who were referring to their own fighting arts that are today known as Historical European martial arts. A practitioner of martial arts is referred to as a martial artist. Variation and scopeMartial arts vary widely, and may focus on a specific area or combination of areas, but they can be broadly grouped into focusing on strikes, grappling, or weapons training. Below is a list of examples that make extensive use of one these areas; it is not an exhaustive list of all arts covering the area, nor are these necessarily the only areas covered by the art but are the focus or best known part as examples of the area:


  • Punching - Boxing (Western), Wing Chun
  • Kicking - Capoeira, Savate, Taekwondo
  • Other strikes (e.g. Elbows, knees, open-hand) - Muay Thai, Karate, Shaolin Kung Fu
  • Throwing - Glima, Judo, Jujutsu, Sambo, Shuai jiao
  • Joint lock - Aikido, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Hapkido
  • Pinning Techniques - Judo, Wrestling
  • Traditional Weaponry - Fencing, Gatka, Kendo, Silambam, Kali
  • Modern Weaponry - Eskrima, Jogo do Pau, Jukendo
Many martial arts, especially those from Asia, also teach side disciplines which pertain to medicinal practices. This is particularly prevalent in traditional Chinese martial arts which may teach bone-setting, qigong, acupuncture, acupressure (tui na), and other aspects of traditional Chinese medicine.[2]History

Pictorial records of both wrestling and armed combat date to the Bronze Age Ancient Near East, such as the 20th century BC mural in the tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hassan, or the 26th century BC "Standard of Ur".
East Asia
Early history
The foundation of the Asian martial arts is likely a blend of early Chinese and Indian arts. Extensive trade occurred between these nations beginning around 600 B.C., with diplomats, merchants, and monks traveling the Silk Roads. During the Warring States period of Chinese history (480-221 B.C.) extensive development in martial philosophy and strategy emerged, as described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War (c. 350 B.C.)
An early legend in martial arts tells the tale of the Indian monk Bodhidharma (also called Daruma), believed to have lived around 550 A.D. He is credited with founding the meditative philosophy of Zen Buddhism and influencing the unarmed combat arts of the Shaolin temple in China. The martial virtues of discipline, humility, restraint and respect are attributed to this philosophy.[3]The teaching of martial arts in Asia has historically followed the cultural traditions of teacher-disciple apprenticeship. Students are trained in a strictly hierarchical system by a master instructor: Sifu in Cantonese or Shifu in Mandarin; Sensei in Japanese; Sa Bum Nim in Korean.

Modern history

In many countries local arts like Te in Okinawa,[4] Kenjutsu and Ju-Jutsu in Japan,[5] and Taekyon and Soobak in Korea[6] mixed with other martial arts and evolved to produce some of the more well-known martial arts in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries like Karate, Aikido, and Taekwondo.

The Western interest in East Asian Martial arts dates back to the late 19th century, due to the increase in trade between America with China and Japan. Relatively few Westerners actually practiced the arts, considering it to be mere performance.

Edward William Barton-Wright, a railway engineer who had studied Jujutsu while working in Japan between 1894–97, was the first man known to have taught Asian martial arts in Europe. He also founded an eclectic martial arts style named Bartitsu which combined jujutsu, judo, boxing, savate and stick fighting.

As Western influence grew in East Asia a greater number of military personnel spent time in China, Japan, and Korea. Exposure to martial arts during the Korean war was also significant. Chuck Norris and the late Joe Lewis were 1st exposed to martial arts while serving in the military overseas.

The later 1970s and 1980s witnessed an increased media interest in the martial arts, thanks in part to Asian and Hollywood martial arts movies. The popularity of Bruce Lee and his movies led to one of first widespread interest in the martial arts here in America. Later actors/martial artist Jackie Chan and Jet Li are prominent movie figures who have been responsible for promoting Chinese martial arts in recent years.


Martial arts existed in classical European civilization, most notably in Greece where sports were integral to the way of life. Boxing (pygme, pyx), Wrestling (pale) and Pankration (from pan, meaning "all", and kratos, meaning "power" or "strength") were represented in the Ancient Olympic Games. The Romans produced Gladiatorial combat as a public spectacle.

A number of historical fencing forms and manuals have survived, and many groups are working to reconstruct older European martial arts. The process of reconstruction combines intensive study of detailed combat treatises produced from 1400–1900 A.D. and practical training or "pressure testing" of various techniques and tactics. This includes such styles as sword and shield, two-handed swordfighting, halberd fighting, jousting and other types of melee weapons combat. This reconstruction effort and modern outgrowth of the historical methods is generally referred to as Western martial arts. Many Medieval martial arts manuals have survived, the most famous being Johannes Lichtenauer's Fechtbuch (Sword Tome) of the 14th century. Today Lichtenauer's tome forms the basis of the German school of swordsmanship.

In Europe, the martial arts declined with the rise of firearms. As a consequence, martial arts with historical roots in Europe do not exist today to the same extent as in Asia, since the traditional martial arts either died out or developed into sports. Swordsmanship developed into fencing. Boxing as well as forms of wrestling have endured. European martial arts have mostly adapted to changing technology so that while some traditional arts still exist, military personnel are trained in skills like bayonet combat and marksmanship. Some European weapon systems have also survived as folk sports and as self-defense methods. These include stick-fighting systems such as Jogo do Pau of Portugal and the Juego del Palo style(s) of the Canary Islands.

Other martial arts evolved into sports that no longer recognized as combative. One example is the pommel horse event in men's gymnastics, an exercise which itself is derived from the sport of Equestrian vaulting. Cavalry riders needed to be able to change positions on their horses quickly, rescue fallen allies, fight effectively on horseback and dismount at a gallop. Training these skills on a stationery barrel evolved into sport of gymnastics' pommel horse exercise. More ancient origins exist for the shot put and the javelin throw, both weapons utilized extensively by the Romans.


Native peoples of North America and South America had their own martial training which began in childhood. Some First Nations men and more rarely, some women were called warriors only after they had proved themselves in battle. Most groups selected individuals for training in the use bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and war clubs in early adolescence. War clubs were the preferred martial weapon because Native American warriors could raise their social status by killing enemies in single combat face to face. Warriors honed their weapons skills and stalking techniques through lifelong training.

Okichitaw is a martial art based on Plains Cree of the Canadian Prairies that specializes in the distinctive  war club, but also encorporates the use of bow, knife, long and short lance and tomahawk as well as grappling and striking techniques.

Capoeira, with roots in Africa, is a martial art originating in Brazil that involves a high degree of flexibility and endurance. It consists of kicks, elbow strikes, head butts, and sweeps. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an adaptation of pre-World War II Judo and jujutsu. Created by Carlos Gracie and his brother Hélio, it was restructured into a sport with a large focus on groundwork. This system has become a popular martial art and proved to be effective in mixed martial arts competitions such as the UFC and PRIDE.[7]

As of 2003, over 1.5 million US citizens practice martial arts.[8]


African knives may be classified by shape typically into the 'group and the 'circular' group and have often been incorrectly described as throwing knives.[9]There are also wrestling and grappling techniques found in West Africa. "Stick fighting" formed an important part of Zulu culture in South Africa.

Modern history

Wrestling, Javelin, Fencing (1896 Summer Olympics), Archery (1900), Boxing (1904), and more recently Judo (1964) and Tae Kwon Do (2000) are the martial arts that are featured as events in the modern Summer Olympic Games.

Martial arts also developed among military and police forces to be used as:

Other combative systems having their origins in the modern military include Soviet Bojewoje (Combat) Sambo.

On the modern battlefield

Some traditional martial concepts have seen new use within modern military training. Perhaps the most recent example of this is point shooting which relies on muscle memory to more effectively utilize a firearm in a variety of awkward situations, much the way an iaidoka would master movements with their sword.

During the World War II era William E. Fairbairn, a Shanghai policeman and a leading Western expert on Asian fighting techniques, was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to teach Jujutsu to UK, U.S. and Canadian Special Forces. The book Kill or Get Killed, written by Colonel Rex Applegate, became a classic military treatise on hand-to-hand combat. This fighting method was called Defendu.

Traditional hand-to-hand, knife, and spear techniques continue to see use in the composite systems developed for today's wars. Examples of this include the US Army's Combatives system developed by Matt Larsen, the Israeli army trains its soldiers in Krav Maga, the US Marine Corps's Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), and Chinese San Shou.

Unarmed dagger defenses identical to that found in the fechtbuch of Fiore dei Liberi and the Codex Wallerstein were integrated into the U.S. Army's training manuals in 1942[10] and continue to influence today's systems along with other traditional systems such as Kali and Escrima.

The rifle-mounted bayonet, which has its origin in the spear, has seen use by the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Army as recently as the Iraq War.[11]

Testing and competition

Testing or evaluation is important to martial art practitioners of many disciplines who wish to determine their progression or own level of skill in specific contexts. Students within individual martial art systems often undergo periodic testing and grading by their own teacher in order to advance to a higher level of recognized achievement, such as a different belt color or title. The type of testing used varies from system to system but may include forms or sparring.

Various forms and sparring are commonly used in martial art exhibitions and tournaments. Some competitions pit practitioners of different disciplines against each other using a common set of rules, these are referred to as mixed martial arts competitions. Rules for sparring vary between art and organization but can generally be divided into light-contact, medium-contact, and full-contact variants, reflecting the amount of force that should be used on an opponent.

Light- and medium-contact

These types of sparring restrict the amount of force that may be used to hit an opponent, in the case of light sparring this is usual to 'touch' contact, e.g. a punch should be 'pulled' as soon as or before contact is made. In medium-contact the punch would not be 'pulled' but not hit with full force. As the amount of force used is restricted, the aim of these types of sparring is not to knock out an opponent; a point system is used in competitions.

A referee acts to monitor for fouls and to control the match, while judges mark down scores, as in boxing. Particular targets may be prohibited (such as the face or groin), certain techniques may be forbidden, and fighters may be required to wear protective equipment on their head, hands, chest, groin, shins or feet. In some styles (such as fencing and some styles of taekwondo sparring), competitors score points based on the landing of a single technique or strike as judged by the referee, whereupon the referee will briefly stop the match, award a point, then restart the match. Alternatively, sparring may continue with the point noted by the judges.

Some critics of point sparring feel that this method of training teaches habits that result in lower combat effectiveness. Lighter-contact sparring may be used exclusively, for children or in other situations when heavy contact would be inappropriate (such as beginners), medium-contact sparring is often used as training for full-contact.


"Full-contact" sparring or fighting is considered by many to be requisite in learning realistic unarmed combat. Full-contact sparring is different from light and medium-contact sparring in several ways, including reduced use (or no use) of protective gear and the use of strikes that are not pulled but are thrown with full force, as the name implies. In full-contact sparring, the aim of a competitive match is either to knock out the opponent or to force the opponent to submit. Full-contact sparring may include a wider variety of permitted attacks and contact zones on the body.

Where scoring takes place it may be a subsidiary measure, only used if no clear winner has been established by other means; in some competitions, such as the UFC 1, there was no scoring. Due to these factors, full-contact matches tend to be more aggressive in character, but rule sets may still mandate the use of protective gloves and forbid certain techniques or actions during a match, such as punching the back of the head.

Nearly all mixed martial arts leagues such as UFC, Pancrase, Shooto use a form full-contact rules, as do professional boxing organizations and K-1. Kyokushin karate requires advanced practitioners to engage in bare-knuckled, full-contact sparring while wearing only a karate gi and groin protector but does not allow strikes to the face, only kicks and knees. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo matches do not allow striking, but are full-contact in the sense that full force is applied in the application during grappling and submission techniques.

Sparring debates

Some practitioners believe that sports matches with rules are not a good measure of hand-to-hand combat ability and training for these restrictions may inhibit effectiveness in self defence situations. These practitioners may prefer not to participate in most types of rule-based martial art competition (even one such as vale tudo where there are minimal rules), electing instead to study fighting techniques with little or no regard to competitive rules or, even perhaps, ethical concerns and the law (the techniques practiced may include attacking vulnerable spots such as the groin or the eyes). Others maintain that, given proper precautions such as a referee and a ring doctor, sparring, in particular full-contact matches with basic rules, serves as a useful gauge of an individual's overall fighting ability, and that failing to test techniques against a resisting opponent is more likely to impede ability in such situations.

Martial sport

Judo and Tae Kwon Do as well as western archery, boxing, javelin, wrestling and fencing are currently events in the Summer Olympic Games. Chinese wushu recently failed in its bid to be included, but is still actively performed in tournaments across the world. Practitioners in some arts such as kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu often train for sport matches, whereas those in other arts such as Aikido and Wing Chun generally spurn such competitions. Some schools believe that competition breeds better and more efficient practitioners, and gives a sense of good sportsmanship. Others believe that the rules under which competition takes place have diminished the combat effectiveness of martial arts or encourage a kind of practice which focuses on winning trophies rather than a focus such as cultivating a particular moral character.

As part of the response to sport martial arts, new forms of competition are being held such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship in the U.S. or Pancrase, and the PRIDE in Japan which are also known as mixed martial arts (or MMA) events. The original UFC was fought under very few rules allowing all martial arts styles to enter and not be limited by the rule set.

Some martial artists also compete in non-sparring competitions such as breaking or choreographed techniques poomse, kata or aka. Modern variations of the martial arts include dance-influenced competitions such as tricking.

Some martial traditions have been influenced by governments to become more sport-like for political purposes. The central impetus for the attempt by the People's Republic of China in transforming Chinese martial arts into the committee-regulated sport of Wushu was suppressing what they saw as the potentially subversive aspects of martial training, especially under the traditional system of family lineages.