Martial arts, also known as fighting systems, are bodies of codified practices or traditions of unarmed and armed combat, usually without the use of guns and other modern weapons. They are often taught for various reasons such as fitness, getting rid of aggressions, mental/character development, and self-defense.
The martial arts, perhaps due to a half-century of dramatic portrayals in popular media (see Orientalism), have been inextricably bound in the Western imagination to East Asian cultures and people. Martial arts are by no means unique to East Asia, however. Humans around the world have always had to develop ways to defend themselves from attack, often without weapons. As a result, there are many martial arts known and practiced; for further information on a particular art, see the list of martial arts.
"Martial arts" was translated in 1920 in Takenobu's Japanese-English Dictionary from Japanese bu-gei or bu-jutsu (武術) that means "the craft/accomplishment of military affairs". This definition is translated directly from the Chinese term, wushu (pinyin: wǔ shù; Cantonese: mou seut), literally, "martial art", meaning all manner of Chinese martial arts.
This term is slightly anomalous in its English usage. Its strict meaning should be "arts for military use" (flying fighter aircraft, sniper training, and so forth) but in normal usage it is used to refer to formalized systems of training to fight without modern technology. It is nevertheless valuable to distinguish between fighting systems intended for soldiers in battle (even without modern technology) and fighting systems intended for sport or for civilian self-defense. The technical characteristics of these three kinds of fighting system are rather different.
Martial arts are, simply put, systems of fighting. There are many styles and schools of martial arts; however, broadly speaking, they share a common goal - to physically defeat a person or defend oneself. Some Eastern martial arts have a tradition of being about more than simple fighting, and this is perhaps why their practice has been seen as worth preserving in the face of their military obsolescence in modern technological culture. Certain martial arts, such as Tai Chi Chuan may also be practiced to improve mental or physical health.
What differentiates the martial arts from mere unarmed brawling is the organization of their techniques into a coherent system and the codification of effective teaching methods. One common training technique is to have a series of routines called forms (also called kata, poomse, ch'uan, kuen, tao lu,hyung or tulls) which can serve as a dictionary of essential techniques to be memorized and drawn from at need. Martial arts are also characterized by the controlled, mindful application of force in ways selected for empirical effectiveness. In this sense, boxing, fencing, archery, and wrestling can also be considered martial arts.
Martial arts may focus on
- striking (e.g. Boxing, Karate),
- kicking, (Kickboxing, Karate, Taekwondo),
- grappling and throwing (Chin Na, Hapkido, Judo, Jujutsu, Wrestling), or
- weaponry (Iaido, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Naginata-do, Jojutsu, Fencing).
- spiritual (Silat)
Most martial arts include some study of all these, and some explicity attempt to be complete (Eskrima, many types of Jujutsu, and some traditional Chinese arts).
Some martial arts, such as the traditional Chinese arts, go beyond this to teach side disciplines such as qigong, acupuncture, acupressure, bone-setting and other aspects of traditional Chinese medicine. This is a natural extension, as at an advanced level techniques can take advantage of a detailed knowledge of how the opponent's body works to drastically increase the effectiveness of techniques.
The history of martial arts is both long and universal. Martial arts likely existed in every culture, and at all classes and levels of society, from the family unit up to small communities, for instance, villages and even ethnic groups. One example is tantui, a northern Chinese kicking art, often said to be practiced among Chinese Muslims. Systems of fighting have likely been in development since learning became transferable among humans, along with the strategies of conflict and war. In some places, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, one can still see this plethora of village fighting systems.
Every martial arts system, and every martial arts school has its own history. This generally falls into two categories: recent history and ancient history.
Recent history, in this context, is relatively verifiable: who did the teacher learn from? Where did the teacher study? What other arts has the teacher studied, and how has the teacher incorporated them into their teaching? Was the teacher given permission to teach by their teacher? What are the teacher's goals in teaching the class?
This last question deserves some explanation. Some classes are taught primarily to teach students to become effective competitors in tournaments. Some classes are taught to attempt to teach the students to defend themselves effectively against some class of imagined situations. Some classes are taught to preserve an ancient tradition. The practical details of these distinct kinds of classes will be very different.
Ancient history, at least in the sense used here, is much more difficult. In fact, for most systems it is essentially a myth --- in the sense that it is propagated by word-of-mouth among students in the absence of verifiable evidence. This is not to say that it is not also true! But the importance of such a history does not depend on its truth: the effect of such a myth on shaping the development of a martial art is probably much greater than the effect of events two hundred years ago (at least five generations of passing the art on from teacher to student). So an art that is believed to be an art of warriors will focus on battlefield effectiveness and weapon use against highly skilled opponents, while an art that is believed to be for self-defense will focus on reactions to surprise attack and multiple opponents.
The history of martial arts around the world is therefore quite complex; on the one hand, most groups of people have had to defend themselves and have developed effective fighting techniques, but on the other hand, most of those techniques have been rendered militarily obsolete over the centuries. Even at an individual, rural level, the threat to the safety of a village is now more likely to come from warriors armed with automatic rifles than from men with swords. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to preserve a martial art; doing so requires many years of teaching at the hands of a good teacher to pass on the art for a single generation. So it is relatively rare that a martial art would survive and become popular in today's culture, and each art that has done so has a unique history. Some generalities can be said, though, and the next few sections will attempt to discuss the overall rise to popularity of some martial arts.
Martial arts in Asia
The teaching of martial arts in Asia has historically followed the Confucian cultural tradition of teacher-disciple apprenticeship. Students are trained in a strictly hierarchical system by a master instructor: Sensei in Japanese (Pinyin 先生, xiān sheng); in Chinese 老師, (Wade-Giles) Lao Shih, (Pinyin) lǎo shī (lit., old master); Cantonese Sifu; 師父 Mandarin (Wade-Giles) Shih fu, (Pinyin) Shī fù (lit., the master-father), 사범님 Sabeomnim (Korean). The instructor is expected to directly supervise their students' training, and the students are expected to memorize and recite as closely as possible the rules and basic training routines of the school.
Open speculation about training methods or the instructor's motives and personality is generally not tolerated in juniors, as they aren't considered familiar enough with the basic requirements of their respective arts to make realistic distinctions. They are instead encouraged to repeatedly train applications of the forms and techniques that they've been shown in gradually more complex scenarios.
In this Confucian family-based hierarchy, those who enter instruction with the instructor before the student are considered older brothers and sisters; those after, younger brothers and sisters. The instructor's peers are considered aunts and uncles, etc. into other generations above and below. Such clearly delineated relationships, based on seniority, are designed to develop intangibles such as good character, patience and discipline in martial students. As a matter of safety for the instructors, the student body and the individual student, before they are shown anything beyond the most basic conditioning exercises, students learn their place in the school hierarchy. Students should learn how and why to clearly demonstrate respect for others and how to follow the directions of their instructors properly. The traditional schools are said by this reasoning to provide thereby a level playing field for all students, providing a relatively fixed framework for interaction with one's seniors, peers and juniors, so that everyone, not just the physically gifted, can have an opportunity to benefit from the training provided in a martial art school.
Some method of certification can be involved, where one's skills would be tested for mastery before being allowed to study further; in some systems, especially in China, there are no such certifications, only years of close personal practice and evaluation under a master, much like an apprenticeship, until the master deems one's skills satisfactory. This pedagogy, while still preserved and respected in many traditional styles, has weakened to varying degrees in others and is even actively rejected by some schools, especially in the West.
Martial arts in Europe
The peoples of Europe have had a thoroughly war-torn history, and the peoples that survived had highly effective martial arts. However, these martial arts mostly adapted to changing technology, so that while their descendants still exist, they are focused on things like flying helicopters and infantry tactics for riflemen. We generally do not call these martial arts.
Some traditional martial arts have been preserved in one form or another. For example, fencing was preserved by being made into a sport; of course this has changed the practice significantly. Some historical fencing has survived, and some groups have attempted to reconstruct old European martial arts from a few surviving combat manuals. This includes such styles as sword and shield, two-handed swordfighting , jousting and other types of melee weapon combat.
Some of the oldest written and illustrated material on the subject of European martial arts dates from the 15th and 16th centuries, and was written by notable teachers like Hans Talhoffer, Fiore dei Liberi and George Silver. Some transcripts of yet older texts have survived, the oldest being a manuscript going by the name of I.33 and dating from the late 13th century.
Fighting manuals such as those listed above have served as guides for attempted reconstructions of European martial arts. Another example of such historical martial arts reconstruction is Pankration, which comes from the Greek (pan, meaning all, kratos, meaning power or strength). Unfortunately, it is extremely difficult to record the essential parts of a martial art in written form (or in fact in any form except the training of a body of master students) so these efforts are very difficult and require the practitioners to borrow techniques from living martial arts to fill in the gaps.
Other martial arts were made into sports that we no longer recognize as combative, such as some kinds of gymnastics, where the pommel horse is called a horse because it simulates a horse: the art comes from the necessity of a cavalryman to be able to change positions and fight effectively from a the back of a horse. Similar origins exist for the shot put and the javelin throw.
Martial arts in North America
While the native peoples of North America certainly had their own effective martial arts, these, like much of their culture, have been almost completely lost. However, the European (and, later, Asian) colonists brought over their own martial arts such as boxing, fencing and wrestling. These have remained relatively rare sports.
In the last decades of the twentieth century, a number of martial arts movies, particularly those of Bruce Lee, caught the attention of the North American public, and tremendous interest in Asian martial arts appeared. Initially, only a few martial arts systems were available and popular, such as Karate and Taekwondo, but in the 1990s, students began to realize that there were many more choices of martial art, and a tremendous diversity in martial arts appeared.
Martial arts elsewhere in the world
Every village and tribe around the world had a few trained fighters who passed on their knowledge; unfortunately, it is difficult to pass on a fighting system, so almost all of these have been lost as their practical relevance has declined. However, a few have survived for one reason or another, and a very few of those have seen a recent boom in popularity, perhaps related to the world music phenomenon. Examples of this are Capoeira and some related arts in Cuba , Haiti and Trinidad and Tobago, which were preserved partly through their incorporation into Candomble, Santería, Vodun, and other syncretic religions. Of these, only Capoeira has risen to worldwide prominence, and the others will probably die out.
Martial arts also develop among military and police forces to be used as arrest and self-defense methods. One example is Krav Maga, a self-defense system developed by the armed forces of Israel.
Comparisons between martial arts
One can compare the goals, the teaching methods and the techniques of different fighting systems in order to understand their similarities and differences. This is difficult as it normally takes many years of training before a practitioner understands the goals of a training exercise and even then they are very difficult to portray in words. This is especially difficult for close-range techniques, where the arts are essentially tactile. While making comparisons, it is important to keep in mind that some styles are mainly sports orientated (judo, tae kwon do, wu shu, etc), some use ancient traditions to get their point across (kung fu, karate, and any other that use gi's or other trappings) and some are "reality based" (jeet kune do, Krav Maga, Ultimate Fighting, etc). A person looking to get a cardiovascular workout and make new friends would perhaps be more comfortable at a Tae Chi class, as opposed to Thai boxing. Conversely, a person looking to learn all they could about self protection wouldn't necessarily take an Olympic Judo class.
Many martial arts claim to be effective fighting disciplines within a particular context (unarmed combat between two expert fighters, armed self-defense against multiple attackers, silencing and escaping an expert opponent seeking to grab and capture the practitioner). Such effectiveness is extremely difficult to evaluate. Moreover, many practitioners of the martial arts would like to have some evaluation of their own ability compared to others practicing the same martial art or trained in another tradition.
Among the most popular ways of doing so throughout the Americas is through sport martial arts tournaments, exhibitions, and competitions. These types of competitions usually pit practitioners of one or many traditions against each other in two areas of practice: forms and sparring. The forms section involves the performance and interpretation of routines, either traditional or recently invented, both unarmed and armed, judged by a panel of master-level judges, who may or may not be of the same martial art. The sparring section in sport martial arts usually involves a point-based system of light to medium-contact sparring in a marked-off area where both competitors are protected by foam padding; certain targets are prohibited, such as face and groin, and certain techniques may be also prohibited. Points are awarded to competitors on the solid landing of one technique. Again, master-level judges start and stop the match, award points, and resolve disputes. After a set number of points are scored or when the time set for the match expires (for example, three minutes or five points), and elimination matches occur until there is only one winner. These matches may also be sorted by gender, weight class, level of expertise and even age.
Full-contact martial arts
Some advocates of freestyle or full contact justify their art by stating that in actual hand-to-hand combat the only thing that matters is defeating the enemy. In actual combat, these advocates claim, stylistic differences or the counting of points scored are moot. They argue that if the primary objective in competition is to score points on your opponent, then it's not a martial art but a sport. The logical conclusion of this viewpoint is that there is no such thing as a competition with rules, only gladiatorial affairs resulting in death, disability, or rendering unconscious of one or more of the participants. While this type of contest -- for instance, the Chinese leitai-style contest, where the opponent is not considered completely defeated until thrown off the stage -- has traditionally been the manner in which martial arts are proven, there are few events that maintain this attitude today. For a few examples see sambo, jujitsu, Brazilian jujitsu, pancrase, or vale tudo below.
Many practitioners reject these competitions as a valid comparison between martial arts. Certainly martial arts have a variety of different goals, threat models and styles of problem-solving, so it is extremely difficult to even agree on what "effectiveness" would be for a martial art. This is of course complicated by the pride of the martial artists themselves, each wishing their own style to be found the best.
Fighting is an extremely complex discipline. Professional warriors such as samurai, knights and other soldiers usually spent lifetimes studying fighting, honed by very hard practice and by real combat. Since few people today have such dedication, most martial arts systems focus on one aspect of fighting. Of course, most practitioners would like to have some skill in other aspects, and most arts include some study of many aspects. Often in-depth study of certain aspects is not begun until a practitioner has been training for many years.
Some aspects of fighting that may be focused on include:
- Long-range unarmed fighting. In this situation, things happen relatively slowly (hundreds of milliseconds), giving participants time to react to visual stimuli. This allows powerful strikes as well as subtle feints to be performed.
- Short-range unarmed fighting. In this situation reaction time is such an important factor that visual stimuli are not very useful, and practitioners must learn to react to tactile stimuli. Strikes are still possible but reactions must become reflexes, making feints more difficult.
- Grappling. In this situation participants are holding each other too closely to permit effective striking. Leverage and physical strength become very important. If not forbidden by rules, biting, pinching and spitting can be very effective at this range.
- Armed fighting. Fighting with weapons can be rather different from unarmed fighting, both because strikes can become much more destructive and because weapons can drastically increase the reach of a practitioner. Of course, each weapon and each range requires its own techniques, but a cleverly designed teaching system can take advantage of similarities to simplify the study.
- Moral, emotional, and physical development. The dedication and practice required to acquire skill in a martial art can be very beneficial to the character of a practitioner. Some martial arts systems focus on these effects, and emphasize techniques and training that encourage this development.
- Fighting against a single opponent. Both traditional duels and most modern sparring matches pit one expert fighter against another, with some set of rules, and after a battle, declare a victor. This has a number of different effects; for example, footwork can be simplified as a practitioner rarely needs to turn quickly. On the other hand, one can expect one's opponent to be about as highly skilled as oneself.
- Fighting against multiple opponents. Some martial arts systems focus on being able to deal with multiple opponents simultaneously. In order for this to be possible, normally the opponents must be assumed to have less skill than the practitioner. This has technical effects as well, including tight, careful footwork to allow rapid turning, as well as rapid disabling of opponents in order to move on.
- Fighting without injuring the opponent. Many systems are suggested for police or security work; as such, there is a certain amount of effort devoted to minimizing the damage a practitioner inflicts on an opponent. Disarming, locking and controlling techniques are emphasized in this situation over the simpler striking techniques which disable or kill.
- Avoidance of fighting. Some martial arts systems are strongly oriented towards practical self-defense, and so some emphasis is placed on defusing or avoiding violent situations rather than fighting.
Martial arts as sport
On the subject of competition, martial artists vary wildly. Some arts, such as Boxing, Muay Thai, and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu train solely for full contact matches, whereas others like Aikido and Krav Maga actively spurn such competitions. Some schools believe that competition breeds better and more efficient practitioners; others believe that the rules under which competition takes place have removed the combat effectiveness of martial arts or encourage a kind of practice which focuses on winning trophies rather than the more traditional focus of combat effectiveness, or in East Asian cultures, of developing the Confucian person, which eschews showing off (see Confucius, also Renaissance Man.)
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 in Japan which are also known as mixed martial arts or MMA events. While the financial success or failure of these events is not well-known, it is interesting to note that certain systems do indeed tend to dominate these full contact or freestyle competitions. Supporters of those styles which win time and again make the statement that this proves the real-world self defense effectiveness of their art.
Martial arts and self-defense
In order to justify their existence and to attract students, many (if not most) martial arts schools make claims about their usefulness in "self-defense". Such claims are a matter of constant debate among beginning students of the martial arts.
Understanding what is meant by "self-defense" is difficult. Most students, if the truth be told, have romantic notions about fighting off six thugs in a dark alley; an attractive member of the appropriate sex may or may not be included. Such situations happen with extreme rarity in most places where such martial arts classes exist, and can generally be avoided by other means (e.g., not selling illegal drugs, not getting involved with biker gangs, and so on). Therefore understanding what is needed for self-defense requires understanding the situations that are likely to arise.
There has been an ever-increasing perception among the general population, fuelled by the mass-media, that they are in constant danger of violence on the streets. It is this fear that self-defense classes are intended to counter. Since the fear is largely unfounded, self-defense classes need only reduce the feeling of fear in order to be effective. In practice, for the people to whom these martial arts classes are being marketed, the most likely situation in which they will experience a physical confrontation is domestic violence.
Finally, the largest problem confronted by most people who are attacked is not a lack of physical ability to resist but an emotional reaction: a paralyzing panic or an undisciplined, blinding rage can turn a bad situation into a disastrous one.
All this said, years of serious training in martial arts are expected to take the emotional charge out of physically violent confrontations (after hundreds of hours of sparring, a punch or a kick becomes just a fist or a foot, a purely physical force, reduced by experience to something easily dealt with and not a "personal" attack as such) and give practitioners good general coordination and confidence, both of which can discourage aggressors before aggression begins. So, the experience of physical interaction over an extended period of time in martial arts training may be more relevant to its overall effectiveness at practical self-defense than any individual technique the art in question may include.
The self-defense aspect has also changed the techniques used. In our modern world, we may be attacked by an unarmed person, someone with some sort of clubbing weapon (a baseball bat) or armed with a knife. The chance of being attacked by a fully armoured, swordwielding samurai are practically zero. Most martial arts included battlefield combat techniques in the past, but the emphasis on such techniques has declined in most styles.
- For a detailed list of martial arts, see List of martial arts.
- For a detailed list of martial arts weapons, see List of martial arts weapons.
- For a detailed list of fictional martial arts, see List of fictional martial arts
- Chinese martial arts
- Japanese martial arts
- Korean martial arts
- Filipino martial arts
- Martial arts film
- gendai budo
- internal martial arts
- mixed martial arts
- military technology and equipment
- Chan Buddhism