Main Page | See live article | Alphabetical index

Martial art

Martial arts also known as fighting systems, are bodies of codified practices or traditions of unarmed and armed combat, often with the goal of developing both the character of the practitioner as well as the mindful, appropriate, controlled use of bodily force.

The martial arts, due to a century of exaggerated, exoticized portrayals in popular media (see orientalism), have been inextricably bound in the Western imagination to East Asian cultures and people, but it would be incorrect to say the martial arts are unique to Asia. Humans have always had to develop ways to defend themselves from attack, often without weapons, so it would not be correct to think that unarmed combat originated from East Asia. But what differentiates the martial arts from mere unarmed brawling is largely this codification or standardization of practices and traditions, many times in routines called forms (also called kata, kuen, tao lu, or hyung), and above all, the controlled, mindful application of force and empirical effectiveness. In this sense, boxing, fencing, archery, and wrestling can also be considered martial arts.

Thus, 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 Europe, some of the oldest written and illustrated material on the subject 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.

In recent times, various attempts at reviving historical martial arts have been done. One example of such historical martial arts reconstruction is Pankration, which comes from the Greek (pan, meaning all, kratos, meaning power or strength).

"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 (Cantonese, mou seut), literally, martial techniques, meaning all manner of Chinese martial arts.


Martial arts are, simply put, systems of fighting. There are many styles and schools of martial arts; however, they share a common goal - to physically defeat a person or defend oneself. Certain martial arts, such as Tai Chi Chuan may also practiced to improve mental or physical health.

Not all Martial Arts were developed in Asia. Savate, for example, was developed as a form of kickboxing in France. Capoeira's athletic movements were developed in Brazil.

Martial arts may include disciplines of striking (i.e. Boxing, Karate), kicking, (Kickboxing, Karate), grappling (Judo, Jujutsu, Wrestling), weaponry (Iaido, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Naginata-do, Jojutsu, Fencing), or some combination of those three (many types of Jujutsu).

Martial arts in Asia

The teaching of martial arts in Asia follows a cultural tradition of apprenticeship. Students were traditionally trained in a strict hierarchical system by a master instructor (sensei in Japanese; in Chinese sifu, or shifu, lit., the master-father), who was supposed to look after your welfare, and the student was encouraged to memorize and recite without deviation the rules and routines of the school. Critical thinking about the tradition was not often encouraged, merely the proper application of techniques to controlled circumstances. In this hierarchy, those who entered instruction before the student are considered older brothers and sisters; those after, younger brothers and sisters. Some system of certification is usually involved as well, where one's skills would be tested for mastery before being allowed to study further; in some systems, such as in kung fu, there were no certifications, only years of close personal practice under a master, much like an apprenticeship, until the master deemed your skills sufficient. Today, this pedagogy is rarely used.

The different styles of Asian martial arts are sometimes divided into two major groups. There are the hard styles like karate and kickboxing which favour an aggressive offense, usually involving striking, in order to quickly defeat an opponent. On the other hand, there are the so-called soft styles like Judo, Tai Chi Chuan or Aikido which center upon turning an opponent's force against themselves.

Comparisons between martial arts

It is now difficult, in modern societies, to gauge the actual effectiveness of martial arts, but 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.

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 Champions 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.

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.

The influence of Bruce Lee

Bruce Lee, the American-born, Hong Kong-bred martial artist and actor, was among the first in the United States, and perhaps the most influential theorist-practitioner in martial arts history to challenge many conservative ideas within martial arts, specifically, combat effectiveness vs. blind recitation of forms, the fear of non-Asians using their own art against them, and certain fundamentalist aspects of martial arts.

Although he favored the Southern Chinese art of Wing Chun, he was well-versed in a number of other Chinese martial traditions. Arriving in the Seattle area in the 1960s, he soon encountered styles of other martial arts, such as those practiced by established communities of post-Internment Japanese Americans and Filipino Americans in the Pacific Northwest. As an undergraduate philosophy student at the University of Washington, and after graduation, he began to teach kung fu to non-Chinese. At some point, he began to realize that even as martial arts maintained bodies of techniques, uncritical maintenance of traditions, and rote recitation of forms strangled combat effectiveness and dynamic response in the practice of unarmed combat. Couching his language in Taoism (also Daoism), but with a kind of hard pragmatism, he sought to create a mental framework -- "no style as style" -- focused solely on the improvement of unarmed combat. This attitude absorbed influences from all martial arts -- Filipino armed and unarmed techniques, European and Japanese grappling, wrestling, and fencing techniques, Korean kicking techniques, Chinese close range hand techniques -- and were evaluated for their effectiveness.

With his untimely death however in 1973, he was unable to develop and articulate his philosophy further, but, what he had already developed has since been built upon by his students and colleagues and developed, ironically, into a new style, which Lee himself named jeet kune do (Cantonese 截拳道, lit. way of the intercepting fist). To resolve this contradiction, practitioners, and more specifically, teachers of jeet kune do often maintain that what they practice is not a style or a tradition, but concepts. Whatever the case may be, Bruce Lee left an indelible legacy in the history of the martial arts, which has forever changed how the martial arts are thought about and practiced.

See also: Qigong, Martial arts film, budo, gendai budo, koryu, internal martial arts, mixed martial arts, military technology and equipment