Martial arts describes 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
bodilyforce. The martial arts, due to a century of exaggerated, exoticized
portrayals in popular media (see orientalism), has 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 the West, some of the oldest written
material on the subject is from the European 1400s, and written by notable
teachers like Hans Talhoffer 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 1200s.
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 defend
oneself. Certain martial arts, such as Tai Chi Chuan may also be used to
improve health and, allegedly, the flow of 'qi'.
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,
wrestling (Taekwondo, Kickboxing, Karate), grappling (Judo, Jujutsu,
Wrestling), weaponry (Iaido, Kendo, Kenjutsu, Naginata-do, Jojutsu, Fencing),
or some combination of those three (many types of Jujutsu).
Many Asian martial arts traditions are heavily influenced by Confucian
culture. 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.
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.
On the subject of competition, martial artists vary wildly. Some arts, such
as Boxing and Muay Thai 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, 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 so-called full
contact or freestyle competitions, and these styles often are the financial
sponsors of these competitions, which tends to cast suspicion on the validity
of such outcomes. Supporters of those styles which win time and again make
the statement that this proves the real-world self defense effectiveness of
their art, but it is all too easy to manipulate the results to work in one's
Some advocates of freestyle or full contact justify their sport 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. If the primary objective in competition is to score
points on your opponent, this is 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.
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