The world has witnessed great fighters like the Spartans, Vikings, Mongols, Huns, Romans, Ottomans, Macedonians, Goths, Knights, Persians and Celts. Warriors like Alexander the Great, Richard the Lionheart, Hannibal, Hercules, Eric the Red, Hector, Attila, Achilles and even Siddhartha (Buddha) trained in systematic ways of fighting and lived by a code of ethics.
This leads us to ask several intriguing questions. Did martial arts originate from China, India or Greece? Or have they risen independently? How did they spread? Today we are going to explore the history of the Martial Arts we know today.
China became the center of the martial arts universe in 2600 B.C. In 2000 B.C., Emperor Huang Di was noted to be a wrestler and pole-fighting expert and had his troops learn martial arts. Mongolian tribesmen introduced a violent style of skull-bashing wrestling to China around 770 B.C.; this art is believed to be the progenitor of Sumo. During the Han and Qin dynasties (256 B.C.-A.D. 220), this wrestling style was combined with a kicking game designed to strengthen one’s feet for war to create Shubaku. Sun Tsu (544-496 B.C.) wrote The Art of War, emphasizing the importance of martial arts for living and fighting. Early records also indicate that Chinese martial arts spread into Europe, India and Asia Minor (Middle East) via the Silk Road in 500 B.C.
Chinese martial arts schools are set up like families. The “Sifu” which means – teacher/father and his wife, the Shimu – teacher/mother – would instruct the students, who are called older or younger brothers and sisters. Although the father’s word is final, there’s always room for discussion.
Mongolian tribesmen introduced the Chinese to violent skull-bashing wrestling in 770 B.C., and consequently, they indirectly introduced the Koreans and Japanese to it, too.
From there, Japanese martial arts history changed again in 23 B.C., when wrestler Tomakesu-Hayato was ordered to fight Nomi-no-Sukene. Nomi-no-Sukene kicked Tomakesu-Hayato to death by combining his violent wrestling with chikara kurabe; and thus, Jujutsu was born.
Chinese martial artists also introduced Kempo to Japan in A.D. 607. Jigoro Kano (1860-1938), removed the kicks and punches to create Judo, which led to Morihei Uyeshiba’s creation of Aikido in 1943.
The interaction and influence between the three countries is evident in many other Japanese martial arts, such as Kendo. Likewise, when Okinawan martial artist Sakugawa created Karate-No-Sakugawa in 1722, the character “kara” originally referred to China. However, after Gichin Funakoshi introduced Karate into Japan in 1921, kara’s meaning changed to “empty.”
Like many other countries’, Korean martial arts history begins outside Korea. The first martial art to be practiced in Korea was a form of Mongolian wrestling called Ssirum, which was created in 770 B.C. and introduced to Korea by the Chinese in the late 400s B.C.
Hundreds of years later, during the Tang dynasty in China and the Three Kingdoms period in Korea (57 B.C.-A.D. 668), fighters called Forest Devils helped the Chinese-backed Silla clan defeat the Japanese-backed Paechta clan and became known as “Sulsa-assassins.” The Silla honored the Tang emperor by creating Tangsu martial arts, the forerunner to Tang Soo Do. Tangsu was then taught to the fabled Korean Hwarang warriors, prompting the birth of Hwa Rang Do.
During Korea’s Yi period (900-1050), the Chinese introduced two more martial arts to Korea: Subak, eventually renamed Taekyon; and Kwonbeop, which became the standard art for Korean warriors. Taekwondo arose in the 1950s when several Korean martial artists combined Japanese karate with Taekyon. After WW II, Korean martial artist Choi Yong-sul returned from Japan and taught a style of karate, it was later renamed Hapkido.
Although the basic moral philosophy of most Korean martial arts is more about self-improvement, self-discipline and philanthropy than killing or revenge, different schools, known as gwans, approach it in a multitude of ways. For example, the International Taekwon-Do Federation mandates that a practitioner should be a champion of justice and freedom and build a better and more peaceful world. In contrast, the Kukkiwon philosophy is based on the I-Ching in which the future results of a practitioner’s actions are a function of his personal virtues. At the same time, the military influence on these arts’ historical roots has manifested in a general attitude for defending the country and defeating its enemies.
Southeast Asia generally encompasses Cambodia, Laos, Burma, Thailand, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia and the Philippines. Important martial arts that take their histories from the region are Pentjak Silat, Escrima, Kali, Muay Boran, Krabi Krabong, and Muay Thai.
In the 1400s, two major Silat martial arts arose out of Southeast Asia: Indonesia’s Pentjak Silat (created by Malay female Rama Sukana) and Malaysia’s Bersilat. The snake-shaped bladed knife “kris” was an important weapon in Pentjak Silat. In A.D. 200, Malaysians introduced the kris to the Philippines, which was adopted by the Moro people. In the 1500s, the Moro people combined their kris skills with Spanish fencing and applied them to sticks to create Escrima. The bladed art of Kali was eventually developed from these arts.
The most well-known martial art of the region is probably Muay Thai, which began in 1930. It takes its origins from the more lethal Muay Boran, which in turn came from the stick-and-sword-fighting art of Krabi Krabong. In 1560, King Nareusan was captured by the Burmese. To obtain his release, he defeated the top Burmese boxers. This was the birth of Muay Boran.
After the French conquered Vietnam, they outlawed martial arts. In 1912, Nguyen Loc started a martial arts movement that created today’s Vietnamese martial art known as Vovinam Viet do dao.
The Spartan family was quite different from that of other Ancient Greek city-states. The word “spartan” has come down to us to describe self-denial and simplicity. This is what Spartan life was all about. Children were children of the state more than of their parents. They were raised to be soldiers, loyal to the state, strong and self-disciplined.
It began in infancy. When a Spartan baby was born, soldiers came to the house and examined it carefully to determine its strength.The baby was bathed in wine rather than water, to see its reaction. If a baby was weak, the Spartans exposed it on the hillside or took it away to become a slave. Infanticide was common in ancient cultures, but the Spartans were particularly picky about their children. It was not just a matter of the family, the city-state decided the fate of the child.
Soldiers took the boys from their mothers at age 7, housed them in a dormitory with other boys and trained them as soldiers. The boys endured harsh physical discipline and deprivation to make them strong. The marched without shoes and went without food. They learned to fight, endure pain and survive through their wits. The older boys willingly participated in beating the younger boys to toughen them. Self-denial, simplicity, the warrior code, and loyalty to the city-state governed their lives.
Spartan children were taught stories of courage and fortitude. One favorite story was about a boy who followed the Spartan code. He captured a live fox and intended to eat it. Although boys were encouraged to scrounge for food, they were punished if caught. The boy noticed some Spartan soldiers coming, and hid the fox beneath his shirt. When the soldiers confronted him, he allowed the fox to chew into his stomach rather than confess, and showed no sign of pain in his body or face. This was the Spartan way.
At the age of 20 or so, they had to pass a rigorous test to graduate and become full citizens. Only the soldiers were received the aristocratic citizenship. If they failed their tests they never became citizens, but became the middle class. So to some extent class was based on merit rather than birth.
If the young men passed, they continued to live in the barracks and train as soldiers but were required to marry to produce new young Spartans. The state gave them a piece of land which was farmed by slaves and which they did nothing to tend. At the age of 30 they were allowed to live with their families, but continued to train until the age of 60 when they retired from military service.
Their system certainly was well-ordered and avoided the “moral degeneration” they despised in the Athenians who they saw as wallowing in luxuries. And their is no doubt that the system produced strong soldiers. The Spartan army was legendary in ancient Greece, and the legend continues to this day.
Western Martial Arts:
The oldest record of boxing is in Egyptian pyramid hieroglyphs and mural paintings in that date back 4000 B.C. From these early origins, fighting sports were born like pankration in ancient Crete to today’s prizefighting. (The first recorded bare-knuckle champion was Englishman James Figg in 1719.)
Western martial arts continued to evolve around the world. For example, 17 years after the Chinese travelers visited, Persians created Varesh-e-Pahlavan in 98 B.C., which is a fighting art that uses kicks. Another example is how Russian’s Mongolian occupiers influenced the Russian martial art of Sambo. During the Viking Age, the Finnish created the fighting art kas-pin. When African slaves were shipped from Angola to Brazil during the late 1400s, they eventually created the Brazilian martial art known as Capoiera. French Savate (foot fighting) arose during the French Revolution (1789-1799). After studying jujutsu in Japan, Edward William Barton-Wright returned to England and, in 1898, created Bartitsu, which combined Jujutsu, Boxing and Savate.
Today, new Western martial arts are generally created by someone who has a background in several other arts. Evolution is nonstop.
For the past 30 years or so, American parents who are concerned about character development for their children have noticed that marital arts may have the answer. Martial Arts schools teach children about respect, discipline, hard work, sacrifice and humility. Children are taught that they should walk away from trouble, lose the ego and fight only as a last resort. This blends in well with Western Christian principles such as turning the other cheek, the Golden Rule and forgiveness.