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The History of Martial Arts

by Leana Kell


The true roots of martial arts are not easy to trace. The art of mock combat, in particular wrestling, has been part of mankind since its beginnings.

Martial arts evolved with the development of the human physiology and has grown into what we now recognise as martial arts in the modern era.  

Below, Beemat takes a look at the history of martial arts and how it has evolved over thousands of years to become what it is today.

Origin of martial arts

The earliest evidence of martial arts originates from depictions of fights both in figurative art and early literature as well as the analysis of early archaeological findings and weaponry. Some of the oldest artwork depicts scenes of battle that date back to 3000BCE.

Many people consider Asia to be the centre of the martial arts world as many of the most prominent martial arts such as kung fu, karate and hwa rang originate from the region.

Over the years, martial arts have been shaped by a culmination of factors to include ancient myths and legends to historical revolutions. Since the beginning of time, different cultures have developed styles of fighting in order to survive, but it is Chinese martial arts that has endured and flourished more than in any other country.

Creation of martial arts

Martial arts techniques were created out of the need for survival between humanity and animals, and between different tribes of humans. From these battles, experiences and techniques were accumulated and recorded then passed down through the generations.

The invention of weaponry enabled new fighting techniques to be created. Different types and shapes of weapons were invented which led to different schools and styles of martial arts. These new styles were formed by imitating the fighting techniques of animals such as the tiger, panther, monkey, snake and bear as well as a number of birds and insects.

Mankind firmly believed that in order to survive in what was a harsh natural environment at the time, it was necessary to study animals' natural talent and skill for fighting. The way to learn these techniques was to study and imitate these animals, for example the pouncing of a tiger or the attacking motions of an eagle.

Gradually, over the years, the martial techniques developed became a part of Asian culture.

Teaching martial arts

The teaching of martial arts in Asia has historically followed cultural traditions - students are trained in a strictly hierarchical system by a master instructor. The students are expected to memorise and recite as closely as possible the rules and basic training of martial arts whilst the teacher is expected to directly supervise the student's training.

Students with more seniority are considered 'older brothers and sisters' whilst those with less seniority are 'younger brothers and sisters', and these relationships are clearly delineated and designed to develop good character, patience and discipline amongst students.

In some Asian countries, a student's skills were tested for mastery before being allowed to study further - this traditional style has been widely ignored by many of the modern teachings in the West.

Modern martial arts

The western interest in East Asian Martial Arts dates back to the late 19th Century around the time when there was an increase in trade between America and China and Japan. Very few westerners actually practiced the arts initially, they saw it as more of a dramatic performance.

It wasn't until a great number of military personal from the West spent time in Korea, China, Japan and further afield that soldiers gradually began to recognise the value of Eastern martial arts in Western culture and it was this that promoted the start of training.

During World War II, 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 the UK, U.S and Canadian Commando and Ranger forces Jujitsu.  After the War, a large number of American servicemen remained in Japan and the adoption of martial arts within Western culture continued.

By the 1950s, large groups of U.S Military personnel were taught Korean arts during the Korean war as a method of self-defence and survival. After their demobilisation, many soldiers brought their training home and continued to practice and teach.

By the 1970s, Japanese arts such as Karate and Judo had become popular, and martial artist Bruce Lee's presence in martial arts movies caused a further rise in popularity of Chinese martial arts (kung fu).

In the 1980s, Sport Karate became a major international sport with professional fighters rewarded large prizes, TV coverage and sponsorship deals.

The benefits of martial arts

Today, martial arts is more often used as a form of exercise. It is also taught as a method of self-defence and is used to improve confidence and self-esteem.

Martial arts has a wide variety of benefits, it can improve balance, strength, stamina, flexibility, and posture and it can also enhance weight loss and improve muscle tone. Furthermore, martial arts can help with stress-management, improve concentration and increase willpower.

Some martial arts such as qigong and t'ai chi are used for disease prevention and healing purposes. Martial arts can also be used as spiritual practices to bring balance, peace and wisdom to those who are dedicated practitioners.


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