The all-purpose phrase martial arts is used for various fighting
methods that evolved from ancient Asian combat skills. The present-day
forms have a wide range of applications. These forms are practiced
for physical fitness, recreation, and self-defense; as law-enforcement
tactics; as competitive sports; and as spiritual disciplines.
The teaching methods, selection of technique, style of performance,
procedures of play or practice, and underlying concepts vary according
to the specialty, the instructor, and the environment. Even in
a single specialized branch of the martial arts, differences in
style, techniques, attitudes, and objectives exist. Despite expressed
adherence to ancient tradition in the martial arts, adaptation
to new situations and different cultures is frequent.
There is little agreement about the origins and history of
the martial arts. Records--dating from at least 2,000 BC--of similar
fighting methods existing throughout the world have been uncovered,
but the specifically Asian styles are generally acknowledged to
have come to China from India and Tibet, where they were used
by monks for exercise and as protection against bandits. From
China the martial arts spread to the rest of Asia, reaching Japan
last because of its geographical isolation. Although Japan was
among the last of the Asian countries to acquire knowledge of
the martial arts, they flourished there. In the Tokugawa era martial
arts training was reserved for warriors serving feudal lords and
was forbidden to peasants, who practiced in secret. Because of
the secrecy and illegality, legend and myth flourished along with
cultic practices. During the nationalistic period preceding World
War II, martial arts were incorporated into Japan's military training
programs. Practice of martial arts was banned after the war until
the mid-1950s, when they were legalized and reinstated in physical
Although hundreds of names exist for different styles and
specialties of the martial arts, there is a relatively small group
of techniques. All weaponless martial arts methods consist of
one or more of the following: hand blows (using the fist, knuckles,
fingertips, or the side or palm of the hand); arm blows, blocks,
and parries (using the wrist, forearm, and elbow); foot blows
(using toes, instep, ball, side, or heel of the foot); knee kicks;
throws, trips, and takedowns; grappling and immobilizations (holds,
locks, twists, levers, chokes, and escapes). Weapons are used
in some martial arts, alone or in conjunction with weaponless
techniques. Weapons include stones, sticks, staffs, swords, spears,
lances, bows and arrows, and thrown cutting objects.
The designation of skill or rank by colored belts was first
used in judo in the late 19th century. No standard belt-ranking
system exists among the martial arts specialties or among the
different schools and styles of the same specialty. A white belt
commonly indicates novice status; a brown belt is widely used
for advanced rank; a black belt indicates expert proficiency.
Many systems use blue, yellow, orange, green, and purple belts
in varying patterns of progression for intermediate levels between
white, brown, and black belt ranks. A colored belt awarded in
one school or system cannot be compared with and has no significance
in a different system. In some systems belts are awarded solely
through competition: winners are promoted. In other systems promotion
is achieved by demonstration of technical skill in a series of
fluid, dance like movements called kata. Other systems require
contests and formal demonstrations for ranking. Belt-rank promotions
and demotions can be made at the discretion of the instructor,
Karate, Kung Fu, and Tae Kwon Do
These are probably the most widely known of the martial arts.
The principal techniques are hand and foot blows. Kung fu is the
earlier, Chinese form; Tae kwon do is the Korean form, emphasizing
kicking to a greater degree. Karate is used as a generic term
for many styles of hand-and-foot fighting methods developed in
Asia, particularly the Japanese forms. Hundreds of styles and
substyles exist, and all use similar hitting and kicking techniques.
Some styles (the "hard" schools) emphasize power and
strength training. Other styles (the "soft" schools)
train for speed and precision. In some, handblows are preferred,
while others stress foot blows. In some styles contests and tournaments
are the favored training method; in others kata are preferred.
In many karate tournaments individuals compete by age, rank, and
even weight categories. Competitors may fight (kumite), do form
(kata), or perform with traditional weapons (Kobudo). Safety equipment,
consisting of special boots and gloves, is required in many events.
In general, legal target areas include the head and torso, and
points are scored with controlled strikes using the hands and
feet. There are hundreds of local, regional, and even national
karate competitions held in the United States, and competition
rules vary. Some organizations host tournaments open only to their
members and tend to be very traditional, requiring certain attire
and having very specific standards for performance and judging.
Other events are open to any club regardless of style or affiliation.
Judo is a relatively recent activity synthesized--from several
jujitsu methods--by Jigoro Kano, a late-19th-century Japanese
educator and sports enthusiast. Originally, it had two forms--one
for self-defense and a separate, distinct form for physical conditioning.
Today the word judo is applied almost exclusively to the sport variant. Throws and grappling are the principal techniques. Safety falls are practiced in a dojo (a practice hall) so that skilled practitioners can receive a fast, high throw and fall onto the mat with little risk of injury.
In contests points are awarded to tori (the thrower or initiator of the action) for throws performed with good technique; for putting uke (the receiver of the throw) on his side or back; for applying a hold or choke that immobilizes uke for thirty seconds or until he signals for release; or for a combination of throwing and grappling.In old-style judo, players were matched by belt-rank, resulting in contests between players of varying or similar levels of skill. In modern judo events there are qualifying matches, and contestants compete in weight classes. The first Olympic Games judo competition took place in 1964, and judo became a regular event in 1972.
Although widely regarded as a specialty within the martial
arts, jujitsu is a generic term referring to many systems with
considerable differences among them. Some jujitsus favor hitting
and kicking to such a degree that they cannot be distinguished
from karate. Other styles of jujitsu bear a striking resemblance
to judo. Jujitsu systems range from those using only one category
of techniques, such as throws, to those using techniques from
all the weaponless categories as well as stick and cutting weapons
and thrown objects.
Aikido is possibly one of the most sophisticated martial arts.
It is a highly stylized form of jujitsu employing wrist, elbow,
and shoulder twists in a formal manner. Proponents of aikido believe
that it is a way of developing coordination of the mind and body,
with the purpose of creating a more fully integrated individual.
Developed by Master Morihei Uyeshiba, aikido is based on Japanese
warrior arts called Bujutsu, and is an effective means of self-defense.
The techniques provide effective defense against an unprovoked
attack by one or even several opponents. A technically skilled
practitioner is able to subdue an attacker without inflicting
serious injury. Aikido employs circular movement, as well as joint
locking, to neutralize an opponent.
Tai Chi Chuan
Tai Chi Chuan, or t'ai chi, is a physical conditioning exercise
that enhances the flexibility of body movement. The slow, graceful,
elegant gestures of tai chi chuan routines hardly resemble the
original hand and foot blows and blocks and parries they represent.
There is little likelihood that tai chi chuan could be used for
practical, modern self-defense. In China it is widely practiced
by individuals and by groups who gather in public squares to perform
the movements in unison.
This highly stylized sport is derived from ancient Japanese
sword-fighting. In contests players use a shinai (a bamboo sword
bound with leather and held with both hands). For training and
practice a bokken (wooden sword) is used. Technique is limited
to a few actions executed in a formal manner. Points are scored
by calling out and striking a target area: the head, the side
of the body, the throat, or the wrists. Protective clothing and
equipment and the rules of contest prevent injury. Kendo is practiced
on a wooden floor; players wear a lightweight cotton jacket, a
hakama (loose, flowing, full-cut pants), and head, throat, chest,
and wrist protectors. Kata forms of kendo are practiced using
the bokken and a shorter, one-hand sword.
One of the prerequisites for performing the sensational, bare-handed
board-, brick-, and tile- breaking tricks is hand conditioning,
which is achieved by striking hard surfaces until injury occurs.
Scar tissue forms in the healing process. Eventually, the conditioned
area becomes calloused, enlarged, and insensitive to pain. When
karate was used as weaponless combat against an armed and armored
enemy, hand conditioning was necessary to enable the bare hands
of the karate fighter to break through wooden armor and deliver
a single, incapacitating blow. Hand conditioning has no practical
present-day function. Extreme hand conditioning injures and permanently
disfigures the hands, as well as impairing manual dexterity. The
damage is irreversible.
Alice McGrath and Bruce Tegner Reviewed by Michael J. Campos
Bibliography: Christensen, Loren W., The Way Alone: Your Path
to Excellence in the Martial Arts (1987); Cramer, Lenox, War with
Empty Hands (1991); Farkas, Emil, and Corcoran, John, The Overlook
Martial Arts Dictionary (1985); Inusanto, Dan, Guide to Martial
Arts Training (1989); Kauz, Herman, The Martial Art Spirit: An
Introduction to the Origin, Philosophy and Psychology of the Martial
Arts (1988); Mitchell, David, The Overlook Martial Arts Handbook
(1987); Tegner, Bruce, Bruce Tegner's Complete Book of Self-Defense
(1975) and Self-Defense: A Basic Course (1979); Throckmorton,
Ann, A Fairer Sex
Back to Main Page