Asia Life

Martial Arts, Living History: How We Fight Reveals Who We Are

More than just a great workout, martial arts often reveal much about a country’s history, culture, and traditions.

Martial Arts, Living History: How We Fight Reveals Who We Are
Credit: oneinchpunch /

Asia is known for martial arts. Martial arts movies from countries like China, Japan, and Thailand have become extremely popular, with films such as Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Ong Bak, and Hero becoming huge successes with the global audiences. For many young westerners (including this author), East Asian martial arts have often been a first point of reference with the region. In today’s globalized world, it’s difficult to find a medium-sized town anywhere that does not host at least one gym or dojo teaching Karate, Taekwondo, or any of the dozens of other popular Asian martial arts. (For an introduction to the diversity and complexity of martial arts throughout the world, renowned martial artist and scholar Chris Crudelli’s The Way of the Warrior is a great place to start.)

However, there’s more to martial arts than just cool CGI and a great workout. An often overlooked aspect of martial arts is that they often reflect a part of a country’s heritage, history, and culture. Some martial art styles can trace back their histories for hundreds, and in some cases, thousands of years. Shaolin Kung Fu, a term that includes a large variety of Chinese martial arts, can trace its lineage to Bodhidharma, the Indian monk who, according to popular legend, introduced Buddhism to China during the 6th century AD. Monks at the Shaolin Temple (located in Henan Province), still practice a combination of martial arts and Buddhist teaching today.

The techniques and underlying philosophy of a particular martial art is often revealing. The different styles of the striking art known as Karate actually originated on the island of Okinawa. The development of Karate as a form of unarmed combat is, in large part, due to the ban on carrying weapons imposed during the 16th Century. Furthermore, many of Karate’s techniques have been influenced by Chinese martial arts, brought by merchants and travelers from the Asian mainland. Although Karate was not formally structured until the late 19th Century, many of its roots are still apparent in the different forms of the style today. This is an interesting parallel to the island’s history as an independent entity, influenced by both Chinese and Japanese cultures.

Two other well-known Japanese martial arts, Ninjitsu and Jiu-jitsu, reflect aspects of Japan’s history. Jiu-jitsu, today a popular striking and wrestling art, was originally used on the battlefield by the Japanese warrior caste, the samurai. The characteristic white uniform used by many Japanese martial arts today, is supposedly derived from the funeral robes worn by the samurai into battle. Ninjitsu, on the other hand, was originally developed by poor Japanese farmers in order to resist taxation by the ruling classes, including the samurai. Many of the exotic weapons used by the famous ninjas were actually derived from available farming equipment and were modified to be used against an armored opponent, i.e. the Samurai. While the ninjas later became well-known and often organized assassins, the origin of Ninjitsu comes from these humble beginnings. These martial arts reflect an aspect of Japanese pre-Meiji history, the social tensions that existed between the relatively privileged upper class, of which the samurai were a part, and the poor peasant majority.

Martial arts also reflect globalization, both ancient and modern. As both Shaolin Kung Fu and Okinawan Karate demonstrate, martial arts often show influences from several different cultures. Southeast Asia is another region which has long been a melting pot of different peoples and cultures, something which is reflected in its fighting style. The numerous (and often deadly) Filipino self-defense systems (sometimes known collectively as Kali, Arnis, or Escrima) incorporate elements from Chinese, Indian, and even European martial arts. Kali’s trademark, its use of knives and machetes, is partially a testament to the influence of Spanish fencing and metalwork. The use of sticks and complicated footwork is a legacy of when the Spanish outlawed the use of metal weapons and indigenous martial arts, forcing the Filipinos to disguise their martial arts training as dancing, highlighting an important period in the Philippines’ colonial history. (Interestingly, the same reasoning lies behind the extremely acrobatic Brazilian martial art known as Capoeira.)

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This is a process that is still ongoing today. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is an increasingly popular sport which includes strikes from styles such as Thai Boxing, grappling from Judo, and the Russian martial art Sambo, as well as ground-fighting from arts such as Brazilian Jiu-jitsu (itself a local hybrid and modified version of the Japanese original.) MMA first appeared as a professional sport in the 1990s, but has since attracted a huge following worldwide.

The fact that MMA was first developed in the United States, a country which is made up of people from all over the globe, is probably not surprising.