Martial Arts

views updated Jun 11 2018


Modern historians of East Asia have noted the seemingly incongruous presence of martial monks in Buddhist monasteries at various moments in Asian history. This unusual conjunction has appeared ironic to many in the West, given the prominent place the renunciation of violence has had in Buddhist teachings and monastic precepts. On the other hand, to many Westerners who have taken up the practice of the Asian martial arts, this conjunction has been seen not as contradictory, but as essential to the modern rhetoric of spirituality and the martial arts. Zen Buddhism, in particular, has played an important role in this approach to the martial arts. Underlying these contradictory understandings has been a Western tendency to idealize and romanticize both Buddhism and the martial arts, removing them from their historical and institutional contexts. Abetting such tendencies has been an uncritical use of categories that have emerged over the past two centuries in the study of religion both in Asia and the West, including the category of religion itself. To understand the relationship of the martial arts to Buddhism, then, it is necessary to know something of the history and nature of Buddhist institutions in Asia, and, also of the ways in which Western perceptions of Eastern religion and spirituality have contributed to contemporary understandings and, in many cases, distortions of Asian Buddhism.

One of the definitive moments in becoming a Buddhist, either as a monastic or a layperson, is the act of taking a set of vows, which differ in character and total number depending on whether one remains a householder or receives ordination as a monastic. Regardless, all Buddhists take a vow to abstain from harming living beings. One would be wrong, however, to regard these vows in general and nonviolence in particular as ends in themselves or as ethical absolutes. Rather, they seem to have been regarded as practical means to end suffering both for other living beings and for oneself. This fact has allowed for some flexibility in interpretation, as well as a degree of antinomianism. Faced with the dilemma of a vow of nonviolence and of allowing, for example, a mass murderer to continue wreaking havoc in the world—and at the same time adding to the sum of his own bad karma (action) and implied future suffering—the compassionate act may be assassination, thus reducing the sum total of accumulated suffering. Such arguments have historically been offered by certain Buddhists to legitimate violence, in the assassination of a murderous Tibetan king in one instance. Though this example is somewhat extreme, in coming to terms with Buddhist ethics and practice, it suggests the importance of the historical and social contexts of Buddhist institutions.

Monasteries and warrior monks

Buddhist monasteries in Central Asia and the Far East, rather than existing as sites purely of otherworldly concerns, originated as institutions intimately embroiled in the affairs of society. Central Asian Buddhists introduced monasticism to China sometime around the second or third centuries c.e. Monks accompanied Central Asian traders into China primarily to serve the ritual needs of their merchant patrons. At about the same time and for the next several hundred years, various Central Asian armies invaded north China, setting up their own generally short-lived dynasties. These kingdoms, like the merchants, employed the ritual services of Buddhist monks, now including many ethnic Chinese converts. Under such conditions, monastic institutions often found themselves caught in the ebb and flow of the political fortunes of their various sponsors. In addition, some monasteries, through their relationship with merchants and royalty, became wealthy in land and precious goods, making them frequent prey to marauding bands of warriors and bandits.

In the Xu gaoseng zhuan (645, Continued Lives of Eminent Monks), one of the earliest records of the lives of Buddhist monks in China, there are a number of accounts

in which the monks' martial abilities are noted, sometimes in defending their own monasteries, sometimes in serving the interests of their royal patrons in other than ritual practices. Some early sources also suggest that monasteries sometimes admitted applicants more for their martial skills than for their devotion to meditation or a life of renunciation. It seems to have been common at this time for warriors who were demobilized at the end of a war or marked for vengeance among the defeated to seek cover and anonymity in the monastic system. Martially trained monks would have been of value in times of instability, and in such cases the maintenance of monastic vows would often have been a lesser priority. According to a fifth-century history of the Wei dynasty (Wei shu), several monasteries in the capital of Chang'an came under scrutiny in 438 for having developed large arsenals of weapons and posing a threat to public order.

As monasteries in China became more sinicized, they evolved bureaucratic modes of organization that closely paralleled those of Chinese civil administration. Hierarchical in structure, they were composed of various departments of monks with designated functions, such as lecturers, ritualists, and meditators. It is not surprising then that we find monks whose primary functions were to manage the fields and the wealth of their monastic establishments. Among their duties would be the protection of that wealth, and implicit in this was an incentive perhaps to cultivate martial skills. In fact, there is little evidence to suggest that more than a few monasteries developed such defense forces. However, one monastery that did respond to these incentives was the Shaolin Monastery, located at the foot of Mount Song, considered the central peak of China's five sacred mountains (wu yue), in Henan province. It is this monastery that has informed most later histories associating Chinese Buddhism with martial arts. According to the biography of the monastery's fifth-century founder, Fotuo, two of his first disciples were selected based not on their aptitude for traditional Buddhist cultivation practices, but for their acrobatic talents. While not explicitly martial, the ability of one of these disciples to balance precariously on a narrow well ledge while playing a sort of hacky-sack game with his feet bears close similarity to some of the martial exercises emphasizing balance exhibited in Shaolin martial forms.

By the seventh century the Shaolin Monastery had developed the cudgel as its weapon of choice. The heavy cudgel, while capable of great devastation, was neither metal nor sharp, and thereby was rhetorically legitimated as a nonweapon appropriate to Buddhist monks. According to popular histories, in 621 the monastery offered its cudgel-wielding monks, thirteen in all, to the service and ultimate victory of Li Shimin (d. 649), who became the first emperor of the Tang dynasty (618–907). Whether or not this tale is true, the monastery seems to have enjoyed imperial favor during the Tang dynasty, having been granted extensive land and wealth. Such increased holdings would have provided even greater incentive to maintain a martial presence in the monastery. Over the centuries, Shaolin monks developed other styles of combat, both armed and unarmed. By the fifteenth century, Shaolin had become synonymous in China with martial arts and has remained so to the present day.

The existence of monastic defense forces can also be found in Tibet and in medieval Japan, though in very different political and social circumstances and with different consequences. Some of the more important Japanese shrine-temple complexes and Buddhist sects, which were thoroughly integrated into the social and political ethos of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, built legions of monks trained in military skills and maintained militias not only to protect their existing wealth in land and power but also in some cases to expand it. The monastic militias of Mount Hiei developed as a formidable force during this period, not only defending their own domains but also attacking the domains of neighboring monasteries and even attempting to intimidate the emperor in his Kyoto palace. Their existence, however, was abruptly ended in 1571 when Oda Nobunaga (1534–1582) surrounded Mount Hiei with his soldiers and slaughtered all the people associated with the monastery, including every man, woman, and child living on the mountain. He subsequently destroyed another Buddhist force, the legions of the Exclusive (Ikkō) Pure Land Buddhist sect, which had used its power to dominate entire provinces.

What emerges from this brief overview of early Buddhist history are two important observations about the relationship of Buddhist monasticism and the martial arts. First, the phenomenon of monastic warriors and militias, while a historical fact, was nonetheless relatively isolated in time and place. Second, there is no compelling evidence in the texts dating from the early periods to indicate that martial training was carried out in the context of traditional Buddhist ritual or cultivation practices such as meditation, sūtra explication, or chanting. Rather, martial training in Chinese, Japanese, and Tibetan monasteries appears to have been regarded not as a practice leading to awakening or liberation, but as an expedient deemed necessary in the circumstances in which many medieval Buddhist institutions found themselves.

Zen Buddhism and martial arts

Although there is little or no Buddhist doctrinal rationale for the activities of the monastic militias of the early period, the modern practice of Asian martial arts, particularly those that developed in Japan, are frequently characterized in terms that suggest modes of spiritual practice directly informed by the Buddhism of the Chan school (Japanese, Zen). Most contemporary martial arts have thus taken on a quasi-religious character. The student is encouraged to strive to attain a state of pure consciousness while in the midst of combat. In a psychological state of equanimity and oneness with the adversary, the student is assured that his or her actions will flow with effortless spontaneity. Initiations, practices, and successful progress are generally marked by formal rituals, including bowing, processions, and the award of certificates or insignia. These can be seen as stripped-down secularized versions of Asian religious rituals and practice. The distinction between the achievement of a state of awakening, understood as the ultimate goal of Buddhist practice, and the effortless defeat of an adversary in battle coalesce. The monk becomes warrior; the warrior becomes monk. Not surprisingly, many popular texts on martial arts trace their lineage to the Shaolin Monastery in China.

By the eight century, Shaolin Monastery had become identified with the fifth-century semilegendary figure of Bodhidharma, popularly regarded as the person who introduce Chan Buddhism to China. According to legend, Bodhidharma spent nine years meditating in a cave above Shaolin Monastery. However, the earliest text to mention Bodhidharma, the sixth-century Loyang qielan ji (Record of Monasteries in Loyang), describes him not as a wall-gazing meditation master, but as a wonder-working thaumaturge from the Western (barbarian) Lands. The thaumaturgic tradition in China contains accounts of such shamanlike characters performing prodigious feats of physical agility, such as leaping great distances. Though there is no suggestion that Bodhidharma performed martial feats, including him in this tradition makes clear that his skills placed him outside the exegetical or ritual spheres of the monastery and more firmly within a familiar Chinese tradition of religious eccentrics. Such an image was readily amenable to later martial traditions, particularly in Japan. The few works attributed to Bodhidharma give no indication of a concern with martial practices. Furthermore, as argued above, the Shaolin martial arts traditions bore only incidental relation to Chan Buddhist teachings.

While not detracting from the martial skill that many achieve in these arts, there remains the question of whether these achievements and the views of the modes and objectives of Zen practice that inform them accurately reflect Buddhist monastic practices in Japan or China now or in the past. In general, they do not. At best they represent successful adaptations of certain Buddhist meditative techniques to martial practices, and at worst they impart an aura of mystification that has less to do with Buddhism than with commercialization, nationalism, or self-promotion.

The rise of Japanese martial arts as they are known today only began to take shape in the closing decades of the nineteenth century following the collapse of the Tokugawa shogunate. The year 1868 marked the beginning of a thoroughgoing cultural revolution in Japan when the newly installed Meiji government sought to erase hundreds of years of local and state culture organized around a pervasive network of Buddhist temples and monks, and to replace this cultural substrate with the "rational" organs of the modern state. Temples were burned, images destroyed, and monks returned to lay status under the guise of destroying feudal superstition. State Shinto was declared the embodiment of the true spirit of the Japanese people and was, by definition, nonreligious, having been purified of the superstitious elements that had seeped into it due to the long presence of Buddhism in Japan. However, because "the spirit of the Japanese people" was somewhat ambiguous in meaning, an issue of great concern to the new national leadership was how to cultivate that spirit without religious institutions.

At this point the Zen Buddhists and particularly their secularized apologists were able to reenter the public discourse. Reinventing themselves as the embodiment of a distinctly Japanese form of rational modernity and the custodians of a spiritual practice free of religious superstition, they were able to inject such notions as no-mind (mushin), here generally understood as the sublimation of the self to the people (the state), into the physical training curriculums of Japan's schools. Moving into the twentieth century, these physical training curriculums took on an increasingly martial aspect and were highly amenable to the Japanese nationalism that was then emerging. Ironically, many of the notions put forward by these Zen advocates were in fact drawn more from Chinese Daoist and Confucian sources than they were from Buddhist traditions, specifically certain breathing practices and notions of self-sacrifice within an encompassing social hierarchy. Zen monks had been the primary conduits of such ideas into Japan as early as the twelfth century. Around the beginning of the twentieth century the suffix dō, from the Chinese dao (way), replaced many of the more mundane categorical Japanese terms for the martial arts. This revised vocabulary, including the terms judō (way of gentleness), kendō (way of the sword), and budō (martial way), was clearly intended to impart a spiritual significance not present in words denoting technique or art (-jutsu).

D. T. Suzuki (1870–1966), writing in English, emerged in the mid-twentieth century as the person most responsible for introducing these interpretations of Zen and its relation to the martial arts, among other themes, to the English-speaking world. Significantly, he was not a Zen priest but a scholar trained in the "science of religion" during an eleven-year stay in the United States under the tutelage of Paul Carus (1852–1919). During these years, Suzuki was exposed to the writings of William James on pure experience and Rudolph Otto on the nature of religion, and the influence of their ideas can be seen in his psychological interpretations of Zen Buddhism and the martial arts. Little wonder, then, that Suzuki's writings on Zen have struck many Westerners as exotic, and at the same time somehow familiar, drawing as they do on contemporary Western notions of religion and psychology. It should not be overlooked, however, that Suzuki's writings before World War II often revealed a distinctly nationalist slant. The Zen mind of pure experience was frequently represented as a unique capacity of the Japanese spirit, ultimately inaccessible to non-Japanese. Though the contradictory notion of a universal potential to experience the Zen mind can be found throughout his writings, this theme became pronounced only in his postwar writings. Suzuki did more to shape popular conceptions of Zen in the twentieth century than anyone else. However, much of his representation of Buddhism constitutes what must be considered an invented tradition, and it is this tradition that has permeated much of the Western understanding of the relationship between Buddhism and the martial arts.

The contemporary practice of the martial arts has clearly adapted some ideas and practices from the rich Buddhist heritage of Asia. But this does not make the objectives or the rationale of the martial arts Buddhist. In fact, much more of both the practice and rationale of contemporary martial arts are rooted in Chinese Daoism and Confucianism, as well as in modern notions of secular religion, sport, performance, and competition.

See also:Confucianism and Buddhism; Daoism and Buddhism; Zen, Popular Conceptions of


Bodiford, William M. "Religion and Spiritual Development: Japan." In Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia, Vol. 2, ed. Thomas A. Green. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-Clio, 2001.

Draeger, Donn F., and Smith, Robert W. Asian Fighting Arts. Tokyo: Kodansha International, 1969.

Grapard, Allan G. "Japan's Ignored Cultural Revolution: The Separation of Shintō and Buddhist Divinities in Meiji (Shimbutsu Bunri) and a Case Study (Tōnomine)." History of Religions 23, no. 3 (1984): 240–265.

Inoue, Shun. "Budō: Invented Tradition in the Martial Arts." In The Culture of Japan as Seen through Its Leisure, ed. Sepp Linhart and Sabine Frühstück. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998.

Shahar, Meir. "Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Procedure." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies (December 2001): 359–413.

Sharf, Robert H. "The Zen of Nationalism" (1993). In Curators of the Buddha: The Study of Buddhism under Colonialism, ed. Donald S. Lopez, Jr. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.

Suzuki, D. T. Zen and Japanese Culture (revised edition of Zen Buddhism and Its Influence on Japanese Culture, 1938). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1959.

William Powell

Martial Arts

views updated May 21 2018

Martial arts


Martial arts cover a broad range of activities that involve fighting techniques, physical exercises, and methods of mental discipline, among other skills. Martial arts originated in the ancient cultures of Asia, and are used today around the world for self-defense, exercise , health, spiritual growth, law enforcement, and athletic competition.


Very few activities have as many legends and myths surrounding them as do martial arts. Hundreds of practices are included under the title of martial arts, and some of these were passed down in secrecy for many generations. Furthermore, martial arts developed in countries that have been historically isolated from the Western world. Thus, there are many conflicting theories and opinions concerning the origins of martial arts. What is known is that martial arts began in the ancient cultures of Asia, including China, India, and Japan. In both China and India, artifacts from 2,000 to 4,000 years old have been found with paintings of people striking possible martial arts poses. Qigong , one of the oldest systems that may be considered a martial art, is believed by some historians to be 5,000 years old or older, originating in ancient China. Some scholars trace the development of martial arts much later to the sixth century a.d. According to legend, that is when a Buddhist monk from India named Bodhidharma brought Buddhism, yoga exercises, and meditation techniques to the Shaolin Monastery in China.

Martial arts involve intellectual concepts as well as physical techniques, and have been influenced by many of the religious and philosophical systems of the East. The Taoist philosophy holds that the universe operates within laws of balance and harmony, and that people must live within the rhythms of nature. Martial arts cultivate these concepts of balance and adaptation to the natural flow of events. Buddhism is believed to have introduced breathing methods, meditation, and techniques of mental and spiritual awareness to the early founders of martial arts. Chinese Confucianism was concerned with ethical behavior in daily life, and martial arts often address these concerns. Some martial arts, such as t'ai chi and various kung fu methods, developed from qigong. Qigong, which means "energy cultivation," is a system designed to increase the flow of the body's qi, the universal life energy responsible for health and strength according to Chinese philosophy. Traditional Chinese medicine also incorporates concepts derived from martial arts to better the understanding of the body and health. Because therapeutic exercise is one of the major modalities of treatment in traditional Chinese medicine, some martial arts masters are also expert healers. There is, in fact, a subtype of qigong known as medical qigong in China, used to treat a wide range of diseases and disorders. Although most of the research in medical qigong has been conducted in China, some of this work has been translated into English. A video is now available that presents the basic concepts of medical qigong.

From China, martial arts spread to other Asian countries, and eventually arrived in Japan, where many new variations developed. Karate is the generic term for Japanese martial arts. Martial arts in Japan have been influenced by Zen Buddhism and by the samurai warrior tradition, which refined many weapons as well as methods of fighting. Some Japanese schools of instruction adopted the values of bushido, Japanese for "way of the warrior." This system insists on extreme physical and mental discipline, using martial arts as a means to spiritual enlightenment. Martial arts also flourished in Korea, Vietnam, and Thailand.

Martial arts were largely unknown to the Western world until after 1945, when a few American and British veterans of World War II brought back Japanese martial arts from occupied Japan. During the 1970s, there was a surge of interest in martial arts in America, due to several popular television shows and the charismatic actor Bruce Lee. With better communication and less secrecy among teachers, Chinese martial arts, including t'ai chi and qigong, have made their way to America. Today, there are martial arts schools all across America, and martial arts are a multi-billion dollar industry. Martial arts are a popular activity for self-defense, sport, exercise, spirituality, and health around the world. Present-day forms of martial arts include kalarippayattu in southern India, escrima in the Philippines, pentjak silat in Malaysia, karate in Okinawa, aikido in Japan, and capoeira in Brazil.


Martial arts teach self-defense, and can improve confidence and self-esteem. When used as exercise, martial arts can improve balance, strength, stamina, flexibility, and posture. They also enhance weight loss and improve muscle tone. On the mental level, martial arts can teach stress management, improve concentration, and increase willpower. Some martial arts, such as qigong and t'ai chi, are used for longevity, disease prevention, and healing purposes, making them effective exercises for those with health conditions and for the elderly. Some teachers claim that martial arts can be used as spiritual practices, bringing balance, peace, and wisdom to dedicated practitioners.


Basic concepts of martial arts

Many martial arts utilize basic concepts of traditional Chinese philosophy. Qi is the fundamental life energy of the universe. In the body, qi is the invisible vital force that sustains life. Qi is present in food, air, water, and sunlight. The breath is believed to account for the largest quantity of human qi, because the body uses air more than any other substance. All martial arts emphasize breathing techniques. Many movements and mental exercises are designed to improve the flow of qi in the body, which improves overall strength. There are many legends concerning martial arts masters who had such control of their qi that they could throw opponents across rooms merely by looking at them. Martial arts that focus on the development and use of qi are termed internal martial arts. In contrast, external martial arts focus on physical exercises, fighting methods, and the use of weapons. Many martial arts combine internal and external methods.

Qi travels through the body along channels of energy called meridians. On the meridians there are certain points (acupoints) where qi accumulates. Some martial arts teach defensive techniques that utilize the knowledge of these points on the body, which, if pressed in the correct manner, can be used to immobilize attackers. Martial arts also teach massage and exercise techniques that are designed to stimulate the energy flow along the meridians to improve health.

The concepts of yin and yang are also central to the martial arts. Yin and yang are the two separate but complimentary principles of the universe, which are always interacting, opposing, and influencing each other. Yin is associated with such qualities as cold, passivity, darkness, yielding, and inward movement. Yang is associated with heat, activity, light, assertiveness, outward movement, and so on. In martial arts, yin and yang movements are used to balance each other. For instance, a strong (yang) attack is taught to be met by a yin, or yielding, response. Martial arts cultivate an awareness and use of yin or passive qualities, which are ignored by many sports and fighting techniques. Another major yin/yang concept used in martial arts is that the more one becomes familiar with violence, the more one learns to avoid and resist it. Some martial arts, such as aikido, teach peace as their ultimate lesson.

Types of martial arts

Although there are hundreds of different martial arts, many of them have more similarities than differences. Within the major categories, there are often many sub-schools and systems developed by different teachers. Martial arts are generally classified as soft or hard, internal or external, yin or yang, but they all need to embrace these complementary aspects. Internal arts such as qigong focus on yielding and inner strength. Hard arts such as karate focus on developing muscular power and speed, and the mastery of breaking and throwing techniques delivered with devastating impact.

Karate means "empty handed." This form of fighting originated on the Japanese island of Okinawa. Karate is now the general term for an entire group of Japanese martial arts. Karate emphasizes offensive and defensive moves, and avoids grappling and wrestling. Students are taught how to deliver quick, powerful blows with nearly every part of the body, including dangerous kicks with the legs. Karate also consists of hard styles and soft styles. Some schools teach "full contact" karate, for which students wear protective equipment to absorb the blows of actual fighting.

Kung fu means "skill" in Chinese, and is the generic term for a whole spectrum of martial arts methods that developed in China. In China, kung fu is called wushu. Kung fu consists of thousands of hard and soft techniques, taught for both offensive and defensive positions. Kung fu uses punching, kicking, grappling, and blocking moves in addition to the use of certain weapons. Kung fu may also emphasize internal methods to increase and improve qi energy.

Aikido is a relatively new martial art, developed in the 1930s by a Japanese teacher named Morihei Ueshiba (18831969). Ueshiba was a religious man who wanted to invent a martial art that emphasized non-aggression. In Japanese, aikido means "connecting with life energy." Aikido teaches students a variety of techniques to disarm an attacker, including such defense moves as blocks, escapes, grabs, and falling safely to the ground. Aikido also teaches internal methods of cultivating qi energy. Aikido has been called the "way of peace," because it teaches the philosophical ideals of love and harmony as ways of reducing conflict.

Judo means "gentle way" in Japanese and was developed as an educational tool by a teacher named Jigoro Kano in the 1800s. Judo emphasizes such defensive moves as holds and grappling, and teaches students how to disarm attackers by applying pressure to specific sensitive points on the body. Judo is performed competitively in matches.

T'ai chi chuan, also called t'ai chi, consists of a sequence of flowing movements performed very slowly. These movements emphasize posture and the flow of the body's energy (qi). Although considered a martial art and consisting of fighting postures, tai chi is used more as a meditation and health technique. In China, millions of people, particularly the elderly, use tai chi daily to improve their health and flexibility. T'ai chi developed from qigong and shares many of the same concepts of energy cultivation, making it effective for healing and prevention of illness.

Jujitsu is a Japanese martial art that emphasizes flexibility, quickness, and fluidity of motion. It consists of kicking, punching, holding, and striking moves as well as the use of weapons. Tae kwon do is a Korean martial art that means "kick-punch-art." Tae kwon do consists of a variety of powerful kicking and punching techniques. Kendo is traditional Japanese sword fighting, teaching students how to use various weapons with agility, speed, and effectiveness. Kendo also emphasizes discipline and ethics.

A martial arts session

Most martial arts classes, held in schools called dojos, have similarities. Sessions begin with warm-up exercises and stretches. Then, depending on the school, certain exercises will be performed to improve strength, speed, and stamina. Sparring is often used, with students competing head to head. Some schools require students to stop short of striking one another, while other schools require students to wear equipment to protect them from authentic blows. Exercises for cooling down and for flexibility are performed at the end of class.

Most martial arts use the colored belt system to rank students, although colors and rankings can vary greatly among disciplines. In general, white belts signify beginners, brown belts represent intermediate students, and black belts are given to masters, with other colors in between.

Martial arts classes take between one to two hours. Some schools allow students to attend as many classes per week as they wish, while others limit the number of classes taken. Two to three classes per week are recommended. Schools often charge a monthly fee, ranging from $50 or more. Some schools charge a flat fee for training from beginner to expert. Many schools require students to regularly participate in competitions, and fees for these may begin at $25. Students are required to purchase uniforms and equipment as well. Uniforms may cost $100 or more, and protective equipment may cost roughly the same, depending on the practice.


Prospective martial arts students should search for the style of martial arts that best meets their objectives. Students should attend classes at various schools (dojos), and should talk to students and teachers to find the right program. Finding a good instructor may be even more important than finding the right school. Students should search for instructors with such positive qualities as patience, knowledge, and strong communication skills. Prospective students should also search for schools with adequate facilities, including padded or sprung floors, full-length mirrors, and roomy practice spaces without obstructions.


Martial arts can be dangerous. Students are often required to take blows and falls as part of the learning process, as well as to fight with weapons. Students should search for teachers and schools who teach these methods as safely as possible. People with health conditions and injuries should consult a physician before attempting a martial art, and should find a teacher familiar with their condition.

Training & certification

Martial arts teachers are usually certified with the achievement of an advanced black belt status. Many large schools of martial arts have organizations which oversee and certify the granting of belt ranks. The Aikido Association of America recognizes training programs and certifies ranking procedures.

The USA Karate Federation is the largest organization for certifying ranking systems and schools of karate. The Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association works with kung fu schools, ranking systems, and contests.



Cleary, Thomas. The Japanese Art of War. Boston: Shambhala, 1991.

Frantzis, Bruce. The Power of Internal Martial Arts. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic, 1998.

Payne, Peter. Martial Arts: The Spiritual Dimension. New York: Thames and Hudson, 1981.

Stevens, John. The Shambhala Guide to Aikido. Boston: Shambhala, 1996.


Aikido Today. PO Box 1060, Claremont, CA 91711. (800) 445-AIKI.

Golden, Jane. "Qigong and Tai Chi as Energy Medicine." Share Guide (November-December 2001): 37.

Inside Kung Fu. PO Box 461621, Escondido, CA 92046. (800) 877-5528.

Johnson, Jerry Alan. "Medical Qigong for Breast Disease." Share Guide (November-December 2001): 109.


Chinese Kung-Fu Wu-Su Association. 28 West 27th Street, New York, NY 10001. (212) 725-0535.

USA Karate Federation. 1300 Kenmore Boulevard, Akron, OH 44314. (330) 753-3114.

Douglas Dupler

Rebecca J. Frey, PhD

Martial Arts

views updated May 23 2018

Martial Arts

The practice of taiji quan, also known as tai chi chuan, characterized by its slow, almost ritualized movements, in massed groups of old and young, male and female, generally in the early hours of the morning, is familiar to most travelers in China. Yet, for all its traditional aura, it is a phenomenon of the twentieth century. This mass expression of one of China's better-known martial arts emerged at the beginning of the century as part of a response to Western colonialism and the desire to modernize. The humiliation of China by the colonial powers was perceived as the result of a shameful moral and physical weakness of the old society. Shorn of much of its religious associations, this more democratized practice of taiji was advocated by reforming intellectuals as a homegrown means to develop national health. Though characterized as a martial art, no argument was made for its potential to oppose the industrialized warfare of modernity. How then are we to understand this set of practices, characterized as martial, both within their countries of origin and in America?

The term "martial arts" is a direct translation of the Chinese term wushu and denotes any of the traditional arts of warfare that demanded a high level of individual skill and mastery, including those in which one's hands are used not only to wield small weapons but also, more commonly, in place of any such weapons. In America the term encompasses not only the Chinese arts of the warrior but the martial arts of Korea (tai kwan do), Japan ( judo, karate, kendo, aikido), the Philippines, Burma, Malaysia, and Thailand as well.

An important component of the martial arts in China has been the concept of qi, understood as the fundamental energy or life force that permeates the natural world or cosmos, including the human body. It has long been taken for granted in Chinese culture that the cultivation of one's bodily qi is essential for developing any skill as well as for maintaining health and life itself. Qi plays as much a role in traditional Chinese medicine as it does in most aspects of Chinese religion. In Japan the fundamental role of qi is conspicuous in aikido ("The Way of Conjoined Qi"), a martial art form developed in the early part of the twentieth century. The notion of qi has rapidly found its way into contemporary Western understandings of the martial arts and lies at the root of most Western understandings of the "spiritual" nature of these practices.

Native Roots

Taoism, with its emphasis on the cultivation of health and the energies of life that could lead to immortality, offers the clearest precedent to the religious understanding of the martial arts in the contemporary world. Taoist monks and priests often include taiji as part of their training as a method to purify their bodily energies. Buddhism, which arrived in China from India in the first century c.e., appears to have brought no martial forms with it, but its meditative practices, with their focus on the measured circulation of breath, provided an easy bridge to Chinese notions of the circulation of qi.

Throughout much of Chinese history, Confucians regarded military skills as the domain of the less cultivated and the lower classes. Nonetheless, Confucians perceived a strong relationship between the sorts of physical activities that were effective in circulating the qi within the body, and physical health and insight. Only in the early nineteenth century do we see evidence of Confucian gentry figures developing the martially inspired set of exercises that have come to be know as Taiji quan. Popular tradition traces these practices back to the semilegendary Taoist sage Zhang Sanfeng, alleged to have lived from 960 to 1279, but there is no reliable evidence for this assertion. Confucian taiji was probably less concerned with developing techniques of self-defense than with constructing the individual's body as a metaphor for China's cultural values as interpreted by a fiercely nationalistic scholarly minority.

Local village and temple associations have also carried on a vibrant martial arts tradition over the past few centuries. The lion dance, a mandatory component of many village or temple festivities, is generally performed by a trained group of the young men of the village, or in modern Taiwan by a semiprofessional group of traveling performers. Martial arts is a basic component of their training and their performances. These local associations provided the basis for the dispersion of martial arts training throughout China among the masses.

The practice of martial arts in Japan originates in the martial skills associated with the samurai, members of an elite and privileged class within Japanese society. In the twelfth century they affiliated themselves with the religious institution and practices of Zen Buddhism. The 1920s witnessed the introduction of Okinawan fighting skills into the mainstream of Japanese culture, and these have evolved into the modern form known as karate. Modern karate, judo, and kendo still bear the stamp of the Meiji nationalists' attempt to instill in these arts the discipline and spirit of the samurai, understood as the national essence. This spirit formed a core mentality exploited by the architects of Japanese military expansion in the mid-twentieth century.

The martial arts as they developed in Asia over the past millennium can be characterized as being relatively unconcerned with martial effectiveness, but heavily laden with philosophy and symbol, variously deployed in the service of mostly nonmartial goals: maintenance of health, healing, prolonging life, enlightenment, cultural preservation, and nationalism. They are generally represented as taking place within and on behalf of the social order.

The Martial Arts in America

Various forms of the martial arts had been present in the United States within immigrant Asian communities throughout much of the twentieth century, long before they attracted the attention of the general population. Lion dance associations in American Chinatowns and martial arts clubs associated with Japanese Buddhist temples in the United States carried these traditions to the Americas early in this century. But it was not until the end of World War II and the Allied occupation of Japan that these arts began to attract attention among non-Asians. American GIs began studying these arts and bringing them home to be spread among the non-Asian population. The actual self-defense effectiveness of the martial arts in contemporary America is highly questionable in terms of the ratio of people who have trained in them to those who have actually used them to advantage and given the pervasiveness of high-powered automatic weapons on the streets today. It is perhaps the recognition of this fact that has led to the adaptation of the martial arts by some to the arena of American sports.

An additional and distinct impetus for the development of American martial arts can be found among that portion of the American youth culture of the 1960s who were seeking an alternative to an establishment culture they characterized as materialistic, predatory, and spiritually empty. Many thought they had found it in the religious, medical, and martial traditions of Asia, the "spiritual East." The practice of various forms of Buddhist meditation, the quest for alternative methods of healing, and an increasing variety of "soft" martial forms, though still marginal in American culture at the time, laid the basis for the broad popularity that these Asian imports enjoy today. Out of such aspirations have arisen many of the symbolic and religious aspects that characterize the martial arts in America.

In many respects the American institutions take on a modified or a simulated monastic quality. A common, nonmartial, black or white garb is adopted by many groups. Many of the exercises and practices are highly ritualized and reaffirm hierarchies within the group. There is a strong emphasis on teaching lineages, just as there is in Chan/Zen monasteries. Martial practices of qi circulation are closely assimilated to breathing practices used in meditation, and in many groups there is explicit reference to meditation, however adumbrated or symbolic. In some practice halls there is a small image altar where incense is burned. The image might be a Buddha, an honored teacher, or a piece of Chinese calligraphy. Lectures of a philosophical or religious nature are not uncommon. Great value is placed on discipline and constancy.

In America there is an ever-broadening range of attitudes and practices associated with the martial arts. They extend from defensive or aggressive fighting styles, and their alter ego, the sports forms on one end of the spectrum, to the highly internal meditative forms on the other. In contrast to Asian expressions, they are often taken as idioms by which the established order is rejected or circumvented. The individual with a special, unconventional, or perhaps even mystical identity tends to be idealized, and the interests of the group are relatively marginal.

See alsoBody; Buddhism; Chinese-American Religions; Confucianism; Health; Japanese-American Religions; Korean-American Religions; Meditation; Ritual; Spirituality; Taoism; Zen.


Despeux, Catherine. "Gymnastics: The Ancient Tradition." In Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, edited by Livia Kohn. 1989.

Donohue, John. Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts andthe American Imagination. 1994.

Miura, Kunio. "The Revival of Qi: Qigong in Contemporary China." In Taoist Meditation and LongevityTechniques, edited by Livia Kohn. 1989.

Wile, Douglas. Lost T'ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch'ingDynasty. 1996.

William Powell

Martial Arts

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In the United States, martial arts are mostly defined as fighting skills. However, in ancient and oriental countries, martial artists practiced these skills to condition the mind, body, and soul so they would be better able to defend and to live, even to "stop fighting."

Arts for Peace

The true ideal of martial arts is embodied in the Chinese characters for "martial arts." The symbol, which translates as "martial," is formed by two important elements, "stop" and "fight." Thus, the term "martial arts," from the earliest time, has truly meant "arts for peace."

Most martial arts revolve around a set of principles—such as honesty, persistence, courage, self-expression, self-control, and creativity—to promote individual physical, psychological, social, and spiritual growth. Based on individuals' length of time of practice, mastery of curriculum, success in competition, and contribution to the system, ranks are commonly awarded to form hierarchies. In the late nineteenth century, judo was the first martial art that awarded different colored belts worn with practice uniforms to form the ranking system. Since then, most contemporary martial arts have followed the Japanese lead in indicating rank to motivate learning.

Styles in Martial Arts

According to John Corcoran's The Martial Arts Source-book (p. 3), there are 1,158 forms and styles of traditional, nontraditional, and contemporary martial arts in the world. Boxing, judo, kung fu, tae kwon do, tai chi chuan, and wrestling are commonly practiced within the United States today.

Tai Chi Chuan and Kung Fu: As Recreational Activities Tai chi chuan refers to the sequences of movements (chuan) that flow with the power of universe, yin and yang (tai chi). It is considered the most "peaceful" martial art, and this style preserves the original meaning of martial arts. Tai chi, which utilizes soft, slow, low-impact, fluid sequences of movements that emphasize self-control and mental awareness, is primarily practiced for active meditation and health promotion, including circulation, balance, relaxation, and stress relief. Since tai chi has been used therapeutically in China for more than 600 years, and its positive effects were demonstrated in recent research, this form of exercise has become increasingly popular and has been used to rehabilitate and promote health in the area of allied health professions.

Compared to tai chi chuan, kung fu is an aerobic form of exercise that originated from monks' Shaolin-style physical training. It is presumed to emphasize striking over grappling techniques and ultimately develops external and internal strength. Kung fu has become popular in the United States since the 1970s, probably because of its association with Bruce Lee, the late star of several martial arts films.

Boxing, Judo, Tae Kwon Do, and Wrestling: Professional/Spectator Sports The term "boxing" derives from the Latin word pugnus, which means "fist." As an ancient martial art, boxing combines attack and defense by using hand strikes. The earliest evidence of boxing as a sport is found in the Mediterranean area and dates from about 1500 B.C. It reappeared in England in the early eighteenth century. Until nearly the end of the eighteenth century, boxers did not wear gloves and played with no rules. In 1839, the London Prize Ring rules were first introduced; these rules stipulated that bouts be fought within a twenty-four-foot square, enclosed by four ropes. Matches were to be made up of three to fifteen three-minute rounds, with one-minute intervals between the rounds. Kicking, gouging, butting, biting, and blows below the belt were explicitly made fouls. The first great period of boxing popularity began in the 1920s. Boxing has been held in the Olympic Games since 1904.

Judo means the way (do) of gentle (ju). It is a safe and efficient competitive sport in which grappling with effective throws, hold-downs, joint locks, and choking techniques to control opponents are highly evolved. Dr. Jigoro Kano developed judo in 1882, formulating it from styles of jujitsu. In 1904, the American president Theodore Roosevelt started to learn judo and helped ignite this first oriental martial arts boom in the United States. In 1951, the Congress of the European Judo Union established the International Judo Federation. Judo has been an Olympic event since 1964.

Tae kwon do means the way (do) of kicking (tae) and punching (kwon). It is characterized by the extensive use of kicking techniques and is one of the few martial arts that execute kicks to targets that are notably higher than the head. Tae kwon do comprises hand techniques and six major types of kicks, including front, side, roundhouse, ax, back, and wheel kicks. General Choi Hong Hi developed modern tae kwon do for Korean military training in 1955. The next year, Jhoon Rhee introduced it formally to the United States in San Marcos, Texas. In the 2000 Olympic Games in Sydney, tae kwon do became a full medal sport. By 2003, tae kwon do was practiced in over 60 countries by more than 20 million people.

Wrestling was an integral part of the pentathlon in the Olympic Games of ancient Greece. Modern Greco-Roman wrestling was created to represent this classic Greek and Roman sport in France in the early nineteenth century. In this style of wrestling, the legs may not be used in any way to obtain a fall, and no holds may be taken below the waist. This style of wrestling is practiced in Olympic and international amateur competitions.

Social Uses of Martial Arts

Individuals study martial arts for body sculpting, prevention of bullying, curiosity, personal empowerment, and redemption through pain; and societies use the martial arts similarly. Joseph Svinth listed twenty categories of social uses of martial arts in Martial Arts of the World. One of the most common social uses of martial arts at the turn of the twenty-first century was for military and police training. Used in military and police training in China since 1561, martial arts have been used increasingly by police and soldiers elsewhere to restrain the opponent and increase self-confidence and physical aggressiveness. In the United States, Officer S. J. Jorgensen first started a jujitsu program for the Seattle Police Department in 1927. The army began providing martial arts courses in 1985, and the navy and the U.S. Marines followed later. In all cases, the idea of using martial arts was not to create great hand-to-hand fighters, but instead to instill the warrior ethos.

Women in Martial Arts

In 1891, Richard Kyle Fox and the National Police Gazette sponsored a women's championship wrestling match in New York City. During the early 1900s, feminists often regarded combative sports such as boxing, wrestling, and judo as tools of women's liberation because these sports were historically associated with prizefighting and saloons. Female boxing became popular throughout the United States after 1989. Since then, martial arts became fashionable for women. In 2002, this trend received a boost again in the United States with the release of the Taiwanese martial art movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

See also: Boxing; Recreational Fighting


Corcoran, John. The Martial Arts Sourcebook. 1st ed. New York: HarperPerennial, 1994.

Crider, Duane A., and William R. Klinger. Stretch Your Mind and Body: Tai Chi as an Adaptive Activity. State College, Pa.: Venture Publishing, 2001.

Cuevas, Antonio, and Jennifer Lee. Martial Arts Are Not Just for Kicking Butt: An Anthology of Writings on Martial Arts. Berkeley, Calif.: North Atlantic Books, 1998.

Green, Thomas A. Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2001.

I-Tsun Chiang

martial arts

views updated May 23 2018

martial arts The martial, or fighting arts are among humankind's oldest avocations. The urge to fight and compete, whether between individuals or groups, arises with every new generation, and becomes channelled or sublimated in various ways in different cultures. In earliest times tribes fought with each other, invading and defending territories; individuals within tribes fought for leadership, prestige, goods, and mates. As societies became larger and more complex, the importance of warriors and military effectiveness increased. Children mimicked martial heroes (just as in modern times children's games have included cowboys, cops and robbers, spies, space warriors, computer combat, and so forth), and successful warriors often went on to become kings or nobles.

Martial arts also lie at the root of competitive sports, whether sanitized by erecting a barrier between players to eliminate physical contact while hitting a ball as a substitute for pummelling blows (tennis, volleyball, baseball), or intellectualized in a game like chess in which the armies of two kingdoms seek to kill each other until ‘checkmate’, — an Anglicization of the Arabic sheikh mat (‘the sheik is dead’). As in war, success in sports requires strategy and tactics. The very same skills that can mean the difference between life and death in combat — speed, agility, strength, determination, reflexes, stamina, timing, vigorous training, and surprise — spell success in sports.

Outside today's military, martial arts are still cultivated for physical and even spiritual improvement. Martial competitions have become sporting events, where one puts one's body and sometimes even one's life on the line, though there have been many attempts to transform sports such as boxing, wrestling, judo, and karate into safer events where points, rather than lasting bodily damage, determine the winner. The Japanese, for example, differentiate between jutsu and do, the former designating a fighting art, such as ju-jutsu, and the latter its modification into a sport form, such as ju-do. In modern Chinese the term for martial arts, ‘wushu’, implies demonstrations of movements, often closer to dance or gymnastics than fighting.

Many ancient cultures extolled martial arts, whether in epics (the Iliad or Mahåbharåta) or in artifacts (Egyptian tomb paintings or the vast life-sized terracotta army buried with China's first Emperor, Shi Huangdi, in the third century bce. From India's warrior caste arose such spiritual progenitors as the Buddha and Mahåvira (putative founder of Jainism) and the mythical Arjuna, hero of the Bhagavad Gitå. The warrior's existential proximity to death could engender deep philosophical and religious reflections on the meaning of life. Hence the most prominent patrons of Zen Buddhism, when it was imported to Japan, were the samurai, primarily due to the fearlessness toward life or death displayed by many Zen masters.

The origins of East Asian martial arts are murky. The ancient Chinese produced an extensive literary tradition of martial classics on strategy and tactics, the most famous work being Sunzi (Sun Tzu), attributed to a military genius of the sixth to fifth centuries bce. It applied principles similar to those found in early Daoist works, such as the Laozi (Lao Tzu), to military matters like the deployment of troops, adapting to terrain, using spies, how a smaller force can overcome a larger force, and so on. Daoist notions, such as the soft or gentle overcoming the hard, became foundational martial principles. They underly the judo axiom, ‘use the opponent's force to overcome him’, or the Taijiquan axiom, ‘four ounces overcomes a thousand pounds.’

Chinese martial arts apparently disseminated elsewhere into Asia during the Tang dynasty (649–712) since an early Korean martial art is called Tang Su do (Way of Tang Boxing). Another Korean style, Tae Kwon Do, with some of the most powerful kicks of any martial art, developed later. Tang Su was introduced to Okinawa, where the Chinese characters were pronounced Kara-te (kara = Tang; te = su: ‘hand, fist, boxing’), which meant ‘Chinese boxing’. In 1922, in an effort to nationalize the art and strip it of its Chinese origins, the Japanese substituted another character, also pronounced kara, meaning ‘empty’, so that Karate came to mean ‘empty fist’ rather than ‘Tang hand’ (or boxing). Many Japanese karate katas, or sets of practice movements, still resemble those used in Tang Su do. In Japan the newly nationalized Karate was one of several new sport forms: judo and aikido (grappling and locks) developed from ju-jutsu (holds and throws) in 1882 and 1925 respectively. Kendo, a sport version of ken-jutsu (swordsmanship), began roughly a century earlier, swords often being called the soul of the samurai and the soul of Japan. Sumo wrestling and a host of weapon jutsus (halberd, staff, etc.) have an older history, many going back to the tenth century. In Asian cultures, where martial arts have long been considered national, even religious treasures, demonstrations of martial art prowess by individuals, groups, and children are often integral parts of religious and national festivals. Chinese customs such as lion dances, in which one or more people perform acrobatically while shrouded in a lion costume, were originally martial displays.

In the first half of the twentieth century, Westerners became aware of Asian fighting arts, mostly in their Japanese forms, as popularized by the ju-jutsu in Mr Moto movies (starring Peter Lorre) and the fierce karate techniques of Japanese soldiers during World War II. Breaking boards and bricks with bare hands seemed impressive, almost magical. Sailors brought kick-boxing techniques back to Mediterranean ports, labelling the ‘new’ sport Savate. It was not until the 1970s, with the international stardom of Bruce Lee, that Westerners gained an appreciation for the Chinese martial arts. Today many Asian styles of martial arts are practised in the West, including Thai boxing, Chinese Taijiquan, Burmese Bando, and even several rare arts from India, such as Binot. By the end of the twentieth century American Yokozunas (Sumo Grand Masters) — such as the Hawaiians, Akebono and Musashimaru — began to emerge: a shock to Japanese sensibilities since Sumo is intimately associated with the imperial prestige of the Emperor.

Dan Lusthaus

See also boxing; killing; sport; war; wrestling.

Martial Arts

views updated Jun 11 2018

Martial Arts

A group of Asian skills combining mental, physical, and spiritual energies for self-defense in weaponless fighting, or the achievement of apparently paranormal feats of strength and control. The martial arts derive from the samurai or warrior caste fighting systems of ancient Japan, which were conditioned by Zen Buddhism; hence they have a spiritual basis. They are closely related to similar systems in ancient China. Japanese and Chinese martial arts are widely diffused throughout Asia.

These arts have become more widely known and taught in the West since World War II, when many servicemen encountered them in Asian campaigns, and there are now many schools for specific training of the different martial art forms. Symbolic of the growing interest in martial arts has been the popularity of the late Chinese film star Bruce Lee, who popularized the art of kung-fu in such films as Fist of Fury and Enter the Dragon. That particular martial art was further popularized in the television movie series Kung Fu starring David Carra-dine, first shown in the 1970s and revived in the 1990s.

The main martial arts are: aikido (a kind of judo of graceful movement in which an opponent's force is used against him), bando (Burmese boxing and wrestling), judo (wrestling with special emphasis on balance and leverage), jiu-jitsu (a more comprehensive and aggressive forerunner of judo ), karate (kicking, striking, and blocking with arms or legs), kung-fu (a group of various styles of fighting and defense), shaolin (Chinese shadow boxing), tae kwon do (Korean system of kick-punching), and t'ai chi chuan (originally a self-defense art, now a system of physical exercises to harmonize body and mind).

The various forms of martial arts have, as their basis, the attainment of spiritual enlightenment and peace, from which point remarkable feats of skill and strength in self-defense or attack can be generated. In the process of training, practitioners claim to become aware of a subtle vital energy named ch'i or ki. Ch'i is accumulated, amplified, and directed by willpower to specific parts of the body, which develop strength and resilience. This process is sometimes preceded by a sudden exhalation of breath, often accompanied by a shout or yell. The intake of breath that follows appears to result in hyperventilation of the system, generating vitality that can be directed to hands, feet, or other parts of the body.

This process has been widely demonstrated by practitioners of karate in apparently paranormal feats such as breaking bricks, tiles, and planks of wood with a bare hand. It has been suggested that these feats are related to such psychic phenomena as psychokinesis, the ability to move objects at a distance by mental action.


Barclay, Glen. Mind over Matter: Beyond the Bounds of Nature. London: Arthur Barker, 1973. Reprint, London: Pan, 1975.

Ching-nan, Lee, and R. Figueroa. Techniques of Self-Defense. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1963.

Feldenkrais, Moshe. Higher Judo. New York: Warner, 1952.

Freudenberg, Karl. Natural Weapons: A Manual of Karate, Judo, and Jujitsu Techniques. New York: A. S. Barnes, 1962.

Huard, Pierre, and Ming Wong. Oriental Methods of Mental and Physical Fitness: The Complete Book of Meditation, Kinesitherapy, and Martial Arts in China, India, and Japan. New York: Funk & Wagnalls, 1971.

Masters, Robert V. Complete Book of Karate and Self-Defense. New York: Sterling, 1974.

Medeiros, Earl C. The Complete History and Philosophy of Kung Fu. Rutland, Vt.: Charles Tuttle, 1975.

Nakayama, M. Dynamic Karate. Cedar Knolls, N.J.: Wehman, 1966.

Tohei, Koichi. This is Aikido. Tokyo: Japan Publications, 1975.

Westbrook, A. and O. Ratti. Aikido and the Dynamic Sphere. Rutland, Vt.: Charles Tuttle, 1970.

Martial Arts

views updated May 17 2018

Martial Arts

Most commonly, the term "martial arts" refers to the systems of combat developed centuries ago in the Far East (the area of eastern and southeast Asia). A few of these disciplines involve the use of weapons such as swords, throwing stars, or short clubs, but most emphasize unarmed fighting. The best known include karate (Japan), aikido (Japan), ju-jitsu (Japan), judo (a gentler form of ju-jitsu, also from Japan), kung-fu (China), tai chi (China), and tae kwan do (Korea).

Although most of the Asian martial arts are very old, they only began to appear in American culture following World War II (1939–45). American troops encountered Japanese martial arts for the first time while fighting in the Pacific. Some soldiers were intrigued by this mode of combat, and they brought their interest home with them. As a result, martial arts schools began to open in the United States beginning in the 1950s.

American interest in martial arts accelerated with the "spy craze" of the 1960s. Several of the James Bond films (see entry under 1960s—Film and Theater in volume 4), such as Goldfinger (1964) and You Only Live Twice (1967), showcased martial arts, as did imitations like Our Man Flint (1965). On television (see entry under 1940s—TV and Radio in volume 3), heroes such as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. (1964–68) used martial arts, as did David Carradine (1936–) in the show Kung Fu (1972–75). The Green Hornet (1966–67) featured a character named Kato, played by Bruce Lee (1940–1973). Lee, a genuine kung-fu master, made a number of Hong Kong–based martial arts films. His "breakout" American film role was Enter the Dragon (1973), released the same year he died of a brain embolism.

Enthusiasm for martial arts films survived Lee. Several Americans, more notable for fighting skills than for acting ability, became action-movie stars in the 1970s and 1980s. These included Chuck Norris (1940–), Steven Seagal (1951–), and Cynthia Rothrock (1957–), a rare female star. In the late 1980s and 1990s, martial arts was marketed to children, with films like 3 Ninjas (1992) and its sequels, the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers TV series (1993–96) and the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles TV show and films (1987–95). For adults, the martial arts star for the 1990s and beyond is Jackie Chan (1954–), who brings a lighter, more humorous touch to an often grim type of movie.

—Justin Gustainis

For More Information

Donohue, John J. Warrior Dreams: The Martial Arts and the American Imagination. Westport, CT: Bergin and Garvey, 1994.

The Martial Arts Network Online. (accessed March 21, 2002). (accessed March 21, 2002).

Miller, Davis. The Tao of Bruce Lee: A Martial Arts Memoir. New York: Harmony Books, 2000.

Skidmore, Max J. "Oriental Contributions to Western Popular Culture: The Martial Arts." Journal of Popular Culture (Summer 1991): pp. 129–48.

martial arts

views updated Jun 11 2018

mar·tial arts • pl. n. various sports or skills, mainly of Japanese origin, that originated as forms of self-defense or attack, such as judo, karate, and kendo.DERIVATIVES: mar·tial art·ist n.

Martial Arts

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