Many people consider Asia to be the center of the martial arts world—though it is not necessarily the birthplace of all the arts. However, it can’t be denied that many of the most prominent martial arts originate from the region—kung fu, karate, Hwa rang do.
From ancient myths and legends to historical revolutions, martial arts have been shaped by many factors. Sometimes it’s often difficult to trace the evolution of art because of the lack of historical records. This is true for older arts like the Hawaiian martial art lua or the Indonesian art pentjak silat. At the same time, cultural factors and revolutions have threatened to exterminate martial arts, such as bokator in Cambodia and Shaolin kung fu in China.
However, history has shown that martial arts have thrived, especially when combined with martial arts from other cultures. For example, Mitsuyo Maeda brought jujutsu to Brazil and taught the art to a young man named Helio Gracie who in turn created Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
Chinese Martial Arts History:
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 shuai jiao (wrestling) 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 withkemari (a kicking game designed to strengthen one’s feet for war) to createshubaku. 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.
Yet the origin of today’s martial arts began in 527 A.D. when Indian monk Ta Mo arrived at the Shaolin Temple in the Henan province and taught the monks the 18 Buddhist Fists, which evolved into the Five Animal Styles of Shaolin. While Tao Mo’s influence has inspired many Chinese and non-Chinese martial arts, others have evolved independently.
General Martial Arts History:
Since time began, every culture has developed fighting styles out of necessity. Modern martial arts history categorizes Western heroes and martial societies as practicing martial arts, which opens up an interesting can of martial arts worms.
Besides the ancient martial arts heroes of China (Shaolin), Japan (samurai) and Korea (Hwarang), 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? Many arts have come and gone. Recent efforts hinged on nationalism are bringing back lost martial arts, especially in Europe. So why has Chinese martial arts consistently endured and flourished more than in any other country? New evidence suggests Brazilian capoiera came from China rather than Africa. There’s a great history book waiting to be written.