Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a variety of reasons: self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, entertainment, as well as mental, physical, and spiritual development.
Although the term martial art has become heavily associated with the fighting arts of eastern Asia, it was originally used in regard to the combat systems of Europe as early as the 1550s. The term is ultimately derived from Latin, and means “arts of Mars,” where Mars is the Roman god of war. Some authors have argued that fighting arts or fighting systems would be more appropriate on the basis that many martial arts were never “martial” in the sense of being used or created by professional warriors.
Martial arts may be categorized along a variety of criteria, including: (a) Traditional or historical arts and contemporary styles of folk wrestling vs. modern hybrid martial arts; (b) Regional origin, especially Eastern Martial Arts vs. Western Martial Arts; (c) Techniques taught: Armed vs. unarmed, and within these groups by type of weapon (swordsmanship, stick fighting, etc.) and by type of combat (grappling vs. striking; stand-up fighting vs. ground fighting); (d) By application or intent: self-defense, combat sport, choreography or demonstration of forms, physical fitness, meditation, etc.; and (e) Within Chinese tradition: “external” vs. “internal” styles.
Those traditional martial arts which train armed combat often encompass a wide spectrum of mele weapons, including bladed weapons and polearms. Such traditions include eskrima, silat, kalaripayat, kobudo, and historical European martial arts, especially those of the German Renaissance. Many Chinese martial arts also feature weapons as part of their curriculum.
Sometimes, training with one specific weapon will be considered a style of martial arts in its own right, which is especially the case in Japanese martial arts with disciplines such as kenjutsu and kendo (sword), bojutsu (staff), and archery. Similarly, modern Western martial arts and sports include modern fencing, stick-fighting systems like canne de combat or singlestick, and modern competitive archery.
Many martial arts, especially those from Asia, also teach side disciplines which pertain to medicinal practices. This is particularly prevalent in traditional Indian martial arts which may teach bone-setting and other aspects of traditional Indian medicine.
Spirituality-oriented. Martial arts can also be linked with religion and spirituality. Numerous systems are reputed to have been founded, disseminated, or practiced by monks or nuns. Throughout Asia, meditation may be incorporated as part of training. In those countries influenced by Hindu-Buddhist philosophy, the art itself may be used as an aid to attaining enlightenment.
Japanese styles, when concerning non-physical qualities of the combat, are often strongly influenced by Buddhist philosophy. Concepts like “empty mind” and “beginner’s mind” are recurrent. Aikido can have a strong philosophical belief of the flow of energy and peace fostering. Traditional Korean martial arts place emphasis on the development of the practitioner’s spiritual and philosophical development. A common theme in most Korean styles, such as taekkyeon and taekwondo, is the value of “inner peace” in a practitioner, which is stressed to be only achieved through individual meditation and training. The Koreans believe that the use of physical force is only justified through defense.
Systema draws upon breathing and relaxation techniques, as well as elements of Russian Orthodox thought, to foster self-conscience and calmness, and to benefit the practitioner in different levels: the physical, the psychological and the spiritual.
Some martial arts in various cultures can be performed in dance-like settings for various reasons, such as for evoking ferocity in preparation for battle or showing off skill in a more stylized manner. Many such martial arts incorporate music, especially strong percussive rhythms.
Chinese martial arts originated during the Xia Dynasty more than 4000 years ago. The foundation of modern Asian martial arts is likely a blend of early Chinese and Indian martial arts. In Europe, the earliest sources of martial arts traditions date to Ancient Greece. Boxing, wrestling, and pankration were represented in the Ancient Olympic Games. The Romans produced gladiatorial combat as a public spectacle.
A number of historical combat manuals have survived from the European Middle Ages. This includes such styles as sword and shield, two-handed sword fighting and other types of melee weapons besides unarmed combat. Asian martial arts become well-documented during the medieval period, Japanese martial arts beginning with the establishment of the samurai nobility in the 12th century, Chinese martial arts with Ming era treatises such as Ji Xiao Xin Shu, Indian martial arts in medieval texts such as the Agni Purana and the Malla Purana, and Korean martial arts from the Joseon era and texts such as Muyejebo (1598). “Historical martial arts” in both Asia and Europe are mostly based on such records of the late medieval to early modern period.
Europe’s colonization of Asian countries also brought about a decline in local martial arts, especially with the introduction of firearms. This can clearly be seen in India after the full establishment of British Raj in the 19th century. Similar phenomena occurred in Southeast Asian colonies such as Malaysia, Indonesia, Vietnam, Cambodia and the Philippines.
Certain traditional combat sports and fighting styles exist all over the world, rooted in local culture and folklore. The most common of these are styles of folk wrestling, some of which have been practiced since antiquity, and are found in the most remote areas. Other examples include forms of stick fighting and boxing. While these arts are based on historical traditions of folklore, they are not “historical” in the sense that they reconstruct or preserve a historical system from a specific era. They are rather contemporary regional sports that coexist with the modern forms of martial arts sports as they have developed since the 19th century, often including cross-fertilization between sports and folk styles; thus, the traditional Thai art of muay boran developed into the modern national sport of muay Thai, which in turn came to be practiced worldwide and contributed significantly to modern hybrid styles like kick boxing and mixed martial arts.
The mid to late 19th century marks the beginning of the history of martial arts as modern sports developed out of earlier traditional fighting systems. In Europe, this concerns the developments of boxing and fencing as sports. In Japan, the same period marks the formation of the modern forms of judo, jujutso, karate and kendo (among others) based on revivals of mold schools of Edo period martial arts which had been suppressed during the Meiji Restoration. Modern muay Thai rules date to the 1920s. Western interest in Asian martial arts arises towards the end of the 19th century, due to the increase in trade between the United States with China and Japan. Relatively few Westerners actually practiced the arts, considering it to be mere performance.
As Western influence grew in Asia a greater number of military personnel spent time in China, Japan and South Korea during World War II and the Korean War and were exposed to local fighting styles. Jujutsu, judo and karate first became popular among the mainstream from the 1950s-60s. Due in part to Asian and Hollywood martial arts movies, most modern American martial arts are either Asian-derived or Asian influenced. The term kick-boxing was created by the Japanese for a variant of muay Thai and karate that was created in the 1950s. American kickboxing was developed in the 1970s, as a combination of boxing and karate. Taekwondo was developed in the context of the Korean War in the 1950s.
Various forms and sparring are commonly used in martial art exhibitions and tournaments. Some competitions pit practitioners of different disciplines against each other using a common set of rules, these are referred to as mixed martial arts competitions. Rules for sparring vary between art and organization but can generally be divided into light-contact, medium-contact, and full-contact variants, reflecting the amount of force that should be used on an opponent.
In some styles (such as fencing and some styles of Taekwondo sparring), competitors score points based on the landing of a single technique or strike as judged by the referee, whereupon the referee will briefly stop the match, award a point, then restart the match. Alternatively, sparring may continue with the point noted by the judges. Some critics of point sparring feel that this method of training teaches habits that result in lower combat effectiveness. Lighter-contact sparring may be used exclusively, for children or in other situations when heavy contact would be inappropriate (such as beginners), medium-contact sparring is often used as training for full contact. Full-contact sparring or competition, where strikes are not pulled but thrown with full force as the name implies, has a number of tactical differences from light and medium-contact sparring. It is considered by some to be requisite in learning realistic unarmed combat.
Martial arts have crossed over into sports when forms of sparring become competitive, becoming a sport in its own right that is dissociated from the original combative origin, such as with western fencing. The Summer Olympic Games includes judo, taekwondo, western archery, boxing, javelin, wrestling and fencing as events, while Chinese wushu recently failed in its bid to be included, but is still actively performed in tournaments across the world. Practitioners in some arts such as kickboxing and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu often train for sport matches, whereas those in other arts such as aikido and Wing Chun generally spurn such competitions. Some schools believe that competition breeds better and more efficient practitioners, and gives a sense of good sportsmanship. Others believe that the rules under which competition takes place have diminished the combat effectiveness of martial arts or encourage a kind of practice which focuses on winning trophies rather than a focus such as cultivating a particular moral character.
Some martial artists compete in non-sparring competitions such as breaking or choreographed routines of techniques such as poomse, kata and aka, or modern variations of the martial arts which include dance-influenced competitions such as tricking. Martial traditions have been influenced by governments to become more sport-like for political purposes; the central impetus for the attempt by the People’s Republic of China in transforming Chinese martial arts into the committee-regulated sport of wushu was suppressing what they saw as the potentially subversive aspects of martial training, especially under the traditional system of family lineages.
Martial arts training aims to result in several benefits to trainees, such as their physical, mental, emotional and spiritual health. Through systematic practice in the martial arts a person’s physical fitness may be boosted (strength, stamina, flexibility, movement coordination, etc.) as the whole body is exercised and the entire muscular system is activated. Beyond contributing to physical fitness, martial arts training also has benefits for mental health, contributing to self-esteem, self-control, emotional and spiritual well-being. For this reason, a number of martial arts schools have focused purely on therapeutic aspects, de-emphasizing the historical aspect of self-defense or combat completely.
Some traditional martial concepts have seen new use within modern military training. Perhaps the most recent example of this is point shooting which relies on muscle memory to more effectively utilize a firearm in a variety of awkward situations, much the way an iaikoka would master movements with their sword.
Hundreds of millions of people worldwide practice some form of martial arts. Martial arts equipment can include that used for conditioning, protection and weapons. Specialized conditioning equipment can include breaking boards, dummy partners such as the wooden dummy, and targets such as punching bags and the makiwara. Protective equipment for sparring and competition includes boxing gloves and headgear.