A quick look at the history of combat in human history. From the earliest systems of fighting to modern day combat sports and martial arts.
The Art of War
We Homosapiens (humans) are a violent bunch. Our entire history is bloodsoaked in war and turmoil as rival tribes, nations and factions competed for resources and dominance. War and fighting are in our nature. Perhaps this is a sad thing but also something that is true so something we have to recognize. The need for combat skills is something common to just about every ancient (and modern) civilization in the world. It is no surprise then why methods to make fighting more efficient and effective developed throughout the centuries. Even before Sun Tzu and Themistocles began putting together war strategies to defeat their opponents on the battlefield, man had learned that putting the right strategy in place on the battlefield gave them a much higher chance of defeating their opponents.
On a much smaller one-to-one level, this way of thinking translated into hand-to-hand combat methods. Men became aware that if they used certain strategies against opponents it would increase the likelihood of them winning that encounter. With each battle, more experience over what worked and what did not work in combat was gained. Over time these techniques became more polished and refined, eventually evolving into the various fighting systems found around the world. These experiences and techniques were accumulated and recorded then passed down through the generations.
Generally, these different systems or styles have all been designed for one purpose: To enable a user to utilise that system to physically defeat (an) opponent/s and/or to defend against violent physical threats to their person. They are necessary skills that have enabled us to overcome threats to our existence (human and animal!).
For centuries the Roman Empire perfected the art of war, both on the battlefield with Roman Legion formations and in single combat (as in Gladiatorial Combat).
Over the centuries the fighting arts have come a long way, centuries of warfare has seen man adapt to new technologies and methods of overcoming opponents. Many of the fighting arts have been fine-tuned to a high degree, giving some major advantages to those who practice them in combat. Some have stagnated and become obsolete, and others still have been lost to history.
Development of Fighting Systems
Many of the fighting systems found throughout the world have developed a particular way for a reason, mainly due to circumstance (oppression) or (lack of ) resources. How a fighting art developed depended on the type of enemy the oppressed faced as well as what weapons were available. For instance, Shaolin monks developed a form of staff fighting as a way of protecting themselves against wolves. The long staves enabled them to keep their distance from the wolf packs sharp claws and teeth.
Likewise, in Okinawa Karate developed as a result of the population not having access to weapons (confiscated by Samurai invaders). As such, they had to develop a form of ‘empty hands’ self-defence to protect themselves from their cruel masters. Similarly, Capoeira developed a hands free type of self-defence because the slaves who used it would often be manacled and not have their hands free. They had to adapt to use what was available to them, namely their feet and agility.
In China, Kung Fu styles developed by imitating the fighting techniques of animals such as the tiger, panther, monkey, snake, bear. Birds such as the Eagle and the Crane and insects (praying mantis) were also studied. The idea being that in order to survive harsh natural environments at the time, it was necessary to study animals’ natural talent and skill for fighting.
Finally, there is the competitive side of the fighting arts. Some fighting systems were developed primarily from friendly competition between rivals. Western boxing and Savate come from this camp, as well as Muay Thai and Lethwei.
The ‘Martial Arts’
In the past fighting arts would have been taught predominantly to military classes or been a hidden secret taught only to a few chosen people. However, the last 100 years has seen the rise of Martial arts being practised in a civilian capacity, for sport, self-defence and fitness.
‘Martial Arts’ (a modern term) has been used to encompass these many types of combat training (unarmed and/or with weapons) that have been developed or systematised.
Thanks to the onscreen brilliance of Bruce Lee, the Hong Kong Kung Fu scene and the Ninja craze of the ’80s, the majority of people think of Asia when they hear the term ‘martial arts’. However, there is far more to Martial Arts than just Ninjutsu or Kung Fu. In fact, numerous arranged and systemised methods of combat have been and are practised right around the world today. Martial arts have been developed and practised in various shapes or forms across the globe, from African ‘Engolo’ to Indian ‘Malla Yuddha’ and ‘Kalaripayattu’. With the advent of MMA (Mixed Martial Arts) and the establishment of HEMA (Historical European Martial Arts) communities, traditional Western fighting systems (Wrestling, Boxing and Fencing) are now also being recognized as Martial Arts in their own right and getting the recognition they deserve.
Martial Arts Today
Many contemporary Martial arts are hybrids of other fighting arts that have existed or do still exist. International travel in the ancient and the modern world allowed the transportation of ideas. This included knowledge of martial arts techniques. Knowledge of techniques originally developed in one country would be adopted (and in some cases improved upon) by neighbouring countries. (For example knowledge of unarmed combat travelling from China to Japan to become the foundation for what would become Karate). Over time these new systems branched out in their own way, becoming unique, martial arts in their own right. This continual development continues to this day with newer combat systems emerging in the last 50 years (Such as Krav Maga, Kenpo and Hawaii Hybrid martial art Kajukenbo.
The fighting arts are practised today for a number of reasons. These include self-defence; military and law enforcement applications; competition; physical, mental, and spiritual development; entertainment (tv and film); as well as cultural heritage preservation.
Choosing a Martial Art
For a fledgeling practitioner, choosing a martial art is like picking from a smorgasbord. Since each martial art found around the world has something unique to offer. Some styles are very traditional and steeped in history, whereas others are much more contemporary. Some are predominantly for sports such as boxing and Judo, others for self-defence such as Krav Maga. They can range from striking arts like Muay Thai and Tae Kwon Do to purely grappling arts like Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and Wrestling. Other styles can be predominately or purely weapons based such as Arnis or Kendo.
Our next post in the series will look into the origins of the fighting arts. It will examine early forms of wrestling in particular and the impact these early techniques and traditions had on modern-day combat sports.