English | Korean
Origins of the Martial Arts
A. Spiritual Origins

As awareness of the martial arts has grown, the connection between the martial arts and Oriental philosophy is becoming common knowledge. The relationship is an important one, for it allows the martial arts teacher to open up a deeper level of understanding about what are the martial arts' ultimate concerns. Thus, books on martial arts often include some mention of their spiritual origins associated with China, Korea and Japan.

The spiritual origin most often mentioned is that related to Buddhism. More specifically, it is a certain form of Buddhism that the Indians called dhyani, the Chinese called ch'an, the Koreans called sun and the Japanese called zen. The origins of the martial arts in these nations are both indigenous as well as a product of mutual exchange and influence over hundreds of years. These religious or spiritual influences do have a common root, which is traditionally attributed to the Buddhist monk Boddhidarma. It is said that sometime in the sixth century A.D., Boddhidarma traveled from India over the Himalayan Mountains into China. He was not a mere monk, but a Buddhist elder in the faith, and his purpose in visiting China was to act as a missionary. He was concerned that Buddhism as it was practiced in China was incorrect and he felt called to correct this situation. His point of contention was that the goal of dhyani was self-realization upon the earth during one's lifetime whereas the new interpretation in China was that ultimate happiness would be realized in the afterlife. When Boddhidarma began to present his teachings in China, he was met with rejection, which caused him to seek refuge in a temple called Shaolin, meaning "Young Forest". The state of the monks he found in the Shaolin Temple disturbed him. They were weak both spiritually and physically, making them easy victims for armed rogues in ancient feudal China. Boddhidarma took a two-fold approach to remedy the situation. To strengthen the spirit, he taught meditation (ch'an) through which the monks could come into a deeper awareness of life. Secondly, he taught them self-defense techniques (chu'an) that would allow them to defend the gift of life against those who would threaten it. These two devices were complementary aspects of a unified approach to develop the entire person, spiritually and physically.

In this way Boddhidarma initiated a one thousand year period--lasting from about 600 until 1600 A.D.--in which Shaolin boxing (kempo) and Ch'an Buddhism became a part of Oriental culture, history and martial arts tradition.

Of course, there are other major philosophical and religious roots in the Oriental martial arts. One thousand years before Boddhidarma set foot in China, the views and values of Confucius and Lao Tzu had entered the culture and subsequently shaped its entire ethical and philosophical orientation. As a result, deeply ingrained in the character of martial arts is Confucian and Taoist philosophy. One important difference, however, from the Buddhist influence is that these two religious/philosophical traditions were integrated into the normal daily lives of the people. In other words, one could practice Confucianism and Taoism in the midst of the daily affairs of the world. Buddhism, on the other hand, called people out of the world into isolated monasteries where they would practice meditation in solitude and seek self-realization. This is why the monks of Shaolin stood out from their society. They were not only superior fighters, but also their monastic lifestyle distinctly contrasted with the strong social sense of the Confucians and the naturalistic and non-religious approach of the Taoists. In this way the Buddhist Shaolin monks of China contributed to forming an image of the martial artist as an ascetic person seriously committed to human spirituality and a self-denying way of life.

These reflections point us to the fact that the different martial traditions had strong bases in the philosophical and religious views of their cultures. Because of this heritage, true practitioners of the martial arts must develop an appreciation and understanding of their inherent spirituality--their religious and philosophical dimensions--and be able to commit themselves to the pursuit and realization of the ideals of these dimensions. This stress on spirituality is part of the ancient tradition of the martial arts, and it is this that needs to be revived and elevated in today's practice.

B. Technical Origins

Technically, the origin of the martial arts dates back more than 2000 years with both Korea and China laying claim to being its birthplace. In ancient China martial arts had its beginnings in kung fu (meaning "skill, ability, work"). This was the basic style adopted by the Shaolin monks. Kung fu divided into a soft style practiced in the north and a confrontational style emphasizing strength practiced in the south. Throughout China the most popular style of kung fu came to be known as t'ai chi ch'uan (meaning "great ultimate fist"), which emphasizes continuous circular movements in a slow rhythmic fashion.

In Korea the earliest forms of martial art were known as taek kyon. Evidence that martial arts were being practiced in ancient Korea can be found in tombs where wall paintings show two men in fighting stance. Later the Hwarangdo, an elite group of young noble men, practiced taek kyon along with another sporting style known as soo bakh do. These formed the foundation for tae kwon do ("the way of hands and feet"), which in recent years has gained worldwide popularity, attaining Olympic sport status in 2000. Tracing its origins to both the ancient Korean and modern Japanese combat methods in emphasizing jumping and spinning kicks, this style was developed formally in 1955 in Korea by several masters.

In the 14th century martial arts were introduced into Okinawa when that island came under the domination of China. Eventually, influenced by the hard style of kung fu and in response to an invasion from Japan, resistance fighters developed a style of combat without weapons, which were banned at that time in Okinawa. This came to be known as karate (meaning "empty hand"). However, it would not be until 1922 when it would be introduced into Japan proper. Reflecting its military origins, karate emphasizes punches, strikes, kicks and blocks.

A slightly softer, but still militaristic, style emerged in Japan in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. Called jujutsu ("the art of gentleness"), it became part of the combat arsenal of samurai warriors. This style emphasized holds, chokes, throws, trips, joint-locks, as well as some kicks and strikes. A feature of this style is its emphasis on flexibility to give the defender the ability to flow from one technique to another in order to control the attacker.

A derivation of jujutsu, judo ("the gentle way"), was developed as a method of self-defense in 1882. Employing three basic techniques of standing and throwing, grappling and striking, the defender seeks to turn the force of his opponent to his own advantage, often by first yielding to put the opponent off-balance. In 1964 judo became an Olympic sport.

Another derivation of jujutsu is aikido ("the way of harmony"). Developed in 1925 as the result of a vision, this style integrates Zen elements (see below) into noncombative techniques that seek to bring one into harmony with the opponent. Here the defender leads the attacker in a circular path around him, thereby gaining control of the attacker's momentum. Joint-locks or other techniques are then employed to immobilize the opponent.