Man practicing Wudang in front of temple

The Origins of Martial Arts in Asia

Introduction

Asia has a fascinating historical relationship with martial arts.  There are more styles of Asian martial arts practiced today by more people than from any other part of the world.  We need to break down the Asian content further to really understand the origins of martial arts that we recognize today.

India

India is considered the birthplace of the Asian martial arts.  It is from this part of the world that we can trace the earliest emphasis on spiritual and physical integration to be truly effective.  Kalaripayattu and Malla-yudda are two distinct styles.

Kalaripayattu is the oldest surviving martial art in India.  It involves the use of spears, swords, shields, bows and bamboo sticks.  Originating in the south Indian continent, it is traced back to 1,000 BCE in the Vedas, which are an ancient set of Indian texts.

Kalaripayattu is not as old as boxing and wrestling in other parts of the world.  However, it is widely believed to be the first martial art taught as a specific discipline. This Indian martial art is believed to be an important influence on modern Asian martial arts.

It is suggested that a Buddhist monk and master of Kalaripayattu named Bodhidharma introduced the martial arts to Chinese Shaolin monks in 495 CE.  If so, Kalaripayattu is a direct influence on modern Chinese Kung Fu. However, there are disputing records that suggest the founding monks of Shaolin were already practicing martial arts.  

Perhaps it was more of a fusion of two styles of martial arts.  Two cultures that had been interacting for hundreds of years. What we do know is that Indian and Chinese monks had similar beliefs. This was a belief in the importance of strengthening the body and the mind.  This created an internal energy that enabled them to practice true spirituality.

Malla-yudda (roughly translated as ‘wrestling combat’) is primarily a wrestling and grappling martial art sport.  The more extreme versions of this include lifting off the ground, punching, kneeing, striking pressure points, breaking joints, choking, biting, pulling hair and pretty much anything else.    

Mulla-yudda was first recorded as a competitive sport in the Mahabharata in 5th century BCE.  It is unknown how many hundreds of years before this that the sport existed.

Besides India this sport was practiced across other South Asian countries. It is known to have been practiced in Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. 

There are four fighting styles that are each named after a Hindu god:

  • Jambuvanti – uses locks and holds to force opponents into submission
  • Hanumanti – concentrates on technical superiority
  • Jarasandhi – practices the breaking of limbs and dislocation of joints
  • Bhimaseni – is the manipulation of one’s opponent’s weight, using gravity and shear strength.

As violent as this sport could be it was popular among all classes of people.  Men and women from all parts of society engaged in a much tamer version of the sport.  The brutal, no-holds-barred, competitions were reserved for the professional fighters. 

Professional fighters lived and trained in akharas.  They lived, ate and trained to a strict regime with constant supervision.

Public tournaments were commonplace with large prizes at stake.  Kings would send their best fighters to compete against each other.  Death matches were ways of settling disputes and avoiding war.  

Malla-yudda largely faded away by the end of the 16th century.  Although there are reports that it is still practiced in small villages and remote places today. One would assume it is the more gentle version.

China

The origins of martial arts of China can be traced back to a few distinct periods of time. It would be impossible to expand on the evolution of Chinese martial arts in this article on ‘global’ origins of martial arts. Indeed, it would take a very large book to do justice to Chinese martial arts.

Jiao Di is the oldest form of martial arts in China. It was wrestling and grappling involving techniques of throwing, hand and foot strikes, blocks, joint locks and attacking pressure points.  It was practiced and used by an entire army. Its first recorded use was in 2,697 BCE, by rebel soldiers against the Yellow Emperor’s Army.  

In time Jiao Di developed into a spectator sport. The competitions would occur on raised platforms called lei tai where they wore horned helmets. Fighters would compete to become the Emperor’s bodyguards or respected instructors for the Emperor’s military. Not much else is known about the rules of the sport or the purpose of the horned helmets.

In early 20th century Jiao Di competition rules were standardized and became known as Shuai jiao. It is still taught at Chinese Police and Military academies today, making it one of the oldest established martial arts.  It is likely that many aspects of this form of fighting evolved into Kung Fu as we know it today.

Kung Fu is generally associated with Chinese forms of martial arts.  The date and history of Kung fu is a subject of some debate. This is partly because of imperfect historical records over thousands of years.  But mostly it is because of how the term ‘kung fu’ is interpreted. 

Kung Fu is generally taken to mean Chinese martial arts. If we take this meaning then martial arts in the form of wrestling, fighting, sword skill and spear skill have been around since at least the Qin Dynasty (221 to 206 BCE).  You could even include Jiao Di wrestling that was first recorded in 2,697 BCE.

However, a truer definition of Kung Fu is to achieve a skill over a long period of time through considerable practice, hard work, and mental discipline. If this is the accepted meaning then it could be argued that Kung Fu really began with the monks of the Shaolin Temple first built in 497 CE. 

Two kung fu men at sunset

It is not overly important to agree on when Kung Fu started. It is more important to recognize Kung Fu as the Chinese martial arts discipline from which many other forms of martial arts evolved.  Most of these disciplines are still practiced today. 

Wushu is a more appropriate name for Chinese martial arts.  Often the terms ‘Kung Fu’ and ‘Wushu’ are used interchangeably.  To clarify, Kung Fu is a skill that comes from considerable practice over a long time.  Therefore it can be applied to anything in life. Not just martial arts. 

Wushu actually means the art of fighting or warfare.  It was established in 1949 to standardize the practice of traditional martial arts. So for the modern system of organized martial arts and competitions Wushu is actually the more correct term. 

Today Wushu competitions have two recognized disciplines:

  • Taolu demonstrates the ‘form’ of martial arts.  It is a series of perfected moves against imaginary opponents. Moves are assessed against strict criteria but demonstrations can be very impressive to watch.
  • Sanda is sparring competitions. Opponents engage one another with the kicks, punches and grappling that is part of their martial art discipline.

For clarity, I will use the term Kung Fu in this article. This is partly to recognize the profound development of these skills so many centuries ago.  And partly for consistent meaning, even if Wushu might be more appropriate in some places.

Northern China

Shaolin Kung Fu is the form of martial art developed and practiced for many years by the monks of the Shaolin Temple.  The Shaolin Temple was first built in northern China in 495 CE based on Zen Buddhism. In keeping with recognized kung fu styles Shaolin kung fu striking style of martial arts that uses punches, kicks and blocks with a recognizable wide stance. It can be assumed that the original form developed by the monks was intended to be extremely effective at disabling an opponent.  It would have been violent when used against an enemy.  

Besides developing ways to fight with bare hands, with their feet and with a range of weapons, the Shaolin monks developed techniques to maximize their internal power.  This included becoming focused and disciplined to master the ‘art’. They also trained in such practices as meditation, massages, and applying herbal medicines.

It is alleged that Emperor Qing feared a growing rebellion within the powerful Shaolin Temple. In 1723 he ordered the temple burned to the ground and had most of the monks executed. The surviving monks dispersed and they integrated with other temples and communities.  They took their Shaolin Kung Fu skills with them to teach others.

Eventually the Shaolin Temple was rebuilt but never to its original power and glory.  Shaolin Kung Fu is practiced today by over 400 resident monks. It is almost certain that the kung fu practiced by the early Shaolin monks during years of continuous warfare would have been effective in brutal combat.

Today’s version is considered much more graceful and pleasant to watch.  The Shaolin monks regularly show off their skills to the public.

Up to the time of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple the monks that passed all the Kung Fu tests were encouraged to select specialties to focus on. Once dispersed the monks would have naturally taught Kung Fu to others with emphasis on their own specialties.  Their students would then have gone on to develop and teach these specialties. In time they became distinct sub-styles of the original Shaolin Kung Fu. 

The Shaolin Temple was located in northern China.  As a result, when the monks dispersed many different styles of Kung Fu emerged in the north. Although these styles are of northern origin some variations of these styles also emerged in southern China.

The Shaolin monks studied the offensive and defensive techniques of many animals.  These were adapted into Chinese Kung Fu. You could probably find a Kung Fu style for every species in the animal kingdom if you looked hard enough. The most recognizable of these coming from Shaolin Kung Fu is the Five Animal Styles 

Five Animal Styles

Each of the five animals has its own unique characteristics that were incorporated into Kung Fu to create a distinct style.  Although there are recognizable techniques shared between them.  Bearing in mind that there are many different animal styles the following are generally accepted as the original five.

Tiger style teaches powerful attacks that rely on sheer velocity and brute force to overwhelm an opponent.

Crane style is more graceful with circular and defensive movements to maintain distance, then striking vulnerable areas of an opponent.

Leopard style is strike first and strike fast with less emphasis on self defense.

Snake style uses wide circular motions and a relaxed upright stance before attacking opponents vulnerable areas with speed.

Dragon style first appears to be relaxed and fluid before quickly launching an aggressive attack.  This is the only animal style based on a mythical creature. Unlike western perception of dragons, the Chinese dragon is happy and brings life and fortune.  Until it is provoked.

Young man displaying dragon animal kung fu

Other animal styles include:

Eagle Claw style uses less acrobatics and kicks. Instead it relies on strong grappling grips to take down opponents and subdue them with join locks and by striking pressure points.

Monkey Style style is more unusual in that it relies on considerable acrobatics and tumbling to disorientate opponents and striking from unexpected angles.

Praying Mantis style appears as a soft style with circular motions but with quick blocks, grappling and attacking vital points with devastating effect. 

A non-animal style to come from the north is

Long Fist style uses an open stance and relies on full range of extended arms and legs to simultaneously defend and attack with acrobatic use of palms, fists, elbows, feel, legs, knees and shoulders.

Southern China

Wudang Kung Fu comes from the Wuddang Mountains and the elaborate Taoist Temples of the area.  The first was the Five Dragons Temple during the Tang Dynasty (AD 618-907). Like the Shaolin Temple of the north the Wudang Temple developed its own style of Kung Fu. 

Man practicing Wudang in front of temple

There is considerable speculation on who gets credit for creating Wudang Kung Fu. We do know that it was one or more Taoist monks that created Wudang Kung Fu sometime during the Ming Dynasty and after 14th century CE. 

This form of Kung Fu is based on peaceful Taoist principles.  It is considered to be an ‘internal’ form of martial art compared to the Shaolin Kung Fu of the north. 

Wing Chun is unique in that it is named after a woman.  Widely believed to have been developed in the 18th century CE. It is a close-in soft style that relies on simultaneous defensive and counter attack moves. 

Wing Chun teaches a very relaxed stance, conserving energy during engagement.  This style was made famous in China by Ip Man and his sons. There is a series of Netflix films on Ip Man that is well worth watching. The clip below doesn’t have subtitles, but you really don’t need them to understand the graceful, relaxed, style of Wing Chun.

Hung Gar is a style that developed from a Shaolin Temple. Historical evidence is sketchy at best, but popular legend tells that a Shaolin Monk named Gee Seen Sim See fled to a Shaolin Temple in southern China in 1723 CE when the northern Shaolin Temple was burned down.  Upon arriving he began to teach his style of Kung Fu. 

The legend continues that a young rebel named Hung Hei Goon was fighting Ch’ing rule and took refuge at the Temple.  He trained under Gee Seen Sim See. Eventually the Ch’ing rulers had enough and destroyed the southern China Shaolin Temple and killed many of the monks. Hung Hei Goon survived and continued to teach his Kung Fu to others to help further his cause.  The style became known as Hung Gar.

Two monks in Hung Gar stance

Other disciples of Gee Seen Sim See managed to escape.  They also dispersed and began to teach Kung Fu. From these disciples sprang the styles known as Choy Gar, Mok Gar, Li Gar and Lau Gar.

Southern Fist style relies on its fists (as the name would suggest) more than kicking.  Dating back to the early 17th century CE it is a boxing style of Kung Fu. There is a saying: ‘Northern kicks, Southern Fists’.  In keeping with this saying Southern Fists relies on short hard punches from a firm footing.

Choy Li Fut style uses a horse stance that is more mobile than other styles with a similar stance.  It relies on being able to attack and defend from any direction. This makes it a good choice for taking on multiple opponents at once. 

Seniors enjoying Tai Chi class

Tai Chi is another ‘soft’ style of southern China.  In comparison to many other styles Tai Chi has slow, graceful movements. These can involve anywhere from a dozen to a hundred moves over an hour or more. Many of the moves replicate movements of nature and animals.  Tai Chi includes techniques to attack with strength. Today it is widely practiced by people of all ages. Often sessions are organized solely for the mental and physical health benefits.   

Bagua Zhang, or Eight Trigram Palms, is a graceful circular walking style of Kung Fu with similarities to Tai Chi.  Originated sometime in the 19th century it is also a southern internal ‘soft’ style of Kung Fu. This form relies on being able to attack while continuing to move and change direction.  This style uses punches, kicks, grappling and includes weapons. 

If Shaolin Kung Fu and Wudang Kung Fu are two of the major influences on Chinese martial arts then Emei Kung Fu is the third. 

Emei Kung Fu originates from the Buddhist mountain, Mount Emei, in the Sichuan province of Southwest China. This style was created during the Southern Song Dynasty (1127 – 1279 CE). 

It is alleged that two highly respected monks collaborated to form a style of Kung Fu.  One was a Buddhist monk and the other was a Taoist monk. They took the best and most effective techniques from each other’s styles to create a single, powerful, style known as Emei Kung Fu. The influence of the monks and their combined style of Kung Fu spread throughout southwestern China. 

Young men displaying Emei Kung fu

Emei Kung Fu is said to draw the best from the ‘hard’ external techniques of the north and the ‘soft’ internal techniques of the south.  It is characterized by effective use of swords and spears. Also by monkey style of movements. The style is more suitable for smaller framed people of southern China and is sometimes said to appear more feminine than other styles.  

Japan

Sumo is a form of wrestling and grappling.  The meaning is ‘to strike/bruise one another’.  It is a form of wrestling and grappling. The details on how this sport came to be is lost in time. The accepted belief is that sometime before the 6th century CE the largest and bravest warriors gathered during times of harvest to give their respect to the gods and spirits.  This led to individual displays of strength and courage. One thing led to another. Before long a brutal hand-to-hand combat sport was born.

During the Edo period (1600-1868) the practice of Sumo developed into a very structured and disciplined spectator sport.  During this time professional Sumo wrestlers emerged. The best fighters became celebrities. Competitions were held in Shinto shrines. The majority of the events were taken up with symbolic rituals and very brief moments of intense grappling. 

Sumo wrestling remains a national sport of Japan making it one of the longest running martial arts sports in the world.  Many of the original rituals are still practiced. The sport remains as sacred and popular today as it was 300 years ago.

With the possible exception of Sumo, much of the origins of Japanese martial arts were introduced by the Chinese. There was considerable influence from Chinese culture during Japan’s classical period (6th – 12th century CE). This included the spiritual followings of Taoism, Buddhism and Confucianism (and later Zen) that influenced Chinese and Japanese martial arts.

In time Japan developed its own distinctive martial arts fighting systems. This coincided with the prominent rise of the Samurai Warrior in the subsequent medieval period (mid-12th to mid-16th century CE).

Japanese Budo on throwing another

Budō is the term used to encapsulate Japanese martial arts.  It translates to ‘Martial Way’ but it is not the same western meaning. Budō actually refers to the pursuit of spiritual and moral enlightenment through practicing martial disciplines. It is a means of self-improvement through practicing bujutsu, or a specific discipline of fighting. In this way, Budō is a means to stop or avoid war and help maintain peace.

For clarity, I have used Budō in this article in the broader meaning of ‘martial art’.

The Samurai Warrior first became a recognized class of fighters during the Heian Period (794-1185 CE), most likely around the 10th Century. Their initial role was to serve wealthy landowners.  The word ‘Samurai’ roughly means ‘those who serve’.

Over time the Samurai developed into a class of warrior skilled with many weapons, including bows and spears, and of course the sword. In the medieval period they primarily rode on horseback using the bow and arrow as a primary weapon.  They also had the sole Japanese honor of carrying two swords: a long curved sword and a shorter one.

Samurai in old black & white photo

The spiritual influences of China embodied themselves in the culture and influenced the Samurai Warrior. ‘The way of the warrior’, or Bushido code, emphasized loyalty, respect, self-discipline and the pursuit of physical, mental and spiritual self-improvement.  Samurai Warriors were expected to live and die by this code.

The Samurai Warrior continued as its own class until the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  At this point their traditional feudal role ended. Although the notion of the Samurai continued well into the next century.  The culture of the Samurai was displayed by the Japanese in World War II.

Black & white photo of a masked Samauri Warrior

The feudal nature of Japan and the loyalty of the Samurai Warrior to his (or sometimes, her) lord meant that Samurai Warriors fought other Samurai Warriors at the behest of their lord.  This meant that many different fighting disciplines were developed independently, often in secret. 

To provide a comprehensive list of the Budō would be difficult, if not impossible. However, there are some disciplines that were widely practiced by all Samurai Warriors.

Kyūdō or Kyūjutsu is the ‘way of the bow’.  This was originally a common way for Samurai Warriors to fight. Even after the common use of firearms this practice continued as a way of practizing Shin Zen, improving focus and concentration, and developing one’s inner self.

3 people practicing Kyudo

Sōjutsu or Yari Jutsu is the art of the spear. The spear, called a Yari, has a long wooden shaft and a straight metal blade at the end.  Samurai Warriors would learn to use it on horseback or on foot. Lower class fighters and conscripts were also taught this skill. 

Painting of a Samuari holding a Yari

Naginatajutsu is the art of wielding the Naginata.  Similar to a spear, the naginata has a long pole with a curved blade on the end. It was also useful for close formation fighting.  It was particularly effective against attackers on horseback. 

Three Samurai warriors holing Naginatas

Kenjutsu is the art of the sword. In time the sword (Katana) became the favored weapon of the Samurai Warrior.  Today, the two swords (a longer and a shorter one) are identified with Samurai culture. Other recognized disciplines of swordsmanship included Battojustu (the art of drawing and replacing the sword) and Iaijustu (quickly deploying the sword from a restful position).

Hōjutsu is the art of gunnery.  The Japanese would have been aware of early firearms being used by the Chinese as early as the 13th century CE. However, the range, load time and susceptibility to damp weather limited its success.  The bow and arrow continued as a favored weapon of the Samurai Warrior. 

In 1543 the lord of Japanese island of Tanegashima Tokitakaship purchased two firearms from Portuguese traders.  He employed his sword makers to replicate them. The Japanese began to manufacture their own firearms and to make improvements so they would be more effective in battle.  These matchlock firearms were named Tanegashima after the island.

Row of Samurai displaying Hōjutsu

Other Budō that the Samurai Warrior trained in ranged from Torite (rope skills), Shurikenjutsu (dagger throwing) and Jitte (truncheon skills) to Ninjutsu (spying), Suieiijutsu (swimming) and even Fukumibarijutsu (needle spitting).

Suieiijutsu (swimming) is not just about getting across a body of water. The Samurai Warrior trained to swim quietly with 33 lbs. of armor and weapons, often times underwater.

The very recognizable Japanese martial arts of Karate, Kendo, and Judo are modern sports.  They were developed within the last 100 years having evolved from the Budō of the Samurai Warrior.

Korea

During the 4th – 7th century CE the Chinese introduced Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism to Korea.  The Chinese also exercised considerable political and military influence. Its relevance here is that this contributed to the rise and fall of martial arts in Korea. 

Chinese martial arts were almost certainly introduced to the Koreans by the Chinese long before this time. However it was during this time that martial arts incorporated the development of one’s inner self as well as one’s physical body. 

Hwa Rang soldiers on horseback

Hwa Rang (Flowering Youth) were highly trained warriors created by King Chin Hung of Silla in 576 CE. To improve the effectiveness of his army he set about recruiting young, handsome, men of noble birth.  The selected men (mostly boys) were trained in all the known martial arts of the time. This included unarmed fighting and the effective use of available weapons. Weapons included swords, spears, the staff, and the bow and arrow. 

Hwa Rang were taught to fight on foot and on horses. The young men conditioned their bodies by climbing mountains and swimming.

In addition to learning to fight the Hwa Rang were expected to study the teachings of Buddhism and Confucianism. They were schooled in the known sciences, social skills, and military tactics.  The guiding principles of the Hwarang warriors were based on Won Gwang’s Five Codes of Human Conduct.  These included loyalty, filial duty, trustworthiness, valor and justice. 

Around 600 CE Won Gwang developed a moral code to bring a balanced approach to Buddhist beliefs and necessary warfare of the time. It was called Sae Sok O-Gye and consisted of five principles that the Hwa Rang were expected to follow:

  • Loyalty to the country
  • Devotion to one’s parents
  • Trust among friends
  • Never retreat in battle
  • Kill only with forethought

King Chin Hung’s idea must have worked. Sometime in the 7th century CE he successfully unified all three kingdoms by defeating Baekje and Goguryeo.  This resulted in the first unification of the Korean peninsula.

The unification meant that fighting and warfare was no longer a priority. The influence of Buddhism and philosophy grew and became a dominating part of society. Nobility’s interest became the spiritual, philosophical and scientific pursuits introduced by the Chinese.  By the end of 7th century CE the Hwa Rang were no longer needed and disbanded. Korean interest in martial arts training also drastically reduced.

Ssireum is a form of wrestling and grappling. Wrestling evolved naturally by humans in the Korean peninsula just as it did in other parts of the world.  This makes it impossible to say when it first became an established fighting system.

The very first known record of organized wrestling comes from a painting on the wall of a tomb from the Goguryeo Kingdom (37 BCE – 668 CE). It depicted two men wrestling with an older third man judging the match.  This suggests the wrestling had become a disciplined martial art with strict rules.

ancient painting of ssirium

Ssireum became part of military training curriculum during this period. The Hwa Rang’s were trained in Ssireum. Eventually it became a sport to encourage young men to become strong and proficient wrestlers. 

By the time of the Joseon Dynasty (1392 – 1897 CE) Ssireum had developed into a well organized sport enjoyed by the public during celebrations and festivals.

Today the sport of ssireum continues.  Two opponents compete on a seven meter wide circular platform.  It is filled with sand and raised to improve spectators’ view. The opponents each wear a belt (satba) that is tied around the waist and thigh. The objective is to force a part of your opponent’s body above the knee to touch the ground or to force the opponent to step outside the ring. 

Subak is a form of martial art that was practised by the Hwa Rang.  It existed long before the Hwa Rang came about. Unfortunately there is no surviving evidence to say when or how this martial art actually developed.  Or the techniques used. It is likely that this martial art, or at least a form of it, was introduced by the Chinese.

The Hwa Rang are credited with adding kicking to the techniques of punching, striking, grabbing and throwing. The climbing of mountains and swimming in fast water as part of their conditioning gave the Hwa Rang very powerful legs to use against opponents. 

During the period of the Hwa Rang and the Three Kingdoms there was no single authority over this martial art. As a result different forms developed and taught through different schools. One of these, called Yu Sul, emphasized softer grappling techniques.

Subak is still practized today.  Although it is less known then the globally modern sport of Taekwondo.

Tae-Kyon relies on using hands and feet to unbalance, trip or throw an opponent. It relies on kicking and punching from a moving upright position but also low sweeps.  There is grabbing, joint locks and grappling involved. 

Like many forms of martial arts its true origins are lost. Some believe variations to Subak such as Yu Sul faded with the disinterest in fighting in the late 7th century CE.  However, Subak remained popular enough to continue. It is believed that Subak developed into Tae-Kyon.  

teaching Tae-Kyon Do

During the occupation by the Japanese from 1910 to 1945 the practice of martial arts was outlawed.  As a result Tae-Kyon all but disappeared. In more recent time martial arts has had a resurgence within Korea.  Tae-Kyon, or Taekkyon, continues to be practized today. It is recognized as having a significant influence on the hugely popular modern martial art of Taekwondo.  

Summary

The earliest records of martial arts practiced around the world are grappling (wrestling) and boxing.  Other forms of martial arts developed as warfare and weapons became more sophisticated. Or as spectators demanded greater entertainment.

It is rather interesting to consider the spiritual and philosophical spread of martial arts across the Asian continent.  From India to China to Japan and Korea.  It is even more interesting to see how most of these martial arts evolved into spectator sports while retaining important aspects of their self-defense origins.

It is impossible to give due justice to every country’s history of martial arts in this one article.  No disrespect is intended.  Nevertheless this covers the key building blocks of Asian martial arts from which all styles that we recognize today have sprung.  I look forward to reading your comments below.

1 thought on “The Origins of Martial Arts in Asia”

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