It’s an age old question: who would win in a street fight, Bruce Lee or Chuck Norris? Well, for those who saw Return of the Dragon, the question might seem a bit unnecessary. In that Kung Fu classic, Lee and Norris performed a fight scene, but it wasn’t exactly a fair fight. The odds were stacked in Lee’s favor since it was his movie, and it wasn’t real either. But if it were, which way would it go? Suppose we shifted the contenders, say Jackie Chan versus Tony Jaa? Another Kung Fu contender against a Muay Thai aficionado; any bets there? How would their styles stack up against each other?
In truth, this desire to compare traditional fighting styles goes far beyond these cinematic comparisons. Take the Ultimate Fighting Championships, for example. At its inception, the UFC was a small tournament arranged by the Gracie family between a handful of martial artists. The purpose was so that they could see for themselves which styles worked best, and to give some of the best martial artists in the world an opportunity to see how their fighting styles matched up against each others. After many incarnations, it was generally agreed that fighters trained with a mix of kicking and punching as well as grappling techniques were best suited to step into the ring. However, no real answer emerged as to which style of fighting was the best. In the end, the only thing that could be definitively said was that they were different. Those looking to be the best were those who incorporated these differences rather than sticking to any one style.
So let’s put aside the question of “who would win” and ask the more important, well-rounded questions: what styles of fighting are there, and more importantly, what differentiates them from others? In a way, martial arts are like languages, cuisine, or any other manifestation of a people’s culture. They are both a reflection of the people that practice them and a means of shaping and educating others. They are innumerable and diverse, but in general terms, certain traits and common aspects emerge that may help us to classify them.
For example, most martial arts focus on physical conditioning and self-defense. However, all possess a certain moral and spiritual aspect to them. Those that choose to focus on this heavily may be referred to as internal (such as Tai Chi) while others that tend to focus on the more physical aspects might be described as external. In addition, some styles of fighting focus more on kicking and punching, what could be referred to as offensive strategies, whereas others focus on pressure point attacks, limb manipulation, flips and throws, thus making them more defensive in nature. Last, but not least, there is the role that weapons play in the style itself. Some styles focus on unarmed combat, like Karate, which translated literally means “empty” (kara) and “hand” (te), or Taekwon-Do – tae (kick), kwon (punch), and Do (way of, or discipline). Others, such as Kendo, focus exclusively on weapons, like the staff or the sword. Most, however, fall somewhere in the middle, bringing unarmed and armed combat together in a specific ratio.
There is perhaps one final consideration when talking about martial arts, and that has to do with their relative ages. This is not so much a classification technique, as knowing where they fall within the spectrum of new and old. Old systems range anywhere from a few centuries to a few millennia whereas new ones, generally the result of revision or schism, are usually on the order of a few decades to a century. Whereas the older systems are steeped in tradition and closely related to the cultures that spawned them, newer systems tend to be more international in flavor and focus on modern scientific principles rather than ancient training secrets. But enough generalities for the time being! Let’s get down to specifics and look at some of the fighting styles that have shaped our understanding of the martial arts!
The name Kung Fu is actually an umbrella term which is often used to refer to any or all of the traditional Chinese martial arts. It is perhaps the oldest system in the world, dating back to the 2nd millennium BCE. The different types of Kung Fu are generally ordered around common training elements (such as animal mimicry), geographic regions (such as Northern and Southern) and their association with certain philosophies such as Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism. These systems are believed to have begun as far back as four-thousand years during the semi-mythical Xia Dynasty, during the reign of Yellow Emperor Huangdi, a former general who introduced martial arts to his soldiers and wrote several treatises on the subject. However, it was with the advent of Confucianism that laypeople began to practice the martial arts as part of their daily routine.
Another great achievement in the development of Kung Fu was the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery. Legend has it that this institution began when a Buddhist monk named Batuo (or Bodhidharma) travelled to the monastery from India in AD 464, bringing with him a style of martial art known as Dhyana. In addition to teaching the monks about Buddhism, Batuo began a strict training regimen with the monks, emphasizing fighting techniques as a form of self-defense and meditation. Initially, the Shaolin monks were unable to meet the demands of their training, and so Batuo began to combine their exercises with meditation and other spiritual practices. In time, the two came to complement each other and the monks were said to have achieved a heightened level of prowess and sensory awareness. In time, the skills of the Shaolin monks became legendary. Through history, Chinese emperors sought the assistance of the Shaolin warriors, often in times of war, but more often in civil disputes and feudal rivalries.
In terms of origins, most systems of Kung Fu are classified based on the geographic divide of Northern and Southern, referring to whether they originated north or south of the Yangtze River. Typically, northern systems involve more kicks and longer stances, whereas southern styles focus on punches and shorter stances. Examples of northern systems include Xingyiquan, and Changquan, the former being an example of an internal style which means “Form/Intention Boxing”, or “Shape/Will Boxing”, and is characterized by aggressive, seemingly linear movements and explosive power. The latter translates to “Long Fist”, an external style that focuses on fully-extended kicks and striking techniques. Southern styles include the famed Wing Chun (“Spirit Chant”), and Wuzuquan (Five Ancestor Kungfu), the former being a style that focuses heavily on hand techniques and short kicks, the latter being an amalgam of five different styles that combines punches, kicks, meditation and pressure point attacks. Tai Chi Chuan’s (Supreme Ultimate Fist) exact origins are unknown, but it remains the most popular example of an internal Chinese style that is renowned for both its beauty and health benefits.
Many forms of Kung Fu incorporate weapons, which include the sword, machete, staff, spear, and halberd.
Karate is perhaps Japan’s most popular martial art. However, this art actually developed in the Ryukyu Islands of modern-day Okinawa rather than Japan itself. Originally, it was developed by the indigenous people as a means of self-defense against invaders and marauders, particularly from mainland Japan. Initially, the style was a marriage of indigenous techniques and Chinese Kenpo fighting styles (a Japanese name for Kung Fu). In fact, the debt this art owes to Chinese sources was reflected in its original name, also pronounced karate, but which translated to “Chinese Hand”. It was only during the 1930’s, during the period of rising Japanese nationalism and militarism that the name changed to mean “Empty Hand”.
Though the exact origins of the art are subject to debate, it is well known that Karate was first “discovered” by the mainland Japanese during the 19th century when Japan officially annexed Okinawa and the Ryukyu Kingdom. Since that time, Karate studios (or dojos) sprang up all across Japan, often at post-secondary institutions and vocational schools. With large-scale Japanese immigration to the Pacific Northwest of North America in the 20th century, Karate gained popularity in North America as well, particularly in urban centers like San Francisco.
Karate is a striking art using punching, kicking, knee and elbow strikes, and open-handed techniques such as knife-hands, with grappling, locks, restraints, throws, and vital point strikes taught in some sub-styles. Though it was originally designed as a system of unarmed combat, Karate quickly evolved to include various Okinawan and Japanese weapons. These include the Nunchaku, the Sai, the Bo staff, the Bokken sword, the Tonfa baton, the iron staff and the polearm. Whereas the simpler weapons, usually smaller and fashioned from wood or wrought iron, reflect its indigenous origins, the incorporation of heavier, steal weapons tend to reflect mainland Japanese influences.
Taekwon-Do is a Korean martial art which is also the national sport of Korea itself. Since its inception less than a century ago, Korea has gone on to become an Olympic sport and has gained adherents all over the world, becoming one of the most recognized and practiced styles of fighting. Though its inspirations date back many centuries, modern Taekwon-Do is just over half a century old, having been invented in 1955. Though there is still some contention as to where the art comes from, Choi Hong-Hi is generally recognized as the founder of modern Taekwon-Do. A South Korean general who was a leading voice for Korea’s independence movement during the Japanese occupation, Choi later went on to fight in the Korean War (1950-53) and was instrumental in the nationalist awakening that took place shortly thereafter.
According to several biographies and articles, Gen. Choi first studied martial arts as a child. These included the ancient Korean arts of Tae kyon and Sue Bak Ji. After the Japanese invasion of 1910, these arts were officially suppressed, as were most expressions of indigenous Korean culture. In 1945, with the liberation and partition of the country, Choi joined the military. During the war, he was captured and placed in a prison camp where he continued to practice and even began training his fellow inmates. By wars end, Choi was promoted to General and given command of the 29th Infantry division, where every soldier received martial arts instruction from Choi and his lieutenants. It is said that in the course of teaching his fellow soldiers, Choi came to the conclusion that Korea needed its own style of fighting, that it was as crucial as any other form of cultural rehabilitation that was taking place at the time. In 1955, Choi gave a name to the new art, Tae (kick) kwon (punch) and Do (discipline or way of), an unarmed form of fighting that focused on legwork and kicks, punches, open hand attacks, blocks, forms and combines ancient technique with modern scientific principles.
In 1966, Choi moved to Canada after a schism with the Korean government forced him to emigrate. This schism was apparently due to disagreements over the role Taekwon-Do would play in the national life of Koreans, whether or not it would become an Olympic sport, and who would have control over it. Believing that the art should remain free of government influence, not be nationalized and remain out of the realm of sport, Choi formed his own body which he named the International Tae Kwon-Do Federation. Meanwhile, in Korea, those practitioners who disagreed with his stances remained behind and formed the World Taekwon-Do federation, a nationalized body which was committed to making the art an Olympic sport and a national program. Separately, both federations have enjoyed great success promoting both the fighting style and the culture that spawned it, gaining millions of practitioners worldwide.
Since the 1990’s, there have been ongoing efforts to amalgamate the two federations and restore unity to this martial art, which, in many ways, reflects the divided history and nature of Korea itself.
Meaning “Gentle Way”, Judo a relatively modern combat sport that was created in Japan in 1882 by Doctor Kano Jigoro. It is perhaps the best example of a grappling martial art, where the object is to take down the opponent with trips, throws, or takedowns, and either immobilize them or subdue them with joint locks or holds. Kicking and punching play a limited role, but are mainly practiced in the form of kata and are forbidden in competition.
The inventor, Jigoro Kano (1860–1938) was born into a well-to-do Japanese family whose father was a Shinto priest and government official. This influence was enough to secure a class at the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University where he went on to study jujutsu, which at that time was a dying art. When he went to university to study literature at the age of 18, he continued his martial arts studies, serving under three masters before becoming an instructor himself at the age of 21. From each master, he learned the importance pre-arranged forms, technique, free practice, and throwing techniques. In time, Kano came to devise new techniques, such as the “shoulder wheel” and the “floating hip” throw.
Full of new ideas, Kano had in mind a major reformation of jujutsu, with techniques based on sound scientific principles, and with focus on development of the body, mind and character in addition to development of martial prowess. In May 1882, at the age of 22, when he was just about to finish his degree at the University, Kano took nine students to study jujutsu under him at the Eisho-ji, a Buddhist temple in Kamakura. Although two years would pass before the temple would be called by the name “Kodokan”, or “place for teaching the way”, and Kano had not yet been accorded the title of master, this is now regarded as the Kodokan’s founding.
Judo was originally known as Kano Jiu-Jitsu or Kano Jiu-Do, and later as Kodokan Jiu-Do or simply Jiu-Do or Judo. In the early days, it was also still referred to simply as Jiu-Jitsu.
The word “judo” shares the same root ideogram as “jujutsu”: “jū”, which may mean “gentleness”, “softness”, “suppleness”, and even “easy”, depending on its context. The use of jū in each of these words is an explicit reference to the martial arts principle of the “soft method” which is characterized by the indirect application of force to defeat an opponent. More specifically, it is the principle of using one’s opponent’s strength against him and adapting well to changing circumstances. The second characters of judo and jujutsu differ. Where jujutsu means the “art”, “science”, or “techniques” of softness, judo means the “way” of softness. The use of “dō”, meaning way, road or path (the same character as the Chinese word “tao”), has philosophical overtones. Use of this word is a deliberate departure from ancient martial arts, whose sole purpose was for killing.
Kano saw jujutsu as a disconnected bag of tricks, and sought to unify it according to a principle, which he found in the notion of “maximum efficiency with minimal effort”. Jujutsu techniques that relied solely on superior strength were discarded or adapted in favor of those that involved redirecting the opponent’s force, off-balancing the opponent, or making use of superior leverage. Kano saw judo as a means for governing and improving oneself physically, mentally, emotionally and morally. He even extended the physical principle of maximum efficiency into daily life, evolving it into “mutual prosperity”. In this respect, judo is seen as a holistic approach to life extending well beyond the confines of the dojo.
The worldwide spread of judo has led to the development of a number of offshoots such as Sambo and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu.
This form of fighting, which relies on kicks, punches and some holds, has become Thailand’s official martial art and national sport, hence its name. Various forms of kickboxing have long been practiced throughout mainland Southeast Asia, but in Thailand, this took the form of what was known Muay Boran (ancient boxing). This unarmed style of combat is believed to have been developed by the Kingdom of Siam for use in battle once soldiers lost their weapons. It also is believed to have grown up and been influence by Krabi krabong, an armed martial art which apparently influenced Muay Boran through the incorporation of several kicks, holds and the movements which clearly have their origins in armed combat.
As well as being a practical fighting style for use in actual warfare, Muay Boran, and hence Muay Thai, became a sport in which the opponents fought in front of spectators who went to watch for entertainment. These muay contests gradually became an integral part of local festivals and celebrations, especially those held at temples. It was even used as entertainment for kings. Eventually, the previously bare-fisted fighters started wearing lengths of hemp rope around their hands and forearms in matches that were called muay khat chueak.
Muay gradually became a possible means of personal advancement as the nobility increasingly esteemed skillful practitioners of the art and invited selected fighters to come to live in the royal palace to teach muay to the staff of the royal household, soldiers, princes or the king’s personal guards. At some point during the Ayutthaya period, a platoon of royal guards was established, whose duty was to protect king and the country, known as Krom Nak Muay (the “Muay Kick-Fighters’ Regiment”)
Ascension of King Chulalongkorn (Rame V) to the throne in 1868 ushered in a golden age for the art of Muay, where it progressed greatly because of the king’s personal interest in the art. It was a period of prolonged peace and Muay became a means of physical exercise, self-defense, recreation, and personal advancement in royal circles. Later on, King Rama VII pushed for codified rules for Muay Thai, and Thailand’s first boxing ring was built in 1921 at Suan Kularp. Referees were introduced and rounds were now timed, and modern gloves were used during training and in boxing matches against foreigners. Rope-binding was still used in fights between Thais but after the occurrence of a death in the ring, it was decided that fighters should wear gloves and cotton coverlets over the feet and ankles. It was also around this time that the term Muay Thai became commonly used while the older form of the style was referred to as Muay Boran. With the success of Muay Thai in the mixed martial arts, it has become the de facto style of choice for competitive stand-up fighters.