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Martial arts or fighting arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of training for combat. Martial arts all have a very similar objective: defend oneself or others from physical threat. In addition, some martial arts are linked to beliefs such as Hinduism, Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism or Shinto while others follow a particular code of honor. Many arts are also practiced competitively, most commonly as combat sports, but may also take the form of dance.

The term martial arts refers to the art of warfare (from Mars, the god of war). It comes from a 15th-century European term for fighting arts now known as historical European martial arts. A practitioner of martial arts is referred to as a martial artist.

In popular culture, the term martial arts often specifically refers to Asian fighting styles, especially the combat systems that originated in East Asia. However, the term actually refers to any codified combat system, regardless of origin. Europe is home to many extensive systems of martial arts, both living traditions (e.g. Jogo do Pau and other stick and sword fencing and Savate, a Frenchmarker kicking style developed by sailors and street fighters) and older systems of historical European martial arts that have existed through the present, many of which are now being reconstructed. In the Americas, Native Americans have traditions of open-handed martial arts including wrestling, and Hawaiians have historically practiced arts featuring small- and large-joint manipulation. A mix of origins is found in the athletic movements of Capoeira, which African slaves developed in Brazil based on skills they had brought from Africa.

While each style has unique facets that make it different from other martial arts, a common characteristic is the systematization of fighting techniques. Methods of training vary and may include sparring (simulated combat) or formal sets or routines of techniques known as forms or kata. Forms are especially common in the Asian and Asian-derived martial arts.

Variation and scope

Martial arts vary widely, and may focus on a specific area or combination of areas, but they can be broadly grouped into focusing on strikes, grappling, or weapons training. Below is a list of examples that make extensive use of one these areas; it is not an exhaustive list of all arts covering the area, nor are these necessarily the only areas covered by the art but are the focus or best known part as examples of the area:
Boxing allows only punches.




Many martial arts, especially those from Asia, also teach side disciplines which pertain to medicinal practices. This is particularly prevalent in traditional Chinese martial arts which may teach bone-setting, qigong, acupuncture, acupressure (tui na), and other aspects of traditional Chinese medicine.


Pictorial records of both wrestling and armed combat date to the Bronze Age ancient Near East, such as the 20th century BC mural in the tomb of Amenemhet at Beni Hassan, or the 26th century BC "Standard of Ur".


African knives may be classified by shape—typically into the 'f' group and the 'circular' group—and have often been incorrectly described as throwing knives.There are also wrestling and grappling techniques found in West Africa. "Stick fighting" formed an important part of Zulu culture in South Africa, and is a significant part of Obnu Bilate, a fighting form practiced in southern Botswana and Northern South Africa. Stick fighting was also described in Ancient Egyptians tombs, it is still practiced in upper Egypt (Tahtib) and a modern association was formed in the 1970s. Rough and Tumble (RAT) is a modern African martial art, also incorporating elements of Zulu and Sotho stickfighting.


Native peoples of North America and South America had their own martial training which began in childhood. Some First Nations men, and more rarely some women, were called warriors only after they had proven themselves in battle. Most groups selected individuals for training in the use of bows, knives, blowguns, spears, and war clubs in early adolescence. War clubs were the preferred martial weapon because Native American warriors could raise their social status by killing enemies in single combat face to face. Warriors honed their weapons skills and stalking techniques through lifelong training.

Capoeira, with great roots in Africa, is an African-Brazilian martial art originating in Brazil that involves a high degree of flexibility and endurance. It consists of kicks, elbow strikes, hand strikes, head butts, cartwheels and sweeps. Jeet Kune Do is a martial arts system developed by martial artist and actor Bruce Lee. Its roots lie in Wing Chun, western boxing and fencing with a philosophy of a casting off what is useless and using no way as way. Brazilian Jiu Jitsu is an adaptation of pre-World War II Judo developed by the brothers Carlos and Hélio Gracie, it was restructured into a sport with a large focus on groundwork. This system has become a popular martial art and proved to be effective in mixed martial arts competitions such as the UFC and PRIDE.

As of 2003, over 1.5 million US citizens practice martial arts.


Early history

The foundation of the Asian martial arts is likely a blend of early Chinese and Indian martial arts. Extensive trade occurred between these nations beginning around 600 BC, with diplomats, merchants, and monks traveling the Silk Road. During the Warring States period of Chinese history (480-221 BC) extensive development in martial philosophy and strategy emerged, as described by Sun Tzu in The Art of War (c. 350 BC).

An early legend in martial arts tells the tale of a South Indian Pallava prince turned monk named Bodhidharma (also called Daruma), believed to have lived around 550 A.D. The martial virtues of discipline, humility, restraint and respect are attributed to this philosophy. Daruma is also regarded as the founder of Zen Buddhism in China. Thus the values of ethical conduct and self discipline have been intertwined with martial practice since the earliest times. Also in China Buddhabhadra (called Batuo in Mandarin), an Indianmarker dhyana master becomes the first abbot of the Shaolin templemarker. The Shaolin Monasterymarker was built by the Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty in A.D. 477.

The teaching of martial arts in Asia has historically followed the cultural traditions of teacher-disciple apprenticeship. Students are trained in a strictly hierarchical system by a master instructor: Sifu in Cantonese or Shifu in Mandarin; Sensei in Japanese; Sabeom-nim in Korean; Guru in Sanskrit, Hindi, Telugu and Malay; Kruu in Khmer; Guro in Tagalog; Kalari Gurukkal or Kalari Asaan in Malayalam; Asaan in Tamil; Achan or Khru in Thai; and Saya in Myanmarmarker. All these terms can be translated as master, teacher or mentor.

Recent history

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 Indiamarker after the full establishment of British Raj in the 19th century. More European modes of organizing police, armies and governmental institutions, and the increasing use of firearms, eroded the need for traditional combat training associated with caste-specific duties. and in 1804 the British Colonial government banned kalaripayat in response to a series of revolts. Kalaripayat and other traditional arts experienced a resurgence in the 1920s in Tellicherrymarker and spread throughout South India. Similar phenomena occurred in Southeast Asian colonies such as Malaysiamarker, Indonesiamarker, Vietnammarker and the Philippinesmarker. Other Indian martial arts, like Thang-Ta also witnessed a resurgence in the 1950s.

The Western interest in Asian martial arts dates back to the late 19th century, due to the increase in trade between the United States with Chinamarker and Japanmarker. Relatively few Westerners actually practiced the arts, considering it to be mere performance. Edward William Barton-Wright, a railway engineer who had studied Jujutsu while working in Japan between 1894–97, was the first man known to have taught Asian martial arts in Europe. He also founded an eclectic martial arts style named Bartitsu which combined jujutsu, judo, boxing, savate and stick fighting.

As Western influence grew in Asia a greater number of military personnel spent time in China, Japan, and South Korea. Exposure to martial arts during the Korean war was also significant. The later 1970s and 1980s witnessed an increased media interest in the martial arts, after martial artist and Hollywood actor, Bruce Lee, in the late 1960s and early 1970s before his untimely death. Thanks in part to Asian and Hollywoodmarker martial arts movies. Jackie Chan and Jet Li are prominent movie figures who have been responsible for promoting Chinese martial arts in recent years.


Martial arts existed in classical European civilization, most notably in Greece where sports were integral to the way of life. Boxing (pygme, pyx), Wrestling (pale) and Pankration (from pan, meaning "all", and kratos, meaning "power" or "strength") were represented in the Ancient Olympic Games. The Romans produced Gladiatorial combat as a public spectacle.

A number of historical fencing forms and manuals have survived, and many groups are working to reconstruct older European martial arts. The process of reconstruction combines intensive study of detailed combat treatises produced from 1400–1900 A.D. and practical training or "pressure testing" of various techniques and tactics. This includes such styles as sword and shield, two-handed swordfighting, halberd fighting, jousting and other types of melee weapons combat. This reconstruction effort and modern outgrowth of the historical methods is generally referred to as Western martial arts. Many Medieval martial arts manuals have survived, the most famous being Johannes Lichtenauer's Fechtbuch (Fencing book) of the 14th century. Today Lichtenauer's tome forms the basis of the German school of swordsmanship.

In Europe, the martial arts declined with the rise of firearms. As a consequence, martial arts with historical roots in Europe do not exist today to the same extent as in Asia, since the traditional martial arts either died out or developed into sports. Swordsmanship developed into fencing. Boxing as well as forms of wrestling have endured. European martial arts have mostly adapted to changing technology so that while some traditional arts still exist, military personnel are trained in skills like bayonet combat and marksmanship.Some European weapon systems have also survived as folk sports and as self-defense methods. These include stick-fighting systems such as Quarterstaff of Englandmarker, bataireacht of Irelandmarker, Jogo do Pau of Portugalmarker and the Juego del Palo (Palo Canario) style(s) of the Canary Islandsmarker.

Other martial arts evolved into sports that no longer recognized as combative. One example is the pommel horse event in men's gymnastics, an exercise which itself is derived from the sport of Equestrian vaulting. Cavalryriders needed to be able to change positions on their horses quickly, rescue fallen allies, fight effectively on horseback and dismount at a gallop. Training these skills on a stationery barrel evolved into sport of gymnastics' pommel horse exercise. More ancient origins exist for the shot put and the javelin throw, both weapons utilized extensively by the Romans.

Modern history

Wrestling, Javelin, Fencing (1896 Summer Olympics), Archery (1900), Boxing (1904), and more recently Judo (1964) and Tae Kwon Do (2000) are the martial arts that are featured as events in the modern Summer Olympic Games.

Martial arts also developed among military and police forces to be used as arrest and self-defense methods including: Kapap and Krav Maga developed in Israelimarker Defense Forces; San Shou in Chinese; Systema: developed for the Russian armed forces and Rough and Tumble (RAT): originally developed for the South African special forces (Reconnaissance Commandos) (now taught in a civilian capacity). Tactical arts for use in close quarter combat warfare, i.e. Military Martial arts e.g. UAC (British), LINE (USA). Other combative systems having their origins in the modern military include Soviet Bojewoje (Combat) Sambo. Pars Tactical Defence (Turkei security personally self-defense system)

Inter-art competitions came to the fore again in 1993 with the first Ultimate Fighting Championship this has since evolved into the modern sport of mixed martial arts.

On the modern battlefield

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 iaidoka would master movements with their sword.

During the World War II era William E. Fairbairn, a Shanghai policeman and a leading Western expert on Asian fighting techniques, was recruited by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) to teach Jujutsu to U.K., U.S. and Canadian Special Forces. The book Kill or Get Killed, written by Colonel Rex Applegate, became a classic military treatise on hand-to-hand combat. This fighting method was called Defendu.

Traditional hand-to-hand, knife, and spear techniques continue to see use in the composite systems developed for today's wars. Examples of this include the US Army's Combatives system developed by Matt Larsen, the Israeli army trains its soldiers in kapap and Krav Maga, the US Marine Corps's Marine Corps Martial Arts Program (MCMAP), and Chinese San Shou.

Unarmed dagger defenses identical to that found in the manual of Fiore dei Liberi and the Codex Wallerstein were integrated into the U.S. Army's training manuals in 1942and continue to influence today's systems along with other traditional systems such as Eskrima.

The rifle-mounted bayonet, which has its origin in the spear, has seen use by the United States Army, the United States Marine Corps, and the British Army as recently as the Iraq War.

Testing and competition

Testing or evaluation is important to martial art practitioners of many disciplines who wish to determine their progression or own level of skill in specific contexts. Students within individual martial art systems often undergo periodic testing and grading by their own teacher in order to advance to a higher level of recognized achievement, such as a different belt color or title. The type of testing used varies from system to system but may include forms or sparring.
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.

Light- and medium-contact

These types of sparring restrict the amount of force that may be used to hit an opponent, in the case of light sparring this is usual to 'touch' contact, e.g. a punch should be 'pulled' as soon as or before contact is made. In medium-contact (sometimes referred to as semi-contact) the punch would not be 'pulled' but not hit with full force. As the amount of force used is restricted, the aim of these types of sparring is not to knock out an opponent; a point system is used in competitions.

A referee acts to monitor for fouls and to control the match, while judges mark down scores, as in boxing. Particular targets may be prohibited (such as the face or groin), certain techniques may be forbidden, and fighters may be required to wear protective equipment on their head, hands, chest, groin, shins or feet. In grappling arts aikido uses a similar method of compliant training that is equivalent to light or medium contact.

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 fighting is considered by some to be requisite in learning realistic unarmed combat. Full-contact sparring is different from light and medium-contact sparring in several ways, including the use of strikes that are not pulled but are thrown with full force, as the name implies. In full-contact sparring, the aim of a competitive match is either to knock the opponent out or to force the opponent to submit. Full-contact sparring may include a wider variety of permitted attacks and contact zones on the body.

Where scoring takes place it may be a subsidiary measure, only used if no clear winner has been established by other means; in some competitions, such as the UFC 1, there was no scoring, though most now use some form of judging as a backup. Due to these factors, full-contact matches tend to be more aggressive in character, but rule sets may still mandate the use of protective gloves and forbid certain techniques or actions during a match, such striking the back of the head.

Nearly all mixed martial arts leagues such as UFC, Pancrase, Shooto use a form of full-contact rules, as do professional boxing organizations and K-1. Kyokushin karate requires advanced practitioners to engage in bare-knuckled, full-contact sparring while wearing only a karate gi and groin protector but does not allow punches to the face, only kicks and knees. Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and Judo matches do not allow striking, but are full-contact in the sense that full force is applied in the application during grappling and submission techniques.

Sparring debates

Some practitioners believe that sports matches with rules are not a good measure of hand-to-hand combat ability and training for these restrictions may inhibit effectiveness in real life self defense situations. These practitioners may prefer not to participate in most types of rule-based martial art competition (even one such as vale tudo where there are minimal rules), electing instead to study fighting techniques with little or no regard to competitive rules or, even perhaps, ethical concerns and the law (the techniques practiced may aim to kill or cripple the opponent). Others maintain that, given proper precautions such as a referee and a ring doctor, sparring, in particular full-contact matches with basic rules, serves as a useful gauge of an individual's overall fighting ability, and that failing to test techniques against a resisting opponent is more likely to impede ability in self defense situations.

Martial sport

Martial arts have crossover 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.

The question of "which is the best martial art" has lead to new forms of competition; the original Ultimate Fighting Championship in the U.S. was fought under very few rules allowing all martial arts styles to enter and not be limited by the rule set. This has now become a separate combat sport known as mixed martial arts (MMA). Similar competitions such as Pancrase, DREAM, and Shooto have also taken place in Japan.

Some martial artists compete in non-sparring competitions such as breaking or choreographed routines of techniques such as poomse, kata or 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 Chinamarker 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.


As mentioned above, 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.

Examples of such war dances include:
* A'rda - In Kuwaitmarker.
* Tahtib in Upper Egyptmarker
* Buza - From Russiamarker.
* Panther Dance - Burmese Bando with swords (dha)
* Gymnopaidiai - ancient Spartamarker
* European Sword dance or Weapon dance of various kinds
* Haka - New Zealandmarker
* Sabre Dance - depicted in Khachaturian's ballet Gayane
* Maasai moran (warrior age-set) dances
* Aduk-Aduk - Bruneimarker
* Ayyalah - Qatarmarker
* Khattak Dance - Afghanistanmarker and Pakistanmarker
* Brazil's Capoeira, as well as some similar Afro-Caribbean arts
* Dannsa Biodag - Scotlandmarker and Scottish sword dances
* Hula & Lua - from the traditions of indigenous Hawaiian
* Combat Hopak - From Ukrainemarker
* Yolah - From Omanmarker/UAEmarker
* Tamunangue- based on a traditional fighting style of El Juego del Garrote from Venezuelamarker, influenced by the European fencing during the Spanish colonization of the Americas

See also

For a time line of martial arts historical milestones, see Martial arts timeline
For a detailed list of martial arts weapons, see List of martial arts weapons


Over time, the number of martial arts has grown and multiplied, with hundreds of schools and organizations around the world currently working towards myriad goals and practising a huge variety of styles.


  1. Samples of forms from different arts
  2. Internal Kung Fu
  3. p. 120
  4. , ch, 5
  5. fighting art used in the UFC
  7. Reid, Howard and Croucher, Michael. The Way of the Warrior-The Paradox of the Martial Arts" New York. Overlook Press: 1983.
  9. Order of the Shaolin Ch'an (2004, 2006). The Shaolin Grandmaster's Text: History, Philosophy, and Gung Fu of Shaolin Ch'an. Oregon.
  11. Zarrilli, Phillip B. (1998). When the Body Becomes All Eyes: Paradigms, Discourses and Practices of Power in Kalarippayattu, a South Indian Martial Art. Oxford: Oxford University Press, India. ISBN 0195639405
  13. - An essay on contact levels in training

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