Martial art, any of various fighting sports or skills, mainly of East Asian origin, such as kung fu (Pinyin gongfu), judo, karate, and kendō.
karate Karate black belts sparring.© vita khorzhevska/Shutterstock.com
Martial Arts: Fact or Fiction?
Many martial arts are performed not for combat or fighting but for spiritual reasons.
Martial arts can be divided into the armed and unarmed arts. The former include archery, spearmanship, and swordsmanship; the latter, which originated in China, emphasize striking with the feet and hands or grappling. In Japan, traditionally a warrior’s training emphasized archery, swordsmanship, unarmed combat, and swimming in armour. Members of other classes interested in combat concentrated on arts using the staff, everyday work implements (such as thrashing flails, sickles, and knives), and unarmed combat. Perhaps the most versatile practice was ninjutsu, which was developed for military spies in feudal Japan and also included training in disguise, escape, concealment, geography, meteorology, medicine, and explosives. In modern times, derivatives of some of the armed martial arts, such as kendō (fencing) and kyūdō (archery), are practiced as sports. Derivatives of the unarmed forms of combat, such as judo, sumo, karate, and tae kwon do, are practiced, as are self-defense forms, such as aikido, hapkido, and kung fu. Simplified forms of tai chi chuan (taijiquan), a Chinese form of unarmed combat, are popular as healthful exercise, quite divorced from martial origins. Derivatives of many of the armed and unarmed forms are practiced as a means of spiritual development.
The primary unifying aspect of the East Asian martial arts, which sets them apart from other martial arts, is the influence of Daoism and Zen Buddhism. This influence has resulted in a strong emphasis on the mental and spiritual state of the practitioner, a state in which the rationalizing and calculating functions of the mind are suspended so that the mind and body can react immediately as a unit, reflecting the changing situation around the combatant. When this state is perfected, the everyday experience of the dualism of subject and object vanishes. Since this mental and physical state is also central to Daoism and Zen, and must be experienced to be grasped, many of their adherents practice the martial arts as a part of their philosophical and spiritual training. Conversely, numerous practitioners of the martial arts take up the practice of these philosophies.
The 20th century witnessed a significant growth in the popularity of East Asian martial arts in the West, and both judo (1964) and tae kwon do (2000) were added to the Olympic Games as full medal sports. By the early 21st century a syncretic discipline known as mixed martial arts, which incorporated fighting techniques from various cultural traditions, had also achieved prominence.
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The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica This article was most recently revised and updated by Adam Augustyn, Managing Editor.
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