Asian Martial Arts

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This is a brief discussion of the history of Asian martial arts.

Chinese Martial Arts

The great Songshan Shaolin Temple and monastery at the foot of the Songshan Mountains of Central China is the place where Chinese martial arts are believed to have taken root. Although there exists scholarly doubt about the accuracy of this legend, it is widespread among the martial arts community. It is believed that an Indian monk by the name of Bodhidharma arrived to teach the Chinese a new approach to Buddhism that involved intense long periods of meditation, from which the meditative schools of Ch'an in China and Zen in Japan are said to have arisen. One commonly cited story asserts that Bodhidharma stared at the wall of a cave for nine consecutive years. To help the monks of the Temple withstand the long hours of meditation, Bodhidharma taught them exercises and movements to strengthen their bodies, and the Shaolin Temple Boxing technique was born.

The Shaolin Tradition and the Rise of Secret Societies

At the height of its prosperity, the Shaolin Temple had 1,500 monks, 500 of who were fighting monks. They led simple lives, supporting themselves by farming the land they owned. It wasn't until 1674, after 128 of these monks assisted the Ch'ing Emperor in battle, that their highly effective fighting techniques were seen as cause for alarm. This was further heightened when they rejected the titles offered to them by the Emperor in favor of returning to their temple. The Emperor became persuaded that it was dangerous to let such an effective fighting force exist in the center of his empire that he did not fully control. Shortly thereafter, an army led by a renegade Shaolin monk surrounded the temple and burnt it to the ground. It is believe that five of the surviving monks subsequently founded China's infamous secret societies known as the Triads. Thereafter, martial arts became linked with Chinese secret societies.

The first of these to materialize were the White Lotus and White Lily societies. Each society was associated with a specific style of martial arts and would often practice at night during its secret meetings. Like the various secret societies formed afterwards, these two societies were instrumental in helping various factions rise to power, only to be ruthlessly suppressed by the same faction they supported. This antagonistic relationship dotted China's history with ever-changing dynasties in power, since the Chinese government wavered between embracing the advantage of having a large group of highly skilled fighting men in times of need and then feeling the need to suppress the same fighters to guard its power. The preferred martial arts style adopted by these fighters evolved from the Shaolin boxing and is known as the Shaolin kung fu tradition.

Kung fu

The Shaolin kung fu tradition is divided into two schools, northern and southern. While the two traditions might have evolved from separate schools, most Chinese attribute geography for the manifestation of the northern and southern kung fu styles. Northern China consists mainly of open plains where walking or riding great distances was customary, so that individuals' already developed legs became their main means of attack and defense. Southern China, on the other hand, is riddled with large numbers of waterways, requiring adept rowing and poling skills, which led to greater arm strength. As a result, the southern styles relied on the fists as the main means of attack. The main differences between the northern and southern schools of kung fu will be discussed below, as well as some of the techniques that arose form each school.


Northern Kung fu style

Graceful and smooth movements are characteristic of the northern style of kung fu. In fact, the northern styles

• provide much of the basis for the martial arts styles used in Peking Opera. Stances are usually very wide and open, and arms are usually fully extended on both attack and defense. Leaps, turns and other sweeping movements are also incorporated in to this style. Movements displayed by animals have influenced the development of certain styles in this school and include: Crane, Dragon, Eagle, Horse, Praying Mantis, and Wing Chun styles among others.

One of the most striking characteristics of the northern styles is their emphasis on kicking. Northern stylists are trained to jump high and deliver one, two, or three kicks to an opponent before landing. Flying sidekicks are also taught, although their original use was to dismount cavalry. Northern styles use long formal sequences of attacks and counters as training aids that cover a wide area of ground. While some locks and grapples are used, most northern styles use strikes and kicks with the arms or legs fully extended. Weapons are also used and include swords, spears, staffs, scimitars, halberds, and war-fans. The forms used with weapon practice are open and graceful, but still effective.

Southern Kung fu style

Maintaining a solid stance and balance is of the utmost importance in the southern style. Like the northern schools, the southern schools also looked to the animal kingdom for inspiration. The southern school, however, developed styles based on the animals' sudden and overpowering attack

• movements and these include: the Cobra, Monkey, Leopard, Snake, and Tiger styles among others.

Southern-styles fighting are usually done in close quarters and consist of rapid, sequential punches, low kicks, and blocks. There is lighting-speed reaction and action, with great emphasis placed on simultaneous attack and defense. For example, while the left arm may block a punch, the right will slide into the opponent guard and attempt to deliver a blow to the face or chest. The essence of southern-style kung fu lies in the ability to instinctively attack and shower an opponent with blows while avoiding an opponent to grab any limbs. Southern martial artists believe that the speed and power of their attacks will defeat any foe.

Lion Dances

Another unique characteristic of Chinese martial arts schools is the role of the lion dance. The lion is comprised of a highly decorated, stylized lion mask "head" made of paper-mache and a long silk "body" that conceals a second person who helps maneuverthe lion. The wearer of the lion mask must be a member of a kung fu school. There are two kinds of lion heads, the young or black lion and the old or multi-colored lion. If a school displays the young lion, it is considered a form of hostility or insult to the other schools of the area.

Traditionally, the lion represents the soul of the kung fu school. During festivals and holidays, the lions from the

• various schools of the area roam the streets. The lions are tested by various challenges, such as the ability to maneuver past obstacles without breaking the team of the head and body. The performance of the lion serves to reflect the reputation of the school.


India has always has a rich history of martial arts and Section 2.2 warfare. Like early China, India was separated into many The small warring kingdoms. Warfare remained on a small Development scale with ritualized combat between forces. There does of Martial Arts not appear to be a large degree of military specialization like that found in China. Rather the martial arts were taught as part of the complete training for the accomplished noble. India has always had a rich history of individual self-development. One of the most important influences of India was the promulgation of the religion of Buddhism. Buddhism while an important religion in India never achieved the overall influence it gained after it was introduced in China.

Indian martial arts showcase some unique fighting tactics. In silambam, or stick fighting, the attacker will strike the ground first before attacking his opponent. This allows the strike to enter from below as well as confuses the opponent. Single and paired stick forms are studied as well.

Other unique weapons taught in Indian martial arts are the bundi dagger, a grooved double-edged blade; three-directional knives, very useful for blocking attacks and efficient at slashing attacks; and the urumi or spring sword, kept coiled up and when released it is whipped through the air to produce extraordinary noise, dust, and sparks.

The martial art of Kalaripayit was first developed in India. It is a true unarmed combat system that emphasizes evasion of blows followed by hand or foot attacks. The blocks used in this style are mainly circular, seeking to deflect a blow to the side rather than stop it strength to strength. Like Chinese martial arts, the terrain where this art was practiced had a great influence on its form. The kicks used in this style vary depending on whether the Northern or Southern forms are followed. The kicks taught in the Southern style are low and delivered to the front of the body, while in the Northern style the kicks are very high and are often accompanied by acrobatic leaping attacks. In both styles, a great emphasis is placed on evading blows rather than blocking and coming from low stances into kicking or punching attacks. The origin for the difference in styles comes primarily from the terrain. The southern portion of India is hilly and has uncertain footing so attacks involving high leaps and kicks are not pursued because of the danger of losing one's balance. While in northern India, the ground is more level and firm and as a result the more acrobatic attacks could be used without a great fear of losing one's balance.

In fact, many forms taught to students involve movements that begin as a crouch, progress into a leap or a twist, and then end in a crouch that mimics evading a blow, leaping to attack and then evading another blow. A sophisticated system of grappling is taught in both styles, which involves locks, throws, and nerve points. The study of nerve points is called marma-adi and is regarded as a secret art taught only to masters.


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