A martial art is an individual fighting style that is systematized and defined in a formal manner. Martial arts require long practice and rigid self-discipline to master. With this discipline comes the mental focus and accuracy necessary for success. Examples of martial arts can be found throughout history and legend from David's smiting of Goliath with his sling to the accounts of ancient Chinese fighting masters. The skills and techniques employed in martial arts are different from those used in warfare. While martial arts are driven by the dictums of accuracy and speed, mass combat or warfare is driven by the dictums of strength and firepower. Whereas the weapons used in warfare are large and heavy and fighting can take days, the combat practiced by the martial artist is free of restraint and swift, with the focused objective of neutralizing the foe as quickly as possible.
The true beginnings of martial arts are clouded in myth, since most ancient martial arts masters kept little records. Instead, techniques were handed down from master to disciple. Because of a master's untimely death or failure to locate a gifted protégé, many unique martial arts styles and their origins have been lost. It is generally agreed, however, that martial arts first took root in the Asian cultures of the East. Furthermore, it is believed that the religious traditions and medical knowledge practiced in this area were instrumental in developing the forms and style of martial arts we recognize in all the evolved forms of martial arts preset today.
The omnipresent element of inner strength and focus in all martial art forms is attributed to the Eastern practice of meditation and the system of breathing that accompanies it. This is believed to empower an individual with the proper relaxation and focused abilities that allow for the proper channeling of strength, coupled with the accuracy and speed, needed to excel in any confrontational situation. In addition, the increased medical knowledge allowed for the identification of those body areas that would sustain the most damage from the punishing strikes perfected through the art of mediation. While martial arts styles are typically classified as hard or soft, both techniques incorporate a small measure of the other.
Before detailing the differences of each style, the following example taken form the animal kingdom might illustrate the contrast between the two opposing styles. Picture a confrontation between a mongoose and a snake. The mongoose jumps quickly from spot to spot, radiating energy as it tests the defenses of the snake with lightning attacks and retreats. The mongoose is clearly displaying the hard style. The snake, on the other hand, waits patiently, giving no indication of when or where it is to strike. It simply sways back and forth before its sudden unexpected attack. This is the essence of the soft style. The differences are further detailed below.
Hard arts typify force opposed by force. In unarmed combat, this force is accomplished by propelling the entire body, or part of it, against the opponent, since added momentum is gained by sending the weight and motion of the entire body after a punch or kick? Various strikes are leveled at the opponent, but the most effective are those whose forces are propelled in a straight line. Blocks that forcefully deflect or stop incoming blows often precede countermoves in a hard style, while the countermove itself rapidly follows the block with direct punches or kicks. This approach is very straightforward and is the basis for many martial arts styles, including karate, Korean tae kwon do, and the hard arts of Chinese kung fu.
To the trained martial artist, however, the hard style does present one flaw. Because of the muscular tension displayed and the momentum of their bodies, the stance of the martial artist can reveal their next intention to their opponent. In addition, while the breathing techniques of the hard arts (focusing breathing to a point between the solar plexus and the upper chest) allow the martial artist to focus his energy into explosive releases, there exists the danger of draining the user of strength. Therefore, in a clash between martial artists using hard styles, there is an emphasis on instinctive and trained reactions using physical strength to quickly end the conflict.
Circular motion is the forms the basis of the soft arts. Like the snake in the above example, a master of the soft arts is still and relaxed. Unlike the tensed muscles of those martial artists exercising the hard style, a master of the soft arts does not reveal his intentions. In addition, the soft arts masters also seek to use incoming force against itself, instead of opposing the force. For example, the bodily momentum initiated by a striking opponent could be further increased and used against him by simply stepping to one side and pushing the opponent towards the ground. In a clash between two martial artists using soft styles, the emphasis is on using the mind to outwit the opponent.
Correct breathing techniques are very important to the soft arts. Unlike the breathing employed in the hard arts, in the soft arts breathing is initiated low in the body, two inches below the navel, where the center of vital energy or chi is believed to reside. By training the mind to use the muscles of the diaphragm to draw air into the lungs in this manner, it is possible to evoke a tremendous force that radiates from within the body to the extremities, where it can be used to deliver punishing blows to opponents.
Historical Martial Arts
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Development of Martial Arts
The next sections are devoted to the profiling the culture and fighting systems of many different countries of the world. These include Chinese martial arts, European martial arts, Japanese martial arts, Indian martial arts, Indonesian and Malaysian martial arts, Korean martial arts, and Okinawan martial arts. Each region has a brief history of each region and how martial arts developed in that region and interacted with the culture. If a martial arts system is further profiled later in this companion, it is distinguished by its name in bold-faced type.
It is important to realize that martial arts arose in a time when present-day nations were nothing more than mere assortments of independent states or clans, and warfare was small and localized, so that individual fighters attained greater importance due to the small number of troops in conflict. Warfare was ritualized and in some cases settled by single combat. One need only consider the prestige and honor bestowed upon even a slave in Roman times for his expertise as a gladiator to comprehend the allure of this ancient fighting art form.
In the following section, note that the Asian-inspired martial arts are grouped alphabetically by region, whereas the European-inspired martial arts are listed in chronological order.
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