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Martial Arts in East Asia

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East Asia is a hotbed for martial arts. Many of us are familiar with famous movies themed with martial arts such as Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon, and have heard the names Jet Li and Jackie Chan before. However, martial arts extend beyond what we see in Hollywood. Despite roots that may stem to ancient times, most East Asia martial art forms were actually developed after the West made contact in Asia; during the 19th and 20th centuries. Just as one country’s culture is different from another, every Asian country has developed their own unique branch of martial arts with different rules and techniques. To someone with no knowledge of the sport, striking, kicking, stances, and use of weapons might all blend together and appear the same, but Asian cultures have developed the sport uniquely from one another.



kungfu china martial artsKnown to many Westerners as “Kung Fu”, and in China as “Wushu”, the genesis of martial arts in China can be traced back over four thousand years ago. However, widespread popularity did not occur until after the fall of the Qing Dynasty at the beginning of the 20th century. Dramatic changes in Chinese society at the time led to increased turmoil throughout the country. The Japanese invasion and the Chinese Civil War encouraged martial artists to make their teachings more accessible to the general public. Throughout this 50-year period, Chinese wushu experienced rapid dissemination, as it was seen as a way by many to promote national pride and build a strong cultural identity. 

Chinese wushu has developed styles and families throughout history. However, there are common themes to the various styles. “Internal” Chinese martial arts involve the harnessing of “qi”, a vital life force energy that makes up every living entity. Balancing the flow of qi is necessary for healthy living. Practitioners of internal styles believe they can gain an advantage by exercising their willpower over their personal internal qi to overtake an opponent. This is in contrast to “external” Chinese martial arts, who prefer to exert their dominance through more physical means, like strong muscles and bones, speedy attacks, and physical stamina. Those who chose an external path in Chinese martial arts often try to mimic their attacks based on animal movements, such as a using styles called Praying Mantis or Eagle Claw.



Origins of Japanese martial arts are dated back to the traditions of samurai and the caste system, where weapons were restricted from most members of Japanese japan kendo sword fightingsociety. Samurai were expected to be masters with many different kinds of weapons, as well as unarmed combat. Martial arts in Japan is extremely diverse, with large differences in training tools and combat techniques based on each region or island of the country.

A well-known Japanese martial art called karate literally translates to “empty hand”. Karate emphasizes striking techniques, punching, kicking, knee, and “knife-hands”, or the karate chop. Originating on the Japanese island of Okinawa, karate can sometimes incorporate weapons and tools into the fighting style, a nod to the island’s agrarian history. Peasants concealed certain weapons as farm implements and incorporated them into traditional Okinawa karate.

Kendo, meaning “way of the sword”, is most commonly associated with samurai and swordsmanship. Kendo is commonly practiced with bamboo swords and protective armor. Swords are held with two hands and offensive strikes are usually vertical swings. In modern practice, kendo training is very noisy relative to other martial art sports. Practitioners of kendo use a shout to express their fighting spirit when striking at opponents.

Judo, another popular and well-known Japanese martial art, emphasizes taking down an opponent and immobilizing them while they’re down through a headlock, stranglehold, or a choke. Judo was created in the 19th century as a safer branch of jujitsu, an aggressive martial art with an objective of defeating an armed or armored opponent. Judo’s popularity exploded in the western world, and has been an official Olympic sport since 1964.


Korean martial art is most commonly associated with Taekwondo, which is popular both Korea and around the world. It is the most widely participated martial art in the world, with over 70 million participants. Taekwondo is a practice of self-defense, combining blocks and take-downs with strikes and kicks. Taekwondo has an emphasis on kicking techniques, more so than most other forms of martial arts around the world. Participants in taekwondo are “ranked”, usually starting at a white belt, indicating a novice of the art. Through practice and training, a participant ranks up, with the highest rank obtainable being a black belt, indicating grandmaster status.

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