What is a Martial Art?

by Jean-Philippe Ranger on 2012/02/01

**This is a short piece I wrote in the mid-90s about a way to define martial arts ** The martial arts are systems of combat developed for the purpose of either offense, defense or mass combat. However, these arts also have many goals beyond combative ones. There are countless reasons to decide to study the martial arts.

The term martial art is a poor translation for oriental terms such as budo or wushu. In the West, the term art has taken on a meaning that denotes a practice which is primarily of a creative nature and which often has little or no useful objective. In fact, according to some western thinkers, a form of art that is useful is an improper one. Although it can feasibly be argued that creativity is a crucial element to the practice of a martial art, one such art can not be without a useful component. In fact, the properly artistic dimension (in the western sense of the word) of the martial arts is to be understood within a certain number of parameters, namely, the usefulness of a technique, motion or sets of motions. The term art in the translation of wushu or budo is therefore not to be understood in its contemporary meaning. It is to be taken in its older meaning, denoting a method or system of methods. The martial arts are therefore a method or a series of methods which are martial in character; that is to say, which possess a combative element. It is important to understand that simply because the term martial arts has been defined does not mean that it does not encompass other elements. Let us remember this phrase of Laozi’s : “The dao that can be expressed is not the eternal dao, the name that can be named is not the eternal name.” (Laozi, Daodejing, chapter 1) That is to say that the definition merely points to a concept, without seizing the whole of it. The martial arts are much more than a series of combative techniques. For example, to become an accomplished martial artist, one must comprehend the techniques, strategies and motions to become creative within that framework, as has been noted above. Furthermore, one can have many different reasons to decide to practice the martial arts as they promote the development of many important aspects of a healthy person, such as a strong yi (will), the ability to defend oneself, physical fitness, mental fitness, greater concentration and confidence. All cultures have developed martial arts. Some countries have transformed these arts into sport: put simply, Greek pugilism became what we know today as boxing, Greek wrestling became Greco-Roman wrestling, savate (a French kicking art from the late 19th century) became French boxing, sword-fighting became fencing, American Indian strategy games became lacrosse and so forth. One has to understand that these practices were, before being turned into games or sports, either ways to fight, or ways to train young warriors so that they would become effective in combative situations. In the Far East, the martial arts have flourished for many centuries. Every cultural group has created their own unique combative arts. For example, martial arts such as karate originate from Okinawa (although there are now more Japanese karate styles than Okinawan). Japan has given birth to such arts as jujitsu, Kenjitsu, judo, Aikido, to name but a few. Korea has its own combative styles, the most widespread (and arguably the most widespread of all the martial arts ) being taekwondo. There also exists other Korean arts such as hapkido, for example. Southeast Asia has also developed countless combative systems such as Thai boxing (from Thailand), silat (from Indonesia; there are literally hundreds of different types of silat), kali, escrima (Filipino arts), viet-vo-dao (from Vietnam). The list goes on. In China, a great number of combative arts have been developed over the centuries. These days, they are generically termed gongfu. As with the arts of other countries, the Chinese arts have distinct characteristics which differentiate them from the systems of combat which exist in the other Far Eastern countries.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

bruce.schaub February 3, 2012 at 8:01 am

I like your article. One thing I find interesting is that so many martial arts use the yin-yang symbol as the centerpiece of their schools (the more common eye of the fish version….not the older version with wuji in the middle and black and white spiraling out around it). I think what differentiates systems is how well they understand and adhere to it’s contents. It’s interesting that different people interpret the importance of yin or yang’s meaning, and there affinity for one or the other guides their training.
One thing that I’ve found extremely intriguing about Practical Method, is how they bypass what is generally accepted as a model for training. Meaning, most systems advocate training movement and stillness separately in hopes of one day integrating the two. Not to say that it’s not possible, but i appreciate how PM immediately goes to work on integrating the two, by so firmly imbedding stillness in it’s movements (DONT MOVE!!!!). It’s really hard to actually do… I will be the first to admit. But if deep knowledge of the subtlety of the of center (the mysterious Zhong Qi) is what we are after (and i think we are)….this seems like a very practical way of going about it. People often miss the meaning of the s shaped line in that symbol because their eyes are pulled to the teardrop shape or the dot that represents spontaneous creation of yang (or yin) in the center of the extreme limit of one or the other (before it leaps out to begin its own phase of expansion), but the line that separates yin and yang is the same line that connects them and is both there and not there at the same time…..truly mysterious. But i think we can all unquestioningly look to Master Chen as a shining representative of what a real Martial Artist (and person for that matter) should do and be. Truly fortunate we all are to have someone who understands these things so well to so generously guide our training.


Leave a Comment
Leave a comment on the content only. For admin issues, please click the "contact" button on the top left.

Previous post:

Next post: