Why Do Martial Arts Exist? From Origin to Modern Day

We’re all familiar with iconic martial artists like Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. And while martial arts have become an integral part of the fitness industry, movies, and pop culture, only a few among us are aware of why and how they were created in the first place and how they have shifted into modern times.

Martial arts of the past came into existence as fighting systems with codes of conduct to maximize their martial competency. Martial arts exist today as a tool for self-defense and a path to physical, mental, and spiritual development while helping to preserve the cultural heritage of the art.

Let’s take a dive into the origins of some popular martial arts, how they came into existence, how they exist in the world today and a bit about what they can teach us in modern times.

Where Are Most Martial Arts From?

In an absolute sense, the martial arts originated when humans figured that their tendency for aggression and mock combat could be developed into a system with rules and codes of conduct. This way of thinking gave rise to a loose concept of martial arts in many places, including China, Greece, India, and even Egypt!

Although martial arts are found in many cultures and places of origin around the world, most martial arts that persist today originated in eastern Asian countries, including China, Japan, Korea, and India.

While much of hand-to-hand combat can be traced back to this period, other martial arts records were springing up across other Asian countries. Let’s look at some popular martial art forms and their origins.

Karate

The term ‘Karate’ translates to open hand, and the art form is predominantly about striking an opponent with different parts of the body. These parts include: 

  • Knees 
  • Elbows 
  • Sides of the palms and feet

Karate originated in the Ryukyu kingdom of Japan (now known as the Okinawa prefecture) under the influence of Chinese martial arts. This region was annexed to the Japanese Empire Japan in 1879, and karate was brought to the mainland in the 20th century when workers from the Okinawa province began venturing into Japan to look for work.

Karate began to be systematically taught throughout the country in the 1920s. 

Judo

Judo was founded in the 19th century by Jigoro Kano, who began to train in jiu jitsu (a Japanese martial art used to subdue or kill armed and unarmed opponents) to strengthen his frail body. Kano’s teacher emphasized technique over exercise, which sowed the seeds for his emphasis on a free martial arts practice.

By the time his teacher passed away, Kano was fluent in both randori (free practice) and kata (pre-arranged sets of movement). He used this extensive knowledge to create what we know as Judo.

Kano noticed that more people in contemporary Japan were uninterested in jujutsu and martial arts. He also believed that there was a more efficient way to strengthen the body, and the term judo was his attempt at codifying his principles and giving martial arts in Japan a new face that people would feel more inclined to practice. 

Judo emphasizes two main things:

  • The maximum efficient use of one’s physical and mental energy
  • The mutual welfare and benefit of oneself and all of society

He replaced the word ‘jutsu’ (technique) in jujutsu with the word ‘do’ (the way). Judo emphasizes adjusting and evading an opponent’s attacks while using their power against them rather than trying to resist a stronger opponent.

Kung Fu

Shaolin Kung Fu originated and was developed in the Shaolin Temple in the Henan Province of Greater China. 

At the time, monasteries were considered centers of regular income and needed to be protected from bandits. As such, there are ancient historical records of monks possessing exceptional martial arts skills since the establishment of the monastery.

However, many historical records claim that Bodhidharma, the founder of Chinese Buddhism, had a significant influence on Shaolin Kung Fu. 

The monks were too frail to handle the intense meditative practices introduced by Bodhidharma. So he taught them specific sets of strengthening exercises so their bodies could withstand the rigors of hours of intense meditation. These movements formed the foundation of what would later be known as Shaolin Kung Fu.

During the short-lived Sui Dynasty (581 A.D. to 618 A.D.), the Shaolin monks began to create fighting systems of their own, which shaped the martial art form known as Kung Fu.

Taekwondo 

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art developed in the 1940s and the 1950s by Korean martial artists who had trained in karate, Chinese martial arts, and traditional Korean fighting styles, like Taekkyon and Subak.

Taekwondo translates to Tae (foot), Kwon (hand), and Do (art or the way) and involves the use of one’s hands and feet to defend and attack with various techniques. 

After World War II, several dojos (known as kwons) across South Korea practiced something similar to today’s Taekwondo, each with a specific set of techniques and practices. In 1952, the then President of South Korea, inspired by a martial arts demonstration, began discussing the creation of a unified Korean martial art form.

Finally, in 1959, the Korea Taekwondo Association was established to unify the different martial practices being propagated through the country into a single Korean martial art. There were some issues with early practitioners who wanted the art form to contain principles from the different kwons across Korea. 

Eventually, the Kukkiwon was established in 1972 and worked towards creating a government-sponsored, unified style of Taekwondo.

Here’s a table to quickly summarize the origins of each martial art form discussed above.

Martial Art Form Year of Origin Country of Origin 
Karate17th Century (exact dates unknown)Japan (was formerly a separate colony called The Ryukyu Kingdom and is now integrated into Japan)
Judo19th Century (around 1882)Japan
Kung FuStarted between 581 A.D. and 618 A.D.China
Taekwondo1940 – 1950South Korea

Why Do Martial Arts Exist?

Martial arts were formed with practical purposes in mind for use within a combat context. Most developed originally as disciplines to train fighting within a military context. Some martial arts like Judo emphasized certain aspects of fighting like redirection and using an opponent’s energy.

Additionally, every martial art form has an embedded set of rules that helps people understand the moral codes integral to a more wholesome and fulfilling way of life.

The martial arts initially existed to teach people how to fight and strengthen the body and mind. Martial arts are still largely relevant for the same reasons today but also allow for cultural preservation and often emphasize wellness as a goal.

Cultural Preservation

As mentioned, martial arts require a particular code of conduct that has remained constant for decades (if not centuries, based on when the art was developed). 

These intrinsic rules or morals encapsulate a mindset or system that has been passed down through generations and helped preserve certain traditions and cultural values. So while we live in an increasingly progressive world, the martial art forms help link us to certain principles that have survived the test of time.

Wellness

Martial arts are also pursued due to the apparent benefits of regular practice to your mind, body, and soul.

  • Mind. All martial arts emphasize focus and discipline and provide techniques for aligning oneself with these values.
  • Body. Martial arts help strengthen, mobilize, and stretch the body to its limits.
  • Soul. Regular practice helps you better connect with yourself and develop an inner awareness that’s difficult to cultivate in today’s fast-paced world.

Aside from cultural preservation and improving one’s overall well-being, people learn martial arts today as self-defense to protect themselves from any form of physical assault. As such, martial arts are also popular across communities because they equip people with the tools to protect themselves from human aggression.

Final Thoughts

Martial arts really came about as combat systems with different places of origin. They provided a means of martial training for soldiers and civilians in different countries to learn to fight and often a codified set of techniques alongside a code of conduct.

In modern times, martial arts mostly exists to provide self-defense training, fitness, wellness, and for some martial artists, a competitive outlet in the form of combat sports.

For more check out my posts What Are the Types of Martial Arts? and Martial Arts and Combat Sports | What is the Difference?

Andre

Hi, I'm Andre and I am the author of this website. I have always been fascinated with martial arts and train them as often as I can. I currently train primarily in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and train judo and wrestling as secondary martial arts. I help to coach a kid's grappling program that blends all three martial arts. I hope that you find the value that you are looking for in the articles on this website.

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