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The Roots of Martial Arts


by Yuhan
Many people commonly believe that the martial arts are fighting skills developed for the purpose of warfare. This is not true. In comparison to the skills of the martial artist, warfare is crude and relies in great measure upon strength. In fact, martial arts probably had their earliest roots in individuals learning methods of defending themselves from attack by animals and other humans. Over many centuries these primitive defensive skills were explored, refined and systematized. Groups of people exploited this knowledge to protect themselves and their endeavors. In the process of developing the martial arts, ideas about longevity and the nature of our existence became entwined with the martial arts.

Many people think of the martial arts as having ancient roots, but few understand the actual course that the development of the arts took. The history of the martial arts is a old as civilization itself. Scholarly investigations of the origins of martial arts have revealed evidence of the practice of techniques in the area of Mesopotamia, the cradle of civilization. These origins have been traced to a time before any civilization had appeared in China or the Far East. Some of these primitive techniques are still practiced in the martial arts today! Even thousands of years ago there was contact between different regions. Trade and conquest spread people and their ideas to new places. Over time the concepts in the primitive martial arts spread east first to India. Here they fell on fertile ground and began their development in relationship to health, philosophy, and religion.

As the martial arts developed so too did the secrecy associated with them. People understood the value of this knowledge and tried to conceal it from others. As a result, there is much about the development of martial arts that is unknown. We do know that the religion of Buddhism developed in India and that many holy men traveled from India, especially to China. It is conjectured that they became adept in various martial arts in order to defend themselves during their travels. In so doing they brought this knowledge to China. Along with it they brought other knowledge relating to health and attitudes toward life.
Once introduced, the martial arts blossomed in China. Certainly the introduction occurred over many centuries and involved many practitioners. However, the Chinese have reduced the history of this process to a legendary tale revolving around one holy man – Bodhidharma. Bodhidharma was his Indian name and he was a Buddhist believed to be of a high ranking family. He left India discouraged with the trappings of his family’s wealth and sought enlightenment. He wandered to China and came to a small monastery in the Songshan mountains around 520 A.D. This monastery is the now famous Shaolin temple.

There Bodhidharma, whose Chinese name was Ta-Mo, introduced the monks to what was to become Zen Buddhism. Zen Buddhists practice long periods of static meditation in order to achieve enlightenment. It is said that Ta-Mo himself meditated continuously in a cave for nine years “listening to the ants scream.” To help the monks sustain their physical health he taught them exercises that were fundamentally martial arts. Thus we see that the legend really portrays the introduction of martial arts as a component of health, philosophy, and religion.

Over the centuries that followed, martial arts in China continued to develop until China became known as the home of martial arts. During this period of development these arts spread to other Asian countries including Japan, Korea, and the Philippines. Today these countries and others have their own tradition of indigenous martial arts influenced by the Chinese.

Just as mankind had invented and developed concepts like language and government since civilization began, so too has he developed the martial arts. The martial arts are not the property of any one people – they belong to all of us – and they will continue to develop in the future.

Join us in future issues as we continue our explorations into the mysterious world of martial arts.

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