Martial Arts Graphic

OKINAWA — Okinawa is the largest of the Ryukyu Islands, approximately 400 miles east of the Chinese mainland, and midway between Taiwan and Japan. Unarmed techniques originated in southern China between 1300-1600. At first these were called either "te" meaning "hand" or "Kara Te" meaning "Chinese hand." Following the southern Chinese influence, Okinawan systems emphasized medium to close range fighting and low kicking. They also stressed both circular and linear techniques.

The most notable systems are Shorin-ryu (descended from the Shao-Lin systems of China) and Goju-ryu (generally translated as "hard /soft" system). The other primary branch, Kobudo, emphasized training in the use of native tools (mostly for farming) as weapons.

For much of the time Kara Te was being practiced, Okinawa was under Japanese rule, leading to an emphasis on discipline and secrecy. Generally training included calisthenic exercises to loosen and warm the body and a seated meditation for training discipline. One of the foundations of the Okinawan systems is the sanchin kata. Developed for combat application, sanchin kata also builds both musculature and ki (the internal energy also called chi in Chinese).

KOREA — Located near the northern region of China, Korean systems follow the northern Chinese prevalence of high (head-level) kicking, including jumping (aerial) techniques. Korean systems often cover the spectrum of long to short range techniques, from circular to linear.

Perhaps the best known Korean system is Tae Kwon Do. However, the Korean government has designated it as a "martial sport," rather than a martial art. In the latter category are Tang Soo Do (translated as "China Hand Way" and using the traditional written characters for "Kara Te"), Hwarang Do, Yudo, Kuk Sul Won, and Hapkido. As with Okinawa, Korea was under Japanese control from the beginning of the 20th century until the end of World War II. Since that time, South Korea has remained on a military footing. Thus, in the '50s and '60s, the first group of Korean instructors, consisting of former military combat veterans, brought to the U.S. a heavy emphasis on discipline that has carried over to this day.

JAPAN — Japan has a long history of martial arts developed for the battlefield. As swords and spears are no longer primary battlefield weapons, today's emphasis is on personal growth and sport-oriented systems. This is the case with arts such as Kendo (fencing), Iai-do (the drawing of the sword) and Kyudo (archery). This is also seen in the evolution of the grappling and throwing arts from battlefield-oriented Jujitsu to sport Judo to the more spiritual, generally nonaggressive Aikido.

Karate was introduced from Okinawa in the 1920s. With its introduction the written name was changed from "Chinese hand" to "empty hand," though the word was pronounced the same.

Techniques of Japanese karate tend to be medium to short range, primarily hand-oriented with lower kicks than Korean or northern Chinese systems. The mechanics of the movements tend to be more linear, and relatively "hard." This "hard" quality is recognized by Western physics in terms of muscular strength and contraction, mass, direction and velocity. There is typically great emphasis upon discipline and repetition for development of mental and visual focus, as well as mind/body unity. Typically, the internal energies focused upon by the Chinese and some Korean systems are developed through repetition of combat techniques, rather than through supplemental exercises. However, seated meditation is typically practiced for quieting the mind and disciplining the body.

During the eighties, the art which seemed to receive the most attention was Ninjitsu. The ninjas were said to have begun as groups of hermits and mystics living in the mountains. However, they are best known by their latter role as hired assassins. Most schools of Ninjitsu emphasize the practice of combat techniques rather than prearranged sets (kata).

THAILAND — Thailand, once known as Siam, is located on the southeast Asian mainland. The dominant art from Thailand is Muai Thai, generally translated as Thai boxing. An extremely effective combat system, it also is the most popular spectator sport in Thailand. Generally, young boys in Thailand practice Thai boxing the way boys here play baseball or football. Specializing in medium to close range fighting, elements are similar to western boxing. Muai Thai is notable in its use of elbows and kicking, especially attacking with the knees. In recent years, it has become a standard part of the curriculum of eclectic systems.

Trainers typically use aspects of Chinese medicine in conditioning boxers. Additional preparation includes prayer-like meditations with visualization.

PHILIPPINES — The Philippines are a cluster of islands located south of Taiwan and west of Vietnam. The arts are known by several names, most notably Kali, Escrima, and Arnis. It is basically the same art known by different names on different islands. The art is best known as a weapon fighting system, utilizing batons, knives or swords, used one in each hand, in various combinations. The same techniques can be used without weapons as open-hand techniques.

Instead of formalized sets or kata, the Philippine arts teach patterns of movements, from which the student builds individual responses to particular situations. Because of the effectiveness of the movements and the flexibility of technique, most eclectic systems heavily incorporate the Philippine arts.

A second major feature is the importance of secrecy which was apparent in the absence of organized, formal schools. Open schools are a recent development. This secrecy clouds the issue of "internal" aspects.

ECLECTIC SYSTEMS — It seems one of the trends of the 90s will be eclectic systems combining techniques from many arts for effective combat. Given the fast pace of modern life, many students simply do not have the time (years, often decades) to invest in traditional, formal training. They need to be able to use what they learn in that night's class that night, against someone who is unwilling to follow formal sparring rituals. In many cases the emphasis is upon the student learning a small number of flexible techniques and responses; rather than a large inventory of sets ritualized in class sparring. In many cases, the curriculum tends to be oriented toward self-defense and the use of weapons.

The best known of these eclectic systems is Bruce Lee's Jeet Kune Do. Most systems which have the word "American" in their name, and many schools of Kenpo/Kempo draw on several systems. One of the best known examples is Kajakempo. Also included here are short-term classes in "self-defense" or rape prevention.

Especially with eclectic systems, there can be vast differences between different teachers: their backgrounds, what techniques they teach, and their attitudes. There is often little or no meditation and medical practice. Thus, it is important for prospective students to check out each school.

One topic which has not been addressed is the different opinions concerning classes taught by and exclusively for women. Those in favor see value in women students learning from someone with whom they can identify. It is often seen as an environment where women can feel safe while they are learning. This leads to an important quality of group emotional support and solidarity. Those opposed feel that it fails to provide a realistic combat scenario. Since women are more likely to be attacked by men, it is important for them to get experience dealing with both the emotional as well as physical issues, in the safety of a class setting. Some people recommend women beginning in an all-woman class and later transferring to a coed class for more realistic sparring. Again, this is an individual decision.

It seems there are two approaches gaining popularity in the 90s. One is the eclectic systems for quick and effective defense. The other is T'ai Chi Chuan and Chi Gung, primarily for health and longevity. However, the discipline, ritual and group solidarity of the "traditional" arts is a major attraction for many people.

The prospective student should investigate both systems and instructors. Visiting a class and asking other students is one good method of investigation. Trying out a class is also recommended. The most important advice is to take your time and not be overwhelmed by the choices.

Dimitri Kostynick is a senior student of  Taoist Master Share K. Lew.  He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology.

Part 1 of our two-part series Martial Arts:   An Overview (July 1998)

Martial Arts articles of interest:
The Roots of Martial Arts
Profile:   Sifu Share K. Lew
Current Event Clips:   Police Martial Arts

We continue our exploration of the various systems of martial arts in the next issue of the Jade Dragon Online.


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