Martial Arts Styles Overview

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There are four main categories of martial arts — Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Brazilian — and there are a few styles within each category. There is also a category of martial arts called Mixed Martial Arts or MMA that uses a mix of techniques from other combat sports and martial arts.

The goal of this report is to provide an overview of the main categories of martial arts and a brief description of the various martial arts styles within each category.

Although people generally select a martial arts school for reasons other than style (e.g., reputation, location, character-development emphasis, family focus, self-defense) it’s still good to have a general understanding of the martial arts styles before beginning a search for the best martial arts school for you.

Japanese Martial Arts

The development of martial arts in Japan was marked by some distinctive traits, namely, the influence of the samurai warrior tradition and the geography of Japan itself.

Both the samurai warrior structure and the caste system restricted the use of weapons by members of non-warrior castes. Originally, samurai were expected to be proficient in many weapons, as well as unarmed combat, and attain the highest possible mastery of combat skills. Over time, this purpose gave way to a philosophy of achieving spiritual goals by striving to perfect their martial arts skills.

This philosophical shift was possible because of Japan’s relative isolation. Compared with the rest of the world, Japanese tools of war evolved slowly. This afforded the warrior class the opportunity to study these tools, such as swords, and train in depth. This depth of training led to the development of many different styles and techniques.

Of these Japanese martial arts, the sword fighting martial art of Kendo is the oldest.

There is a distinction today between the traditional arts, which are a continuation of the ancient martial arts, and the modern arts, which focus primarily upon self-improvement of the practitioner (mental, physical and spiritual), as well as sport and self-defense.

The enduring sport of sumo wrestling, which traces its origins to 23 B.C., still employs ancient traditions and rituals – the referee is dressed as a Shinto priest and the competitors engage in ceremonial acts such as throwing salt into the ring. Both reflect the role sumo wrestling had in the Shinto religion.

The main Japanese martial arts are jiu-jitsu, aikido, judo, and kendo.

* Jiu-Jitsu

Jiu-Jitsu is an ancient martial art that involves grappling techniques (its name translates literally into “the art of pliance”). It focuses on the ability to use indirect force, such as joint locks or throwing techniques, to defeat an opponent, as opposed to relying upon direct force such as punching or kicking.

While jiu-jitsu training includes kicking and punching, its focus is on maximizing the ability to use an attacker’s force against him and counter-attack where he is weakest or least defended.

Today, jiu-jitsu is practiced in many forms, both ancient and modern. While pure forms of Japanese jiu-jitsu are still practiced today, various methods of jiujitsu have been incorporated or synthesized into judo and aikido, as well as being exported throughout the world and transformed into sport wrestling systems (e.g., Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Mixed Martial Arts or MMA — see below). Elements of jiu-jitsu have also been adopted in whole or part by schools of karate and other unrelated martial arts.

* Aikido

This martial art, developed by Morihei Ueshiba of Japan, is a synthesis of the founder’s martial arts studies, philosophy, and religious beliefs. It is designed to be an art that can be used as self-defense that does not inflict injury upon the attacker.

The techniques of aikido, when applied judiciously, can divert or immobilize rather than damage or kill. Aikido emphasizes redirecting the attacker’s energy, as opposed to meeting force with force.

Aikido consists primarily of body throws and joint-locking techniques. In addition to physical fitness and technique, mental training, controlled relaxation, and development of “spirit” (ki) are emphasized in aikido training.

Ueshiba developed aikido primarily during the late 1920s through the 1930s through the synthesis of the older martial arts that he had studied.

In aikido, as in virtually all the Japanese martial arts, there are both physical and mental aspects of training. The physical training in aikido is diverse, covering general physical fitness and conditioning, as well as specific techniques.

Because a substantial portion of any aikido curriculum consists of throws, the first thing most students learn is how to safely fall or roll. The specific techniques for attack include both strikes and grabs; the techniques for defense consist of throws and pins. After basic techniques are learned, students study freestyle defense against multiple opponents, and in certain styles, techniques with weapons.

Aikido incorporates elements of judo and jujitsu, among other Japanese martial arts. It is classified as a grappling style of martial arts. It is not an Olympic sport.

* Judo

Judo is one of only two martial arts that are Olympic sports (the other is tae kwon do). In judo, the object is to throw one’s opponent to the ground, immobilize or subdue the opponent by using a grappling maneuver, joint lock or choke. Unlike other martial arts, kicks, punches, and thrusts are not allowed in competition or freestyle practice.

In English, judo is translated as “the gentle way” – instead of meeting force with force, this refers to the principle of using one’s opponent’s strength against him and adapting well to changing circumstances.

For example, if the attacker pushes against his opponent, he would find his opponent stepping to the side and allowing (often with the aid of a foot to trip him up) his momentum to throw him forwards (the inverse being true for pulling).

Judo throws employ leverage rather than pure strength; a competitor can pull an opponent off-balance or get below the opponent’s center of gravity to toss him or her to the ground.

This sport, developed by Kano Jigoro in the mid 19th century, has many similarities to the ancient art of jujitsu. But unlike older martial arts, which have the sole purpose of combat fighting, judo offers a holistic approach to life that extends far beyond martial arts training.

* Kendo

Its name means “way of the sword,” and this ancient martial art is over 650 years old. Practitioners use practice swords of bamboo, called shinai. They wear protective clothing that includes body padding, padded gloves and a mask with metal bars that protects the face. Attached to the mask are shoulder protectors that protrude up and over the shoulders.

The wide divided skirts, called hakama, allow fighters to move freely; the garment hides their leg movements, making it difficult for opponents to guess one another’s moves.

As in other martial arts, Kendo students learn various forms, called kata, and also participate in sparring or fencing competitions.

Chinese Martial Arts

China has one of the longest histories of continuously-recorded martial arts tradition of any society in the world, with hundreds of varied styles. Each of these distinctive styles has its own set of techniques and ideas.

According to legend, the reign of the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, introduced the earliest forms of martial arts to China. The Yellow Emperor is described as a famous general who, before becoming China’s leader around 2698 B.C., wrote lengthy treatises on medicine, astrology and the martial arts.

The missive “The Art of War,” written during the 6th century B.C. by Sun Tzu, deals directly with military warfare but contains ideas that pertain to the Chinese martial arts. Those examples show that over time, the ideas evolved and took on a philosophical tone.

Taoist practitioners have been practicing Tao Yin, physical exercises similar to early forms of Tai Chi Chuan, at least as early as the 500 B.C. era. The Taoist symbol of yin/yang shows how strength should be balanced with compassion and gentleness, a tenet of many forms of martial arts.

With regards to the Shaolin style of martial arts, the oldest evidence of Shaolin participation in combat are records from 728 A.D. that attests to two occasions: a defense of the Shaolin Monastery from bandits around 610 A.D. and their subsequent role in the defeat of Wang Shichong at the Battle of Hulao in 621 A.D. By the mid-16th century, military experts from all over China were traveling to Shaolin to study its fighting techniques. The 1,600-year-old Shaolin Temple is the most famous landmark in the martial arts world.

Chinese martial arts started to spread internationally with the end of the Chinese Civil War and the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1, 1949. Many well-known martial art practitioners chose to escape from the PRC’s rule and migrate to Taiwan, Hong Kong and other parts of the world.

Those masters started to teach in the overseas Chinese communities, but eventually, they expanded their teachings to include people from other cultures.

Some famous practitioners of Chinese martial arts include Jackie Chan, Jet Li, and the late Bruce Lee.

The term kung fu does not refer to a particular style of martial arts; it commonly refers to Chinese martial arts in general. The term became popular in the late 1960s, because of the Kung Fu TV series and Hong Kong films with Bruce Lee in particular.

The main Chinese martial arts are karate and tai chi.

* Karate

Karate, an amalgam of Chinese and Japanese martial arts, is known primarily as a striking art (it is translated from Japanese as “empty hand.”

It originated in the southernmost islands of Japan, the Ryukyu islands that were originally allied with China; Japan later took control of these islands. The largest of these islands is Okinawa. This martial art developed, therefore, with these distinct influences.

The sport features punching, kicking, knee/elbow strikes and open-handed techniques. However, grappling, joint manipulations, locks, restraints/traps, throws and vital point striking also appear in karate.

It has many similarities to the Korean sport of taekwondo. One note of distinction, however, is that tae kwon do uses more kicks, while karate has a greater emphasis on punches and strikes.

There are many components to modern karate training, including forms and sparring. It is an art, sport and self-defense training. Weapons comprise another important training area, as well as the psychological elements incorporated into a proper attitude such as perseverance, fearlessness, virtue and leadership skills.

Karate may be practiced for many reasons, but was originally developed for self-defense. The forms, or kata, contain a variety of techniques intended for this purpose: hand strikes, kicks, locking and grappling. However, proper training is required to make these techniques usable against a determined aggressor.

Most styles include some form of two-person prearranged self-defense exercises as well as sparring or semi-sparring (structured sparring with limited options allowed for either partner). This allows for the development of a sense of range and timing. A number of styles practice hard-contact sparring.

Some schools are criticized for claiming to teach practical martial arts despite a lack of two-person training to develop needed attributes. An instructor may believe that practicing kata suffices to develop the necessary skills.

Other schools may intentionally place emphasis on tournament preparation, physical conditioning, or aesthetics (developing form for form’s sake), rather than self-defense. These schools will typically still teach self-defense techniques as well.

* Tai Chi

Sometimes called “moving meditation,” tai chi has been regarded as a martial art and its traditional practitioners still teach it as one. It has developed a worldwide following among many thousands of people for purposes of health and longevity. Tai chi theory and practice is centered on the principles of traditional Chinese medicine. Its benefits include health maintenance and stress management.

Originally developed in China as a form of self-defense, this graceful form of exercise has existed for about 2,000 years. Tai chi training first and foremost involves learning solo routines, known as forms. And while the image of tai chi in popular culture is typified by exceedingly slow movement, many styles (including the three most popular, yang, wu and chen) have secondary forms of a faster pace. The other half of traditional tai chi training (though many modern schools disregard it entirely) are partner exercises known as pushing hands, as well as martial applications of the postures of the form.

It’s becoming increasingly popular around the world, both as a basic exercise program and as a complement to other healthcare methods. According to the Mayo Clinic, health benefits include stress reduction, greater balance, and increased flexibility — especially for older adults.

Korean Martial Arts

Martial arts have existed in Korea since the earliest ages, although they were lost for a time during the 20th century. Much of Korea’s martial heritage disappeared during the 1910-45 Japanese occupation of Korea, during which time the Japanese forbade the practice of Korean martial arts.

After the Japanese occupation, new Korean martial arts like hapkido and tae kwon do blossomed, and interest in Korea’s own ancient martial arts traditions grew. Today, tae kwon do is the national sport of South Korea.

Going back to ancient times, during the Goguryeo Dynasty (around the time of Christ) it is believed that subak (a general term for barehand martial arts imported from China), pronounced shoubo, was practiced. Paintings showing martial arts have been found on the walls of royal tombs, which were believed to been built for Goguryeo kings sometime between 3 and 427 B.C.

Subak is mentioned in government records from the Goguryeo Dynasty through the Joseon (or Yi) Dynasty, which lasted from 1392-1910. Practicing subak became part of the training for Silla’s hwarang warriors and this contributed to its spread on the Korean peninsula. But again, we do not know exactly which techniques the hwarang warriors practiced.

Quite often Buddhist monks, who added more spiritual aspects to the art, instructed the hwarang warriors. Their greatest contribution to the development of Korean martial arts is probably adding a spiritual dimension to the training practices, something that Korean martial arts lacked before.

In spite of Korea’s rich history of ancient and traditional martial arts, Korean martial arts faded into obscurity during the Joseon Dynasty. Martial arts were lowly regarded by the society’s scholar-kings. Remnants of traditional martial arts such as subak and taekyon were banned from practice by the general populace.

The art nearly vanished, but taekyon survived through underground teaching and folk custom. As the Japanese colonization established a firm foothold in Korea, the few Koreans who were able to attend Japanese universities were exposed to okinawan and Japanese martial arts. Koreans in China were also exposed to Chinese martial arts. By 1945, when the Korean peninsula was liberated from Japanese colonization, many martial arts schools reflecting foreign influence were formed and developed under various names.

By the end of the Korean War, nine martial arts schools (translated as kwan) had opened. These schools unified into one, “tae kwon do,” submitted by General Choi Hong Hi, a general in the South Korean army and the founder of the Oh Do Kwan, for the new unified form. Following taekwondo’s official name submission on April 11, 1955, the Korean Taekwondo Association (KTA) was formed in 1959 to facilitate the unification. Shortly thereafter, taekwondo made its debut in North America.

The main Korean martial arts are hapkido and taekwondo.

* Hapkido

With its flowing, circular movements and philosophy of non-resistance, hapkido bears striking resemblance to the Japanese martial art of aikido. In fact, hap means “harmony,” or “joining;” ki describes internal energy, strength, or power; and do means “way” or “art.” Thus, hapkido, which shares the same Chinese characters with aikido, translates as “the way of coordinated power.”

While some commentators claim hapkido has a Japanese lineage, others state that its origins lay with indigenous Korean martial arts.

On the “hard-soft” scale of martial arts, hapkido stands somewhere in the middle, employing “soft” techniques similar to aikido and “hard” techniques reminiscent of tae kwon do and forms of karate. Even the “hard” techniques, though, emphasize circular rather than linear movements.

Different hapkido schools emphasize different techniques — joint locks, pressure points, throws, kicks, and other strikes. However, some core techniques are found in each school (kwan), and all techniques should follow the three principles of hapkido, non-resistance, circular motion and the “water principle.”

Hwa, or non-resistance, is simply the act of remaining relaxed and not directly opposing an opponent’s strength. For example, if an opponent were to push against a hapkido student’s chest, rather than resist and push back, the hapkido student would avoid a direct confrontation by moving in the same direction as the push and utilizing the opponent’s forward momentum to throw him.

Won, the circular principle, is a way to gain momentum for executing the techniques in a natural and free-flowing manner. If an opponent attacks in linear motion, as in a punch or knife thrust, the hapkido student would redirect the opponent’s force by leading the attack in a circular pattern, thereby adding the attacker’s power to his own. Once he has redirected the power, the hapkido student can execute any of a variety of techniques to incapacitate his attacker. The hapkido practitioner learns to view an attacker as an “energy entity” rather than as a physical entity. The bigger the person is, the more energy a person has, the better it is for the hapkido student.

Yu, the water principle, can be thought of as the soft, adaptable strength of water. Hapkido is “soft” in that it does not rely on physical force alone, much like water is soft to touch. It is adaptable in that a hapkido master will attempt to deflect an opponent’s strike, in a way that is similar to free-flowing water being divided around a stone only to return and envelop it.

* Tae Kwon Do

Tae kwon do (or taekwondo) is one of the most widely practiced martial arts in the world. It is one of two martial arts represented at the Olympics (judo is the other one).

As with many other martial arts, tae kwon do is a combination of combat technique, self-defense, sport, exercise, entertainment, and philosophy. It developed after the end of the Japanese occupation of Korea in 1945 and quickly spread throughout the world after the Korean War, which ended in 1953.

Although there are great doctrinal and technical differences among taekwondo organizations, the art emphasizes kicks thrown from a mobile stance, using the leg’s greater reach and power to disable the opponent from a distance. Tae kwon do training also includes a comprehensive system of blocks, punches, open-handed strikes, various take-downs or sweeps, throws, and some joint locks.

Taekwondo distinguishes itself from martial arts such as karate by its emphasis on kicking instead of the reliance on hand techniques of these other martial arts. Tae kwon do practitioners believe that the leg is the longest and strongest weapon a martial artist has, and kicks thus have the greatest potential to execute powerful strikes without successful retaliation.

Although only sparring is contested in the Olympics, breaking and forms are also contested frequently in other competitions. All three are parts of a traditional tae kwon do curriculum, with a fourth part being hosinsul (self-defense). Olympic-style sparring consists of three non-stop rounds of contact with rest in between.

Tae kwon do as a sport and exercise is popular with people of both sexes and of many ages. Physically, taekwondo develops strength, speed, balance, flexibility, and stamina. An example of the union of mental and physical discipline is the breaking of boards, which requires both physical mastery of the technique and the concentration to focus one’s strength.

Brazilian Martial Arts

The Brazilian martial arts are a combat sport and a self-defense system that focuses on grappling and especially ground fighting.

The main Korean martial arts are Brazilian jiu-jitsu and mixed martial arts (MMA).

* Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) is a form of Japanese jiu-jitsu that formed from Kodokan Judo ground fighting principles. It is most strongly differentiated from other martial arts by its greater emphasis on grappling and especially ground fighting.

Since its inception in 1882, its parent art of judo was separated from older systems of Japanese jiu-jitsu by an important difference that was passed on to Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu: it is not solely a martial art, but it is also a sport; a method for promoting physical fitness and building character in young people.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu (BJJ) promotes the concept that a smaller, weaker person can successfully defend against a bigger, stronger, heavier assailant by using proper technique and leverage. Sparring in BJJ is commonly referred to as rolling.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu came to international prominence in the martial arts community in the early 1990s, when Brazilian jiu-jitsu expert Royce Gracie won the first, second and fourth Ultimate Fighting Championships, which at the time were single elimination martial arts tournaments. Royce fought against often much larger opponents who were practicing other styles, including boxing, shoot-fighting, muay thai, karate, wrestling, and taekwondo. It has since become a staple art for many Mixed Martial Arts (see below) fighters and is largely credited for bringing widespread attention to the importance of ground fighting.

Mixed Martial Arts or MMA

Mixed martial arts (MMA) is a full-contact combat sport that allows for both striking and grappling, both standing and on the ground, using techniques from martial arts and other combat sports. The first document use of the term mixed martial arts was in a review of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993.

The UFC was originally promoted as a competition to find the most effective martial arts for real unarmed combat. Over time, it became clear that using a mixture of styles was the most effective.

Today the sport of MMA now rivals boxing and professional wrestling in popularity. Due to this popularity, many single-style martial arts schools have added the teaching of other styles of martial arts to their curriculum.


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