Martial Arts History
Humans have been fighting each other since before recorded history, but the concept of using the
martial arts as a tool for personal development is relatively modern. Although many people in geographic
regions created their own fighting systems for self-defense, the martial arts as we know
them today can be traced back to ancient India. They have spread and developed over the past two
thousand years, and continue to evolve today through styles like Cuong Nhu. To fully capture the
essence of Cuong Nhu, it is essential to understand the history and philosophy of the seven main
styles of influence, as well as a history of the martial arts in general. Over the years some histories
have become legendary, almost mythical stories with little physical evidence to support them. The
following accounts are compiled from the best documented, most reliable sources available.
The father of the modern martial arts was an Indian monk named Bodhidharma.
Bodhidharma was born a prince and raised as a member of the dominant warrior class
called the Kshatriya, comparable to the samurai of Japan or knights of medieval Europe. The
Kshatriya practiced an unarmed martial art known as Kalaripayat, which means "battlefield training."
Originating around 250 AD in the small villages in the state of Kerala in South India, masters
of the art also acted as village doctors, or shaman. Regarded as a form of ritual combat dedicated
to the goddess Kali, Kalaripayat consisted of 108 movements accompanied by special breathing
exercises. Growing up, Bodhidharma would have been trained in this art for many years to prepare
him for his life as a warrior king.
Eventually, Bodhidharma gave up his royal life for that of a Buddhist monk, and became the 28th
patriarch, or successor, in direct lineage to the Buddha. After his teacher's death around 520 AD,
Bodhidharma traveled to China to teach his sect of Buddhism known as Dhyana.
After a brief audience with the Emperor Wei, he went to teach at the Shaolin-si (Small Forest
Temple) at the foot of the Songshan Mountains in Hunan Province. Bodhidharma found the monks
at Shaolin to be in poor physical condition, so he supplemented their daily meditation with exercises
comprised of 108 movements (derived from his early training in Kalaripayat) to promote health,
fitness, and personal discipline. Although Bodhidharma is credited with fusing spiritualism with the
martial arts, it is important to note that other fighting systems did exist in China prior to his arrival.
Over the next 1,000 years his training methods evolved and combined with these styles to develop
into Shaolin Chuan Fa (boxing) otherwise known as Kung Fu (kung: time; fu: energy).
Tai Chi Chuan, the Ultimate Fist, was also developed in China. Founded by Taoist Chang San Feng
sometime during the latter part of the Sung Dynasty (960-1279 AD), Tai Chi is a soft or internal art
based on the concept of chi (ki: internal energy) and on the principle of yielding. Master Chang
San Feng originally studied tao yin, an early Chinese breathing art, and later used it as his basis for
what is known today as Yang style Tai Chi Chuan. It focuses on developing the bones and muscles,
breath control, and overcoming an opponent at the moment of attack. There are three aspects of
training: solo forms, pushhand drills with a partner, and weapons study, principally with the double-edged
The Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD) was a time of happiness and prosperity in China, and the Shaolin
Temple flourished, so much so that a second Shaolin Temple was built in Fukien Province to the
South. In 1644 the Manchurians invaded and conquered China, thus beginning the Chin Dynasty.
The Shaolin temples became centers for revolution and
their martial techniques made the monks formidable
opponents, so the Manchus sought to destroy them.
Sometime in the 1700's, with the help of rebel
monks who set fire to the temple from within, the
Manchu government laid siege to and burned the
Southern Shaolin Temple. Although many monks
were killed in the battle, some students were said
to have escaped along with the Five Elders, masters of the Shaolin fighting arts, the eldest of which
was Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun. The survivors went
into hiding, but Ng Mui never forgot the renegade
monks who had turned against them, and she prepared for the day when she might encounter them
again. After much analysis, Ng Mui designed a fighting method that was very unlike the traditional
Shaolin style which tended toward strength training,
wide stances, and long range techniques. Instead, this new
style relied on proper alignment (centerline principle) and economy of motion, and was characterized
by short stances and close range fighting techniques (it is possible that the Five Elders had
been developing this style as a "secret weapon" before the temple was burned). Ng Mui taught her
new style to a woman named Yim Wing Chun, which means "Beautiful Springtime", and it is after
her that the style Wing Chun (also Wing Tsun) Kung Fu takes its name.
Over time, the martial arts of China spread to neighboring countries and influenced the indigenous
fighting systems of the people who lived there. Shaolin Chuan Fa made its way to the island of
Okinawa by 1000 AD, and the Chinese characters for Chuan Fa were translated as Kempo
(Kenpo) the Way of the Fist. It was also called Kara-Te, or Chinese Hand. These martial arts came
to be of great importance to the native farmers and fisherman when Okinawa failed to supply the
Japanese with supplies that Japan needed for an attack against China in 1592. As a result, the
Satsuma Clan occupied Okinawa in 1609 and immediately imposed martial law. All Okinawan
weapons were confiscated, and the Okinawans themselves were relegated to the position of serfs,
forced to serve their Samurai overlords. Since their swords and other usual weapons were now
gone, the Okinawans developed new weapons including the bo, tonfa, nunchaku, sai, and kama.
They also refined their unarmed martial arts, which came to be known as Okinawa Te (Okinawan
Hands). These arts were practiced in secrecy for the next two hundred years.
Master Gichen Funakoshi was instructed in various aspects of Okinawa Te by his three uncles, and
introduced these arts to Japan in 1917. In 1922, he stylized his art and moved to Tokyo, Japan,
where he opened a dojo that became known as the Shotokan (Hall of Shoto: Shoto, meaning "pine
tree", being Gichen Funakoshi's pen name when he wrote calligraphy). To better describe his art,
Gichen Funakoshi saw fit to modernize the term Karate to mean "empty hand", and added the word
do which indicates a way of life, or "path." Shotokan Karate-do is categorized as a "hard" or external
art, characterized by its strong punches, blocks, and kicks.
Prior to the importation of Karate-do, the Japanese practiced their own style of unarmed fighting
called Ju-jitsu (ju: soft, yielding; jitsu: technique). Formalized in 1532 AD by Hisamori Takenouchi,
Ju-jitsu was originally intended for disarmed bushi (warriors) so that they could defend themselves
against enemies who were still armed. Ju-jitsu utilizes close combat techniques including striking to
vital areas, throwing, joint locking, and choking. One hundred and fifty years later, a Ju-jitsu master by
the name of Professor Jigoro Kano created a "martial sport" by eliminating Ju-jitsu's lethal elements
and adding rules and regulations to train and educate the young. Founded in 1882, Kodokan Judo
(ju: soft; do: the way), "the gentle way", involves anticipating an opponent's attack and throwing
the opponent using minimum effort, then following up with locks and immobilizations. A judoka
trains in falling, unbalancing opponents, and eventually, free attack (randori) which includes throwing
Also evolving from Ju-jitsu was Aikido (ai: combine; ki: internal strength; do: the way), which was
founded in Japan in 1938 by Morihei Uyeshiba. Aikido uses joint manipulation, throws, and some
aspects of Kendo (the way of the sword). Aikido is a soft style that advocates the coordination of
mind and body, harmonizing with and using an opponent's weight and strength against them.
Chinese Chuan-fa spread to Vietnam as well, where the people developed their own methods of
fighting. Japanese arts were introduced around World War II, and further influenced Vietnamese
styles. Grandmaster Nguyen Loc researched and systemized the many different Vietnamese martial
arts and wrestling styles to create Vovinam (Vietnamese Martial Arts), a style that "combines the
martial arts philosophies of the Orient with the practicalities of the Occident." Vovinam's philosophies
are based on humanity and harmony, and the martial arts techniques of Vovinam encompass
various forms of self defense and combat based on the principle of Yin and Yang co-development,
including both hard and soft techniques. In 1946 the name Vovinam was changed by Grandmaster
Loc's successor, Grandmaster Le Van Sang, to Viet Vo Dao, the Way of Vietnamese Martial Arts.
While the martial arts were developing in the Far East, fighting styles were also being practiced in
Europe. These, too, may have been influenced by Oriental arts. "Silk roads", or trade routes,
stretched from the Mediterranean borders of the Roman Empire to Central China since 100 AD, and
resulted in Europe's exposure to Far Eastern cultures. However, the fighting arts of both Europe
and Asia probably share an even earlier relationship. They both may have had their beginnings in
Africa! The oldest records of systemized unarmed fighting techniques are Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics
in the Great Pyramids. These tell about and depict unarmed fighting systems that resemble
boxing and wrestling that were practiced by the Pharaoh's army. These arts may have spread
East to become the forerunners of Kalaripayat in India, and they most certainly spread to Greece
by way of Crete, as described in the twenty-third book of Homer's Iliad. Boxing and wrestling were
contests of skill at the first Greek Olympics. These unarmed fighting methods were further refined
by the Romans, but they did not develop the moral and ethical training that Bodhidharma had introduced
to the Oriental martial arts until the age of chivalry, around 1200 AD.
Barefist boxing remained a popular spectator activity in Europe throughout the Dark Ages, and it
was not uncommon for matches to include all manner of grappling and striking. It was the British
who first presented boxing as a ruled sport. The first of the "Prize Ring" champions was James Figg
(or Fig), who at the age of 24 opened a training studio, Figg's Amphitheater, in London in 1719,
where he staged bouts and taught the combative arts. Figg was an expert at quarter-staff (bo), cudgel,
and short sword fighting, but it was as a bare-fist boxer that Figg made his name. Figg took on
all challenges and remained undefeated until 1733 (he died in 1734), and it is from his skill and enthusiasm
that the sport of Western Boxing was born. Jack Broughton succeeded Figg as the second great
founding father of the ring. Broughton also fought prize bouts, and taught "the theory and practice of that
truly British Art" in his London Academy. After witnessing his mentor, Figg, being choked by his opponent
for over half a minute before escaping, Broughton began refining a new code of rules to eliminate such
brutality These included no hitting below the belt or striking a fallen opponent.