Our Martial Arts Roots


Reputed to be the father of Asian martial arts, China played a large role in the development of martial arts in Japan and Korea. Okinawa’s karate, the root of Japan’s present day karate traces it origins back to the Shaolin kung fu of China’s Fukien province. Korea’s famous Three Kingdoms and their martial arts were influenced by nearby China, as was the famous Shilla Kingdom, through its treaty with Tang Dynasty China. China’s enormous size and long history makes it a likely source of many Asian martial arts.

We commonly call China’s martial arts kung fu. The term kung fu literally means hard work, not martial art. It’s a term made popular during the Bruce Lee movie era, when Westerners were first exposed to his amazing fighting abilities. The correct terms for Chinese martial arts are either wushu, which means martial art, or koushu, which translates to national or military art.

Chinese martial arts are often separated into two categories – external and internal. External Chinese martial arts are those that use muscular force, combined with speed and body strength to produce power. External Chinese martial arts are known by their area of origin in China. For instance, famous external northern Chinese martial arts include northern preying mantis, chang quan, monkey, and northern Shaolin. Southern Chinese external martial arts are mainly the southern Shaolin temple arts, such as choy li fut, hung gar, wing chun and hung fut.

The other types of Chinese martial arts are the internal martial arts. They use what the Chinese call chou jing, or wise force, to overcome their opponents. They actively combine qi (chi or ki) energy with muscle strength to produce power. Arts such as taiji quan (tai chi chuan), xingyi (hsing-i), bagua (pa kwa) and swai zhou (Chinese wrestling) are the best-known Chinese internal martial arts. Today’s common internal Chinese martial arts have their origins in northern China and always contain some amount of internal training alongside fighting practice. Internal training often also includes standing meditation and special qi developing exercises.

Chinese martial arts are known by their circular arm and hand movements. Northern styles are famous for high, powerful kicks. Many Chinese arts imitate the fighting tactics of fierce or clever animals, such as dragon, tiger, leopard, preying mantis, crane, or monkey.


Japanese martial arts are known as more straight line fighting styles, than the circular techniques of their Chinese cousins. Commonly called karate by those of us in the West, Japanese arts range from empty hand martial systems to joint locking and throwing systems to styles devoted entirely to weapons practice.

The art of karate, which originally meant China hand but is now written as empty hand, came to Japan from the island of Okinawa, where fighting with weapons was banned for many years. The Okinawans developed such an effective self-defense system that many Japanese masters wanted it as their own. So, it was brought to the Japanese mainland in 1922 and eventually became the best known Japanese martial art. The karate arts include styles such as shorin-ryu, goju-ryu, wado-ryu, shito-ryu, shotokan, uechi-ryu, and many others.

Before karate became well known in Japan, the most popular Japanese martial arts were ken-jutsu and ju-jutsu. Ken-jutsu has its origins in Japan’s samurai culture and swordsmanship. It covers not only kendo, where heavily protected fighters spar with wooden swords, but also iai-do, defensive sword drawing and cutting from scabbard to the first cut. Japan is famous among Asian martial arts for the skill of its ancient sword smiths, who forged the finest blades in the Orient.

Ju-jutsu is a martial art based on joint locks and throwing techniques that disarm and control an attacker. From the martial art of ju-jutsu came the martial sport judo. Judo was first developed in the early 1900s as the competition form of ju-jutsu. An even more recent offshoot of ju-jutsu is aikido, a martial art that uses the opponent’s own movements and energy as weapons against them.

There are Japanese martial arts that teach archery and special long weapons, such as the naginata, a long staff with a sword-like blade attached, that became famous as a weapon very effectively used by women warriors.

There are Japanese martial arts that teach archery and special long weapons, such as the naginata, a long staff with a sword-like blade attached, that became famous as a weapon very effectively used by women warriors.

Japanese martial arts are steeped in tradition and discipline to one’s teacher and to the art itself. Along the same lines, an instructor is obligated to also have a responsibility to the student. All Japanese martial arts have their roots in the principles of bushido, the way of the warrior. The result is a close family-like association between instructor, student and martial art – bushido.