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Did Martial Arts originate in Asia?

Some of the most popular martial arts today include Tae Kwon Do, Karate, Ju-jitsu, Judo, and a host of others whose names clearly define their Asian origin. It seems almost a foregone conclusion that martial arts were invented in Asia. But were they?

At first glance, it does appear as if Asian countries hold something of a monopoly on styles. When we think of martial arts, we think of a bag of kicks, punches, locks, and throws, perhaps encapsulated within a structured framework. Can we somehow convince ourselves that ancient Europeans, Arabs, Africans, or even Australian Aborigines did not somehow have marital systems? This brings up the first point, in that we're talking specifically about styles of martial arts. No one would deny that European nations had a long history of boxing and wrestling (traceable back to at least the ancient Greeks), but few people would classify them as a martial art style. Wrestling is a sport, isn't it? In fact, both are martial systems, and it isn't hard to see why. What these lack, however, is a structured framework for learning. This was the principle invention from the Asian civilizations. These frameworks were and still are used frequently to train students all over the world. However, let's forget about the actual "style" and then ask a slightly different question. Were the Asian martial arts somehow a new technology? What existed in the rest of the world?

I will have to restrict our studies to the few civilizations that have records about such things. It is also important to note what exactly the Asian martial arts contain that would somehow make them unique. There are three major types of combat; armed, unarmed standing, and ground fighting. Think of these as broad categories. There is room for overlap, but when you look at the major styles out there, they can usually be fit into one of them. Karate, Tae Kwon Do, and Savate are unarmed, while Judo and Jui-jitsu are mainly ground fighting, although even these contain elements of the unarmed standing techniques.

The broadest category is armed. When you think of weapons in martial arts, some of the first things that come to mind are the nun-chukkas, bo staff, and samurai swords. These, however, don't even scratch the surface of what is really out there. The word martial comes from the Roman god of War, Mars. Thus, martial arts are mainly military arts. When this category is illuminated, nearly every civilization will bask in the glow. Just think of the huge variety of weapons out there. All of the classic martial arts weapons are really just implements of war. You can conceivably include every military weapon ever made in this group. Sticks. Arrows. Javelins. Rifles. Nuclear missiles. Jet fighters. You may then, rightfully, ask whether there were ever any arts based on these other myriad weapons to the degree of the Asian arts?

I have no desire to try to determine which martial arts are superior, and such a question is not even a valid one. The real question is what else existed, and does it constitute a sufficiently advanced body of knowledge to be considered among the elite weapons systems like that built around the Samurai sword, which is almost indisputable as a martial arts weapon. The ancient Greeks and Romans had no shortage of wars. Two classic examples of ancient warriors are the Spartans and the Roman Army.

Did the Spartans have a martial art? Although we will probably never know the true extent of their capabilities, we can say with hardly any doubt that they did. The life of a Spartan was a particularly grueling one, partly because they trained so much for war. They were quite successful in this activity, so whatever they did was effective.

At the age of seven, Spartan males were taken from their families and began their army training. They served until they were sixty. (Life expectancy during this time was in the low 30's. Thus, very few actually made it to this "retirement" age.) The Spartan trainees fought frequently, usually bare-handed. I find it hard to believe they didn't have a collection of techniques as rich as those in some modern martial arts. For them, knowledge was survival, not a pretty ribbon or trophy. Spartan fights, especially against more advanced trainees, could be quite brutal. They were trying to forge strong warriors, and this meant realistic training. Wrestling was also a popular activity, and Spartans, like many Greeks, would have known and used many of the techniques that would be familiar today. While the existence of a stable, effective Spartan unarmed system does not seem unreasonable, they definitely had an advanced armed system. The ancient Greeks warrior was known as a Hoplite. He wore a helmet, bronze or leather cuirass, armored grieves, and a massive shield. Unlike some recent movies suggest, the Spartans did not fight nearly naked. In fact, to their many enemies an advancing army of Hoplites, known as a Phalanx, was a virtual wall of armor and spears. It was this type of warfare that the Spartans excelled. Their weapons included their shield, a heavy spear, and a sword, usually used for stabbing and thrusting. The Samurai's swordsmanship is centered around the Katana, which is primarily a slashing weapon (and yes, it certainly could and probably was used for some thrusting as well). If you compared Spartan swordsmanship with Samurai, it would be an unfair comparison. I have so far never seen a Samurai with a shield (although their armor was still quite formidable), and this would have greatly affected their techniques. This also brings up a very important distinction, in that the techniques used by the Samurai were oriented around personal combat. The Spartans fought in a tight phalanx. Each person's shield protected the guy next to him. Their system was based on close teamwork, and their techniques were designed to maximize the impact of this strategy.


While the Samurai probably did work in teams, they certainly weren't swinging their swords shoulder to shoulder. Ancient Japanese armies (roughly mid-Second Millennia) fought in loose formations, and Samurai were closer to European Knights than Spartan hoplites. In fact, the Samurai sword itself was not the main weapon of the Samurai until late in their reign. Like the Knights of Europe, they wielded lances from horseback. They were also very effective archers. A Samurai was a highly trained individual, but the bulk of the army was composed of commoners. In war, the Samurai were the tanks of the ancient battlefield, and probably wielded considerable sway over the outcome of the battle.

The Spartan and Samurai tactics, from tight formations and teamwork in the former to individual combat prowess in loose formations in the latter, show that each system, while different, clearly contributed to the primary goal - victory in war. I will make no comparison, except to note that both systems were highly effective for long periods of time (i.e. centuries), so it would be difficult to say that they were not both martial arts, and that they were sufficiently advanced so as to be considered a separate style.

It is easy to speculate that many other armed systems existed that may have matched the Spartan or Samurai martial arts. I have already mentioned the Knights of Europe. Although some modern illustrations seem to depict armored men as clumsy and slow in battle, especially in full armor, this was certainly not true. The Knights of many parts of Europe trained extensively, and some of the manuals even exist today, although unfortunately this massive wealth of knowledge has been mostly lost. Even with what we have, though, it is clear that they knew what was at stake, and trained for it. They were actually closer to Samurai than Spartans, though, for, like the Samurai, they were the tanks of the battlefield, the highly skilled warriors expected to heavily influence the battle.

If the martial arts are thus generously represented for armed combat, what about unarmed combat? Is this where Asia's monopoly exists? There is something that must first be considered before we look at other parts of the world. The martial arts as we know them today did not exist not too long ago. Some of them, such as Tae Kwon Do, didn't even exist until the mid-Twentieth Century. However long a martial art exists, the techniques themselves exist much longer. When we look at the Asian martial arts, it is probably fairer to compare these techniques with those of other parts of the world. I will have to use Europe for part of this analysis, not because it may have been more advanced than other areas besides eastern Asia, but because we have at least some records for our analysis. Instead of asking, "Did Europe have a Jui-Jitsu?", it is perhaps better to ask, "Did Europe know anything about ground combat?"

We're already probably comfortable with the fact that the Europeans knew their armed martial arts (considering the number of wars they fought, they had plenty of experience), but we do not generally think their unarmed techniques were that robust. This perception is very highly reinforced in movies. While it is not as prevalent as it used to be, when movie writers need a skilled unarmed fighter in a movie, they often use someone of Asian descent. The hero usually uses some street fighter techniques to win, though, but the perception is that the Asian martial arts are superior.

Wrestling was popular in ancient Greece, and its traditions survived into the medieval period of Europe. In fact, it still survives as Greco-Roman wrestling, which is quite popular throughout the US and Europe as a sport. There can be no doubt that this is a martial art of a sort, but was it always a sport? It would be hard to say if it was ever used, or even intended to be used, in warfare in ancient Greece. It doesn't at first seem plausible that the heavily armored Hoplite was expected to lay down his weapons and fight on the ground. To answer this question, it is more useful to look at the tradition of the Medieval knights. Through this time period, instructors, some of them quite famous, who were the "masters" of their disciplines, taught the fighting arts. Besides the very obvious skill of swordplay, they also taught wrestling. Their techniques included joint manipulation as well as the usual panoply of moves used by wrestlers. These techniques were all geared toward victory on the battlefield, and probably retained none of the rules usually associated with Greco-Roman wrestling. These can probably be compared to Jui-jitsu. As usual, I won't attempt to say which is superior, but their goals and techniques were probably somewhat similar. I would suspect that the Knights' bag of tricks was far smaller than those of a Jui-jitsu fighter, though, because they had to use their techniques in armor. If the Knights of Medieval Europe could fight on the ground, then why not Spartans? The difference may be that the Knights, like the Samurai, didn't fight as a cohesive unit like the Spartans. The Knight may have found himself surrounded by his enemy far more often than the Spartan, but I suspect that every self-respecting Spartan knew how to find on the ground as well.

I have used the term "ground fighting" as a general description, when in fact it doesn't necessarily mean the art of fighting explicitly on the ground. A large part of wrestling is the art of getting an opponent to the ground, or preventing it. This is what the Knight had in his arsenal. He was taught ways to take his opponents down. Even if the fully armored Knights were not as slow as they are portrayed, it would still be a huge disadvantage to be on the ground. Instead of striking armored opponents to finish them, the Knights were taught joint locks and other techniques that would exploit the weaknesses of armor. While it would be difficult to do any damage from short range with punches, the opponent would hardly have any protection against some kind of elbow or shoulder lock.

While it may seem surprising that Knights were taught and used ground fighting techniques on the battlefield, wrestling was wide-spread in Europe. In fact, it was encouraged as a way of fighting, where the art of striking was not. In the surviving fighting manuals, there is a distinct lack of striking techniques. While strikes may be mentioned, most martial artists know that strikes are an art in itself. A fighting art that simply said "strike the opponent on the body," with no explanation on what a proper strike is, would not be very effective. A precursory examination of the Knight's standard "uniform," if it can be called that, would suggest that fully armored men couldn't strike other fully armored men. If European fighting arts lacked effective strikes, was it because they would be ineffective against armor? While some historians have suggested this as a possible cause, I do not find it convincing. Although Knights were fully armored, they were not always fighting fully armored men. The Roman soldier more than a millennia earlier had a formidable set of armor, but the Medieval peasant or mercenary probably didn't. I would think striking someone with an armored fist or elbow would be fairly effective. I also believe that some strikes would even have been effective against opponents in armor, especially to the head and knees.

According to some accounts, boxing was not apparently popular in Europe after the fall of the Roman Empire. Although I highly doubt the brawling ever became scarce, considering that quite often alcohol was safer to drink than water in those days, it didn't appear to have much official sanction. While it seems plausible that kings and clergy may have enacted rules against various strikes (not that the peasants followed them!), we can only conclude that if there were any highly skilled striking styles from the fall of the Roman Empire until the era of the Knights, they were lost.

Some historians hypothesize that Knights were interested in looking good as much as fighting, and repeated strikes to the face didn't mesh well with the former. While there may be some validity to this if any of a Knight's honor and swagger as depicted in popular culture is even partially true, this is only valid if they trained with full contact techniques. Certainly, they didn't break elbows in every wrestling session, so they knew how to measure their training.

These are just some examples of martial arts, but it is difficult to actually identify any of these European arts as a style. While we can imagine a wide array of techniques known by the Medieval Knights, there is no name for them, and in fact no way to identify them without comparing them to some Asia martial art. This brings up an important distinction, in that the Asian martial arts are mostly modern constructs. What are ancient are their techniques. Tae Kwon Do contains a huge variety of strikes and kicks, but the art itself wasn't invented until after World War II. Some forms of Kung Fu can trace their lineages much further back, and although the art existed for much longer, many of the techniques used in Tae Kwon Do were probably known at least as far back as the earliest known martial arts. I suspect that European fighting arts may have had a broad set of techniques like the Asian arts, except that no styles were ever created to preserve them.

If European martial arts ever had any robust striking styles, they have been lost to history. The exception is, of course, boxing. A good boxer has a huge array of knowledge, but it simply exemplifies, almost strikingly (pun intended), the lack of kicks. If there were any kicking styles, they are unknown, or are awaiting discovery in on a dusty shelf in an ancient archive. The Knights' ground combative techniques might have been completely unknown except for the few manuscripts that are available. European warfare may be to blame, as the 18th and 19th Centuries brought revolutionary new ways to wage war, far more destructive than ever before. The Asian martial arts may be unique in that they preserved them. A style is a framework for learning, and this itself is probably the single invention that cements the Asian martial arts as unique. I would like to reiterate that I have no preference for Europe, except that it has preserved some record of its own martial arts history. The Native Americans were fierce warriors, who often fought quite well until overwhelming numbers and technology led to their unfortunate collapse. Imagine what fighting knowledge has been lost!

Thus, the perception that Asian Martial Arts are superior is probably due to the fact that it survived when others did not. It did so because of the framework that led to the formation of styles, and, I suspect, that it was useful longer in Asia than in other parts of the world. Firearms took longer to rule the battlefield in Asia, and perhaps this reason alone is a large part of it. In a world where your enemies all have swords (Renaissance Europe), you learn how to use the sword. When they all have pistols and rifles (American Old West), you learn how to shoot. Martial Arts were, like the Rapier of Renaissance France or the revolver pistol of the Old West, a weapon of warfare and self-defense. They may or may not have been superior, but they did survive and evolved into the many styles that exist throughout the world.



















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