Origins of Martial Arts available in the USA

Origins of Martial Arts available in the USA

Origins of Martial Arts available in the USA. For convenience, modern Asian weaponless striking and blocking arts may be divided into four major groups. These were originated or developed in China, Okinawa and Japan, Korea, and Southeast Asia. The vast majority of styles in the United States today can be traced to one or more of these areas of development.


The oldest and most influential of these groups is the Chinese martial arts. China was the cultural and military center of the Far East several millennia before the Christian era. Chinese systems of writing, government, art, warfare, etc., became the models from which the surrounding areas developed their own cultures.

Although there were many different styles within China, the general term for Chinese empty hand arts has been “Chung Gwo (center kingdom or China) ch’uan (fist) fa (way)”. The term now most widely used in China is “wu shu” (fighting hand or technique). The modern term “kung fu” is used in Hong Kong and the United States but not most of China. The term “kung fu” simply means accomplishment, expertise, or effort, so one might be a kung fu cook, or doctor, or martial artist.

Although there is evidence in stories and myths and from archaeological finds that fighting arts existed many centuries earlier, the oldest historical accounts of systematized fighting arts date from the middle to late Chou period in ancient China (1122-255 BCE). Further developments were recorded in the two Han dynasties (206 BCE-220 AD) and in the Ch’in dynasties (265-419 AD). Under Indian Buddhist influence, the so-called Shaolin systems evolved named after the temple where the Chan (Zen) Buddhist monk Bodhidharma taught in the fifth or sixth century AD. During the T’ang period (618-906) Chinese martial arts underwent a great development and its influence can be seen in techniques and even the names used in neighboring countries (e.g., T’ang Su (Soo) Do in Korea, and the Okinawan character for “Tode” or “Karate” originally meant T’ang or China hand)

Chinese systems can be divided into two types, internal (nei‑chia or nei‑kung) and external (wai‑chia). The internal or soft styles stress soft, neutralizing, defensive movements based on inner tranquillity and balance. Examples of this type are T’ai Chi Ch’uan (developed under Taoist influence) and Pa Kua. The external or hard systems emphasize more offensive harder technique. Most of the later variations of Shaolin styles are in this category. The external systems include the Dragon, White Crane, Wing Chun, Hung Gar, Praying Mantis, Monkey, Choy Lee Fut, and other styles. The styles that developed in northern China used longer-range techniques including high kicks, whereas southern styles tended toward mostly hand combinations with low kicks.

All these Chinese styles, both hard and soft, when compared to the arts of Okinawa, Korea and Japan will appear to be more circular and softer and so in the U.S. are referred to as soft styles.


Another major source of martial arts found in America today comes from Korea. The Korean schools usually place a great emphasis on kicking techniques. The general term for Korean kicking and striking arts is Tae Kwon Do. Formerly these arts were called Tang Soo Do with various schools such as Mu Duk Kwan. Some of the schools founded prior to 1970 still retain the older names.

By the 1960s the Korean arts were reorganized and unified under the name Tae Kwon Do. Under Japanese domination from 1905 to 1945, the Koreans had patterned much of their arts upon Japanese judo and karate. In their reorganization they eliminated some of the more obvious Japanese characteristics, such as the Okinawan type kata system which was entirely replaced in the early 1970s.

Although the major early influences on Korean military arts come from Mongolia and China, Koreans trace the origins of their empty hand arts back to an early type of foot fighting called Tae Kyon. In the 7th and 8th centuries AD, a military and religious movement developed a philosophy called Hwarang-do. The Hwarang-do movement died out long ago, but its influence remained and some modern Korean styles use this name for their training methods.

Tae Kwon Do is the national sport in Korea and with this support has spread rapidly throughout the world in the 1960s and 1970s as Japanese karate did in the 50s and 60s. 


There have been many forms of martial arts developed in Southeast Asia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, most greatly influenced by Indian, Moslem, and Chinese migrations into these areas. Some of the arts from these areas have played an important role in the development of other martial arts (e.g., see Okinawa above). The most well-known to Americans are probably the tough sport of Thai kick boxing (Muy Thai), which is now familiar to many in the US due to the popularity of mixed martial arts, and Filipino arts under the names of Escrima, Kali, or Arnis which are becoming more popular and more widely taught. Unlike most other modern martial arts, which begin with the empty hand and move to weapons later, the Filipino arts begin with a large arsenal of bladed and wooden weapons and then move to empty hand and grappling techniques. This was probably true of most other traditional martial arts in their earlier stages when real combat was more likely.


In 1372 Okinawa became a tributary of China and ch’uan fa was part of the cultural influx that dates from that time. Although fighting arts probably existed previously, the earliest known form of empty hand combat dates from this period and was called “tode.” With the unification of Okinawa in 1429 sea trade flourished and the two cities of Shuri and Naha became important shipping ports between the Indies and Southeast Asia and China, Korea, and Japan. Contact with these diverse areas, all of which had various forms of fighting arts, influenced the development of Okinawan fighting arts.

In 1609 Okinawa was subjugated by Japan and all weapons were banned. This further stimulated the development of weaponless fighting arts as well as the use of farm implements as weapons. The ch’uan fa and tode groups became secretive, and united to resist the enemy. This led to the development of various schools of te or Okinawa-te which continued into the late 1800’s when the term “kara-te” meaning China hand became prevalent.

Okinawa-te took several forms. The two most well-known were called Naha‑te also Shorei-ryu from the city of Naha and Shuri-te or Shorin-ryu from the city of Shuri. The Goju ryu and Uechi-ryu schools are derived from Naha-te and a variety of Shorin styles and Isshin-ryu derive from Shuri-te. It was during the 1800’s that the Okinawan kata systems were created and developed by these schools (see below for the definition of kata).

Modern Okinawan karate is said to be a combination of Okinawan fist techniques, finger strikes from Taiwan, open hands from China, and kicking techniques from Southeast Asia.

Japan had developed military arts of its own from prehistoric times. Some of the fighting arts indigenous to Japan are jujutsu and kendo and, more recently, judo and aikido. In addition, there had been some influence from ch’uan fa (ken-po). Karate, however, was not introduced until 1915 when Gichin Funakoshi, an Okinawan Shorin expert, demonstrated it in Kyoto and began teaching in a Japanese university a few years later.

Funakoshi, who founded the Shotokan style of karate, was followed by other Okinawan masters such as Miyagi, (founder of Goju-ryu) in 1928 and Mabuni (founder of Shito-ryu) in 1930. Like Funakoshi they developed programs in the major universities of Japan. From the 12th century on, the Japanese began to be dominated by the warrior class or Bushi. This culminated in the formalization of their code of ethics by Yamaga Soko in the 17th century during the Tokugawa period.

The code of the samurai was called Bushido and was a blend of Confucian ethics, Shinto religiosity, and mental discipline from Zen Buddhism. By the Meiji period in the l9th century, dueling and the long sword had been outlawed, and though the feudal age marked by constant warfare had ended, the martial spirit continued. 

The jutsu systems of fighting arts, stripped of their practical utility, began to develop into the “do” systems, that is, martial ways of spiritual or character development through the rigor and discipline of martial arts training. The major examples of this were kendo, judo, and aikido, which developed primarily in the l9th century. 

It was in this milieu that karate was introduced into Japan and was quickly adapted to the newer “do” movement, hence the term karate-do. In 1936, the characters for karate were changed to mean empty hand in keeping with the philosophy of the newer movement in the martial arts.

The major styles of karate in Japan are Shotokan, Goju, Shito, and Wado. These systems have produced many derivative styles as well. There are also many other styles practiced in Japan such as Shorinji kenpo, which are of foreign origin modified by Japanese development.


Prior to World War II, the only martial arts that had been introduced in the mainland USA were judo and jujitsu. In Hawaii, Okinawan karate and Chinese ch’uan fa were being introduced on a small scale. 

Prior to this, ch’uan fa had been taught in the USA, but only in Chinese communities such as Chinatown in San Francisco. In 1942, a form of Shorinji Kenpo (Shaolin ch’uan fa), originally Chinese but modified in Okinawa and Japan, was introduced to Hawaii. This system was further modified and eventually introduced to the mainland in the mid-50s as “Kenpo karate.” This was one of the first known school of “karate” on the mainland and was quickly followed by Japanese Shotokan and other schools in the mid-1950s.

Due to the rapid growth of interest in martial arts by US servicemen stationed in Japan and Okinawa after 1945, there began to be a great influx of martial arts into the US. Also, by the mid-1950s there were a few high ranking Japanese martial artists beginning to emigrate to the US. Servicemen stationed in Taiwan and Korea brought back ch’uan fa and Tae Kwon Do, which was also followed by the immigration of higher-ranking Asian artists.

In the 1960s, second and third generation Chinese Americans began to teach various styles of ch’uan fa (kung-fu) to non-Chinese, something which had previously been discouraged by the Chinese. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, an explosion of interest in Asian martial arts was reflected on television and in movies and by the large number of martial arts schools that opened. Much of the traditional Asian emphasis on the meditative, spiritual and ethical aspects of the art were replaced with an emphasis on commercialism, rank and personal achievement, and on the newest aspect of the arts, tournament competition.

Political rivalries were common, which was partly inherited from earlier rivalries and conflicts which had long existed in the Orient between styles and countries.

More recently, since the “boom” has passed, there has been a tendency to restore the emphasis on the traditional values, but the technical aspects of the arts in the U.S. have progressed a great deal as a result of competition, experimentation, and blending of styles. This in not unlike such periods of development in the past, only on a larger scale.

Author: Nigel Taylor

I`m Nigel Taylor – originally from England – owner of The Backyard Gym in Round Rock Texas. We specialize in personal training, kickboxing cardio and self-defense. With over 25 years experience as a personal trainer, I know what works! From weight loss to bulking up to toning up, I can help you get your desired look and achieve your fitness goals. I can also offer you the privacy of a 100% private personal training studio in which to enjoy and get the most out of your workouts.