Neal Zephyrin

Part I

We previously defined Martial Arts as “being skilled in the relations of war “. We also defined a martial artist as “an individual who is skilled in the relations of war “.

War, in early history was “personal “. It was often fought in close range between warring factions and many times required proficiency in hand-to-hand combat. The common belief is that the first version of martial arts was a fighting system developed in Asia, more specifically China or Japan. While there is a definite truth to this assumption, it is somewhat limiting in its scope.

If we defined martial arts as being skilled in the relations of war, clearly Asia cannot be the sole originators,or practitioners of martial arts. That would mean that all other civilizations and cultures lived harmoniously with no wars or civil strife. History has successfully proven this not to be the case. While encyclopedic volumes have been written on the history of martial arts, the goal here is to only briefly touch upon the roots of martial arts in various cultures and subsequently the role of martial arts in our current culture.

Research indicates writing was invented in Sumer at about 3000 BCE. Earlier historic accounts were deciphered from hieroglyphics found in tombs in North Africa. These artifacts often displayed drawings of men kicking, punching and grappling, more specifically wrestling. Wrestling was the most popular martial arts of ancient cultures.

When we think of wrestling, we don’t usually associate it directly with martial arts. It is more widely known as a sport. However, military officials in ancient civilizations had to be adept in wrestling as part of their military training, which makes wrestling’s relation to war very significant. Based on the definition of martial art, this would qualify wrestling as such.

Wrestling flourished in the Middle and Far East. Accounts of wrestling matches in Babylonia and Assyria date back to 2000 BCE. In Mongolia, wrestling was practiced in religious festivals and Mongolian soldiers were required to learn it. In Eretria, a city on the Greek island Euboea, vases show well-drawn scenes of wrestling and Pankration. Accounts of East-Indian and Turkish martial arts predate the birth of Christ. (We will delve more into Indian martial arts in subsequent issues).

Let’s briefly look at the origins of the popularity of Asian (Chinese and Japanese) martial arts in the west.

Okinawa’s first recorded contact with the Chinese was during the Sui Dynasty in 607 AD. However, because the Chinese were not able to understand the Okinawa dialect, they had returned without setting up any meaningful trade agreements. Then in 1372, four years after the Mongols fell to the forces of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), state representatives were sent to an Okinawan city to establish an alliance. In 1393, a Chinese mission was established in the capital of Okinawa, where Chinese immigrants had settled. This is important because it illustrates how the Chinese fighting traditions were first systematically transmitted in Okinawa.

In our next issue, we will continue on this brief cultural and historical journey of martial arts and their influence on the west.

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