This is one of the commonest questions we encounter and I’d like to share what might look like a very vague answer!
A misty background history – Europe
We sometimes hear statements such as “the Japanese invented martial arts” or sometimes “the Chinese invented….” etc.
In practice, there are both elements of truth in such statements and also some serious misconceptions.
The reality is that to some extent, the martial arts have always been with us.
The Roman legionaries and gladiators had formalised training regimes. As you can imagine, many of these were without weapons or with wooden ones that weren’t likely to seriously injure and certainly not prove lethal.
Many of these regimes were based around repetitive moves and body manoeuvres that were designed to facilitate semi-automatic responses in real combat. If it were possible to watch such training sessions, it’s highly likely that many of them would look like dance or exercise.
Certainly, this continued on into the European Mediaeval period with knightly drills and later into the formalisation of things such as fencing.
A misty background history – Asia
Several Asian cultures developed dance, exercise and meditation routines thousands of years ago. At the same time, they had military training regimes of a similar sort to those in Europe.
The big difference was that in several Asian cultures (there are arguments about the who, where and when!) the dance, exercise and meditation routines subsumed some of the combat disciplines. In Asia, this merging was unique and formed disciplines we today call the martial arts that were arguably more about philosophy and consciousness than combat per se.
As a result, in Asia a view evolved that saw the body as a spiritual whole that could, in very rare circumstances, be called upon as a defensive weapon. That led to the development of an emphasis on unarmed combat to an extent that was not paralleled in Europe.
The story of the Western “discovery” of Asian martial arts is relatively well documented and their evolution continued, including the creation of new disciplines (e.g. the Mixed Martial Arts) formed by the merging of originally distinctly different traditions. This process continues today and has spread well outside of the original Asian homelands – for example, a form of specific Jiu-Jitsu evolved in Brazil that includes African and South American dance and exercise traditions.
It’s a fascinating story but not one that culminates is a definitive “the martial arts were invented by…” type of answer! Why not come along to discover more?