A man in a white robe snaps a thick board in half with a swift karate chop. An actor uses flying kung fu kicks to beat the bad guys in a movie. A woman repeats the slow, graceful movements of t’ai chi with her hands and feet.
These actions belong to the martial arts. Millions of people practice a martial art. Millions of people also love to watch martial arts as sport or entertainment. Martial arts are codified systems and traditions of combat practices, which are practiced for a number of reasons: as self-defense, military and law enforcement.
WHAT ARE MARTIAL ARTS?
The martial arts are ways of fighting. People learn them for self-defense and for physical fitness. There are many different kinds of martial arts. Each martial art has its own moves. Karate, kung fu, and tae kwon do involve kicks and punches. Jujutsu, judo, and aikido use holds and throws.
Martial arts aren’t just about fighting, however. For many martial arts teachers, fighting is the last thing martial arts are about. Instead, they are about discipline and about improving the mind and the body. T’ai chi is a good example. It uses very slow, controlled movements mainly for exercise and relaxation.
WHERE DO THEY COME FROM?
Almost all the martial arts come from East Asia. Kung fu started in China over 2,000 years ago. Tae kwon do started in Korea. Jujutsu, judo, and sumo developed in Japan. The martial arts first came to the United States in the 1800s with immigrants from China and Japan.
HOW DO YOU LEARN A MARTIAL ART?
People study martial arts in classes with a teacher. The teacher is skilled in the martial art. Students learn not only movements but also rituals (behaviors and practices) associated with the martial art.
People who are training in most martial arts wear white pants and a white robe. They also wear a colored belt or sash. The color of the belt tells how good the person is.
A beginner wears a white belt. A master—somebody highly skilled—wears a black belt. In karate, for example, the belts are white, green, purple, brown, and black. Students earn each belt by mastering more moves and more skills.
MARTIAL ARTS AS SPORTS
People practice some martial arts as sports. That means they compete in tournaments.
Competitions in judo and tae kwon do are part of the Summer Olympic Games. You can watch kickboxing tournaments on television. In sumo wrestling matches, heavy men try to push, slap, or shove each other out of a small ring.
MARTIAL ARTS IN THE MOVIES
Movies have helped make martial arts popular. In The Matrix series, Neo uses martial arts to free humanity from machines. The Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles use martial arts to save the world. Even Princess Fiona in the movie Shrek knows some martial arts kicks.
Chinese actors Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan brought martial arts into their movies in the 1960s and 1970s. Martial arts have been growing in popularity ever since.