Traditional Martial Arts

The Term Tradition

The term “tradition” applies to real martial arts in many ways. The concepts and fundamentals of varying fighting styles and systems including weaponry have been handed down from generation to generation throughout history. Sets of moves, counter moves and mastery of weaponry, initially devised for hunting and then developed later on for combat during periods of war.

Times of peace still required these combative concepts in readiness for the possibility of war and were gradually developed and built upon over time. When these movements were discovered through their effectiveness on the battlefield, they would be remembered and become part of a warriors’ personal armoury. They would then study these movements in greater detail off the battlefield. Breaking down the various elements, each aspect would be developed, each movement built upon, thus forging the fundamentals we see today.

​ Through physical and cognitive study ultimately these movements progressed and became even more effective and valuable.

So began what we now know as martial art forms. These arrangements have many different names depending on their origin. These sets of movements either empty hand or with weaponry were devised to develop and enhance a deftness of movement through constant repetition. Anyone who has experienced a combative situation understands how easy it can be to find yourself in an uncomfortable or unbalanced position; the idea of form work is to enable a warrior to make any awkward staccato movement into efficient fluid motion. This helps to produce power as well as technique. The constant repetition of these forms (Chinese) increased warriors’ fighting skills.

This repetitive type of training is very old; it has survived because it works. In the West today most people find this difficult to understand. If this or any other aspect of the traditional training methods are not adhered to it will be detrimental to the student and the school. To be more succinct, this can be the beginning of the end of tradition

The use of weapons were almost certainly first devised for hunting. Their use obviously then expanded through the need to defend oneself and ones family from predators and other humans. The key to the survival of man since time began was his ability to use his hands or weapons to protect himself. In order to protect their land, homesteads, religions and therefore their way of life.

Consequently, what we now know as traditional martial arts can be traced back many thousands of years and even to the very beginning of man.

​ Many of these styles and battle customs have been lost over time and countless combative traditions forgotten through lack of use and the progression of man and his ever changing weaponry. Arguably, although widely believed, it was the invention of gunpowder by the Chinese that brought the slow progression of the end of many fighting styles. They were no longer effective against guns and explosives and so many died out, (Literally.)

​ Although many different groups and individuals can be named as contributors to the invention of gun powder, some of the most important groups were the Daoist alchemists during the reign of Emperor Wu Di (156-87 B.C.) Although a great many styles died out due to the succession of more modern and increasingly changing modes of warfare, unarmed styles were still focused on and practiced fanatically.

Bladed weapons were still thought of as weapons that were less likely to go wrong or malfunction in arduous conditions such as a rainy battlefield where gun powder could get damp or wet, or ammunition could run out. Not only were these hand held bladed weapons such as swords, spears and bows and arrows revered, but the “traditional” methods of training in their use, practiced and refined, enabled a warrior to use such weapons professionally.

These techniques were studied habitually, even religiously. This hard won knowledge was then passed from father to son or in many cases, from family, tribe or clan member and refined even further. Even today’s modern soldier will carry a knife on them as part of their combat kit.

​ Over 2000 years ago, classical martial arts emerged to serve the needs of war in China and war was abundant as in many other parts of the known world. The martial arts became a way of life for many, evolving into highly structured institutions.

Records of exercises known as “hit and thrust” were practiced as far back as the Shang dynasty (17th – 16th century B.C.), while the Western world birthed Stonehenge and the Trojan War.

Soldiers of these times, Spartans from Greece for example, during times of peace would do nothing else but train to fight for hours everyday; it was a failing army that did not. The Individual and group exercises with weapons and bare hands extended as far back as the Zhoudynasty (1066 – 256 B.C.). The Qin dynasty (221 – 206 B.C.) saw a form of combat known as asjiaoti introduced to the military as a major form of combat and athletic pursuit. A combat form with bare hands called shoupo, formal swordplay, emerged during the Han and Jin periods (206 – B.C. – 420 A.D.).


Confucius one of the most famous people in China; a wise philosopher (circa 551 – 479 B.C.) produced cultural and political systems concentrating heavily upon education for the upper classes, but viewed technology as gadgetry unworthy of the dignity of a scholar.

The martial arts in some forms had developed into an acceptable quasi-scholarly pursuit as well as a method of self defence. Many of these doctrines became and some still remain “traditional”. Many traditional schools still abide by the Confucian hierarchical values today, also the necessity of scholarly pursuits along side their martial endeavours.

​ Due to the longevity and therefore “tradition” in the true sense of martial arts, we can see its importance in the shaping of our history and societies. The preservation of traditional martial arts is imperative, not only for the development of self defence in what seems on some levels to be an increasingly dangerous world, but for the mind expanding ways in which these arts effect us.

​ When a Master of a little known Kung-Fu style died, if he had not either kept a written record or manual of his complete style, or passed it on successfully and completely, that style and all its history and development were lost forever. It’s as though it had become extinct. This often happened due to a lack of written information. I’m sure a great many styles and methods were lost in this way.

​ To be a true martial artist, studying the traditional styles takes a great deal of time due to its depth. To understand that it is a life time of study, not just of fighting techniques but also of a philosophical nature. As the body develops and with that fighting prowess and skilful movement so must the mind develop.

Modern Times

A traditional martial art can be preserved in modern times through realising that it is not about competition or sport, or even trying to be bigger or better than the next man. It is learning about the profundity and history that lies behind the traditional styles.

Through this type of education and insight the ego is suppressed, self confidence and self awareness or intuition matures. You become aware of many other facets of life and begin to focus on personal growth whilst helping others to grow, another important Confucian doctrine.

In today’s modern society, with the stresses and strains that can be bestowed upon us, we can certainly develop an edge to dealing with them by being calm and collective, secure in ourselves that we are progressing. As one’s advancement increases through years of traditional training, one begins to see the many layers of things still unlearnt. It begins to make one feel humble and yet insightful to the countless things still yet to be discovered. The unification of life in the training hall with that of our personal lives and how we nurture those beneficial changes.

The gratification that this kind of training can bring is totally relevant in modern times. The chances of going to war are slight for the majority but what we can do with our skills is to constantly seek to grow on all levels. To create discipline in our lives, to strive for perfection and honour our traditions. This has the effect of spilling over into all aspects of our lives. To learn to be truly happy with ourselves, this then will radiate out to the people around us and draw them near.

​ A traditional martial art can and should be preserved in modern times.

Most importantly, the students must be educated in understanding the historic customs of that school in order that they can continue the tradition. Consideration must be given to where these traditions come from and how various aspects have been worked at, altered, and improved upon through time. To know that as you learn you become the custodian of that hard won knowledge.

​ To not lose sight of the importance of maintaining that tradition for posterity, lest it be forgotten forever. To water down or diminish any element of a true traditional style and its methods is bordering on sacrilege. One must also be responsible when passing on that knowledge, to know whether ones students are worthy of that erudition, all these elements have a place in today’s society and have a sociological relevance.

​ The fact that anything with as much depth as a traditional martial art is not learnt easily must be accepted and that some of the ethics and doctrines can often be hard to grasp. Therefore this requires a person who can display deference, humility, and dedication to being part of a deep seated tradition and all that entails. With these qualities a person can begin to grow and expand as their knowledge of the style grows. In my opinion this has absolute relevancy in today’s society and also it is a great shame that more people do not think this way.

The Future

With the advances in technology and education today, we can always help to add too and therefore expand the real traditional martial art styles because they are always accepting of improvements. They are not stuck steadfastly or rigidly in ways that more modern styles are today, they remain open to change as long as it is beneficial to the original customs. This can only happen when the indoctrinated roots are firmly set down in the first place. Not to be narrow minded or short sighted in our vision of what has developed into a true art.