Martial Arts Graphic

Our July issue introduces the various systems of martial arts, followed by an exploration of Chinese systems.

The martial arts hold a fascination for many people — both for those who train and often those who do not. The cultures of Asia have developed a vast number of arts which can be bewildering and confusing to someone interested in beginning study.

Looking at just some of the systems and arts, from China we find: Kung Fu (Shaolin, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut), Wu Shu, Tai Chi Chuan and Chi Gung [qigong]. From Okinawa, Karate (Shorin-ryu, Goju-ryu) and Kobudo. Korea gives us: Tae Kwon Do, Tang Soo Do, and Hwarang Do. From Japan: Judo, Jujitsu, Aikido, Karate (Shotokan, Wado-ryu, Shito-ryu), Ninjitsu, and Kendo. From Thailand: Mui Thai. And from the Philippines: Escrima, Arnis, and Kali.

In addition, there are combined or eclectic systems such as some schools of Kempo/Kenpo, Kajukempo, "American Karate," self-defense classes, kickboxing and Jeet Kune Do. Not to mention boxing, western (Greco-Roman) wrestling and fencing. But what are these systems? The goal of this article is to present some basic definitions and characteristics of arts from different nations.

No one system is best for everyone. Each system differs in its approach to discipline, class ritual, philosophy, combat, and weaponry. The culture of the nation of origin and types of physical requirements (such as the ability to perform head-level kicks, full splits and jumps) are also important considerations. Some systems place more emphasis upon the performance of sets (kata in Japanese, hyung in Korean). These teach technique, discipline, strength, coordination, and visual and mental focus through a prearranged set of moves. Others prefer instead to emphasize sparring.

It is important for a prospective student to find not only a compatible system, but also a compatible instructor. Different instructors even of the same system can have different personalities which appeal to different students.


China is the home of what we know of as Asian martial arts. In Chinese systems, Kung Fu is a general term for older systems, while Wu Shu is a modern competition-oriented sport requiring advanced acrobatic skill. Traditional Kung Fu is often characterized by long elaborate sets of moves, in which combat techniques may not always be obvious. This is the basis for common criticism that Kung Fu is not effective in fighting. The efficiency depends upon how the sets are taught and the amount of sparring in class.

Generally systems from northern China, such as Northern Shao-Lin (from the Buddhist Shaolin Monastery) and Long Fist, place more emphasis on high kicks, long range fighting, and acrobatics. Systems from southern China (Southern Shaolin, Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar) place more emphasis on lower kicks and closer infighting. Perhaps the best known example of this is the system of Wing Chun. Most systems contain techniques and sets patterned after the movements and qualities of animals. The best known is the Shaolin Five Animal system. Also popular are Eagle Claw, Praying Mantis, Tiger and Dragon.

There are several important general characteristics of Chinese systems. One is the presence of supplemental exercises and meditations, often labeled as chi gung or qigong (see articles in previous issues). The movements themselves typically are not based on combat moves, but are performed to enhance and promote health and longevity. The second is the use of certain medical practices (such as massage) and herbal formulae (to treat bruises and strengthen the hands to prevent injuries). These are important aspects without which no system of Kung Fu can be authentic. However, the laws and the litigious climate today often cause instructors to keep these practices quiet.

There is a separate tradition of "simpler," more directly combat-oriented systems. These were the systems in which soldiers were trained. This tradition seems to have survived in the kenpo/kempo systems. Believed to have been carried into Okinawa from China, these became the basis for karate. Chin Na, a system of grappling and joint locks is believed by some to be the basis for Japanese Jujitsu.

Also, there are the "soft" or "internal" systems of which Tai Chi Chuan is the best known. While these can be effective combat systems, they are generally more oriented toward personal growth, very much like chi gung. Often instructors, especially contemporary Americans, downplay the combative aspects.

We continue our exploration of the various systems of martial arts in the next issue of the Jade Dragon Online.

Dimitri Kostynick is a senior student of Taoist Master Share K. Lew. He is currently pursuing a doctorate in Anthropology.

Martial Arts articles of interest:

The Roots of Martial Arts
Profile:   Sifu Share K. Lew

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