Although the earliest evidence of martial arts goes back millennia, the true roots are difficult to reconstruct. Inherent patterns of human aggression which inspire practice of mock combat (in particular wrestling) and optimization of serious close combat as cultural universals are doubtlessly inherited from the pre-human stage and were made into an "art" from the earliest emergence of that concept. Indeed, many universals of martial art are fixed by the specifics of human physiology and not dependent on a specific tradition or era.
Specific martial traditions become identifiable in Classical Antiquity, with disciplines such as shuai jiao, Greek wrestling or those described in the Indian epics or the Spring and Autumn Annals of China.
The earliest evidence for specifics of martial arts as practiced in the past comes from depictions of fights, both in figurative art and in early literature, besides analysis of archaeological evidence, especially of weaponry. The oldest work of art depicting scenes of battle, dating back 3400 BC, was the Ancient Egyptian paintings showing some form of struggle. Dating back to 3000 BC in Mesopotamia (Babylon), reliefs and the poems depicting struggle were found. In Vietnam, drawings and sketches from 2879 BCE describe certain ways of combat using sword, stick, bow, and spears.
The spear has been in use since the Lower Paleolithic and retained its central importance well into the 2nd millennium AD. The bow appears in the Upper Paleolithic and is likewise only gradually replaced by the crossbow, and eventually firearms, in the Present Day. True bladed weapons appear in the Neolithic with the stone axe, and diversify in shape in the course of the Bronze Age (khopesh/kopis, sword, dagger)
Some early examples are the depiction of wrestling techniques in a tomb of the Middle Kingdom of Egypt at Beni Hasan (c. 2000 BC) and pictorial representations of fist fighting in the Minoan civilization dating to the 2nd millennium BCE.
In ancient China, Yellow Emperor (2698 BC) is described as a famous general who, before becoming China’s leader, wrote lengthy treatises on medicine, astrology and the martial arts. Literary descriptions of combat began in the 2nd millennium BC, with mention of weaponry and combat in texts like the Gilgamesh epic or the Rig-Veda. Detailed description of Late Bronze Age to Early Iron Age hand-to-hand combat with spear, sword and shield are found in the Iliad (c. 8th century BC) and also the Mahabharatha.
An Egyptian fresco, dated to 3400 BC, and depicting military training at Beni Hassan is the world's oldest known artistic representation of an organised fighting system. In gymnasiums similar to those of Greece, recruits would practice wrestling, callisthenics and duelling with single-stick. The attacking weapon apparently had a basket-guard protecting the hand, while the left forearm had a splint strapped on to serve as a shield. Soldiers fought with spears, large shields with an eye-hole, clubs, axes, poleaxes, flails, bows, slings, and swords of various forms.
Later, martial styles as varied as Gidigbo (a form of wrestling practiced by the Yoruba people of Nigeria), Donga (a form of stickfighting practiced by the Suri people of Ethiopia), Musangwe (a form of bare-knuckle boxing practiced by the Venda people of South Africa), Tahtib (a form of stickfighting practiced by the Copts of Egypt) and Engolo (a form of kicking, dodging and leg sweeping practiced by the tribes of the Cunene river region of Angola), to name just a few, were developed by cultures all over Africa.
The evolution of the martial arts has been described by historians in the context of countless historical battles. Building on the work of Laughlin (1956, 1961), Rudgley (2000) argues that the martial arts of the Chinese, Japanese and Aleut peoples, Mongolian wrestling all have "roots in the prehistoric era and to a common Mongoloid ancestral people who inhabited north-eastern Asia."
Dhanurveda, a section found in the Vedas (1700 BC - 1100 BC) contains references to martial arts. Around the 3rd century BC, the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali taught how to meditate single-mindedly on points located inside one's body, which was later used in martial arts, while various mudra finger movements were taught in Yogacara Buddhism. These elements of yoga, as well as finger movements in the nata dances, were later incorporated into various martial arts.
Indian martial arts were an important influence in the development of a number of modern Asian martial arts, particularly within the Indian cultural sphere (countries outside India influenced by Indian culture and religion) of Southeast Asia. Examples include Indo-Malay silat, Burmese banshay, naban and bando, Filipino escrima and kali, Thai krabi krabong [and Cambodian bokator. Indian martial arts also lightly influenced the various forms of Indochinese kickboxing, namely Muay Thai from Thailand, Muay Lao from Laos, Tomoi from Malaysia, Pradal Serey from Cambodia and Lethwei from Myanmar.
Chinese boxing can be reliably traced back to the Zhou dynasty (1122-255 BC).] During the Spring and Autumn period, the literature mentions displays of archery, fencing and wrestling by nobles. Warfare between rival states was conducted according to Confucian chivalry (deference to rank, attacking in turn, food sent to hungry enemies). During the Warring States period, warfare grew bloodier and common men were expected to have skill in personal attack (chi-chi).
Shaolin monastery records state that two of its very first monks, Huiguang and Sengchou, were expert in the martial arts years before the arrival of Bodhidharma. The martial arts Shuāi Jiāo and Sun Bin Quan predate the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery by centuries. as does shǒubó (手搏).
Indian martial arts may have spread to China via the transmission of Buddhism in the early 5th or 6th centuries of the common era and thus influenced Shaolin Kungfu. Elements from Indian philosophy, like the Nāga, Rakshasa, and the fierce Yaksha were syncretized into protectors of Dharma; these mythical figures from the Dharmic religions figure prominently in Shaolinquan, Chang quan and staff fighting. The religious figures from Dharmic religions also figure in the movement and fighting techniques of Chinese martial arts. Various styles of kung fu are known to contain movements that are identical to the Mudra hand positions used in Hinduism and Buddhism, both of which derived from India. Similarly, the 108 pressure points in Chinese martial arts are believed by some to be based on the marmam points of Indian varmakalai.
The predominant telling of the diffusion of the martial arts from India to China involves a 5th-century prince turned into a monk named Bodhidharma who is said to have traveled to Shaolin, sharing his own style and thus creating Shaolinquan. According to Wong Kiew Kit, the Monk's creation of Shaolin arts "...marked a watershed in the history of kungfu, because it led to a change of course, as kungfu became institutionalized. Before this, martial arts were known only in general sense."
The association of Bodhidharma with martial arts is attributed to Bodhidharma's own Yi Jin Jing, though its authorship has been disputed by several modern historians such as Tang Hao, Xu Zhen and Matsuda Ryuchi. The oldest known available copy of the Yi Jin Jing was published in 1827and the composition of the text itself has been dated to 1624. According to Matsuda, none of the contemporary texts written about the Shaolin martial arts before the 19th century, such as Cheng Zongyou's Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method or Zhang Kongzhao's Boxing Classic: Essential Boxing Methods, mention Bodhidharma or credit him with the creation of the Shaolin martial arts. The association of Bodhidharma with the martial arts only became widespread after the 1904–1907 serialization of the novel The Travels of Lao Ts'an in Illustrated Fiction Magazine.
The discovery of arms caches in the monasteries of Chang'an during government raids in 446 AD suggests that Chinese monks practiced martial arts prior to the establishment of the Shaolin Monastery in 497. Moreover, Chinese monasteries, not unlike those of Europe, in many ways were effectively large landed estates, that is, sources of considerable wealth which required protection that had to be supplied by the monasteries' own manpower.
The historical origin of Japanese martial arts can be found in the warrior traditions of the samurai and the caste system that restricted the use of weapons by members of the non-warrior classes. Originally, samurai were expected to be proficient in many weapons, as well as unarmed combat, and attain the highest possible mastery of combat skills, for the purpose of glorifying either themselves or their lord. Over time, this purpose gave way to a philosophy of achieving spiritual goals by striving to perfect their martial skills.
Wrestling, called Ssireum, and Taekkyon are the oldest forms of unarmed fighting in Korea. Besides being used to train soldiers, these were also popular among villagers during festivals, for dancing, mask performance and sport-fighting. The ancient Koreans did develop their own comprehensive system of unarmed weapon-based combat, but they had a preference for bows and arrows. It appears that during the Goguryeo dynasty, (37 BC – 668 AD) subak (empty-handed fighting), swordsmanship, bow and arrow, spear-fighting and horse riding were practiced.
In 1593, Korea received help from China to win back Pyongyang from the Japanese. During one of the battles, the Koreans learned about a martial art manual titled Ji Xiao Xin Shu (紀效新書), written by the Chinese military strategist Qi Jiguang. King Seonjo (1567–1608) took a personal interest in the book, and ordered his court to study the book. This led to the creation of the Muyejebo (무예제보, Hanja: 武藝諸譜) in 1599 by Han Gyo, who had studied the use of several weapons with the Chinese army. Soon this book was revised in the Muyejebo Seokjib and in 1759, the book was revised and published at the Muyesinbo (Hangul: 무예신보, Hanja: 武藝新譜).
In 1790, these two books formed the basis, together with other Korean, Chinese, and Japanese martial art manuals, of the richly illustrated Muyedobotongji (Hangul: 무예도보통지, Hanja: 武藝圖譜通志). The book does not refer to Taekkyon, but shows influences from Chinese and Japanese fighting systems. It deals mostly with armed combat like sword fighting, double-sword fighting, spear fighting, stick fighting, and so on.
The Indonesian natives began to develop and formulate various style of combat and self-defence systems. Archaeological findings revealed that the origins of Pencak Silat dates back to the sixth century, to the times of the Srivijaya empire on Sumatra and also the 13th century Majapahit empire in East Java. Artifacts showed that this unique combat system had been used consistently through Indonesia’s history.
Filipino martial arts are considered hybrid systems which incorporates elements from both western and eastern martial arts. Its origins are Asian and come from a period wherein the various prehispanic Philippine states; Rajahnates, Kingdoms, Sultanates and Lakanates warred with each other, therefore producing a rich martial tradition with hundreds of schools as numerous as there are Filipino ethnic groups. It then incorporated Western elements when the Spaniards arrived from Mexico and they unified these prehispanic states unto one Filipino identity and thus, infused the Filipino martial arts with European styles of combat.
During the Spanish period, Chinese and Japanese converts to Christianity who fled to the Philippines away from their homeland's persecution, also enriched Filipino martial arts with their own styles. The British Occupation of Manila (Launched from India) and the Moro Wars also shaped Filipino martial arts up to a certain extent. Although the martial arts fell into disuse during the artillery-intensive Philippine Revolution and Philippine-American War, it became practical again during the Japanese occupation especially to Guerillas.
Vietnamese martial arts are influenced by efforts to defend the country from foreign threats . The most influential in the country's martial arts is China with its thousand-year occupation of Vietnam. But through thousands of years of internal, civil strife: dynastic changes (dynasties), foreign conquests, warlordism and guerrilla tactics, the Vietnamese martial artists used what they learned from their neighbors and evolved a unique form of martial arts.
The martial arts were used by Vietnamese kings to train their troops and to defend the country against enemies. In addition to the army, family clans and Buddhist temples cultivated a variety of styles to defend themselves.
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Bodhidharma was a semi-legendary Buddhist monk who lived during the 5th or 6th century. He is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Chan Buddhism to China, and regarded as its first Chinese patriarch. According to Chinese legend, he also began the physical training of the monks of Shaolin Monastery that led to the creation of Shaolin kungfu. In Japan, he is known as Daruma. His name means "dharma of awakening (bodhi)" in Sanskrit.
Little contemporary biographical information on Bodhidharma is extant, and subsequent accounts became layered with legend and unreliable details.
According to the principal Chinese sources, Bodhidharma came from the Western Regions, which refers to Central Asia but may also include the Indian subcontinent, and was either a "Persian Central Asian"or a "South Indian the third son of a great Indian king." Throughout Buddhist art, Bodhidharma is depicted as an ill-tempered, profusely-bearded, wide-eyed non-Chinese person. He is referred as "The Blue-Eyed Barbarian" (Chinese: 碧眼胡; pinyin: Bìyǎnhú) in Chan texts.
Aside from the Chinese accounts, several popular traditions also exist regarding Bodhidharma's origins.
The accounts also differ on the date of his arrival, with one early account claiming that he arrived during the Liu Song dynasty (420–479) and later accounts dating his arrival to the Liang dynasty (502–557). Bodhidharma was primarily active in the territory of the Northern Wei (386–534). Modern scholarship dates him to about the early 5th century.
Bodhidharma's teachings and practice centered on meditation and the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra. The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (952) identifies Bodhidharma as the 28th Patriarch of Buddhism in an uninterrupted line that extends all the way back to the Gautama Buddha himself. Bodhidharma also known as "The Wall-Gazing Brahmin"
There are two known extant accounts written by contemporaries of Bodhidharma. According to these sources, Bodhidharma came from the Western Regions, and was either a "Persian Central Asian"or a "South Indian the third son of a great Indian king." Later sources draw on these two sources, adding additional details, including a change to being descendent from a Brahmin king, which accords with the reign of the Pallavas, who "claimto belong to a brahmin lineage."
The Western Regions was a historical name specified in the Chinese chronicles between the 3rd century BC to the 8th century AD that referred to the regions west of Yumen Pass, most often Central Asia or sometimes more specifically the easternmost portion of it (e.g. Altishahr or the Tarim Basin in southern Xinjiang). Sometimes it was used more generally to refer to other regions to the west of China as well, such as the Indian subcontinent (as in the novel Journey to the West).
The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang
Blue-eyed Central Asian monk teaching an East Asian monk. A fresco from the Bezeklik, dated to the 9th or 10th century; although Albert von Le Coq (1913) assumed the red-haired monk was a Tocharian, modern scholarship has identified similar Caucasian figures of the same cave temple (No. 9) as ethnic Sogdians, an Eastern Iranian people who inhabited Turfan as an ethnic minority community during the phases of Tang Chinese (7th–8th century) and Uyghur rule (9th–13th century).
The earliest text mentioning Bodhidharma is The Record of the Buddhist Monasteries of Luoyang (Chinese: 洛陽伽藍記 Luòyáng Qiélánjì) which was compiled in 547 by Yang Xuanzhi (楊衒之), a writer and translator of Mahayana sutras into Chinese. Yang gave the following account:
At that time there was a monk of the Western Region named Bodhidharma, a Persian Central Asian. He traveled from the wild borderlands to China. Seeing the golden disks on the pole on top of Yǒngníng's stupa reflecting in the sun, the rays of light illuminating the surface of the clouds, the jewel-bells on the stupa blowing in the wind, the echoes reverberating beyond the heavens, he sang its praises. He exclaimed: "Truly this is the work of spirits." He said: "I am 150 years old, and I have passed through numerous countries. There is virtually no country I have not visited. Even the distant Buddha-realms lack this." He chanted homage and placed his palms together in salutation for days on end.
The account of Bodhidharma in the Luoyan Record does not particularly associate him with meditation, but rather depicts him as a thaumaturge capable of mystical feats. This may have played a role in his subsequent association with the martial arts and esoteric knowledge.
The second account was written by Tanlin (曇林; 506–574). Tanlin's brief biography of the "Dharma Master" is found in his preface to the Long Scroll of the Treatise on the Two Entrances and Four Practices, a text traditionally attributed to Bodhidharma and the first text to identify him as South Indian:
The Dharma Master was a South Indian of the Western Region. He was the third son of a great Indian king. His ambition lay in the Mahayana path, and so he put aside his white layman's robe for the black robe of a monk […] Lamenting the decline of the true teaching in the outlands, he subsequently crossed distant mountains and seas, traveling about propagating the teaching in Han and Wei.
] specifically mentioning Daoyu (道育) and Dazu Huike (慧可), the latter of whom would later figure very prominently in the Bodhidharma literature. Although Tanlin has traditionally been considered a disciple of Bodhidharma, it is more likely that he was a student of Huike.
In the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall (祖堂集 Zǔtángjí) of 952, the elements of the traditional Bodhidharma story are in place. Bodhidharma is said to have been a disciple of Prajñātāra, thus establishing the latter as the 27th patriarch in India. After a three-year journey, Bodhidharma reached China in 527, during the Liang (as opposed to the Song in Daoxuan's text). The Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall includes Bodhidharma's encounter with Emperor Wu of Liang, which was first recorded around 758 in the appendix to a text by Shenhui (神會), a disciple of Huineng.
Finally, as opposed to Daoxuan's figure of "over 180 years," the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall states that Bodhidharma died at the age of 150. He was then buried on Mount Xiong'er (熊耳山) to the west of Luoyang. However, three years after the burial, in the Pamir Mountains, Song Yun (宋雲)—an official of one of the later Wei kingdoms—encountered Bodhidharma, who claimed to be returning to India and was carrying a single sandal. Bodhidharma predicted the death of Song Yun's ruler, a prediction which was borne out upon the latter's return. Bodhidharma's tomb was then opened, and only a single sandal was found inside.
According to the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, Bodhidharma left the Liang court in 527 and relocated to Mount Song near Luoyang and the Shaolin Monastery, where he "faced a wall for nine years, not speaking for the entire time", his date of death can have been no earlier than 536. Moreover, his encounter with the Wei official indicates a date of death no later than 554, three years before the fall of the Western Wei.
The Record of the Masters and Students of the Laṅka, which survives both in Chinese and in Tibetan translation (although the surviving Tibetan translation is apparently of older provenance than the surviving Chinese version), states that Bodhidharma is not the first ancestor of Zen, but instead the second. This text instead claims that Guṇabhadra, the translator of the Laṅkāvatāra Sūtra, is the first ancestor in the lineage. It further states that Bodhidharma was his student. The Tibetan translation is estimated to have been made in the late eighth or early ninth century, indicating that the original Chinese text was written at some point before that.
Subsequent to the Anthology of the Patriarchal Hall, the only dated addition to the biography of Bodhidharma is in the Jingde Records of the Transmission of the Lamp (景德傳燈錄 Jĭngdé chuándēng lù, published 1004 CE), by Daoyuan (道原), in which it is stated that Bodhidharma's original name had been Bodhitāra but was changed by his master Prajñātāra. The same account is given by the Japanese master Keizan's 13th-century work of the same title.
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