The origin of an art and a lifestyle

In general terms, the collective imaginary moves to Asia when speaking of Martial Arts; however, the war between the peoples of mankind dates back to the beginning of the Neolithic era, and after these wars, vestiges have been captured in works of art in which representations of battles are appreciated, which today serve as evidence to trace the origin of martial or combat arts. Such is the case of cave paintings that can be found in eastern Spain dated between 10,000 and 6,000 BC. showing organized groups fighting with bows and arrows.

Photo 1 courtesy: Lost on Art, War scene in a cave painting.

It is worth noting that martial arts can be divided into armed and unarmed arts. The former include archery, spear, and fencing; the latter, it is thought, originated in China, emphasizing foot and hand strikes, and of course grips. However, wrestling is the eldest combat sport, with origins in hand to hand combat. Additionally, "Belt Wrestling" was represented in works of art from Mesopotamia and Ancient Egypt around 3,000 BC., and later in the Epic of Gilgamesh in Sumer.

Photo 2 courtesy: Wiki Commons, Detail of the wrestling fresco at tomb 15 in Beni Hassan, a town in Middle Egypt, located on the eastern bank of the Nile River.

Chinese martial arts originated during the legendary Xia Dynasty more than 4,000 years ago. The story tells that around 2,698 BC. Huángdì (黃帝), the Yellow Emperor, introduced the first combat systems in his empire, having written long treatises on martial arts even before he became the leader of China when he was still only a general.

The pillar of the melting pot

The foundation of modern Asian martial arts arguably stems from a mix of early Chinese and Hindu martial arts. During the period of the Warring States of Chinese history, 480-221 BC., the development of the martial strategy extended widely, as described by Sun Tzu in his book The Art of War. Likewise, written evidence of martial arts in South India dates back to Sangam Literature (சங்க இலக்கியம்), circa II century BC. to the II century AD., making clear that the combat techniques of the Sangam period were the first precursors of Kalaripayattu.

Also, certain legendary stories link the origin of the Shàolínquán (少林 拳), better known as Shaolin Kung-Fu, with the spread of Buddhism from ancient India to China in the early V century AD., with the figure of Bodhidharma, who according to legend was the one who began the physical training of the monks of the Shaolin Temple. Thus, one of the primary unifying aspects of East Asian martial arts, which distinguishes it from other martial arts, is the influence of Taoism and Zen Buddhism.

Photo 3 courtesy: Wiki Commons, "The moon through a crumbling window," Bodhidharma, by Tsukioka Yoshitoshi, 1887.

This influence has led to a strong emphasis on the mental and spiritual state of the practitioner, a state in which the functions of rationalization and calculation of the mind are suspended so that the latter, together with the body, can react immediately as a unit, reflecting the changing situation around the combatant. When this state is perfected, the everyday experience of the dualism of subject and object fades.

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Because this mental and physical state is also central to Taoism and Zen and must be experienced to be understood, many of his followers practice the martial arts as part of their philosophical and spiritual training. Similarly, numerous practitioners of the martial arts, in their armed and unarmed forms, undertake the practice of these philosophies as a means of spiritual development.

It is an arduous and difficult task to be able to accurately document the origin and other aspects of the martial arts, due to the lack of sufficient historical records, the secretive nature of teacher-student relationships, and the political circumstances surrounding much of its history. Furthermore, it would not be far-fetched to think that many techniques have been learned, forgotten, and relearned during the history of humanity and its wars. But what we can be sure of is that the martial or combat arts and the intrinsic lifestyle in them is here to stay, and lives as a burning and eternal flame in the hearts of its practitioners.

Read it in Spanish at Mundo Karate.

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