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The Ancient History of Martial Arts

Martial arts are among the most respected sports in the world, not only because of their ancient origins, but also because they teach important values and principles.

In physical terms, learning martial arts teaches you how to defend yourself, which is a skill that can benefit people of any age, but among the most important lessons are discipline and responsibility.

Martial arts teaches children that it doesn’t matter how hard you fall, you must keep getting back up again and moving forward. In life, we're faced with challenges and obstacles and it's how we deal with them that determines our future.

Martial Arts

© Uladzimir / Adobe Stock


History of martial arts

The earliest documented evidence of martial arts can be found in early literature and art, although it's impossible to say exactly when the sport began.

The oldest paintings depicting what appear to be scenes of combat, similar to martial arts, date back to Ancient Egypt in 3400BC - showing military training at Beni Hassan, where recruits appear to be practicing wrestling and duelling with a stick.

Similar paintings and also poems relating to forms of combat were found in Babylon, in the historical region of Mesopotamia in western Asia. In China, ancient literature, dating from 2698BC, describes the "Yellow Emperor", a famous general who became China's leader. He wrote lengthy papers on martial arts, medicine and astrology.

Various combat styles are described in ancient literature from various parts of the world. The Yoruba people of Nigeria describe a form of wrestling called Gidigbo, while the Suri people of Ethiopia practiced a type of stick-fighting called Donga.

Another form of stick-fighting began among the Coptic people of Egypt, while the tribes of the Cunene River region, in Angola, developed a style that included kicking, leg-sweeping and dodging. These are just a few of the different styles that developed over hundreds of years, but there could be many more.

Historians say human aggression has probably inspired the practice of mock combat since the dawn of time. It has become an art form in many cultures and is symbolised by close combat. Early, diverse forms of martial arts have developed into a number of recognised sports today.



While karate is traditionally associated with China, its origins may lie in India, more than 1,000 years ago. A Buddhist monk called Bodhidharma is believed to have practiced an early form of temple boxing, which resembled karate, to strengthen the mind and body.

Later, Bodhidharma taught Zen Buddhism in Shaolinsi, China, where he also taught what was later to become karate. Three distinct styles of karate branched out from the original temple boxing style, named after the three Okinawan cities from which they emerged: Naha, Tomari and Shuri spawned Naha-te, Tomari-te and Shuri-te.

The disciplines became known as karate-jutsu, meaning "Chinese hand art". The name was changed to "karate-do", which translates as "the way of the empty hand".

Although karate spread worldwide during the 20th century, it took until August 2016 for the International Olympic Committee to add it to the Olympic Games. It will make its debut at the 2020 games in Tokyo.



Taekwondo began around 2,300 years ago in Korea. Its name is derived from three Korean words: "tae", "kwon" and "do", meaning "foot", "fist" and "way of". Its literal meaning is "the way of the foot and fist". It's an empty-hand form of combat that uses the whole body for jumping kicks, dodges, punching, blocks and parrying.

The Hwarang warriors, of Korea's ancient Silla kingdom, led the growth of Taekwondo throughout the country. The region was often attacked by Japanese pirates and the early Korean Koguryo masters trained the warriors in martial arts to defend themselves.

Taekwondo grew during the Yi dynasty, which spanned from the 1390s until 1907. It was taught to the public, instead of just the military, with the emphasis on fitness and recreation, rather than combat.

Today, it is an international sport, practiced in more than 190 countries, that has been an Olympic sport since the 2000 Summer Olympics in Australia.



The historic Japanese martial art of Judo dates from the 7th century AD. First documented during the reign of Empress Jito, between 686 and 697, the moves have their origins in Sumo.

By the 12th century, Sumo was branching out into other forms of martial arts, under the influence of the Samurai warriors. Although they fought with bows and arrows and swords, they also developed hand-to-hand combat techniques to fight their enemies.

When the era of Samurai rule came to an end in 1868, their fighting techniques were in danger of becoming obsolete, especially when Western culture filtered into Japanese society, but a young man, Jigoro Kano, aged 17, began to study the techniques under Yanosuke Fukuda, of the Tenjin Shin'yo school of Jiu-Jitsu, to improve his physique.

In 1882, at the age of 21, he invented a new style of combat which became modern judo, incorporating his favourite elements of Jiu-Jitsu and modifying them. He travelled to Europe in 1889 to demonstrate his unique sporting style, which soon spread worldwide.

Men's judo first became an official event at the Tokyo Olympics of 1964. Women's judo made its debut as a demonstration sport at the 1988 Seoul Olympics and was added to the official programme at the 1992 Olympic Games in Barcelona.



Aikido is a relatively modern Japanese martial art invented by the great sensei, Morihei Ueshiba, who was born in 1883. The martial arts instructor opened his first school, known as a dojo, after leaving the Japanese Army, where he had served during the Russo-Japanese War.

First, he studied Jiu-Jitsu under Takeda Sōkaku in the pioneer settlement of Hokkaido, before leaving in 1919 to set up his own martial arts school. He launched the famous Aikikai Hombu Dojo in Tokyo in 1926 and became highly respected in martial arts circles.

He continued teaching and promoting his sport until the 1960s. After his death in 1969, at the age of 85, his students continued to spread the word about aikido. It comprises a range of body throws and pins, which are widely practiced around the world today.

Although there are less than 20 basic techniques, there are thousands of possible different combination moves. The features of aikido include moves to disarm an attacker and training to defend against multiple assailants.



One of the most historic martial arts, Jiu-Jitsu has its origins in India, where it was created some 2,500 years ago by Buddhist monks.

Born in the north of India, the scholar who founded Buddhism, Siddhartha Gautama, was known as the "enlightened one". He was visited by devotees from monasteries across the nation, who would travel many miles to see him. There was always a danger of attacks by bandits, so they created a system of self-defence which later became Jiu-Jitsu.

It was against the Buddhists' beliefs to advocate violence, so it was used purely for self-defence. Based on leverage and momentum, moves were developed following the study of the human body's vital points to create what has been described as "scientific fighting".

Over many centuries, it spread throughout Asia and became a large part of the Japanese culture, particularly during the Sengoku period between 1467 to 1603. It was also used by Samurai warriors on the battlefield when they were disarmed during close combat.

In the 1950s, a television programme called Heróis do Ringue (Heroes of the Ring) was filmed in Rio, bringing old-style Jiu-Jitsu to a wider audience. Schools have sprung up all over the world, teaching different styles. Despite campaigners asking the IOC to have it recognised as an Olympic sport, they haven't succeeded so far.

Today, Jiu-Jitsu forms the basis of a number of unarmed combat techniques used by the military and some police units in Great Britain, the United States and Russia.

Coruba's high-quality range of rubber gym mats can improve the safety of those who practice martial arts. Please contact us on 01702 560194 for further information on our products.

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