Asia is widely considered to be the birthplace of the martial arts. Historically used for combat and self-defense, varied techniques sprang up independently in India, China, Japan and other parts of Asia. The birthplace of many disciplines can be traced to India and China, and there’s evidence as far back as the 3rd Century B.C.E. that martial arts techniques were in use. At certain points in history, the martial arts have had a noticeable impact in shaping events. Generally, there was a historical figure who led this cultural shift, and three of the most influential were Bodhidharma of India, Gichin Funakoshi of Okinawa and Bruce Lee of Hong Kong.
BODHIDHARMA & KUNG FU – 527 C.E.
China had developed its own martial arts, but it was a military form used for combat. It wasn’t until the influence of an Indian, Bodhidharma, that Chinese martial arts evolved into the Kung Fu we see today, a more holistic practice that trains the body and mind.
India had a form of martial arts called Kalaripayattu that involved agility, fitness and wise use of the body’s energy. A Buddhist monk named Bodhidharma introduced this style of fighting to China when he traveled there to spread the philosophy of Buddhism. When he eventually went to live with the Shaolin monks, he found them lacking in physical health and stamina, so he began teaching them Kalaripayattu. This discipline evolved over time and became Shaolin Kung Fu.
The spread of the martial arts in monasteries has given rise to the popular myth that these techniques were primarily created by “Buddhist monks, Taoist hermits or Confucian scholars.” In fact, Bodhidharma was trained in the military arts as the son of a minor ruler. It was only after he traveled to China and began living and training with the Shaolin monks that he became one himself.
In China, however, the martial arts had mostly practiced by lower classes like the military and bodyguards. Bodhidharma helped strengthen the concept of the martial arts as a spiritual practice as well as a fighting and self-defense discipline. He emphasized breathing techniques and the cultivation of bio-energy (ki in Karate). Bhodidharma combined meditation with physical training and, eventually, he also became the founder of Zen Buddhism.
Bodhidharma’s life story is an example of the will, perseverance and endurance that made up the foundation of his teachings. The moves and techniques he taught are now collectively referred to as Kung Fu. His contribution to history is seen in the elevation of the martial arts to a physical and spiritual practice that is accepted in all classes of society in China.
GICHIN FUNAKOSHI & KARATE – 1917
The martial arts of China influenced the people of Japan, and they also developed their own fighting and self-defense techniques. Karate began in Okinawa, a chain of islands between China and Japan that were then a separate kingdom. For over a century, starting in 1477, weapons were outlawed on the three islands of Okinawa. This caused early Karate to go underground and, if anything, strengthened the desire for the art to be maintained and preserved. In 1875, the Japanese took over Okinawa and made it part of Japan. After that, these original forms of Karate were allowed to flourish.
Cooperation and peace between Okinawa and Japan were facilitated by the sharing of Karate. In 1917, Okinawa native Gichin Funakoshi demonstrated Karate techniques in a match with a Japanese martial arts expert, and he won the match. Funakoshi stayed on in Japan to teach Karate to the Japanese people. The open and peaceful relationship between Okinawa and Japan flourished to a great extent because of this sharing of Karate with the mainland.
As in Kung Fu, Karate has an underlying spiritual component. Funakoshi created his own form of Karate, called Karate-Do, and he considered it to be “education for life itself.” The form of Karate he demonstrated in Japan and practiced during his life was called Shotokan. It was a synthesis of Funakoshi’s own style and the different types of Karate that originated in Okinawa.
BRUCE LEE & JEET KUN DO – 1960’s
Although born in San Francisco, Bruce Lee was raised in Hong Kong from the age of three months. A great artist will influence others, and Bruce Lee is well known across the world as a martial arts master whose influence caused a shift in the way people look at the practice.
Lee began his training in the art of Kung Fu (Gung Fu), eventually developing Jeet Kun Do (JKD), which translates to “the way of the intercepting fist.” Lee didn’t regard this form of martial arts as a method or style, but as a set of principles for developing the mind and body. He borrowed from several Kung Fu styles, including Taekwondo, and also incorporated elements of wrestling and boxing into Jeet Kun Do.
Bruce Lee’s television and movie projects popularized martial arts around the world. He developed the popular U.S. television show Kung Fu for himself, but David Carradine was given the leading role. The show had a great influence on the understanding of the martial arts in the U.S. This was the first time many people realized that the practice had a spiritual, meditative component, and didn’t exist merely for fighting and self-defense.
Continuing mental and physical development, along with improving coordination and power, are the lynchpins of Jeet Kun Do. In the formation of JKD, Lee contributed to breaking with martial arts traditions. He believed in throwing out techniques that didn’t work and embracing those that did. Bruce Lee can be credited with opening up the world of martial arts to experimentation and growth. Through his martial arts movies, he also helped usher in an era of increased understanding of the martial arts throughout the world, not just in the U.S. and Asia. He saw himself as a “bridge between the East and the West.”
Bodhidharma, Gichin Funakoshi and Bruce Lee all highlighted the importance of the martial arts and influenced world culture. Bodhidharma was the founder of Kung Fu and strengthened the spiritual component of Chinese martial arts. Gichin Funakoshi refined and popularized Karate, and contributed to the good relations between Japan and its newly acquired territory of Okinawa. Bruce Lee introduced the philosophy and techniques of the martial arts to a global audience and increased our understanding of the philosophy that goes along with it.