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History of the Martial Arts 

A “general history” of the martial arts is indeed a difficult task to undertake. The martial arts are so old, the philosophies so deep, the techniques so broad, the places so scattered and the people so numerous that such a compilation is virtually impossible in one section. It is for this reason that this article contains but a general history: a brief overview of the main points of the martial arts, a history of its greatest significance.

The martial arts, though consisting of countless styles and forms, is generally referred to as karate. Indeed, karate seems to be the true birth of the martial arts. Karate, Japanese for empty-hand, came about as man sought to defend himself with his own body. In an age when entire civilizations were frequently enslaved or overrun, and weapons were rarely left to the hands of the surviving people, a survivor would be one who could effectively use his body and everyday tools to defeat his opponents. Such is the way of karate: the way of the empty hands.

Perhaps the first inkling of martial philosophy was introduced to the world in the year 563 B.C., at which time one Siddhartha Gautama was born. Though he was born a prince and a member of the Indian royalty, he sought the simple life of a monk. He rejected all his wealth and worldly possessions, eventually earning himself the name “The Enlightened One.” He went on to found the then-popular religion of Buddhism, later dying a penniless monk at the ripe old age of eighty.

Meanwhile early martial techniques began to come about as the peaceful monks, forbidden by their gentle religion to carry weapons, were continuously robbed and beaten by thieves and others. After pondering the situation for years, the monks observed the motions of animals, adapting the fighting styles of the praying mantis, crane, snake, and other animals to the human capabilities.

For a thousand years monks and royalty alike practiced the philosophical ways of Buddha and this new method of combat, spreading the art and religion through portions of eastern Asia.

The first real breakthrough into the art of fighting came around the year 500 A.D.. A Buddhist monk, Taishi Daruma, crossed the Himalayan Mountains from India, through Tibet and to China. Asked by his dying master to unite the schools of Buddhism that were located throughout China, Taishi Daruma soon found that the Chinese monarchs disagreed with the principles of Buddhism and would not allow construction of a monastery there.

Traveling to the wilderness regions of China, Daruma and his followers built a Buddhist temple, know as “Monastery of the Young  Forest.” It was in fact the infamous Shaolin temple.

It was here that the ancient Chinese art of Kung Fu was studied and developed. Kung Fu, originally practiced for purposes of health alone, used the techniques of animals to allow the flow of “ch’i”, a universal, ethereal matter which was then believed to be the prime substance of the universe.

At the Shaolin temple, under the direction of Taishi Daruma,the monks first learned the Muscle change classic or "I Chin Ching" these were sets of exercise's to train the body. Then the first true kata was conceived. It was known simply as “I-Chin”, or “inner conflict.” This conceptual kata was based on the principles of ch’i, and the idea that most of the body’s forces lie completely untapped. I-Chin or Qi Gong, was later practiced to coordinate breathing, mental acuteness and physical focus, upon which the mind and body would become more closely related and developed. The use of these powers  involved tapping the Ch’i chambers of the body, directing the flow of energy from the point below the naval and to the point of the blow. The result was an explosion of energy and force, the ch’i exploding outward. The next thing taught by Taishi Daruma was the Lohan fist or 18 hands of lohan. These also later perpetuated the Arhat, Arbok, and Arzor Skills

Eventually the Shaolin temple would train in five main styles of fighting, all of which are included in modern-day Kung Fu. Mimicked were the combative maneuvers of the tiger, leopard, crane, snake and dragon.

The Ryukyu Island south of Japan were to become the most vital step in the development of karate as we know it today. With the “invasion” of Chinese culture and influence, the Ryukyuans began to practice their own martial arts.

According to a famous legend, a Chinese mariner named Chinto found himself caught in a vicious typhoon sometime in 1800's. Blown off course, he shipwrecked on the largest of the Ryukyu Island, called Okinawa. Drenched, hungry, and without a dime to his name, Chinto took shelter in a group of caves. Fearing a negative response from the native Okinawans, Chinto sneaked out at night and stole food from the huts of peasants to survive.

Chinto was soon discovered, and as an annoyance to the islanders, was ordered captured. The Okinawan king sent a soldier, Pechin Matsumura, to detain him. A veteran of numerous battles and a practitioner of Okinawan fighting, Matsumura was regardless unable to get past Chinto. Using superior evasions, Chinto chose not to counter-attack but instead to run away, leaving Matsumura unharmed but defeated. Matsumura returned to the king, assuring him that Chinto would be harmless. Then he went back to the countryside, befriending Chinto. They struck a deal: in return for food and water, Chinto would teach Pechin Matsumura his superior techniques. From this training, Matsumura learned the famous defensive kata that bears Chinto’s name.

The Okinawan King, Satto, requested admission to the empire of China. He was granted this request, and as a gesture of friendly relations, received from the Chinese emperor a gift of three dozen families of artisans. The effect of this new Chinese culture on Okinawa – indeed, the artisans included prominent merchants, priests, and teachers – included the introduction of Kung Fu to its people.

At the time, the popular fighting art on Okinawa was Tode, characterized by vicious offensive techniques. Intertwined with the openhanded, defensive soft-style techniques of Kung Fu, the combined arts were soon to become one of the deadliest martial arts in the world.

Okinawa’s golden age came some sixty-odd years later when,   King Hashi united Okinawa and the rest of the Ryukyuan Islands into one kingdom. Though all weapons were seized from the commoners to ensure complete control, Okinawa and its smaller counterparts flourished. Okinawan culture thrived under this new kingdom. For the next one hundred and fifty years trade and commerce abounded. The industrious Okinawan people harvested mass amount of rice and sugar to sell, as well as fish and pineapples. Okinawan towns quickly grew in size and beauty, as temples and tea houses were constructed.

During this time, the Okinawans – particularly the royalty – practiced Tode and various forms of Kung Fu all over the island. Numerous legendary martial artists visited the island to teach and train, including Seisan, a Kung Fu master (after whom a prominent kata is named).

Okinawa’s golden age came to an abrupt end in 1609 with the Japanese invasion. Under control of the Shimazu dynasty, the Satsuma Clan of Japanese Kyushu invaded Okinawa. Although it was quickly occupied, the island’s people would prove extremely difficult to subdue. A fierce and proud people, they had become known for their self-reliance, and the existence of such a foreign force on their soil was a grave insult. Though their land had been conquered, their spirit had not.

Japanese troop numbers steadily decreased as the stealthy Okinawans assassinated samurai and waged guerilla warfare. Realizing the only way to stop the Okinawans was to disarm them, the occupying forces took away all possible metal substances, including the everyday necessities such at pots and pans. With the removal of all sharp objects, the Okinawan people, relying heavily on fishing for survival – found their livelihood in jeopardy.

Perturbed at this act, the Okinawans sent forth a delegation to the occupying forces. There they were granted a community knife for use, albeit attached to a heavy chain and guarded my two Japanese soldiers. This act was not out of any kindness on the Japanese’ part, but rather a realization that the subjugation of the population could be made easier by allowing simple but vital requests.

The plan seemed to have worked, as attacks on Japanese Imperial forces ceased. Due to this fact, the Japanese began to let down their guard.

The Okinawans, on the other hand, did the opposite. Fueled by tales of Chinese masters who were able to defeat armed opponents with nothing but simple wooden instruments, they began to practice techniques with farm tools of the day.

All manner of equipment was put into use: staffs, root pullers, ox-cart pintles, oars, and well handles, each an everyday item used as a weapon against the invaders. Used properly, these weapons were potentially more dangerous that the swords of the samurai, easily capable of penetrating the lightweight lacquered armor of the Japanese troops.

Besides the mental training and the kobu-do (weapons) practice, the body was toughened, hardened to the point of excess. The elbows, striking knuckles, forearms and shins were toughened using various techniques, one of which was the makiwara board. A post wrapped in rope, the makiwara was punched repeatedly, building the fist to the density of cattle horn. Fingers were strengthened as well by striking into pots of sand and stones.

All of this training was done in the utmost of secrecy, virtually under the noses of the Japanese. Astounding ins the fact that the Japanese never discovered the teachers or the students, and nor did they ever stumble across any training sessions. Any suspected informers were, of course, dealt with accordingly; perhaps this threat was enough to keep any potential taletellers quiet.

During this time, many Okinawans were allowed to freely travel. Many went to mainland China, where they sought to study Kung Fu. The North and South styles of Kung Fu were introduced to Okinawa, adding yet another element to the mixture of Okinawan martial art.

During the next fifty years, many famous masters arose in Okinawa or visited it. In 1635, the infamous Sakugawa studied in China, mastering it and returning to the town of Shuri. There he established the Sakugawa Dojo.

By the beginning of the eighteenth century, two distinctive styles of Okinawan martial art had been developed. Each was name after the town in which they originated; from Shuri came the Shuri-te style, from Naha the Naha-te.

Naha-te was influence by the southern style of Chinese Kung Fu. Closely resembling the original techniques and style of the ancient Shaolin temple, Naha-te focused on deep breathing techniques and forceful strikes.

Shuri was the Japanese pronunciation of Shaolin; Shuri-te was, therefore, the way of the Shaolin. This is ironic, for the Naha-te system of martial art more closely resembled the Shaolin style than did Shuri-te. Shuri-te abandoned the Chinese theory of breathing techniques; it focused instead on agility and quick movements.

Both the Shuri-te and the Naha-te systems were to later change their names. Shuri-te would soon become Shorin-Ryu, and Naha-te Goju-Ryu. Virtually every martial system in the world can trace its origins to one of the two.

Katas and techniques continued to originate in Okinawa, largely by way of Chinese travelers. In the late eighteenth century Kushanku, a night-fighting master and a military officer, introduced his techniques to Okinawa.

Several new systems of martial art were founded in the mid 1800’s, including Goju-Ryu, a direct derivative of the Naha-te school of fighting. Shito-Ryu, another prominent art form, was developed at the same time.

Okinawan fighting remained cloaked in secrecy for years, until the landmark date of 1903. It was then that Yasutsune Itosu, a master of Okinawan fighting arts, introduced his art to the school systems, and gave the first public demonstration of martial arts in over two hundred years. Okinawan martial arts – known commonly as Okinawa-te – then became known under a new name. Kara, or empty, and te, or hand, were combined to create kara-te, or karate, the modern term for martial arts.

As the public began to display karate more openly, the Japanese schools of martial arts became interested. In the year 1917, the Japanese invited Choku Matobu, a deadly fighter and avid practitioner of karate, to demonstrate his technique in Japan. Though at first enthusiastic about the proposition, Matobu quickly declined. His ancestors were famous for having fought the Imperial invaders, and he, as well as them, bore a hate for all things Japanese. He, as a result, refused the invitation.

In his stead was sent a small, mild-mannered professor of a school of Japanese customs. Only a Sandan (third degree black belt) in Shorin-Ryu, Gichin Funakoshi was promoted to Godan (fifth degree) before the trip.

Though by no means a master in karate, Funakoshi astounded the Japanese martial artists by beating every fighter he opposed. Using dumping techniques and throws, he won the respect of Japan and stayed, teaching karate in a Japanese Kendo dojo. So effective were his throws that they were copied by Jigoro Kane, who later founded Judo and used those principles to create his forms.

Eventually Gichin Funakoshi received a great deal of respect from his Japanese peers and was granted the right to open his own dojo there. It was in Japan that Funakoshi developed his style of Shotokan, yet another prominent style in today’s modern martial arts.

Karate continued to be developed in the east. In the nineteen fifties and onward, Master Tatsuo Shimabuku and many others trained U.S. Marines based there after World War II. Upon returning home, these veterans began to spread the influence of martial arts in the West. Dojos sprang up all over the United States, ushering in a new era of fighting.

Another breakthrough in the teaching of the martial arts was the rise of martial artist Bruce Lee, who’s cinematic epic Enter the Dragon fueled a furious interest in the martial arts. The 1970’s saw an untold number of news students of the martial arts, as did the 1980’s due the overwhelming popularity of the motion picture Block Buster Karate Kid. The 1990’s created curiosity with the Chuck Norris T.V. Series Walker Texas Ranger, this curiosity still carries over into today’s dojos.

While the martial arts are over two thousand years old, the future of karate is bright indeed. With new dojos being established every day, it is obvious that karate is not but a thing of the past, but rather, an element of the future.