What do modern martial arts practised in Asia have in common?
by Isabella Chua
Asian men had two character archetypes in Hollywood up to the 1960s: Fu Manchu, a criminal mastermind with a signature downward moustache, or Charlie Chan, the model minority.
Then came Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon. As the hero protagonist, Lee faced—and defeated—white men as an equal, not as the buffoon character or the Asian sidekick. And he accomplished all that while playing a Shaolin expert executing actual martial arts techniques.
Since then, martial arts have gone mainstream, expanding into anime, video games, rap, comics, and other beloved forms of popular culture.
For example, fight scenes of non-martial-arts movies are choreographed by actual martial artists, although with some artistic license in the mix, like the invention of “gun fu” in John Wick. Bruce Lee’s hybrid form of jeet kune do was used as a martial arts style in that movie and the blockbuster hit The Bourne Identity. Even the sword fights in Game of Thrones are based on Philippine’s pekiti-tirsia kali stick work as well as wushu.
And who can forget Ip Man’s stirring line—“我要打十个!” (I want to fight ten people!)—in the first Ip Man movie? Released in 2008, it sparked a wave of interest in wing chun, with the quote immortalised on the Internet in the form of memes and reaction stickers—the true barometer of cultural relevance today.
It might surprise you, however, that pop culture is actually somewhat behind in its portrayal of Asian martial arts.
This is the profile of a typical Asian martial arts practitioner in pop culture:
- He (and it's almost always a he) is of East Asian ancestry
- He knows kung fu, Japanese martial arts, or some other East Asian martial art
- He becomes a stoic killer machine if provoked.
We see these traits reflected in numerous tropes of martial arts in pop culture.
Kung fu tropes are repeated in several other martial arts—karate, capoeira, Muay Thai, judo, and catch wrestling share the “Kung fu clairvoyance” and “Arrogant kung fu guy” tropes. Given kung fu’s pioneering presence in the film industry—beginning in the late 1960s in Hong Kong and Taiwan as campy “chop-socky” movies, followed by Bruce Lee’s stardom—it makes sense that kung fu is the default frame through which we understand other martial arts in pop culture.
But how much do Asian martial arts really have in common? Do these overlapping tropes have a point, or are they oversimplifications? We traced the lineage of some of Asia’s most popular martial arts—those included in the Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games, with participants from 45 Asian countries—to figure this out. Along the way, we uncover how these martial arts have diverged from their origins to come into their own.
The term “martial arts” covers a staggering range of martial activities, including sports, spiritual practices, entertainment, and more. Each has its own history, although many share similar origins.
This all seemed pretty overwhelming, so we borrowed a classification system by two sports scholars, Irena Martínková and Jim Parry, to explain how various martial arts have grown out of the same martial art forms.
The development of Japanese martial arts closely mirrors Japan’s history, with the Meiji Restoration serving as a watershed.
Japan’s transition from the feudalist Tokugawa government to the beginning of Meiji Restoration in 1868 marked the shrinking relevance of the elite samurai class. As the samurai declined, the bugei martial arts, based on military or battlefield thinking (ju), faded with them.
Mejii Japan focused on playing catch-up with the Western powers through rapid modernisation and industrialisation. Budo (the martial way of life) forms—such as judo and karate-do—which focus on the self-cultivation of one’s mental and physical state, were seen as progressive while still uniquely Japanese in ethos.
In time, budo forms spread outside Japan, taking on new, syncretised forms as they were localised to other cultures. Brazilian jiu-jitsu, sambo (Russia), and taekwon-do (Korea) are examples of this.
Much as the Meiji Restoration marked a new dawn in martial arts’ development in Japan, the establishment of the Bolsheviks as the single-party regime in the post-revolutionary Soviet Union has shaped the trajectory of wrestling forms in Central Asia.
The origins of boxing forms—simply put, punching with one’s fists—are more open-ended than the other martial forms here. Boxing forms such as Muay Thai and kickboxing built upon boxing to create their own rules and techniques.
While all martial forms are “invented”, these three embody that spirit more so than the rest. Unlike previous martial forms, wushu sanda, pencak silat, and vovinam do not have a common origin that links them to other martial forms. Instead, all three developed their techniques based on the extensive study of their environments.
The trajectories of different martial forms have shaped which techniques they emphasise. The list of techniques shown is not meant to be exhaustive, but should give a sampling of the common techniques associated with each martial form.
Judo, created as an alternative to the perceived brawniness of ju-jitsu, focuses on grappling techniques instead of striking. The core tenet of judo is “minimum effort with maximum efficiency”, which involves manipulating an opponent’s weight and strength against them. This allows physically weaker but strategic practitioners to triumph.
Sambo and kurash, both influenced by judo, also have techniques that emphasise grappling—such as throws and grips. However an important distinction separates these two from judo. In wrestling forms, strikes are illegal, so grappling techniques that allow one to wrestle an opponent to the ground are the default. While strikes are also illegal in sports judo, atemi-waza (striking techniques) exist in judo and may be performed during randori (free practice) or as kata, in which practitioners follow a fixed set of forms.
BJJ’s emphasis on submission techniques comes from its history and competition rules. Its influences—ju-jitsu and judo—were both grappling arts that used leverage rather than strength to overcome opponents. Hélio Gracie, one of BJJ’s founders, took it further by developing ground techniques that emphasise timing and methodical strategy, to complement his small physique. As a result, BJJ competitions have longer time limits than judo—with submission-only competitions having no time limit—and allow more varied techniques like leg locks, which are prohibited in judo.
Striking techniques are common to numerous martial arts, attesting to their effectiveness. Striking forms have some unique advantages. Practitioners can deliver multiple blows quickly, which may result in a knockout. In mixed martial arts (MMA) fights, fighters typically switch between striking and grappling techniques, because this gives them room to manoeuvre between far- and close-range attack and defence.
The shared histories of martial forms even emerge in their uniforms. From style to construction, martial uniforms are tweaked to be functional rather than just aesthetic or symbolic.
Gi (“clothing” in Japanese) is a general category of uniform that consists of a jacket, pants, and belt. Its earliest iteration—the keikogi, developed by judo founder Kanō Jigorō—inspired numerous adaptations in other martial forms.
Gis of submission-based martial forms:
BJJ gis are textured and thick enough to facilitate grips, while still compact enough that the opponent can use the gi against its wearer when executing submission techniques.
Gis of grappling-based martial forms:
These tend to be made of heavier materials, with reinforced stitchings at key grip points to minimise wear and tear.
Gis of striking-based martial forms:
These tend to use lighter materials so practitioners can punch and kick without hindrance. Their skirts are also longer than gis from the grappling disciplines, presumably to prevent them from getting untucked during boisterous movements.
These allow for belt wrestling, where practitioners wrap their hands around an opponent’s belt to throw them to the ground. Unlike with gis, belt colours do not represent rank, as they only come in a single colour. The uniform comes in two colours to help distinguish competitors.
Light and quick drying, these satin or nylon shorts are designed for quick, unencumbered strikes.
It’s clear that Asia’s martial arts are complex, evolving, and often scarcely captured in popular culture. Today, the thriving sport of mixed martial arts (MMA) combines several of these martial forms in open combat, gaining them appreciation and recognition all over the world.
Popularised by the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) in 1993, practitioners of different martial arts disciplines fought it out to determine which martial arts was the best. It forced them to step out of their comfort zones and confront styles that don’t play by familiar rules. Royce Gracie, the champion of the first, second, and fourth UFCs, was one of them. Despite being considered light and “weaker” in physicality, he forced his opponents into submission through Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s groundfighting techniques.
Looking at the martial forms used by all the current UFC and ONE Championship MMA champions, Brazilian Jiu-jitsu ranks first. Its proven effectiveness aside, BJJ’s focus on submission also complements striking arts such as Muay Thai and taekwondo. Of the twenty-one fighters in this list, more than a third pair BJJ with a striking art.
This preference may be a strategic one. In MMA, there are seven ways to end a fight: decision (by judges), disqualification, forfeit, no contest, knockout (KO), technical knockout (TKO), and submission. Strikes can swiftly lead to a KO or TKO, in which a fighter renders an opponent unconscious or incapable of defense, whereas submission arts such as BJJ may force defeat by, well, submission. Fighters with both styles possess many more options for victory; after all, seven of ten UFC and ONE fights involving champions end in a KO, TKO, or submission.
Almost fifty years have passed since MMA and martial arts movies became mainstream in the 1970s. Today, martial arts are more popular than ever. Millions from around the world tune in to MMA fighters combining different martial arts to defeat their opponents. This year, we’re even getting an Asian Avenger, Shang-Chi—a kung fu master, of course—in a standalone movie.
It may seem like the diversity work is done here: we have representation and strong interest in Asian martial arts—what more could be done? Not to pick a fight, but there’s still much more left on the table.
At their core, movies and tournaments aim to entertain. MMA fights are spectacles, filled with theatrics and flashy moves to draw in audiences—and advertisers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that! But both mediums rely on a familiar story structure: a protagonist and an antagonist compete in a showdown of their abilities, and martial forms are simply the way fighters and characters find out who’s boss.
But martial forms are so much more than that in real life. Few martial arts were created in silos, and the stories of martial artists exchanging, adapting, and refining borrowed techniques are legion. Asia’s martial arts share cultural histories and philosophies going back centuries, and knowing how they are connected deepens our appreciation of them beyond just what we’re used to seeing on screen.
Story update on 30/01/21: Techniques in the radar vis charts were recategorised to better reflect the spirit of the martial forms, with the help of martial arts practitioner Maddie Ang.
Isabella loves to dig beyond what is ‘commonsensical’ or ‘natural’ to us, by looking at the larger forces (or even accidents), that may have structured these beliefs. A writer at Kontinentalist, she's particularly interested in social issues—religion, crime, identity, and food. While she strives to stay curious about the world by listening to podcasts and taking classes, she's happiest when eating pastries, cakes, and drinking tea.