Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Where Did the Term “Martial Arts” Originate?

I have been reading a lot of articles about martial arts and found that there’s no one that explains the reasons why “martial arts” is called “martial arts” at great length. This post aims to fill that and make everyone in the society understand where the term “martial arts” originated in the first place.

Literal Meaning from the Dictionary

By definition, “martial" means “war or fighting,” “military,” or “warfare.” The ultimate etymology of the word comes from the Roman god of war, Mars. On the other hand, "art" refers to"skill" or "craft."  So when you put “martial” and “arts” together, they refer to “the art of warfare.”

Literal Meaning Suggested by the West

Wikipedia has it that “martial arts” represent Western swordsmanship as far back as the 1550s. Many countries and regions have fighting styles that are unique and effective, but martial arts remain to be seen to have oriental nature.

Literal Meaning Suggested by the East

Another claim was made by Etymonline which said that "martial arts" first appeared as a translation of "bujutsu"  in 1933. This word means "military science"  in Japanese and is comparable to the more philosophically-toned term, "budo," which means "the way of war." With the mix of Chinese and Japanese languages, we can get the context – “wu” in “wushu” and “bu” in “bujutsu” equate to “martial” and “shu” in “wushu” and “jutsu” in “bujutsu” both mean “arts” or “skills.”

East Meets West

When the West came in contact with the Asian traditions, 'martial arts' was a natural blanket term to refer to all the fighting arts, Eastern and Western, but in the last hundred years or so, the traditional Western fighting arts (boxing, fencing, horseback riding, wrestling, marching) have evolved into sports, or died out which is why the term is used more often to refer to the Asian traditions.

Modern Meaning?

In addition to what has been said here, remember that many terms are often in use long before they are ever written in historical documents or records, so it can be very difficult to be sure of who first used it, or what it meant.  Also, word meanings often change over time, or are misused so often, the incorrect usage becomes the common understanding.  

Bonus Question: 
Can Martial Arts Be Used for Self-defense?

A lot of people are asking me whether wushu, the martial arts I perform, can be used for battle or real war. My answer has been consistent: mostly no but it can be. Particularly in the Philippines where there are many robbers and bad-spirited people on the streets, many are influenced to be part of gangs and cause threats to others. They fight and harass citizens with knives and some even with guns. 

In this case, even if one is equipped with skills in martial arts, the best way is to scream and run far away. Street fighting is not really done by majority of martial artists but only those recognized masters who can use their properly trained bodies to respond to urgent situations like this in the public.