Vietnamese martial arts began their evolution during the wars against invaders from surrounding countries and, due to the small stature of the Vietnamese people, took the soft style approach to self-defense. In 1253, the first National Martial Arts School was opened at the Imperial Court, offering degrees (up to PhD) in the martial arts. This school taught empty hand combat, uses of 18 different weapons, martial arts tactics, weather forecasting, and war strategies. Years later, the first martial arts tournament was held and Tran Quoc Toan became national champion. Fifteenth place went to a princess named Thuy Tien. Tran Quoc Toan was a national hero for his activities as a youth for helping to defeat invading Mongolian troops. At the age of 16 he had already taken command of an army of teenage volunteer soldiers.
The people of the Binh Dinh province, located in central Vietnam, are famous for their expertise in the Vietnamese martial arts. Two martial arts experts from this area were Quang Trung, one of Vietnam’s kings, and his female general Bui Thi Xuan. Xuan, renowned for her courage and leadership, was the chief instructor of a martial arts school and proved her expertise by defeating a tiger to save the life of a man she later married.
In 1946, Grand Master Nguyen Loc systematized the different styles of the Vietnamese martial arts and named the resulting art vovinam (vo: martial arts, vinam: Vietnam). His successor, Le Van Sang, later changed the name to viet vo dao (viet: Vietnam, vo: martial arts, dao: the Way).
The basis for Shaolin boxing or kung fu was introduced in 540 AD, when an Indian Monk named Bodhidharma, the leader of Zen Buddhism, traveled to northern China to lecture on Buddhism. He taught in the Shaolin temple, where the monks were in such poor physical condition, he supplemented their long hours of motionless meditation with a series of 18 exercises to improve breathing, circulation and coordination of body and mind. He created an external form emphasizing the limbering of joints, bones and muscles, mobility and unity of hard and soft. This method of training was enriched by the traditional Chinese martial arts.
Frequent temple burnings during this period of history drove the monks from the temple. Their arts spread throughout Asia. Those monks driven to the north became horsemen and mountain climbers and therefore developed strong legs and techniques to capitalize on them. Those in the southern region excelled in hand techniques since they used their hands for boating and farming. Thus the saying “Northerners are kickers and Southerners are punchers.”
In the 14th century during the Yéan dynasty, Master Chang San-feng, a Taoist priest, studied tao yin, an early Chinese breathing art, the forerunner of tai chi. Considered the founder of Yang Style Tai Chi Chuan (the ultimate fist), he introduced and systematized this internal form of martial arts. It focused on training of the bones and muscles, overcoming an opponent at the moment of attack and controlling breathing and movement from the slowest to the fastest.
Yim Wing Chun, whose name means “forever springtime,” was a woman who studied kung fu under the Buddhist nun Ng Mui. The style she taught dealt with close combat and economy of movement. Yim, it is told, witnessed a fight between a crane and a snake and incorporated the skills of both and the training she received from Mui to develop Wing Chun.
The development of Okinawan martial arts was strongly influenced by Chinese fighting techniques. Shaolin kung fu eventually reached Okinawa and developed into the local art known as Okinawa-te. Chinese missionaries and merchants brought more martial arts techniques to Okinawa, and many Okinawan masters traveled to China to further their training. By the 17th century, Okinawa was under Japanese domination, and national policy forbade the possession of weapons. In this hostile environment, Okinawa-te evolved into karate (kara: Chinese, te: hand) and became tremendously important as a means of self-defense.
In 1922, Master Ginchin Funakoshi, then president of the Okinawan Martial Arts Promotion Society, gave impressive demonstrations in Japan. He attracted a large number of students and remained there to teach. Many Okinawan masters followed Master Funakoshi and established their schools throughout Japan.
Funakoshi, like many martial arts masters, was multi-talented. The name of his style, shotokan (sho: writing, do: the way, kan: house or hall), came from Funakoshi’s pen name, “Shoto,” and was a tribute to his mastery of calligraphy. It was Funakoshi, in fact, who change the writing of the term karate to mean the art of the empty hand (kara: empty, te: hand).
Grappling, wrestling and throwing techniques were parts of traditional Japanese combat training and have survived in many forms into modern times. All are generally characterized by simple, decisive movements. For example, jujitsu (ju: soft, yielding, jitsu: techniques), formalized by Hisamori Takenouchi in 1532, advocates close combat techniques of striking to vital target areas, throwing, joint locking and choking.
In 1882, Master Jigoro Kano, an expert in jujitsu, created a new martial art by eliminating jujitsu’s lethal elements and adding rules and regulations. He called his new art kodokan judo (ju: soft, do: the Way), calling it the Gentle Way. Judo involves anticipating an opponents attack, unbalancing and throwing the opponent using minimum effort, or using locks and immobilizations. A judoka trains in free form attack, free falling and discovering the opponent’s weaknesses and responding to his movements.
Also evolving from jujitsu was aikido (ai: combine, ki: internal strength, do: the Way), a defensive art involving joint manipulations, throws and some elements of kendo. It advocates the coordination of mind and body, harmonizing the use of the attacker’s weight and strength to the defender’s advantage. In 1938, the first aikido school was established under Master Morihei Ueshiba, the founder. A soft style martial art, aikido is a very spiritual practice, the essence of which is love.