In the course of human history, countless systems of armed and unarmed combat have been created, developed and refined in widely divergent cultures and widespread locations around the globe. From the Chinese kung fu styles to Japanese jiujutsu, from South American capoeira to European pankration, each system has its own individual approach to combat.

What many such styles have in common, however, is an element of secrecy in their development.

The reasons for the concealment of martial theories and techniques are numerous and varied, however in many cases the principle of secrecy was strictly enforced for a period of centuries, and led to an air of mysticism surrounding some styles. It is only comparatively recently in the long history of martial arts that this aura has been dispelled, with many continuing to believe in almost supernatural principles underlying martial arts.

For evidence of this we need look no further than the continuing assertion that Bruce Lee, the action film star and creator of the Jeet Kune Do style, was killed by a powerful curse placed on him by kung fu masters who resented his open teaching of ancient Chinese secrets. This is, of course, patent nonsense. Lee's autopsy report concluded that he had suffered a severe reaction to a painkiller and muscle relaxant which had caused significant swelling of the brain. However, the fact that people in the twentieth century would choose to accept a mystical hypothesis in the matter illustrates just how pervasive the concept of secretive martial arts magic had become.


Secrecy in Religious Orders

Many martial arts have their roots in monastic organisations. The most commonly known of these is the Shaolin temple in the Henan Province of China, which played a pivotal role in the development of Chinese kung fu. An Indian monk named Bodhidharma is said to have come to the monastery to teach "Chan" (Zen) Buddhism. Finding that the disciples lacked the inner discipline to devote themselves completely to their meditation, Bodhidarma developed a series of non-combative combat exercises which would allow followers to develop the physical and mental strength needed to follow his teachings.

The truth is almost certainly more straightforward. While physical training at Shaolin undoubtedly had significant elements of spirituality, the practical requirement for an effective system of self defense against bandits and wild animals in a remote area are a more likely incentive for the styles' creation.

Muay Boran, the predecessor of Muay Thai or Thai boxing, was similarly developed within Buddhist monasteries. The practice of Muay Thai fighters performing the Wai Kru - a ceremonial dance - prior to a fight has its roots in these ancient origins.

The physical distance between monastic schools of martial arts may well account for the differences between systems. A style or technique could only travel as fast as a man or donkey, and this in itself presented a major barrier to the widespread teaching of any single art. In addition, the nature of monastic life is seclusion. With interaction with the outside world kept to a minimum there was little opportunity for anyone but the disciples of a given temple to study any particular art.

Religious rivalry, too, undoubtedly played a role in preserving the aura of secrecy around combat systems. The ancient originators of martial arts held varying beliefs regarding the physical and spiritual world, and an inability to reconcile these differences could lead to, at best, distrust and at worst outright hostility between two religious factions. In such a climate, all teachings whether physical or spiritual became closely guarded secrets. Dissemination of knowledge to anyone outside of the order could lead to the information coming into the hands of a rival, and as a result techniques were passed in a strictly linear path from master to pupil.


Secrecy Within Secular Schools

As the development of martial arts progressed, tuition began to move out of temples and into dedicated training schools. While many of these schools incorporated spiritual philosophy into their teaching, they could be considered secular in that they did not owe allegiance to a particular religious order.

These schools were run primarily as independent businesses. This, in itself, made subterfuge an extremely attractive concept. Japanese jiujutsu sensei (teachers), for example, recorded the techniques of their schools on scrolls, which were passed from sensei to senior student, creating a lineage of succession intended to keep secret techniques within the dojo.

The direct transfer of recorded knowledge from teacher to a trusted senior pupil also had the advantage of preventing ambitious students from appropriating techniques and opening their own schools, further securing the dojo's viability as a business.

Beyond purely financial concerns there was the matter of pride. A school's reputation was made by the quality of the fighters it produced. In the event of a competition between two schools, any secret knowledge which could give an advantage in combat was considered gold dust. Should a technique fall into the hands of a rival school, their fighters would have the opportunity to analyse secret techniques, possibly developing escapes or counters to it, or, the ultimate indignity, improving the original technique and incorporating it into their own system.


Secrecy in a Military Context

Of course, one very important application of secrecy in martial arts was in military matters. In feudal Japan, for example, the Samurai class lived by the code of Bushido. These teachings were forbidden to commoners, although in this case the simple measure of imposing the death penalty on any commoner who trained with weapons such as swords was seen as more effective than some of the more complex methods of ensuring secrecy used in other contexts.

To this day there are a number of combat systems developed specifically for military application, such as the Modern Army Combatives Program implemented by the US army. Designed for maximum efficacy in potentially fatal combat, these systems are essentially an amalgamation of techniques from various martial arts stripped of any philosophical or spiritual content. Army combative techniques are restricted to military personnel in some countries, and indeed there are many instructors who claim to offer "top secret" military training for a fee, however the general principles - and indeed verbatim copies of several military unarmed combat manuals - are widely available in print and on the Internet.

Combat systems such as Defendo (British jiujutsu), Krav Maga (Israeli unarmed combat) and Taekwon-Do (Korean striking art) were developed in a military context.


Secrecy Under Political Oppression

At numerous times and in numerous places, people have found their studies of martial arts restricted by those in political authority. It was under exactly such circumstances that karate do - arguably the world's most widely known martial art - was born.

While the exact date of the creation of karate techniques is unknown, the residents of Okinawa were thought to have been introduced to Chinese martial arts in the late 14th Century. Shortly thereafter began a period of centralising control by the authorities on the island. The early 17th Century saw the imposition of a ban on the ownership of weapons by commoners.

Deprived of their weapons, the Okinawan islanders required a system of unarmed self defense. The martial art which would grow out of that need became known as "karate do" or "the way of the empty hand." While becoming adept at unarmed combat, however, the practitioners also developed formidable skills using a number of improvised weapons.

Jo (short stick) fighting allowed for practical self defence using almost any fallen branch or piece of firewood. Bo (long staff) techniques utilised a man-sized walking stick. The tonfa or truncheon is believed to have been developed from a grindstone handle. Even a boat oar or eku could, in skilled hands, be used to see off an attacker. Indeed, Japan's most famous swordsman Miyamoto Musashi is said to have defeated an enemy in a duel using a rowing boat oar, having forgotten his sword in his haste to arrive promptly for the contest.

A world away, in very different conditions, a group of oppressed people utilised the same spirit of secret defiance and ingenuity to fight off their captors.

Enslaved Africans transported to the New World colonies of European powers found themselves in a pitiful condition. Those who survived the horrific transportation were brutally treated on arrival in the Americas. Forbidden from practicing any form of combat and kept constantly chained together, slaves on Brazillian sugar plantations disguised their techniques as dance steps - drawing on the African tradition of mock-combat in dance.

The style they developed was known as capoeira, an extremely acrobatic martial art emphasising the use of cartwheels, rolls, flips, spinning kicks and headbutts. These techniques proved devastatingly effective in combat, and capoeira remained illegal in Brazil as far as the early 20th century. Nowadays the art forms the basis of modern breakdancing.


The Erosion of Secrecy

Jigoro Kano and the Gentle Way

One of the most revolutionary minds in martial arts belonged to a sickly, unassuming Japanese schoolboy.

Jigoro Kano studied jiujutsu in order to discover techniques which would allow a smaller fighter to defeat a larger opponent. The art was not at the peak of its popularity, being seen by many as a ruffian's pursuit typically proacticed by former Samurai fallen upon hard times after the abolition of the warrior class. Kano, however, recognised that the multitude of styles each had their own strengths and sought to refine the various systems into one unified martial art.

He began a truly remarkable journey across Japan, visiting the foremost teachers of jiujutsu and persuading them to hand over the precious scrolls which held their schools' secret techniques. It sounds like the script of an epic movie, but Kano completed this quest while supporting himself as a translator and tutor to the sons of wealthy Japanese businessmen and officials.

Kano did not stop there. He incorporated western grappling techniques into his art - something which was unheard of at the time. This Frankenstein's monster of unarmed combat systems was to be called judo - "The Gentle Way."

Kano's approach to teaching and popularising the art was also unprecedented. He did not guard his secrets but taught all of the accumulated techniques. He did not live as a recluse, secluding himself in a private school, but instead travelled the world, establishing judo as an international sport - along the way inventing the system of coloured belts to denote ranking in the art with white belt representing a novice and black belt an expert. Unusually for the time, he also trained female martial artists.

Kano's remarkable efforts led to judo's eventual inclusion in the Olympic Games, and the art continues to thrive in martial and sporting aspects to this day.


Bruce Lee and the Western Martial Arts Explosion

Bruce Lee must undoubtedly be considered the most famous martial artist of the 20th Century. Born in America to Chinese parents, he was raised in Hong Kong where he studied the art of Wing Chun - a soft style martial art and the only kung fu style said to have been created by a woman.

Lee is best known for his films including Enter the Dragon, Fist of Fury and Way of the Dragon, which appealed to millions of fans in the west. While they certainly lack subtle plots or convincing dialogue, Lee's films showcased the explosive nature of martial arts to mainstream Western audiences for the first time.

Ironically, Lee's films created an explosion of interest in karate, an art that he had never formally studied. Karate's striking techniques, however, offered Western martial artists the closest readily available equivalent of Lee's action-packed fight scenes. Lee was frequently frustrated by media descriptions of himself as a karate stylist.

As well as an action film star, Bruce Lee was possibly the leading mind on martial arts in his day. Like Jigoro Kano he amalgamated many arts, however he did not restrict himself to striking or grappling. With Wing Chun as his basis he ravenously devoured books on boxing, fencing, traditional Asian martial arts and any other combat style from which he could glean knowledge. The resulting martial art he called "Jeet Kune Do" - literally "The Way of the Intercepting Fist."

Lee worked hard to popularise Jeet Kune Do, which he described not as a distinct style but as a mindset or philosophy of fighting. Every aspect of the art was designed to be open, straightforward and effective - the complete reverse of the staid, monolithic classical martial arts with their airs of mystery and mysticism.

This approach was not met with enthusiasm by traditionalist kung fu teachers, who resented Lee's deviance from the centuries old teachings handed down from long dead masters as well as his willingness to train non-Chinese pupils. They challenged Lee to fight one of their most senior students. The film "Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story" depicts this as an epic battle which ends in a victorious Lee having his back broken in a sneak attack by his vanquished foe. In fact, the fight was short lived. Lee dispatched his opponent quickly and suffered the back injury while weight training.

Lee's input on modern martial arts cannot be understated and continues long after his death. As a populariser and moderniser of martial arts there can be few equal to him in the history of unarmed combat.


MMA and the Future of Martial Arts

A common theme in the stories of Kano and Lee is the amalgamation of various martial arts to form a more complete system. Nothing has encouraged this attitude more than the development of mixed martial arts leagues such as the Ultimate Fighting Championship, Pride Fighting Championship, Bodogfight and other similar organisations.

Combining grappling, submissions, groundwork, takedowns and strikes, MMA is the most complete test of fighters and fighting systems outwith full-on unarmed military combat. The sport makes extreme demands of participants, and fighters have responded by striving to become the most complete martial artists they can be. Many fighters cross train in arts such as Brazillian jiujutsu, Muay Thai, wrestling, boxing or judo, adapting their techniques and training methods for maximum effect.

Martial arts is experiencing a period of explosive growth. The traditions of secrecy are all but dead, but rather than diminish martial arts, this has led to a surge in the refinement of styles, the adaptation of techniques and the widespread availability of knowledge.

While respect for the traditions of the martial arts must be maintained, and their teachings regarding physical and mental discipline cannot be ignored, the opening of systems to scrutiny must surely be seen as an extremely important development which will safeguard the relevance of martial arts for generations to come.

Sources referenced (added by request)
  • The Pyjama Game: A Journey Into Judo by Mark Law - Aurum Press
  • Angry White Pyjamas by Robert Twigger - Phoenix Press
  • Bo: Karate Weapon of Self Defense by Fumio Demura - Ohara Publications
  • Martial Arts Training in Japan: A Guide for Westerners by David Jones - Tuttle Publishing
  • Tao of Jeet Kune Do by Bruce Lee - Ohara Publications
  • Capoeira information from

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