Fan Questions | Martial Arts History

What is a Traditional Martial Art?

If you’ve been involved in martial arts in some way since the inception of the UFC, then you’ve probably heard the argument of mixed martial arts versus traditional martial arts. But you may also wonder, what exactly is a traditional martial art? Is there really any criteria that defines a martial art as traditional? In this post, I am going to address the most popular martial arts that are widely regarded as traditional, and what aspects of them decide whether they are traditional or not.

In short, a traditional martial art is any form of combat that teaches much more than just how to fight. The students of the martial art are taught to conduct themselves in a certain way, or are taught a certain ritual pertaining to their discipline. A perfect example of a traditional martial art is Karate, in which students are taught to respect one another, and are also encouraged to develop themselves and their mind.

In the rest of the post, I will outline what a traditional martial art is, popular examples, and the difference between martial arts such as boxing.

What Makes an Art Traditional?

A ‘martial art’ can simply be defined as a form of combat. However, a traditional martial art is different. There has to be an additional aspect to the martial art aside from just the combat instruction.

First, I should point out that the term ‘martial art’ used to be primarily reserved for fighting styles stemming from East Asia, as they were regarded as some ‘mystical’ fighting style. However, if we take the term literally, then more commonplace sports such as boxing are considered martial arts as well.

In order to differentiate between a form of fighting and an East Asian martial art, the word ‘traditional’ is used. The reason East Asian martial arts are referred to as ‘traditional’ is because of their way of doing things.

Typically, a traditional martial art will have a colored belt ranking system, which is used to show experience level in the martial art. This is in contrast to boxing, where no such ranking system is used.

Another difference is the depth of a traditional martial art outside of just its fighting techniques. The father of modern karate, Gichin Funakoshi, was not only a very capable combatant, but a philosopher and a poet. He outlined twenty rules that his students should follow in order to become better human beings.

Gichin Funakoshi, the Father of Karate.
Gichin Funakoshi, the Father of Karate.

In Japan, this additional aspect of martial arts is called budō. Budō places more significance on the person’s mind, and how they should develop themselves, something that is only present in traditional martial arts.

Aside from philosophies and teachings involved with a traditional martial art, I consider any other aspects that are not combat-related, such as rituals. A prime example is Muay Thai, as it has many traditions that have been passed on for generations.

The Thai people also perform dance ceremonies prior to their fight for good luck, something which is taught to them by their trainer. For these reasons, I would also consider Muay Thai a traditional martial art. If you want to know more about why, check out a post I made called Is Muay Thai A Traditional Art?

Mixed vs Traditional Martial Arts

Perhaps you have heard of this debate between traditional and more modern martial arts, and it may have even led you to this post. The debate argues against the viability of a traditional martial art (such as karate) in a real fight.

Because there is not a big emphasis on sparring in East Asian martial arts, critics claim that their techniques would not work. According to them, traditional martial arts techniques are practiced on willing partners who ‘play along’ with the move. They argue that martial arts such as boxing are the most effective, since sparring is very common.

Xu Xiaodong (right) fighting a Tai Chi master.
Xu Xiaodong (right) fighting a Tai Chi master.

This is the purpose of former MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong. Xiaodong is a Chinese former MMA fighter who seeks traditional martial artists so that he can challenge them. He says he wants to expose fake martial artists, as their styles do not work, which puts people in danger by giving them false confidence.

While I do think that techniques should be practiced in real fight scenarios, I don’t think that traditional styles are completely useless. It is true that some styles have dwindled since the popularity of MMA, an example being Wing Chun.

Wing Chun is not very well suited for combat on its own, but elements of Wing Chun have been used in MMA. An example of this was when UFC fighter Tony Ferguson managed to land an elbow after trapping his opponent’s hand during his fight with Anthony Pettis, which is a Wing Chun technique. Tony Ferguson is also known for training with a Wooden Wing Chun Dummy, such as this one on Amazon.

Former UFC Champ Tony Ferguson (right) trains on a Wing Chun Dummy.
Former UFC Champ Tony Ferguson (right) trains on a Wing Chun Dummy.

Also, there are many UFC fighters who use a traditional martial art as their base style. Primary examples include Ronda Rousey (Judo), Lyoto Machida (Karate), Yair Rodriguez (Taekwondo), and Stephen Thompson (Karate).

Popular Traditional Martial Arts

The most popular traditional martial arts are from Eastern Asia. Of these, the standout arts are Karate, Judo, Taekwondo, Aikido, and Kung Fu (Wushu).

Karate is a striking based martial art created in Japan. It was originally based on the ‘White Crane’ style of kung fu, which is from China. It is characterized by various forms and stances, with a wide variety of kicks and palm strikes. Like many traditional martial arts, it uses a colored belt system, and will be included as an event in the Olympic Games starting in 2020.

Uriah Hall (left) KOs his opponent with a Karate style spinning hook kick.
Uriah Hall (left) KOs his opponent with a Karate style spinning hook kick.

Judo is a grappling based martial art with emphasis on throws. It is a combat sport and an Olympic sport since 1964. It is different from the other traditional martial arts listed here because it is based in grappling, with its most distinctive techniques being the nage-waza (throwing techniques). Judo was very structured since its inception, with different types of sparring for learning and fighting, its submissions and joint locks, and its advanced ground game. Judo was the foundation in Brazil for what we now know as jiu-jitsu.

Taekwondo is a Korean martial art that is very similar to Karate in style, and that has been featured in the Olympics since 2000. It places more emphasis on kicking, with fancy spinning kicks and kicks to the head (ex: wheel kicks) being used more often. There are several different types of rules and curriculum for this martial art, and it is based on both Karate and Kung Fu.

Aikido is a martial art that is more of an ideology, its purpose is to deter attackers without significantly injuring them. It is a very well-rounded art, as it consists of throws, strikes, pins, and grabs. It originated in Japan, and many of its attacks have roots in Kenjutsu, a sword wielding art.

Kung Fu also known as Wushu, is a Chinese martial art consisting of both hard and soft fighting techniques. It features strikes as well as grappling, and competitions may resemble kickboxing matches, albeit with more grappling.

Traditional Martial Arts Today

While traditional martial arts are less prevalent due to the popularity and effectiveness of MMA, traditional martial arts still contain techniques that are valuable in combat. Many UFC fighters have trained in a traditional martial art, and some even use it as their base style.

If you train traditional arts, combine it with a martial art such as Muay Thai, with the purpose of practicing its effectiveness while sparring. Like Bruce Lee said, “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.” If you want to learn more about martial arts training, check out the Training Tips page where I answer commonly asked questions. Thanks for reading!