Why did martial arts develop in the East but not in Europe?

The title speaks for itself. China, Japan, and Korea have traditional and elaborate systems of martial arts. I can’t think of any equivalents from England, France, Germany, Italy, or Spain. There is fencing from these countries but as far as I know there’s no hand-to-hand combat. Why is this?


Admittedly not as ancient as kung-fu, but indigenous to Europe.

According to the Wikipedia on Martial Arts, they didn’t exist to the same extent as they did in Asia.

Complete and utter nonsense.

Of course martial arts developed in Europe, what the heck do you think they were doing for millenia? The Greeks, the Romans, migration era warriors, Medieval Knights, tickling each other?

I am most familiar with medieval and renaissance historical european martial arts, as it is my current study, and it is a time period where we still have many surviving treatises and manuscripts detailing the arts.

The basic fact is that medieval and renaissance martial arts of Europe were every bit as sophisticated and effective as any asian martial art.

Of course, like all true, historical martial arts, it wasn’t just about unarmed combat. A warrior needed to know how to use all of the weapons of the time. This is why people tend to see only the rapier, or the longsword, but not the dagger, or the grapple, and assume it is only that. But historical martial arts tended to not separate weapons and unarmed combat into different disciplines, this is a modern trend specially evident in asian martial arts.

There were masters of martial arts through out Europe, there were schools of fencing through out Europe (again, in a historical context “fencing” meant essentially “fighting” It included the study of all weapons AND unarmed combat it all interconnects).

I would go as far as to say that indeed medieval and renaissance martial arts are much more martial than most modern asian ‘martial’ arts, which are really martial sports, or just simply, sports.

Explain how something like boxing, with a long and glorious European history, is not considered a martial art?

Anybody who has ever learned to box will tell you there is proper form for throwing various punches, there are established combos, there are indeed at least two entire rule systems for organized bouts. At best, it’s a great self-defense tool, at worst it’s a weapon achieved through training. Seems like a martial art to me.

Thinking further on this, It is not entirely clear if the OP wants to know why the reason for the lack of MODERN European martial arts.

I’ve heard various theories on this, but my guess would be that the gun had a lot to do with it.

As modern guns (and artillery in war) became more powerful and more widely used, the need for warriors skilled in hand to hand combat diminished greatly. Why train someone in a way of combat that requires years of training to gain a basic level of competency at, and many more years to master, when you can give him a gun and tell him to point it at the enemy?

Places such as Japan had the ‘advantage’ of not only being isolated, but of having a culture that was slow to change and particularly fond of it’s traditions.

I second that. I train in a local Brazilian Jiu Jitsu studio, where we do lots of “no gi” UFC type of training. The main skills are Greco-Roman style wrestling (grappling), boxing, and ground submissions and defenses perfected by Brazilians. Boxing is a very technical martial art (called the sweet science by practioners).

If you watch UFC or Pride fighting, you will rarely see a traditional Asian style martial artist enter the championship level (e.g., Tai Kwon Do, Judo, Shoto Kan karate, kung fu, etc.). The Japanese have adopted Brazilian Jiu Jitsu over their own, and the stand up fighting is kick boxing and grappling.

Pankration was an ancient Greek sport which appears to resemble mixed martial art fighting like UFC or Pride fighting, only much more brutal. Here’s a Wikipedia article about it.


Of course they developed in Europe! The French, in particular, are legendary for . . .

Oh. This thread isn’t about marital arts, is it? :o

IMHO, the bestest martial art evah.

Perhaps the Boxer Rebellion might arguably be a real world example of this.

It’s all marketing.

The very idea of martial arts is a construct. We automatically put any Asian fighting style in that catagory, and are hesitant to label a non-Asian fighting style as such. We have this whole idea of “martial arts” that has largely formed in modern times, often in an attempt to sell us something.

Much of what we consider essential to a martial art just is (some wierd bastardization of) Asian culture. We expect a lot of complicated teachings about joints and pressure points because that is tied to Asian beliefs about the way the body works. “Kick him in the knee, it’ll fuck him up!” just doesn’t make our hearts flutter like “If you hit the pressure point you’ll interupt his chi!” We want meditation, but would be pretty upset if our teacher had us sit quietly in prayer. We want to call our instructors “sensai” and feel like we are a part of some ancient and mysterious relationship, when in actual Asia the whole teacher/monk-student/acolyte relationship was often slavelike and unpleasant. Go ask some of the kids that were kidnapped by Buddhist monks to grow up in monestaries in Tibet earlier this century what it was like.

Anyway, the point is that in actual Asia, before the popularity of kung-fu movies (A country can legendize itself…western movies are just as much about creating a myth), these things wern’t a part of “martial arts”. They were just a part of regular life, practiced by fighters and non-fighters alike, without a second thought.

And it’s hard to market European stuff like that (although swashbucker films and westerns were hugely popular.) Fencing has too many upper-class conotations. Gunfighting isn’t very practical. Nobody wants to mess with greatswords. The European trappings just arn’t very sexy. If you tried to convince someone that reading a bible verse before your fight was a good thing to do, they’d laugh at you. Even if that is the exact equivelent of meditating before a fight.

It doesn’t help that European thought usually has a strong divide from the “animal, immoral, dirty, female” body and the “noble, clean, moral, male” mind. The way things are now, people can just dismiss having to think of their mind and body as connected as “an Eastern thing” and not let it intrude on the rest of their life.

Nitpick: Jiu-Jitsu is a standard term for fighting, kind of like saying “karate” without specifying whether it’s Kempo, Shotokan, Gojin-Ryu, etc.

BJJ is especially suited for MMA events because a) Back in the early days, Royce rolled over everyone with it and thus it got quite popular (and people adopted it) and b) people saw the utility of the guard position and that being on your back doesn’t necessarily make you helpless (granted, it’s not necessarily desirable, but not as hopeless as people thought).

For the poster who said there aren’t “standard” Eastern arts in MMA competition - Muay Thai is pretty much a staple for anyone competing - I think guys who don’t know it are much rarer than those that do.

Anyway, as for Western martial arts - there are plenty, but they aren’t nearly as popular as Eastern ones (as noted above), but for a long time nearly every region had a fairly specific version of wrestling that people competed in - not necessarily to defend themselves, but to compete. Everything from Catch As Catch Can wrestling (Ken Shamrock style submission wrestling is a fairly close descendent, IMO) to this bizzare Irish variation where you wear metal shoes and kick your opponent in the shins while clinching.

Lets see some others that have existed through time: Russian Sambo which is fairly similar to BJJ in that there is a lot of work from your back (although they use some vicious leg locks that aren’t often taught in traditional BJJ schools). Savate, pankration (not to be confused with modern Pancrase) and boxing, as mentioned. Plus everyone who ever learned to fence, joust, use a spear.

I seem to recall reading that there were a lot of different variations of stick/stave fighting (e.g as described in Tom Brown’s Schooldays) which while fairly rulebound and formalised all basically consist of the martial art of Whacking The Other Guy With A Bit Of Wood.

[Daffy Duck]Ho! Haha! Guard! Turn! Parry! Dodge! Spin! Ha! Thrust![/Daffy Duck]

Boxing, wrestling, Savate, fencing (many styles), jousting, melee tourneys, SCA heavy weapons and so forth. Thus, your premise is incorrect.

Oriental bare-hand martial arts often grew out of an unarmed peasant class. The peasants weren’t all that “un-armed” in Europe (witness the English Longbow).

You are right. The Roman Catholic Church has at least twice banned certain weapons (i.e., crossbow) for use against Christians as being “unchivalrous” in that they took little to no skill to use and were extremely likely to kill from a distance allowing the wielder to remain anonymous.

The biggest challenge to “chivalrous” weaponry and battle styles, was the advent of the gatling gun. The ability to mow down a whole lot of foot soldiers without even stopping to take proper aim signaled the end of the one-on-one combat. Instead of battlefields, we ended up with trench lines. Then along came tanks and other types of armored vehicles which obviated even them.

Marksmanship (i.e., martial arts), whether with rifles, bows, swords or hand-to-hand, became obsolete in the art of war. Martial Arts, especially in the West, became a sport - the thing tournaments and sporting events are made of. Pugilism (hand-to-hand) attracted the lower classes and those who could afford the equipment indulged in fencing, jousting, archery and the like.

Just asDrDeth mentions, I’ve often heard that the Eastern “weaponless” martial arts were often a response to bans on weapons in general–rather than say a ban on a specific weapon like the crossbow.

The bannig of crossbows, as well as early attempts to discourage firearms, was simply a matter of class distinction; the nobility, given the avantage of being able to afford war horses and suits of armor, didn’t want the common peasantry to be able to shoot them off horses.

Indeed, this pattern repeated itself in Japan, where guns were banned by Tokugawa in the early 17th century. Japan up to that point manufactured the finest muskets on earth, and its samurai and armies had largely abandoned hand-to-hand weapons in favour of guns wherever possible. Tokugawa, seeing that the position of the samurai class was threatened by modernity - especially guns - decided the nation should therefore reject modernity and all its trappings.

Europe couldn’t stop moving in the direction of guns for the simple reason that Europe is not a consolidated state; it was a morass of kingdoms, and so the need for better weapons outweighed the nobility’s desire to keep warfare static. Read up on the revolutionary methods of Gustav Adolphus and how quickly everyone copied him.

That’s obviously not true. Machine guns were not invented until the 1850s and weren’t practical for some years afterwards. There had been no pretense of chivalry in warfare for centuries beforehand.

Perhaps you’re thinking of the Maxim gun and WW1? Hiram Maxim’s invention made infantry/cavalry charges suicidal which led to trench warfare, and the ensuing stalemate resulted in the development of the tank to protect against machinegun fire and to smash through those fixed defenses.

Dunno that things like the US Civil War or various Napoleonic-era wars were particularly chivalrous before WW1 though…they certainly had no qualms about using artillery against infantry, those just happen to be slower to reload than a machinegun…

Dunno when marksmanship became important with firearms but early on I think that massed fire (ranks of musketeers) was the order of the day. Machineguns certainly made accuracy less critical and then during WW2 several groups began asking whether equipping infantry with rifles capable of shooting long distances made any sense at all since the bulk of the combat was snapshots at relatively close range (and that’s what led the Germans to develop the first assault rifle in around 1944 IIRC). Probably a bit of a seesaw back and forth.

Pretty sure that jousting had fallen out of favor as a sport long before the machinegun came about though :slight_smile: