May 14, 2014

Impact of Martial Arts on Western Culture

Martial arts has been a pervasive part of human history for millennia. Ever since the first caveman picked up a rock and used it to strike his enemy, and then wondered if there was a better or more efficient way to do it next time, humans have studied martial arts. The oldest known records in the West go back to 4000 BCE, depicted in painting on walls of Egyptian tombs. The precursors to what we now call the “Western World” - the Egyptians, Greeks, and Romans - all practiced martial arts in the ancient world. But they were by no means the only ones. Africa was rife with their own indigenous martial arts, and of course so was Asia. These Eastern arts, specifically ones from China, Japan, Okinawa, and Korea, made vast inroads into the Western world during the mid-to-late 20th century, and changed the landscape of martial arts in the West forever.
Servicemen returning from wars in the Pacific theater during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War brought Asian martial arts back with them. The Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s also brought many Chinese immigrants to the United States and other Western countries. Chinese kung fu became more and more prevalent, especially with the fame of martial arts actors such as Bruce Lee. At this point in time (1960s-1970s), kung fu was predominantly known only through Hollywood, being featured in many movies and television shows. Though there were kung fu masters teaching their art in the West, the cultural biases of the time kept lessons usually within families. In addition, many of teachers refused to teach anyone that wasn’t of Chinese ethnicity. Japanese karate and Korean taekwondo, however, were making inroads into the West by other means, especially in the tournament scenes. They were also more open about teaching Westerners in general, and thus their popularity grew rapidly.

Martial arts has had a huge impact in Western entertainment. The influence of entertainment started in movies and Hollywood has promoted a “new” martial art every so often. In the sixties and early seventies, most movies featured Chinese kung fu. Then the seventies and eighties transitioned into movies featuring harder-style Japanese karate, reflecting the less subtle norms of those decades. The eighties also had an obsession with Japanese ninjutsu, though it was rarely portrayed accurately. The nineties led to martial arts movies starring actors like Van Damme and Seagal, who practiced very Americanized versions of Asian styles, especially those reminiscent of taekwondo. Brazilian ju-jitsu and UFC also started becoming quite popular in the nineties. The two-thousands led to a resurgence of kung fu through Hong Kong cinema, as well as more esoteric styles such as Kali and Krav Maga. More importantly, the idea of martial arts began to permeate almost every action movie, regardless of genre. Sci-fi, fantasy, police dramas - they all began incorporating martial arts moves in fight scenes. It started becoming the normal way to show people fighting. Soon after, the effect spread into other genres, such as video games, books, comics, etc.

A second major influence in the West was the notion of enrolling young children in martial arts classes, starting at a very young age. Parents were driven by a motivation to instill values like discipline, honor, dedication, and perseverance in their children. Many found that the structured environments improved the behavior of children and their grades in school. As these children grew up, many continued their practices and some even went on to become instructors themselves. Thus, the spread of martial arts in the West and its social acceptance accelerated rapidly.

Overall, martial arts has had a positive impact on Western culture. It began by opening the minds of Westerners to the ideas of other cultures and other people, and exposed them to new philosophies. But like all good things, the effect went both ways and Western culture began to affect martial arts, as well. Western openness and ideas of acceptance began to erode the walls of isolationism so common in Asian martial arts, and allowed the rest of the world to benefit from them. This mutual cross-pollination has been a force of positive change in both cultures, East and West, and we have not yet reached the end of the many benefits we can all gain from it.


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