Elements of Martial Art Styles

Author: James Swartwood

Date Published: September 5th, 2020

The martial arts are made up of many different styles, each created with elements that separate them from the others. It can often be hard to know the difference between these styles without understanding what makes each one unique. I believe that the elements of each martial arts style can be classified into four categories: purpose, philosophy, focus, and method. The purpose of each martial art style determines the core of that style and serves to reinforce the philosophy the style promotes. The philosophy of the style greatly influences the focus of that style, which in turn determines the techniques that the practitioners of the style will develop and use. We will examine each of these four categories and how they relate to a few of the most well-known styles of today.

The first category is purpose, the core of each martial art style. When a style is formed, developed, and practiced, it is crafted for a specific purpose. Taekwondo, for example, was first practiced as military training for troops in Korea. Over the years, Taekwondo has split into a few variant styles, some with the purpose of competing in the sport that it has become, and others with the purpose of maintaining tradition and learning how to defend oneself in a combative situation. Aikido, on the other hand, was developed by a person who disliked the brutality of the Jiu-jitsu he had been taught and wanted to create a new system that used the techniques in a more gentle manner. Another martial art style with a different purpose is Krav Maga, which was created for the Israeli Defense Force to inflict as much pain as fast as possible on the enemy. These styles – Taekwondo, Aikido, and Krav Maga – are only three examples of the six hundred plus styles currently practiced today.

The second category is philosophy, which oftentimes is related to the purpose of each style. For consistency, we will continue to examine the same three examples from before. Taekwondo was first used as military training, so the art style itself promotes philosophies of physical fitness and dominating your opponents with targeted strikes. Aikido, on the other hand, is a style made to be more gentle on its practitioners and promotes the philosophy of preserving yourself and your opponent as much as possible. Krav Maga differs from both, having the single goal of neutralizing the enemy. This is often achieved through extremely violent means. Krav Maga students are encouraged to avoid physical conflict as much as possible, but the style promotes the philosophy of brutally destroying your opponents should you get into a fight. The purpose and philosophies of each style will often attract some people and discourage others from joining, as is probably clear from the three examples I gave you.

The third category, the focus of a martial art style, is influenced by the philosophies of each style. Taekwondo, a striking art that promotes the philosophies of good physical fitness and military intent, focuses greatly on the endurance of its practitioners and their ability to strike at enemies without dropping any equipment and weapons they have in their hands. Aikido, which adheres to the philosophy of preservation, focuses on certain elements of good combat while ignoring many others to reduce the physical danger or pain that the martial arts generally includes for its practitioners. Krav Maga, on the other hand, focuses on the most brutal sides of efficient combat and places an emphasis on developing pain tolerance.

The fourth category is method, which refers to the techniques that the practitioners of each style develop and use. People often think that the techniques of each style are the main element that separates one style from another, but that is far from true. In reality, the techniques included in each style are determined by the purpose, philosophy, and focus of the style. For example, Taekwondo, which focuses on the endurance of its practitioners, includes a lot of endurance drills. Since it also serves to teach its practitioners how to strike at their opponents without dropping things or letting the opponents get too close, the combative techniques that Taekwondo includes mainly consist of kicks. Aikido, on the other hand, includes no strikes in its system and refuses to use any grappling technique that puts the opponent in dangerous positions. Instead, the techniques used are purposefully non-combative with the intent to train connection, relative positioning, general balance, and safety while falling. Krav Maga, a rather brutal style, has a lot of techniques in its system that consist mainly of strikes, joint locks, and joint breaks. There is often a lot of overlap in techniques across styles, even among the three examples we have been examining. For example, the setup for joint locks in Krav Maga often resembles techniques from Aikido, the few punches included in Taekwondo are the same punches used by Krav Maga practitioners, and some positioning techniques such as angling and footwork are shared by both Taekwondo and Aikido. Most of the time, you will find it impossible to classify different styles by method alone due to all the overlapping techniques. If you watch a martial artist, the best you can do is make an educated guess about the style or styles that they have trained in based on the techniques you see them use. You can gather a lot more information from how they choose to use those techniques and the posture they maintain throughout.

When practicing any martial art style, it is problematic to not recognize the purpose of that style, and even more so for an instructor to teach that their style is something it is not. Not only will this taint your practices in that style, but it will also cause you and others to misunderstand the intent of the techniques you practice. For example, an Aikido practitioner who claims that the style will be effective in a combative situation is misinformed, because such a claim neglects the fact that Aikido intentionally avoids many core elements of combat. A Taekwondo practitioner who claims that Taekwondo will work well in defense against a takedown, or a Krav Maga practitioner who claims that the style is designed to protect their opponents, is similarly misinformed about the nature of their respective styles. Nonetheless, there are many martial art practitioners today that make claims about themselves or their styles that contradict the foundation of what they practice.

One example of martial art styles being misunderstood by their practitioners can be found in some of the martial arts “masters” in China that have been making the news for their utter defeat in fights against MMA fighters and kickboxers. Most commonly, these practitioners are Tai Chi instructors that have convinced themselves and their students that the techniques and stances in their style are the pinnacles of combative skill, some even claiming that they can use their chi to trip their opponents, block punches, and even knock out opponents without touching them. These confused masters are not doing well in representing the true purpose, philosophy, and focus that their techniques are supposed to display. Tai Chi is a style that is meant to cultivate the practitioners’ breathing, control, and stability using slow movements, patterns, and stretches; it has much in common with Yoga. It may resemble combative techniques at times, but that is not the purpose of the style.

One of the most embarrassing defeats for the Chinese traditional martial arts was when a Wing Chun master named Ding Hao decided to challenge an MMA fighter named Xu Xiaodong to prove that Wing Chun was a practical style. He considered himself to be one of the top four Wing Chun practitioners in China. This was a huge event that was broadcasted live. When the match started, though, it was clear from the beginning that the Wing Chun master could do nothing. None of his punches had any power behind them and he had no idea how to take a hit. The MMA fighter was just toying with the master, knocking him down and scaring him whenever he wished. The fight was declared a tie because the judges were too prideful to tarnish the image of Wing Chun, but the video is out there. It is clear who won. Once again, this is not because Wing Chun is an inferior style. It is just an indicator that the master had dismissed the roots of the style he practiced. Wing Chun was meant to enhance the ability and speed of Kung Fu practitioners, not to be the only style a martial artist ever trains in.

It is important to be honest with yourself and others about the martial arts you practice. If you claim to be something you are not, you are putting yourself in a very dangerous position. This is especially true for the instructors of martial arts. They need to be very clear about the purpose, philosophy, focus, and techniques they teach to their students. Failing to do so not only hurts their own image but also hurts the image of the martial art styles that they claim to be proficient in. I would like to encourage everyone to be mindful about what they learn in the martial arts and consider the intent behind each practice. Only then will you truly understand the martial arts you study. Recently, the Chinese Wushu Association declared that all traditional Chinese martial artists should now refrain from calling themselves masters or claiming to be the head of any style. They also told Chinese martial art practitioners to not participate in any staged public fights, knowing full well that the majority of these martial artists do not have any practical fighting experience. I hope that this will not only discourage these practitioners from trying to prove themselves or their style against real fighters but that it will also encourage them to reevaluate their traditions and practices to understand the core of what they do.

Bruce Lee said something that has really stuck with me. It did not make much sense to me when I first heard it, but after progressing further in my martial arts journey, I believe I now have a better understanding. This is what he said, “I do not believe in styles anymore. I do not believe there is such a thing as the Chinese way of fighting or the Japanese way of fighting or whatever way of fighting. If human beings have three arms and four legs, then we will have a different way of fighting, but we only have two hands and two feet, so styles tend to only separate us because they have their own doctrines and then their doctrines become the single truth. If you just say, well here I am as a human being. How can I express myself, totally and completely? If you think of it that way, then you won’t create a style, because a style is just a crystallization or process of continuing growth.” It is clear to everyone interested in the martial arts that a multitude of different styles exist, so why would a martial arts practitioner like Bruce Lee say that they don’t believe in styles, especially one with as much experience and skill as he had? In fact, Bruce Lee even created his own style, called Jeet Kun Do. I can only speculate as one who has followed a very similar path in the martial arts as he had. I have had the opportunity to study under many martial arts instructors, eight to be exact, in many different martial art styles. I have found that each style is merely a unique perspective on the total actions that a human can perform. Staying true to their purpose, each style points its practitioners toward becoming more stable and able in mind, body, and spirit. It is dangerous to get caught up in the mindset that styles are entirely separate, because at their core they are all very much the same. No style is superior to another, and the best martial artists are the ones who stay true to the purpose, philosophy, focus, and method of the style, or styles, that they practice.