This paper will review prior attempts to compare martial arts at the tactical level. Add a strategic dimension i.e. how are tactics integrated in a fight via larger concepts. Also, the author will look at the most general dimension of martial arts which is the very goal of the martial art which supersedes any discussion of tactics and strategy. Finally, the author will create a taxonomy of martial arts which explains the table above.
The earliest attempt to compare both Eastern and Western martial arts systematically was done by Bruce Tegner (1968). Tegner compared Atemi-Waza, Boxing, Judo, Karate & Kung Fu, Savate and Wrestling in terms of various techniques. Tegner’s chart on the topic below:
Bruce Tenger’s chart is not exactly a taxonomy since one of the critical aspects of a taxonomy is a hierarchy of elements from specific to general and this is lacking in his system. Below is an expansion and improvement of Bruce Tegner’s original table taken from the Kuk-Sool website:
The Kul-Sool table is better in three areas than the Tenger chart. The Kul-Sool table adds many more martial arts, adds many more aspects of martial arts and, via color coding, pointing out the secondary emphasis of the particular martial arts. This secondary emphasis is very important since this is often ignored in cursory examinations of a martial art. For example, many would be surprised that Judo does teach some hand striking techniques (atemi) in order to unbalance (kuzushi) the opponent before attempting a throw, at the more advanced level.
Bruce Lee later took the idea of comparing martial arts further and looked at the concept of a synthesis of martial art elements (mixed martial arts). However, Bruce Lee was more interested in a martial arts synthesis rather than analysis in the form of a taxonomy. Bruce Lee looked at around twenty martial arts and ‘absorbed what is useful’ rather than doing a point by point analysis of every aspect of the martial art. Bruce Lee focused on the best techniques of each martial art rather than all techniques of martial arts. I would argue that a taxonomy can allow for a more systematic synthesis of martial art techniques. Beyond taxonomy issues, comparison allows us to perhaps mix and match martial arts based on a list of skills.
A common mix is mixing a martial art that is strong in the area of hand strikes with one that is known for kicking techniques. Taekwondo to some extent is the fusion of Japanese Karate (strong in the area of hand striking techniques) with Korean Taekkyeon (strong in the area of kicking techniques). Another much more common mix and match is to mix a striking system with a wrestling system. South Korean soldiers learn Taekwondo (striking) and Judo (grappling). Japanese soldiers combine Karate (striking) with Judo (wrestling). US soldiers up until recently were taught a system that largely combined boxing (striking) with, once again, Judo (grappling). This is of course an oversimplification since any military system will add all sorts of combatives from all sorts of sources but maybe 80% of the combatives will come from an indigenous source the soldier is already familiar with rather than start from scratch. The above technique centered approach has limitations since it ignores strategic martial art consideration in favor of only focusing on tactics.
The classic division of tactics and strategy can be applied to martial arts. How are the individual techniques/tactics integrated within a larger plan? This is the next step in how a fighter looks at his or her martial art. The focus is at first on techniques but later the fighter must look at how individual techniques within the martial art must be mixed and matched to achieve the goal of victory even in a mock fight and in that case a mock victory. The big three strategic concepts are type of stalking system, primary range of defense/offense and prioritization of target areas.
As you approach your opponent do you circle and look for an opening or just get right in there and go for the kill? Circular styles include many styles of kung fu with Baguazhang as an extreme example of a circular style. Karate would be at another extreme and the emphasis is on strong linear movements in Karate.
There is a general tendency to associate circular systems with “soft” systems. Yielding to oncoming force is a soft technique and a circular yield makes sense biomechanically. Circular systems are also associated with yogic, internal systems that put a lot of emphasis on breathing and “qi” (Chinese) or “ki” (Japanese). However an emphasis on correct breathing is a technique that may have a historical Chinese association with circular systems but not a logical one. Wing Chun in particular is a soft system with a linear stalking system. There is no necessary logical connection between the stalking system and internal systems. Some Karate systems that have linear stalking also put an emphasis on breathing techniques.
Some martial arts do not really deal with the idea of stalking system directly and leave that up to the individual student. Stalking can also be opportunistic. The student may be encouraged to apply different stalking approaches to different opponents.
Primary Range of Defense/Offense
Certain techniques are good for defending at certain ranges. Grappling techniques work best at short range. Hand strikes work best at medium range. Kicks work best at long range. There are exceptions, the Muay Thai kick that uses the shin as a striking area can be devastating at many ranges. Aikido takes grappling techniques but uses them at a much longer range than let’s say Judo. Some martial arts attempt to create confusion by varying range dramatically such as Hapkido. However, most martial arts have a primary range that they defend and attack from. Boxing defends and attacks from a medium range. Even Hapkido has a primary range, long range (kicks) and a secondary range, short range (grappling).
A fighter cannot attack both from a short range and long range at the same time due to the laws of physics and must make a decision what the primary range will be. The one exception would be a counter attacker that allows the other person to decide the range and then counter attacks from that range but that person would probably be an eclectic martial artist rather than a student of a particular martial art. The opportunistic approach to range can also be seen in other subareas of strategy and some martial arts adopt an overall opportunistic strategic approach. Combat is fluid both at the micro and macro level. The division between a doctrinaire strategic approach versus a flexible approach to strategy that is seen when looking at generals is also seen at the martial arts level.
Prioritization of Attack Areas
Humans long ago figured out that certain areas of the body were much more vulnerable than other areas. Overall, striking systems target the head and other targets along the centerline. Wrestling systems attack the joints. Some martial arts, like some styles of Eskrima, and the trapping hands of Wing Chun, will target the arms. Muay Thai boxers do target the legs via repeated kicks to the same leg and the same spot on the leg of the opponent even though the legs are pretty tough and this seems counter intuitive. Trapping hands is a secondary attack target technique in Wing Chun. Wing Chun primarily defends and targets the centerline.
Traditional target areas can even be turned into striking areas. Muay Thai turns the shin, a target area, into a striking area via conditioning. Martial arts are not easily classified by what target areas they focus on since a target of opportunity system seems to work best. There may be illegal targets but in general any martial art will teach the practitioner how to attack a range of targets based on opportunity. Some martial arts, target what are generally illegal targets because of the danger involved.
Martial arts often have rules about not attacking certain areas due to safety concerns even if those areas make sense from a combat point of view. Eye gouging or any type of controlled practice of attacking the eyes is almost universally forbidden. The exception would be a few martial arts like Krav Maga that focus on the self-defense aspect of the martial art over any other goal. One cannot even say that all martial arts have the goal of attacking vulnerable areas of the human body. Martial arts with the goal of entertainment or health may eschew vulnerable target areas all together and this leads to the third major dimension of this taxonomy.
The Goal of the Martial Art
What is the main goal of the martial art? Tactical and strategic considerations should be logically subsumed under the goal of the martial art. Most martial arts have more than one purpose but generally there is a predominant goal.
This division of martial arts by goal is especially dominant in Japanese martial art in which the modern “–do” systems are contrasted with the traditional “-jutsu” arts. Some prominent examples are Judo versus Jiu-Jitsu, and Kendo versus Kendo Jutsu. “Do” means way. Generally a “-do” Japanese martial art has been adapted for modern sensibilities by emphasizing sportive elements of a prior “–jutsu” martial art. The defense aspects of the “-jutsu” version are deemphasized and techniques that would be dangerous to the practitioners during practice are eliminated. Tournament rules are added to the ‘-do” system as well as a consistent system of belts. Kanō Jigorō was the forerunner of this modernization of Jiu-Jitsu into Judo and many of his innovations were followed by other Japanese martial arts. An extreme example of this –jutsu to –do conversion would be the conversion of Kenjutsu to Kendo in which an actual sword, or even a wooden sword, “bokken”, which is still a potential weapon, is substituted by a far lighter “shinai” made up of strips of bamboo and basically to light to be a real striking weapon compared to even a stick found on the road or a tire iron in the trunk much less the original steel samurai sword that could literally cleave men in half. Targets such as limbs were made illegal in Kendo which probably would have amused the original samurai to no end since attacking limbs, which are hard to armor or defend, commonly led to victory in actual combat in Kenjutsu. One of the most dangerous martial arts of Japan was tamed and made into a shadow dance with almost no self-defense applications. Kendo due to the lightness of the shinai actually teaches the practitioner bad, overly aggressive, habits so that your natural skill with a stick will go down if you practice Kendo! Below is a list of major goals of martial arts with the best example of a martial art that is dominated by that goal as opposed to other goals.
Wushu taolu would be a good example of a martial art that retains more combative elements that perhaps Peking Opera but nevertheless has the goal of demonstration as part of a show rather than combat effectiveness. A demonstration style tries to balance combat efficacy and showmanship rather than just emphasizing showmanship.
An entertainment style of kung fu is used in professional Peking Opera is what Jackie Chan studied in Hong Kong originally. This is kung fu designed to be used in traditional Chinese opera but also looks great in a Hong Kong film. The emphasis is on show. Movements will be exaggerated to the point that combat efficacy is sacrificed. Stunt versions of a martial art would also included in this category. Actual sword fights are not very exciting compared to their stunt version cousins. Bruce Lee was notoriously hard to film due to his speed. Combat techniques often rely on deception which makes it difficult for the uninitiated to understand what happened. The ghost kick of Wing Chun is very effective in combat but what is actually going on cannot be seen by the casual observer. The punch camouflages the kick but the casual observer will not understand what is going on. A flashy jump kick designed to knock riders off horses, not street combat, looks great in a movie but is a terrible idea in a real fight. The one-inch punch of Wing Chun is another technique which is effective precisely because it isn’t showy. Choreographing your punch is a bad thing in combat but necessary for entertainment. If the main goal is entertainment then martial art modification that is flashy but sacrifices combat efficacy is desirable!
Health and Fitness
Modern T’ai chi ch’uan is based on prior versions of T’achi but many combat elements were removed and modified so even the elderly could practice T’achi for health not combat. Sometimes health is actually sacrificed for combat effectiveness. Hand conditioning is probably not a good idea for someone who plans to be a brain surgeon. Dementia pugilistica is a condition associated with blows to the head among boxers.
The Society for Creative Anachronism has attempted to recreate medieval swordsmanship due more to a historical rather than combative interest. Some schools of medieval swordsmanship might emphasize combative elements but in general the practicality of carrying a giant long sword to a street fight or a battle zone has to be questioned. However, if zombies ever do attack I am going to look into this martial art for combative rather historical purposes. Swords never run out of ammo. Swords are a lot quieter than guns. I would rather use a long sword and kept my distance from the disease plagued hands of a zombie than the shorter, lighter Japanese katana.
Krav Maga is a good example of a martial art that totally eschews any other goal than self-defense. Many techniques such as eye gouging and groin kicking that are banned in more sport oriented martial arts are part of the Krav Maga curriculum. Fighting multiple opponents armed with various weapons is not an add-on in Krav Maga like it is in most Karate, Judo, and Kung Fu classes but a central part of the curriculum. Using a rifle like a club is one of the forms taught in Krav Maga and epitomizes the practical combat approach of this martial art. The Marine Corps Martial Arts Program would be another example of a system that has as its primary goal self-defense.
Aikido would be a good example of a martial art that started with spiritual goals and is still practiced this way by many practitioners. Morihei Ueshiba created Aikido in order to create a martial art that emphasized spiritual goals. Later Aikido Yoshinkan was created in order to emphasize the combative side of Aikido.
Boxing does not allow kicks! Boxing does not allow any sort of hand strikes except those possible with boxing gloves and even what part of the glove you can use is delineated. The hand strikes are real enough and the conditioning is real enough but all the combative limitations seem to me to have the goal of extending matches. I live in Thailand and probably watch a Muay Thai match twice a month live and kicks shorten matches dramatically. The classic Thai kick with the shin is about ten times more likely to deliver a knockout than any sort of boxing punch possible. Boxing looks like a poor cousin of Muay Thai until you realize boxing is a sport with combat origins rather than a combat system per se. Boxers however are notoriously tough street fighters kicks or no kicks since boxing punches are real and it just takes one good punch to win a fight.
Olympic fencing would be a more extreme example of a sport with martial art origins that has totally lost any combative reality whatsoever. As mentioned, Kendo is another example of a martial art that has sacrificed combative efficacy for tournament purposes but at least Kendo has offensive slashes as well as thrusts. In Olympic fencing thrusting with the tip is the only technique allowed!
Classifying an art as a tournament art is not a criticism! Tournaments are fun! Sport with some combat dimension fits certain people. In a developed world in which a sedentary life style is the main enemy of health, any sort of sport that works is to be lauded not criticized. The logical problem happens when practitioners of a sport style think they are learning a system of combat while actually they are learning a sport system with combat roots.
There seems to be a pattern of evolution when it comes to martial arts as well. There seems to be an historical pattern both in the West and the East in which martial arts begin with a self-defense goal and then move towards a sports goal over time. I studied Taekwondo in the seventies and again in the nineties and the emphasis had switched within the art as a whole from combat to winning tournaments. Some training halls don’t even bother to teach forms that use hand strikes such as the spear hand and ridge hand that are not used in tournaments. If winning tournaments is the goal of the instructor then time spent of none tournament combatives is logically a waste of time.
Looking at the goals of a martial art and matching the goals to the techniques allows us to deal with the issue of the internal logical consistency of a martial art. If the goal of a martial art is health and this same martial art is poor in the area of self-defense then criticism that the martial art is poor in the area of self-defense is illogical. Pointing out that scissors aren’t very good for hammering nails is a pointless argument. Nevertheless martial artists waste a lot of time in discussions that are like the scissors and the hammers debate. For example, some martial artists state that Modern T’ai chi ch’uan is largely useless in combat since the emphasis on pushing hand lacks the lethality needed to win a fight in the streets. For the same amount of effort you used to push your opponent, you could have done a double palm strike and taken the opponent out. This is a baseless argument since the goal of Modern T’ai chi ch’uan is health not self-defense. However, if you can show the practice of Modern T’ai chi ch’uan actually does not contribute to better health then that argument is worth pursuing.
The addition of a goal section to any taxonomy of martial arts is crucial! The person picking a martial art should pick the martial art that fits their own goal! Unless you have some sort of athletic predisposition for certain techniques then the goal should be the most important part of any martial arts taxonomy. Just as there are primary and secondary techniques in a martial art, there are primary and secondary goals in a martial art. Judo may emphasize sportive elements at the expense of self-defense but still retains much of its combative origins and could be used in combat unlike for example Olympic fencing which is largely useless for self-defense.
Tenger, B. (1968). Self-defense Nerve Centers and Pressure Points for Karate, Jujitusu and Atemi-Waza. Thor Publishing Company, Ventura, CA.