Most people don’t write martial arts into books. The details of how and why things work in martial systems is difficult to distill into simple words. I wrote a post sometime back about how to translate the physical aspects into something that was a bit more entertaining than “A hammer-fist to the back of the head followed by a palm strike to the nose and claw to the face.” Whether or not it helped anyone out, I don’t know, but it was a good exercise for me.
The basic gist of that post was you need to have an understanding of how and why things work and the ability to turn it into fiction without sounding like a pompous ass or ITG. Today I’d like to take a slight turn and look at the macro world of the martial arts instead of the individual movements of the martial arts.
Many years ago I was reading one of Laurell Hamilton’s Anita Blake books when I stumbled across something peculiar. Hamilton was probably my first exposure to the world of urban fantasy and I still generally enjoy her work even if a lot of it has become an excuse to lurch from one kinky sex scene to another. Or maybe because her work lurches from one kinky sex scene to another. Hamilton was doing the vampire human werewolf thing long before Meyer dropped onto the scene and, to be frank, Hamilton did it better.
At any rate, there was a line in one of the books where Anita Blake tells the reader she’s been studying Kenpo. I thought “Aha! I know that one.” At that point I’d been studying Kenpo for a few years and had a fairly good grasp on what the system was really like. Then Anita drops a bomb on us when she says Kenpo is basically like Tae Kwon Do.
That’s probably not the exact quote, but it’s the general gist of the narrative. Now, as someone who has studied both Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, let me tell you something: they’re nowhere near the same.
So, with that firmly in mind, I decided to put together a little bit about some of the more popular martial systems out there to (hopefully) give authors a decent idea of what each system does. Bear in mind, I’ve only studied a handful of these, so I may be a bit off on some of them, but this should be sufficient to give a decent introduction. At the very least, you won’t be stuck with the old Judo chop meme.
Since we’ve already brought up Kenpo and Tae Kwon Do, we’ll start with those and then move into some others.
Tae Kwon Do
Tae Kwon Do is a Korean martial art renowned for its kicks. The whole system – from what I’ve seen of it – isn’t exclusively kicking, but there are a lot of different types of kicks in TKD. and they do them all very well. All TKD schools follow the same curriculum, which is pretty convenient. It’s one of the few really well codified systems out there. If you have a character who excels at kicking, TKD is a good art for them to know.
For more information on TKD check out the World Tae Kwon Do Federation
Fun Fact: There are an estimated 70 million people world-wide practicing Tae Kwon Do.
Other common Korean martial systems include Hapkido and Hwa Rang Do
Kenpo, American Kenpo anyway, is an American system. It was born in Hawaii in the 1940s and moved into the mainland in the 60s and 70s under the guidance of Ed Parker. It has since dispersed across a number of masters and bits of it have been changed or added to over the years. Kenpo is primarily a hand art that focuses on rapid-fire strikes to multiple targets. There are kicks in Kenpo, but they’re not as prevalent as, say, Tae Kwon Do.. Kenpo is not a sport system; as such, strikes to the knees, throat, groin, and eyes are all encouraged.
Kenpo’s fairly fractured, but most of the schools I’ve seen all teach pretty much the same kinds of things. Check out my school’s page here.
Fun Fact: Elvis Presley was a Kenpo black belt. The picture above is Elvis and Ed Parker.
One of the more popular striking arts in MMA is Muay Thai. It’s also known as Thai boxing, Thai kickboxing, and the Science of Eight Limbs. Muay Thai is the sportified version of the traditional Thai martial arts and it’s extremely popular in Thailand. It’s known for its use of fists, elbows, knees, and feet, hence the name: The Science of Eight Limbs.
Muay Thai fighters are famous for being able to do things like kick down banana trees with their shins.
Fun fact: the non-sport versions of Muay Thai are collectively referred to as Muay Boran.
Kung Fu isn’t a totally accurate term for the fighting arts of China – Wushu is a bit more accurate. But even then, Wushu is a blanket term for a country that’s probably done more for the martial arts than any other place on the planet. Wushu covers dozens of distinct styles including things like Wing Chun, Mantis, Hun Gar, White Crane, Fighting Crane, Drunken Boxing, and so on. Calling a character a Kung Fu master is a bit misleading since there are so many styles native to China. Wing Chun is a common style that, among other things, makes excellent use of blasting – rapid fire strikes to a target.
Fun fact: It has been argued that Okinawan Karate (and thus Japanese Karate) was based on Chinese White Crane Wushu.
Jeet Kune Do
Jeet Kune Do is less a system of fighting than a philosophy of fighting. When Bruce Lee developed Jeet Kune Do, he did so as a response to what he felt were too many strict rules in Wing Chun. Jeet Kune Do fighters make use of a lot of Wing Chun, but the system is more stripped down and has added elements of fencing and Western boxing. The focus in Jeet Kune Do is to be able to fluidly move and react in a fight situation without relying on traditional methods.
Fun fact: Jeet Kune Do was created by Bruce Lee.
Contrary to the Judo Chop meme, Judo is primarily a grappling and throwing system that relies less on striking and more on tossing opponents around. It was originally developed as a less-lethal and easier to learn version of Jiu-Jitsu. While strikes exist in Judo, they are only part of kata and are disallowed in competition. So much for the vaunted Judo chop.
Fun fact: Vladimir Putin is a world-class Judo practitioner and has even delivered classes at the Kodokan.
Jiu Jitsu was developed by Samurai who realized punching or kicking an armored opponent would have little effect, but throwing worked quite nicely. No matter how much armor a person is wearing, a good throw can be devastating. It has since traveled the globe and morphed into many forms including Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Jiu Jitsu primarily focuses on throws and joint locks and relies less on strikes.
Fun fact: The women’s suffrage movement owes a lot to Jiu Jitsu; suffragettes used it to defend themselves against an aggressive police force. Also, Anthony Bourdain (the famous chef) is a practitioner and recently won his first match.
Another system that I’ve studied, albeit very briefly. Aikido was primarily developed in the 1920s and 1930s by Morihei Ueshiba. While Aikido makes extensive use of throws and joint locks like Judo and Jiu Jitsu, Aikido’s goal was to create a self-defense system that not only protected the practitioner, but also the assailant. It focuses less on grappling than either Judo or Jiu Jitsu and instead relies on quick throws and joint locks.
Fun fact: Aikido is the system Steven Segal practices.
Krav Maga (literally “contact combat”) is an Israeli system that was originally developed for the Israeli Defense Forces. It’s primarily a striking art, but is unique for the amount of time it spends teaching students how to deal with armed opponents. Krav Maga is a no-frills, all-out system of fighting.
Fun fact: the IDF still uses Krav Maga and is continually updating and refining the system.
Much like Wushu, Karate covers quite a lot of ground in various Japanese and Okinawan systems. It runs the gamut from hard style to soft style and everything in between. I’ve studied Okinawan karate in the distant past. Karate practitioners tend to rely on fists, but kicking is definitely not out of the question. Common Karate schools include Shotokan, Kojosho, and Kyokushin.
Fun fact: One of the great tests in Kyokushin Karate is the 100-man kumite where one person will fight 100 others.
Western Boxing is a hands-only fighting system common in America and Europe. While some martial systems look down on boxing for failing to use kicks, it’s an extremely effective fighting style. Sometime back in the 70s or 80s, Kenpo set up some show-off matches against boxers. The Kenpo fighters won the first set hands-down, but as the boxers learned how to deal with kicks the tables turned pretty quickly.
Fun fact: In its early history, boxing was a bare-knuckles affair. Bare knuckle fighting tends to get bloody, so to reduce the blood (and attract more women to matches) gloves were introduced to the sport.
The final entry on this list is a lesser-known system: Capoeira. Capoeira is South American system developed by slaves. At the time the slaves weren’t allowed to learn to fight or practice fighting, so they hid their movements in techniques that looked like dance.
Fun fact: Capoeira fights often contain music and are referred to as games
These are just a few of the hundreds of martial arts systems out there. They all have their own philosophies and ways of doing things. Just like any other process – driving a car, shooting a gun, hacking a computer – it behooves authors to read up on and learn about what kind of fighting their characters may be doing. It could be codified like Savate, or just a straight-up bar room brawl. If you have someone who’s supposedly an Aikido expert punching and kicking, it’s going to look strange. If you say Tae Kwon Do and Kenpo are basically the same, you’re gonna get some raised eyebrows.
Questions? Comments? Drop me a line! I’m always happy to talk martial arts.