In this post, I’m going to break Martial Arts down into four subcategories: Art, Sport, Subdual, and Lethality. These are general distinctions that relate to the practitioner’s outlook and what they’re training for as opposed to the styles themselves. The reason behind why someone is training and what they are being trained to do is actually much more important than what the style or techniques were originally intended for.
Styles evolve and change over time, the effective ones stay and the ineffective ones go as combat itself evolves. A good place to study up on rapid martial evolution is in the history of Europe, where the countries were in near constant war over a limited set of highly valuable resources. European combat evolved and changed quickly and constantly because it was necessary to for the different countries to keep themselves from being conquered by their neighbors. There was a nearly constant discarding of any traditional forms for something more practical to the times. This is part of why it’s important to study the cultural background of any MA you look at, no matter where it’s from, and compare that to what you need from it. Styles change with the cultures they’re part of, even ones that were imported from elsewhere. The techniques themselves are more easily ingrained by body and mind than the philosophy that spawned them.
Usually when talking about Martial Arts, you see the styles broken down into hard and soft, hard is an aggressive straightforward style like Karate and soft is an inward, philosophical style that revolves around not subduing your opponent, but allowing your opponent to subdue themselves through “gentle” redirection. We leave the term gentle open to negotiation depending on both viewer and outlook, sometimes there is nothing soft about a soft style. For reference: Chinese Tai Chi and Japanese Aikido are two of the more recognizable soft styles. Personally, we find this terminology to be misleading, because it does not cover all the myriad of ways these two cross over as the different styles influence one another through cross-contamination.
No Martial Artist exists in a vacuum, they are constantly influenced by their fights, their opponents, their training, and their own philosophy regarding their fighting and fighting in general. Every MA has an outlook and a personal philosophy, even if their philosophy is just that having a one is unnecessary.
It’s also important to note that hard and soft relate to Asian Martial Arts, more specifically to those from China, Japan, and Korea. These Martial Arts are intensely tied up within their own cultural traditions and because any discussion of this terminology generally revolves around Eastern philosophies, the terms do not relate well to Western MAs like boxing, fencing, M.A.P., Systema, Krav Maga, and Sambo or South American MAs like Capoeira, all of which come with a very specific outlook relating to their own country of origin. It also doesn’t function well with outside understanding of forms like Ninjutsu, Judo, and Jiu-jutsu that incorporate both hard and soft movements respectively. Some would say that Jiu-Jutsu is just the hard version of Aikido and some would not, this is why this distinction gets sticky.
Not just that, says the well-informed author, but didn’t the Marines appropriate a great many techniques from Judo and Chin Na during their time stationed in Japan and China as they developed M.A.P.?
Indeed they did, but it’s important to remember that the Marines don’t care about the outlook or the cultural philosophy that provided the basis for those techniques. While they may share their techniques with other styles, the way the Marines condition and train soldiers to use them bears almost no similarity to the original intention.
Martial Styles represent the culture that surrounds them, so let’s break it down into something simpler.
Art: Art is for a practitioner with a spiritual outlook. Many Martial Arts masters fall into this category, regardless of style. It’s the study of the body, the spirit, and the mind and developing those connections through meditation and intensive training. This outlook is a lifestyle that involves constant self-improvement and introspection. Its intention is non-combative, though the practitioner can also train for that. Aikido and Tai-Chi can fall into this category (though a practitioner can land in other categories too), but this can also include any Chinese MA from Shaolin to Wushu, or any MA where the training focus is on self, on beauty, and perfection.
Common Artistic/Spiritual Martial Arts:
Tai Chi (China), Aikido (Japan), Capoeira (Brazil), Kalari (India), Kyudo (Japan), Wushu Kung Fu (China), Karate (Japan), etc
Sport: This is the Martial Artist who trains primarily for the arena, whether that’s professional prize fighting, death matches, or the Olympics. The trainee is prepared around a certain set of rules of what they can and cannot do. Authors who wish to write these characters will have to study up on the specific rules behind the intended training. This should be self-explanatory, but it can get confusing when the same Martial Arts like Sambo, Muay Thai, and Krav Maga fall under this label and the Lethal one. The difference is not in the techniques, but the type of preparation the trainee receives from their instructor. Someone who trains for matches does not do so with the likelihood of death as an immediate part of the equation. While they know it may happen, they also know it’ll probably be accidental or a result of their (or their opponent’s) stupidity. Actively murdering an opponent in the ring is detrimental to most fighters’ careers.
I also include work out Martial Arts in this list.
If you want to write Gladiators, it’s important to remember that Gladiators themselves are an investment of time and money on the part of their benefactor. Death matches are uncommon not because people don’t want to see it (there are more than a few who would watch), but because the number of people out there who will come back again and again to watch their favorites participate next week outnumber them. The tournament officials can’t earn money off a dead or crippled gladiator, even when there are more than enough eager replacements. When modern MMA first began, they tried the “Anything Goes but Death” mind set. They learned quickly that it wasn’t worth it on a financial level. Professional Gladiator deaths in Ancient Rome were actually pretty uncommon for the same reason. Always follow the money, it’ll usually lead you to the right place.
Common Sport Martial Arts:
Boxing (America/Europe), Kickboxing (America/Europe), Savate (France), MMA (Mixed Bag), Sambo (Russia), Judo (Japan), Muay Thai (Thailand), Tae Kwon Do (Korea), Karate (Japan), Pancratium/Mu Tau (Greece), Capoeira (Brazil), Krav Maga (MMA), etc.
Subdual: This is the outlook that focuses on subduing the opponent over killing them. These Martial Arts often focus on joint locks, throws, pressure points, and breaks over general striking, some of them are designed around easy understanding and application; others take much longer to learn. It’s important to remember that the outlook of these practitioners is to injure their opponent just enough to stop them, while they may be prepared to kill, this is not their primary objective nor the goal.
Common Subdual Martial Arts:
Aiki-Jutsu (Japan), Jujutsu (Japan), Tai Chi (China), Chin Na (China), Sambo (Russia), Hapkido (Korea, Korean Law Enforcement), American Law Enforcement Hand to Hand (America), American Law Enforcement Self-Defense (The style taught to civilians in HtH), General Self-Defense (Multiple Non-Military Strains of above MAs), Brazilian Jujutsu (Brazil), Krav Maga Self-Defense, etc.
Lethality: Almost all martial styles were originally lethal ones and with the right training most can be again, but this is about outlook. The practitioner of one of these styles is someone who has been trained to kill, this is their primary objective. So, these are the martial arts that are designed specifically around killing the opponent as quickly as possible. They are the most actively combative of all the different Martial Arts and have suffered the least from degradation into the above sport styles. These are all killing styles and if you choose any of them for your character, it’s important that you understand what that means. There’s nothing worse than a dissonance between a practitioner and their style, especially given what it says about what they were trained to do. A character that practices any of these is trained to kill, full stop. They may be able to restrain themselves, but killing quickly and efficiently once threatened or on command will be the first instinctual reaction. Most of these will be Martial Styles practiced by the Military and Special Forces divisions from around the world.
Common Lethal Martial Arts:
M.A.P. (Marines), Krav Maga (Israeli Defense Force), Sambo (Spetznaz), Systema (The System, Spetznaz), Pentjak Silat (Indonesia), Ninjutsu (Japan), Military Strain Self-Defense, etc.
Always remember: your character’s Martial Art is a reflection of who they are and depending on the background you choose to give them, a part of that will be non-negotiable if they are to be believable. I’ve experienced some training in a Lethal MA (Ninjutsu) and these are very different styles when compared to the rest of the above in both utility and purpose. So please, prepare yourself appropriately.