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This is an open thread (so to speak) so we can define what we understand as a martial art. The "best" answer should probably go to the FAQ.

Linked question: Do we need to define martial art?

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    Being a collaborative discussion, this may be an appropriate use of community wiki to communally edit a definition to a working solution. – stslavik Feb 10 '12 at 17:35
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Please edit to whittle away chaff and include the information necessary for the purposes of this site. Based on @BobCross's wiki reprint:

Martial arts are extensive systems of codified practices and traditions of combat that are practiced for a variety of reasons, including self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, as well as mental, physical and spiritual development.

Please clean up and alter as necessary.

Changes

  • Removed "extensive" to be inclusive of rather limited systems (Uchida-ryu Tanjojutsu is a martial art, but extremely limited in scope).

  • Removed "a variety of reasons" to prevent too broad of a definition.

  • Bob: I moved the strike tag slightly. Personally, I would also consider removing "as well as mental, physical and spiritual development" - that phrase is too loosely defined. The result would then be:

Martial arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of combat that are practiced for self-defense, competition and fitness.

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    Whoops. Totally missed this. I'll also put it in the FAQ. – Matt Chan Apr 5 '12 at 14:43
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The first sentence of the Wikipedia entry is a reasonable starting place:

Martial arts are extensive systems of codified practices and traditions of combat that are practiced for a variety of reasons, including self-defense, competition, physical health and fitness, as well as mental, physical and spiritual development.

EDIT: keep in mind that it is sometimes easy to come up with negative examples. For instance, we could list things that are definitely off the table: e.g., Taebo, WWE, stage combat and others that try to add a thin martial arts flavor.

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  • Good... We should probably limit the variety of reasons for our purposes, lest "entertainment" become one (thus including historical play-acting, WWE, etc.). Further, do we want the definition to be inclusive of things like Taebo and Forza? – stslavik Feb 10 '12 at 17:34
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    @stslavik, I would say no on Taebo and the like. If there isn't a root connection to combat, then by definition it is not "martial." – Bob Cross Feb 10 '12 at 17:41
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    No? This is tricky ground: Forza is an exaggeration of kenjutsu and kendo techniques; Taebo has loose ties to kickboxing. Being explicit can be important; "for health" may lead people to misunderstand what our intent is here. – stslavik Feb 10 '12 at 17:56
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    @stslavik, I added something similar to the edits in your wiki post below. – Bob Cross Feb 10 '12 at 17:58
  • I'd take out the word "extensive", but that's a quibble, for this is an excellent definition. – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 3:49
  • @Dave, see the updated definition below - it doesn't have the extensive word. – Bob Cross Apr 11 '12 at 11:17
  • @BobCross I'm sorry, I'm not clear on where you mean? – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 18:20
  • @Dave, sorry, it's in the wiki answer: "Martial arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of combat that are practiced for self-defense, competition and fitness." – Bob Cross Apr 11 '12 at 19:38
  • @BobCross Right you are, thanks. Cheers! – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 19:45
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Coming out from a discussion with @stslavik, I propose something like this:

"Martial arts" refer to both the arts with the single purpose of prevailing in a physical conflict (e.g. not debate) and the arts which are, in short, a "way of life". The latter are slightly trickier to define, since their influence extends to just about every aspect of living one's life, including but not limited to mental processes, social interactions and relations to the spiritual. Meditation, Qigong (chikung) and breathing exercises are all included in the recipe - as well as, of course, self-defense.

If Qigong and breath work are included, the door is almost open to Chinese Medicine - some movements and sequences of movements specifically activate / disable points on meridians (health / defense) and have various repercussions. Where do we draw the line?

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    We draw the line at fighting. If it doesn't involve fighting, then you can't claim it to be martial, i.e. pertaining to war or combat. – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 3:47
  • @Dave: so, according to your comment, judo is not a martial art as it does not involve fighting? – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Apr 11 '12 at 9:53
  • Not all arts involve fighting (qigong is an art with strong ties to gong fu, but involves no fighting) nor are all arts a "way of life" (the teachings of, for instance, togakure-ryu bikenjutsu [one portion of togakure-ryu that may be taught on its own, like many Japanese martial arts] are on their own a martial art, but have no "way of life" teachings within them – they are focused solely on surviving an armed conflict). – stslavik Apr 11 '12 at 16:29
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    @Sardathrion I contend that shiai qualifies as fighting, as does hard randori. I think that most people would agree that getting your arm broken, choked, held down, and thrown on your head qualifies as aspects of fighting. My contention is not that an art requires going to a bar and knifing someone to be "martial", but it at least needs to have some aspects of fighting. – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 18:19
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    @stslavik Part of my contention is that qigong does not qualify as a martial art. – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 18:19
  • @Dave By your own definition, arts practicing point sparring are excluded. Qigong performed within the greater context of taijiquan may be admissible. One need never have practiced the combative aspects of taijiquan, however, to be included in martial arts. TCM by way of teachings in forms of gong fu would be on topic, as is training through injuries (going by the current trend here on meta). It's dependent upon the asker drawing a linear correlation. When in doubt, ask on meta! – stslavik Apr 11 '12 at 18:29
  • @stslavik I don't see how point sparring arts would be excluded. While only marginally useful for developing actual skill, such a practice involves striking, which is a large component of fighting. As for TCM and non-combat taiji...I would say those are off-topic. I thought that's what we were determining in this thread. However, I'm not extremely well-versed on this site's past--do you have an Area51 or Meta reference that would show that the community has already come to a decision on this issue? – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 19:30
  • @Dave I suggest then that you post your comments to an answer and put it up for vote like the rest, and we can clean up the comments. – stslavik Apr 11 '12 at 20:14
  • @stslavik Sure, but I don't see these comments as pertaining to a separate answer. I was responding to direct questions in Trevoke's answer, then from other users. – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 20:26
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Online etymology dictionary has some etymological sources as to the martial part with [...]martialis "of Mars or war[...]". Thus I would define a martial art as a performance of movements those origins can be traced to war.

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  • "Origins can be traced" is just about as vague as possible. – Dave Liepmann Apr 11 '12 at 3:48
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"Martial art is the practice of combat. It is practiced for sport as in boxing or judo, for the military or law enforcement as in hand-to-hand combat training or handcuffing techniques, or for recreation, health and physical culture. Martial arts necessarily involve the practice of some aspect of fighting: striking, grappling, and/or the use of weapons."

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Some interesting discussion here. I know, I subscribe to a very unpopular notion that much of what we practice is not martial arts at all - anything we do in a dojo, a tatami mat, or a gym is not martial arts - boxing, wrestling, taekwondo, aikido, qigong...

Martial means "of, or about, war" - and arts is loosely defined as the application (a product of human creation) of that which is of or about war.

In all these definitions, we mention things like fighting, combat, and even war - but then there must be assumptions about what those terms mean as well, and so, there still isn't any accord on what is "martial art".

Take war, for example - the very basis for the word "martial". Does it require fighting? I posit that it doesn't have to. War on terror. War on drugs. Cold war. The Pig War. The War of Iceland (aka, the Invasion of Iceland). The war we are currently fighting North Korea this very day - it's legally a war. Most of these wars have very little fighting, and some with no casualties. Much of it involves politics, covert surveillance, training, strategy, change of lifestyle, negotiations... not just fighting (whatever that means).

War is all about a nation meeting the aggression of another - usually in a very forceful way. But it also involves negotiation, trade sanctions, bargaining, threats. It also means battlefield survival, navigation, communication, and allying with others.

And what about that fighting? It's surely not about a match between two unarmed participants fighting when told to start and end with a bell or referee. It's about unfair tactics, many-vs-many, and armed to the teeth. It involves more about weapons than anything hand-to-hand. Never has a modern war been won on the basis of hand-to-hand fighting alone - weaponry is nearly always the deciding factor.

So why do we take that tiny little element - hand-to-hand fighting - and call it martial arts? That tiny little element of hand-to-hand fighting is even tinier because we even limit what we are allowed to do when we engage: boxing has no grappling, wrestling has no strikes, and none allow weapons. Why do we call these things "martial arts"?

If we are going to take a micro-element of war - tiny parts of hand-to-hand fighting - and call it martial arts, why not take other micro-elements of war and call it martial arts? Like, first aid? (Oh, wait a minute, we already did that. Qigong is about healing, yes? So Qigong must be a martial art?)

Why some say Qigong not a martial art while wrestling is?

I could go on and suggest cooking is a form of martial art, because, everyone in war needs to eat, and there are those in the military whose job it is to prepare that food. And a bugler and drummer, they were an important part of battlefield communication. Should a bugler be considered a martial artist? No? Why not? They also fight, yes?

Now, I am not suggesting that chefs, buglers, doctors, chaplains, motor pool specialists, radio repairmen, and war photographers are all martial artists, although I struggle to find a logical reason why not, since these jobs are integral functions of war management.

And about war management: aren't generals and admirals martial artists, since they are the war's strategists? They're the ones employing the weaponry. Why do we not refer to them as "martial artists" even though they make or break a war's or battle's outcome?

It makes so little sense to me to cherry pick things "of or about war".

And I struggle to understand why we call Taekwondo - with all of its padding and electronic scoring and limited techniques and targets - a "martial art". No soldier ever donned such padding - although perhaps the plate mail, chain mail, or leather mail is a logical analogy to the modern day padding. But the purpose of today's padding is to protect both the attacker and the defender, whereas the mail worn in the old days was meant only to protect the wearer. And that e-scoring thing?

And I struggle to understand why we call boxing - with no protection at all other than gloves and a boundary where the fight is supposed to occur - a "martial art". What soldier ever put on balloon shaped gloves and engaged an enemy wearing shorts and sneakers?

None of the fighting we do in any dojang, tatami mat, or gym has any relation to war or battles - land, sea, or air. So why do we refer to them as "martial arts"?

I got sort of directed here by reading discussion on why wrestling is a martial art, and tried to figure out what the community decided defines martial arts, and this discussion didn't seem to come to any conclusion - even after 6 years. Maybe a debate (a fight?) is in order, but I doubt there will be agreement. The accepted answer "Martial arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of combat that are practiced for self-defense, competition and fitness" seems to cover only a small portion of the practices of combat. IMHO.

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    This does not answer the question. It just reads like a rant. What is your definition of martial art? – Sardathrion - against SE abuse Aug 17 '18 at 13:23
  • Think about this linguistically. You are asking why a concept with a Latin origin does not refer to the present day usage of the word war. Why is there even such a term as postmodern? Because language is messy. – mattm Aug 17 '18 at 13:38
  • @Sardathrion - applications of that which pertains to war. Yes, may sound like rant, but I tried to explain my POV, perhaps I can word it differently. Rant wasn't the intention. – Andrew Jennings Aug 17 '18 at 14:47
  • @mattm - yes, linguistically martial arts (regardless of its etymology) means that which pertains to war. And "war" is a lot of territory to cover. I find it odd that a common soldier - versed in many aspects of war, even those who've never seen battle - are not considered martial artists, while those who engage in anything from serious self defense to recreational family exercise are considered martial artists. I agree that definitions change over time, and that today, the definition strays much from its etymological roots. But many questions remain, as I mentioned in my answer. – Andrew Jennings Aug 17 '18 at 14:51

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