The history of martial arts is both long and universal. Martial arts likely existed in every culture, and at all classes and levels of society, from the family unit up to small communities, for instance, villages and even ethnic groups. One example is tantui, a northern Chinese kicking art, often said to be practiced among Chinese Muslims. Systems of fighting have likely been in development since learning became transferable among humans, along with the strategies of conflict and war. In some places, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, one can still see this plethora of village fighting systems.
Every martial arts system, and every martial arts school has its own history. This generally falls into two categories: recent history and ancient history.
Recent history, in this context, is relatively verifiable: who did the teacher learn from? Where did the teacher study? What other arts has the teacher studied, and how has the teacher incorporated them into their teaching? Was the teacher given permission to teach by their teacher? What are the teacher’s goals in teaching the class?
This last question deserves some explanation. Some classes are taught primarily to teach students to become effective competitors in tournaments.
Some classes are taught to attempt to teach the students to defend themselves effectively against some class of imagined situations. Some classes are taught to preserve an ancient tradition. The practical details of these distinct kinds of classes will be very different.
Ancient history, at least in the sense used here, is much more difficult. In fact, for most systems it is essentially a myth — in the sense that it is propagated by word-of-mouth among students in the absence of verifiable evidence. This is not to say that it is not also true! But the importance of such a history does not depend on its truth: the effect of such a myth on shaping the development of a martial art is probably much greater than the effect of events two hundred years ago (at least five generations of passing the art on from teacher to student). So an art that is believed to be an art of warriors will focus on battlefield effectiveness and weapon use against highly skilled opponents, while an art that is believed to be for self-defense will focus on reactions to surprise attack and multiple opponents.
The history of martial arts around the world is therefore quite complex; on the one hand, most groups of people have had to defend themselves and have developed effective fighting techniques, but on the other hand, most of those techniques have been rendered militarily obsolete over the centuries. Even at an individual, rural level, the threat to the safety of a village is now more likely to come from warriors armed with automatic rifles than from men with swords. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to preserve a martial art; doing so requires many years of teaching at the hands of a good teacher to pass on the art for a single generation. So it is relatively rare that a martial art would survive and become popular in today’s culture, and each art that has done so has a unique history. Some generalities can be said, though, and the next few sections will attempt to discuss the overall rise to popularity of some martial arts.