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Hands As Dangerous As Swords: How the Iron Age Influenced Eastern and Western Martial Arts

Updated on March 27, 2016

Collection of Ancient Celtic Swords


The Long History of Martial Arts is Inseparable from Bladed Weapons of Antiquity

Author's Note:

The material this hub is based on my current level of study on a vast topic. By no means am I an expert on the subject and welcome any additions readers can provide in the comments section.

Bruce Lee once made a very pointed statement.

''I don't believe in different ways of fighting now. I mean, unless human beings have 3 arms and 3 legs, then we will have a different way of fighting. But basically we all have two arms and two legs so that is why I believe there should be only one way of fighting and that is no way.''

When looking at fighting from the perspective of totality we are actually limited to a perspective rooted in a contemporary time period and the associated cultural context. Bruce Lee made the assessment that human beings have two arms and two legs and, hence, need to rely on one total fighting system as opposed to crystallization made sense within the context of the era he made the statement. In the 1960's, studying the martial arts mainly entailed the study of the various systems of Asian fighting arts that were part of an emerging subculture. Martial arts schools were private clubs and each had their own way of doing things. The creation of an exclusionary attitude naturally arises.

Of course, a bit of marketing went into the mix. My art is the best, so buy it.

The Historical Perspective of Different Fighting Arts

Going beyond the 1960's and into the (more) total perspective of martial arts, we can see why there was a much more serious, legitimate, and logical emergence of different martial arts. Sadly, knowledge about the influential factors that created the various different martial arts in the east AND the west had fallen by the historical wayside. Sadly, little serious research goes into preserving the history of classical fighting arts. The commercialized world of martial arts has no reason (financially) to do so.

Upon looking over the long and rich history of martial cultures, among the most impacting factors contributing to the development of fighting arts is the use of swords. In the centuries long before the arrival of modern training equipment for combat sports, fighters drew a lot of their hand techniques from bladed weapons. In particular, the weapons fighting techniques derive from are swords and knives.

One reason there are so many different fighting systems is there have been numerous swords and other bladed weapons crafted throughout the centuries. There variations in these swords leads to variations into how to use the swords.

Classical Chinese Sword


Swords, the Iron Age, and the Emergence of Fighting Arts

The Iron Age lasted from 1200 BC – 400 AD in Europe and from 600 BC to 400 AD in Asia. The Iron Age spawned the creation of a great many different swords and heralded many different approaches to fighting based on the cultures that gave birth to the new swords. While it is true human beings have two arms and two legs that are not really used much differently, the swords they may wield can be radically different.

The fighting methods among the swords must be different because the swords can serve different purposes. Certain swords are designed for thrusting and others are designed for slashing. Differences in these many swords go far beyond the Iron Age and into later eras. The huge broadsword of the Middle Ages required two hands to swing and it can (and did) cleave people in half. Moving to feudal Japan, samurai swords could thrust and slash equally effectively.

The variances in empty hand skills come from the development of offensive and defensive maneuvers unique to a particular weapon.

The swords alone were not the only component that had to be taken into consideration. Armor creates defensive considerations the sword smith must address when making a blade. Armor has a long and storied history dating back to the Iron Age as well. Variations in armor were designed to address the swords of a particular enemy.

From this, differences in swords, their intentions, their design, and how they are used arise.

Those who wielded Samurai swords had to contend with certain specific armor styles and not chainmail armor of the early Roman Republic. Actually, Roman chainmail could easily handle the slashes of a samurai sword, but thrusts cut straight through linked chainmail. Different swords have to be developed in different time periods and these uniquely different swords might require different training methods and approaches to fighting. These variances can have an effect on how bare-knuckle fighting arts are performed.

Why so? Because many bare-knuckle striking and grappling systems derive from sword techniques.

The Bare-Knuckle Connection to Sword Fighting

The movements of the sword can translate to the hand. Actually, the entire arm can be used to attack and defend. The forearm can act in the same way as the blade of a sword. How the sword is specifically used and the type of sword are going to impact the way someone fights.

A martial arts chop is a variation of a sword hack. The refined uppercut with the elbow closer to the body may be born of the upward thrust of the Gladius. Romans also engaged in a betting game based on isolation jab sparring. Not surprisingly, the Gladius had a pointed tip for straight thrusts. Jabs, of course, follow a straight line.

We can see an overlap between the Western arts and the more well known Asian classical systems.

When the Romans and the barbarians clashed in numerous battles, one of the major targets was the armpit area since this is the location of a major artery. In the fourth segment of the traditional Wing Chun wooden dummy set, a Woang Pak Sut Sao (a chop coming from under a cross parrying hand) is executed and then followed by a side kick. The impact point of the chop would be the exact target the Romans and the Barbarians would attack with their swords. (This will be the result if the Woang Pak Sut Sao is performed against an opponent's lead arm) The overlap techniques such as these in Wing Chun should not be very surprising since the Bart Jam Do butterfly swords have a huge influence of the movements in Wing Chun. No matter what type of sword a classical warrior would utilize, the armpit area remains a vulnerability.

Choy Lay Fut and Western Bare-Knuckle Fighting Arts: The Progeny of Classical Swords

Even thought a particular sword fighting system may be centuries old, the movements may end up being retained in pugilistic arts. A practitioner who executes these moves may do so perfectly without any knowledge of the sword fighting origins. (How many boxers know the jab is heavily influenced by the Gladius, the fencing foil, various sabers, and the like?)

We can see movements of the sword arts of antiquity in both western and eastern martial arts both modern ones and those of relatively recent history.

One of the more strange looking fighting styles would be the wild arm swings of Choy Lay Fut, the Southern Chinese King Fu system founded in 1836. A video surfaced on YouTube presenting a demonstration of a Chinese broadsword. Seeing how the broadsword. was weaved reveals the obvious origins of the ''wild'' swings of the art originated. A certain number of the swinging techniques derived from the circular slashing movements of the sword. Many of the swinging movements of Choy Lay Fut also have uprooting capabilities, another trait borrowed from these swords. A parrying may have limitations when employing a shorter sword, so upwards motions literally can serve as an uprooting technique. Once the arm wielding the sword is raised, the torso of an opponent is vulnerable. A vulnerable torso is not a good thing when facing an enemy brandishing a sword.

The raising of the arm to remove protections from the torso (nee ribs) is a major tactic found in the classic Fujian White Crane Kung Fu system. The Romans also made great use of this tactic since the Gladius was perfectly designed for such movements. The way the Gladius was driven upwards looks identical to a boxing uppercut for a very good reason, it is a boxing uppercut.

A critical aspect of the boxing uppercut is keeping the elbow close to the body. The arm swings of Choy Lay Fut clearly show the elbow positioned far away from the body. This reflects the extension of the reach of the sword. A bad habit for boxing? Not for everyone back in 18th and 19th Century Europe.

There was another art that employed similar wild arm swings although in a much more violent and less than artistic in performance. The art was old school bare-knuckle pugilism. Wild arm strength looping punches extended hook line swings and bolo style upper cuts. Yes, it looked a lot like Choy Lay Fut, but its was still different. The lack of refinement was one. The follow through on the arm swings was another. A point to make here is this type of wild movement was popular among certain British and Irish bare-knuckle boxers, but not all of them. There were schools that though the excessive movement was, well, excessive.

Why such excessive arm movements?

The answer is found when upon examining the swords the ancient Celts employed. The swords were lengthy ones designed for slashing. Hence, the slashes from the old swords found their way into this particular approach to bare-knuckle fighting. The overly committed aspect of this type of fighting was likely originated from the heavier swords. (Chinese broadswords may have weighed less contributing to more control) These wild swings certainly can deliver a knockout upon making a direct hit, but the movements are more than a little dangerous when facing a classically trained bare-knuckle fighter who employs straight line attacks. The straight line attacks come from the type of sword the classical fighters of Europe employed, the fencing foil. (Among others) One of the complaints about bare-knuckle pugilism was it was far too violent and brutish. Fencing schools were employed to help refine it and this is why there is a huge fencing influence. A bit of dagger influence is there as well. Wild swings, to a serious classical fencer, were probably ludicrous.

Cultural Influences and Their Discontents

Why would the British bare-knuckle fighter be more brutish and the Choy Lay Fut movements be more refined? The Celts were barbarians. The swordsman of ancient China learned their techniques in the military. The training of the Chinese military was going to be more structured than what would be the case with the Celts and other indigenous people of Britannia. Greater discipline in training is going to reflect in how soldiers actually fought. Such discipline, for a time, was an asset to the Romans against the barbarians.

Unfortunately, much of what we know about many ancient western fighting systems is based on conjecture.

The Iron Age also spanned many centuries and many innovations to weapons were made. Sadly, we have very few swords from the era of the ancient barbarians. We do have many of the swords of ancient China and Rome since China and Rome had much larger and grander civilizations. Hence, much of their history and culture is known thanks to the preservation of their artifacts. Sadly, knowledge about the indigenous fighting systems have been lost to history as well. We are only left to speculate on how someone might have fought, but there is no way anyone would ever employ the exact striking tactics found in modern boxing because the 16 oz glove did not exist at the time.

Time has not been kind to the preservation of these techniques. The British version of the swings simply became lost when Marquis of Queensbury rules emerged and also when large boxing gloves contributed to being able to generate far more impact power in smaller hook strikes while reducing the chance of injuring the knuckles. The original techniques at the core of Choy Lay Fut and many other Chinese systems are often misinterpreted since they suffer from the flaws inherent in traditional martial arts training. Throughout the 1970s and into the 1990s, the commercial Choy Lay Fut schools really were not focused on retaining the cultural history of the weapons arts as much as the focus was on point fighting, forms competition, and the other common trapping of commercialized theatrics masquerading as a martial art.

Need also plays a role in using the techniques for combative purposes. In the decaying days of the Roman Empire, raids from barbarians were a common fear. For the barbarians, raids and attacks were a daily concern. When you learned how to wield a sword or to fight with your hands, your life was literally on the line. One tribe or culture frequently displayed little regard for the life of those outside of it and, honestly, this attitude lasted well into the Middle Ages and the process slowly started to reverse itself in the Renaissance and the Enlightenment.

The End for Now

Asian fighting systems have been well preserved and knowledge about the use of the classical swords can be more easily researched than what exists in other cultures. Trying to learn about the sword arts of barbarian is very difficult since very, very few of their swords still exist. A limited number of dedicated academics and hobbyists do put a lot of effort into learning the older, classical systems of Europe giving us a modicum of knowledge to examine.


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    • TCaro profile image

      Tony Caro 3 years ago

      Thank you. Yes, much of the movements of escrima tie fit right in with classical sword. Lots of Spanish fencing found its way into Filipino Martial Arts.

    • NateB11 profile image

      Nathan Bernardo 3 years ago from California, United States of America

      This is really a very good examination of the influence of weapons techniques on empty-handed art. I've practiced Eskrima for some time, an art, to a great extent, based on the blade with empty hand techniques based on the blade (and stick) techniques. The weapon is an extension of the hand and what can be done with the weapon can be done with the arm/hand. Thanks for these details and the exploration of the arts East and West and the influence of weapons on their empty hand arts. Truly fascinating.