Smithsonian Institution
Search
Festival Dates
Festival Blog
Free Festival App
Festival Radio
Join Our Email Mailing List
Support the Festival

Smithsonian Folklife Festival
The Silk Road

Xi'an Tower

Silk Road Story

Martial Arts

In China, Japan, and Korea it has long been common for people to practice rigorous and disciplined exercises to control emotions and encourage good health in mind and body. Many of these exercises, which have become known in the West as martial arts, were spread along the Silk Road, according to tradition beginning with Bodhidharma, the monk from India's warrior caste who brought Chan Buddhism to China in the 6th century. He is said to have taught monks 18 exercises, probably derived from Indian yoga practices of the period, to improve monks' physical and mental ability to endure long meditation sessions.

These techniques also proved useful for self-defense against road bandits and temple robbers. Monks and mercenaries escorted merchants on the Silk Road, providing protection and spreading the techniques. This practice, as well as the importance of integrating right-mindedness and self-defense, were featured in the recent popular film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Pronuncation Guide: X sounds like "sh"; Q like "ch"; ZH like "s"

Click to enlarge and view captions

Click image to enlarge and view captions

  • American Connection: Asian martial arts first came to the United States with Chinese immigrants in the mid-19th century but remained largely a secret guarded within their community. As the result of contact between American servicemen and Japanese practitioners during the occupation of Japan and Okinawa after World War II, interest in these forms began to grow in the United States, and the popularity of Bruce Lee's Kung Fu movies in the 1970s opened the floodgates. Asian martial arts have become staples of international competition, and Judo and Tae Kwon Do are Olympic sports.