Author: STEVE JACKSON GAMES. Link to original: (English).
Tags: GURPS, Martial Arts Submitted by Angon 09.04.2014. Public material.

Translations of this material:

into Russian: GURPS Боевые Искусства. Глава первая. История.. 0% translated in draft.
Submitted for translation by Angon 09.04.2014


“The Temple is ancient, Kai Lian,” the Grandmaster lectured.

“Things remain much as they were during the Wei Dynasty.”

Kai nodded. “Yes, sifu.”

“The theft of the Five Tigers Jade Buddha dishonors every monk who has lived and trained here over the past 14 centuries.”

“It does, sifu.”

“Go to America and find the thieves.”

“As sifu wishes.”

“These devils do not respect our history because they have none of their own.”

“Your wisdom illuminates their weakness, sifu.”

“When you find them, deal them a blow for each dynasty that the Temple has seen fall. Even a fool should respect the Temple’s long and honorable past after such a lesson.”

“I shall, as the Americans say, learn ’em, sifu.”

The martial arts are as old as history. Ancient tomb carvings show men fighting with sticks and shields, and wrestling with holds still used in modern fighting arts. The oldest texts tell of warriors with great skill at arms, demonstrating their strength and technique.

There’s no one “origin” of the martial arts – no single founding culture or style from which all systematic combat training sprung. The martial-arts world is nevertheless full of claims of antiquity, each style maintaining that it’s older than the next. Martial Arts makes no attempt to settle such debates. It takes the stance that all cultures have their own martial-arts styles and that although they’ve often influenced each other, no one culture or style can truly claim to be the wellspring of all martial arts. There are only so many ways to use hands, feet, and weapons to defeat a rival, after all. (In a cinematic or mythic game, of course, all martial arts might truly have a common genesis; see Ultimate Styles, p. 144.) Still, the world’s many cultures have trained and continue to train in ways fascinating as much for their similarities as for their differences.

What Is a Martial Art?

Broadly, a “martial art” is any system of physical, mental, and sometimes philosophical and spiritual training intended as preparation for combat or a combative sport, or a related form of self-improvement. The details vary widely. All such systems are “martial” in that their core physical training is at least modeled on man-to-man combat. Some go further, focusing on actual combat skills to the exclusion of sport, religion, and aesthetics. Others emphasize the “art,” perhaps going so far as to be strictly noncompetitive and noncombative.

Martial Arts defines a “martial art” as any systematically taught fighting style used for any purpose – combative or otherwise. Geography and ethnicity don’t enter into it. Boxers, knights, samurai, African stickfighters . . . they’re all martial artists. This book covers all kinds of martial arts, but emphasizes combat styles over sportive ones and sports over artistic systems. This isn’t because combat styles are “real” martial arts and others aren’t, but because the heroes in RPGs are more likely to be steely eyed warriors than pacifistic monks!


To help put everything in perspective, we’ll start with a brief timeline of the martial arts and related history. Items marked with an asterisk (*) are mythical or legendary. Some contain elements of truth while some verifiable entries are colored by legend – read the entry! For more on the individual styles mentioned, see Chapter 5.

*2697 B.C. – According to later documents, Yellow Emperor Huang Di ruled China and invented wrestling, swordsmanship, archery, and Taoism. Huang Di probably existed, but claims of his inventions are of early 20th-century origin.

*c. 2000 B.C. – According to legend, the now 700-year-old Yellow Emperor of China defeats a fabulous monster in a head-butting contest. Similar head-butting games continue into the modern era.

c. 1950 B.C. – Tomb friezes in Beni Hasan, Egypt depict the first wrestling manual, showing over 400 holds and counters.

c. 1520 B.C. – Wall frescos in Thera show boys boxing.

*c. 1500 B.C. – According to the Bible, the Hebrew Jacob wrestles a spirit at the ford of Jabbok and defeats it.

*c. 1250 B.C. – According to the legend of the Argonauts, Polydeukes (a Spartan) defeats the foreign boxer Amykos. Amykos uses brute strength while Polydeukes uses his skill to avoid Amykos’ blows and pound him into submission.

*c. 1200 B.C. – Fall of Troy. Later accounts of Greek funeral games mention boxing, wrestling, and pankration.

1160 B.C. – Egyptian tomb friezes depict wrestling and stickfighting matches for the pharaoh’s coronation.

*1123 B.C. – Traditional date for the writing of the I Ching. Its three-line trigrams form the basis of Pa Kua Chuan (pp. 187-188), developed much later.

*776 B.C. – Traditional date of the first Panhellenic games at Olympia, Greece.

722-481 B.C. – Spring and Autumn Period in China. According to chronicles attributed to Confucius, this period was the heyday of the xia (p. 8).

628 B.C. – First statue of an Olympic wrestling champion erected.

544 B.C. – First statue of an Olympic boxing champion erected.

*544 B.C. – Buddha, himself a champion wrestler and archer, achieves enlightenment. Buddhism goes on to inform many martial-arts styles.

536 B.C. – First statue of an Olympic pankration champion erected.

c. 440 B.C. – Spartans practice the pyrrhiche, a war-dance involving shields and swords. The dancers executed blocks and strikes, and learned to fight in rhythm with their companions.

348 B.C. – Plato’s Laws describes boxers and pankrationists wrapping their hands with padded gloves and thongs in order to strike at full force “without injury” (presumably to their hands) during practice – and using shadowboxing and punching bags when no partner was available.

264 B.C. – First recorded Roman gladiatorial matches: three pairs of slaves fight to the death at a funeral.

209 B.C. – Emperor Qin Shi Huang of China is buried in a massive underground tomb filled with terracotta statues of warriors, horses, chariots, and more. Some warriors are depicted in unarmed-combat poses that match traditional kung fu postures.

22 B.C. – Emperor Augustus of Rome bans the use of gladiators as private bodyguards.

*141 – Birth of Hua Duo, a Chinese physician later credited with inventing Wu Chin Hsi or “Five Animals Play,” exercises based on animals’ movements. Performing them supposedly strengthened the body and improved health, giving long life.

c. 400 – Kama Sutra is written. Among other things, it advises women to practice stickfighting, staff, archery, and sword in order to win the affections of men.

*530 – The monk Bodhidharma comes to China from India and teaches the Shaolin monks exercises to strengthen them for their long meditation. This is said to be the basis of all kung fu. (Realistically, even if Bodhidharma did introduce these skills, combative martial arts predated his arrival by more than a millennium!)

747 – Traditional date of the first sumo match. Early matches permitted striking and many holds not used in later matches.

778 – Frankish knight Roland and his companions are defeated by the Moors, according to a 12th-century manuscript. This battle played an important role in the development of romantic chivalric ideals.

780 – Charlemagne, king of the Franks and later the first Holy Roman Emperor, grants lands to his subjects in return for oaths of loyalty, marking a crucial development in European chivalry.

792 – Government of Japan begins to rely more on feudal cavalry armed with bows than on conscript infantry. This leads to the rise of feudal lords – and the samurai.

960 – Chinese emperor T’ai Tsu sponsors a martial art known as “long boxing.” The details are long lost, but it’s often claimed as the origin of modern kung fu forms.

10th century – Japanese kyuba no michi or “bow and horse path” takes form. This would later become the code of bushido.

Late 10th century – Normans adopt high-backed saddles that allow the use of couched lances, as well as kiteshaped shields to protect their legs during mounted fighting.

1066 – Battle of Hastings. Saxon King Harold Godwinson is killed, perhaps by an arrow in the eye. The Normans conquer England, bringing with them their feudal system and martial styles.

c. 1300 – An unknown German author pens the manuscript later known as the “Tower Fechtbuch” (after the Tower of London, where it was kept) – the earliest surviving manual of European swordsmanship.

1346 – Battle of Crécy. The English slaughter the French, a victory attributed to the power and distance of the English longbow.

1443 – Hans Talhoffer produces his Fechtbuch (“Book of Fighting”), which depicts a variety of armed and unarmed fighting techniques. Its name is eventually applied to all earlier and later books of its type.

1478 – According to tradition, King Sho Shin of Okinawa bans the possession and use of weapons by civilians. Unarmed combat forms flourish and techniques for fighting with household tools appear. Modern historical research points to the decree being not a ban on weapons but an order to stockpile them.

1521 – An overwhelming force of Filipinos attacks Magellan’s expedition on the island of Cebu. After a fierce fight, they drive off the Spaniards and kill Magellan. Modern Filipino martial artists often credit this victory to the strength of local escrimadors, but arrows, spears, and machetes were the weapons of the day.

1540 – Former soldier Ignatius of Loyola founds the Jesuits, whose exercises include fencing and meditation. Henry VIII of England incorporates the Masters of Defence of England, giving them royal patronage.

1543 – Portuguese merchant adventurers introduce guns into Japan. They’re soon in mass production.

1559 – King Henry II of France dies of a lance wound received in a tournament joust, simultaneously reducing the popularity of the sport and showing that even the King took his chances with potentially lethal matches.

*1560s – Selected Chinese soldiers are sent to the Shaolin Temple to learn unarmed and staff-fighting arts. Some scholars suggest that certain troops received training in other Chinese martial arts and even in Japanese swordsmanship.

1568 – Camillo Agrippa of Milan publishes his fencing manual, Trattato di scientia d’arme (“Treatise on the Science of Arms”). This work advocates the thrust over the slash, the use of the sword as the primary defense, and a more side-facing stance with one hand held back and high.

1576 – Rocco Bonetti opens a rapier school in Oxford, sparking both an immediate rivalry with local Masters of Defence and a fashionable trend toward rapier fencing.

1578 – Japanese warlord Oda Nobunaga organizes a major sumo tournament, or basho. First use of the tatamiedged clay ring (dohyo) and the beginning of modern sumo.

1609 – Japan conquers Okinawa, disarms the population, and bans unarmed fighting techniques. This drives training underground. Teachers instruct selected pupils in secret.

1721 – James Figg starts holding fighting exhibitions in England. Brawling, weapon play, and wrestling were already popular entertainment; Figg added women’s boxing, arranged international bouts, and vigorously promoted the fights.

1728 – Donald McBane – soldier, pimp, gambler, and fencing master – publishes The Expert Sword-man’s Companion; or the True Art of Self-Defence. This smallsword manual gives advice on how to use and counter dirty tricks, and deal with treacherous duelists.

1735 – A government army crushes the Shaolin Temple.

*1767 – According to legend, Thai prisoner Nai Khanom Tom earns his freedom by beating several Burmese kickboxers in succession. (Modern Thailand marks March 17 as Nai Khanom Tom Day.)

1777 – In China, White Lotus rebels – relying on martial arts, breathing techniques, and magical incantations to protect them from bullets – fight Manchu soldiers. The troops use guns to crush the rebels, but many kung fu practitioners continue to believe that their art can make them invulnerable to bullets.

1827 – Jim Bowie uses his eponymous knife to kill Norris Wright at Sandbar, Mississippi. Newspapers widely report the fight, making the bowie knife famous.

1835 – New Jersey outlaws prizefighting. Other states follow. Arranging prizefights becomes an exercise in bribery, secret locations, and last-minute publicity.

1859 – Sir Richard Francis Burton publishes his booklet on bayonet fighting. Aided by his combat experience and language skills, Burton recorded details about the many weapons and fighting arts he encountered, making him one of the first hoplologists.

1900 – Uyenishi Sadakazu arrives in England and begins teaching Jujutsu (pp. 166-168). One of his students, Hans Köck, goes on to introduce the art to Vienna in 1905.

1904 – Greco-Roman Wrestling (p. 205) becomes a modern Olympic sport.

1920s – Chinese immigrants open Chinese-only kung fu schools in Hawaii.

1930s – Judo (p. 166) clubs exist all over Europe, America, and Australia – including U.S. Army Air Force teams. Kendo (p. 175) spreads from Japan to the U.S. and Europe. Japanese students routinely receive training in both sports to “build character” and encourage physical development.

1940s – Allied commandos learn a stripped-down fighting style based on Eastern martial arts, taught by W.E. Fairbairn. German commandos learn an equivalent style.

1946 – First Karate (pp. 169-172) school on the U.S. mainland is established in Phoenix, Arizona.

1961 – Korean government orders the unification of all Tae Kwon Do (p. 200) schools. Three years later, TKD becomes an official Korean national sport.

1972 – Judo becomes an official Olympic sport.

1990 – Tae Kwon Do becomes an official Olympic sport.

1993 – In the U.S., the first Ultimate Fighting Championship pits different martial-arts stylists against one another with minimal rules, triggering the rise of modern “mixed martial arts” in the U.S. Jiu-jitsu practitioners from Brazil’s Gracie family dominate.

2005 – City of Mostar, Bosnia unveils a statue of Bruce Lee as a symbol of peace.


For many people, Asia and the martial arts are inseparable. Asian martial arts have a storied history stretching from antiquity to the present. Today, many if not most martial arts schools teach styles with origins in China, Japan, Thailand, and more exotic Asian locales.


The xia were essentially Chinese knights-errant. Unlike the knights of feudal Europe, though, they were neither members of the aristocracy nor required to uphold the social order. Instead, they were wanderers who used their martial skills to maintain justice and right wrongs according to their personal philosophy.

Xia were as much like Robin Hood as like Lancelot . . . in fact, the Chinese regard Robin Hood as a xia! They weren’t always popular with the bureaucracy. They could be useful, but the powerful typically saw them as one of society’s plagues. The xia were often as dangerous, scruffy, and poor as the bandits and evildoers they battled, but regardless of their conduct – which at times included gambling, womanizing, and drinking – they fought for the common good. Tales of their exploits formed the basis of the wuxia genre of films.

In a historical game, xia PCs should take Code of Honor (Xia) (p. 53). Without it, they aren’t xia – they’re the ruffians and bandits the xia oppose!


Chinese martial arts have a rich history that extends back to a legendary origin almost 5,000 years ago. Tradition has it that the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, invented the first martial arts in 2697 B.C. In 209 B.C., Emperor Qin Shi Huang was buried in grand style with a life-sized terracotta army, and some of the warriors were posed in stances seen in Chinese martial arts even today. A continuous lineage is difficult to trace, but it’s clear that China’s fighting styles have a heritage dating back at least to Qin’s reign.

Most of the armed and unarmed arts of China don’t seem to originate with one man, though – be he emperor or commoner. Traditions of wrestling, primitive head-butting games, and (later) systematic training in combative arts existed across China. Several periods of Chinese history are especially interesting from a martial-arts perspective.

Spring and Autumn Period

The “Spring and Autumn Period” lasted from 722 to 481 B.C. During this time, China was blessed – some say plagued – with martial artists known as the xia (see box). The period was one of central rule, but most areas were the jurisdiction of local governors appointed by a distant bureaucracy. Some governors were just and fair; others, corrupt or cruel. Overall, the period was one of stability, and China faced no major menace from abroad. Bandits, local injustice, and corruption thrived, however, and the xia felt they must intervene.

The Shaolin Temple

Few places are the subject of as many myths and legends as the Shaolin Temple. It’s credited with being the wellspring of all martial arts. Its monks are reputed to be masters of mystical powers, yet free of worldly desires and ambitions. The Shaolin Temple was built at the end of the 5th century A.D. There was more than one Buddhist temple in the same geographical area; legends of the Temple likely borrow from tales about all of these to some degree. All were occupied and abandoned several times.

The most famous Shaolin monk was Bodhidharma, who journeyed to the Temple from India. Tradition has it that he noticed the monks lacked the fitness needed to meditate or long periods, so he introduced martial arts to strengthen them. While these events are the legendary origin of Chinese martial arts, they actually would have post-dated many documented combative styles.

The military prowess of the Shaolin monks was first noted in 728, when a small handful of them helped win a war. A stele was erected to memorialize the staff- fighting monks. Legends spread of their ability. The Temple became a place to go and train, but spiritual development – not schooling warriors – remained its focus.

After the rise of the Manchu, the Shaolin Temple became famous as a symbol of resistance to government rule. It gave sanctuary to rebels and revolutionaries, and the Temple as a whole occasionally meddled in outside political events. This involvement was sometimes pro-government: the Temple was credited with aiding Manchu soldiers in several campaigns. In the end, playing politics led to the Temple’s downfall. An army was dispatched to besiege the Temple. It fell in 1735, scattering the few survivors across China.

Legend claims that five masters survived the suppression of the Shaolin Temple. They went their separate ways, training select students met during their travels in the secrets of the Temple’s martial arts. Along the way, they also founded cells of resistance to the Manchu Dynasty – the first Triads.

Monks reoccupied the Temple – and abandoned it or were driven out – several times. In 1928, it was burned. Later, the Communists came to regard it as reactionary and shut it down. The People’s Republic of China eventually realized its potential as a historical attraction and rebuilt it. The modern Temple still offers training in the martial arts, and is a popular destination for tourists and martial artists alike.

Secret Societies

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