Story: Martial arts

Page 1. Martial arts in New Zealand

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Asian martial arts

Martial arts – armed and unarmed – are found in many cultures. Most styles practised in New Zealand are Asian martial arts – from China, Japan, Thailand or Korea – or derived from these Asian forms.

The origins of Asian martial arts go back several centuries. Most, especially kung fu and t’ai chi ch’uan, have roots in Chinese forms. These forms were then developed further in other countries, often based around teachers in families or villages.

Many traditional martial arts became organised or formalised in the 19th and 20th centuries. New forms appeared in the later 20th century as martial arts became popular in Western societies.

Major forms

There are more than 50 different martial arts forms and styles practised in New Zealand in the 2010s. The differences between these are important, especially to practitioners. Some forms, such as the Japanese styles of kendo or iaido, rely on weapons. The punching and kicking of karate – an Okinawan martial art – is distinct from that of Korean tae kwon do. The fluid Japanese art of aikido differs from the vigour of Chinese kung fu or Korean hapkido forms. Modern, hybrid and sport-based forms such as kick-boxing or mixed martial arts differ again.

Competitive arts

Some martial-arts styles have competitive sporting aspects. New Zealand has been represented at the Olympic Games in both judo and tae kwon do. In 1972 Garrick (Rick) Littlewood competed in the men’s middleweight judo division at the Olympic Games in Munich. At the 2014 Commonwealth Games the judo team won five medals: two silver and three bronze. The first New Zealand tae kwon do team competed in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney.

Each major form of martial art has distinctive styles. There are about 15 different types of karate practised in New Zealand and around 10 different types of kung fu. These are organised around clubs, which may have several branches and usually a national head of the style. Most are affiliated to parent organisations overseas – in Asia, the United States or Australia – where the international head of the style is based.

Regardless of differences between the forms and particular styles, most martial arts share an emphasis on tradition, a hierarchical order of instructors and students, and a uniform with a belt whose colour indicates the level of skill achieved. Typically, a black belt represents the highest level. For exponents who study martial arts over many years, there is also a philosophical dimension.

There is no single national organisation for martial arts, and no combined national tournaments, although many styles run their own tournaments or compete in international events within their styles. Some of the major forms are organised into national bodies, such as Karate New Zealand, formed in the 1970s, but not all karate styles are affiliated with this body. Tae kwon do, one of the most popular martial arts in New Zealand, is split into two major organisations which are affiliated with different international groups.

Martial artists

In 2007–8 about 79,000 people in New Zealand took part in martial arts. Many children take up martial arts but relatively few practise for more than a few months; adults are better suited to the long-term training. The physicality of some martial arts appeals more to men than to women, but women martial artists are growing in number. T’ai chi chu’an especially tends to appeal to older people.

People train in the martial arts for many reasons, such as physical fitness, self-defence, health benefits or an interest in Asian philosophies. For children, martial arts can be a way to encourage habits of self-discipline and self-awareness. An ethos of self-improvement and helping others has led some martial arts groups to undertake community work. Several run programmes for disadvantaged members of the community or those with physical disabilities.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Martial arts - Martial arts in New Zealand', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/martial-arts/page-1 (accessed 23 October 2019)

Story by Bronwyn Dalley, published 5 Sep 2013, updated 27 Jan 2015