Story: Martial arts

High spinning kicks, fast hand movements and blood-curdling screeches are common Hollywood images of the martial arts. They are far removed from the years of hard work and discipline that go into the practice and philosophy of these forms of combat and self-defence. The first martial art in New Zealand was jiu-jitsu, which appeared on the popular entertainment circuit in the early 20th century.

Story by Bronwyn Dalley
Main image: George Guo demonstrates 'spring legs' kung fu

Story Summary

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Most martial arts practised in New Zealand are Asian, or derived from Asian forms. The origins of Asian martial arts go back several centuries.

Forms

In the 2000s more than 50 styles of martial arts were practised in New Zealand. Most have an emphasis on tradition, a hierarchy of teachers and students, and a uniform with a coloured belt signalling the level of skill.

In 2007–8 about 79,000 people took part in martial arts.

Growth of martial arts

In the early 20th century jiu-jitsu, a Japanese martial art, was demonstrated as popular entertainment. Jiu-jitsu experts visited with Fitzgerald’s Circus in 1905, and Japanese jiu-jitsu experts toured the country between 1906 and 1914 giving demonstrations and fighting local wrestlers.

In 1911 Flossie Le Mar and her husband Joe Gardiner performed a show combining jiu-jitsu and vaudeville. People learnt jiu-jitsu for self-defence. However, few New Zealanders had access to Japanese instructors, so their jiu-jitsu may not have been authentic.

From the 1940s New Zealanders had more exposure to Asian cultures. Soldiers stationed in Japan after the Second World War learnt judo. Judo clubs were set up in Christchurch in 1953 and Wellington in 1955, and the first national championships were in 1957. Judo was popular with women, probably because it was useful for self-defence.

The first karate club was set up in Napier in 1958. Some practitioners studied karate in Japan. The first national championships were in 1967.

Kung fu and t’ai chi were practised in Chinese communities. Clubs were set up in the 1950s.

Martial arts, 1970s onwards

From the 1970s more people took up martial arts. New styles appeared, including tae kwon do (from Korea), and Muay Thai kick-boxing (from Thailand). Different forms of karate and kung fu developed, as did more westernised styles, including Zen-do-kai and MMA (mixed martial arts).

Some practitioners criticised some of the new styles for a lack of discipline and poor teaching standards.

How to cite this page:

Bronwyn Dalley, 'Martial arts', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/en/martial-arts (accessed 19 November 2018)

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