During the fifth and sixth centuries, Zen Buddhist monks and nuns brought from India to China yoga and Indian fist-fighting techniques similar to modern karate. These fighting techniques came in handy in war-torn China. Indeed, learning to fight was as common as learning to cook or pour tea. Survival for men, women, and even children hinged on their ability to protect themselves. Those who excelled became notable warriors.
Thirteen-year-old Shuen Guan is a perfect example. Her ability to fight with swords, spears, and even her bare hands earned her the nickname “Little Tigress.” According to one legend, she saved her town from an attack by bandits by fighting her way through the attackers and returning with a neighboring general and his troops. Her heroic deeds were eventually honored by the emperor of China.
But not everyone could be as multi-talented as Shuen Guan. Specialization had a definite place in war-torn China. After learning a basic fighting skill, the tendency was to add moves and techniques to suit a particular ability or body type. For one woman named Ng Mui that meant redirecting her punches from the midsection of an attacker to the head, and throwing kicks to the lower legs.
Specialization enabled people to become masters of their own styles. Mui was so proficient at her style that to prove its effectiveness, she demonstrated her moves on martial arts masters themselves, who quickly came to realize that her methods would work as well for them as they did for her.
That Mui was a woman is impressive enough. But what makes her extraordinary to martial arts students who practice her style today is the fact mat she was a Buddhist nun! She came from a Shaolin monastery in southern China during the Ching Dynasty.
One of Ng Mui’s students, Yim Wing Chun, carried on this style after Mui’s death. Eventually, this system became known as Wing Chun kung fu.
Interestingly, though developed for a woman, Wing Chun kung fu became the style of choice among many men. In fact, this style of kung fu grew stronger in popularity as the centuries rolled by, and became the preferred style of the late martial artist-turned-actor Bruce Lee, who introduced and popularized this style in the West in the 1960s and 70s. For those too young to remember, visit any video store where you’ll find a wide selection of Bruce Lee movies. Though as grade B as a movie can get, they’re worthwhile watching just to observe Lee’s extraordinary athletic abilities.
Judo, too, has some distinctly female roots. While kung fu grew out of China, judo has its roots in the fighting systems of feudal Japan, which from the tenth to the eighteenth centuries found itself awash in samurais-highly skilled fighters who, often on horseback, battled with bows and arrows, swords, and spears.
In the early part of this period, samurai women shared the battlefield with men-and occasionally commanded them. These martial matriarchs were often trained in the use of weapons, especially spears and small daggers.
One of the favored weapons among samurai on horseback was the naginata, a long pole, from five to nine feet, with a sword at the end. Occasionally called “the woman’s spear,” the naginata was the weapon of choice for Itagaki, a female general in charge of three-thousand warriors in 1199. Her expertise and courage supposedly inspired her troops and shamed the enemy.
Another famous woman warrior of the same period was Tomoe. The name means “circular” or “turning,” and was probably given to her because of her mastery of the naginata, which is used by making circular movements.
Woman warriors continued to fight up until one of the last civil wars in Japan. In 1877, a battle was fought with a group of 500 women in its ranks. These women, armed with naginatas, fought against Japanese government troops. Unfortunately, their skills were no match against the guns carried by their opponents.
If you were lucky enough to be a female born into a ninja family, chances are you would be taught, along with your brother if you had one, starting at the age of five or six, to be a superior athlete. By the age of twelve or thirteen, you might move on to weapons training.
Ninja were latter-day James Bonds: super-agents who were not only superior fighters, but masters at disguise. Men often dressed as women, and vice versa.
In the mid- to late 1800s, as there became less of a need for samurai, women’s influence in the martial arts declined. Unless women came from a military family, it was considered scandalous for them to train alongside men in martial arts schools. If any training went on, it was done in private.
Scandalous or not, many women wanted to practice a martial art, and did. In 1893, Sueko Ashiya became the first women student of Jigoro Kano, who founded judo in Japan. Soon after he took on Ashiya, Kano began teaching his wife, daughter, and their female friends.
In the mid-1920s, Kano opened a women’s section of his school so his female students could train in a proper environment. Though a major breakthrough that guaranteed many women the opportunity to train, Japanese women today still train only in the women’s section, and except for special situations are not allowed to train with men.
But don’t think that old habits die hard only in the Orient. Up until about 1976, the belts worn by female judo martial artists had to have a white stripe running down the middle if the women wanted to compete in national competitions. The ruling was changed, however, thanks to a few determined women who demonstrated their disapproval of the rule by fighting in competitions wearing only white belts, refusing to wear a colored belt with a stripe in it.
Consider another rule that prevented women from achieving the same rank as men. Kano’s original school prohibited black belt women from being promoted higher than fifth dan, while men could go as high as twelfth dan. In 1972 the school received letters from women all over the world protesting this rule and asking the school to promote one of its leading female students, Keiko Fukuda, who had received her fifth-degree black belt in 1953. The letter-writing campaign worked, and Fukuda became the first woman sixth dan in the world-almost twenty years after becoming a. fifth dan.
Karate also never traditionally distinguished between male and female. Karate originated in Okinawa as a defense against Japanese invaders who stripped the natives of their weapons. In addition to using their hands and feet, Okinawans utilized farm tools to attack their oppressors. Women and men would practice their skills alone in the forests or fields using sickles or bamboo polls. Eventually, even a harmless-looking farm woman reaping her crops became a force to contend with.
Sport karate became increasingly popular and widespread in the 1940s. While competition was originally limited primarily to men, women now compete in both sparring and kata tournaments. There are even some mixed forms competitions, and occasionally mixed sparring between men and women.
Today, notable female martial artists can be found in every style of martial art-from kick boxer Kathy Long to karate champion Cynthia Rothrock. These women, and others like them, are the modern-day equivalents of the women warriors of centuries ago. Their determination to carve a niche for themselves in this sport is a shining example to every female martial artist.