Almost fifty years have passed since MMA and martial arts movies became mainstream in the 1970s. Today, martial arts are more popular than ever. Millions from around the world tune in to MMA fighters combining different martial arts to defeat their opponents. This year, we’re even getting an Asian Avenger, Shang-Chi—a kung fu master, of course—in a standalone movie.
It may seem like the diversity work is done here: we have representation and strong interest in Asian martial arts—what more could be done? Not to pick a fight, but there’s still much more left on the table.
At their core, movies and tournaments aim to entertain. MMA fights are spectacles, filled with theatrics and flashy moves to draw in audiences—and advertisers. Now, there’s nothing wrong with that! But both mediums rely on a familiar story structure: a protagonist and an antagonist compete in a showdown of their abilities, and martial forms are simply the way fighters and characters find out who’s boss.
But martial forms are so much more than that in real life. Few martial arts were created in silos, and the stories of martial artists exchanging, adapting, and refining borrowed techniques are legion. Asia’s martial arts share cultural histories and philosophies going back centuries, and knowing how they are connected deepens our appreciation of them beyond just what we’re used to seeing on screen.
Story update on 30/01/21: Techniques in the radar vis charts were recategorised to better reflect the spirit of the martial forms, with the help of martial arts practitioner Maddie Ang.