Vietnamese martial arts have also assimilated elements of traditional Asian medicine. Confucianism and other Asian philosophies, as well as systems of ethics, military arts, and aesthetics. The practice of martial arts expresses the concept of a perfect whole embodied in yin and yang and also the notion of the five basic elements that make up the universe.
Since the early days of Viet Nam’s history, the Vietnamese have always had to fight against invasions, especially from the armies of various Chinese dynasties. The bronze weapons exhibited in the National Museum of History help give an insight into the weapons the Vietnamese used during the first millennium B.C. These include daggers, axes, swords, and spears. All are weapons employed in hand-to-hand fighting. Handling these weapons required courage, endurance, dexterity, and skill, which in turn made it necessary to develop forms of fighting that could facilitate their effectiveness.
Subsequent historical circumstances facilitated further development of martial arts among soldiers and generals as well as among common people. In 938. Ngo Quyen achieved victory over the Southern Han invaders on the Bach Dang River. Viet Nam regained its independence after over a thousand years under Chinese domination. A series of patriotic struggles against foreign invaders followed: against the Song (981 and 1077), the Mongols (1258. 1285. and 1288), the Ming (from 1418 to 1428), and the Qing (1789).
Buddhism was the official national religion during the Ly and Tran Dynasties (eleventh to fourteenth centuries). In addition to religious study. Buddhist monks were often adept at martial arts because the monks had strict methods of self- control and personal improvement and trained themselves in the mysteries of spirit, reason, energy, and strength. During the Ly Dynasty, monks organized temple and pagoda festivals. which included activities imbued with the martial spirit, such as wrestling and martial arts tournaments (bare-handed or with weapons).
The training for tournaments allowed common people to improve their physical strength and sharpen their senses and their reactions. During 1293, Chinese Special Envoy Chen Fu visited Viet Nam. He observed that the Vietnamese went barefoot without fear of thorns. They could run and leap rapidly, climb mountains like the wind, and row boats quickly. The men shaved their heads. They could dive under water for several kh?c (an ancient unit of time) and swim as fast as they could run on land.
From the fifteenth to the nineteenth centuries, martial arts existed at two main levels: the popular level (at festivals) and the royal level (specialised martial arts training and examinations).
Common people organized popular martial arts activities both to provide entertainment and to perfect their martial spirit, discipline, efficiency, and self-defence skills. Popular martial arts performances took place throughout the country, primarily at training centres (Iò võ) and at annual traditional festivals.
Each Iò võ or local festival had its own identity and specific characteristics. One of the most famous for its martial spirit was the Lieu Doi Wrestling, Festival in Nam Dinh Province. The martial arts and wrestling events there attracted people from Lieu Doi and from the region.
Village festivals were the martial-arts examinations of the masses. Villagers bestowed the title of “First Laureate” (trang vat) on talented local wrestlers in much the same way as the royal court gave titles to scholars.
Many of these men later became leaders of peasant insurrections. Examples include Nguyen Huu Cau and Nguyen Cu, who fought against the Lê-Trinh Court in the late eighteenth century, and Lía, who fought against the Nguyen Lords. The most famous of these martial artists were undoubtedly the Tây Son brothers (Nguyen Nhac. Nguyen Hue, and Nguyen Lu. They and their gifted commanders, all of whom were martial artists, led a peasant uprising in the late eighteenth century: they overthrew the harsh domination of the Trinh and Nguyen lords, ending the century-long division of the country. Those heroes trained in Iò võ with famous masters, many of whom are deified as village tutelary spirits.
During the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, martial artists who had declined titles in defiance of the Nguyen Dynasty led many of the anti-French insurrections. During this period, the martial arts rose in popularity. Masters secretly transferred their skills to students even when the anti-French movement was less active. They preserved their techniques and practices in books on warfare and military art and in proverbs. These books and proverbs gradually became a martial arts training curriculum for the masses and co-existed with the court’s martial arts canon.
The royal martial arts system also trained soldiers to fight invaders and protect the court. The content was divided into three parts: martial arts for the army, martial arts for study, and martial arts for examinations.
At the end of the nineteenth century, the traditional strategies, tactics, and combat techniques of Viet Nam’s military science began to show certain weaknesses when posed against Western military technology. Canons could destroy strong fortifications, and pistols and rifles could overwhelm swords and spears. The new “hot weapons” (hoa khí) were superior to the old “cold weapons” (bach khí). Suddenly, martial arts no longer played a decisive military role; its practice continued but on a much smaller scale.
Under French domination, the court army ceased to train in martial arts. Western sports and gymnastics dominated at schools. However, the Vietnamese remained proud of their martial arts masters, who preserved the traditions and developed martial arts among common people. Practitioners from different regions networked with each other and set up numerous new Lò Võ and new martial arts schools. Centres of martial arts gradually emerged: Thang Long-Ha Noi in the north: Thanh Hoa. Nghe An and Binh Dinh Provinces in the centre: and Sai Gon and the Mekong River Delta Provinces in the south.
Since the late nineteenth century, boxing and schools of martial arts have also entered Viet Nam from other Asian countries. These include judo, aikido. and karate (Japan): wushu. shaolin, and wudang (China): tae kwon do (Korea): and pencat silat (Malaysia). Vietnamese have accepted these schools, which have transformed, enriched, and enlivened indigenous martial arts.
Traditional martial arts are not only sports but also part of the nation’s culture, embracing a heritage accumulated across many generations.