(This page is based on the more detailed historical work found in The Ancient Bing-fa: Martial Arts Strategy.)
Unlike other sports and exercise programs, the martial arts train the whole person—body, spirit, and mind. Down through the millennia, the knowledge on which the martial arts are based—known in China as the Bing-fa—was suppressed. Today, most of those who practice martial arts are unfamiliar with these principles except in how they have become embodied in martial arts practice.
Martial arts are different because they are designed for self-defense and self-development. They exploit a loophole in the natural law. Nature says that the strong dominate the weak and the quick beat the slow. The martial arts teach that through the use of knowledge and training, a warrior can transform a stronger opponent into a weaker one.
This loophole was first discovered and explained in a text written 2,500 years ago. Today, we know this work as Sun Tzu’s The Art of War. The Chinese title is Sunzi Bing-fa, which literally means "Master Sun’s Martial Arts." The stateless warrior named Sun Wu of Qi grew up in a family of mercenaries, learning from birth all the challenges of battle. His work explained for the first time that what people thought of as power—size, strength, and wealth—were not real power but only the illusion of power. Those who understood the true nature of power could easily defeat these larger foes by leveraging their supposed strengths against them.
Sun Wu proved his philosophy as a commander. He was hired by a poor, semibarbaric kingdom called Wu. Training the world's first civilian army, Sun Wu led his forces to conquer all the larger, richer, and more technologically advanced kingdoms of the Yang-tze river valley.
Sun Tzu’s success led to the emulation of his methods throughout the states of China after his death. The use of citizen armies created wide access to weapons and martial arts training. Professional mercenary families gave rise to history’s first professional martial artists. The first such martial artists are introduced in the Spring and Summer Annals of Wu and Yue when the old man Yuan Gong meets the young swordswoman Yue Nu in battle. These early martial artists eventually became demigods in the Chinese pantheon.
Around 298 BC, the historian Zhuang Zi recorded that life in the state of Zhoa had become prosperous because of the practice of martial arts using the sword. King Wen of Zhoa invited more than 3,000 sword martial artists to practice against one another in his court. Zhuang Zi said that Sun Tzu’s theory had been incorporated into the martial arts techniques of both offense and defense and of both armed and unarmed combat. Sun Tzu’s ideas were the fundamental principles in the Book of Sword Fighting and Internal Boxing (Nei kia Quan), both published late in the Warring States period.
Sun Tzu’s methods, originally taught in the context of larger wars, were now seen as the key to individual contests. In armed contests, Sun Tzu’s lessons on positioning are echoed in Zhuang Zi’s description of the key methods used. "The best sword fighters," he wrote, "pretended to be without preparation as if offering an opening to the enemy. They then gained mastery by striking only after the enemy has struck."
Sun Tzu's descendent, Sun Bing (Sun Ping) repopularized the work of Sun Wu. Eventually this teaching made its way to a young nobleman named Ying Zheng. Using the ancient secrets of the Bing-fa, Ying Zheng became the ruler of his kingdom, Qin, and began conquering neighboring kingdoms. By 221 BC, Ying became the first emperor of all of China and changed his name to Qin Shi Huangdi.
From that time, the Bing-fa was kept secret and passed down only to those of royal blood. While practicing the Bing-fa themselves, various Chinese emperors promoted other, less aggressive philosophies—first Taoism and later Buddhism—in connection with the martial arts. Though its complete philosophy was hidden, martial arts practice took the form of a physical exercise known as Tai Chi Chuan (The Grand Ultimate Fist) that became popular in China in about the third century AD. By the fifth century, the physical science was being advanced by monks at the Buddhist monastery of Shao Lin, who may have received a secret copy of the text of the Bing-fa from a member of the royal family of China, who were now Buddhists. This was the beginning of what was known as Kung-Fu (literally, "hard work"). The philosophy was spread both through armed combat and unarmed combat (since peasants were denied arms) through all of Asia.
Over the centuries, the martial arts anglish as The Art of War.