Kanghyeok Lee
Programme Specialist, International Centre of Martial Arts for Youth
Development and Engagement under the auspices of UNESCO (ICM)

As the term “martial” having its origins in the name of Mars (the Roman god of war) suggests, martial arts are often conceived as synonymous with fighting.
This prevalent misconception has been intensified by the ever-growing popularity of combat sports and mixed martial arts coupled with the media and entertainment industry. Despite the common perception of martial arts as mere fighting methods, they are in fact the epitome of intangible cultural heritage (ICH). Numerous martial traditions contain such non-martial elements as dances, rituals, and folk games.

Blindfolded taekwondo performer smashing a board © ICM

In recognition of this versatility, UNESCO has granted ICH status to several martial activities under multiple categories and concepts over the past couple of decades. As recently as December 2020, China’s taijiquan was officially inscribed on UNESCO’s Representative List of the ICH of Humanity, highlighting its values as a traditional practice for physical and mental health. The institutional recognition has generated momentum in bolstering and mainstreaming the efforts to safeguard martial arts as ICH.

In keeping with such developments, the International Centre of Martial Arts for Youth Development and Engagement under the auspices of UNESCO (ICM) has delivered nationwide martial arts demonstrations in the Republic of Korea to raise awareness and safeguard the rich diversity of ICH. In 2019, ICM organized an international team of martial artists who respectively specialized in their indigenous martial arts: Brazilian capoeira, Cambodian bokator, Chinese wushu, Filipino arnis, Korean taekkyeon and taekwondo, and Malaysian silat. All the martial artists had been affiliated with professional martial arts organizations in their home countries and practiced the arts for more than ten years. The selection of different martial arts and collaboration by native practitioners were intended to express the sheer diversity of martial arts and their authentic values as ICH. The demonstration performances were arranged by invitation from a number of local governments and authorities hosting arts and culture festivals, sports and martial arts competitions, exhibitions, and even conferences. From time to time, the team would stand on a magnificent stage taking the applause of thousands of spectators. They would otherwise be enjoying more down-toearth
interactions with dozens of passers-by gathered on random streets. Either way, ICM reaffirmed the adaptability and potential of martial arts as an awareness-raising tool for ICH diversity in various settings, far more than a role as a mere momentary spectacle.

Children learning wushu moves © ICM

In the demonstrations, a pair of martial artists in each discipline showcased their arts in sequence. Silat practitioners’ demonstrations were characterized by their animal-like moves, often equipped with short sticks or daggers. Wushu members showcased both low-impact and acrobatic skills while carrying a sword or spear. Taekkyeon’s fluid movements with unique steps and arm motions seemed unlike any other arts. These performances culminated with taekwondo players
perfectly synchronizing their kicks and flips. The demonstration team would also portray combat and collaborations between different martial arts that signified intercultural exchange and harmonious coexistence.

Performing capoeira with children © ICM

The displays were not just of skillful and eye-catching moves and techniques, but also many other cultural manifestations such as traditional attire, rites, prayers, and music. For example, bokator fighters wore a krama (scarf) around their waist and wrapped sangvar (silk cords) around their head and biceps, in a demonstration of what is known to be the uniform of the ancient Khmer armies. They would begin the performance kneeling down and engaging with a brief ritual. This opening was performed in collaboration with the capoeira performers playing the atabaque (drum) and berimbau (musical bow), two of the iconic instruments in capoeira.

These musical elements are quintessential of the Afro-Brazilian identity of capoeira, which developed from the struggles and resistance of African slaves taken to Brazil by the Portuguese. In particular, the sound of the berimbau is believed to be associated with the cries and moans of African slaves nostalgic for their home country.1,2 Suppressed by the state authorities, capoeira evolved as a hybrid form of dance, game, and ritual combined with significant musical elements, rather than just a typical fighting system. ICM tried as much as possible to convey these historical and cultural contexts, allowing the audiences to appreciate the essence of the martial arts as well as their dynamic physical representations.

The demonstrations of each art were followed by interaction where the team members taught a few spectators some key moves and spirituality of their arts. This gave participants a hands-on experience that could potentially motivate them to learn, practice, and disseminate martial arts heritage. Increasing popular exposure to and recognition of martial arts are conducive to facilitating commitment to the preservation and dissemination of underrepresented elements. This is in line with the conception that ICH safeguarding hinges on continued transmission that should be assisted by multiple stakeholders, including the international community.3

To evaluate the effects of the project, ICM conducted a survey after the performances. The demographic information of respondents indicated that the team had reached out to a spectrum of society—children and older people accounted for about 46 per cent of the total respondents. The participation of youth and intergenerational contacts was crucial in light of the role of youth in ICH transmission.3 The overall satisfaction was measured at 86 per cent, with positive responses as a whole in excess of 97 per cent. It was particularly notable that seven in ten respondents answered that they would be  willing to participate in martial arts activities in the future. Although some confounding factors might have contributed to these results, it was concluded that the organization, delivery, and inspiration of the performances and interactions went above and beyond expectations.

Overall, the project turned out to be a great success that made strong and lasting contributions to promoting martial arts and maintaining ICH diversity. It significantly increased the visibility of the martial arts heritage of the world, engaging with more than 100,000 spectators at seventy-two locations and festive events. It was implemented at a grassroots level, targeting a broad range of audiences including children and youth who will be the key enabler of safeguarding ICH.

Learning arnis in interactive a Performing capoeira with children © ICM ctivities © ICM

In addition to enjoying the performances, they had a rare opportunity to learn and perform martial arts with experienced practitioners. They were also able to gain insight into the underlying cultural identities and characteristics of martial arts. If sustained, these activities will deepen public awareness of the added values of martial arts that can lead to the mobilization of greater organizational and institutional support for the transmission of ICH. In addition, it should
not be overlooked that the project was directly beneficial to the professional and personal development of the martial artists themselves, who will further their careers as instructors, performers, academics, and, ultimately, bearers of the valuable ICH.

Building on the achievements of the project, ICM will make persistent efforts to support the transmission of martial arts through various initiatives, thereby safeguarding the diversity of ICH.

1. Ilari, B. (2002). “Musical instruments of Brazilian capoeira: Historical roots, symbolism and use.” Journal of the Acoustical Society of America, 112(5): 2265.
2. Lewis, J. L. (1992). Ring of liberation: Deceptive Discourse in Brazilian Capoeira. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
3. UNESCO (2021). “Transmission.” Available at https://ich.unesco.org/en/transmission-00078 (accessed 14 February 2021).