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In this article I will define Martial Arts, look into their history and background and I will try to seek explanation why martial arts, especially other but western martial arts are so popular in Western culture.

Definition of Martial Arts

Martial arts are systems of codified practices and traditions of training for combat. Martial arts cover involve broad spectrum of activities, including fighting techniques, self-defense, sport or physical exercises, methods of mental discipline, meditation, character development or even building self-confidence. In short, today martial arts are used for athletic competition, self-defence, law enforcement, sport and consequently physical and mental health. 
Very broadly speaking martial arts share a common goal, although there is always a deeper understanding and spirituality to that: to defeat a person or to defend oneself from physical threat. Of course when training very common method is used, particularly in the Asian martial arts, and it is a form of kata. Kata is a set routine of techniques performed alone, or sometimes with a partner, and is performed mostly as training. Of course each style and each martial art has different facets that make them unique from other martial arts.

History and overall concept of Martial Arts

Martial arts developed in countries that have been historically isolated from the Western world: in Asia (China, Japan and India). 
In China and India there were artifacts found, which are more than 4000 years old: they show paintings of people  performing martial arts poses. Further more,   Qigong is one of the systems that may be considered a martial art. It orginates from China and some historians believe that is more than 5000 years old. Qigong means energy cultivation: it is a system that increases the flow of the body's qi (male, active energy), which is universal life energy responsible for health and strength. This spiritual aspects are present in every single Eastern martial art: actually there is no physical and mental or spiritual aspect of martial arts: both are incorporated and they both form specific martial art. Thus martial arts involve physical techniques, but also intellectual and spiritual concepts. Moreover, they are influenced by many of the religious and philosophical systems of the East. 
From China, martial arts spread to Japan and other Asian cultures, where many, many new variations developed. In Japan they developed under the influence of Zen Buddhism and by the samurai warrior tradition, which refined many weapons and many methods of fighting. In China martial arts were under influence of buddhism, for which is believed to have introduced breathing methods, meditation, and techniques of mental and spiritual awareness in martial arts, and under influence of confucianism, which was concerned with ethical behavior in daily life.  
Eastern Martial arts were unknown to the Western world until after 1945. That was the time when American veterans of World War II brought from occupied Japan Japanese martial arts. However, at that time eastern martial arts were not as popular as they started to be during 70s. This was partly due to charismatic actor Bruce Lee and partly because of the 'start of Aquarius era' and Hippy generation that showed great interest for all Eastern and spiritual. Today, martial art, including well known Karate (Japanese generic form of martial arts), Thai-chi, Mau-Thai, Kick-boxing, Capoeira (Brazilian martial art) etc, ect. have largely made their way to America and into other parts of Western world. Actually, today martial arts industry represents multi-billion dollar industry: martial arts represent popular activity for sport, self-defence, exercise and spirituality.     

Western martial arts

However, there is another aspect of Western martial arts and Western civilization. Despite the fact we have more than 2500 years old military tradition, we are, comparing to our Eastern friends, relatively new to martial arts. A growing number of modern research has centered on the historical methods of using various types of Medieval and Renaissance swords and weaponry. Comparing to Eastern martial arts, Western martial arts are also systematic skills or disciplined methods of close-combat for single-combat and battlefield survival: they all had  cultural, social, athletic, recreational and ritualistic components. However, through the centuries and with the change in military and social conditions, their martial necessity decreased, and lately even became less popular than to Westerns foreign Eastern martial arts. The history of European martial arts is closely connected with development and innovations: as new tools were invented, so too new methods were for using them.
With the phrase 'Martial art' we link Eastern martial arts. It is interesting that the word 'martial' derives from phrase 'arts of Mars' (Mars was the Roman God of war). The term martial arts was used, well not as early as Orient world, but as early as 1550 in the English fencing manual, although as early as from 12th century, professional instructors of fencing existed across Europe. Before that time only specific civilian weapons were used: they were used primary for military purposes rather than private self-defense and also fencing was  primary military art.       
European (Western) martial arts are still somehow with us today, although Eastern are much more popular and somehow more interesting to our culture. The truth is that the industry revolution swept away all the science that lied in old European martial arts. Simply- they were no longer needed because more efficient methods for battlefield were invented. From the times of the ancient Greeks to Modern western civilization there has always been a source of innovations, which means that European contributions to martial arts are far-reaching.

In conclusion

When one says 'martial art' we think of Karate or something associated with East Asian cultures. All I am trying to say is that martial arts are by no means unique to this region. For example: capoeira is an athletic movement, created in Brazil by slaves based on skills brought with them from Africa; Native Americans for example have a tradition of open-handed martial arts that includes wrestling.
Martial arts associated with East Asian cultures may be the oldest, but definitely are not the only ones. Practically- where ever a people lived, there some sort of martial art developed.