People really, really want martial arts to be ancient

It’s easy to laugh at the QAnon followers who stormed the capitol in the belief that Donald Trump would pardon them of their crimes and there was a secret revolution about to happen, but there are plenty of equally delusional beliefs in martial arts.

I found an article on the Martial History Team blog recently that quotes from a longer article by Paul Bowman about why martial arts history seems to matter so much to some people.

There are plenty of gems here, but I like this quote:

“Unsurprisingly, in much scholarship on Asian martial arts, the matter of history remains freighted and weighted down by the same popular myths; so much so that even much that passes for scholarship seems to refuse to face up to the evidence that suggests that, quite frequently, martial arts that present themselves as ancient are hardly even old.[11] 

So many massive social mutations occurred through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that most ‘traditional’ martial arts effectively have at best little more than a century of continuous history to them, rather than the vast eons of allochronic time that so many seem to want them to have spanned.[12]

I emphasize the word ‘want’, here. This is because wanting appears to be a key issue to consider when approaching questions of martial arts history and culture. For instance, it seems that the perpetuation of fantasy histories and the fetishistic fabrication of lineages in ‘traditional’ martial arts evidently have everything to do with wanting. 

Practitioners want taiji to be ancient. Many want there to have been a Southern Shaolin Temple which was burned down, scattering the few surviving kung fu monks to the different corners of China.[13] We want Okinawan farmers to have fought samurai with rice flails. We want Yim Wing Chun to have been a real proto-feminist warrior.[14] We want the skill that wielded the weapon that killed Magellan to remain alive today.[15] And we want ancient warrior armies to have flown at each other through the air, kicking each other off horses with flying sidekicks and jumping spinning back kicks. 

Just because you want something, it doesn’t make it true.

Photo by Bakr Magrabi on

2 thoughts on “People really, really want martial arts to be ancient

  1. “Practitioners want taiji to be ancient.” These modern historians need to learn enough about Asian martial arts to understand that the basic beginnings and principles are indeed ancient. The Chen-style Taijiquan, *like a number of other Chinese martial arts*, equates its roots to the ancient movement principles of the Daoyin, the breathing practices of Tu Na, and the body movement theories of the Jingluo. It’s in their books and old texts, but most of our modern “historians” don’t know enough about Chinese martial arts to understand what that implies.

    And, incidentally, despite the western goggling about the Mawangdui Tombs and what the “Daoyin” meant so long ago … the principles and practice of the Daoyin movements are not unknown, even today. From that perspective, Taijiquan actually does have ancient roots. These modern guesses at history need to be re-written to reflect the actual facts.


  2. After Crouching Tiger, Flying Dragon came out in 2000 I had more than one person call my Tai Chi Studio in Ottawa Canada to ask if I taught beginning lessons in sword and would they eventually learn to run up walls and appear to fly. I told them not unless they were already physically able to run up walls or fly. Funny how they never came to watch a real class after that.

    Although the best comment I ever had over the phone from a prospective student {I wish I was making this up, but I’m not} was a reply to my question about whether or not they were a beginner in the Yang style. “No”, was the emphatic reply “I have read several books on the subject so that would make me an intermediate, wouldn’t it?”


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