Challenging assumptions: Were martial arts really created to teach us how to fight?

What has this got to do with fighting? Photo by Vladislav Vasnetsov on

Thinking about my last post with the discussion from Tim Cartmell. Everything Tim says is great advice for people interested in learning to fight and applies to what we know as “martial arts” today, but I do wonder about the very starting point of their discussion, which is the assumption that underlies it all – “martial arts were created to teach people how to fight”.

It sounds so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. I mean, it’s almost farcical to think otherwise… but is it true? Were they all “created” for that purpose? How can we be sure?

Martial arts as practiced in Western countries today are obviously about teaching people to fight, but it seems to me that once you trace “martial arts” back further and further it becomes harder to separate them out from cultural practices that included “fighting”, but also encompassed a whole lot more – a whole world view that is no longer with us.

It seems to me that most people today see “martial arts” as the original, stripped-down, very concentrated pure combat practice, that over time has become waylaid with cultural and religious baggage that has been added after the fact.

I think they’ve got it backwards. I think it “martial arts” starts off as part of a really rich and deep, varied practice incorporating all sorts of aspects of the complex array of cultural activities… and in modern times we have stripped out the combat elements and separated them off from the other elements – to pursue in our leisure time, or by governments for political means. That was certainly what happened in China in the early 20th century, for example, with the Kuo Shu movement.

Does this matter? Does it make any difference to what we practice today. Probably not, but I think it’s a more honest view of the subject, and explains why we still have a lot of these cultural practices associated with marital arts, like the picture of Lion Dance above.

This period of Yang LuChan in Beijing (around 1860) is really the time we see the arrival of “martial arts” as a separate subject in Beijing, taught in its own right and not as part of something else, like a village ritual or festival rite, or as an entertainment performance, and different to what soldiers learned. Yang was teaching soldiers, yes, but he wasn’t teaching them how to fight on a battlefield. He was also teaching rich people. This was the newly created niche that “martial arts” fitted into – the serious leisure practice. After the Empress Dowager takes control and the Wu brothers are “out”, Yang loses his patronage and has to open a commercial school in Beijing, and it becomes a family business with his sons teaching too.

The “martial arts” as we know them, and as they were created, are a civilian occupation – the serious leisure practice of already tough men (think Yang LuChan’s banner men that he taught in Beijing), or the rich middle/upper class idlers with too much time on their hands (hello the Wu brothers).

The martial arts, as we know them, have very minimal connection to actual military arts. Those were for killing people, and required weapons. As General Qi Jiguang wrote in his 1560 Boxing Classic,

“(Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”

As you can see – boxing arts were being practiced in Ming Dynasty China, but they were not considered part of regular military training. They were part of something else.

One thought on “Challenging assumptions: Were martial arts really created to teach us how to fight?

  1. I am not sure why you talk about warfare and ritual in martial training as if they are mutually exclusive. Warriors of every culture have universally had pre-combat rituals throughout history. Many tribal peoples dance or have other kinds of shamanic blessings given. Others incorporate ritual into their training. Think of the Christian rituals of knights and the talismans of their blessed swords and armor.

    It seems natural to me that pantomiming the acts of Zhang Sanfeng defeating 24 Imperial guards on a magical quest, as some have presented evidence from the taijiquan form, would be the type of ritual to imbue power, bestow protection, change the body and mind, or invoke the gods. That the training would also condition the body to wield weapons, provide experience how to manage the mechanical forces of conflict, teach vulnerable points in an opponent, and so on seems like a natural extension. Many Chinese martial arts evoke the notions of warrior folk heroes and Immortals, like Yue Fei, or Sun Wukong (the Monkey King), warrior emperors, like Song Taizu or Ming Taizu (Hong Quan) fierce animal exemplars, such as Tiger, Crane or Snake or violent elemental gods, related to Thunder or Wind, etc. A fundamental human need is to be part of something greater than oneself.

    What seems less natural is sketchy modern genealogies tracing back to said folk heroes, Immortals, or gods purporting to have descended unaltered, or at least with secret techniques intact, for nearly a thousand years. Fabricated categorizing of martial arts into internal and external, large frame or small frame, or Shaolin, Wudang, Emei, and so on. And, like cutting down a tree, separating sanitized Chinese martial arts from their cultural roots. I understand why these things were substituted. Again, it’s a fundamental human need to be part of something larger than oneself.


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