Chinese martial arts: The place where theatre, religion and fighting meet

One of the ways you can tell genuine history from a ‘made up’ history (in Chinese martial arts, or in anything really), is that the real history is always pretty messy, convoluted and complicated, and a conveniently invented origin myth or history of a style is usually pretty simplistic. Tai Chi Chuan is a good example, I think. Attributing the origin of Tai Chi to one particular Taoist immortal, or one particular remote rural village, is a very neat and simple solution – and probably not the whole truth.

And I think the same thing applies to Chinese martial arts as a whole. The Chinese martial arts, (as we know them today) were not just invented fully formed, hundreds of years ago and have remained unchanged ever since. On this blog I’ve often quoted those who have proposed that kung-fu has a more convoluted pedigree than one might otherwise have expected. Historian Charles Holcombe’s excellent “Theatre of combat” on the subject of kung fu history from 1990 is a good starting point for this line of enquiry. Also check out my first podcast episode with Daniel Mroz.

To quote from Holcombe:

“In China the martial arts are far more than just techniques of hand-to-hand combat, although actual fighting skills are indeed traceable far back into antiquity. In China the martial arts are an aspect of religion, with all of the attendant mystery and miracles. At the same time, the public face of the martial arts has often been that of the entertainer, and the self-image of the martial artist has been thoroughly imbued with motifs drawn from fiction and the theater. The martial arts of today must be understood as a confluence of China’s unique approach to physical combat, Buddho-Taoist religion, and theater.”

Theater of Combat – Charles Holcombe

It’s worth reading that quote a couple of times.

One curious thing I’ve noticed from other martial artists is that they often can’t comprehend this argument at all. They don’t seem able, or unwilling, to hear it properly. Some internal bias seems to prevent it. I’ve had people come back to me a year later saying, “I thought you were saying that all Chinese martial arts comes from dance”. Or theatre. No, that’s really not what I’m saying. I’m saying, it’s complicated. I’ve even gone back to these people and shown them the exact thing I wrote, a year ago, saying exactly the opposite of what they think I said. But for some reason, it doesn’t go in. They hear what they think I’m saying rather than what I’m actually saying.

Real history is always complicated. “Kung Fu came from dance” is just too simplistic to be true.

Incidentally, the excellent Kung Fu Tea blog has written a long, and detailed post addressing Holcombe’s article: “Reevaluating the “Theater of Combat”: A Critical Look at Charles Holcombe, Popular Religion and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.”

3 thoughts on “Chinese martial arts: The place where theatre, religion and fighting meet

  1. I find the whole discussion about martial arts, theatre and religion interesting, if a bit frustrating at times. Why? Because in a way, it’s so obvious, but people talk about it like it’s some great big revelation. I guess the topic is tricky because a great many practitioners these days are drawn to the arts for precisely not those reasons – the main goal is combat efficacy. “Proving” that these practices are not *just* about that is aggravating to those who mainly care about their martial arts as being martial, and a legitimisation for the many apologists who want to reframe the arts as purely vehicles of personal transformation, self-betterment and all that non-violent stuff. Considering the likely reality as being shades of grey, a shade that varies from school to school and practice to practice, is difficult.
    Ultimately, I fail to make the leap that martial arts really ever are equal to religion, in the sense that practicing martial arts has ever been an explicitly Buddhist, or Taoist, or religious pursuit (although certain parts of the arts may well have been part of religious occasions, just as eating is not a religious practice in and of itself, but often forms part of religious occasions). Rather I think it’s better to understand religions (in the various and nebulous forms they exist and have existed) as worldviews, lenses through which practitioners understood their practices just as they are lenses through which those same practitioners understood most things. I think a simple way of illustrating how that has never changed is to consider the modern approach to martial arts and the language used to explain them. Most of us today want to understand our arts in terms of physics, body mechanics and other scientific principles, as “science” is the prevailing worldview, or lens through which we try to understand how the world works. We don’t use Chinese cosmology to understand our practices, because that isn’t how our society understands reality. Similarly, we are less inclined to take second hand stories of myths and legends as validation of the effectiveness of our chosen arts, rather the standard of evidence has now often become what we can be shown directly to “work in the ring”, a demand consistent with the scientific, evidence-driven values of many people today.
    Martial arts and theatre is nothing new or outdated either. One only needs to look at televised combat sports aka gladiatorial combat, or every other action movie or fight scene in a TV show/movie aka theatrical combat. Scott Park Phillips, as another commenter has mentioned, provides a valuable insight in his writings to the link in old Chinese culture between theatre and religion, but I don’t think that’s too hard to parallel in our modern society either, especially now we are in the season of nativity plays, and literal Norse gods romping around on our screens in the Marvel cinematic universe.
    If nothing else, the discussion of martial arts, religion and theatre is a reflection on our society today, and how we have (deliberately or otherwise) forgotten how intertwined these things are in our own place and time, and accordingly how even the most rational, modern, “effective” martial arts practices today essentially exist as reflections of our secular, rational, scientific worldview, and for the purpose of theatre (i.e. entertainment).

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  2. Are you familiar with Scott Park Phillips, who writes and teaches about the connection between Chinese martial arts and theater? Yes, it is complicated, isn’t it? I was surprised to learn that Bruce Lee was a cha cha champion in Hong Kong. So the connection isn’t so ancient!

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  3. I have a very dusty four year university degree in ancient history and archaeology that never got me a career but it did nourish a life-long interest in history and that certainly tied into my life-long interest in the Chinese martial arts. What do I have to show for 40+ years of reading, discussion and listening to experts on the various origin myths in the internal martial arts? The same thing I get from following trends in general historical research… educated opinions, a variety of biases and precious little agreement on anything.

    As to theatre, religious drama and dance as precursors to martial arts styles… of course! For example, the philosopher Socrates wrote in the Classical Greek Period that “dancers make the best soldiers”. As he fought and was wounded in at least two battles fighting for his city; I’m willing to accept his opinion here.

    In the end, very few cultures that fight well don’t have surviving “war dances” even today [Armenian and Georgian sabre dances, Scottish Highland dancing, the Maori Hakka, etc] . Makes sense as a dancer needs stamina, strength, co-ordination etc… and so do warriors.

    As to the religious underpinnings… after all Odin has a spell that would keep you safe in battle and the Romans threw a spear across the Martial field near Republican Rome after the appropriate religious ceremonies to signal the start of official hostilities with some neighbouring city.

    What better way to get the Gods on your side and ensure that they crap on the bad guys!



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