The many lives of Yang Lu Chan

The latest edition 13 of the Martial Arts Studies journal is out! Of particular interest to practitioners of Taijiquan this issue is Douglas Wile’s article on The Many Lives of Yang Luchan: Mythopoesis, Media, and the Martial Imagination. Yang Luchan is, of course, the patriarch of the Yang style, yet very little is actually known about him for sure, although that hasn’t stopped people filling the void with many colourful stories.

Yang Lu Chan

Here’s the abstract:

“The life of Yang Luchan, patriarch of the Yang lineage and founder of taijiquan’s most popular style, is a biographical blank slate upon which conservative, progressive, orientalist, and just plain rice bowl interests have inscribed wildly divergent narratives. Conservative scholar-disciples sought to link him with the invented Wudang-Daoist lineage, while progressives emphasized his humble origins and health benefits of the practice. His life (c.1799-1872) straddled the height of the Manchu empire and decline into semi-colonial spheres of foreign influence, while successive generations of Yang descendants propagated his ‘intangible cultural heritage’ through Republican, Communist, ‘open’ and global eras. Practiced world-wide by hundreds of millions, taijiquan’s name recognition made it ripe for media appropriation, and Yang Luchan has been remythologized in countless novels, cartoons, television series, and full-length feature films. The case of Yang Luchan offers an unusual opportunity to witness an ongoing process of mythopoesis against a background of historical antecedents and to compare these narratives with traditional Chinese warrior heroes and Western models of mythology and heroology. If the lack of facts has not constrained the fabrication of invented biographies, neither should it discourage the quest for historical context as we sift and winnow truth from trope in examining the patterns of motivated reasoning that characterize the many reconstructions of Yang’s biography.”


One thought on “The many lives of Yang Lu Chan

  1. Thanks for linking to this exhaustive review of the topic. There was a lot more there than just a discussion of Yang Luchan.

    I was only disappointed that while Wile tied into modern popular stories and theater (movies), he did not mention Qing Dynasty Chinese ritual theater, where Zhang Sanfeng, Yue Fei, Sun Wukong, Guan Yu, Song Jiang, and others became the folk heroes to whom many martial arts were later credited or associated. Yes, these stories and characters were written into books for the literate, but both the illiterate and literate knew the stories through Chinese ritual theater.

    There is power on many levels from tying the origin of martial arts to folk heroes. One does not have to believe that the Chen Taijiquan form pantomimes the Zhang Sanfeng story, a skit in the play “Admiral Zheng He’s Journey to the West in a Boat”, as claimed by Scott Park Phillips. Nor, does one need to accept that martial arts were conveyed primarily through the traveling troupes of performers, as claimed on the Heretic podcasts, to understand the power of linking the source of a martial art to these pop-culture and religious culture icons, Further, as Wile points out, these heroic stories convey messages of passive resistance to authority and so on. Such practices have been well documented in Chinese culture and history.

    Additionally, the extant copies of the Zhang Sanfeng skit date to 1597, but the play is known to have been performed much earlier. This seems a likely source of Huang Zongxi’s 1680 account of Zhang Sanfeng, with Huang’s retelling the story for his Qing Dynasty audience, to which Wile refers frequently. So, it was a message that carried from the late corrupt Ming to the oppressive Qing Dynasties with a little modification.

    Zhang Sanfeng’s comic performance as he feigns drunken sleep as he faces Imperial guards maneuvering them into fighting each other as he dodges and redirects their attacks, virtually defines what it means to be a soft style. The performance is obviously tied to drunken styles. Whether play or style is antecedent is not something I have explored. The principles illustrated by the stage fighting method are claimed by internal martial arts, and Zhang is an apt folk hero to associate with slippery, deceptive taijiquan.

    I was glad to see Wile also touched on the subject of village militias. While his reference was to the nineteenth century. Village militias and village martial arts have a long history. Chang Naizhou’s writings between 1756 and 1781 document the martial art philosophy and methods taught in his village. Much of Qi Jiguang’s Ming dynasty manual (1560) is directed to organizers and commanders at the village unit level. Villages became collection points, test beds, and developmental labs for the martial arts that were available to them. This is a huge topic that is rarely mentioned much less addressed.

    There are many examples and accounts of village martial arts. Of course, the most relevant example to taijiquan is the Chen Village. Training appears to have derived originally from diverse sources. The Chen Annals note where Qi’s writings seem to have been taken to heart. Writings from the Chen Family Annals attributed to Chen Wangting read like an ode to Qi Jiguang. There also seems to be a paradigm shift in training around this time. However, developments like these seem typical of village martial arts.

    It is unfortunate that so much documentation from the many martial villages was lost to war and social upheaval. Much has been lost, but I think we are starting to see through the modern branding, marketing, and cultural confusion as glimpses of the past comes into focus.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s