Are all Chinese martial arts really ex-military arts?

I think this post is perhaps a little half formed, but I want to get on to writing up my last lesson with Bear, so I’m going to put it out as is. Let the pieces fall where they may…

An interesting new video has been released by Will (a recent guest on my Tai Chi Notebook podcast) about his recent visit to Taiwan where he got to talk to various Taiwanese martial arts masters. It’s the start of a series and it looks like it’s going to be great – Will gets to walk down the smokey back alleys of Taiwan to find the martial artists and martial arts schools in Taiwan you wish you could. What’s not to like? Watch it here:

The blurb reads: “In the first episode, I meet up with my friend John Eusebio @longfistmantis to visit the bookstore of Liu Kang Yi. Mr Liu’s bookstore, Wuxue Shuguan has a huge collection of martial arts books, in both Chinese and English, and he has also spent decades collecting old and rare manuscripts. In this video he shares his insights on the development of martial arts from a military combat art, to an integrated system of both combat and health practice, as we see it today. He also shows us a copy of the Bubishi, the foundational manual of Okinawan Karate.”

Mr Liu talks about internal training, and how it relates to strengthening the tendons and fascia of the body, so that it can toughen and that can lead to more strength “qi” in the body. This all seems fairly accurate to me. (There’s discussion to be had about whether these methods were always a part of Chinese marital arts, or added in later from a different tradition, but that’s by the by). Then he talks about the 3 phases of development of Chinese martial arts, which is the part I wanted to pick up on.

To paraphrase, he says, the first is only martial training and not cultivating: it’s pure combat. No focus on health. This is the military period. The second is once it entered the civilian population. They train both combat and cultivate health, but separately, developing things like Yijinjing and Baduanjing. The third evolution was to combine combat and health, to bring both aspects together. Taijiquan is a good example of this.

Now, this is not a bad way of looking at the evolution of Chinese martial arts, but I think it’s a bit reductive, and crucially, it misses out a lot of other influences.

It’s a view that is not dissimilar to Peter Lorge’s in the book Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century which is that marital arts were all originally military arts and over time were simply dispersed from the army into civilian life.

Lorge’s position is laid out clearly in the introduction to his book starts with this:

I actually really enjoyed Peter’s lecture about the history of Chinese martial arts at the Martial Arts Studies conference 2017, but it seems that both Mr Lorge and Mr Liu both view Chinese martial arts as a kind of offshoot of military training, and nothing more, and in both cases the subject doesn’t even seem to be up for debate, it’s just presented as self obvious. The parallel between both of them is that they are relying only on written sources as their research into the matter. In fact, a lot of the cultural traditions of ‘common folk’ were not recorded, since writing belonged to the upper classes.

Now, I’ll admit, there can be no doubt that the intermingling of civilian and military life had a massive influence on martial arts practiced by people in villages, particularly after the Ming Dynasty army was disbanded and returned to civilian life after its defeat by the invading Manchu’s, who seized control of Beijing in 1644. Xing Yi in particular is one of the martial arts that traces its origins to that event, to military methods kept alive by ex soldiers who were now civilians who had had their weapons taken away. A review of Xing Yi’s existing methods and techniques today reveals a clear bias towards methods that work with a spear, which would have been the dominant weapon in the military for soldiers, and also a concern for facing an attacker who is in front of you, not to the side, which is another feature of military arts. However, most other Chinese marital arts are more biased towards barehand actions than weapons, contain sometimes elaborate sequences that would appear to be more at home on a stage than in a street fight, or involve making specific hand gestures or actions that hint at a ritual quality, that it’s clear, to me at least, that something more is going on here. Rather than just military methods being translated into personal self-protection methods, we are seeing other influences.

In China, there is a long history of martial arts being used in religious ritual, festival culture, spirit possession, street entertainment, Xiqu (Chinese theatre) and Wuxia (which literally means “martial heroes”, a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China). I think those traditions have as much influence on the martial arts passed down to us today as the military does, and in a lot of cases, more. But, if you mention this to proponents of the “pure pugilism” brand of martial artist, they usually try and explain to you that all these things came out of marital arts. i.e. martial arts came first, and the dance/performance/theatre/ritual, etc came second. In fact, Lorge argues exactly this at 43.00 minutes in his lecture (which I still enjoyed!), despite cataloging wrestling going back centuries as pure entertainment for the Royal Court. This attempt to explain away the obvious flaw reminds me of when people present funky martial applications to form movements that clearly don’t look like marital movements. There are some frankly ridiculous martial application out there from well know teachers who, rather than just admitting that there’s no real martial application of this move that makes any sense, come up with something that just looks silly.

I’ve talked to a lot of martial artists on my podcast (20 episodes so far!) and I quite often broach this subject to see what kind of reaction I get, and I’ve found that the martial artists who live in Asia, or have lived there for some time, tend to have no problem with the idea that Chinese martial arts is a broad church of methods derived from various traditions. It tends to be the people outside of that culture who have a problem with what they’re learning not being a super-deadly killing art created for one purpose only – to be the best fighter! I suppose it’s because so many of these cultural traditions are still alive and well in Asia today that it’s hard to deny their existence. Just look around you. Martial arts training halls tend to have shrines in them where incense is burned as part of a religious ritual. Or the martial arts school participates in local religious festivals by enacting Lion and Dragon Dance routines, or giving a demonstration of martial arts. Or there is a semi-religious ceremony involved in becoming an indoor disciple, etc.

I think two things are going on here. First there’s a reaction against the modern Chinese trend of turning marital arts into a gymnastic demonstrations instead of fighting arts, and secondly there’s a reaction against the modern trend for making Chinese martial arts appear as spiritual and mystical in the same way Yoga is.

As Charles Holcomb wrote in 1990 , “Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries. Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills. The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?” [1]

I think that process of trying to present the martial arts as true hand-to-hand combat skills is very much alive and well today, I mean, its probably what most people are looking for when they start Kung Fu. I certainly was. But I think it’s also something of a reaction to the introduction of Chinese martial arts to the West, which came off the back of the Kung Fu TV series (which presented martial arts as mystical from Shaolin monks) and followed off the back of mystics like Alan Watts who presented a very counter culture sort of take on Eastern religion.

While there’s nothing wrong with that, my feeling is that it misses out on the wider, and weirder, historical context of the arts we practice today. They’re a rich blend of various traditions, and we should treat them as such.

[1] Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts by Charles Holcombe, Historian. Vol. 52 No. 3 May.1990. Pp. 411-431 Copyright by Michigan State University Press

[2] Photo by Kevin Jackson on Unsplash

5 thoughts on “Are all Chinese martial arts really ex-military arts?

  1. Graham,

    Thanks for your reply. You wrote, “No, I don’t think you’d find people in the Song Dynasty doing “martial arts” as we understand the concept today.” I appreciate your confirmation of my point that it depends on the time period in which you ask the question. Martial arts and the influences on them have evolved over time. The martial arts did not always look like they do today, in fact, today’s look is very recent, much within the last 50 years or less and most within 100 years.

    I probably made a mistake quoting you, “religious ritual, festival culture, spirit possession,…, Xiqu, and Wuxia.” Yes, these things have existed for a long time, and they reflected and portrayed military accomplishments and martial life for a good portion of that time. The question becomes when did the flow of information start flowing the other way too? In other words, when did each of these things begin to have an influence on military training?

    Also, if military training and martial arts are not the same thing, when did military training spin off martial arts? Those are questions to which a we could devote a lot of interesting research to gather solid evidence to answer.

    I am agreeing with the point of your post. If you look at today’s martial arts, any military roots could be a minority compared with other influences. But, if you look at “martial arts” during other periods, they might be synonymous with military training. And during several dynasties the martial training you learned in your family was preparation for the Imperial Military Examinations.

    As a side note, if studying martial arts requires studying in a public martial art school, I have only studied martial arts with one teacher. All the rest of my studies have been small group and private instruction with individuals whose primary employment was outside of martial arts. Small group and private instruction within families, clans, and communities has been documented for well over a thousand years, perhaps much longer.



  2. Richard,

    “However, going back to the Song Dynasty or earlier the number of those outside influences diminished. You start predating “religious ritual, festival culture, spirit possession,…, Xiqu, and Wuxia.””

    I’d have to respectfully disagree about influences on the Song Dynasty (960–1279). Stories about xia date back more than 2,000 years! And if you’re planning to go back before religion in China, then, well… good luck with that… The I-Ching is said to be 5,000 years old, fortune telling using tortoise shells goes back to shamans, etc – religion consists of all these things and is as old as human beings.

    I’m also sure that Chinese theatre is truly, truly ancient – since it was the standard public (as well as Royal) entertainment in China. There are references to it going back to the Shang Dynasty, which is 16th century, BC. “

    “Theatre in China dates back to as early as the Shang dynasty (16th century BC?–c. 1046 BC). Oracle bone records reference rain dances performed by shamans,[2] while the Book of Documents mentions shamanistic dancing and singing.”

    Is it religion? Is it theatre? Is it ritual? Is it entertainment? Is it marital arts? That’s my point – it was all these things – a heady mix. It’s only today, (thanks, Plato) that we box these activities up into separate things and give them names.

    So, if the time period you are choosing is the Song Dynasty (960–1279), I’d say all these influences are alive and well. Of course, military and militia activities would be at a high point there as the Mongol war was raging during the Song, but it was also a high point of commerce and artistic activities. Some of the greatest works of art date from the Song. Particularly the ‘back to nature’ style of art I really enjoy. Philosophy, poetry and theatre was also at a high point. And of course, we have the famous General Yue Fei, the folk hero in waiting who in the end was brought down by the elite classes because he was doing too good a job against the Jin.

    Of course, our modern concept of “martial arts” only started really very recently in around 1836 with the first public marital arts school – (Choy Li Fut) a place where the common man could go and learn a martial art by paying a fee. And a teacher could earn a living by teaching “martial arts” to the people. This was a novel idea at the time, and I don’t think it’s a co-incidence that it happened in an area of China that was occupied by European powers, who brought new ideas with them.

    No, I don’t think you’d find people in the Song Dynasty doing “martial arts” as we understand the concept today. None of these Chinese martial arts we have today, existed in the form they exist now, in a way we would recognise them. Of course, they all have roots going back deep into history. But the concept of separating he martial arts bit out from the rest, is a modern idea (assuming you count 1836 as ‘modern’). And of course, that process continued over time, so that the martial art bit became even more separated (particularly after the failed Boxer Rebellion) until you have what we have today.



  3. I think it depends in what time period you take your snapshot of Chinese martial arts.

    The martial arts we have today have obviously have many influences other than military. However, going back to the Song Dynasty or earlier the number of those outside influences diminished. You start predating “religious ritual, festival culture, spirit possession,…, Xiqu, and Wuxia.”

    By the Ming dynasty several military writers criticize martial arts with “flowery or flashy movements,” so we might assume non-military influences. During the Qing dynasty, these outside influences reach their climax in the Boxer Rebellion. So, there is a question of how far back is someone talking about when they refer to “military roots.”

    You also make a good point about barehand fighting. There was no barehand fighting on a battlefield. Everyone was armed, even if it was just a stick. To paraphrase Ming dynasty General Qi Jiquang, ‘It is useless to show up for a battle empty-handed.”

    On the other hand, Qi emphasized the importance of the conditioning and coordination that barehand training promoted. I think this underscored the prevailing attitudes of Ming dynasty military toward barehand fighting.

    On the self-defense front, if you wanted self-protection, you brought an equalizer, some sort of weapon.

    Things seemed to have changed in the Qing dynasty, and possibly in some remote areas.


  4. I think you are onto something there. Wuxia and street performance have definitely had an influence, so why not other areas of society?


  5. Very interesting and thought-provoking; just when the serious internal martial artist thinks he or she has explored every facet of training… something pops up demanding attention.


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