A friend pointed me to this great video “A brief history of China”, by Kristofer Schipper. I really like his down to earth views on the subject and the many misconceptions about China that can arise (and have happened historically) from trying to view it through a Western lense.
He has a few more videos too, which offer great insights, like this one:
Thanks to Jarek Szymanski for posting about this clip.
“Unique documentary footage taken between 1901 and 1904 in Yunnan in southwestern China by Auguste François (1857-1935) french consul stationed there. Street performers, barbers, funerals, official visits, leopard catching a pigeon and monkey wearing opera outfit doing somersaults, opium smoker, it’s all there – and more. Absolutely stunning over fifty minutes of footage from China that none of us has ever seen. Somewhere there were probably also martial artists, hiding in plain sight;)”
This is a very informative interview with Ma Yue who is a Mashi Tongbei master. He talks about (amongst other things) what it was like growing up in a traditional martial arts family when the Cultural Revolution happened in China, and he had to be taught in secret. He also talks about the making of the first Shaolin Temple film, which is father was involved in, and what he sees as the many problems with Wu Shu today.
Jack Slack was the first person to draw my attention to the parallel between rioters storming government buildings that happened in China’s Boxer Rebellion around 1900, and the storming of the Capitol Building by Trump Supporters in 2021. Both involve a kind of “spirit possession”.
Of course, America, along with many European nations, was involved in the Boxer Rebellion:
“In 1898 the Yellow River burst its banks and destroyed the harvest in much of Northern China, but this misfortune was followed by an agonizing drought which dried out the land and hardened the dirt. As young men went hungry and without work, some Chinese noted the connection between the anger of nature and the construction of train tracks, telegraph lines and churches since the arrival of foreigners in the Qing Empire. Anti-foreign sentiment brought together groups of peasants practicing martial artists and calling themselves the Righteous Society of the Harmonious Fists—though the West came to know them as “The Boxers”. The Boxers attacked and murdered missionaries across the Empire and in the summer of 1900, Tianjin and Beijing were plunged into chaos as the Boxers received the blessing of Empress Dowager Cixi and the Imperial army. 400 foreigners and 3000 Chinese Christians endured a two month siege in Beijing’s legation quarter—a stone’s throw from the Imperial Palace but completely helpless. The Boxer Rebellion is a story about agriculture and diplomacy, magic and court intrigue, and it stands as both the last great event of the Victorian Era and the beginning of the end for the Qing Dynasty. ” – Jack Slack
Of course, I’d contest that the events that lead to the end of the Qing Dynasty had started much earlier, back in 1860s. It was these conflicts with foreign powers and internal rebellions which lead directly to the creation of Tai Chi Chuan, as we discussed on our History of Tai Chi podcast series. Yes, I’m sorry, the myth of a Taoist inventing Taijiquan after a dream about a snake and a crane, is just a fairytale. The real reason is much more pragmatic.
Jack has done an excellent podcast episode on the Boxer Rebellion, which he’s just released to the public, instead of being behind his Patreon paywall. If you want to find out more, have a listen:
In the video above amateur Chinese MMA fighter Xu Xiaodong is fighting Chen Yong, the self-proclaimed sixth-generation Tai Chi Master of the Wu lineage. It’s the latest in a long line of fights between Xu and people who claim to be martial arts ‘masters’.
If we analyse the 10 seconds of action we can see Chen takes a forward weighted stance with his hands up in a high guard. It leaves him completely imobile and open for a kick. Xu kicks him low, Chen drops his guard and that was all she wrote.
Presumably Chen thought that whatever he had been doing for the past few decades was good enough training to actually fight with. But whatever Chen has been practicing… it wasn’t fighting.
Some of my Chinese Martial Arts colleagues get really upset with these fights. They think the whole thing is set up to make Chinese marital arts look bad and promote the UFC, and I’m somehow complicit in a plot designed to bring the whole Chinese martial arts down. Or that Xu won’t fight anybody young and fit and only challenges old men. It’s classic conspiracy theory nonsense.
I find this attitude odd because, frankly the UFC doesn’t give a crap about any of this. And nobody is making these delusional ‘masters’ fight anybody – they’re doing it of their own free will and more often than not, they are the challengers in the fights, and put up all the money required to make them happen. They clearly think they are going to win with their martial skill despite a huge age gap or a gap in fighting experience.
There is a strong tradition of Chinese Kung Fu masters appearing in faked fights on Chinese TV and seeming to be all-powerful. It’s that delusion that Xu fighting against. Watch this:
A common thing I’ve hear is that nobody has heard of these ‘masters’ before. Again, that’s true, but there are a lot of delusional people in martial arts, so I don’t think that’s surprising. China is a big place. Perhaps it’s the use of the term “master” that gets bandied about so freely? In light of all these fights there has been a government move in China to ban the use of the word. Xu Xiaodong has been heavily persecuted – being forced to hide his face in clown makeup and have an insulting nickname in one fight. It didn’t stop him beating these ‘masters’.
But it’s not just Xu doing it. Here’s another video from a couple of years ago. In white pyjamas we have “The 47-year-old expert Zhu Chunping, who has been practising tai chi for decades” vs Yao Hantian “The 22-year-old Yao has been training kick-boxing for just six months”. Read the report in the South China Morning Post. From the 5 seconds of action in the video we can see Zhu takes up what looks like a version of the San Ti Shi stance from Xing Yi while Yao immediately starts moving, establishing range and holding his hands in a modern guard position. One right hand from Yao, which goes right down the middle of Zhu’s guard and he doesn’t react at all to, and it’s all over.
As for the attitude of trying to pretend these fights aren’t happening… I believe it’s some misguided implementation of Wu De – martial virtue. Why shouldn’t people watch these fights? If you engage in a bout with a ring, a judge, and cameras involved, that’s designed to be streamed or televised then clearly you are now in the entertainment industry. That’s what prize fighting is. If this was some sort of battle for honour or revenge it would all be played out in a dark alley somewhere and nobody would ever know about it.
I think the lessons these videos teach is so valuable that they’re worth posting. You need to keep it real (to some extent at least) if you want to teach “martial arts”. Even if that “real” is realising your limitations, and that you shouldn’t be fighting a 22 year old in a ring when you’re 47 and don’t have any fight experience.
Chinese martial arts are full of fantastic skills and valuable content, but if you spend all your time doing your “body method” training and no time doing fighting training, then don’t expect to be able to fight with it.
And let’s not keep hiding this stuff away – you don’t fix your problems by pretending they don’t exist.
In our last look at Tai Chi for a while, we examine the context of the times in which Chen Zhaopei and Chen Fake became prominent for their martial arts in Beijing, and then at a national level, joining the wave of commerciality that had been originally instigated by the legacy of Yang Luchan and the Wu brothers. In addition we explain why the forms are similar in general order between the Yang/Wu and Chen lineages.
Here’s some Chen Canon Fist (mentioned in the podcast episode, posted here as a visual reference) – – under the Heretical Hypothesis this would be representative of the “original stuff” of the Chen village. Everybody is free to make their own mind up 🙂
Nothing comes from nothing, so for the Yangs and Wu brothers to have concocted Taijiquan (according to the Heretics Hypothesis) it must still have been made from Yang LuChan’s genuine martial skill. The postures of Yang style share a lot in common with various Northern Chinese martial arts. Changquan (long boxing) is often quoted as something Yang LuChan practiced in childhood, but again, this seems to be purely anecdotal. That doesn’t mean it’s not true of course.
A martial art popular in the region Yang came from was Hong Quan. A video surfaced recently that showed some traditional Hong Quan. It’s interesting to watch because I think it’s a good example of the type of martial art that would have been around at the time of Yang LuChan.
The description offered with the video says: “Here is the Xiao Hong Quan of Mogou Village. Mogou is to the east of Dengfeng and has practiced Hong Quan for hundreds of years.”
Hong Quan was very popular during the reign of Emperor Daoguang, which would be the Emperor immediately before Xiangfeng, who was emperor when YLC went to Beijing in the 1850s.
Out of interest, at a cursory glance I can see at least four Tai Chi Chuan techniques I recognise in that Hong Quan form presented – wave hands like clouds, snake creeps down (low single whip), bend bow to shoot tiger, and lotus kick. It’s hard to spot because it’s quite fast. But I’d hazard a guess that you’d probably find those same general techniques in lots of northern martial arts, like Chang Quan, as well.
I often come across a particular attitude to Chinese martial arts history amongst martial artists. They treat it as if it happens all together and all at the same time.
One common refrain you’ll hear is something like “the principles are all the same between Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi.” True, viewed from a certain perspective the “internal” arts are all based on the same principles, but I find this idea is often really being used to shut down debate and ignore historical facts.
It’s a lazy cop-out for doing actual research into the history of these martial arts. It’s a kind of “get out of jail free” card that squashes together events that happen decades, or even hundreds of years, and sometimes thousands of miles apart. It’s easy to forget just what a vast country China is, and how long its history is.
In a way, the last people you want doing your history research are martial artists. (My preference is for history scholars who are also martial arts hobbyists.)
I believe it was Sun Lu Tang who first grouped together Tai Chi, Bagua and Xing Yi as “internal” arts in his 1915 publication, A Study of Xing Yi Boxing. Sure there had been talk of Neijia before this, but this was the point where the idea of grouping those three arts really took off.
“I myself have barely scratched the surface of the Xingyi Boxing art. It contains the states of nonpolarity and grand polarity, the five elements and eight trigrams, a starting posture and various techniques. When we examine for its origin, it can be said to be of the same source as the two arts of Taiji and Bagua, as well as the two schools of external and internal, but was then gradually turned into its own system by later generations and has evolved into various styles, as is the normal way of things.”
Sun Lu Tang – A Study of Xing Yi Boxing
The idea stuck, and later, when the Guoshu Research Academy was set up in 1928 to promote national unity initially the organisation was split into two sections – one dedicated to teaching “Shaolin” arts and the other to “Wudang” arts. (This proved disastrous because the two sections immediately started fighting with each other, in one case with bamboo spears!)
But the grouping of the Big Three, survived, probably with a little help from the Guoshu and then Wushu movements, and is still used today.
China was going through periods of tremendous change during the 19th and 20th century – 10 years here or there can make a huge difference to the political, social, cultural climate in which these arts operated and have profound implications on them.
Martial arts blew in the same breeze – swinging one year from being bastions of a return to traditional Confucian values, often with bloody outcomes, see the Boxer Rebellion, to being radical trailblazers in new scientific Western thought – see the Guoshu movement.
And the influence of Western powers on China during this time was all pervasive. As were opium and guns! It’s often forgotten that guns were in common usage during the time period that all of today’s household names in Chinese martial arts were being developed – Tai Chi, Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut, White Eyebrow, etc,
My point really is simple: If you’re going to comment on Chinese martial arts then you need to take the wider Chinese historical perspective into account.
Our recent Heretics Podcast series on the history of Tai Chi Chuan keeps generating interesting feedback. Here’s a particularly good one I got today:
My compliments to Damon and Graham on their podcast about the origins of Tai Chi Chuan. I particularly liked mapping martial art history to the general history of the period. From a strict reading of the available evidence the podcast cannot be faulted. Where there maybe problems is in the interpretation provided, which it could be argued commits the error of anachronism. Here is a good quote from a Wikipedia article: “In historical writing, the most common type of anachronism is the adoption of the political, social or cultural concerns and assumptions of one era to interpret or evaluate the events and actions of another”. The interpretation basically argues that Tai Chi Chuan was a bonding exercise in the Imperial Court because of the political decline in the Qing state. A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values. That looks like an interpretation of Chinese History filtered through the prism of 21th century corporate culture.
Well, that’s an interesting idea. I really like well thought out criticism, especially when it’s delivered so succinctly.
Let’s explore a few of these ideas, and see where it takes us.
I see our podcast on the Myth of Tai Chi as “what Damon thinks really happened based on the available evidence”.
So, there will always be a lot of interpretation involved. History is essentially how you join the dots together. I think what Damon is doing is joining the dots together in a new way that makes a lot more sense than the stories we have been given by our teachers (in some senses the last people you should be asking about real history are martial artists), which all have parts that don’t make sense:
1. The original story we were given was about Tai Ch Chuan (Taijiquan) being created by a Taoist immortal called Chan San Feng. He’s a semi-fictional character who appears at various times throughout Chinese history. Most people who don’t believe in spirits of the ancestors walking amongst us (a common belief in China then) now dismiss this story. Li Yiyu even removed it from his hand written copy of the Tai Chi classics as early as the 1880s. I think this is one for the flat-earthers out there 🙂
2. The next story is that he learned in Chen village where Tai Chi was created by Chen Wanting in the 16th Century. This story was officially adopted by the General Administration of Sport of China who awarded Chen Village, Henan, a commemorative plaque acknowledging its status as ‘the birthplace of taijiquan’, in 2007 (See Fighting Words, Wile, 2017, Martial Arts Studies (4).) however this plaque had to be removed after just two months after a “firestorm” of new claims to the Tai Chi $ appeared, including the newly ‘discovered’ Li family documents.
But apart from that the story is full of holes. i) For a start nobody in Chen village used the name “Taijiquan” until long Yang used it. ii) There is also no actual evidence he was in Chen village at all. iii) Wu Yuxiang and Yang Luchan meet in Beijing for the first time, yet both have separate connections to an obscure village in China? iv) Then there’s the issue of why they taught an outsider like Yang, but only him – they didn’t teach anybody else, ever! v) Then there’s all the extra content (lots of other forms, weapons, etc) not found in Yang style, but found in Chen style, vi) Chen village records crediting their martial art to the earlier Chen Bu, not Chen Wanting, vii) the emphasis on silk reeling found in Chen style… the list goes on and on. It just doesn’t add up. However, it still needs explaining why the Chen old form and the Yang long form follow the same pattern (see the upcoming part 6 of Heretics podcast series for Damon’s explanation).
3. There are other theories of Tai Chi Chuan being ancient – really ancient, sometimes a thousand, or two thousand years old (that’s the White Cloud Temple claim) – and coming from Wudang mountain, via various unverifiable people, and ending up in the hands of Yang LuChan somehow – but nobody takes these claims seriously.
Of course, Damon isn’t saying that Tai Chi Chuan was created out of thin air, but rather it is the content of Northern Shaolin arts that Yang LuChan (a good martial artist) knew, adapted to fit certain traditional Confucian Court values thanks to Wu Yuxiang, and with a backstory added by Wu to make it appear ancient.
A class-based society
Chinese society was class-based, and teaching martial arts would make Yang LuChan the same class as theatre performers, i.e. the lowest of all classes.
From the Wikipedia article above: “There were many social groups that were excluded from the four broad categories in the social hierarchy. These included soldiers and guards, religious clergy and diviners, eunuchs and concubines, entertainers and courtiers, domestic servants and slaves, prostitutes, and low class laborers other than farmers and artisans. People who performed such tasks that were considered either worthless or “filthy” were placed in the category of mean people (賤人), not being registered as commoners and having some legal disabilities.”
So, Yang LuChan was a Jianren, yet, there he was inside the Forbidden City, teaching (and mixing with) the most high-level people in the system.
I think this can be verified: The only students we know he had were all in senior positions, like Wu Yuxiang, and Wu Quan Yu, for example. Those are the facts of the matter, and viewed through our eyes that does make him something like an external consultant, but only superficially. Compared to a consultant of today the power dynamic would be very different. I imagine Yang would be doing a lot of bowing and kowtowing to these senior people he’s teaching.
But is that anachronism or just a reading of the facts? The teaching of martial arts as a hobby or binding action for the court, was indeed a unique innovation, but I don’t think somebody of the lowest class being used to entertain the court is that unusual at all – there is plenty of historical precedent: Theatre entertainers, for example, were regularly brought to the Forbidden City to entertain the Confucian court, throughout Chinese history:
“The Ming imperial court also enjoyed opera. However, most Ming emperors liked to keep their music entertainments inside the palace. They performed for the court. ”
Jingxi (Peking Opera) was certainly popular in the Ching court too:
“In music, the most notable development of the dynasty probably was the development of jingxi, or Peking opera, over several decades at the end of the 18th century. The style was an amalgam of several regional music-theatre traditions that employed significantly increased instrumental accompaniment, adding to flute, plucked lute, and clappers, several drums, a double-reed wind instrument, cymbals, and gongs, one of which is designed so as to rise quickly in pitch when struck, giving a “sliding” tonal effect that became a familiar characteristic of the genre. Jingxi—whose roots are actually in many regions but not in Beijing—uses fewer melodies than do other forms but repeats them with different lyrics. It is thought to have gained stature because of patronage by the empress dowager Cixi of the late Qing, but it had long been enormously popular with commoners.” – from https://www.britannica.com/topic/Qing-dynasty
So, I think we can establish Yang in the position we say he is in (the Royal Court). But let’s get to the meat of the matter!
“A lot more evidence is needed to support the claim that Yang Lu Chan, probably an illiterate low-class bonded servant, was used like an external consultant to go into a large organization and help reassert tradition Confucian values.”
I agree, but it’s hard to know what form that evidence could take? The Smith hypothesis is that it was Wu Wuxiang who was performing some sort of re-instigation of Confucian values, and Yang LuChan was just being used as a gun for hire. We know he was there, in the royal court, but the question of what he was doing there is the key issue.
Tai Chi Chuan as Neo-Confucianist martial art
Everybody knows Tai Chi is based on Taoist principles, starting with Yin and Yang. But wouldn’t you expect the martial art Yang and Wu came up with to be more Confucian in flavour than Taoist? Why then was Yang teaching a martial art that people instinctively know is Taoist in philosophy? Tai Chi Chuan (a soft, internal martial art) is, after all, based on those great symbols of Taoism – the Yin Yang symbol, the 5 elements, the 8 Bagua, etc..
So, how do you explain that contradiction? Well, I can add one more piece of evidence. I wouldn’t call it a smoking gun, but it does add to the overall narrative:
If we look at the content of what he was teaching (Tai Chi Chuan) – then you’ll find it kind of is based on traditional Confucian values, rather than anything Taoist. I’ll explain…..
People talk about Tai Chi as being Taoist a lot, but Taoism is this shaggy, messy, nature-loving, outdoorsy, shamanic, magic, smokey, rich, spiritual, earthy thing involving things like spirit possession and exorcism – it’s not very Confucian at all. Or indeed, very like Tai Chi Chuan.
The best description of Taoism I’ve heard was by Bill Porter (Red Pine), who likened Taoism to “house-broken shamanism”.
The philosophy we find in Tai Chi Chuan – yin and yang, 5 elements, 8 powers, etc. uses the symbols of Taoism, but is all very heavy on categorisation – it’s very clean, neat and orderly. In fact, very… Confucian!
Or, rather, it’s what scholars call “Neo Confucian”. At the time that Buddhism was gaining popularity in China, as a threat to Confucianism, the Confucians needed something to combat it, because they had nothing very “spiritual” in their religion, whilst Buddhism and Taoism were both full of spiritual stuff.
The Confucians plugged the gap with what became known as Neo-Confucianism. Neo-Confucianism adopted the signs and symbols and ideas of these more spiritual religions (yin and yang, Taiji symbols, 5 elements, etc), but it was really just repackaged Confucianism 101. The scholar responsible for all this was Zhu Xi, who lived during the Song Dynasty, from 1130-1200AD. He effectively sanitised all these Taoist ideas and related it all back to the 4 classic texts of Confucianism. His impact in his lifetime was not so great, but to later periods it was absolutely huge – his ideas formed the basis of the Civil and Martial exams that people had to pass to enter government/senior positions, for example.
Damon did an excellent episode about Zhu Xi’s impact on Chinese society and martial arts as part of the Heretics Xing Yi series (the same Neo-Confucian philosophy ends up being dumped on Xing Yi during a later period).
Give that episode 5 of Xing Yi a listen. To me it makes sense.
I should add some rumour control, since I think that Tai Chi people will generally not like this Neo-Confucian angle:
1. I don’t think saying that the philosophy of Tai Chi is actually Neo-Confucian, rather than Taoist is a diss to the art – an actual Taoist martial art I imagine would not be as practical! It would be messy, unfocussed and a bit wild. A martial arts form repeated over and over in the same sequence each time would probably be a strange concept to a Taoist!
2. I also don’t want to diss the Chen family – their reputation during the Ching Dynasty was of them being practical and expert martial artists who actually used their martial skills to fight bandits and escort caravans. They were the real deal! Their family martial art is older than the appearance of Taijiquan in the 1850s by far – and as any good Confucian knows, older is always better! 🙂
What matters to me about Taijiquan is that it works, not what you call the philosophy behind it.