Is Chinese wrestling the root of all Chinese martial arts?

An interesting video has surfaced that links the guard postures used in Shuai Jiao (Chinese Wrestling) with postures in various Chinese martial arts. The premise of the video is that Shuai Jiao is the root of all the Chinese martial styles. The text accompanying the video says:

“Guards in traditional Chinese wrestling are meant to favor certain fighting techniques and strategies. Since Shuai Jiao is very ancient and there are precise references in these guards to the styles that exist today, traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles. My Master Yuan Zumou has clearly stated this for over thirty years. In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat. I have put the captions of the styles I know or of those that maestro Li Baoru (Beijing, late 80s) mentions in the video.”

It’s an interesting theory, but unfortunately I can’t agree with such a blanket statement as “traditional wrestling is at the roots of Chinese styles“. Was it a strong influence on all Chinese styles? Yes, of course. But calling it the root of all styles is a bit strong for me. Some styles developed entirely from military practices, and a lot of styles have no wrestling component at all, or have their roots in weapons usage.

I can certainly see postures in the video that resemble Tai Chi – particularly the “White Stork Cools Wings” posture and another guard that looks a little like the “Wave Hands Like Clouds”. But we only have two arms and two legs – inevitably there are going to be similarities between postures found in different martial arts. That alone doesn’t confirm a genuine historial link. Influences betweewn marital arts can flow in both directions, too. So it’s quite possible that wrestling has been influenced by local village styles. And even things that are not necessarily combat arts, like xìqǔ, can have an influence on them.

I’d also have to take issue with the statement that “In Shuai Jiao these attitudes are not aesthetic, but are used in real combat.” Let’s not even get into the idea of what “real combat” is (Shuai Jiao matches have rules, after all) but it’s a simple fact that Shuai Jiao was enjoyed in the royal court in the Ching Dynasty (and probably all the dynasties before it) as a kind of entertainment for the nobles. The same thing happened in the Japanese royal court with Sumo, just as medieval kings in Europe enjoyed watching martial games like jousting and fencing. And obviously wrestling is still enjoyed as a kind of popular entertainment in America and Mexico today.

But let’s turn our attention to the contend of the video. A lot of the guards being demonstrated look quite showy to me – as if they were designed to impress an audience, particularly the Wave Hands Like Clouds style guard, where the practitioner seems to deliberately trip over his own legs.

But I don’t think that’s a bad thing. Ever since modern Wu Shu put the emphasis on gymnastic ability over practicality, people have been searching for this false dichotomy between performance and practicality in historical martial arts, too. It’s almost like a real martial art isn’t allowed to have any ‘fun’ aspects to it. In reality, and with several historical examples, a martial art can be both a serious, practical tool for combat, and something that can be performed for social, entertainment and cultural reasons all at the same time.

Choy Li Fut schools often perform lion dance, and that doesn’t mean their kung fu won’t work in a fight. Similarly, I would contend that Shuai Jiao can be used as a form of entertainment and a practical method of self defence. Just like almost all Chinese martial arts can.

The repurposing of Kung Fu postures

I really liked this video by The Wandering Warrior on Instagram:

True or not, he makes a good case for the move not being the backfist or punch it is usually shown as, and being a throw instead. In a way, there’s no right answer – the move is whatever you use it for.

But it made me think a lot about how Kung Fu postures are repurposed and reused through the years.

If we go back to one of the earliest written descriptions of Kung Fu by General Qi Jinguang in his “Boxing Classic” of 1560 we can see that all he’s showing are a series of still postures with written verse about the move in question.

You can see that the first posture shown, “Lazily pulling back the robe” shares some similarties with the posture discussed above.

Lazily pulling back the robe, Qi Jinguang, 1560

A Confucian cuture of respect for tradition and elders would naturally lead to respect for older kung fu postures, and you can see how they would get reused and repurposed to fit new needs over the generations.

I bet the current Yang style Single Whip posture is not chosen because it’s the optimal way of pushing forward with a single palm. Instead, it’s more likely a posture that has been passed down from older generations. Maybe it’s original meaning (if it had one) has been lost, over the years. Maybe it was once a Suai Jiao throw? Maybe it was once a posture from Chinese theatre or religious ritual? Who knows.

The important thing is, as always, what can you do with it now?

What are we really doing when we do martial arts?

This is a fascinating talk between Drs Jared Miracle and Paul Bowman on martial arts. There’s a little section from 31.20 onwards where they get into the miasma that surrounds martial arts and how it can be manipulated for nation building and national identity. the example given is Tae Kwan Do and its need to be ancient. But they go on to talk about how, on a personal level, we often have an idea about what we are doing when we do martial arts that doesn’t necessarily match what we are actually doing or getting out of the martial art we practice.

What is an authentic understanding of Chinese martial arts?

Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I’m still fascinated by that film I posted a little while ago of China from 1901-1904. It’s as close as we’ll get to seeing the people who were around at the time that the popular martial arts of Northern China – Taijiquan, Baguazhang and Xingyiquan were being formalised into the structures and routines we still know and recognise today.

It gives a small insight into what the martial arts of the time were like, we have an idea of what they practiced, but we don’t always know where they practiced them, and to some extent really why they practiced them. There’s a particular sequence starting at 17.10 in the film where we see a procession of sorts going along a riverbank and then entering a village or town. There are martial arts performers doing twirls and spins of their weapons as they go. The setting is informal, music is being played (we see the musicians) and it has something of an air of the Saint’s Day religious processions you still see going on between villages in rural European nations, or the May Day “Hobby Hoss” procession that can still found in Cornwall in the United Kingdom.

But back to China. The martial artists involved seem embedded into the culture of the place and time as much as the musicians or flag holders.

“There was a well established pattern of village festival culture in Northern China. The ritual was called a sai and it was based on a three-part structure: inviting, welcoming and seeing off the gods. Ritual could last anywhere from three days to a month. Wherever you happened to be, these rituals were happening nearby every two weeks. A smaller sai might have only 50 people officiating and a thousand participants, while a large one might involve hundreds of ritual experts and 100,000 participants. A large ritual could invoke as many as 500 gods, their statues escorted out of temples in massive processions with armed escorts of martial performers that snaked between villages for miles.”

“According to David Johnson, ritual festivals were so common and so old and so large that they were overwhelmingly the most important influence shaping the symbolic universe of the common people. Regionally they happen about every two weeks and could involve over a hundred villages, with processions that strung out for miles attracting thousands of spectators. “It is quite impossible to understand what villagers… in North China thought and felt about the world of politics, about Chinese history and traditions, about the world of gods and demons, or about any of the grand matters of life and death, without a close familiarity with sai [and similar rituals]. Ref: David Johnson 1997, “Temple Festivals in Southeastern Shanxi”, Overmyer 2009,8.”

From Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir: Internal martial arts before the Boxer Rebellion by Scott Phillips, p173.
Qing Dynasty martial artists performing in a procession (between 1901-1904)

I don’t think we can assume, from one film. that all Chinese martial art of the period was like this, but it’s fascinating to see a glimpse of how well it was integrated with everything else.

As Charles Holcombe wrote at the start of his seminal 1990 essay on the subject, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

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?

Charles Holcombe, Theater of combat: A critical look at the Chinese martial arts

The invention of martial arts

An excellent video by Prof. Paul Bowman to promote his new book, The Invention of Martial Arts: Popular Culture Between Asia and America.

This presentation looks at how martial arts arrived in the UK and when the concept of being a martial artist first entered into the popular consciousness. Along the way he covers Bartistu, the Avengers, James Bond, Bruce Lee, Kung Fu the TV series, Ninjas, the Wu-Tang Clan and the UFC.

People really, really want martial arts to be ancient

It’s easy to laugh at the QAnon followers who stormed the capitol in the belief that Donald Trump would pardon them of their crimes and there was a secret revolution about to happen, but there are plenty of equally delusional beliefs in martial arts.

I found an article on the Martial History Team blog recently that quotes from a longer article by Paul Bowman about why martial arts history seems to matter so much to some people.

There are plenty of gems here, but I like this quote:

“Unsurprisingly, in much scholarship on Asian martial arts, the matter of history remains freighted and weighted down by the same popular myths; so much so that even much that passes for scholarship seems to refuse to face up to the evidence that suggests that, quite frequently, martial arts that present themselves as ancient are hardly even old.[11] 


So many massive social mutations occurred through the nineteenth and twentieth centuries that most ‘traditional’ martial arts effectively have at best little more than a century of continuous history to them, rather than the vast eons of allochronic time that so many seem to want them to have spanned.[12]


I emphasize the word ‘want’, here. This is because wanting appears to be a key issue to consider when approaching questions of martial arts history and culture. For instance, it seems that the perpetuation of fantasy histories and the fetishistic fabrication of lineages in ‘traditional’ martial arts evidently have everything to do with wanting. 

Practitioners want taiji to be ancient. Many want there to have been a Southern Shaolin Temple which was burned down, scattering the few surviving kung fu monks to the different corners of China.[13] We want Okinawan farmers to have fought samurai with rice flails. We want Yim Wing Chun to have been a real proto-feminist warrior.[14] We want the skill that wielded the weapon that killed Magellan to remain alive today.[15] And we want ancient warrior armies to have flown at each other through the air, kicking each other off horses with flying sidekicks and jumping spinning back kicks. 

Just because you want something, it doesn’t make it true.

Photo by Bakr Magrabi on Pexels.com

The new American Boxer Rebellion of 2021

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:

Myth busting in Chinese martial arts

Look at those lovely brain boxes.

I’ve been re-watching the excellent conversation between Dr Paul Bowman and Dr Sixt Wetzler on Martial Arts, Religion and Spirituality and it’s sparked a few thoughts in my mind. At 34.39 in the podcast they get on to the subject of myth busting.

Bowman notes that instead of helping people, the myth busting of martial arts which is going on all the time in academic circles is probably destroying the careers of some martial arts teachers. So it’s “doing a service to the world which is actually also a kind of violence”. It’s an interesting point. He notes that people often fall in love with the martial arts for silly orientalist reasons – they fall for the myth of studying an ancient and mystical martial art, then read a well-researched book about it, by somebody like Ben Judkins or Peter Lorge, which shatters their beliefs and makes then doubt the validity of the art they are doing. 

My own Heretics podcast does its fair share of myth busting too – our Aikido episode, Kempo & Jiujitsu history series and Tai Chi history series spring to mind as good examples. I’ve had first had experience of those episodes visibly upsetting teachers I know. Whether they know it or not, these teachers are heavily emotionally invested in the myths of their own arts superiority – they believe all the stories of old practitioners and the amazing feats they can do, and know exactly why their martial art is superior to others. If you start to chip away at those beliefs then the whole facade is at risk of crumbling, and they don’t like it! Unfortunately reality is usually disappointing when compared to the myths. 

When the Chinese martial arts first started making an impact on the West in the 1970s they were full of obvious untruths. Tall tales of Buddhist and Taoist origins abounded. For example, that Tai Chi was apparently created by a Taoist immortal who had a dream about a crane fighting a snake, and Wing Chun was named after the girl who was taught it by a female Buddhist monk, when it turns out that there’s no evidence that she even existed. Over time these myths then get added to by other myths – like the one that Yang LuChan was “invincible”, for example. Even in the modern age the myth of Ip Man has been enhanced to bursting point by a series of pseudo-historical films in which he combats the Japanese, western wrestlers, boxers and even Mike Tyson at one point! 

Ip Man 4

These more marketing-orientated myths about the prowess of practitioners – how deadly they were, how unbeatable their martial arts was, how the power of Qi was greater than physical strength all fed directly into all that nonsense about no touch knockouts and “empty force” that has marred the image of Chinese martial arts in the modern age.

And politics also gets involved. When obvious myths about the origins of martial arts are dispelled they often get replaced by more politically motivated stories about the arts origins that are equally as unprovable and unreliable yet fit a natioanlist agenda. It seems like the Chinese martial arts are forever being used to support some sort of Chinese government propaganda.

In short, the Chinese martial arts world was in need of, and remains in need of, a lot of myth busting, because much of what we are being told and sold is basically not true. But Bowman’s fears, that we are in danger of spoiling the fun for everybody with this relentless search for the truth, holds true, I think. I was certainly attracted to Chinese martial arts by a steady diet of orientalist propaganda from the likes of David Carradine’s Kung Fu TV series and Marvel comics with heroes like Iron Fist. This is often what draws us to the martial arts in the first place and there has to be some way of searching for truth in the martial arts, but keeping the magic that drew us there in the first place. 

A reply to Mark Chen

Photo by mana5280 on Unsplash

I recently reviewed Mark Chen’s book “Chen Syle Taijiquan Collected Masterworks” which is a really good translation of Chen Zhaopi’s 1935 book on Taijiquan with additional translation notes from the author and appendices on Tai Chi matters. It’s a good book and he did a great job. That should be the end of it, but I’ve somehow got dragged into a side issue.

As part of my review I did notice that some included documents, called “Chen Chanxing’s Discussion of Taijiquan’s 10 main points”, that Chen Zhaopi attributes to his ancestor Chen Chanxing, were in fact the 10 Thesis of Yue Fei, but with the name “Taijiquan” unscrupulously inserted into them and Chen Chanxing attributed as author.

These documents are widely known as the “Xing Yi Classics” or “The 10 Thesis of Yue Fei” – and while nobody really thinks, or can prove, that Yue himself wrote them, they’ve always been associated with the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi – there is simply no debate about this. I raised this issue in my review.

Mark has posted a response to this issue in my comments section, which I’ll address in full here:

“Thanks to Taichi Notebook for the review and thanks to Mike for his thoughtful comments. As a point of clarification, please note that I do not make the assertion that the “Ten Main Points” was written by Chen Changxing (though the version in the book was obviously written or adapted by a taijiquan partisan). My introductory remarks for chapter 3 say that it “may” have been written by Changxing, and in the preface I indicate that this attribution is used throughout the book for convenience. I further allege that the document “plausibly dates to Changxing’s lifetime,” and the argument for this is given in appendix C.

OK, he’s factually correct about this, (except for calling Mr Sigman’s comments “thoughtful” 😉 ) but he’s taken a position worthy of a modern politician, I feel. He’s simultaneously leaving enough room to wiggle out of saying Chen Chanxing wrote the 10 Main Points (dropping just one single “may” in the book, before making the assertion several times) while at the same time doubling down on the inference that it is true because the time period fits.

Mark continues:

“Regarding Li Jianqiu’s claim (in his 1919 book) that it was written by Yue Fei: while it is certainly possible that the document was written by someone other than Changxing, it was written by Yue Fei only in the same sense that the “taiji classics” were written by Zhang Sanfeng; that is, it was not written by Yue Fei. First, its idiom clearly belongs to the nineteenth century (a fact that is easily discernible in the original Chinese). Second, it quotes from Ming dynasty sources. For example, the passage beginning, “can go, can accomplish, . . .” on page 31 of my book is lifted directly from Zhuge Liang’s delightful letter to Cao Zhen in chapter 100 of _Romance of the Three Kingdoms_ (as far as I know, the only instance of epistolary homicide in recorded history). Other similar references are noted in the book, and while they could theoretically have been taken from pre-Song historical texts (specifically, the _San Guo zhi_), this is not likely the case. General readers were unaware of the cited events until the publication of _Romance_ during the Ming dynasty, so the references would have been meaningless before that time. As another example, the expression _shen fa_ (“body technique”) is a term of art originating in Qi Jiguang’s “Quan jing”–again from the Ming dynasty and further evidence of a taijiquan connection.

First let’s deal with Mark’s strawman argument of Yue’s authorship. Nobody sensible these days is claiming that this is true, so let’s not get distracted. The way Mark draws a parallel between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei is interesting though.

I’ve heard this comparison between Chang San Feng and Yue Fei before. For sure, Yue Fei didn’t write the Xing Yi classics, but they certainly do embody his philosophy – which we know in detail because he was real. The Tai Chi classics have got nothing to do with Chang San Feng’s philosophy, especially because he never existed, whereas there is incontrovertible evidence that Yue Fei was a real, flesh and blood person. 

The point about citations from Ming Dynasty works being supportive of a Tai Chi origin of the Xing Yi classics is very strange – maybe I read it wrong, but the postures mentioned in General Qi’s Ming Dynasty manual are in virtually everything – there are more variations on single whip in Baji than there are in Tai Chi, for example. 

Richard Dawkins made the criticism that comparisons between imaginary details of imaginary things seem to be more important in religion than is the actual existence or otherwise of those things. It’s a really good observation, and I think 100% true when people start to defend the religion of Taijiquan.

But the real elephant in the room is the content of the 10 Main Points/10 Thesis. Theses are replete with Xing Yi terminology, but there is very little Tai Chi terminology. Mark himself notices this and remarks upon it in his book! I would offer a simpler explanation: Perhaps the reason why these writings are so untypical of Taijiquan is that… they’re not about Taijiquan?

And then there’s the long history of these writings being associated with Xing Yi both in a literary and oral tradition, which Mark completely ignores.

Here are just 3 examples of quotes from the 10 Thesis from the literary tradition on Xing Yi to establish my case:

1.  Sun Lu Tang’s “Xing Yi Manual” (1915)

https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2015/05/01/the-xingyi-manual-of-sun-lutang/

 Sun Lu Tang writes: 

 “While once at Bai Xiyuan’s home in Beijing, I got to see one of the Yue Fei manuals, not an original copy of course, but a handwritten copy made by someone in a later generation.

While we don’t see his copy of the manual in his book, it establishes the tradition of this hand copied manual attributed to Yue Fei coming down the generations.

2. Li Jianqiu’s “Xing Yi Manual” (1919)

As mentioned before, this 1919 Xing Yi manual contains all 10 chapters of the 10 Thesis in its entirety. They are at the end of the book:

https://brennantranslation.wordpress.com/2013/02/23/the-xingyi-manual-of-li-jianqiu/

And inside, in a preference written by Zheng Lianpu it states:

“In the summer of 1915, I returned south, and as I passed my hometown, people praised me as a prominent expert for making a study of the contents of Yue Fei’s boxing manual. Within it are nine chapters of essential principles and one chapter on fighting. Although the content of the writing is not without its flaws, the style of the writing is marvelous, powerful, and smooth, and as suits the work of Yue Fei, the theory is refined and thorough. It is certainly not the case that Yue Fei was unable to communicate. I say that equipped with this old Xingyi manual, you too will obtain such a level of clarity.”

3. Liu Dianchen’s Selected subtleties of Xingyi Boxing Art (1920)

Selected Subtleties of the Xingyi Boxing Art by Liu Dianchen

This book from 1920 quotes freely from “The manual”, which is, of course, Yue Fei’s 10 Thesis.

E.g. “The Manual says: “The hand lifts like an arrow and drops like the wind, chasing the wind and pursuing the moon without letting up.” It also says this on the quickness of the hand techniques: “Attack where he is unprepared and appear where he does not expect. Do not fear his vigor and fierceness, for with but a move he is defeated.” “

This is from Thesis 9, the Thesis of Stepping.

Mark continues:

In view of these and related observations, it is nearly certain that “Ten Main Points” was written in the nineteenth century. If it did not originate in Chen Village, then the arguments in my book’s appendix C indicate that it was adopted there around or before the middle of that century. So we can further assert that if any borrowing occurred, it happened roughly during Changxing’s lifetime.

Finally, it’s worth noting that Mike’s comments are generally correct. As I explain at length in appendix B, many martial-arts things (particularly from the Central Plain) lack a tidy provenance, and “Ten Main Points” may well be an example of a document that was exchanged and adapted by many hands over time.”

Yes, I think that’s exactly what it is!

A version of it has possibly ended up in the Chen village at some point and been adapted. However, I think I’ve shown that the oral and literary provenance unequivocally connects it to the martial art of Xing Yi/Xin Yi explicitly, not Taijiquan. Mike’s argument (as I understand it) is that the 3 internal arts are all the same “stuff”, so what applies to one applies equally to all 3. I’d disagree. I’ve already posted about how this mashing together of history is just intellectually lazy. In reality, most Tai Chi people know very little about Xing Yi but they feel like they are authorities on it because they know the “main thing” in the internal arts, (according to them).

Like I said, Mark’s book is great – you should get it. He’s said his piece about my review, which is fair enough, but personally, I disagree. C’est la vie. I’ve little enthusiasm for getting into a long protracted debate over it with either Mark or Mr Sigman because I don’t know what else there is to say, so hopefully they’ll just let it be.

We can but hope!

Why the Chen and Yang Tai Chi forms follow the same pattern. The Myth of Tai Chi part 6 – our final episode!

Sun YatSen, the provisional first president of the Republic of China and the first leader of the Kuomintang the Nationalist Party of China.

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.

https://www.spreaker.com/user/9404101/56-the-tai-chi-myth-part-6-the-same-form

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 🙂