We’ve recorded a new episode on our long running ‘history of Xing Yi’ series. There’s no actual Xing Yi in this episode – it’s more about a period of Chinese history that little is written about – the middle to end of the Yuan dynasty.
In the middle to late part of the Yuan Dynasty the former Confucian ruling class came back with a vengeance and started a downward spiral that would ultimately lead to the fall of the dynasty. In this episode we examine how and why this happened, which will set the context for the important events at the end of the dynasty in the next episode.
If you like Chinese history, then you’ll enjoy it.
Thinking about my last post with the discussion from Tim Cartmell. Everything Tim says is great advice for people interested in learning to fight and applies to what we know as “martial arts” today, but I do wonder about the very starting point of their discussion, which is the assumption that underlies it all – “martial arts were created to teach people how to fight”.
It sounds so obvious that it’s not even worth mentioning. I mean, it’s almost farcical to think otherwise… but is it true? Were they all “created” for that purpose? How can we be sure?
Martial arts as practiced in Western countries today are obviously about teaching people to fight, but it seems to me that once you trace “martial arts” back further and further it becomes harder to separate them out from cultural practices that included “fighting”, but also encompassed a whole lot more – a whole world view that is no longer with us.
It seems to me that most people today see “martial arts” as the original, stripped-down, very concentrated pure combat practice, that over time has become waylaid with cultural and religious baggage that has been added after the fact.
I think they’ve got it backwards. I think it “martial arts” starts off as part of a really rich and deep, varied practice incorporating all sorts of aspects of the complex array of cultural activities… and in modern times we have stripped out the combat elements and separated them off from the other elements – to pursue in our leisure time, or by governments for political means. That was certainly what happened in China in the early 20th century, for example, with the Kuo Shu movement.
Does this matter? Does it make any difference to what we practice today. Probably not, but I think it’s a more honest view of the subject, and explains why we still have a lot of these cultural practices associated with marital arts, like the picture of Lion Dance above.
This period of Yang LuChan in Beijing (around 1860) is really the time we see the arrival of “martial arts” as a separate subject in Beijing, taught in its own right and not as part of something else, like a village ritual or festival rite, or as an entertainment performance, and different to what soldiers learned. Yang was teaching soldiers, yes, but he wasn’t teaching them how to fight on a battlefield. He was also teaching rich people. This was the newly created niche that “martial arts” fitted into – the serious leisure practice. After the Empress Dowager takes control and the Wu brothers are “out”, Yang loses his patronage and has to open a commercial school in Beijing, and it becomes a family business with his sons teaching too.
The “martial arts” as we know them, and as they were created, are a civilian occupation – the serious leisure practice of already tough men (think Yang LuChan’s banner men that he taught in Beijing), or the rich middle/upper class idlers with too much time on their hands (hello the Wu brothers).
“(Boxing arts do not seem to be useful skills for the battlefield, but they exercise the hands and feet, and accustom the limbs and body to hard work. Thus they serve as basic training. Therefore I have included this discussion of them as the final chapter, in order to complete this study [of military theory].”
As you can see – boxing arts were being practiced in Ming Dynasty China, but they were not considered part of regular military training. They were part of something else.
After battling hard through various technical challenges I’ve finally managed to create a Tai Chi Notebook podcast with humans on! (Previous episodes of my podcast have been a robot voice reading my blogs). I’m pleased to have my good friend Daniel Mroz on board for my first real episode where we have a conversation about what Chinese martial arts might be.
You can find it on all the usual places you find podcasts – search for The Tai Chi Notebook on Apple podcasts, Spotify, etc.. or here’s a link:
What is the relationship between Chinese martial arts and Chinese theatre, religion, mime, serious leisure activities and military tactics? How do all these factors intermingle and produce the arts we have today? In this wide ranging discussion between Graham Barlow of the Tai Chi Notebook Podcast and Daniel Mroz, Professor of Theatre at the University of Ottawa we tackle all these subjects and more. As well as being a professor of theatre, Daniel is also a Choy Li Fut and Taijiquan practitioner and has spoken at the Martial Arts Studies conference and contributes articles to various journals including the Martial Arts Studies journal.
1) That Daniel Mroz quote in full:
“By ‘Chinese martial arts’, I refer to folkways that began to assume their present forms from the mid 19th to the early 20th centuries, at the end of the Imperial, and the beginning of the Republican periods of Chinese history. These arts train credible fighting abilities through exacting physical conditioning; through partnered, combative drills and games; and through the practice of prearranged movement patterns called tàolù 套路 (Mroz, 2017 & 2020). For millennia, up end of the Imperial period in 1912, China explicitly understood itself as a religious state (Lagerwey 2010). Communities across China not only used their martial arts to defend themselves, they performed them as theatrical acts of religious self-consecration, communal blessing, and entertainment in an annual calendar of sacred festivals (Ward, 1978; Sutton, 2003; Boretz, 2010; Amos, 2021). Modernization, and secularization at the end of the Imperial period removed the original context of these practices. The Chinese martial arts were transformed over the course of the 20th century by both their worldwide spread, and by their ideological appropriation by the Chinese Republic of 1912, and the Communist state that succeeded it in 1949 (Morris, 2004). Their religious heritage forgotten in many social, and cultural contexts within greater China, and internationally, the arts we practice today combine a legacy of pragmatic combat skill, religious enaction, participatory recreation, competitive athleticism, and performed entertainment.”
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:
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:
As you’ll know from listening to our “History of Kempo and Jiujitsu” podcast episdoes, Japan was opened up to the West in 1852, but it would take a while yet for Japanese martial arts to reach British soil. As revealed in the article “The Golden Square Dojo and its place in British Jujitsu history“ by David Brough, in issue 10 of Martial Arts Studies, the Bartitsu School of Arms and Physical Culture of Edward William Barton-Wright was the first martial arts club to introduce Jujutsu to the U.K in London (along with other things, like Savate), but it quickly seeded ground to more traditional Jujitsu dojos in Britain. Jujutsu was originally taught in the Golden Square Dojo in Piccadilly Circus, which opened in 1903, and was run the teacher Sadakazu Uyenishi.
Here’s a short film about him – the forgotten grappler:
A reanimated film of photos of Sadakazu performing jujutsu techniques from his “Textbook of Ju-jutsu” in 1905 exists on YouTube:
What I find interesting is how much of jujutsu practice was about performance in the early 20th centuary – (perhaps this is a role that is filled by BJJ sport competitions and Judo in the Olympics today). Early Jujutsu teachers from Japan toured the UK trying to create a name for themselves, putting on shows in dance halls, taking on local wrestlers in prize fights and performing feats of strength. It was very much like a circus attraction. In Brazil this exact approach lead to the creation of Brazilian Jiujitsu, but in the UK, its indigenous wrestling (things like Catch, Devonshire wrestling and Cornish wrestling) and jujitsu seemed to stay in their own lanes, and a hybrid creation never really saw the light of day.
By 1930s the Golden Square Dojo had been demolished and Judo had taken over from Jujitsu as the dominant version of the art in the UK, although various Jujitsu societies connected to the Golden Square continued to this day.
Bartitsu is best remembered today because of Sherlock Holmes being a practitioner, and is seen as the fusion of Victorian gentleman attire (including the walking stick or umbrella) and Japanese Jiujitsu, but also included other martial arts, including French Savate.
Bartitsu died out, although a modern revival appears to be well underway. Judo remained the dominant strand of Jujutsu practice in the UK for many decades, although it mainly seems to be practiced by children, while Jujutsu, in its Brazilian variant (BJJ) seems to have taken over as the dominant practice amongst adults today. (N.B. I don’t have figures to support that assertion, but that’s my strong impression).
Professor Brough was also interviewed about this article on the Martial Arts Studies podcast, which contained another interesting fact that I didn’t know – there are records of the use of the walking stick in Britain as a self defence style going back to 1830, pre Bartitsu. Professor Brough will be producing more research on that in the future. Sounds dapper!
And let’s not forget, the image of the Victorian gentleman with his walking stick/umbrella fighting off attackers saw something of a revival in the 1960s thanks to The Avengers. Ka-pow!
Bruce Lee and the Kung Fu craze took over the nation’s interest in martial arts in the 70s, but in modern times things have swung back to jiujitsu again, thanks to the popularity of MMA, from the 90s onwards.
Even martial arts movies seem to have swung back to jujutsu, with things like the John Wick series, Jason Bourne and just about every fight scene in any movie being required to contain at least one armbar on the ground in it. I think Sadakazu Uyenishi would look at martial arts today and be pleased with what happened and the influence his Jujustu had.
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 🙂
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.
My recent Heretics Podcasts episodes on the history of Tai Chi Chuan seem to have provoked a lot of debate. People I’ve talked to seem to have this unshakeable belief that Tai Chi is ancient, and it must be ancient to be authentic. It’s simply unacceptable to them that Tai Chi is not as old as they think it is. This myth that old = authentic is pervasive.
I’ve become quite fascinated with the reasons why people think like this. A lot of it goes back to why we, people living in the West, started Asian martial arts in the first place. Quite often we reject our own history and culture, and adopt a fantasy of a Chinese Kung Fu culture that maybe never existed. Were we all just looking for our own Yoda?
In this new interview for the Martial Arts Studies podcast, historian Prof. Peter Lorge talks about this exact issue, and tackles the subject of orientalism, which often provides our first impulse to try a Chinese martial art, head on. It’s well worth a listen.