Traditional vs Modern: wrong thinking

19 Nov


I occupy a rather unique position in the larger martial arts community. I don’t want that interpreted as “special,” or “better,” or as some sort of conceit. I am just explaining my perspective and how I arrived at it. I spent the early part of my life receiving some excellent traditional training. I’ve always said it was just blind luck; I take no credit for it. I stumbled upon the late Pong Ki Kim and received excellent, authentic Korean martial arts training. I stumbled upon my Hung Ga training, in a small private setting where I got quality instruction and personal attention. I stumbled upon Shihfu Jeng Hsin Ping’s Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) school. I initially wasn’t even interested in meeting Chan Tai-San when he was first suggested to me. Can you imagine that?


My cross training, in modern methods, in modern combat sports, was a much more conscious effort. I actively sought out instruction in areas I felt I was either weak or completely lacking. However, I appear to have had the same blind luck in many respects; I had opportunities to train with so many great figures in that world. I was honored to even develop relationships and friendships with a few. Truly I tell you, I am not special in any way. I am just and extremely lucky guy who was blessed by forces beyond me.


As a result of my unique position, I have been able to develop some interesting relationships with some disparate groups. So I suspect my audience will be mixed and I’ve tried to write with the intent of connecting with each group and finding common ground. First, and I suspect perhaps the majority who will read it, come from Traditional Martial Arts (TMA) community. While some seem to have an automatic antipathy towards the modern approach to martial arts, most simply don’t know much about it. My hope is that this book might suggest to them the potential benefits and new insights the modern approach offers. For the second group, my friends in the modern, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) community I’d like this volume to suggest new training methods, ways of improving their programs in their schools and finally, to suggest to them that these two groups can benefit from each other and should be working together towards the future of all martial arts.

pkkim school

- Traditional Martial Arts (TMA)

As a person with an extensive traditional martial arts background who now runs a school and program with a modern, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) approach, I am still somewhat puzzled by the traditional martial arts community’s resistance and, at times, outright hostility to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). If you are a real traditional martial artist, you should be thrilled to see the fighting arts finally getting the attention they deserve. You should also take this opportunity to re-invigorate your practice and your school.

If you haven’t already done so, sit down and watch a Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) event; Straight punches, hook punches, front kicks, round kicks, sidekicks, foot sweeps, throws, takedowns, joint locks and chokes. These are techniques we’ve all practiced, which we all have in our self-defense programs, which we all have in our forms, sets, Hyungs or Kata.

If you are from the traditional Chinese martial arts community, I always point out that traditional Chinese martial arts has the “Si Ji Fa” (四擊法) or the Four Martial Arts Skills. These four skills are Ti (踢) Kicking, Da (打) Striking, Shuai (摔) Grappling and Throwing, and Na (拿) Seizing and Controlling. Is this not a central aspect of our tradition? Do Chinese martial arts not teach us that these four skills are essential and MUST fully integrated? To me, sure does sound like “mixed martial arts” is hardly a new concept, it is rather ALWAYS been a Chinese martial arts concept.

Clearly, Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) didn’t invent the techniques being used in modern combat sports. They are drawn from traditional martial arts systems and we’ve all learned them. Nor is the idea of competitive fighting really unique either, but that’s for another book perhaps? The difference between Traditional Martial Arts (TMA) and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) is not “what” they train; it is “how” they train.


- Modern Martial Arts (MMA)

I am certainly not the first person to substitute the word “Modern” for “Mixed” in the acronym MMA. It isn’t just marketing, or a gimmick. Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) really is a modern way of viewing the martial arts, though its rapid growth has been accompanied by its own share of issues.

As I write this, the Ultimate Fighting Championship (“UFC”), the foremost Mixed Martial Arts event in the world, is over two decades old. The first UFC introduced (really re-introduced, but again, that is another book) the United States martial arts community to the idea of Mixed Martial Arts. Initially, the Mixed Martial Arts approach appealed to those who had backgrounds in traditional martial arts but had run away from the more restrictive and ridiculous aspects of traditional martial arts. People like me, with backgrounds in Chinese or Korean or Japanese martial arts, started practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu and wrestling, started sparring with more contact and in more open formats allowing more legal techniques.

Today, Mixed Martial Arts has become its own community and many members of that community have never done a traditional martial art. People have actually grown up watching the UFC and its television series, “Ultimate Fighter,” and when they got old enough, signed up a facility dedicated to MMA. It’s cliché of course, but these guys show up in their MMA clothing and do a few punches, a few kicks, some takedowns and some rolling. Today’s MMA facility is NOT a martial arts school and these guys never get that sense of tradition, structure or respect.

When your community is twenty-something-year-olds whose entire frame of reference is the most elite, professional combat sport in the world, you get misperceptions of reality and you also risk raising a generation of potential bullies. The modern MMA person is under the false perception that every martial arts teacher should be a professional fighter and every student should also be some sort of fighter. This is clearly not reality. The MMA community is also quickly learning that a head instructor’s primary responsibility isn’t to be a great fighter; it is to be a teacher and a coach, and often a mentor.

In the combat sports community, I think my best friends are those affiliated with Muay Thai (Thai boxing). They engage in practical fighting, they approach training progressively, but they also have a connection with a tradition. It is somewhat ironic, but the art that gave birth to modern MMA, Brazilian Jiu-Jistu, is also a VERY TRADITIONAL in many aspects. They have uniforms, use belts ranking, bow in before class, have huge respect for their teachers and lineages, etc.

Personally, I think of my curriculum and school as a practical, hardworking but also TRADITIONAL martial art. I have two primary martial arts teachers; Chan Tai San and Pong Ki Kim. We respect them and realize the core of what we do is based upon their teachings. We have kept a ranking structure, acknowledge our lineage and try to cultivate respect. I am still “SIFU” in my school. I would say we have more in common with an art like Kyokushinkai than with the modern MMA facility.

Taekkyon: the Original Martial Art of Korea

18 Nov

Originally posted on SMA bloggers:

f0064134_4cb5e92f7d049Almost everybody has heard of Taekwondo and Hapkido these days, but Taekkyon, the original indigenous martial art of Korea, is almost unheard of.  Almost wiped out during the Japanese colonisation of Korea, the art is now making a revival, and is listed both as a national treasure of Korea, and is the first martial art on the UNESCO intangible cultural heritage list.

The history of Taekkyon goes back to the mid Joseon Dynasty, around the 1700s, where it was practiced as a competitive sport with a winner-stays-on type rule set. It is believed Taekkyon evolved out of an even older, but now lost art called Subak. Little is known about Subak, but it is believed that it may have been the martial art of the Hwarang warriors of the Silla Dynasty (57BC-935AD). During this time martial arts were reserved for the ruling class, but after the fall of the Silla became popular among common folk. During the Joseon Dynasty…

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Secrets of the 36th chamber

18 Nov


It’s like a bad (good) kung fu movie. They’re coming to steal the secrets of the fabled 36th chamber of Shaolin. There are a few problems with the script though… First, I see these spies from miles away. Second, they never get near the “secrets.” Third and finally, even if they saw the secrets they wouldn’t understand them.


It happens at least once a month. Someone registers for one of my introductory programs or buys a groupon and comes in to take classes, but I know they are a “spy.” Usually, it’s pretty obvious. These cats, they aren’t the sharpest tools in the shed! They wear clothing from the gym they train at. They often list it on their paperwork. And a good percentage flat out say “well, I am training someplace else right now.”


New York San Da (aka NY Best Kickboxing) has been training fighters for twenty years now. The Sanshou / San Da world is not very big, but we’ve produced tons of people who have fought Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts. Love us or hate us (and believe me, tons of people HATE US), it’s hard not to hear about us and know about us if you are in the New York area. And, again, while some gyms produce boxers OR Nak Muay OR MMA fighters, we have produced guys that can fight and win in all these formats.


So, these guys come in to try and figure out what we are doing and maybe steal some secrets. But, like the Shaolin wooden dummy hall or the 108 bronze men, there are obstacles for them to overcome. First, everyone starts off in my basic / fundamentals class. No, you aren’t going to jump in and on day one do all the sparring drills and sparring. And this is why I’ve learned a rather distressing fact; so many of these guys have NO BASICS. Honestly, I am shocked at how few schools really stress and drill the basics; stuff like proper stance, proper movement, hands up, etc,.


The second issue; CONDITIONING. Since we’ve become an school, we’ve grown a huge fitness kickboxing program, but in large part because we were already used to running kick-ass, windows to the walls, crazy workout classes. I’ve always stressed conditioning and my fighters have always been known for it. And, again, I look at these guys who are supposed to be training already, and they totally lack basic conditioning?


I’ll admit, in the old days, no one got near the two man drilling until they put their time in. But these days, sometimes because people have pushed their way in, I’ve let these “spies” drill. Call me an a-hole, but nothing is more amusing than someone who pushes themselves into a contact class and then can’t block basic punches. I really wonder, if you can’t block jab-cross-hook, what were you really looking to steal from here?


I’ve said it before; in essence my program runs exactly like “kung fu.” We have our conditioning, our basics and our fundamental drills. Of course, being in this game twenty years, we have experience. You can’t steal experience. The rest? You’d think anyone teaching “martial arts” and claiming to train people to fight would have it, but sadly…..


Death in the ring: a dark look at combat sport

17 Nov

Please take a minute to watch this video:


You can also read the entire article at

I was incredibly angered the first time I saw this, over this weekend. I waited a few days to blog about it, because I wanted to be calm and address it in detail. For those who do not know me well, I have been on all sides of combat sport. I have trained and cornered fighters, I have promoted events, I have been a matchmaker, I have been a judge, I have been a center referee and I have worked with several athletic commissions. From each and all of these perspectives, there is a LOT WRONG GOING ON HERE.


This was an amateur match. In fact, it was Dennis Munson Jr.’s first match. As New Jersey’s athletic commission counsel Nick Lembo has already said in the video posted; where amateurs are concerned it is ALWAYS important to err on the side of caution. It is better to stop a match early than a second late. In my personal opinion, if you opt to promote amateur events (which I did for YEARS), what you really should be opting to do is develop athletes, not be concerned with “entertainment.” I know that is a wildly unpopular stance, but look at the consequences of “letting them bang” for entertainment’s sake.

For an amateur match, you might notice some other problems. No head gear and no shin pads. There was a time when I REFUSED To put an amateur in the ring without head gear. I based this upon my experience in full contact Taekwondo (being an active athlete the summer three people died) AND the literature available at the time regarding head gear and secondary impact syndrome. I must of course note that the literature, the science, on this has changed. It is no longer clear whether head gear prevents secondary impact. But, perhaps, in a FIRST MATCH it would not have been such a bad idea.


Regarding shin pads, I still wonder why people would ever expect amateurs to fight without them? We’ve seen several times in recent memory the potential injuries to the leg that can result from kicking without pads (Anderson Silva, et al). The simple fact is, without pads, there are going to be injuries, even if minor. Why ask amateurs who are not being compensated to get that injured? Even from the “entertainment” angle, amateurs are going to KICK MORE with shin pads. If the only answer is “because that is how they do it in Thailand” you’d actually be wrong; amateurs in Thailand fight WITH PADS (IFMA).

You should really watch the video closely and read the article. It addresses the specifics in this case. But I’ll add a few things that are ALWAYS an issue in a state where amateur events are not regulated. My very own state, New York, is NOT regulated. Even events with “sanctioning bodies” often suffer from the following issues;

1. Not having the proper medical personal, including ambulances waiting to take an injured fighter immediately to an ER.

2. Not supervising weigh-ins and weight cuts.

3. Not properly vetting the athletes. It seems that lying about your record has become common practice in combat sports. I’ll leave my comments on this for another blog (hint: you’re a bitch). I’ve even seen professionals trying to fight as amateurs.

4. Poor to horrible match making. Putting someone with 1 or 2 fights against a seasoned amateur, often so that person can win a “title.” Often because that seasoned fighter is affiliated with the promotion.

5. So called officials who don’t really understand or know the rules.

I am still sort of angry about all this, so I’m sure I will have even more comments on this later….

David Ross

Chinese Kung Fu: Fighting art or performance art?

16 Nov

Many people who identify themselves as “traditional” martial arts stylists are highly critical of what is labeled “contemporary Wu-Shu”, arguing that it has been significantly altered for performance purposes and is no longer practical for self-defense. Contemporary Wu-Shu can not be understood outside of a specific historical context; the communist government’s need to control and take advantage of what has long been a disruptive group in Chinese society. However, most do not appreciate the long history connecting Chinese martial arts (Kung-Fu / Kuoshu) and performance.


The wielding of heavy halberds (Kwan Do) has its origins in the national military degree exams but easily morphed into imperial court entertainment. Within Chinese opera, there is the demonstration of the flying fork (Fei Cha). Whether this is a derivative of the military halberd lifting or independent variation, the two are still linked.


Without much if any modification, strictly military arts such as archery and wrestling (Shuai Jiao) were both popular imperial court entertainments. The Qing imperial court held regular wrestling events, mainly between Manchu and Mongol wrestlers.

When the meal is ended, the cup-table is carried into the tent and the Mongol musicians come in and play. Wine is carried in to be offered to the guests. The princes whose right it is to receive wine from the Emperor are led forward and kneel humbly, while the Emperor himself pours out wine for them. The others are served wine once by the Imperial Guard under the supervision of the adjutants-general (of whom the Emperor has four). Those who have received wine from the Emperor withdraw to their original places and kowtow, the rest follow their example. When they drink wine they kowtow once more. The Mongol music ceases. Picked men from the Imperial corps of wrestlers enter to compete with the Mongol wrestlers. After the wrestling bouts, acrobats enter to display their skill. When they have finished, they withdraw. All kneel in their places and perform the ceremony of the three kneelings and nine kowtows. While the guests kneel with their faces to the ground the Emperor withdraws.


Martial arts were an integral part of life in a Chinese opera troupe. Traditional operas recreated great battles, and its performers had to be able to use traditional weapons and engage in elaborate staged fights. For this reason, those raised in the opera received training very similar to that a martial artist received, often receiving training directly from actual martial arts fighters, such was the nature of Chinese society at the time.

2008 Julio 13 China Beijing Mentougou Museo exposición de arte escenénicas regionales - 13

However, the line remained blurred. Traveling from location to location for performances, opera troupes were part of the “Jiang Hu” sub culture and crossed paths with thieves, bandits, secret society members and rebels. In the absence of state and society as arbitrator, one could only be protected and differences could only be resolved by the use of force. Martial arts were also a tool of self defense for opera troupes.

performance kung fu

The nature of traditional Chinese society as it was, many martial artists were marginalized. Many simply wandered, making their living as either traveling medicine men or as street performers. There was often little difference, the street performances often were tools to draw crowds to sell their herbal medicines.


The so-called “hard” Chi-Kung tricks such as brick breaking, wire bursting, nail beds, and the bending of spears and swords are all products of the street performance tradition. They require both conditioning and discipline to perform but have virtually nothing to do with real fighting.

Chinese Street Performers2.jpg

Many of the tumbling techniques, leaping kicks and balancing moves found in traditional forms are similarly inspired. Some assume that the Chinese public was more familiar with the martial arts and thus more discriminating than western audiences, but in reality the common peasant or laborer was just as impressed by these tricks.

Chinese martial arts history PART EIGHT

15 Nov

State attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts:
Phase Two: The Communist Party


The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had a unique relationship with those who practice the martial arts. Ideologically, the CCP has strongly identified itself with those class elements from which the martial arts community originated. For example, during the party’s formative years brotherhoods and secret societies (which were heavily composed of martial artists) were valuable allies in their attempts to overthrow the central government. The party maintained contact with and utilized members of these groups as part of their ongoing revolutionary activities and studied their organizational structure, their methods of maintaining loyalty, and their role in popular rebellions.


In addition, the leadership also saw unique benefits associated with the practice of martial arts. Mao Zedong, like many revolutionaries of the period, firmly believed that China had become the “sick man of Asia” because the traditional Confucian society had produced only weak, ineffectual scholars. In 1917, Mao Zedong wrote his first article for the revolutionary paper New Youth. The paper was entitled “A Study in Physical Culture” and would become the official party line on the role of martial arts in society. It observed that the nation was “wanting in strength” and that military spirit had not been encouraged. Mao outlined a program of physical culture, in which martial arts played an important role, for the purposes of making “savage the body” and promoting “military heroism”.


However, this cooperative relationship between the party and the martial arts community did not last. In order to consolidate their position in the countryside, the CCP attempted to remove local power bases and to prohibit those practices which had traditionally fostered regionalism and personal loyalties. This inevitably affected the martial arts community and brought them into conflict with the CCP.

C.K. Yang’s examination of a Chinese village during the Communist transition provides an excellent example of the party’s attempts to bring the martial arts under state control. Yang describes an “athletic club” in the village which was known as “the Lion’s club”. According to Yang, the club provided “lessons in the old military arts of shadow boxing, using swords, knives, spears and other ancient weapons.” Clearly, this club was a martial arts school.


While the author saw these techniques as having “no place in modern combat”, the CCP saw the situation quite differently. The Communist cadres ordered the club closed, calling it a “military organization” and noting that “their leaders, many of whom were associated with rebellious secret societies, were potential reactionary agents”. Thus, the Lion’s club was clearly viewed as a political danger to communist power.

State administered programs to appropriate and control the practice of martial arts were expanded following the Communist victory in 1949. That same year the All China Sports Federation was created and extensive discussions began concerning how physical culture could best serve the state. By 1951, all private martial arts schools were labeled “feudalistic” and ordered closed. The next year the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission was created and a number of new regulations regarding the practice of martial arts were introduced. Instructors could no longer refer to themselves as “Sifu” and the Baai Si ceremony was declared illegal. Instructors were now referred to as “coaches”.


In 1959 it was announced that a state controlled martial arts program had been created that no longer recognized styles or systems. Instead, all martial arts were divided into five basic categories: “Long Fist” (referring to all empty hand techniques), broadsword, straight sword, staff and spear. After some protests, a category referred to as “South Fist” was also introduced to represent the martial arts of Southern China (based primarily upon Choy Lay Fut, Hung Kyuhn and its derivatives). This state controlled martial arts program is the basis for what is today referred to as “contemporary Wushu”.


Ideologically, this new program met both basic requirements. First, it eliminated the elitism traditionally associated with the martial arts and made them accessible to the masses. Second, it provided a program of physical culture for the purposes of promoting “military heroism” as Mao Zedong had called for in 1917. At the same time, it put the practice of martial arts under direct government supervision and eliminated those values which had fostered personal loyalties and divisiveness. Private schools no longer produced men loyal only to their instructors and with deep seated suspicions of outsiders.

kung fu

On the surface, these developments were a welcome change from the secrecy, inflated egos, constant challenges and random violence that characterized the traditional martial arts community. However, despite government claims to the contrary, contemporary Wushu is not simply martial arts with a new image. The Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda had a direct impact upon how the martial arts were taught and practiced. For most of contemporary Wushu’s history, the party actively discouraged the study of application and the practice of sparring, claiming that self-defense skills were no longer necessary in the new society and stressing that “comrades should not fight comrades”. Thus, those practicing contemporary Wushu frequently did not know which techniques had practical application and which were for athletic or performance purposes.

Chinese martial arts history PART SEVEN

14 Nov

State attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts:
Phase One: Republican China

While some individual martial artists had gained status and social acceptance, as a group they continued to present a problem to central authority. Martial arts schools produced trained fighters who remained loyal only to their own teachers and traditions. Many still supported groups which openly challenged the newly established government.


The Nationalist Party (Guomindang) waswell aware of the role of martial artists in popular rebellion. In fact, Dr.Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of the party, had himself maintained numerous secret society associations and had extensively used “Red Pole” enforcers. Thus, once Chiang Kai-Shek had solidified his position, he turned his attention towards attempts to control and appropriate the practice of martial arts.


In 1928, a year after Chiang Kai-Shek’s “White Massacre” in Shanghai had left him the undisputed leader of the Nationalist Party, several steps were taken to exert control over martial artists. First, the government adopted the term “Kuo Shu”. This term means literally “national arts” and was an attempt not only to reduce the factionalism among martial artists but also to promote nationalism (and thus loyalty to the state).

Communists executed in streets of Shanghai

Communists executed in streets of Shanghai

Open challenges, duels or any kind of public fighting match was declared illegal. The government replaced these duels with state run competitions. These organized competitions were also to identify and screen the best practitioners for teaching positions at the newly founded Central Kuoshu Institute (中南國術館), and in the state administered provincial Kuo Shu institutes. Generals Zhang Zhi Jiang (张之江), Li Lie Jun (李烈鈞) and Li Jing Lin (李景林) held the first national competition in October 1928.


In 1929, a similar event was held in Hangzhou, China. This event was also organized by Li Jinglin, then acting as vice-dean of the Central Martial Arts Academy. This time there were 125 entrants for the “boxing” or “free fighting” (San Shou) competition which was held November 21-27. The event was very popular, the audiences every day numbered in the tens of thousands.

lei tai pan

The same year, the governor of Guangdong Province invited some of the institutes’s masters (including some of those that had competed in the 1928 lei tai) to come south to establish a “Southern Kuoshu Institute”. General Li Jinglin chose five masters to represent northern China. These men were known as the Wu hu xia jiangnan (五虎下江南 – “Five tigers heading south of Jiangnan.

1. Gu Ru Zhang: Northern Shaolin. He placed in the “Top 15″ of the 1928 lei tai.
2. Wan Lai Sheng: Northern Shaolin and Internal styles (including Natural Boxing).
3. Fu Zhensong: Baguazhang.
4. Wang Shao Zhou: Northern Shaolin and Cha style.
5. Li Xian Wu: Northern Shaolin and Internal styles.


Martial artists who participated in the institute but remained in China after the communist victory in 1949 have consistently denied any direct government involvement, for obvious political reasons, but in reality its establishment put martial artists under direct government regulation. Teachers in Taiwan are far more forthright, openly acknowledging that the government was involved in “an active program” to reorganize the martial arts. The stated goal of the institute was to “consolidate Kung-Fu by bringing together many great masters.” Thus, while the Nationalist Party was less successful, it was involved in a strikingly similar program to the one that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under took with the creation of contemporary Wu-Shu.


In 1933, the institute again hosted the national competition. The rules said, “…if death occurs as a result of boxing injuries and fights, the coffin with a body of the deceased will be sent home.” Some of the top winners of this contest included Chang Dung Sheng of Shuai Jiao. He won theheavy weight division and earned the martial nickname “Flying Butterfly.”


Attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts, like most Nationalist social programs, was largely unsuccessful. The government lacked a well-developed structure at the grass roots level and corruption was rampant. In addition, many of the most powerful members of the Nationalist Party were themselves martial artists. According to Draeger and Smith, the martial artists in Taiwan, many of whom were Nationalist Party members and military officers, “were a truly diverse lot: many were illiterate, some took opium regularly, a few were scoundrels.”

Chinese martial arts history PART SIX

13 Nov

The average Westerner, when first exposed to the Chinese martial arts, more than likely has visions of Buddhist monks and sage masters dancing in their head. They would be shocked to hear a few historical accounts of their ancestors. Furthermore, the martial arts community in China sought social acceptance, respectability and opportunities at social advancement in a rapidly shifting world in which none of the social movements had much positive opinions of martial arts.

20080310-1009_wushenglaomusecretsoc columb

Imperial China was governed by traditional Confucian ideology, which had disdain for both non-intellectual activity and for men who utilized brute force and violence to settle matters. The military was treated with suspicion, as demonstrated by the saying “one does not make a prostitute out of an honest girl, a nail with good iron, or a soldier out of an honorable man.” Although the civil and military exam systems were basically parallel in structure, the military exams were less valued. While the military was perhaps the best possible profession for a trained martial artist, it was by no means an easy path or an ideal life since the system, administered by civilian intellectuals, was designed to subordinate men of violence to the needs of the society.


Of course, the greater challenge to the social order was that group of martial artists who were unable to advance through the military examination system. First and foremost, the examination system required a degree of literacy that many martial artists simply did not possess. Second, because the examination system restricted the number of military officers, even literate martial artists never passed. While these men could have joined the army without passing the exams, in reality they had no reason to do so. Regular military men were treated brutally by officers and there was no future in it.

These men who did not pass the official exams formed a disgruntled and highly dangerous group. They became part of China’s extensive underground society and engaged in marginally legitimate or illegal activities to survive. Regardless of their chosen professions, these men had no loyalty to either the society or the state. In 1728 the Yong-zheng emperor issued an imperial prohibition specifically on MARTIAL ARTS. The emperor condemned teachers as “drifters and idlers who refuse to work at their proper occupations” who gather with their disciples all day, leading to “gambling, drinking and brawls”.


A 1899 pamphlet by Zhili magistrate Lao Nai-wuan described local martial arts groups as “vagabonds and rowdies who draw their swords and gather crowds.” He then stated that they “are overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people.”

The idea that our fabled ancestors were nothing more than tough guys engaged in gambling, drinking and various forms of extortion and petty crime doesn’t sit well with most martial artists but the fact remains it is all historically verifiable.


But what about martial arts in Buddhist monasteries such as Shaolin? The presence of martial arts at Buddhist monasteries is well established. Specific martial monks (武僧) provided necessary defense and increasingly were called upon by Imperial Dynasties to provide local military assistance. The apparent contradictions were explained by various rationalizations. Additionally, as empty hand fighting techniques merged with gymnastic, meditative and other spiritual practices during the Ming Dynasty, the idea of Buddhist monks practicing martial arts seemed less incongruous.

Shaolin warrior monks with German rifles

Shaolin warrior monks with German rifles

But martial arts were also present at Buddhist monasteries for other reasons. Monasteries served as inns for travelers, as public gathering places and as performance space. Thus, they naturally developed an intimate relationship with a segment of lay society that also had deep connections with martial arts, the JiangHu (江湖).

The JiangHu (江湖), literally “rivers and lakes,” refers to the transient community that traveled from town to town using China’s waterways. While there were economic motivations and even necessities in these travels, in the context of Chinese society this community represented many social undesirables; actors, story tellers, palm readers, fortune tellers, sky gazers, and exorcists, in addition to wandering martial artists. Their transient lifestyle meant they were not bound by the normal constraints of family, society and state. They were free, operating outside the structures that contained most people in Imperial China.


For these vary same reasons, the JiangHu was also a dangerous lifestyle. Among those traveling and seeking to escape the laws of society were also thieves, secret society members and rebels. For the JiangHu, martial arts were both tools of their trades and methods of self-defense. In the absence of state and society as arbitrator, one could only be protected and differences could only be resolved by the use of force.

Chinese Street Performers2.jpg

Finally, for many in the JiangHu the practice of martial arts wasn’t just for self-defense but also part of their livelihood. The Chinese opera traveled from town to town, staying and performing at the local monasteries in each. While martial arts certainly provided self-defense for these actors, their martial arts were also integrally linked to their performances. Chinese opera performances feature elaborate choreographed fights, much of it featuring very real martial arts technique. Similarly many martial arts teachers supplemented their incomes with public martial arts demonstrations which not only attracted attention but also gave them an opportunity to sell the herbal formulas they prepared. Thus, the Buddhist monastery was a common gathering point for both monks and laymen, both interested in martial arts.


While martial artists sought to reform their image and create paths for social advancement, the Imperial system was clearly stacked against them. Unfortunately, the virtual collapse of the Qing Dynasty in 1911 and the establishment of the Chinese Republic did little to change the state of martial arts. While some individual martial artists had gained status and social acceptance, as a group they continued to present a problem to central authority. Martial arts schools produced trained fighters who remained loyal only to their own teachers and traditions. Many still supported groups which openly challenged the newly established government, particularly secret societies. Doak Barnett, a well known historian who described conditions in Szechuan province during the Republican period, observed:

“There was nothing secret about [secret societies]…. The fact that it is outlawed by the central government does not seem to bother anyone concerned, or, it might be added, deter anyone from becoming a member if he is invited.”


1911 marked the end of the Qing Dynasty but, more significantly, it also ended thousands of years of unbroken Chinese tradition and culture. Western-educated Christian, Dr. Sun Yat-sen and other revolutionaries thought that the imperial system was deeply flawed and that China needed a thoroughly modern government. The New Culture Movement sprang from the disillusionment with traditional Chinese culture. Scholars whom had classical educations began to lead a revolt against the traditional Confucian culture. They called for the creation of a new Chinese culture based Western standards, especially Democracy and science. Martial arts, just as all other aspects of traditional culture, were viewed as backward and desperately in need of eradication in the interests of pushing China into the modern world.

One of the most famous anti-martial arts writers was Lu Xun, who argued that the propaganda of traditional Chinese sport was based on superstition, feudalism and anti-science.


Lu Xun satirical take upon the traditional martial arts published in New Youth, 1918:

“Recently, there have been a fair number of people scattered about who have been energetically promoting boxing [quan]. I seem to recall this having happened once before. But at that time the promoters were the Manchu court and high officials, where as now they are Republican educators–people occupying a quite different place in society. I have no way of telling, as an outsider, whether their goals are the same or different.

These educators have now renamed the old methods “that the Goddess of the Ninth Heaven transmitted to the Yellow Emperor”…”the new martial arts” or “Chinese-style gymnastics” and they make young people practice them. I’ve heard there are a lot of benefits to be had from them. Two of the more important may be listed here:

(1) They have a physical education function. It’s said that when Chinese take instruction in foreign gymnastics it isn’t effective; the only thing that works for them is native-style gymnastics (that is, boxing). I would have thought that if one spread one’s arms and legs apart and picked up a foreign bronze hammer or wooden club in one’s hands, it ought probably to have some “efficacy” as far as one’s muscular development was concerned. But it turns out this isn’t so! Naturally, therefore, the only course left to them is to switch to learning such tricks as “Wu Song disengaging himself from his manacles.” No doubt this is because Chinese are different from foreigners physiologically.

(2) They have a military function. The Chinese know how to box; the foreigners don’t know how to box. So if one day the two meet and start fighting it goes without saying the Chinese will win…. The only thing is that nowadays people always use firearms when they fight. Although China “had firearms too in ancient times” it doesn’t have them any more. So if the Chinese don’t learn the military art of using rattan shields, how can they protect themselves against firearms? I think–since they don’t elaborate on this, this reflects “my own very limited and shallow understanding”–I think that if they keep at it with their boxing they are bound to reach a point where they become “invulnerable to firearms.” (I presume by doing exercises to benefit their internal organs?) Boxing was tried once before–in 1900. Unfortunately on that occasion its reputation may be considered to have suffered a decisive setback. We’ll see how it fares this time around.

This is from p. 230-231 of Paul A. Cohen’s, History in Three Keys

Chinese martial arts history PART FIVE

12 Nov

Chinese martial arts in a new China with a new culture

The New Culture Movements was active and influential in China among university students and intellectuals who had studied abroad and embraced modernity. Of major concern was the health of the Chinese population, which suffered due to a combination of poor diet, disease, poverty, crowded living conditions, opium addiction and finally, a lack of concern about and knowledge of public health. Following the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, many Chinese felt that their country had become a “sick man” who needed strong medicine.


Proponents of modern physical education also confronted a Confucian society had deeply rooted prejudices about what the proper man looked like physically. He was pale skinned, thin, almost emaciated. This aesthetic reflected the many hours a Confucian scholar spent studying books and writing calligraphy. Also, musculature was viewed as an indication that the person engaged in manual labor. Compared to Western physiques, the Chinese insisted that they maintained moral superiority due to this Confucian ethic and lifestyle.


The debates on military training and physical education were launched by Chinese intellectuals.
Ideas such as social Darwinism and survival of the fittest, which were introduced at this point in time, influenced some to believe that military drills could strengthen Chinese martial spirit to save China from imperialist invasion. In schools, “Ti Cao” (calisthenics and gymnastics) classes were introduced with the the main goal of creating “martial spirit” in the nation, and military-style calisthenics became the standard.


In the private sector a number of societies were organized to promote a new vision of martial arts in modern China. The Beiping Physical Culture Research Institute was established and began to publish a magazine called Physical Culture. The Jingwu Physical Culture Society was the biggest and most popular Chinese martial arts society which spread through China and South East Asia from 1917 to 1929. Jingwu Physical Culture Society was the first sports society to combine Western and Chinese physical culture, which not only taught Chinese martial arts and military training, but also taught Western sports, such as gymnastics exercise, athletics, football, basketball, volley­ball, tennis and swimming. It marked a transition from the martial arts serving solely as a soldiers’ tool to a middle-class recreation which had the potential of improving Chinese society as a whole. The Jingwu Association attempted to challenge the popular view of the martial artist; “Chinese martial arts practitioner does not equal ‘gangster,’”thug,” or ‘goon.”


However, not all intellectuals of the period viewed military-style calisthenics as suitable for school curriculum. Prejudices remained’

“.. your average unintelligent, immoral soldier coming right out of the barracks and in one swoop becoming a teacher” – 6 Physical Culture Weekly Special Edition, January 1920.

Chen Tu-hsiu, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s founders and editor of a magazine entitled New Youth, criticized the classical feudal education system for over emphasizing literary memorization and neglecting physical exercise, yet disagreed about putting martial arts in the school curriculum because of his anti-traditionalism and anti-militarism positions. Chen called for “no boxing and no violent competitive games” (New Youth, 1 January 1920).


One of the other famous anti-martial arts writers was Lu Xun, who argued that the propaganda of traditional Chinese sport was based on superstition, feudalism and anti-science. In Lu’s view, over-emphasising the function of Chinese martial arts might raise a similar “patriotism” to that of the Boxer Rebellions in 1900.

“I do not mind if some people think martial arts is a special skill and enjoy their own practice. This is not a big matter. However, I disagree with the propaganda of traditional Chinese martial arts because educators promote martial arts as a fashion, as if all Chinese people should do the exercise, and most advocators promote martial arts in a ghost-like spirit. This social phenomenon is dangerous” (New Youth, 15 February 1919).

Chinese martial arts history PART FOUR

11 Nov

The Boxer Rebellion

One of the most famous branch sects was the Yihequan (Fists of Righteousness and Harmony), popularly known as the Boxers. The Boxer Rebellion began in North China in 1898 as a popular peasant protest movement. Unlike the Taiping, the Boxer Uprising was opposed to Christian activity within China, particularly missionary evangelism in the countryside.


Joseph W. Esherick has argued, rather successfully, that the “boxers” were not in fact martial artists, but rather followers of a variety of protection rituals; they took part in certain rituals, believing spirits would possess them making them impervious to foreigners’ bullets. These rituals were easily learned by the young, uneducated peasants of the Yellow River floodplain, and transmitted from village to village.

“The two elements, martial arts and heterodox beliefs, are clearly alternatives, not linked elements of a single tradition.”
- Joseph W. Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising

Members of heterodox sects might practice martial arts, but martial arts were not inextricably linked to spiritual practices.


While the association may have been superficial, the link between traditional martial arts and the Boxers remained in the Chinese mind for generations. In the eyes of the public, martial artists were grossly ignorant and superstitious. Sun Lu Tang in 1915 noted;

“There was a prejudice in the old days that literates despised martial arts as martial artists were short on learning.”

Chinese Street Performers2.jpg

Sectarian recruiters had no qualms in manipulating the ignorance of these young peasants. Recruiters for the “Boxer” movement promised a variety of protection rituals which they believed would protect them from the weapons of the Western powers, often confusing them with actual legitimate martial arts practices.

“One Shandong master promised that the techniques could be learned in a day; another said seven or eight days; a third more rigorous teacher claimed 103 days but still noted that is was ‘much easier than the Armor of the Golden Bell.” In this case, they were promising “faster and better” than the actual legitimate martial arts technique of “Golden Bell”.


In the wake of the Boxer Rebellion, the people of China scorned the traditional martial arts as usually in poor physical condition and often at or below the poverty line with no particular social roots. Worst of all, despite their violent tendencies, their violence had been useless against Western technology

Even in academic circles, there remains an overemphasis on the significance of their relationship to heterodox religious sects and secret societies during the mid to late Qing period. While the association itself was real, the nature of this association is usually distorted. To begin with, some college textbooks, such as recent editions of Immanuel Hsu’s The Rise and Fall of Modern China, unwittingly persist in spreading Heaven and Earth Society (also known as the Triads or the Hong League) misinformation about their own origins, ostensibly in a Shaolin Monastery in Fujian, by treating it as history.

This story, never backed up by a single kernel of historical evidence, was hopefully laid to rest by Chinese research outlined in Qing History Research in 1993 and further detailed in Dian Murray and Qin Baoqi’s The Origins of the Tiandihui: The Chinese Triads in Legend and History (1994)


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