This is the introduction….

23 Aug

This is a rough cut of the introduction to the new book…..

Tourist dollars obscure searches for the truth about "Fujian Shaolin"

I began studying Chinese martial arts at a relatively young age, and like every one of my generation I was quickly inundated with stories about Shaolin Buddhist monks, Wudang Daoist priests and semi-magical powers such as the “armor of the golden bell.” During this period, we had countless kung-fu movies about the creation of the Hong Jia / Hung Ga (洪家) system, about how the priest “White Eyebrow” (白眉) killed Zhi Shan (至善), and about how the “tiger and crane” (虎鶴雙形) set was created. There were also, and still are today, people who told us Chinese martial arts originated from Chinese religious practices, that it was a spiritual pursuit and that martial artists were righteous men who cultivated “martial virtue” (武德). Adding to the confusions for most western students were the differences between the various Chinese dialects (Mandarin, Cantonese, Fujianese, etc.) and the often haphazard methods of transliteration.

At first, especially as a young boy, I was enthralled by all these stories. However, the more I trained and spent time in the tradition, and the more I really thought about them, the more they did not quite seem to add up. In fact, they frequently seemed to contradict each other. Martial arts were the product of Buddhist and Daoist religious practices, developed by monks and priests to cultivate virtue? Yet all our kung-fu movies were about fighting, about revenge, featuring secret societies and often bandits and criminals who engaged in drunken brawls, often, upon closer inspection, in brothels! If you were training with Chinese teachers in Chinese communities, you were undoubtedly surrounded by gambling and Chinese organized crime. During Chinese New Year the students would go out lion dancing with weapons, because the lions of two different schools might cross each other and a fight could break out. Depending upon who your teacher was and where you trained, you might have been exposed to even more contradictory experiences.


I attended the Elliott School of International Affairs at George Washington University in pursuit of a graduate degree in Chinese history. Rigorous academic training and reading the works of the best historians and political scientists in the field confirmed my long held suspicions that much of what is taught as Chinese martial arts history is not only contradictory, it is mostly improbable and at times outright impossible. At the same time, I began to appreciate the underlying reasons why much of this mythology was created and why it persisted. Modern Chinese history is complex and remains controversial, its interpretations still subject to very real political agendas. Nor are the many issues that shaped and changed modern China easily compartmentalized. For a diversity of reasons, the martial artist was swept up into virtually all of these events, and forever changed by them.


Chinese martial arts history must by its nature be a multi-disciplinary approach. It must embrace military, political, social and even religious history. It certainly requires study of the lower classes and the marginalized, but it was also shaped to great degrees by the educated and the elite and their agendas as well. It is, in my opinion, best understood as a multilateral relationship. That the average martial arts student has trouble placing their practices into the proper historical context is really no surprise. Well trained, intelligent historians and political scientists have disagreed upon many interpretations; they confused the “New Culture Movement” and the “May 4th Movement”, took “Triad” (Heaven and Earth Society) propaganda as history, and mistook the origins of the Boxer Uprising as just a few examples. Of course, in martial arts, the student also often has a “guru” relationship with their teacher and does not want to investigate, much less challenge, the word of their teacher.

Chinese Street Performers2.jpg

In my opinion, within the context of Chinese society, the martial artist has always been a source of concern for two interrelated reasons. First, fundamentally martial arts are the skills of violence and Chinese society has always had ambivalence towards violence. In China, martial artists were thought of as both legendary heroes and yet also as members of the least desirable classes. Joseph Esherick stressed that martial arts in and of itself was politically neutral. It was used as much by the imperial military, gentry and village militia, and the forces of law and order as it was used by criminals, bandits and rebels. But in a society which divided the Civil (文) and the Military (武), and subordinated the latter to the former, there were tensions even in its legitimate applications.


The second concern was the nature of the subculture the martial artist inhabited. Chinese society strived for vertical hierarchies; in the family the grandfather to the father to the son, in the village the lineage leaders to the middle peasant to the poor peasant, in the political arena the imperial capital to the provincial government to the local official who interacted with the local gentry elite. Martial artists legitimate or not, were frequently itinerant. Their lifestyles made them part of the so-called “Jiang Hu” (江湖) subculture. They identified with each other, as martial artists, in horizontal associations which crossed lineages, villages, provinces and frequently even ethnicities.

Obviously, martial artists only really presented a problem for society when they chose to use their skills in violence in illegal, disruptive ways. But when they did, the nature of their subculture presented a particular problem. As Philip Kuhn has noted, the institutions that had been put in place against the illegal and disruptive, such as the Baojia (保甲), had been intended for vertical hierarchies in settled populations. They were virtually useless with itinerant populations such as martial artists.

This structural problem had existed since the Song Dynasty, when both the Baojia system and the independent martial arts teacher had emerged. In the Qing period, the real change was one of perception. The martial artist was perceived increasingly as connected to religious sectarian rebellions in the north, secret society rebellions in the south, the Taiping civil war and finally with the Boxer Uprising. We will discuss how the final and most damaging of these events to the reputation of the martial artist, the Boxer Uprising, may not have even had a direct relationship to mainstream martial arts practice but the damage was done none the less.


In the Republic period, the already much maligned and discredited martial arts also suffered criticism as another feature of China’s “feudal past.” It appeared on the verge of extinction, if not for two new, but contradictory impulses. While most progressives dismissed martial arts as the superstitious nonsense of uneducated peasants, a small segment saw the potential to reform it as a form of physical education to serve the nation. Of course, these reformers sought not only to remove the superstitious and the ignorant from the practice of martial arts, they also sought to remove its associations with actual fighting!


On the other end of the spectrum, nationalists saw in martial arts the opportunity to throw off the yoke of the “sick man of Asia” and revitalize the nation militarily. Nationalistic generals organized events to actively seek those who had skill in fighting, to teach a new generation military skills. Along the way, the nationalists were also willing to embrace a little superstition; nationalistic pride encouraged the idea that Chinese martial was not simply another form of physical education like western gymnastics. It was a distinctly Chinese skill, and only from Chinese martial arts could you develop unique fighting skills such as the use of qi (氣).

The martial artists themselves were struggling to regain what little social acceptance they had acquired in the Ming and Qing periods. They appeared to be willing to embrace both the progressive and nationalist movements. It was a syncretic but not always internally logical approach that leaves us with many of the contradictions we confront in our modern practice.


As a graduate student, I encountered research that, while not directly focused on Chinese martial arts, was relevant to its understanding. Of course, the challenge in both history and political science has always been producing something that the general public can easily access and enjoy. Even Joseph Esherick’s volume on the Boxer Uprising, filled with important information on the evolution and practice of martial arts, is not an easy read for the non-historian. Recently, I have seen studies that not only explicitly address the history of Chinese martial arts, but are aimed at the general reader. I hope my volume serves as a useful addition.

My volume serves as an outline of Chinese martial arts history. It is an outline because it attempts to present all the various issues and events of importance but in no way attempts to address them completely. In many cases, I have indeed made some generalizations. Each issue or event discussed here would be worthy of, and in most cases already is, a separate volume. In many cases, it has been addressed by numerous volumes. Please refer to the bibliography at the end of this book.

I tend to conceive of this as a modern Chinese martial arts history. We begin with a brief discussion of the origins of these methods, gather a little more momentum with the Ming period, but most of the attention is upon the Qing and Republican periods. In summary; the Ming period gave birth to martial arts as we understand them (unarmed methods with distinct names), the Qing period saw challenges to their existence that required response, and the Republican period was the time in which those responses reshaped the culture and created contradictions we must now contend with.

Feng Ke-Shan and the perils of martial arts history

11 Aug

Feng Ke-Shan (馮克善) by most accounts, was a man with little interest in religion (Esherick 44). He was a gambler who frequently got into drunken brawls. Feng was thirty five years old when he first encountered the Eight Trigrams Sect. At the age of twenty one, Feng had studied both empty hand and sword techniques with Wang Xiang (王祥), an itinerant martial artist from Shandong. Later he learned how to use the spear (槍) from a local man. Neither man had any connection to sectarian activities. (Naquin 88) By his own testimony, Tang Heng-Le (唐恒乐) accepted Feng as a disciple (拜師 Bai Shi) around 1800.


Tang Heng-Le (唐恒乐) was an elderly medicine seller and a teacher of Mei Hua Quan (梅花拳), a well-established and respected tradition in northern China. He had no sectarian affiliations and stated in his testimony after the rebellion that his only relationship to Feng was in teaching him martial arts (“我是教拳的師傅不是傳教的師傅”). He warned Feng that if he involved himself in sectarian activities he would be renounced as a student. After the rebellion actually broke out in 1813, Tang actually led his students in joining the local militia to suppress the sectarians. (Eesherick 52)


The Mei Hua Quan martial arts group presents us with an excellent example of how a single individual, in this case Feng Ke-Shan, is hardly indicative of a larger movement. Mei Hua Quan can be traced back at least as far as 1742 to a teacher named Yang Bing (楊炳). Yang was a graduate of the highest military examination with third place honors and had served in the metropolitan garrison. (Esherck 149). Subsequent generations of Mei Hua Quan martial artists appear to have maintained good relations with local militia leaders, the retired military degree holders and the local gentry. From Tang’s response, it appears Mei Hua Quan had been a martial arts group that could be counted on to provide men in defense of the region and thus had been tolerated by local officials because it served a useful social function. Mei Hua Quan will reappear again in our discussion of the Yi He Quan or “boxer” movement.

Whether through Feng’s training in Mei Hua Quan or another source (note), the Eight Trigrams Sect also became associated with the practice of the “Armor of the Golden Bell.” Susan Naquin seems to believe that all sect members engaged in the practice, as well as seeing the practice of martial arts as integral to sectarian membership. (Nanquin 30-31) Joseph Esherick counters that the “Armor of the Golden Bell” may have been practiced by some members, but it remained fundamentally a technique of mainstream martial arts practice and with only the most tenuous of connections to sectarianism. Escherick presents as an example a practitioner named Zhang Luo-Jiao (張洛焦) who learned the method prior to joining the sect, from someone not involved in the sect, and in fact left the sect well before the rebellion. (Esherick 97)


Feng Ke-Shan was a martial artist, a sectarian and a rebel, but the three were in no way synonymous. In examining Feng, we are confronted with many obstacles in finding the proper interpretation. Participant testimonies were often the result of torture, with little to nothing to be gained for speaking the truth. Officials were biased, and often documents represent attempts to validate their positions rather than quests for the truth. Susan Naquin, using as her source material Qinding Pingdin Jiao Fei Ji E欽定平定教匪紀略 [Imperially authorized account of the pacification of the religious rebels 1816] provides the following account;

Niu Liang-Chen noticed that in my system of boxing there were eight prescribed steps. He said to me, “Is that footwork of yours of the Eight Triagrams type?” I replied, “How did you know it was Eight Trigrams?” Niu said, “I practice the K’an Trigram, and so I understand”. So I pretended that I practiced the Li Trigram sect and told him this. Niu said, “So you’re in the Li Trigram. We are part of the K’an and Li Linked-Mansions. Each one can learn what is right in his own way.”
(Naquin 88)

Niu Liang Chen (牛亮臣) was Feng’s bother-in-law, or alternately his wife’s sister’s husband. There is some evidence that he had been already initiated into the sect by Lin Qing before Feng ever became a member. The idea that Feng basically lied his way into the sect, only to become one of the three main leaders, is interesting, but probably not true. Feng had been recruited for his martial arts skills and his local connections but he was probably trying to downplay his role during testimony after his capture.

For our purposes, the more important aspect of this testimony is how Naquin treats the subject of Feng’s martial arts. To observe martial arts practice and understand it based solely upon sectarian membership would support Naquin’s assertion that the two were integrally related. But is that what really transpired? In mainland China, a number of martial arts oriented historians have relied upon a document known as the Lan Yi Waish (蓝簃外史 “Unofficial History of the Blue Lodge”). The document contains much of the same material, and one translation into English renders the same conversation thusly;

Niu Liang-chen saw that the Feng Ke-shan boxing method contained steps in eight directions. Liang-Chen said, “Your steps are similar to the Eight Trigrams”. Ke-shan asked, “How do you know the Eight Trigrams”? Liang-chen replied: “Because I practice the Trigram Kan”. Ke-shan said, “I am the Trigram Li”. Liang-chen said: “You are Li, I am Kan, we men of Li and Kan we get together in the same building, and so we can practice together and exchange lessons.”

There are subtle, but important, differences here. Feng does not have “prescribed steps”? He is engaged in a rather routine martial arts practice. Niu doesn’t truly “understand” Feng’s martial arts, but he notices the pattern is similar to the Eight Trigram he has learned in his sect. Feng indeed claims membership in the Li Trigram Sect (離坎教), whether this was a lie is impossible to determine? The final exchange to me suggests that Niu, perhaps not having trained in martial arts but having an interest, saw in his discovery that Feng was a fellow sectarian the opportunity to learn some martial arts. My interpretation here is in fact not based upon the second English translation, but rather a Chinese version that is rather easily available.

馮克善拳法中有八方步。亮臣曰:爾步伐 (法)似合八卦。克善曰:子何以知之?

Language is an obstacle in determining reality here, especially when that language involves jargon specific to a select sub-group. Ba Fang Bu (八方步) might seem like a ritualistic practice, especially in context with the Eight Trigrams (八卦). Confusion is not exclusive to those attempting to translate documents into another language either. Professor Kang Gewu (康戈武) included these references into a discussion of the origins of the modern martial art Bagua Zhang (八卦掌), and there are suggestions that Wang Xiang (王祥) taught Bagua Zhang. Professor Ma Aimin (馬愛民) and Han Jianzhong (韩建中) both countered with documentation of how the method was based in Feng’s training in Mei Hua Quan.

Martial Arts and Daoist Gymnastics

9 Aug

Another significant evolution was the integration of Daoist Daoyin (導引), and with that integration the idea that martial arts practice could have military, therapeutic and religious aspects. Many modern practitioners mistakenly believe that this has always been the understanding, some even believing that martial arts were developed by Buddhists and Daoists explicitly for therapeutic or religious However, as Stanley Henning notes, martial arts was initially a combat skill, and Daoist practices were only applied later to already existing methods. (Henning “perspective” 174)


Often referred to as Daoist gymnastics, Daoyin (導引) is movement combined with breathing designed to control the circulation of qi (氣). The exact definition of qi and its actual application(s) remains a controversial subject even today. Daoyin has been linked to Chinese medical practice since at least the first century BCE, but for most of its history it was not linked to martial arts practice, only to health and spiritual practice (Shahar 147).


Qi Jiguang’s New Book on Military Efficiency provides quite a lot of detail regarding the contemporary martial arts milieu. It makes no mention of qi circulation, or even to particular breathing patterns. For many historians, this is a strong suggestion that during this period such concepts were not part of mainstream martial arts practice. (Lorge 202) Lin Boyuan (林伯原) maintains that “During the Ming period, the various hand combat styles were all one-sided, specializing in actual fighting only.” (Lin 378-379).


Lin Boyuan suggests that Daoyin began to be integrated into martial arts practice because “… it added efficacy to the bare-handed fighting methods.” (378-379) In reality, martial arts has always required physical conditioning and exercises to strengthen the body, increase flexibility and teach balance and body awareness were probably always part of the training. They were probably already similar to Daoist Daoyin, but not conceived of in the same terms; qi circulation, therapeutic, spiritual, etc. An examination of Indian martial arts, wrestling and Kalaripayattu, reveal a lot of yoga-like material. Thus, we have the classic “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma; did they simply recognize similarity and apply terminology and concepts, did they integrate methods they did not have, or did they recognize and as a result also integrate methods including concepts and terminology?


Meir Shahar states that it is “likely” that the process of integration, or recognition, began as early as the mid Ming Dynasty. (148) The appearance of previously mentioned “Sinew-Transformation Classic” (易筋經Yijin Jing) in 1624 lends credence to this position. The Ming period also saw a strong trend of literate upper-class and middleclass individuals become interested in and begin practicing martial arts. In the modern era, it was precisely these classes that advanced the idea of links between martial arts and religion (Kennedy Manuals 85) Despite their education, many of these individuals were certainly ready to believe in the semi-supernatural, such as the local official who believed that “Armor of the Golden Bell” (Jin Zhong Zhao 金鐘罩) could actually resist attacks from bladed weapons (Shahar 151)


The integration was a double-edged sword. In one sense, the addition of therapeutic and religious aspects to martial arts practice made it more socially acceptable. Shahar even suggests it accounts at least in part for the unique appeal martial arts has around the world (Shahar 3). The problem was, the concepts of qi and qi circulation, and the association with religious elements could become a slippery slope which could rapidly degenerate, especially in the hands of uneducated peasants, into pure superstition While, as Joseph Esherick documents, legitimate martial artists combined breathing techniques with rigorous physical conditioning to produce limited but realistic results, others believed that charms, spells and prayers could enhance qi circulation and produce supernatural results. Finally, some believed in pseudo-martial arts practices that could result in being possessed by spirits who would grant invulnerability, even against Western bullets.

There was a last chance, you missed it

2 Aug

I feel sort of bad about raising the price, but I did warn you…..


I am the adopted in door disciple of the late Chan Tai-San and the Chan Tai-San Lion’s Roar Martial Arts Association is the only place you can learn what I learned from him AND train in the methods I used to produce champion fighters in amateur and professional fighting including Sanshou, San Da, Muay Thai, boxing, kickboxing and MMA. We offer the entire system, including all the theory and how to teach it


I also have brought in my classmate, and together we are teaching the extremely rare “Gam Gong Lihn Gung” or “Tibetan Vajra Yoga”.


HOWEVER, as we are aware many are not in the New York Tri-State area and are not able to train in person, we have made the instructional video being filmed during the classes available via a secret group on Facebook.

A very brief sample of the type of instruction being offered.


Unlimited access to all the material being placed in the secret group
– Unlimited instructional video
– Outlines of all the material
– All the traditional Chinese names of the techniques, including the actual characters
– Members only blog posts and limited access to question and answer sessions

Only $39 per month (cancel anytime, no commitment)

If you are not in the New York Tri-State area and still want to learn the material being offered in the new association’s Lama Pai Lion’s Roar program, now is your limited time opportunity! Only $39 per month with no commitment gives you UNLIMITED ACCESS to the material

WARNING: Rates WILL go up again…..

Men of violence, martial arts in Imperial China

27 Jul

The statements made here regarding the increasing militarization of the society, the endemic use of violence and the role martial artists played in these developments are confirmed by the historical record for both the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In all likelihood they also applied to earlier periods, there is just a lack of documentation to confirm these suspicions. Geographic, economic and social conditions all created conditions predisposed to conflict and in the absence of the proper mechanisms to diffuse these conflicts violence became inevitable. Yet, as Joseph W. Esherick noted, martial arts practice was itself politically neutral.(Esherick 60).


The Yellow River stretches from Hebei (河北) in the north to Henan (河南) in the south along terrain prone to flooding. Anthropologist Fei Xiaotong remarked “Chinese society is fundamentally rural” (Fei 37) and for such society, flooding means loss of corps, and loss of usable land. The climate of the region also brought cold, dry winters and hot, humid summers, which again encourage either flood or drought. Flood, drought, and of course the famine that resulted shaped the social order.

kow tow

Economic and social conditions also contributed to tensions. Those with resources could afford the extravagant wedding expenses that the groom’s side was expected to bear and polygamy also affected the number of available brides in a milieu in which females were already scarce. Thus, northern China was inhabited by a large population of unemployed and unmarried males who felt marginalized.


Some of this population responded with “banditry” including smuggling, theft, and kidnapping. This was especially true in times of flood; the 1716 Cao county gazetteer reported that “the Yellow River repeatedly broke its banks, and bandits run amok.” One of the terms used for these bandits is particularly interesting in our context; “bare staff” (光棍 guanggun). In modern usage it can mean a gangster, hoodlum or simply a bachelor; a remnant of a time when being unmarried had a direct relationship to such activity. The “bare staff” also contrasts with the “four staff” occupations which were considered legitimate professions for martial artists.

seorang yowtai dihukum kerana mencuri dan merogol

The response by the local elite was predictable; they employed the armed escorts, personal bodyguards, and militia. Unfortunately, in the absence of neutral institutions to adjudicate, their responses were also frequently disproportionate. The same Cao county gazetteer noted “the tendency for the wealthy to rely on cruelty and violence is well established.” (Esherick) The abuse of the peasant by the landed gentry, frequently using their personal forces to beat and even kill those considered “unruly” probably was a self-defeating strategy that generated even more disgruntled peasants prone to banditry.


Socially marginalized, unable to accumulate wealth, without access to accepted avenues of social advancement and subjected to various forms of discrimination, these men were the same social group which also, lacking alternatives, had joined the military. However, banditry (and later rebellion) increasingly became an option; they had nothing to lose, ample access to martial arts training and everything to gain from these illegal activities.


In northern China in particular, many of these men had previously been trained in militia to defend against invasions from the steppes. By the Ming Dynasty, private martial arts groups had become ubiquitous. Increasing banditry resulted in more village militias being formed, also providing these men with opportunities. A vicious cycle, a form of “arms race,” ensued with the competing demands of the bandit gangs and the local militias creating a market which supported local martial arts teachers.

In the south, there was also rural poverty and social pressures caused by overpopulation and limited resources. Organization around large clan structures dominated the agricultural economy and the clans competed with each other for land and access to water. The leadership of these structures was the orthodox gentry elite, who utilized the peasants for labor and muscle. There was also an ethnic dimension to these tensions, as the original settlers competed with and resented the Hakka, a group which had emigrated from northern China beginning in the twelfth century. The Hakka had remained insular, with distinctive customs and their own dialect. A number of studies have shown that as trust in the court system waned; conflict became increasingly common and increasingly violent. As in the north, villages threw up packed earth walls, built weapons warehouses and hired martial arts teachers to train village militias.


Historians such as James Tong in Disorder under Heaven, had seen these resorts to violence as an aberration and an indication of governmental decay which effected “peripheral and mountainous regions”. Others, such as David Robinson’s Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven have instead argued that violence had become as a regular and well understood component of everyday Ming Dynasty life. Violence, executed by men trained in martial arts, existed in major urban centers such as Hangzhou and Suzhou as well. So called “fighter guilds” (打行) existed from which you could hire these men to either beat or kill a desired target, even in broad daylight.

Of course, in the Qing Dynasty these disturbances grew in size. Depending upon the perspective of the observer, bandits came to be classified as rebels and revolutionaries. Various religious movements and secret societies became associated with them. The frequency of such civil strife evoked the saying “every three years an uprising; every five years a rebellion” (三年一反、五年一亂). All had origins in the same peasant dissatisfaction, elite insecurity, militarization of the society as a whole and the universal acceptance that violence was the appropriate tool. Our task here is to sort out fact from fiction, determine what role martial artists played in these events and what long term implications these events had on the same martial arts we practice today.


Joseph W. Esherick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising is a landmark study in Chinese history and of particular importance if your interest is in the history of the Chinese martial arts. Esherick’s approach provides a larger theoretical framework to look at all the historical events we will address here; sectarian groups were NOT synonymous with martial arts groups, nor were all martial arts groups either religious and/or rebellious. As we shall see, despite popular perception, there is even a question as to whether the “boxers” should really be considered a martial arts group. Of course, that is dispassionate analysis well removed from the time and place, what the general population perceived to be the truth at the time was as significant, perhaps I would say even more significant, in the long run.

Sources as early as the Yuandianzhang (元典章 “Statutes of the Yuan dynasty”) inform us that independent martial arts teachers are “licentious and violent” and that “for long it has been like this.” Martial arts teachers certainly lived on the edges of society, and were associated with the undesirable sub culture of the JiangHu (江湖), but we can’t dismiss their critics so quickly. In many cases, they derived their students and disciples from the same pool of unemployed and unmarried males who engaged in banditry. More directly, many martial arts groups engaged in gambling, drinking, and various forms of extortion and petty crime.

In 1727 a Qing official accused local martial arts groups of “stirring up the ‘stupid people’.”

In 1728 the Yong-zheng emperor issued an imperial prohibition specifically against such martial arts groups. The emperor condemned teachers as “drifters and idlers who refuse to work at their proper occupations” and mentioned that they gathered with their disciples all day, leading to “gambling, drinking and brawls”.

A censor’s memorial of 1808, describing border areas of Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Henan noted; “In this area there are many vagabonds and rowdies who draw their swords and gather crowds. They have established societies of various names. They are overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people. The origin of these disturbances is gambling. They go to fairs and markets and openly set up tens where they take valuables to pawn and gather to gamble”.

Qing Country magistrates were advised: “there is a class of vagrant youths who gather together with the bad children of the educated classes, burn incense and take blood oaths. They publicly invite teachers and study boxing and fencing, tattoo patterns on both arms, and wear short armor down to their waists. Like a pack of foxes and dogs they come and go from tea stores and wine shops, wander like bees and dance like butterflies and go wild with women in brothels.”(9)

An 1899 pamphlet by Zhili magistrate Lao Nai-wuan described local martial arts groups “overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people.”

The modern martial arts student would likely be shocked and horrified by the above descriptions. The idea that our fabled ancestors appeared to have been little more than local gangsters doesn’t sit well with modern conceptions of “martial virtue” (武德). Yet, clearly at least some martial arts groups were indeed disruptive forces in society. As early as the Song Dynasty we see martial arts with names such as “No Order Society” (沒命社) and “Forgetting Order Society” (亡命社). Others exhibited the bravado of modern organized crime, calling themselves “Tyrant Society” (霸王社).

Not the “eight trigrams” you were expecting

26 Jul

The Eight Trigrams rebellion (八卦教起義) (1813)


Another White Lotus related rebellion we will discuss is the Eight Trigrams rebellion (八卦教起義). Once again, we see the intersection of class issues, religious sectarianism and independent martial arts groups. Perhaps here we also so clearly see the questions of origin and the divisions within such rebellions.


The rebellion was under the leadership of a triumvirate; the kings of Heaven, Man and Earth. The first of these men, Lin Qing (林清), soon to be named the “King of Heaven”, was yet another character strongly fitting a JiangHu profile. Lin had been a drifter, a con artist, a gambler and had worked as a (probably fake) healer. Despite a background that hardly seem suited to religious leadership, he managed to take over a small sect known as the Tianli Sect (天理教). How exactly the Tianli Sect (天理教) was related to the White Lotus sect appears uncertain, with the previous caveat that Qing officials perhaps used it as a blanket term for all heterodox movements.


Still appearing more hustler than religious leader, Lin Qing made contact with Li Wen-Cheng (李文成) in 1811. Li Wen-Cheng, soon to be named the “King of Men”, was already the leader of several small religious sects in Hua county Henan, and surrounding areas of Shandong and Zhili. Together, Lin and Li consolidated their followers under the banner of the Eight Trigram Sect (八卦教), also called the Nine Palaces Sect (九宮教). Practitioners of the Bagua Zhang (八卦掌) martial arts school would naturally find these details interesting. Among the smaller sects absorbed into this larger new sect were the Ronghua Society (榮華會), the Baiyang Sect (白陽教), the Hongyang Sect (紅陽教), and the Qingyang Sect (青陽教).

The White Lotus Rebellion had begun as a tax protest and in response to local government corruption. Wang Lun had announced himself the reincarnation of Maitreya and that he was destined to become Emperor of China. In a similar vein, the Eight Trigrams Rebellion most proximate cause also seems rather political. In 1812, the leaders of the sect announced that Li Wencheng, “King of Men”, was “Tue lord of the Ming”. A rebellion was going to usher in a new “kalpa” in which Li was going to be the next emperor of a restored Ming Dynasty.(Modern Chinese Warfare, 1795-1989 by Bruce A. Elleman)


It is within this context we can best understand the arrival of the third leader of this new sect, Feng Ke-Shan (馮克善), named “King of Earth”. By most accounts, Feng was a man with little interest in religion (Esherick 44). He was a gambler who frequently got into drunken brawls.
Lin Qing, “King of Heaven” also initially had little respect for martial artists, upon meeting a renowned fighter scornfully stating “Ours is the way of immortals, we do not use swords.” (Esherick 50). But rebellions, especially ones intent upon overthrowing a dynasty, required men skilled in violence. Feng had his own personal martial arts group and was also from the Mei Hua Quan (梅花拳) school. Mei Hua Quan was (and remains) a large, well established and respected tradition in northern China. This probably accounts for the general feeling he was a man with extensive connections with other regional martial arts groups he could recruit for the sect.


The Mei Hua Quan martial arts school presents us with an excellent example of how a single individual, in this case Feng Ke-Shan, is hardly indicative of a larger movement. Mei Hua Quan can be traced back at least as far as 1742 to a teacher named Yang Bing (楊炳). Yang was a graduate of the highest military examination with third place honors and had served in the metropolitan garrison. (Esherck 149 and Yang). Subsequent generations of Mei Hua Quan martial artists appear to have maintained good relations with local militia leaders, the retired military degree holders and the local gentry. It appears to have been a martial arts school that could be counted on to provide men in defense of the region and had tolerated precisely because it served a useful social function.

In 1813, several natural disasters and a poor harvest resulted in famine provided the ideological pretext to begin the rebellion. Eight Trigrams rebels spread through the provinces of Henan, Shandong and Zhili. Some rebels even invaded the Imperial City. In response, Feng Ke-Shan’s Mei Hua Quan teacher, an elderly medicine seller named Tang Heng-Le (唐恒乐) renounced him as a student. Tang then led his students in joining the local militia in suppressing the sectarians. (esherick 52) According to official documents, Feng Ke-Shan was caputed and put to death by dismemberment.

The Heaven and Earth Society and the practice of Chinese martial arts

24 Jul

In northern China, religious sectarians had all been associated with the White Lotus Sect. In southern China, the various secret societies, the Heaven and Earth Society (天地會), the Three Dots Society (三點會), the Three Harmonies Society (三合會), and the Hong League (洪門) were generally agreed to be one and the same, though it was impossible to verify. (Murray 9) This distinction between religious sectarian groups and secret societies could be said to be both artificial and arbitrary. Sectarian rebellions all had social, economic and political dimensions. The secret societies share many features with the sectarians, including at least the appearance of religious ritual and the participation of Buddhist monks in their ranks. (Ownby, also Anthony 71) Yet, as we separate fact from fiction, the distinction ultimately does seem useful.


Discussions about the Heaven and Earth Society have long been clouded by the fact that much of the earliest history depended upon either internally generated society documents or prisoner testimony, neither of which is very reliable but yet which it seems were seldom questioned until recently. Yan Yan (嚴煙) is said to have introduced the Heaven and Earth Society to Taiwan, and upon his arrest in 1788 explained that the society had been created in “the distant past” in Sichuan province by two men with the surnames Li (李) and Zhu (朱). Subsequently a man named Ma Jiulong (馬九龍) gathered forty eight Shaolin monks to spread the society and its teaching. Of the original forty eight Shaolin monks, thirteen survived. A monk named Hong Er (洪二), also called Ti Xi (提喜), then introduced the society to Guangdong in the 1760’s (“Tiandihui” compiled by the Qing History Institute of People’s University (Beijing: Zhongguo Renmin Daxue Chubanshe, 1981-9).

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The Heaven and Earth Society depicted themselves as a pro-Ming political movement, embracing the slogan “Oppose Qing and restore Ming” (反清復明). They claimed the society was created as an alliance between Ming loyalists and the survivors of a Shaolin monastery in Fujian province (福建) that they claimed had been burned by the Qing government. Different versions of this foundational story exist; the forty eight Shaolin monk story Yan Yan had told authorities, another in which 128 surviving Shaolin martial monks swore revenge. In 1810, authorities confiscated a society handbook which listed five men who had purportedly escaped the monastery and established the society; Cai Dezhong (蔡德忠) , Fang Dahong (方大洪), Ma Chaoxing (馬超興), Hu Dedi (胡德帝), and Li Shikai (李式開) . (ter Haar 379).


As the claims of the Heaven and Earth Society were subjected to a more critical eye, and as more historical documents became available, increasingly historians began reconsidering the nature of secret societies in southern China. Rather than politically motivated, they fit more properly in the context of mutual aid and self-protection associations. The peasantry had engaged in creating parallel social institutions independent of gentry elites. This was especially true among itinerant and migrant communities, i.e. the same JiangHu subculture in which martial artists so frequently belonged.

Chinese historians Zhuang Jifa (莊吉發) and Qin Baoqi (秦寳琦) both date the establishment of the Heaven and Earth Society to 1761 or 1762, a century after the date given by the previous traditional historiography. Qin Baoqi examined social tensions and economic hardships among the marginalized as contributing factors to the society’s establishment. Zhuang Jifa examined the role of ethnic rivalries and lineage feuds. All these conclusions placed the Heaven and Earth Society within the larger context of mutual aid and self-protection associations. In retrospect, even prisoner testimony had already suggested this. Yan Yan had also explained;

“Originally people willingly entered the society to get financial help from other members for weddings and funerals and support if they got into fights. Also if band its accosted t hem, as soon as they indicated the secret signs of the sect they would not be bothered”.


David Ownby was among the first western historians to recognize and discuss this relationship between the Heaven and Earth Society and those preexisting parallel social institutions, though he also saw the society as connected to popular religious traditions In part, this may be a result of Ownby’s belief that what made the Heaven and Earth Society unique was that it merged the features of those mutual aid associations with the tradition of blood-oath brotherhoods. Chinese blood-oaths brotherhoods featured quasi-religious ritual, and similarly new members of the society were made to engage in elaborate rituals and swear an oath to the war god Guan Di (transformed by society rituals into the god of secret oaths).

Cooperation between Chinese and western historians, and access to Qing dynasty archives in both Beijing and Taipei that only became available in the last few decades, has allowed a much more reliable history of the Heaven and Earth Society to emerge in the English language for those interested. A volume written by Dian Murray in collaboration with Qin Baoqi confirms for English speakers that the society was founded not as a political movement but as a mutual aid brotherhood, building on institutional foundations already deeply rooted in Chinese popular culture.

Tourist dollars obscure searches for the truth about "Fujian Shaolin"

Tourist dollars obscure searches for the truth about “Fujian Shaolin”

Reaffirming Qin’s earlier work, the English language volume sets the creation of the society at 1761 or 1762, in Zhangpu county (漳浦), Zhangzhou prefecture (漳州), Fujian province (福建). The monk Ti Xi (提喜) (with the alias “Hong Er” 洪二) recruited three local men as his followers; Lu Mao (盧茂), Li Amin (李阿閔) (alias “Li Shaomin” 李少敏, who may have been a martial artist), and Fang Quan (方權). The three acknowledged the monk Ti Xi as their leader and entered into a blood-oath brotherhood with each other; setting the pattern for all future society activity. It is probably not a coincidence that at the time the region was prone to many of the same geographic, social and economic pressures we have repeatedly seen in this study; it has been suggested that the three men were all landless, a common problem in the province as a result of population growth. The reader should also note the reoccurring importance of Fujian in southern martial arts history and myth, and also Zhangpu’s close proximity to Guangdong province (廣東).

Qin and Muarray’s volume provide us with a documented, contextual approach to the origins of the Heaven and Earth Society, removing the propaganda and myth. Yet, as Zhuang Jifa points out, it is unlikely the society was created by one particular person or even small group of persons. (See Wu Zhaoqing 吳兆淸and Hao Zhiqing 赫治淸, The society likely evolved within the larger network of similar, multi-surname brotherhoods and mutual assistance associations, and likely incorporated many along the way. This would explain the aforementioned Ma Jiulong (馬九龍), who may have been active simultaneously in Guangdong.


While we will return to claims about a Shaolin monastery in Fujian in more detail later, it is sufficient at this point to mention there is no reliable documentation of the existence of such a monastery or of the Qing government burning it down. The well documented Shaolin monastery in Henan province (河南) states “In all the records of the Shaolin Monastery, I have never seen the words ‘Southern Shaolin’” (“ 在我們少林寺所有的典籍中, 我從來沒有看到過 『南少林』 的字樣”). The research we have discussed here, dating to the early 1990’s in China and presented in English by Qin and Murray, should have finally laid to rest these claims of connection to Shaolin yet some authors such as Immanuel Hsu in The Rise and Fall of Modern China, unwittingly persist in spreading this misinformation, treating it as history.

Yet the discovery that the Heaven and Earth Society’s claims of affiliation with Shaolin are fiction in no way makes them less important to our examination. It demonstrates the powerful reputation that Shaolin had during the Qing period. It suggests that the men in these secret societies identified with the martial monks of Shaolin. Finally, it indicates that the Shaolin reputation was attractive to those elements that the society wanted to recruit as members. The story was both an attempt at legitimization and a recruiting tool.


Additionally, we must still address the apparent presence of Buddhist monks within movements such as the Heaven and Earth Society. As a foreign ruler, one of the Qing Dynasty’s first acts was to require ethnic Chinese to adopt the queue (辮子) hairstyle. The hairstyle policy was resisted quite strongly but enforced ruthlessly. One tactic employed by those who resisted authority, even if they were not actually “Ming loyalists”, was to shave their head and pose as a Buddhist monk. Adopting the persona of a Buddhist monk had other advantages for those engaged in illegal and rebellious activities; many Buddhist monks were itinerant and a man posing as a monk could travel more easily without arousing the attention of the government.

Certainly, not everyone with a shaved head and monastic raiment was a con man just pretending religious affiliation. The reality was far more complicated, and particularly relevant to examination. The geographic, economic and social pressures we have seen again and again affecting the peasantry and creating marginalization meant the “outside world” was not very attractive. Buddhism offered an alternative to the reality of daily life and monasteries needed men willing to protect their interests, to be the militia we come to know as martial monks. Thus, men of violence joined monasteries, took religious vows and became monks, but without necessarily abandoning “ego,” embracing Buddhist compassion or giving up their violent tendencies.

Accounts of Buddhist monastery militia used in the suppression of the “wokou” (the so-called “Japanese pirates”) during the Ming period demonstrate this point rather well. The force recruited included monks from several Buddhist monasteries, who vied and argued to determine who would be their leader. A monk from the Shaolin monastery in Henan boasted “I am real Shaolin, is there any martial art in which you are good enough to justify your claim for superiority over me?” Matches followed using unarmed techniques in which the Shaolin monk was victorious (in other words, a fist fight broke out!). The defeated men then armed themselves with swords (in other words, they were sore losers) and the Shaolin monk had to improvise staff techniques with a long bar used to lock the gate. Finally, during this same campaign we have an account of one of the monks beating to death the unarmed wife on one of the pirates as she attempted to escape.

Finally, for our discussion, there is no doubt that martial arts practice played an important role in the Heaven and Earth Society’s daily operations. The society was organized around a very elaborate and specific hierarchy. Among one of the most senior and important of those positions was the “red pole” or “red staff” (紅棍). The “red staff” served as a “lieutenant” to the head of a specific lodge, and was responsible for enforcing the lodge’s rules. As the title also suggests, the “red staff” also was responsible for training the membership in martial arts, organizing the fighting force and leading them into battle, whether against the government, rival societies or other enemies. A man seeking the leadership of a lodge had to have at one point served as a “red staff”.

“Great moments” in Chinese martial arts fraud history!

22 Jul

We of course know that there are a lot of excellent, honest and wonderful martial arts instructors, heck, even “masters” out there. But there are also quite a few con men and frauds. Most operate hoping the average person is not educated. And they certainly operate hoping people won’t re-visit and re-publicize their cons and frauds of the past. So, with that in mind, let us revisit one of the worst episodes in Chinese martial arts fraud. It happened in New York City.


This remains documented in a variety of places but one of them is


Special To The IKF: If you are in the New York area you might have heard about an event called “Team USA vs. Team China” being billed as “the best US San Shou fighters vs. the Beijing Institute professional San Shou team”. Many believe that this event, being a professional San Shou event, is being promoted by Steve Ventura and David A Ross. They not only run one of the largest San Shou programs in the country, having trained two current national San Shou champions, but they are also one of the top promoters of San Shou including professional San Shou. However, they are NOT involved in this event. And they want the fighting community to know this.

This so called “Team USA vs. Team China” event is being promoted by a company called World Sport USA Inc., a promotion that not a single San Shou program in the United States has ever heard of before. The only thing that is accurate in their advertising so far has been that “Team China” is composed of the professional San Shou team from the Beijing Institute of Physical Culture. These five fighters are all professional, full time San Shou fighters and each have over 40 fights. They may in fact be China’s best. So the obvious question is why aren’t they facing the best US San Shou fighters?


Until the next official, IWUF recognized, US team trials take place this May the only official “Team USA” is the team that went to the 5th World San Shou Championships in Hong Kong in November 1999. This team includes Cung Le (R- ISKA Pro San Shou Champion), Rudi Ott (IKF Pro San Shou Champion), Al Loriaux, Josh Bartholomew and Chinu Ly. Of these fighters, only Josh Bartholomew is reited, yet not a single one of these fighters is taking part in the World Sport USA event. Clearly, “Team USA” is NOT taking part in this event as advertised.

In the United States, there are also a number of former amatuer San Shou champions who have turned professional. While they are not the official “Team USA” they are certainly members of the nation’s best San Shou fighters fraternity. These fighters include Dan Garrett, Mike Altman, Scott Sheeley and Marvin Perry. However, none of these fighters are taking part in the event either!

The event is taking place in New York City. New York City also happens to be the home of several professional fighters who, while their primary style is not San Shou, have indeed fought San Shou style and would be worthy opponents. Moti Horenstein is a professional Muay Thai fighter who also has excellent grappling skills. Peter Kaljivic has fought against members of the Chinese team in China before and has fought under shootboxing rules which are very similar to San Shou. Tom Battone is the USKBA world champion and has a San Shou background. Billy Maysonett is a Muay Thai fighter who has fought in several pro San Shou matches in NYC and is a well known fighter. However, none of these fighters in involved either.

Finally, while the Beijing team is clearly professional, it has not been unheard of for amatuer fighters to face professional fighters in San Shou events. However, once again, the fact is that the nation’s best amateurs are not taking part in the event either! The current national amateur champions include Ejovi Nuwere, Albert Pope, Robert Shultz, Robert Franshier, James Cooper, Adam Resnick, Marvin Perry (who won the amatuers a record 5 times and then turned pro) and Adam Caldwell. NONE are involved in the event.

Who is on the team that World Sport USA is calling “Team USA”? Who are these fighters they are calling the best San Shou fighters? Apparently they are students of one of the promoters! In addition, they appear to be people who have never even fought in a San Shou event! So, don’t let World Sport USA tell you that they are putting the nation’s best San Shou fighters on their card. Don’t support an event that so clearly thumbs their nose at both the fighters and the public.



We found out after the event that the Americans put up against the PROFESSIONAL BEIJING TEAM were mostly students of the promoter. Most of them had never fought and were fighting guys with 60+ fights experience.

We found out the announcer told people these guys who never fought we the “US champions” and then they ridiculed them saying stuff like “look how superior the Chinese are to the Americans”…

I don’t know about you, but to me that isn’t just a scam, it is racism. And that should bother you

UPDATE: Petition to save this blog….

15 Jul

If you have not yet signed, you can do so at

We have over 100 signatures in just a few days, plus tons of wonderful comments. And, of course, I continue to blog even as the ax looms.

1. My next project is tentatively titled “Chinese martial arts, a historical outline”. I have raw cuts of five chapters so far, but also have been blessed with some new studies and getting some hard to find/out of print books to flesh out material. As this is intended as an outline, I definitely want to bibliographical essay to be deep for interested readers to further their knowledge.

2. The Chan Tai San Lion’s Roar Lama Pai secret group on facebook. LAST CHANCE – The price of membership will increase to $39 on August 1st.

If you are not in the New York Tri-State area and still want to learn the material being offered in the new association program, now is your limited time opportunity! Only $29 per month with no commitment gives you UNLIMITED ACCESS to the material. But that price will go up August 1st!

Life with and without Chan Tai-San….

14 Jul

July 12. 2016 would have been Chan Tai-San’s 96th birthday, and in response someone asked me a very interesting question. In essence, they asked how exactly Chan Tai-San effected me personally when he was alive, and how effected I was once he passed. I generally think that people have misperceived how Chan Tai-San conducted himself, thinking that martial arts “masters” must act in a certain way, based more on bad movies than real life.

public class

I not only learned awesome martial arts from Chan Tai-San, my relationship with him really did establish me in the Wu Lin. I already had training, and I had already had a certain reputation in New York City’s Chinatown prior to meeting him; but that reputation was not positive and I was definitely an “outsider”. Chan Tai San put me in charge of his public classes and introduced me to the world as his disciple. He opened a lot of doors for me.


In running Chan Tai San’s public classes, I was training almost everyone in the system’s basics and I was given a rather free hand. I’d even say that if I wanted input, I had to ask for it! I vividly remember learning methods and drills only because I had asked a question and received them in response. There are still people around who were there in those days, and they can confirm that training included a lot of conditioning, a lot of two person drilling and sparring. I was also the person who made the decision to attend our first NACMAF tournament; where we placed equally in empty hand forms, weapons forms and sparring.


Like many traditional teachers, Chan Tai San only directly trained a small circle of his most advanced students. He full expected and accepted that from that circle, his own students would teach the larger group in his name. Not only was I leaving New York to attend graduate school, Michael Parrella was already planning to open a location in Long Island. At the same time Steve Ventura returned from living in Florida and opened a location in Manhattan with the help of Stephen Innocenzi. So there were several locations you could learn Chan Tai San’s methods, but not directly from him. He supervised and was there to offer advice, but he definitely ran a “loose ship”.


My personal interests have always seemed to lean toward application and fighting. Experiences while I was away in graduate school, and the major changes in the martial arts world in general, resulted in my trying my hand at training fighters for full contact venues. A lot of people seem to think that was some sort of a “break” with Chan Tai San? But Chan Tai San had himself fought in organized fighting competitions. He fought in the Guangdong provincial sparring championships, in several military sparring contests and even in several western boxing bouts. Not only did I have the “freedom” to train fighters, it was something Chan Tai San actually found personally interesting.


Chan Tai-San officially retired more than 16 years ago. The few years proceeding that retirement, he was not that active either as his health had deteriorated as a result of diabetes. Which is to say, some people with “opinions” were infants or yet to be born when most of this happened. Chan Tai San actually attended many of the events I brought my fighters to; if anyone really thinks that Chan Tai-San did not enjoy watching people associated with his name win full contact matches then they did not know him very well.


Of course, once he retired and after he passed away I was “free” to do anything I wanted. I did a lot of cross training, but I always remind people that Chan Tai San did TONS of cross training, had studied many methods, had many teachers and even done the “Baai Si” ceremony with more than one! In addition to Choy Lay Fut, Lama Pai and Pak Mei, he was extremely fond of western boxing and Japanese Judo.


Furthermore, I had already trained in other martial arts PRIOR to meeting Chan Tai San, he was fully aware of that and never had a problem with that. In fact, he told me that it figured into his decision to have me teach his public classes. Go figure….

Learn more about Chan Tai San by reading my book (click here)


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