History is perspective…

7 Oct

I actually missed the first three UFC’s, but I was given them on a VHS tape not long afterwards. I think people training today have a hard time imagining that in those days Brazilian Jiujitsu instruction was not easy to find, and if you wanted to train in it you had to ally yourself with them against the rest of the martial arts world. It was actually sort of a hostile period of time, quite unlike the era of cross training we live in now.


Today, Brazilian Jiujitsu is a very popular (and organized) sport, but in the early days people were interested in it as it related to Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). Since there was that “US against THEM” mentality, there were those who joined Jiujitsu and then there was the rest of the world; looking at wrestling, Judo, Sambo and anything else they could learn to “counter” Jiujitsu. People became interested in the scene that evolved in Japan out of pro wrestling; UWF, UWFi, Shooto, Pancrase, etc. This also led to interest in “Catch wrestling” and some rather interesting events which I won’t go into in this particular blog.


The thing is, in this initial period, people equated the ground with grappling and submissions. We saw armbars and triangle chokes from your back (the guard). Since people were looking to Japan for information, people became interested in lots of “exotic” submissions; weird leg locks and neck cranks. Early Pancrase “borrowed” professional wrestling “rules” and had only open hand slapping, and pretty much striking was NOT used on the ground.


Of course, the UFC and all the subsequent promotions in the United States that followed it eventually changed the playing field. The Gracie family had always had the idea of getting a mount, or back mount, and striking. Some Brazilians excelled in this (I remember watching Rickson for example). But they usually used the strikes to set up a submission. Increasingly striking to end the match became an end unto itself and people really developed it as a skill.


I was asked by the now defunct USKBA under Paul Rosner to judge an MMA event at Mohegan Sun. It was a Russian team, made up of Sambo trained fighters, against a team of Brazilian Jiujitsu fighters (mostly relocated Brazilians). In the “golden age” of early MMA people would have expected some sort of battle of submissions. The event was rather disappointing; the Jiujitsu fighters all systematically took down the Russians and used “ground and pound” to end the matches. They didn’t even need judges.

Submissions aren’t “dead”, we still see lots of chokes and Ronda Rousey certainly demonstrated that a good old school Jujigatame still had its place in modern MMA. But I think that is exactly the point. The basics, the “bread and butter” submissions still work in MMA. Like most things, the “flash” or the “clinic technique” is never what real fighting is about. It is about BASICS. Writing this blog, I think back to watching a documentary on Holland’s Jon Bluming. His fusion of Kyokushinkai and Judo featured only the most basic of Judo, three or four arm locks and three or four chokes (including lapel chokes).


Go for the bacon, not the sizzle.

Steal, steal a lot, and steal from the best…..

28 Sep

The other day a guy who trains with me (and who has an extensive background and trains in a lot of different places) told me that one of the other instructors he knows told him he shouldn’t train with me because I steal stuff…..


If you know me, you probably already knew that would be my reaction… But more seriously, I have three different responses to this “attack”.

First, of course I steal stuff! I have stated MANY TIMES my opinion that if an instructor claims to have no influence other than their primary art/primary instructor they are either being dishonest or are unacceptably intellectually lazy.


It is impossible for one person to have all the techniques or the “answers”. Even an organization like mine, where I am friends with and continue to network with many respected fighters, coaches and trainers, we can’t make such a claim. That is precisely why you’ll find us consistently training with others.


Second, if you really think I “stole” stuff, ask how did I do it? How did I learn it, integrate it into what I do and how am I able to teach it? Let me put it another way, the instructor in question told my “friend” (won’t even call him a student) that I stole stuff from him (well, it is quite a funny story there, but that is another blog). My friend told him basically, “yeah, but he understands it better and explained it to me better.” So, I ask you, who really “owns” it? The person who thinks they “had it first” or the person who really understands it?


Third, how do you “own” anything for me to steal it? Does anyone really think there is one technique that only they and their teacher have? Human beings all have one torso, one head, two arms, two hands, two elbows, two legs, two knees and two feet. The reality is, NO ONE OWNS TRUTH. You might as well accuse me of “stealing” your air!


This stuff is really the product of small minds and insecurity. Never be afraid to attend a seminar or go to another school to train and learn something new. Take every opportunity you can to train with the best. If a famous fighter or teacher is coming to your town to do a seminar, or is a reasonable traveling distance from you take that opportunity. Don’t be afraid to “steal” and don’t be concerned with what others may say. The “purity” of certain traditional martial art traditions is not only an obstacle to your advancement; it is in fact a myth!

Chinese martial arts; a historical outline .. more ROUGH CUTS

11 Sep

Paragraphs, pages and even chapters change daily during the edit process, but here’s some more “rough cuts”…..


Relevant to our study, we must also understand how these confusions were created due to outsiders with little understanding of the practices they were observing applying their own external labels. Relatively disinterested Qing officials found it convenient to label all heterodox religious sects part of the White Lotus movement. Thus, the Eight Trigrams Sect was labelled White Lotus, and if they practiced “Armor of Golden Bell” then it too must be a White Lotus teaching. Liu Shiduan’s group practiced and even called themselves “Armor of Golden Bell”; which in this convoluted train of pseudo-logic purportedly linked them to the White Lotus?

So how then did the public at the time and generations of subsequent historians and political scientists establish a link between the Spirit Boxers and the White Lotus? The relationship was certainly not due to practice of the “Armor of Golden Bell.” The Spirit Boxer’s brand of invulnerability practice was based not in orthodox martial arts but rather mass spirit possession rituals. (Esherick 55 and Cohen 17) Rather, Liu Shiduan’s group, which was linked to the White Lotus tenuously based upon the “Armor of Golden Bell,” and the Spirt Boxers are linked by the “Big Sword Society” banner. Of course, we have established that neither group actually called themselves “Big Sword Society,” it was a label applied to them by outside observers. It would be almost humorous had it not important consequences.


Finally, both Joseph Esherick and Paul Cohen note fundamental problems in trying to link the Spirit Boxers / Yi He Quan to the White Lotus Sect. First, mass spirit possession, a defining characteristic of the Spirit Boxers, is conspicuously absent from the White Lotus Sect tradition. (Cohen 30). Second, mention of the “Eternal Venerable Mother,” a figure central to White Lotus sect tradition, is absent from Spirit Boxer traditions. (Esherick 221, Cohen 30). The “Eternal Venerable Mother” was a syncretic pseudo-Buddhist figure that offered salvation to White Lotus followers, if they were under the direction of the appropriate leadership. The Spirit Boxers offered supernatural powers via possession by the spirits of popular figures from history, fiction and the Chinese opera, and the technique was so easy it could be learned by anyone, especially poor uneducated peasant youth.

If by this point in this study the reader has not already begun questioning these things, let me more explicitly state my point. In the general absence of reliable, authoritative documents regarding specific traditions produced by the participants themselves, we must always question whether the things we have come to believe originated with the practitioners or were the product of external forces. Are we confusing peasant superstition, Chinese opera performance or street performance tricks with authentic martial arts practice?

One Shandong master promised that the techniques [of invulnerability] could be learned in a day; another said seven or eight days; a third more rigorous teacher claimed 103 days but still noted that it was “much easier than the Armor of the Golden Bell.”
(Esherick 294)

Do many believe that martial arts are a health and spiritual activity because that is how the educated elites, who by virtue of their literacy had a virtual monopoly on documenting them for most of our history, were interested in and viewed them? Perhaps today, many can believe that the association of religion with martial arts has had many positive benefits for both health and spiritual development. Yet, in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising, it may have seemed to have been the worst thing to happen to the martial arts.

“Rough cuts” , more draft work from forthcoming volume

6 Sep


The confusion surrounding Cheng Tinghua’s adoption of the name Nei Jia Quan in 1894 was indicative of a larger problem. By the late Qing period, the lines between martial arts and religion were significantly blurred. At this point in our study, it should be clear that martial arts did not originate as religious practices. Both documents relating to the general practice of martial arts and specific biographies of select martial artists demonstrate that into the early to mid-twentieth century there were still men who had a strictly utilitarian view of their practice; it was for self-protection, it was an occupation, it served concrete economic and political goals. Some of these men saw value in incorporating Daoist Daoyin, though to what degree they already had similar exercises remains an unanswered question. It does seem clear that in general the martial arts community had adopted Daoyin concepts and terminology, but that still doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone practicing martial arts viewed it as religious or spiritual practice.

On the other hand, Meir Shahar has demonstrated that the monks of Shaolin practiced martial arts not only for self-protection but also specifically because they were intrigued by its potential for spiritual cultivation and medical applications. (Shahar, esp 137) Approaching martial arts as a spiritual and/or health practice seemed to be its major appeal to the educated classes, who helped document it and ultimately served as its patrons. Finally, there were indeed men who practiced martial arts as a practical skill for violence yet believed something more profound lay beneath its surface. Sun Lutang’s (孫祿堂) first teacher, a Shaolin practitioner named Wu (吳), told him “the martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

The problem with associating martial arts with religion was the society’s perception of disruptive heterodox religious sects and ignorant peasant superstitions. Combining martial arts with qi circulation practices, using religious terminology and imagery was indeed the slippery slope that provided the fertile ground from which the Spirit Boxers / Yi He Quan grew. To many outside observers, martial artists appeared to be ignorant peasants who boasted using borrowed religious vocabulary, engaged in questionable quasi-religious practices, and were inescapably linked to heterodox religious sects. Long held suspicions of a direct relationship between “White Lotus” religious sectarians and martial arts groups seemed vindicated after the Boxer Uprising.

There is no stronger evidence of these perceptions than the generations of trained historians and political scientists, such as Elizabeth Perry and Susan Naquin, who continued for decades to assert an integral relationship between heterodox religion and the practice of martial arts. Susan Naquin appears to have believed that all “White Lotus” sects (keeping in mind Barend J. ter Haar’s previously discussed caveat about Qing officials’ the generic use of “White Lotus” label) offered martial arts training and all sectarians engaged in practice. (Naquin Millenarian 30-31). In another volume, Naquin even embraces the idea of a “White Lotus martial arts tradition.” (Nanquin Shantung rebellion p 192) Naquin, noting the presence of a practitioner within the Eight Trigrams Sect, identifies the “Armor of Golden Bell” as a White Lotus teaching. (Naquin Millenarian 30-31). In response, Joseph Esherick notes that this “Armor of Golden Bell” practitioner, Zhang Luo-Jiao (張洛焦), 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) Never the less, identification of the “Armor of Golden Bell” as a White Lotus teaching appears to be at least part of the reason that Naquin believed that the Boxer Uprising was a direct result of the White Lotus tradition (Naquin Millenarian p 3).


More random thoughts on a Tuesday morning

6 Sep

The martial art I teach begins instruction with a technique known as the “penetrating strike” (穿搥). The correct execution of this technique requires learning to turn both the hips and shoulders, engaging in a practice referred to as the “wheeling body” (車輪身). Ironically, while today most would classify my method as “external,” this practice is similar to the Taiji Quan concept “the waist turns like a wheel” (腰如輪轉). Learning to turn correctly and developing thoracic flexibility allows us to develop “waist power” (腰力). We refer to our strikes as “shooting star fists (流星拳). In Xing Yi Quan there is the saying “punch like a shooting star” (拳出如流星).

If I have a student who has studied Indian yoga, they will inevitably observe that the execution of the “penetrating strike” and the exercises to prepare the body (練功) are similar to many Yogic asana such as the “virabhadrasana.” Based upon their experience, this is how the student relates to my martial art. It does not mean that my martial art has origins in India, in Yoga, or a relationship to Hinduism. If I decide (and I have) to also study Yoga, it gives me a different perspective on my martial art, it teaches me new methods and approaches to teaching flexibility. In the end, I have absorbed Yogic techniques which allow me to better teach my martial arts students how to execute the strike. In addition, if practicing my martial art also strengthens my students’ bodies and makes them healthier, I am still teaching them my martial art and not Yoga.

At this point, I will further complicate my story by letting you know that the martial art I teach is called “Mi Zong Lama Pai“ (密宗喇嘛派), or “Tantric Lama Sect.” My method is not called this because the individuals in my lineage were particularly religious, they were not. One worked as an armed escort and engaged in a number of public challenge matches, several were military officers and a number were members of secret societies and/or involved in organized crime. The method is named Mi Zong Lama Pai simply because the ethnic Chinese who learned it in southern China in the mid nineteenth century learned it from a Buddhist monk affiliated with the Tantric Buddhist Sect (密宗佛教). That Buddhist monk also engaged in challenge matches and may have used a hooked sword to kill a few people. As I have already discussed here, Buddhist monks in Imperial China frequently did not conform to our contemporary understanding and expectations. We’ll return to that monk a little later.

The Big Sword Society (大刀會)

2 Sep

The Big Sword Society (大刀會) first appears operating in southwestern Shandong province (山東) in the late 1890’s. (Esherick 96) As a border region, it was not tightly governed and the local gentry were politically weak. (Cohen 17) It was prone to banditry, opium growing and salt smuggling. Yet the Big Sword Society was neither a bandit gang nor a secret society nor a sectarian movement.


Liu Shiduan (劉士端), who is credited as the founder and leader of the Big Sword Society, was a martial artist who in his thirties had learned the “Armor of the Golden Bell” from an itinerant martial artist named Zhao (趙) (Esherick 107). Liu was both well-educated and prosperous; he owned about 100 mu of land. In the early 1890s, Liu started to teach martial arts and the “Armor of the Golden Bell” to his own disciples. His students were typically rich peasants or small landowners such as Cao Deli (曹得禮) and Peng Guilin (彭桂林) who would both become leaders in his society. [Esherick 107-108]

During this period, already existing banditry had intensified due to the imperial military having been diverted out of the region in response to the Sion-Japanese war. The society began as an anti-bandit group; supported by local gentry, landlords and rich peasants. That is, the society represented the interests of those who had property to defend. The poor did not join, as they had nothing to protect (Esherick 109 Cohen 17).


Much has been made by some of the group’s association with the supposedly “heterodox technique” of “Armor of the Golden Bell.” In fact, there is evidence the group may have actually referred to itself as “the Armor of the Golden Bell.” (Esherick 55) Just as Qing officials had applied the label “White Lotus” to virtually all heterodox religious sects, the name “Big Sword Society” may have been attributed to Liu’s group by external observers. We will return again to the issue of externally applied names. For now, we note that the local officials, who certainly were concerned with “heterodox practices” and sectarian activity, could also distinguish between lawless bandits and anti-bandit groups defending the social order. [Esherick 109] As Paul Cohen notes, “[in] the initial phase of its development, the organization’s sole purpose was to protect people’s lives and property.” (Cohen 17)


In 1895, Liu’s society caught the attention of the Caozhou (曹州) prefect Yuxian (毓賢) by arresting a large number of outlaws and turning them over to the local authorities. With official approval, they continued suppressing banditry between 1895 and 1896. Liu himself was credited with the capture of the bandit leader known as “Rice-Grain Yue the Second” (岳二米子). [Esherick 109-110]

Most histories related to the Boxer Uprising focus upon a shift with Liu’s group towards anti-Christian violence in 1896. However, evidence suggests that the nature of these disputes was not religious per se as much as the tendency of Christian missionaries to abuse their position as foreigners and their frequent interference in everyday affairs. In the first instance of conflict with Christians, bandits who have been involved in conflict with Liu’s society converted to Catholicism to gain legal immunity from arrest and to place them under the protection of the foreign powers. (Cohen 19)

In the second instance, Liu himself did not even actively participate, but events spun out of control and resulted in the end of his society. In northern Jiangsu (江蘇), the Pang family (龐) and Liu family (劉) were involved in lineage disputes over land use. The Liu lineage had sought leverage by converting to Catholicism. The leader of the Pang lineage, a young man who had only recently come into his position, requested the assistance of the Big Sword Society. (Cohen 19) Liu Shiduan sent his disciple and Big Sword Society co-leader Peng Guilin (彭桂林) to assist the Pang family.

Jospeh Esherick details the entire incident, which ultimately resulted in burned houses and other property damage but no Christian casualties. (Esherick 116-119) The government response was clearly disproportionate; Liu Shiduan and thirty other leaders of the society were arrested, tried and beheaded. (Cohen 20) As Esherick notes, the society had been created by landowners to protect their property and had maintained close relationships with local officials and local militia; it was an orthodox institution. For this very reason, the execution of its leadership had been extremely effective and immediately brought the society for all practical purposes to an end. “After Liu Shiduan was killed, there just wasn’t anymore Big Sword activity.” (Liu’s son quoted in Esherick 120) Yet, the name “Big Sword Society” would re-emerge during the Boxer Uprising?

Chinese martial arts: a historical outline

30 Aug

A very brief tease from the forthcoming volume, “Chinese martial arts: a historical outline”

Very few events are ever what they first appear to be!

The previously mentioned leader of the Spirit Boxers, Zhu Hongdeng (朱紅燈), it is said “could not use a sword or a spear.” (Esherick 393)


We then have the 1900 account of a local Zhili official;

..the members of my family went to have a look at the [martial arts] ground at the temple. They were told that boys ten of so years of age, after practicing there for seven or eight days, became invulnerable to swords. I certainly didn’t believe this. But on the first day of the fifth month, as we passed through the village of Gaoqiao, the driver said there was a [martial arts] ground at the temple there. So I got down from the cart to go see. I saw that the people there were all young lads of thirteen of fourteen, the youngest no older than eight…. I asked them: “Who teaches the [martial arts]? In reply they said: “There is no instructor at all. Only the gods who attach themselves to the boys’ bodies, after which the latter are able to do the [martial arts] exercises. It is called Spirit Boxing. After eighteen days of practice, they achieve mastery.
(Cohen 96-97)

The above account is self-explanatory. Later, Paul Cohen suggests that many of the Spirit Boxers had learned (at least in part) their “fighting techniques” from Chinese opera performances. (Cohen 107).


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.

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