REAL history of martial arts

12 Jan

More from recent research into the history of traditional Chinese martial arts.

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

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

The first Chinese Republic soon collapsed, fragmented and ruled by an assortment of regional military warlords. These warlords carved out autonomous districts with their own armies and tax systems while fighting each other in a continual battle for more land. The New Culture Movement sprang from the disillusionment with traditional Chinese culture following the failure of the Chinese Republic. Scholars whom had classical educations began to lead a revolt against the traditional Confucian culture. They called for the creation of a new Chinese culture based Western standards, especially Democracy and science.

Of course, traditional Chinese martial arts were a product of the traditional culture and were steeped in Confucian structures. The popular perception of the martial arts following the Boxer Uprising was also that the martial arts community was composed of poorly educated peasants who were superstitious, violent and backward.

In the private sector a number of societies were organized to promote a new vision of martial arts in modern China. In 1912 the Beiping Physical Culture Research Institute was established and began to publish a magazine called Physical Cuture. The Jingwu Physical Culture Society was the biggest and most popular Chinese martial arts society which spread through China and South East Asia from 1917 to 1929.

Jingwu Physical Culture Society was the first sports society to combine Western and Chinese physical culture, which not only taught Chinese martial arts and military training, but also taught Western sports, such as gymnastics exercise, athletics, football, basketball, volley­ball, tennis and swimming. It marked a transition from the martial arts serving solely as a soldiers’ tool to a middle-class recreation which had the potential of improving Chinese society as a whole.The Jingwu Association challenged the popular view of the martial artist, “Chinese martial arts practitioner does not equal ‘gangster,'”thug,” or ‘goon.”

The martial arts also survived and expanded in this period because of external problems centered on the extension of Japanese imperialism and the continuing influence of Western imperialism. These events also produced critical debates on sport. One debate focuses upon the relationship of physical education to military training. The notion of a martial spirit was one of the essential educational principles from 1912 to 1917. Militarism was the core concept of physical education in schools. Accordingly, physical education and military training were seen as over­lapping physical activities in schools.

Martial arts were suggested as the core part of education in schools to raise national martial spirits. In 1915, the Ministry of Education proclaimed that the proposal of military education should be put into effect. The proposal was that all schools should teach traditional Chinese martial arts and martial arts teachers should be educated at teacher training schools.

It was the first time that martial arts was put on the school curriculum formally in China. Also Chinese martial arts teaching methods had changed, from traditional individual teaching to group teaching which following instructional command and movement. Obviously, the new martial arts teaching method was influenced by Western gymnastics exercises and military drill.

The New Culture Movements was active and influential in China from 1907 to 1923, among university students and intellectuals who had studied abroad and embraced modernity. Of major concern was the health of the Chinese population, which suffered due to a combination of poor diet, disease, poverty, crowded living conditions, opium addiction and finally, a lack of concern about and knowledge of public health. Following the first Sino-Japanese war in 1895, many Chinese felt also that their country had become a “sick man” who needed strong medicine.

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

The debates on military training and physical education were launched by Chinese intellectuals. Ideas such as social Darwinism and survival of the fittest, which were introduced at this point in time, influenced some to believe that military drills could strengthen Chinese martial spirit to save China from imperialist invasion.

However, in the view of many intellectuals of the period, military-style calisthenics was not suitable for school curriculum, not only because of the context of military calisthenics but also because of the corrupt soldiers as teachers in schools.

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

Chen Tu-hsiu, one of the Chinese Communist Party’s founders and editor of a magazine entitled New Youth, criticized the classical feudal education system for over emphasizing literary memorization and neglecting physical exercise, yet disagreed about putting martial arts in the school curriculum because of his anti-traditionalism and anti-militarism positions. Chen called for “no boxing and no violent competitive games”20.
20 New Youth, 1 January 1920.

The public also still held strong negative opinions about traditional martial arts, One of the other famous anti-martial arts writers was Lu Xun, who argued that the propaganda of traditional Chinese sport was based on superstition, feudalism and anti-science.

In Lu’s view, over-emphasising the function of Chinese martial arts might raise a similar patriotism to that of the Boxer Rebellions in 1900.

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

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

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

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

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

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


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