The history of martial arts in China is one of contradiction and ambivalence. Despite its obvious utility, it was always viewed as a dangerous tool which needed to be controlled. Its practitioners were both legendary heroes and member of the least desirable classes. Finally, in the 20th century it was viewed as a clear product of the feudalistic past which reformers were struggling against yet also as a potential solution to the dilemma of the “sick man of Asia.”
Traditionally, Chinese martial arts were military training, used in hand-to-hand combat among the large infantry forces pitted against each other. The idea that Buddhist monks, Shaolin or otherwise, and Daoist immortals, Wutang or otherwise, had any major role in the development of Chinese martial arts has no basis in reality. The Han Dynasty Historical Bibliographies (c. 90 A.D.) contain an entry on boxing or “shou bo,” categorizing it as one of four military skills under the major heading, “Military Writings”. Based on the bibliographical listing, these skills included archery, fencing, boxing/shou bo, and even an ancient game of football or cuju for agility and maneuver in the field. Boxing is described as training “to practice hand and foot movements, facilitate use of weapons, and organize for victory in offense or defense.” In other words, the role of boxing was as the foundation for developing weapons skills such as broadsword and polled weapons.
Many of these skills were widespread throughout general society during China’s early imperial age through the tenth century. “Village kung fu” was usually a mixture of several systems being taught within the village, usually by a teacher who had formally been in the military. However, as they spread throughout the population they were often embellished and the martial arts practiced in the villages as part of militia training had gradually evolved into a form of recreation as well, and had become characterized by “flowery methods” or “Hua Fa”. These less practical performance oriented techniques were denounced by Ming general Qi Jiguang (1507–1587) in his two books, “New Book of Effective Discipline” (1561) and “Actual Record of Training” (1571). General Qi noted that “in training troops, the pretty is not practical and the practical is not pretty.”
General Qi Jiguang’s thirty-two forms were developed to train peasant volunteers for campaigns against Japanese and indigenous pirates. In them one can see techniques and basic theories similar to those which later appear in the so-called taijiquan classics.
Imperial China was governed by traditional Confucian ideology, which had disdain for both non-intellectual activity and for men who utilized brute force and violence to settle matters. The military was treated with suspicion, as demonstrated by the saying “one does not make a prostitute out of an honest girl, a nail with good iron, or a soldier out of an honorable man.” Although the civil and military exam systems were basically parallel in structure, the military exams were less valued. While the military was perhaps the best possible profession for a trained martial artist, it was by no means an easy path or an ideal life since the system, administered by civilian intellectuals, was designed to subordinate men of violence to the needs of the society.
During imperial times, the central government administered military examinations at the local, provincial and national levels. The exams consisted of both physical tests such as bending the 120-catty bow, maneuvering the 120-catty halberd and lifting 300-catty weights (one catty equals 1.1023 pounds) and written exams. During the Ming Dynasty, we know that candidates were still tested on their abilities with the spear, straight sword, saber, unarmed combat and archery both standing and mounted.
Through the use of this system, civilian officials were in complete control of both the selection and promotion of all military officers. In addition, members of the military were institutionally forbidden from rising to a level where they could influence government policy. The minister of war and chief-of-staff were both held by civilians in Imperial China. Thus, while the military provided some opportunities, it never provided complete legitimacy.
Of course, the greater challenge to the social order was that group of martial artists who were unable to advance through the military examination system. First and foremost, the examination system required a degree of literacy that many martial artists simply did not posses. Second, because the examination system restricted the number of military officers, even literate martial artists never passed. While these men could have joined the army without passing the exams, in reality they had no reason to do so. Regular military men were treated brutally by officers and there was no future in it.
These men who did not pass the official exams formed a disgruntled and highly dangerous group. They became part of China’s extensive underground society and engaged in marginally legitimate or illegal activities to survive. Regardless of their chosen professions, these men had no loyalty to either the society or the state. In 1728 the Yong-zheng emperor issued an imperial prohibition specifically on MARTIAL ARTS. The emperor condemned teachers as “drifters and idlers who refuse to work at their proper occupations” who gather with their disciples all day, leading to “gambling, drinking and brawls”.
This impression was widespread. 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 (wu-lai gun-tu) 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”.
Many martial artists were marketplace toughs engaged in gambling, drinking, and various forms of extortion and petty crime.
END OF PART ONE