A martial artist who did not join the military and who chose not to engage in illegal activities had very few options left. Trained fighters might find work as armed escorts but the life was by its very nature extremely dangerous and establishing a successful escort business could take years. They could certainly find work as a body guard but such men had no dignity. They were always subject to their employer’s whim, not far removed from being a virtual slave. These two professions were both legal but they brought neither legitimacy nor public acceptance.
Many martial artists simply wandered, making their living as either traveling medicine men or as street performers. These men were little better off than the common vagabond, having no permanent address and depending upon the mercy of contributors. They also had to deal with constant challenges by other wandering martial artists and local criminals who would try to extort money.
Some martial artists joined traveling opera troops. Traditional Chinese opera made extensive use of martial arts skills for entertainment. The opera recreated great battles, and its performers had to be able to use traditional weapons and engage in elaborate staged fights. The members of the troop also required martial arts for protection. Thus, these opera troops provided friendship and regular employment but were just as socially undesirable as the martial artists themselves.
Martial artists who had no objection to engaging in illegal activity found themselves in high demand. Martial artists also involved themselves in the activities of religious sects and secret societies. Historically, martial arts exercise was prohibited in civil society during the alien dynasties, since the martial arts exercise might encourage the subordinate class to raise Han Chinese nationalism against alien domination. During the Mongol Yuan dynasty, the White Lotus resisted what was seen as alien rule and struggled for the restoration of the Song court (960-1279) which was under Han Chinese control. The White Lotus Sect persisted when the Mongol conquest came to an end and was resurrected in the Manchu Qing dynasty (1644-1911) when it was committed to restoring the Ming (1368-1644), the last Han Chinese dynasty.
By the eighteenth and nineteenth century, the Qing banned perverse religious sects but not martial arts, which was the core part of the military civil examination. As a result, the White Lotus Sect not only utilized martial arts as a tool to gather members but also built up more martial arts courts to spread martial arts with the creed of the White Lotus Sect.
Many peasants and commoners, who had never had access to sophisticated fighting skills, joined these groups in order to learn martial arts. A particular group might become famous and attract more members with its instructor and method. The use of martial arts in sectarian groups to make it attractive to a wider audiences was then mixed with other tools these groups used to attract young men; stories of monks, magic and super powers.
The influence of the White Lotus Sect spread to large areas of north and central China between 1793 and 1796. This White Lotus Sect was finally suppressed by a militia organized by local landlords and officials in 1804. Tang Heng-le, an elderly medicine seller and teacher of Plum Flower Boxing (Mei-Hua Quan) led his disciples to join the local militia in suppressing sectarians.
Wealthy elite became increasingly militarized and tended more and more to depend on violent methods to defend its position. The same Cao county gazetteer noted “the tendency for the wealthy to rely on cruelty and violence is well established.”
TO BE CONTINUED