State attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts:
Phase Two: The Communist Party
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had a unique relationship with those who practice the martial arts. Ideologically, the CCP has strongly identified itself with those class elements from which the martial arts community originated. For example, during the party’s formative years brotherhoods and secret societies (which were heavily composed of martial artists) were valuable allies in their attempts to overthrow the central government. The party maintained contact with and utilized members of these groups as part of their ongoing revolutionary activities and studied their organizational structure, their methods of maintaining loyalty, and their role in popular rebellions.
In addition, the leadership also saw unique benefits associated with the practice of martial arts. Mao Zedong, like many revolutionaries of the period, firmly believed that China had become the “sick man of Asia” because the traditional Confucian society had produced only weak, ineffectual scholars. In 1917, Mao Zedong wrote his first article for the revolutionary paper New Youth. The paper was entitled “A Study in Physical Culture” and would become the official party line on the role of martial arts in society. It observed that the nation was “wanting in strength” and that military spirit had not been encouraged. Mao outlined a program of physical culture, in which martial arts played an important role, for the purposes of making “savage the body” and promoting “military heroism”.
However, this cooperative relationship between the party and the martial arts community did not last. In order to consolidate their position in the countryside, the CCP attempted to remove local power bases and to prohibit those practices which had traditionally fostered regionalism and personal loyalties. This inevitably affected the martial arts community and brought them into conflict with the CCP.
C.K. Yang’s examination of a Chinese village during the Communist transition provides an excellent example of the party’s attempts to bring the martial arts under state control. Yang describes an “athletic club” in the village which was known as “the Lion’s club”. According to Yang, the club provided “lessons in the old military arts of shadow boxing, using swords, knives, spears and other ancient weapons.” Clearly, this club was a martial arts school.
While the author saw these techniques as having “no place in modern combat”, the CCP saw the situation quite differently. The Communist cadres ordered the club closed, calling it a “military organization” and noting that “their leaders, many of whom were associated with rebellious secret societies, were potential reactionary agents”. Thus, the Lion’s club was clearly viewed as a political danger to communist power.
State administered programs to appropriate and control the practice of martial arts were expanded following the Communist victory in 1949. That same year the All China Sports Federation was created and extensive discussions began concerning how physical culture could best serve the state. By 1951, all private martial arts schools were labeled “feudalistic” and ordered closed. The next year the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission was created and a number of new regulations regarding the practice of martial arts were introduced. Instructors could no longer refer to themselves as “Sifu” and the Baai Si ceremony was declared illegal. Instructors were now referred to as “coaches”.
In 1959 it was announced that a state controlled martial arts program had been created that no longer recognized styles or systems. Instead, all martial arts were divided into five basic categories: “Long Fist” (referring to all empty hand techniques), broadsword, straight sword, staff and spear. After some protests, a category referred to as “South Fist” was also introduced to represent the martial arts of Southern China (based primarily upon Choy Lay Fut, Hung Kyuhn and its derivatives). This state controlled martial arts program is the basis for what is today referred to as “contemporary Wushu”.
Ideologically, this new program met both basic requirements. First, it eliminated the elitism traditionally associated with the martial arts and made them accessible to the masses. Second, it provided a program of physical culture for the purposes of promoting “military heroism” as Mao Zedong had called for in 1917. At the same time, it put the practice of martial arts under direct government supervision and eliminated those values which had fostered personal loyalties and divisiveness. Private schools no longer produced men loyal only to their instructors and with deep seated suspicions of outsiders.
On the surface, these developments were a welcome change from the secrecy, inflated egos, constant challenges and random violence that characterized the traditional martial arts community. However, despite government claims to the contrary, contemporary Wushu is not simply martial arts with a new image. The Chinese Communist Party’s political agenda had a direct impact upon how the martial arts were taught and practiced. For most of contemporary Wushu’s history, the party actively discouraged the study of application and the practice of sparring, claiming that self-defense skills were no longer necessary in the new society and stressing that “comrades should not fight comrades”. Thus, those practicing contemporary Wushu frequently did not know which techniques had practical application and which were for athletic or performance purposes.