Chinese Kung Fu: Fighting art or performance art?

16 Nov

Many people who identify themselves as “traditional” martial arts stylists are highly critical of what is labeled “contemporary Wu-Shu”, arguing that it has been significantly altered for performance purposes and is no longer practical for self-defense. Contemporary Wu-Shu can not be understood outside of a specific historical context; the communist government’s need to control and take advantage of what has long been a disruptive group in Chinese society. However, most do not appreciate the long history connecting Chinese martial arts (Kung-Fu / Kuoshu) and performance.


The wielding of heavy halberds (Kwan Do) has its origins in the national military degree exams but easily morphed into imperial court entertainment. Within Chinese opera, there is the demonstration of the flying fork (Fei Cha). Whether this is a derivative of the military halberd lifting or independent variation, the two are still linked.


Without much if any modification, strictly military arts such as archery and wrestling (Shuai Jiao) were both popular imperial court entertainments. The Qing imperial court held regular wrestling events, mainly between Manchu and Mongol wrestlers.

When the meal is ended, the cup-table is carried into the tent and the Mongol musicians come in and play. Wine is carried in to be offered to the guests. The princes whose right it is to receive wine from the Emperor are led forward and kneel humbly, while the Emperor himself pours out wine for them. The others are served wine once by the Imperial Guard under the supervision of the adjutants-general (of whom the Emperor has four). Those who have received wine from the Emperor withdraw to their original places and kowtow, the rest follow their example. When they drink wine they kowtow once more. The Mongol music ceases. Picked men from the Imperial corps of wrestlers enter to compete with the Mongol wrestlers. After the wrestling bouts, acrobats enter to display their skill. When they have finished, they withdraw. All kneel in their places and perform the ceremony of the three kneelings and nine kowtows. While the guests kneel with their faces to the ground the Emperor withdraws.


Martial arts were an integral part of life in a Chinese opera troupe. Traditional operas recreated great battles, and its performers had to be able to use traditional weapons and engage in elaborate staged fights. For this reason, those raised in the opera received training very similar to that a martial artist received, often receiving training directly from actual martial arts fighters, such was the nature of Chinese society at the time.

2008 Julio 13 China Beijing Mentougou Museo exposición de arte escenénicas regionales - 13

However, the line remained blurred. Traveling from location to location for performances, opera troupes were part of the “Jiang Hu” sub culture and crossed paths with thieves, bandits, secret society members and rebels. In the absence of state and society as arbitrator, one could only be protected and differences could only be resolved by the use of force. Martial arts were also a tool of self defense for opera troupes.

performance kung fu

The nature of traditional Chinese society as it was, many martial artists were marginalized. Many simply wandered, making their living as either traveling medicine men or as street performers. There was often little difference, the street performances often were tools to draw crowds to sell their herbal medicines.


The so-called “hard” Chi-Kung tricks such as brick breaking, wire bursting, nail beds, and the bending of spears and swords are all products of the street performance tradition. They require both conditioning and discipline to perform but have virtually nothing to do with real fighting.

Chinese Street Performers2.jpg

Many of the tumbling techniques, leaping kicks and balancing moves found in traditional forms are similarly inspired. Some assume that the Chinese public was more familiar with the martial arts and thus more discriminating than western audiences, but in reality the common peasant or laborer was just as impressed by these tricks.


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