In any discussion of Chinese martial arts, you are sure to notice that different people have widely different ideas about what Chinese martial arts are really about, what is important when practicing them, and what their ultimate aims are. It may even seem as if people aren’t even discussing the same subject? How can perceptions be so divergent? What accounts for all these seeming contradictions?
The traditional Confucian society, the elite of the nation and those in power, elevated the scholar as the ultimate aspiration. A Confucian scholar spent his days indoors, studying texts. They were immaculate and had a strictly defined sense of propriety. The ideal physicality was pale, and almost emaciated. This was quite a contradiction from the average martial artist, brown from the sun, covered in both sweat and dirt, developing a muscular frame from strenuous physical activity.
While the practice of martial arts may have been associated with village militias that protected vital interests, they were just as equally (if not more) associated with the undesirable underclass of the Jianghu (江湖 literally “rivers and lakes”). Many would be shocked to learn this, but for much of Chinese society martial arts equated with lawlessness, criminality and random violence.
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”. A 1899 pamphlet by Zhili magistrate Lao Nai-wuan described local martial arts groups as “vagabonds and rowdies who draw their swords and gather crowds.” He then stated that they “are overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people.” After the Boxer Rebellion, the popular image of a martial artist in China was an uneducated, superstitious peasant who was prone to violence and despite his martial arts training, ineffective!
If today’s conversations seem full of contradictions, it is because as we entered the modern era Chinese martial arts were being affected by contradictory trends. For the “new culture movement” martial arts were just another aspect of the traditional culture that had undermined China’s power and standing in the world. Simply put, there was no good in anything traditional, and perhaps ESPECIALLY in superstitious, ignorant and violent martial artists.
And yet, there was no denying that Chinese was a nation that was physically sick; not only from Confucian scholars who hid away inside away from the sun, but from poverty, malnutrition and lack of proper medical attention. Wasn’t Chinese martial arts supposed to be able to make people healthy and strong? YES! seems the almost universal response. Yet HOW did Chinese martial arts achieve these results?
Modern, educated progressives, men such as the founder of the Jing Wu Association, stressed rational, scientific explanations of how Chinese martial arts could be used as physical education. At the same time, this segment of society sought to downplay or eliminate the negative features of traditional martial arts. They sought to downplay or eliminate the fighting aspect, and to ignore that these had for the large part been the practices of the underclass, the Jianghu.
Conservative elements in society, nationalists, the “May 4th movement”, etc saw in Chinese martial arts a way to strengthen the nation and prepare it for war! An entire nation training in martial arts would be prepared for wars to win back China’s former glory. And China was of course both unique and better! From this segment of society originated unique, often fantastical explanations of the power of Chinese martial arts! After all, if martial arts offered health benefits just for scientific reasons, the same as any other exercise, why would the nation uniquely embrace it? China should do Chinese martial arts because it was a uniquely Chinese technology, offering unique benefits that could not be gotten from anything in the west!
People tend to believe what their teachers taught them. They often don’t think to ask if their teacher has an inherent bias, or an agenda. By the time the Chinese communists entered the game, martial arts in China had been appropriated by many different groups with contradictory visions and purposes. Frankly, you’d need a score card to keep it all straight! But ask where YOUR tradition came from, and what inherent bias it might have?