Quick quiz! What do Chan Tai-San, Huang Xiao-xia, Xia Bai-Hua, Wong Shun-Leung, Chu Kao-Lou, and a plethora of other Chinese martial artists all have in common? The answer is training in Western boxing. Western boxing, it has been the 800 lb. gorilla that has been sitting in the room for more than 150 years.
Recently I have seen a number of web sites claim that Western boxing was first introduced to China in the port city of Shanghai in the 1920’s. The fact the first Chinese language instruction manual in Western boxing, titled “The Technique of Western Boxing”, was published there during this period and the first public events pitting Chinese participants against Westerners also first appeared in this location might make this a tempting conclusion, but there is ample evidence to the contrary.
Chinese martial artists were exposed to Western boxing almost as soon as Europeans began making regular contact during the Qing Dynasty. We have an anecdotal account that the founder of Choy Lay Fut, Chan Heung, made comments on Western boxing and compared it to Chinese martial arts.
With this in mind, it is probably important to consider that the first Western boxing that Chinese martial artists observed was of the bare knuckle variety. It may not have had kicks or Qin Na (joint locks), but it certainly had striking techniques and throws which would have been familiar to these men. The two traditions were not as separate as today’s student probably now consider them, and Chinese martial arts were most certainly influenced by Western boxing!
For as long as I have practiced Chinese martial arts, I have had friends who found similarities between Western boxing and the internal art of Hsing Yi (Xing Yi). Again, we have anecdotal accounts that Chinese martial arts originally favored punches to the body almost to the total exclusion of strikes to the head. Certainly, Western boxing (and the Lion’s Roar teacher Wong Yan-Lam, but that is another blog) caused reconsideration of head punching as a combat tactic.
Of course, there were always those who resisted innovation, and particularly anything foreign. At one of the government sponsored Lei Tai competitions, Chu Kao-Lou placed second. Chu openly admitted he also trained in Western boxing, to which one of the Taiji masters who had been in the audience complained that Chu’s fighting style was not using Chinese Martial Arts at all! Chu’s brother, Chu Kao-Chen, challenged that Taiji master, who in response didn’t accept that challenge. Truly, nothing changes in the Wu Lin!
While Chan Tai-San’s training in Western boxing had long been known by his students, in 2006 one of my classmates traveled to Taishan county, Guangdong province to dig up more history. He returned with an interesting story on Chan Tai-San’s early introduction to Western boxing. My sifu had entered a competition with no previous Western boxing training and lost the match. His initial response was rather familiar; he blamed the gloves, he blamed the restrictive rules, and he wanted to challenge the person that had beaten him to a no rules fight. Then he reconsidered. He decided to train a little with the gloves and find what worked in that environment. His second match was not successful either, a bad referee did not control a break and my sifu was actually KO’ed when the referee was holding his hands! The fact he came back after THAT, and eventually won several regional events and incorporated boxing into his fighting method was what made Chan Tai-San unique, and a real fighter.
It does not take much research to find out that by the 1920’s, both Western boxing and Japanese Judo had made a huge impact on many Chinese martial artists. However, due to more modern nationalistic and style pride, many will now not openly admit to it! They in turn trained a generation of students who blindly follow the words of their teachers. In doing so, they deny truth and limit the opportunity for growth and advancement.
Lion’s Roar Martial Arts
Authentic Lama Pai, the art of Chan Tai San