The “four staff” (四棍) occupations

4 Jul

A man trained in martial arts who could not advance in the military examination system could return to structured society and attempt to establish themselves as a farmer, artisan or merchant. Those that did reintegrate into society seldom figured into the history of Chinese martial arts. Instead, it was those who found alternate methods of using their martial skills that became the driving force in the evolution of Chinese martial arts in the modern era.


A martial artist who did not join the military but chose to remain law abiding citizen could engage in legitimate, if socially marginal, occupations. These men entered what became known as one of the “four staff” (四棍) occupations. These four categories were work as a bodyguard, as an armed escort, as a traveling medicine man or they could try to establish themselves as a martial arts instructor.

Chinese Street Performers2.jpg

Those with position and wealth needed men trained in violence to work as bodyguards and to serve in private militia. As we shall see, especially in the Ming and Qing dynasties local elite relied heavily upon their own personal forces to protect, even to advance, their interests in rural areas. However, in an ironic twist, while these local elite depended increasingly on violence, they still maintained as Confucians contempt for the men who engaged in it. Bodyguards were always in close proximity to their employers, subject to their whim and treated live a virtual slave. Private militia might be dismissed once a conflict was resolved. There was not much dignity in this field.


Trained martial artists might find work as armed escorts. The expansion of imperial China was accompanied by a robust economy in which goods had to travel considerable distances. Merchants and the organizations that insured these goods were willing to hire men to protect these shipments. The work was probably not as dangerous as the title suggests, as often such escorts maintained understandings with local bandits. Still, establishing a successful escort business, and developing such understandings, could take years. Often, men found work as armed escorts working for large established companies. Thus, they were never much more than servants without a claim to fame or achievement.

Street performers and traveling medicine men are virtually indistinguishable in the context of Chinese martial arts history. Performances drew the attention of the crowds which could then be sold a variety of herbal medicines, both legitimate and fraudulent. Civilian martial artists appear quite early in history to become associated with expertise in various medical practices. That is not to say there were not also quite a number of “snake oil salesmen” using street performances to attract potential victims. Perfectly legitimate civilian martial artists traveled in the same circles as con men and criminals and the association forever tainted their reputation in mainstream Chinese society.

performance kung fu

The so-called “hard Qi Gong” performances we still see today, tricks such as brick breaking, wire bursting, nail beds, and the bending of spears and swords all originate with martial arts street performances. Even many of the tumbling techniques, leaping kicks and balancing moves found in traditional forms are similarly inspired. They may require both conditioning and discipline to perform but have virtually nothing to do with real fighting. People may 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. Again, the blurry lines between legitimate martial arts practices and those engaged in deceptions, cons and illegal activities would have large, long term consequences.

Bodyguards seeking employment, armed escorts and traveling medicine men; the professions martial artists engaged in increasingly marginalized them and lead to a vagabond lifestyle. They had no permanent address and depending upon the mercy of others for their livelihood. Traveling in imperial China was also quite dangerous; they had to contend with bandits, criminals, and even with challenges from other wandering martial artists. Their lifestyles shared common bond with an evolving sub-culture with which martial artists would ultimately become intimately related, the JiangHu (江湖).

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

The JiangHu (江湖), literally “rivers and lakes,” refers to the transient community that traveled from town to town using China’s waterways. While there were economic motivations and even necessities in these travels, in the context of Chinese society this community represented many social undesirables; actors, story tellers, palm readers, fortune tellers, sky gazers, and exorcists, in addition to wandering martial artists. Their transient lifestyle meant they were not bound by the normal constraints of family, society and state. They were free, operating outside the structures that contained most people in Imperial China.

For these vary same reasons, the JiangHu was also a dangerous lifestyle and martial arts skill became a necessity of their lifestyle. Among those traveling and seeking to escape the laws of society were also bandits, criminals, 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.

Finally, for many in the JiangHu the practice of martial arts wasn’t just for self-defense but also part of their livelihood. The Chinese opera troupes traveled from town to town, staying and performing at the local monasteries in each. While martial arts certainly provided self-defense for these actors, their martial arts were also integrally linked to their performances. Chinese opera performances feature elaborate choreographed fights, much of it featuring very real martial arts technique. Those raised in the opera received training very similar to that a martial artist received.

Itinerant martial artists frequently joined opera troupes. The opera provided friendship and regular employment. The martial artist was able to train members of the troop, which improved their performances while simultaneously giving them methods they could use for their protection. The opera was another place where there were blurry lines, martial arts was both self-defense and performance.


Beginning during the Song Dynasty, we begin to see the emergence of what we would today call the martial arts teacher (武術老師). The historical record is not as clear as we would wish it to be, and thus we cannot say with one hundred percent certitude, but it appears that these martial arts teachers represented a new social group distinct from the previously mentioned “knights-errant” or those who offered their services to those preparing for the military examinations. Unlike the “knights-errant” who functioned as mercenaries, most of these martial arts instructors sought instead to train others. In contrast to those who prepared individuals for the military examinations, the martial arts teacher sought long term students and disciples. If the teacher was itinerant, these students often traveled with them.

These martial arts teacher became particularly associated with the staff ( 棍) and with the spear (槍). Perhaps more importantly from the perspective of the modern martial arts student, they also became associated with the unarmed methods of striking (手搏or拳法) and wrestling (摔角). How or why these skills became inter-related remains unclear, but this pattern laid the foundation for the much later “golden age” of unarmed fighting systems in the Ming Dynasty.


Another clue that these martial practices were beginning to occupy a different position within Chinese society is that these martial arts teachers appear to have operated unobstructed by prohibitions on more formal military training issued during the subsequent, foreign (Mongolian) Yuan Dynasty. An edict issued in 1322 prohibited ethnic Chinese from “having weapons, going to hunt, or practicing martial arts”. In this case, the term “martial arts” is rendered as (武藝), suggesting the intent was probably a prohibition of the original eighteen battlefield weapons. It appears that martial arts practice among the commoner, even practice with a staff or spear, was no longer considered battlefield training. The prohibition on hunting also suggests the targets were the elite segments of society, the ones that could potentially organize a legitimate military uprising

It is probably not unrelated that the emergence of these martial arts instructors coincided with increasing use of violence in the resolution of both local and personal disputes. Local elites and local power bases had property to protect, and local interests not only to maintain but which they sought to advance. On the local level Chinese society increasingly became about village to village disputes, clan wars, bandit suppression and defense against disgruntled peasant uprisings. The knight-errant could certainly be hired as mercenaries, but landlords, clans, families and powerful individuals increasingly preferred their own personal forces and employed martial artist teachers to train them.

In this same context, we can begin to understand the presence of martial arts practice in Buddhist monasteries such as the fabled Shaolin (少林寺). Many Buddhist monasteries were significant land owners. (Lorge p7). Despite elaborate justifications after the fact, the presence of martial monks (武僧) represented simply a force designed to protect property and local interests. The historical record provides us excellent references to Shaolin’s militia, and particularly their skill in staff fighting.


However, the origin of these staff fighting skills was also most probably decidedly unromantic. Some of the most important monks at Shaolin almost certainly had been military men before entering the monastic life. Upon the founding of the monastery, some thirty years before the legendary Bodhidharma even arrived, two of the original Chinese monks, Huiguang (慧光) and Sengchou (僧稠), both had exceptional martial skills. Sengchou’s skill with the staff is even documented in external Chinese Buddhist canon. We then note that Bodhidarma ‘s own Chinese disciple, Huike (慧可), was also a highly trained martial arts expert. We must also note that prior to the Ming Dynasty, there is virtually no mention of empty hand training at Shaolin. The claim that Shaolin is the birth place of Chinese martial arts, particularly of the unarmed variety, is nothing but myth. We will return to Shaolin in greater detail later.

Increasing employment opportunities in this “private sector” had a subtle but important impact upon this group we identify as martial arts instructors. Initially the “four staff” (四棍) occupations had been composed of those who could not advance via the exam system; men who simply learned their skills coming from families with fighting traditions for example. Increasingly amongst martial arts instructors we begin to see former military men, even officers. These men who had learned organizational, tactical and strategic skills and thus could train groups. We even see retired military degree holders assuming this social role.


The militarization of the countryside only increased in the Ming and Qing periods, resulting in a proliferation of groups such as local village militia, anti-bandit groups, and self-protection groups in which martial arts training was available. These organizations provided an incubator that helped to cultivate and spread both some weapon and empty hand combat training throughout society. A popular contemporary term, “village kung fu”, represents methods which had been taught at the village level, usually a mixture of several methods/origins representing the many teachers the village had employed over the years. These were practiced not only as militia training but also gradually evolved into a form of recreation that became characterized by “flowery methods” or “Hua Fa” (花法). These less practical techniques were denounced by Ming general Qi Jiguang in his two books, “New Book of Effective Discipline” (1561) and “Actual Record of Training” (1571).

Inevitably, ordinary peasants also attempted to create organizations independent from the orthodox elite. Brotherhood and fraternal organizations were groups of men brought together because they were from the same family or village. They were common throughout Southern China and Taiwan, serving as part social club and part social service. In this context, martial arts training partly served the purpose of teaching membership self-defense, and also a recruitment tool to attract young peasant males. Initially innocuous, these organizations later served as foundations for rebellious, revolutionary and even criminal movements.


It is from all these groups that most of our Ming era martial arts systems originate. The patriarch of Chen Family Taiji Quan, Chen Wangting (陳王庭 1580–1660 or 1600-1680), was a military degree holder (武庠生) who had been the militia commander of Wen County. He had probably graduated from the provincial military academy. According to the “Gazette of Wen County” he achieved acclaim suppressing a local bandit group in 1641, but retired upon the fall of the dynasty. He returned home to Chen family village (陳家溝) where without doubt his military training laid the foundations for Chen Family Taiji Quan.

These the “four staff” (四棍) occupations may have operated on the fringes of the society, their association with the JiangHu (江湖) may have placed them on the lowest tier, but they were still considered legal and operating within the society. Those with martial arts skills who had no objection to engaging in illegal activity found themselves in even higher demand. Martial artists also involved themselves in the activities of crime, religious sects, secret societies and revolutionary groups.

One Response to “The “four staff” (四棍) occupations”

  1. docnamedtroy March 2, 2018 at 5:03 am #

    Reblogged this on Ground Dragon Martial Arts.

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