Men of violence, martial arts in Imperial China

27 Jul

The statements made here regarding the increasing militarization of the society, the endemic use of violence and the role martial artists played in these developments are confirmed by the historical record for both the Ming and Qing Dynasties. In all likelihood they also applied to earlier periods, there is just a lack of documentation to confirm these suspicions. Geographic, economic and social conditions all created conditions predisposed to conflict and in the absence of the proper mechanisms to diffuse these conflicts violence became inevitable. Yet, as Joseph W. Esherick noted, martial arts practice was itself politically neutral.(Esherick 60).


The Yellow River stretches from Hebei (河北) in the north to Henan (河南) in the south along terrain prone to flooding. Anthropologist Fei Xiaotong remarked “Chinese society is fundamentally rural” (Fei 37) and for such society, flooding means loss of corps, and loss of usable land. The climate of the region also brought cold, dry winters and hot, humid summers, which again encourage either flood or drought. Flood, drought, and of course the famine that resulted shaped the social order.

kow tow

Economic and social conditions also contributed to tensions. Those with resources could afford the extravagant wedding expenses that the groom’s side was expected to bear and polygamy also affected the number of available brides in a milieu in which females were already scarce. Thus, northern China was inhabited by a large population of unemployed and unmarried males who felt marginalized.


Some of this population responded with “banditry” including smuggling, theft, and kidnapping. This was especially true in times of flood; the 1716 Cao county gazetteer reported that “the Yellow River repeatedly broke its banks, and bandits run amok.” One of the terms used for these bandits is particularly interesting in our context; “bare staff” (光棍 guanggun). In modern usage it can mean a gangster, hoodlum or simply a bachelor; a remnant of a time when being unmarried had a direct relationship to such activity. The “bare staff” also contrasts with the “four staff” occupations which were considered legitimate professions for martial artists.

seorang yowtai dihukum kerana mencuri dan merogol

The response by the local elite was predictable; they employed the armed escorts, personal bodyguards, and militia. Unfortunately, in the absence of neutral institutions to adjudicate, their responses were also frequently disproportionate. The same Cao county gazetteer noted “the tendency for the wealthy to rely on cruelty and violence is well established.” (Esherick) The abuse of the peasant by the landed gentry, frequently using their personal forces to beat and even kill those considered “unruly” probably was a self-defeating strategy that generated even more disgruntled peasants prone to banditry.


Socially marginalized, unable to accumulate wealth, without access to accepted avenues of social advancement and subjected to various forms of discrimination, these men were the same social group which also, lacking alternatives, had joined the military. However, banditry (and later rebellion) increasingly became an option; they had nothing to lose, ample access to martial arts training and everything to gain from these illegal activities.


In northern China in particular, many of these men had previously been trained in militia to defend against invasions from the steppes. By the Ming Dynasty, private martial arts groups had become ubiquitous. Increasing banditry resulted in more village militias being formed, also providing these men with opportunities. A vicious cycle, a form of “arms race,” ensued with the competing demands of the bandit gangs and the local militias creating a market which supported local martial arts teachers.

In the south, there was also rural poverty and social pressures caused by overpopulation and limited resources. Organization around large clan structures dominated the agricultural economy and the clans competed with each other for land and access to water. The leadership of these structures was the orthodox gentry elite, who utilized the peasants for labor and muscle. There was also an ethnic dimension to these tensions, as the original settlers competed with and resented the Hakka, a group which had emigrated from northern China beginning in the twelfth century. The Hakka had remained insular, with distinctive customs and their own dialect. A number of studies have shown that as trust in the court system waned; conflict became increasingly common and increasingly violent. As in the north, villages threw up packed earth walls, built weapons warehouses and hired martial arts teachers to train village militias.


Historians such as James Tong in Disorder under Heaven, had seen these resorts to violence as an aberration and an indication of governmental decay which effected “peripheral and mountainous regions”. Others, such as David Robinson’s Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven have instead argued that violence had become as a regular and well understood component of everyday Ming Dynasty life. Violence, executed by men trained in martial arts, existed in major urban centers such as Hangzhou and Suzhou as well. So called “fighter guilds” (打行) existed from which you could hire these men to either beat or kill a desired target, even in broad daylight.

Of course, in the Qing Dynasty these disturbances grew in size. Depending upon the perspective of the observer, bandits came to be classified as rebels and revolutionaries. Various religious movements and secret societies became associated with them. The frequency of such civil strife evoked the saying “every three years an uprising; every five years a rebellion” (三年一反、五年一亂). All had origins in the same peasant dissatisfaction, elite insecurity, militarization of the society as a whole and the universal acceptance that violence was the appropriate tool. Our task here is to sort out fact from fiction, determine what role martial artists played in these events and what long term implications these events had on the same martial arts we practice today.


Joseph W. Esherick’s The Origins of the Boxer Uprising is a landmark study in Chinese history and of particular importance if your interest is in the history of the Chinese martial arts. Esherick’s approach provides a larger theoretical framework to look at all the historical events we will address here; sectarian groups were NOT synonymous with martial arts groups, nor were all martial arts groups either religious and/or rebellious. As we shall see, despite popular perception, there is even a question as to whether the “boxers” should really be considered a martial arts group. Of course, that is dispassionate analysis well removed from the time and place, what the general population perceived to be the truth at the time was as significant, perhaps I would say even more significant, in the long run.

Sources as early as the Yuandianzhang (元典章 “Statutes of the Yuan dynasty”) inform us that independent martial arts teachers are “licentious and violent” and that “for long it has been like this.” Martial arts teachers certainly lived on the edges of society, and were associated with the undesirable sub culture of the JiangHu (江湖), but we can’t dismiss their critics so quickly. In many cases, they derived their students and disciples from the same pool of unemployed and unmarried males who engaged in banditry. More directly, many martial arts groups engaged in gambling, drinking, and various forms of extortion and petty crime.

In 1727 a Qing official accused local martial arts groups of “stirring up the ‘stupid people’.”

In 1728 the Yong-zheng emperor issued an imperial prohibition specifically against such martial arts groups. The emperor condemned teachers as “drifters and idlers who refuse to work at their proper occupations” and mentioned that they gathered with their disciples all day, leading to “gambling, drinking and brawls”.

A censor’s memorial of 1808, describing border areas of Shandong, Jiangsu, Anhui and Henan noted; “In this area there are many vagabonds and rowdies who draw their swords and gather crowds. They have established societies of various names. They are overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people. The origin of these disturbances is gambling. They go to fairs and markets and openly set up tens where they take valuables to pawn and gather to gamble”.

Qing Country magistrates were advised: “there is a class of vagrant youths who gather together with the bad children of the educated classes, burn incense and take blood oaths. They publicly invite teachers and study boxing and fencing, tattoo patterns on both arms, and wear short armor down to their waists. Like a pack of foxes and dogs they come and go from tea stores and wine shops, wander like bees and dance like butterflies and go wild with women in brothels.”(9)

An 1899 pamphlet by Zhili magistrate Lao Nai-wuan described local martial arts groups “overbearing in the villages and oppress the good people.”

The modern martial arts student would likely be shocked and horrified by the above descriptions. The idea that our fabled ancestors appeared to have been little more than local gangsters doesn’t sit well with modern conceptions of “martial virtue” (武德). Yet, clearly at least some martial arts groups were indeed disruptive forces in society. As early as the Song Dynasty we see martial arts with names such as “No Order Society” (沒命社) and “Forgetting Order Society” (亡命社). Others exhibited the bravado of modern organized crime, calling themselves “Tyrant Society” (霸王社).


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