Martial Arts and Daoist Gymnastics

9 Aug

Another significant evolution was the integration of Daoist Daoyin (導引), and with that integration the idea that martial arts practice could have military, therapeutic and religious aspects. Many modern practitioners mistakenly believe that this has always been the understanding, some even believing that martial arts were developed by Buddhists and Daoists explicitly for therapeutic or religious However, as Stanley Henning notes, martial arts was initially a combat skill, and Daoist practices were only applied later to already existing methods. (Henning “perspective” 174)


Often referred to as Daoist gymnastics, Daoyin (導引) is movement combined with breathing designed to control the circulation of qi (氣). The exact definition of qi and its actual application(s) remains a controversial subject even today. Daoyin has been linked to Chinese medical practice since at least the first century BCE, but for most of its history it was not linked to martial arts practice, only to health and spiritual practice (Shahar 147).


Qi Jiguang’s New Book on Military Efficiency provides quite a lot of detail regarding the contemporary martial arts milieu. It makes no mention of qi circulation, or even to particular breathing patterns. For many historians, this is a strong suggestion that during this period such concepts were not part of mainstream martial arts practice. (Lorge 202) Lin Boyuan (林伯原) maintains that “During the Ming period, the various hand combat styles were all one-sided, specializing in actual fighting only.” (Lin 378-379).


Lin Boyuan suggests that Daoyin began to be integrated into martial arts practice because “… it added efficacy to the bare-handed fighting methods.” (378-379) In reality, martial arts has always required physical conditioning and exercises to strengthen the body, increase flexibility and teach balance and body awareness were probably always part of the training. They were probably already similar to Daoist Daoyin, but not conceived of in the same terms; qi circulation, therapeutic, spiritual, etc. An examination of Indian martial arts, wrestling and Kalaripayattu, reveal a lot of yoga-like material. Thus, we have the classic “chicken or the egg” causality dilemma; did they simply recognize similarity and apply terminology and concepts, did they integrate methods they did not have, or did they recognize and as a result also integrate methods including concepts and terminology?


Meir Shahar states that it is “likely” that the process of integration, or recognition, began as early as the mid Ming Dynasty. (148) The appearance of previously mentioned “Sinew-Transformation Classic” (易筋經Yijin Jing) in 1624 lends credence to this position. The Ming period also saw a strong trend of literate upper-class and middleclass individuals become interested in and begin practicing martial arts. In the modern era, it was precisely these classes that advanced the idea of links between martial arts and religion (Kennedy Manuals 85) Despite their education, many of these individuals were certainly ready to believe in the semi-supernatural, such as the local official who believed that “Armor of the Golden Bell” (Jin Zhong Zhao 金鐘罩) could actually resist attacks from bladed weapons (Shahar 151)


The integration was a double-edged sword. In one sense, the addition of therapeutic and religious aspects to martial arts practice made it more socially acceptable. Shahar even suggests it accounts at least in part for the unique appeal martial arts has around the world (Shahar 3). The problem was, the concepts of qi and qi circulation, and the association with religious elements could become a slippery slope which could rapidly degenerate, especially in the hands of uneducated peasants, into pure superstition While, as Joseph Esherick documents, legitimate martial artists combined breathing techniques with rigorous physical conditioning to produce limited but realistic results, others believed that charms, spells and prayers could enhance qi circulation and produce supernatural results. Finally, some believed in pseudo-martial arts practices that could result in being possessed by spirits who would grant invulnerability, even against Western bullets.


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