Feng Ke-Shan and the perils of martial arts history

11 Aug

Feng Ke-Shan (馮克善) by most accounts, was a man with little interest in religion (Esherick 44). He was a gambler who frequently got into drunken brawls. Feng was thirty five years old when he first encountered the Eight Trigrams Sect. At the age of twenty one, Feng had studied both empty hand and sword techniques with Wang Xiang (王祥), an itinerant martial artist from Shandong. Later he learned how to use the spear (槍) from a local man. Neither man had any connection to sectarian activities. (Naquin 88) By his own testimony, Tang Heng-Le (唐恒乐) accepted Feng as a disciple (拜師 Bai Shi) around 1800.


Tang Heng-Le (唐恒乐) was an elderly medicine seller and a teacher of Mei Hua Quan (梅花拳), a well-established and respected tradition in northern China. He had no sectarian affiliations and stated in his testimony after the rebellion that his only relationship to Feng was in teaching him martial arts (“我是教拳的師傅不是傳教的師傅”). He warned Feng that if he involved himself in sectarian activities he would be renounced as a student. After the rebellion actually broke out in 1813, Tang actually led his students in joining the local militia to suppress the sectarians. (Eesherick 52)


The Mei Hua Quan martial arts group presents us with an excellent example of how a single individual, in this case Feng Ke-Shan, is hardly indicative of a larger movement. Mei Hua Quan can be traced back at least as far as 1742 to a teacher named Yang Bing (楊炳). Yang was a graduate of the highest military examination with third place honors and had served in the metropolitan garrison. (Esherck 149). Subsequent generations of Mei Hua Quan martial artists appear to have maintained good relations with local militia leaders, the retired military degree holders and the local gentry. From Tang’s response, it appears Mei Hua Quan had been a martial arts group that could be counted on to provide men in defense of the region and thus had been tolerated by local officials because it served a useful social function. Mei Hua Quan will reappear again in our discussion of the Yi He Quan or “boxer” movement.

Whether through Feng’s training in Mei Hua Quan or another source (note), the Eight Trigrams Sect also became associated with the practice of the “Armor of the Golden Bell.” Susan Naquin seems to believe that all sect members engaged in the practice, as well as seeing the practice of martial arts as integral to sectarian membership. (Nanquin 30-31) Joseph Esherick counters that the “Armor of the Golden Bell” may have been practiced by some members, but it remained fundamentally a technique of mainstream martial arts practice and with only the most tenuous of connections to sectarianism. Escherick presents as an example a practitioner named Zhang Luo-Jiao (張洛焦) who learned the method prior to joining the sect, from someone not involved in the sect, and in fact left the sect well before the rebellion. (Esherick 97)


Feng Ke-Shan was a martial artist, a sectarian and a rebel, but the three were in no way synonymous. In examining Feng, we are confronted with many obstacles in finding the proper interpretation. Participant testimonies were often the result of torture, with little to nothing to be gained for speaking the truth. Officials were biased, and often documents represent attempts to validate their positions rather than quests for the truth. Susan Naquin, using as her source material Qinding Pingdin Jiao Fei Ji E欽定平定教匪紀略 [Imperially authorized account of the pacification of the religious rebels 1816] provides the following account;

Niu Liang-Chen noticed that in my system of boxing there were eight prescribed steps. He said to me, “Is that footwork of yours of the Eight Triagrams type?” I replied, “How did you know it was Eight Trigrams?” Niu said, “I practice the K’an Trigram, and so I understand”. So I pretended that I practiced the Li Trigram sect and told him this. Niu said, “So you’re in the Li Trigram. We are part of the K’an and Li Linked-Mansions. Each one can learn what is right in his own way.”
(Naquin 88)

Niu Liang Chen (牛亮臣) was Feng’s bother-in-law, or alternately his wife’s sister’s husband. There is some evidence that he had been already initiated into the sect by Lin Qing before Feng ever became a member. The idea that Feng basically lied his way into the sect, only to become one of the three main leaders, is interesting, but probably not true. Feng had been recruited for his martial arts skills and his local connections but he was probably trying to downplay his role during testimony after his capture.

For our purposes, the more important aspect of this testimony is how Naquin treats the subject of Feng’s martial arts. To observe martial arts practice and understand it based solely upon sectarian membership would support Naquin’s assertion that the two were integrally related. But is that what really transpired? In mainland China, a number of martial arts oriented historians have relied upon a document known as the Lan Yi Waish (蓝簃外史 “Unofficial History of the Blue Lodge”). The document contains much of the same material, and one translation into English renders the same conversation thusly;

Niu Liang-chen saw that the Feng Ke-shan boxing method contained steps in eight directions. Liang-Chen said, “Your steps are similar to the Eight Trigrams”. Ke-shan asked, “How do you know the Eight Trigrams”? Liang-chen replied: “Because I practice the Trigram Kan”. Ke-shan said, “I am the Trigram Li”. Liang-chen said: “You are Li, I am Kan, we men of Li and Kan we get together in the same building, and so we can practice together and exchange lessons.”

There are subtle, but important, differences here. Feng does not have “prescribed steps”? He is engaged in a rather routine martial arts practice. Niu doesn’t truly “understand” Feng’s martial arts, but he notices the pattern is similar to the Eight Trigram he has learned in his sect. Feng indeed claims membership in the Li Trigram Sect (離坎教), whether this was a lie is impossible to determine? The final exchange to me suggests that Niu, perhaps not having trained in martial arts but having an interest, saw in his discovery that Feng was a fellow sectarian the opportunity to learn some martial arts. My interpretation here is in fact not based upon the second English translation, but rather a Chinese version that is rather easily available.

馮克善拳法中有八方步。亮臣曰:爾步伐 (法)似合八卦。克善曰:子何以知之?

Language is an obstacle in determining reality here, especially when that language involves jargon specific to a select sub-group. Ba Fang Bu (八方步) might seem like a ritualistic practice, especially in context with the Eight Trigrams (八卦). Confusion is not exclusive to those attempting to translate documents into another language either. Professor Kang Gewu (康戈武) included these references into a discussion of the origins of the modern martial art Bagua Zhang (八卦掌), and there are suggestions that Wang Xiang (王祥) taught Bagua Zhang. Professor Ma Aimin (馬愛民) and Han Jianzhong (韩建中) both countered with documentation of how the method was based in Feng’s training in Mei Hua Quan.


2 Responses to “Feng Ke-Shan and the perils of martial arts history”

  1. docnamedtroy August 11, 2017 at 2:47 pm #

    Reblogged this on Ground Dragon Martial Arts.


  1. The Origins of Ba Gua Zhang – Part 1 – Ground Dragon Martial Arts - February 10, 2018

    […] Regarding the Veracity of Eight Direction Stepping, Li Gua, and Kan Gua […]

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