The confusion surrounding Cheng Tinghua’s adoption of the name Nei Jia Quan in 1894 was indicative of a larger problem. By the late Qing period, the lines between martial arts and religion were significantly blurred. At this point in our study, it should be clear that martial arts did not originate as religious practices. Both documents relating to the general practice of martial arts and specific biographies of select martial artists demonstrate that into the early to mid-twentieth century there were still men who had a strictly utilitarian view of their practice; it was for self-protection, it was an occupation, it served concrete economic and political goals. Some of these men saw value in incorporating Daoist Daoyin, though to what degree they already had similar exercises remains an unanswered question. It does seem clear that in general the martial arts community had adopted Daoyin concepts and terminology, but that still doesn’t necessarily indicate that someone practicing martial arts viewed it as religious or spiritual practice.
On the other hand, Meir Shahar has demonstrated that the monks of Shaolin practiced martial arts not only for self-protection but also specifically because they were intrigued by its potential for spiritual cultivation and medical applications. (Shahar, esp 137) Approaching martial arts as a spiritual and/or health practice seemed to be its major appeal to the educated classes, who helped document it and ultimately served as its patrons. Finally, there were indeed men who practiced martial arts as a practical skill for violence yet believed something more profound lay beneath its surface. Sun Lutang’s (孫祿堂) first teacher, a Shaolin practitioner named Wu (吳), told him “the martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”
The problem with associating martial arts with religion was the society’s perception of disruptive heterodox religious sects and ignorant peasant superstitions. Combining martial arts with qi circulation practices, using religious terminology and imagery was indeed the slippery slope that provided the fertile ground from which the Spirit Boxers / Yi He Quan grew. To many outside observers, martial artists appeared to be ignorant peasants who boasted using borrowed religious vocabulary, engaged in questionable quasi-religious practices, and were inescapably linked to heterodox religious sects. Long held suspicions of a direct relationship between “White Lotus” religious sectarians and martial arts groups seemed vindicated after the Boxer Uprising.
There is no stronger evidence of these perceptions than the generations of trained historians and political scientists, such as Elizabeth Perry and Susan Naquin, who continued for decades to assert an integral relationship between heterodox religion and the practice of martial arts. Susan Naquin appears to have believed that all “White Lotus” sects (keeping in mind Barend J. ter Haar’s previously discussed caveat about Qing officials’ the generic use of “White Lotus” label) offered martial arts training and all sectarians engaged in practice. (Naquin Millenarian 30-31). In another volume, Naquin even embraces the idea of a “White Lotus martial arts tradition.” (Nanquin Shantung rebellion p 192) Naquin, noting the presence of a practitioner within the Eight Trigrams Sect, identifies the “Armor of Golden Bell” as a White Lotus teaching. (Naquin Millenarian 30-31). In response, Joseph Esherick notes that this “Armor of Golden Bell” practitioner, Zhang Luo-Jiao (張洛焦), 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) Never the less, identification of the “Armor of Golden Bell” as a White Lotus teaching appears to be at least part of the reason that Naquin believed that the Boxer Uprising was a direct result of the White Lotus tradition (Naquin Millenarian p 3).