“In ancient times martial arts were used to kill people, while today they are used to educate people.”
– Fan Jun, “Thoughts and words in martial arts” (1918)
The Jing Wu was at the forefront of the movement to gain public acceptance of the Chinese martial arts as a legitimate form of physical education. It was also the foremost defender against the criticisms leveled by fellow New Culture Movement progressives. But it would be mistaken to think that the Jing Wu’s new approach to martial arts included either a denigration or dismissal of its practical application. The Jing Wu also offered military training courses designed to update martial arts training methods and produce a nation of citizen-soldiers. (Kennedy JingWu 90 – 101). Among these military training courses was the strongly Japanese influenced “Pi Ci” or “Chop and Slice” (劈刺) program of bayonet and short sword training.
Yet, there remains no question that the idea that martial arts no longer had practical fighting application and is best thought of solely as physical education originates in this period. Many cite Sun Lu Tang, a prolific author and successful teacher who was later in life an exponent of the idea of martial arts for health maintenance and self-cultivation. In fact, Sun is reported to have said that those interested in fighting should just “get a gun.” (A Study of Taijiquan, Cartmel translation)
The idea that the introduction of firearms made martial arts training irrelevant to practical fighting in the early 20th century is a popular idea, but it doesn’t stand up to closer scrutiny. To be sure, the ignorant and poorly trained (perhaps, if you remember earlier, not trained at all) peasants of the Yi He Quan were slaughtered by foreign bullets. But firearms had been part of Chinese military tactics for a considerable time period during which active soldiers had remained very interested and involved in martial arts training. Certainly, the military men in Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist regime remained active in martial arts training. The communist Red Army also demonstrated interest in the practical application of martial arts training for close quarters combat, giving birth in the late 1950’s to the beginnings of modern Sanshou/San Da.
In response to the “gun argument”, Peter Lorge suggests that at the local level, outside major cities, firearms were still rare and thus martial arts training remained relevant to violent conflicts. (Lorge 218) Even this misses much of the truth of the matter. Even in large cities, traditional martial arts training remained relevant to close quarters combat. In Shanghai, the notorious Green Gang (青帮) had a close relationship with at least one martial arts sect, Shaolin Luo Han Men (少林羅漢門). One of the body guards of gang leader Du Yue Sheng (杜月生), “Big-Eared Du”, was a martial artist from this school by the name of Wu (吳). William E. Fairbairn’s “all in fighting” was strongly influenced not only by his Judo training, but by a twenty-year career in the Shanghai Municipal Police (SMP) beginning in 1907. Fairbairn served in the city’s “red light district” where he not only observed but also was involved in hundreds of close quarter fights.
Returning to Sun Lu Tang, closer inspection reveals that as a young man his training was very practical in nature and he took an active interest in testing his skills. He is said to have engage in a number of challenge matches and worked for a time as one of the “four staff”, as a bodyguard. Sun himself explained how upon meeting Cheng Ting Hua, he was actively encouraged to go out and test his skills for real. (Sun 1915) What accounted for Sun’s apparent change of heart later in life? Sun had already early in his career been exposed to a more holistic approach by his Shaolin teacher, a man who also certainly had practical fighting experience. Yet as Ben Judkins astutely noted, it would be foolish to discount Sun’s personal experiences during the Boxer Uprising; witnessing the utter destruction of Baoding and Beijing and the murder of his teacher and friend Cheng Ting Hua. How much of the turn away from fighting had to do with personal experience rather than new technology is hard to say, but certainly merits consideration.