To understand Chinese martial arts history requires understanding multilateral relationships; between the participants (the martial artists themselves) and the “observers”. These so called “observers” were imperial officials, men responsible for suppressing rebellions, and also frequently those that associated with the martial artists but were not in essence martial artists themselves. Religious sectarians and secret societies had many uses for martial artists, the educated were frequently fans of martial arts and practiced them casually and amateurishly, and later religious figures such as Daoists and Buddhists found new meaning and importance in them.
These multilateral relationships mean that Chinese martial arts history is by nature multi-disciplinary. We have history top to bottom, history bottom to top, social history, military history, religious history, and even feminist historical perspectives. Of course this complicates the process. But by the same token, if we don’t accept how difficult the process is, we are destined to come to some simplistic and very wrong conclusions.
There were indeed several generations of supposedly intelligent, well trained historians and political scientists who relied upon poor translations and followed very questionable lines of reason. IN my book I note how several were such slaves to their preconceived notions they made mistakes that should have been immediately obvious.
Along comes Joseph Esherick who states what should have been obvious; a sectarian who practices martial arts does NOT equal to martial arts being a sectarian practice. The same formula applies across the spectrum; a religious person who does martial arts does not make martial arts a religion. Along the way, Esherick also demonstrates that we have long relied upon the documents created by the “observers”. We call the “Big Sword Society” that because so many documents refer to them that way. But what did they themselves call themselves?
Upon closer inspection, we MUST note that martial arts began separate from and devoid of many of the elements we now associate with it. With the idea of “qi” came first the language and later the ideas of Daoist religion, then mixed freely with Buddhism. You can see positive results from this evolution. Or you can see how it inevitably led to superstition, and ultimately the disastrous Boxer Uprising. It led to the “woo” we see today.
We can legitimately discuss how early martial artists did NOT have many of the features we associate with martial arts. The idea of “lineages” CLEARLY comes from the Chinese opera tradition. The idea of master-student relationships come from both the Opera tradition AND their experiences with religious sectarians. All of these ideas ARE well documented and accepted by serious academics
How much Taiji Quan is a product of Daoist religion remains a subject open to, and worthy of debate. IF, and most IF, we confine “Taiji” to the developments in Beijing after Yang arrives to teach. Would have been fun (and useful) to engage in THAT discussion
We could even question how much Daoist religious ritual circle walking influenced the martial art of Ba Gua… and counter balanced it with an examination of the “Ba Gua Rebellion” and/or discussion of the Ba Gua QUAN that is well documented LONG before Dong. Perhaps another day?