Chinese martial arts: a historical outline

22 May

The following is from my most recent book, “Chinese martial arts: A historical outline”

The Buddhist monk Xin Cheng boasted “my whole body has Qi Gong.” Modern martial arts practitioners are certainly familiar with the term, but in this context it probably had a slightly different significance than the modern understanding of Qi Gong practice. A number of scholars agree, Xing Cheng meant he had
“breath efficacy”; the ability to circulate his qi throughout his body. The concept of qi circulation had its origins in Daoist practice, but its application in martial arts circles certainly had a more syncretic approach. Xin Cheng linked his qi circulation ability to possession by “Jin Gang”; potentially a reference to the Buddhist Bodhisattva Vajrapani (who also happens to be the patron saint of Shaolin monastery), or to “Vajra” and/or the “Diamond Body”.

As we have previously discussed, the idea that qi circulation could have martial arts application was a relatively late development from probably the late Ming period. Reference to such practice is notably absent from Qi Jiguang’s New Book on Military Efficiency which was written in 1560. The “Sinew-Transformation Classic” (Yijin Jing), the earliest extant manual that assigns qi circulation or “Daoist gymnastics” (Daoyin) a role in developing martial arts skill, originates, despite its pretenses to the contrary, in 1624. The first text of its kind, it was already highly syncretic in nature. Meir Shahar notes how Buddhist imagery is attached to exercises of clearly Daoist origin. The text falsely attributes the method to the monk Bodhidharma and Shaolin. Martial excellence, in the form of body hardening influenced by Tantric Buddhist concepts of “Diamond Body,” are also linked to religious transcendence articulated in classical Daoist terminology.

By the Qing period, discussions of breathing and qi circulation accompanied most martial arts texts. Although the term Qi Gong can be found in Daoist texts from as early as the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907), it was not a common term in martial arts literature during this period. Martial arts literature during the period instead referred to the practice or cultivation of qi (Lian Qi). We have previously seen civil and martial divisions within martial arts groups, a similar dyadic relationship between “Wai-Gong” and “Nei-Gong” begins to appear more frequently. We see that within the Mei Hua Quan group, “Wai-Gong” referred to the practice of the actual martial arts techniques while “Nei-Gung” referred to study, meditation (Ming Xiang or Zuo Gong), and learning to heal.

While the modern martial arts practitioner is likely familiar with these terms, Wai-Gong and Nei-Gong, their perception of what they actually describe is probably largely influenced by trends that originated in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Note the description above refers to Mei Hua Quan, where both were practiced simultaneously inside the group, and probably describes how the terminology was applied at least as early as the 1860’s. I would always caution against rushing to judgement; the vigorous practice of martial arts techniques certainly produces an “outward skill” or “outward achievement” visible to the naked eye, while study and meditation produce results which would be more “internal” or not immediately apparent to an outside observer. As with many of the topics we discuss in this volume, the reader cannot simply apply their contemporary understanding or
biases.

(This version does not have the footnotes and Chinese characters that the actual book does)

My most recent book, “Chinese martial arts: A historical outline” is available on Amzon

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