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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

(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

Are we in a downward spiral? Chinese martial arts in the 21st C

19 May

I woke up this morning to find that a good friend had sent me a link to yet another “master” of Chinese martial arts being knocked unconscious in a challenge match. My friend, with an excellent pedigree in Chinese martial arts, particularly applicable Chinese martial arts, subtitled the message “and yet another embarrassment posted – why?”

I have long noted, both here on this blog and in other conversations, that problems of this sort within the Chinese martial arts world are NOT NEW. A good example is a previous blog of mine entitled “The people should be very ashamed”. There seems to be some sort of structural or cultural problem that lends itself to people overly concentrating on forms work, ignoring practical application work and still thinking they are fighters.

Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling) master Chang Tung Sheng (常東昇 aka Cháng Dōng Shēng) is often remembered for a rather forthright interview he gave to a Taiwan newspaper. Chang had traveled around China, had fought many matches and even won the 1933 heavyweight national Lei Tai tournament. He scoffed at claims of using “Chi” in fights, of “Dim Mak” or “Dian Xue”, and of the many claims of people who proclaimed themselves masters yet never seemed to fight. In a vein similar to the Gracie family, Chang said he’d still take on any comer, and that if he could put his hands on you, he would hurt you! Keep in mind that at a relatively advanced age, Chang engaged in two matches at the behest of a Moroccan royal family member and KO’ed both a Judo black belt and a Kyokushin fighter.

If you’ve read my book, “Chinese martial arts: A historical outline”, you will note how as soon as people began associating martial arts with Daoist practices such as Daoyin, and using that language to explain things, a slippery slope was created. There is certainly nothing wrong with martial arts practice for health, but the same slippery slope resulted in the Boxer Rebellion disaster and probably today’s Chinese martial arts carnival side shows.

NY based Sifu Frank Allen fighting full contact in 1982.

In response to my friend, I’d suggest, as I have just above, that we’ve always had that sort of problem. It’s nothing new. But, perhaps what IS new is that we used to have more “counter balance”. We used to have Chinese martial arts people organizing full contact events and students participating in them.

Even in the old days, not everyone was a fighter. The traditional Chinese martial arts school usually had a lot happening at any given time; some would be practicing lion dancing, some would be practicing sparring drills or actually sparring, some would be do Chi Kung. Everyone did forms back then. But I’d suggest two differences, people spent a LOT MORE TIME at their schools in the past. We were literally “kung fu bums”. And, while not everyone in a school fought, back in the “old days” I’d hazard to say that every school had at least one fighter. There was always that one person who fought and thus was responsible for answering the “challenges”. A lot of my circle happen to have been those kinds of students.

In the past, there also seemed to be a lot more teachers willing to show the sparring drills and the applications, the REAL APPLICATIONS.

Today’s problems seem to be rooted in people spending a lot less time in their schools AND instructors who have consequently let their students spend a lot less time drilling application yet without informing them that in doing so they have lost the essential combat skills. I am even tempted to say that a lot of instructors have BENEFITED from this trend, because many of them also seem to lack real combat skills. Today, it is MUCH EASIER to set up shop as a “master” even if you weren’t that student back in the day who took the challenges.

If I died tomorrow….

15 May

I was diagnosed with Leukemia at the age of six. At that time, half the children diagnosed died. In retrospect, I suppose that I originally never believed I would live a full, normal life. I suppose that was one of the early attractions I had to the figure of Bruce Lee. He had died young, but he left a legacy that meant he was still alive in minds and hearts.

I have always been extremely lucky in the martial arts teachers I found and were able to study with. I already had a pretty significant experience by the time I ever met the late Chan Tai-San. I was still very young, but I ended up not only running his school but also his organization and/or reputation. To say that was not easy would be an understatement. But I did it with relish. And along the way published more than 50 articles in various martial arts magazines.

Beginning in 1994 I started training people to fight. It exposed me to new people and a very different corner of the martial arts world. I became very interested in Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) and I did a lot of cross training. These experiences taught me very important lessons; to follow truth, not to be restricted by what people call tradition, what doesn’t work, and of course, what really works. More importantly, it taught me not only how to train, but the right mind set and attitude.

I didn’t just train fighters, I worked as a matchmaker, I promoted shows, I worked with athletic commissions. I introduced in New Jersey the idea of amateur MMMA, not just as a “farm system” for professional fighting, but because amateur sport also is a developmental method for martial arts when done correctly.

These days, perhaps I have gone full circle. I am involved in using martial arts as a fitness tool. Many of my students have absolutely zero interest in any kind of fight training. They use martial arts to be healthy and happy. If it hadn’t been for martial arts, where would I have been after 2 years in a hospital? There is nothing wrong with martial arts for fitness, indeed there is much positive in it. But ONLY if you do it with truth and accept fully the consequences.

If I were to die tomorrow, what would I hope to have achieved? First and foremost, I have NOT tried to pass on a system / method / tradition / lineage. I do not believe in such things. No teacher is a carbon copy of his own teacher, nor of those that came before them. It is not only impossible, it is in no way desirable. My teaching method is not passing on laundry lists of techniques. Instead I hope those who trained with me learn to think for themselves, to have body awareness and awareness of truth. And realize that truth is something they have to experience personally and can only be understood by self experience.

I hope that I have shared ideas and methods to train practically if that is what you want to do. It does not matter what you practice it is HOW you practice it. I hope that if you practice martial arts for fitness, as physical education, etc that you do so with truth so that you do not fall into the traps that plague so many who follow that path.

I hope that I have taught people to question everything, and to look for the truth themselves. In the age of fake news, we also have fake history and fake “facts”. Understand the real history, so you can understand not only the mistakes we have all made but WHY we make them.

I hope people understand that the messenger is not the message. Whatever weaknesses, and shortcoming I have as a person, ignore me and look at lesson. Simply put, you don’t have to be my friend, you don’t have to like me, you can even hate me, but look past all that to what I am saying.

Finally, as a historian, I warn you that history is cyclic in nature. Others have come before me and said the same things. The problems of today, were the problems of the past. They will be the problems of the future. There will always be a need for people to challenge the status quo and ask hard questions.

Good luck and go train!

Truth is hard, but it is still very important

14 Mar

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?

“Chinese Martial Arts, A Historical Outline”

16 Feb

Did Buddhist monks and Daoist priests really practice martial arts? Is the practice of Chinese martial arts religious? What are the White Lotus Sect and the Heaven and Earth Society? Did martial artists really think they could resist bullets using their internal power? What is the “internal school” of martial arts? These and many more questions are addressed and potentially answered by the new volume “Chinese Martial Arts, A Historical Outline”.


This is the first work of its kind in the English language. Beginning with the earliest historical records regarding the practice of martial arts, it progressively outlines the development of martial arts within the larger context of Chinese society. In doing so, it presents the many important events, issues and challenges which have shaped the traditions we now practice. Particular attention is paid to the evolution of the concept of using “Qi” in the martial arts, the doomed Boxer Uprising, and developments during the Republican era.

Buy “Chinese Martial Arts, A Historical Outline” on AMAZON

Designed to be an outline rather than an exhaustive work on any one particular issue, “Chinese Martial Arts” is 226 pages with over 340 footnotes and an extensive bibliography. Destined to change the way martial artists perceive and understand what they practice.


Table of Contents includes

Buy “Chinese Martial Arts, A Historical Outline” on AMAZON

Alternate histories of Hong Quan (洪拳) ?

16 Jan

Hong Quan (洪拳) is one of the most popular methods in southern China, and not only because of its famous practitioner Huang Fei Hung (黃飛鴻). There are numerous “village” styles of Hong Quan with only a tenuous relationship to Huang’s mainstream school. There was a “red fist” (紅拳) popular in northern China and both “洪” and “紅” are homophones in both Mandarin and Guangdonghua (Cantonese). Confusing Chinese characters was common in illiterate and semi-literate groups, of which most martial artists certainly belonged. However, it is more popularly suggested that the method derives its name from the association of “洪” with the first Ming emperor, Hong Wu (洪武).


Most Hong Quan schools credit Hong Xi Guan (洪熙官) as their ancestor or founder (師祖 Shi Zu). According to tradition, he was an anti-Qing revolutionary who had studied at the Fujian Shaolin monastery with Zhi Shan Chan Shi (至善禪師), one of the “five Shaolin ancestors.” Different traditions alternately say the school is named after Hong Xi Guan or in honor of the Hong Wu Emperor. Ultimately, the difference is inconsequential since Hong (洪) was not his real family name, he had taken it as his revolutionary name in honor of the Hong Wu Emperor. His original family name is said to be Zhu (朱).

The association of “洪” with the first Ming emperor also meant it was popularly used by the secret societies. In addition to the Hong League (洪門), we have the Hongyitang (洪義堂), the Hongxuntang (洪順堂) and Hongdetang (洪德堂). I observe another interesting fact, in the testimony of Yan Yan (嚴煙) he claimed one of the most important founders of the Heaven and Earth Society (天地會) also had the family name Zhu (朱).


There are interesting parallels here. The Hong Wu Emperor was not born with the family name Hong (洪). He was born Zhu Yuan Zhang (朱元璋), that is with the family name Zhu (朱). Most believe that Yan Yan’s Heaven and Earth Society was originally referred to as the Hong League. It is impossible to know the answer, but to attribute a person with the family name Zhu with the creation of the Hong League could have been a conscious construction to establish exactly such parallels.

Despite being attributed as the founder of one of southern China’s most popular traditions, Hong Xi Guan remains more of a legendary figure. Huang Fei Hung (黃飛鴻), Hong Quan’s most famous practitioner, does not even trace his lineage directly to Hong. Huang’s father was a student of Lu Ya Cai (陸亞采). Most people are familiar with the claim that Lu Ya Cai studied with Zhi Shan Chan Shi, making Hong his “older classmate” (師兄). Other traditions maintain that Lu’s original style was “Lu Hon subduing the tiger” (羅漢伏虎拳). Lu then met a Buddhist monk (an ever familiar motif) that taught him “Shaolin Hua Quan” (少林花拳). Some of these traditions then say he then attributed his new combined method to Hong Xi Guan.

For a tradition which is named after the Hong Wu Emperor, and whose founder was an anti-Qing revolutionary who escaped the burning of the Shaolin monastery, there is an interesting fact that is often left out of the discussion. Lu Ya Cai was the son of a Manchu, a member of the Qing banner garrison stationed in the south. This meant Lu’s father was one of the most unpopular figures in Chinese society, while Lu himself was living in a region with a particularly strong anti-Qing sentiment. An association with someone like Hung Xi Guan would certainly have been of great benefit in legitimizing Lu.


At this point, I want to be completely clear. I am not attempting to determine which of these legends are true and which are false. It is probably impossible to do so with so few documents regarding this sub-culture. As Joseph Esherick stated, many of the documents we do have are biased; they only exist because people engaged in behaviors that brought them to the attention of Qing officials. Rather, the point in reexamining these legends is to see what they suggest to us and what we might learn from them.

The martial arts practiced in villages were collections of techniques brought back by various men after their military service and/or of the various teachers that the village had hired over the years. They didn’t really have a lineage as we understand them today, and for many generations no one was concerned that they lacked one. However, as martial artists attempted to reposition themselves within society, respectability required them. It is not a stretch to suggest that many relied upon existing legends to create those lineages. The incestuous nature of these legends also suggests the martial arts community in the south was small and tight knit. They all knew the same legends, and perhaps over time they also created links between them.

Perhaps Huang Fei Hung’s (黃飛鴻) most famous student was Lin Shi Rong (林世榮). A book on the “Tiger and Crane Double Set” (虎鶴雙形拳) is attributed to Lin, but was mostly composed by one of his students. The book contains a story about Hong Xi Guan encountering and eventually marrying a woman named Fang Yong Chun (方詠春). Hong, one of the top disciples at the Shaolin monastery who had beaten dozens of the region’s best fighters with his hard fists and aggressive tiger claws, was not able to beat this woman. She is said to have practiced “White Crane” (白鶴拳), the presumption being the Fujian method.

Yim Wing Chun

Of course, Yong Chun (詠春) in Guangdonghua is pronounced “Wing Chun” and is the name of perhaps the second most popular method to originate in southern China. This method is attributed to a Yan Yong Chun (嚴詠春), same given name but different family name. This Yan Yong Chun is also tied to the Fujian Shaolin monastery, her teacher was another of the “five Shaolin ancestors” Wu Mei Da Shi (五梅大師). The similarity in names, especially for two women who were both said to possess extraordinary martial arts skills, has confused more than a few Western students over the years.


Finally, we have Fang Qi Niang (方七娘), a woman who not only shares the same family name “Fang” (方) as Hong Xi Guan’s wife but is attributed as the founder of Fujian White Crane (福建白鶴拳). Furthermore, there are almost identical stories about how both women were already skilled martial artists when they were inspired by an unsuccessful attempt to shoo away a white crane with a staff. Finally, Fang Qi Niang lived in Yong Chun county (永春縣) in Fujian. The county and the martial arts used slightly different Chinese characters but they are again homophones and would be easy to confuse if you were illiterate or semi-literate.

There is no doubt that there were many women skilled in martial arts. Yet similar names and overlapping details of their lives does raise questions. During the Taiping Civil War, we discussed Xu Sanniang (許三娘), Hong Xuanjiao (洪宣嬌) and Yang Xuanjiao (楊宣嬌) who raised similar issues. The most convincing historical explanation in the latter case was that there were really only two women. Xu Sanniang was a widow of extremely poor peasant origins who had been the leader of a bandit group before joining the Taiping movement. Yang Xuanjiao was the wife of the “Western King” Xiao Chaogui (蕭朝貴), confused for the blood relative of the Taiping leader (Hong) because they were “brother” and “sister” in the Taiping movement. Details of the two women’s lives were probably confused as well, making distinction even more difficult.

Hong Quan, Yong Chun Quan and Fujian White Crane lack equivalent historical documents. However, we know that in the Hong Quan tradition, Fang Yong Chun’s story serves in one sense to explain the origin of the “Tiger and Crane Double Set” (虎鶴雙形拳). According to the book, after their match Fang married Hong and taught him her white crane methods. Yet the set does not resemble either the old style Hong Quan that Hong Xi Guan would have most likely practiced nor the Fujian White Crane that Fang Yong Chun would have practiced. In fact, it is also commonly said that the set was created by Huang Fei Hung based upon the best techniques he had learned from the “Ten Tigers of Guangdong” (廣東十虎). In polite Chinese society though, it was far more fashionable to attribute something to an ancestor rather than claim it as your own. Fang Yong Chun could be a way to not only make the set much older, but also link it to the legendary founder of the system. She could potentially be a creation based upon one or both of the other figures.

The Nationalist Party (GMD) and the Guoshu movement of 1920s

10 Jan

Thus, it has been argued that the 1920’s ushered in a different political climate with an increasing nationalistic sentiment. It was in this decade that Dr. Sun Yat-Sen reorganized himself and established the Guomindang or “Nationalist Party” (國民黨). With nationalism also came renewed militarism; the Nationalist Party allied themselves with several local warlords in Guangdong province, sought organizational assistance from the Soviet Union and ultimately set up the Whampoa Military Academy (黃埔軍校). The appeal to nationalism was certainly explicit;

Today we are the poorest and weakest nation in the world and occupy the lowest position in international affairs. Other men are carving knives and serving dishes; we are fish and meat. Our position at this time is most perilous. If we do not earnestly espouse nationalism and weld together our four hundred million people into a strong nation, there is a danger of China being lost and our people being destroyed. If we wish to avert this catastrophe, we must espouse nationalism and bring this nationalist spirit to the salvation of the country.
(de Bary, pp. 106-107)


Zhang Zhi Dong had rejected all “old methods of training” and had no use for either spears or swords. Later, under Yuan Shi Kai, the Ministry of Education had issued the “Guidelines for Education” which embraced both the German style military drilling and incorporation of Chinese martial arts training. In the 1920’s, military men with close affiliations to traditional Chinese martial arts also rose to prominence just as increasing nationalist sentiment favored the promotion of their methods. Nationalists could argue that they were uniquely valuable because they were uniquely Chinese. (Lorge 213) At the same time, the outcome of the First World War undermined the reputation of the foreign, German style military drilling.

I don’t oppose playing ball in the least, but I do oppose this feverish consumption of foreigners’ goods. This is exercise, but it is the exercise of the gents and ladies of the leisured classes. If you want to exercise your body, is a blade not enough? Is a sword routine not enough? Are wrestling or boxing not enough? Of China’s eighteen types of martial arts, not one is incapable of drenching our entire bodies in sweat, stimulating all the body’s blood, tendons, and bones. … Now it is all just about blindly following the West, and when you think about it this is really our greatest national shame.
Feng Yu Xiang (馮玉祥)

Feng Yu Xiang (馮玉祥) had originally been part of Yuan Shi Kai’s Beiyang Army (北洋軍) but had changed affiliations several times before joining the Nationalist Party. Feng was probably unaware of the irony, but his statement was the exact inversion of Lu Xun’s response to Chen Tie Sheng;

I do not mind if some people think martial arts is a special skill and enjoy their own practice. This is not a big matter. However, I disagree with the propaganda of traditional Chinese martial arts because educators promote martial arts as a fashion, as if all Chinese people should do the exercise.
(New Youth, 15 February 1919)


In this new nationalistic point of view, there was nothing inherently “wrong” with Western exercise, but it was completely unnecessary for China. The Chinese had a long history of physical culture which had simply been obscured by those enamored with Western thought; “Ignorant students, their minds drunk with the spirit of Europe, still say that China has no Tiyu history of. Ah, how could they be so wrong?” (Morris 43) This included Chinese martial arts, which were equally “qualified to be part of Tiyu.” (Morris 43)


Of course, there was merit to this position as well. Historically, the Chinese had archery, the ancient football game of “Cu Ju” (蹴鞠), horse riding, wrestling and the lifting of stone weights. Relevant to our study, all had featured in military training and most had found their way into popular martial arts traditions. Some nationalists would take the argument a step farther; Chinese physical culture was unique and had unique benefits. Western calisthenics, Western weight lifting or Western boxing might build strong muscles; but Chinese martial arts were unique in their cultivation of Qi.

Surging nationalism also changed the terminology. As we have seen, through China’s history martial arts had been described with many terms. Beginning in the Ming Dynasty, and through most of the Qing as well, Quan (拳) was perhaps the most common term associated with its practice. But now Quan (拳) was easily confused with, in many circles flatly associated with, the failed “Boxers” of the Yi He Quan (義和拳). As we begin to see all things become associated with the nation-state, “National Painting” (國畫), “National Music” (國樂) and “National Medicine” (國醫), we also begin to see “martial arts” become “National Arts” or “Guoshou” (國術). Of course, a “National Art” also implies patriotism, loyalty to the state, as opposed to the various other loyalties and affiliations martial artists traditionally had.

On March 12, 1925 Sun Yat-Sen died of liver cancer at the age of 58, making way for the rise of his protégé Chiang Kai Shek (蔣介石). Chiang came from a wealthy family of salt merchants and had been raised with orthodox Confucian values. He attended the Baoding Military Academy (保定軍校) in 1906, and then went to Japan to continue his training. He served in the Imperial Japanese Army from 1909 to 1911. He returned to China in 1911 to participate in the events surrounding the collapse of the Qing Dynasty.


It was in Japan that Chiang met the aforementioned Chen Qi Mei (陳其美). Chen mentored Chiang, and initiated him into the Tong Meng Hui (同盟會) in while they were in Japan in 1908. Upon returning to China, Chen placed Chiang in charge of the 83rd Brigade, a group which at best has been described as “riff-raff.” (T’ang pp 252-253) These were also the years in which Chiang associated with Shanghai’s notorious Green Gang (青帮). (T’ang pp 252-253 and Berkov 29) In 1912 Chiang was involved in the assassination of Tao Cheng Zhang (陶成章), a political rival of both Sun Yat Sen and Chen Qi Mei. (Loh p 27). In 1915, he was also personally involved in the assassination of the Shanghai garrison commander. (Loh 29) In fact, the Shanghai International Settlement police charged Chiang with a number of felonies for which he never stood trial. (Loh 20, 133) Following Chen Qi Mei’s assassination by agents of Yuan Shi Kai, Chiang joined Sun Yat Sen in Guangdong in 1918.

Between 1926 and 1928, the Nationalist Party under the direction of Chiang Kai Shek engaged in the Northern Expedition (國民革命軍北伐). Utilizing a modernized force trained at the Whampoa Military Academy, the Nationalist Party engaged in a campaign to oust what they considered the illegitimate Beiyang government (北洋政府) in Beijing, end the “Warlord Era” and reunify the nation. Much of the reunification was achieved through creating alliances and incorporating these so called “warlords” into the Nationalist Party. However, when fighting was necessary, the Nationalist forces had been trained in modern methods with Soviet assistance, were armed with Russian and German weaponry, and had a propaganda wing aided by the Chinese communists who had joined with the Nationalist Party under the “First United Front.” It was a formidable military force, and as former commandant of the academy Chiang had the personal loyalty of most of the officers.

Communists executed in streets of Shanghai

Communists executed in streets of Shanghai

On April 12, 1927 Chiang began his quest for undisputed control of the Nationalist Party and initiated the “White Massacre” or “April 12 Purge” (四一二清黨) in Shanghai. Communist military units, radical union members, plain-clothes Communist organizers and left leaning intellectuals were all targeted. Thousands of workers were shot or beheaded on the spot. (Hahn p 111) Chiang for the most part did not use his regular military, he relied upon his connections with the notorious Green Gang and also recruited Red Gang (紅帮) enforcers, the “red staff” (紅棍). The massacre was followed by a party purge that ousted all Communists and leftists, leaving Chiang as leader of a right-leaning party that established itself in Nanjing.

Within a year of consolidating his power, the Guomindang turned its attention toward the regulation of martial arts. As a military man, who had trained in Japan, it was not surprising that Chiang Kai-Shek had already long embraced the martial arts as a tool to strengthen the nation;

There are certain arts and technical abilities a modern Chinese citizen should be conversant with. We must encourage certain arts among which the following is most important: Chinese boxing. Chinese boxing in not simply a form of physical contest; it is also pregnant with meaning for the physical education or our citizens. Its highest ideal is to enable the learner to remain calm and serene, to coordinate his mind and muscles, and to strike home with the full force of both. Such an attitude is somewhat different from the basic assumptions of Western type boxing. We call our type the “Chinese National Boxing (Guoshou),” because we wish to emphasize its significance for the physical and mental health of our citizens. In all our future educational plans, we must regard Chinese boxing as an essential item in the physical education of our citizens and encourage people to learn it with all the persuasion and authority we can command.
(Kennedy Jing Wu P20)

While many of the men behind the scenes of the Jing Wu were important political figures, the organization attempted to maintain the appearance it was apolitical. The second article of the Jing Wu constitution declared that members “were not allowed to become involved in politics.” (Morris p. 197) Chen Tie Sheng famously declared that the Jing Wu “does not carry the stench of politics.” (Morris 198). Reading more detailed histories of the Jing Wu, a reader might be tempted to dismiss their claims as absurd or self-serving, but it may have been simply a necessary function of the 1910s period. The 1920’s were a time of great political change, and Chiang Kai Shek had overtly political designs in regards to the martial arts.

Chiang Kai Shek was perhaps uniquely qualified to understand the challenges presented by the existing martial arts community. He was a military man who had spent considerable time in Shanghai with secret society members and undoubtedly with the martial artists who associated with them. Consider Doak Barnett, a well-known historian who documented conditions in Sichuan province during the Republican period. He reported what Chiang Kai Shek had surely already long known;

There was nothing secret about [secret societies]…. The fact that it is outlawed by the central government does not seem to bother anyone concerned, or, it might be added, deter anyone from becoming a member if he is invited.

The Qing Dynasty had collapsed but very little had really changed. The practice of martial arts produced skilled fighters who frequently had loyalties only to their teacher and tradition. They were available as muscle-to-hire to criminals, secret societies and potential revolutionaries. Chiang had used precisely these sorts of men during the “White Massacre” in Shanghai. The communists had also tried to incorporate and mobilize them.


Furthermore, upon closer inspection, the wave of progressivism we have described thus far really represented a very select few. The Jing Wu Association in Shanghai, Sun Lu Tang’s Beiping Physical Culture Research Institute (北平體育研究) in Beijing and Li Cun Yi’s Chinese Warrior Association (中華武士會) in Tianjin were the exceptions, certainly not the rule. Wu Zhi Qing (吳志青) was the leader of the “Chinese Martial Hero Association of Shanghai” (上海中華武俠會) during the 1920’s. In discussing the community, Wu pointed out that martial arts were still not openly discussed and factions still sought to keep their skills secret. (Morris p. 217) Martial artists still functioned largely as their own sub-culture, felt little connection or loyalty to the nation-state, and had the power to resist. Thus, they continued to represent a significant challenge to anyone wishing to establish central authority. (Lorge p. 216)

Another “rough cut”: New Culture Movement criticisms

2 Jan

Chen Du Xiu took to the pages of his “New Youth” journal to criticize the new martial arts program of General Ma Liang (馬良). The general’s “New Chinese Martial Arts” (中華新武術) provides us with an excellent example of this new approach to martial arts practice emerging within the military. Ma Liang had been a product of the new army and its German tradition military drilling, but he was also a strong nationalist and defender of Chinese martial arts. His new training program claimed to have incorporated Western ideas and western callisthenic exercises for physical conditioning, along with Chinese fist/striking (拳), leg/kicking (腿), wrestling (摔角), sword and staff fighting methods which were said to have been “scientifically selected” from the many different traditions. In 1917 Ma Liang’s program was introduced as mandatory training for military, police and physical education training at Beijing Normal University. (Gu “Shilun beiyang junfa tongzhi shiqi de tiyu.” [Sport warlord rule In North China]. In Xin Zhongguo tiyu shi youxiu lunwenji, ed. Liuji, pp. 308-316)


In some regards, Ma Liang’s “New Chinese Martial Arts” might seem rather progressive, even similar to the Jing Wu’s attempts to take the martial arts and rationalize them and make them relevant. Yet Chen Du Xiu’s article in “New Youth” demonstrated he was violently opposed;

We have already had enough of the 1900 “Spirit Boxers”, but now we are supposed to teach Commander Ma’s martial arts in school. Do not once more allow the “extraordinary feats of strength, chaos and spirits”, of which even Confucius did not speak [because of their supernatural content], to come and “deceive the next generation”.
(Morris, 2004, p. 194)


Chen Du Xiu was quick to link what was advertised as a new martial arts program to the disastrous Boxer Uprising. Did Chen really believe this, or was it simply a useful tactic and his opposition really rooted in his ideological anti-traditionalism and anti-militarism? It is impossible to say, but we see the same attitude expressed by the most famous figure to emerge from the New Culture Movement, Lu Xun (魯迅). The following comments by Lu Xun also appeared in the “New Youth” journal;

Recently, there have been a fair number of people scattered about who have been energetically promoting [martial arts]. (note on “quan”) I seem to recall this having happened once before. But at that time the promoters were the Manchu court and high officials, whereas now they are Republican educators – people occupying a quite different place in society. I have no way of telling, as an outsider, whether their goals are the same or different.
(Cohen 230)


Clearly, Lu Xun was comparing the supporters of the new martial arts programs with the reactionary Qing clique which had sanctioned the Yi He Quan.

These educators have now renamed the old methods “that the Goddess of the Ninth Heaven transmitted to the Yellow Emperor”…”the new martial arts” or “Chinese-style gymnastics” and they make young people practice them.

If one were to believe Lu Xun, those promoting the new programs were only attempting to use new terminology to obscure and confuse. That in fact there was no difference between their approach to martial arts training and the highly ritualized, superstitious practices of the Yi He Quan? The tone of his statements is increasingly satirical and sarcastic.

I’ve heard there are a lot of benefits to be had from them. Two of the more important may be listed here:

(1) They have a physical education function. It’s said that when Chinese take instruction in foreign gymnastics it isn’t effective; the only thing that works for them is native-style gymnastics (that is, [martial arts]). I would have thought that if one spread one’s arms and legs apart and picked up a foreign bronze hammer or wooden club in one’s hands, it ought probably to have some “efficacy” as far as one’s muscular development was concerned. But it turns out this isn’t so! Naturally, therefore, the only course left to them is to switch to learning such tricks as “Wu Song disengaging himself from his manacles.” No doubt this is because Chinese are different from foreigners physiologically.

(2) They have a military function. The Chinese know how to box; the foreigners don’t know how to box. So if one day the two meet and start fighting it goes without saying the Chinese will win…. The only thing is that nowadays people always use firearms when they fight. Although China “had firearms too in ancient times” it doesn’t have them anymore. So if the Chinese don’t learn the military art of using rattan shields, how can they protect themselves against firearms? I think–since they don’t elaborate on this, this reflects “my own very limited and shallow understanding”–I think that if they keep at it with their boxing they are bound to reach a point where they become “invulnerable to firearms.” (I presume by doing exercises to benefit their internal organs?) Boxing was tried once before–in 1900. Unfortunately on that occasion its reputation may be considered to have suffered a decisive setback. We’ll see how it fares this time around.
(Cohen, History in Three Keys p 231)


If Lu Xun’s condescending tone suggested that he believed all those advocating the practice of martial arts were ignorant, semi-literate peasants, he miscalculated. “New Youth” subsequently published a rebuttal by none other than Chen Tie Sheng (陳鐵生), the leading writer and editor of the Jing Wu’s publications. (Kennedy jingwu 24) Chen’s rebuttal was equally satirical and sarcastic, while exposing Lu Xun’s relative ignorance of subject matter. (note on sources)

Chen Tie Sheng begins by addressing the very essence of the issue, asking how Lu Xun could possibly confuse the “Boxer Bandits” (拳匪), the Yi He Quan, with the legitimate practice of martial arts (技擊術)? Chen states that Lu Xun couldn’t possibly have had any direct experience with the Yi He Quan, or he could never be so confused. “Boxer Bandits” (拳匪) engaged in “bestial dances” (禽獸舞) (i.e. spirit possession) and relied upon “sorcery” (鬼道主義 ). Authentic martial artists were associated by contrast with what Chen referred to as “humanism” (人道主義), a rejection of the supernatural. Chen’s argument is the same one Joseph Esherick would painstakingly document seventy years later.

Chen’s attacks continued to suggest that Lu Xun was an conceited outsider who knew very little about the things he criticized. Chen countered Lu Xun’s “gun argument” by stating matter-of-factly that “firearms must indeed by used” (槍砲固然要用), but also noting that the military drilling in middle schools included sword and spear practice. Furthermore, real combat included “in close fighting” but that “this doubtless is not something Mr. Lu knows about.” (Cohen 232) Finally, demonstrating that he had just as much education and wit to spar with the literary great, Chen sarcastically called Lu Xun himself a “Boxer Bandit” in that, like the Yi He Quan, he had no real comprehension of what constituted authentic Chinese martial arts at all. (ibid)


Of course, “Quan” (拳) was a term long associated with the practice of martial arts and has generally been translated in English sources as “boxing.” In this volume I consciously avoided using the term “boxing” so as to not confuse the orthodox practice of martial arts with the so-called “Boxers” of the Yi He Quan (義和拳). In Chen’s rebuttal, he uses “Boxer Bandits”, a term which had been widely used to describe the Yi He Quan, but in doing so demonstrates how “Quan” (拳) had come to be linked with the notorious character for “bandit” (匪). Furthermore, Chen uses the more classical “技擊術” in describing legitimate martial arts practice. Perhaps it was this tainting of the term “Quan” (拳) that prompted a search for new terminologies, such as Guoshu (國術).

Another rough cut; changes in attitudes towards fighting in CMA

19 Dec

“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)
(Morris 188)

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.

More rough cuts from Kung Fu History Book

17 Dec

[Another rough cut from my forthcoming book on Chinese martial arts history, an outline stretching from the Waring States period to the Republic]

Several writers have called the Boxer Uprising a national embarrassment, but the consequences were far worse than anything that term could ever describe. The Yi He Quan’s violence resulted in indiscriminate retaliation by the foreign powers. The occupation of the capital allowed not only the foreign troops, but foreign nationals including missionaries, to engage in what one American correspondent called “the biggest looting excursion since the days of Pizarro.” It is said that in order to avoid being raped, thousands of Chinese women committed suicide by throwing themselves down wells. The American commander, Adna R. Chaffee said “It is safe to say that where one real Boxer has been killed, 50 harmless coolies or laborers, including not a few women and children have been slain.” The “Boxer Protocol” that the Qing government agreed to sign on September 7, 1901 had even more damaging long term consequences; foreign powers could now permanently station troops in the capital and China agreed to pay a crippling reparation of more than $330 million.


While the Spirit Boxers who served as the foundation of the Yi He Quan movement had at best been peripheral to the mainstream martial arts community, we know that many martial artists eventually became swept up in the uprising. Once the imperial court sanctioned the Yi He Quan, it clearly emboldened some legitimate martial artists to participate. Xing Yi Quan teacher Li Cunyi (李存義) joined the Yi He Quan in Beijing in 1900 to fight the foreign armies, and Mei Hua Quan teacher Zhao San-duo (趙三多) would reappear briefly in Guan country, Shandong province. Others were effected unwillingly; Sun Lu Tang (孫祿堂) was forced to relocate his family out of Beijing, and Cheng Ting Hua (程廷華) was actually shot and killed by German soldiers.

Those that survived the primary violence still had to fear retribution. As Adna R. Chaffee’s quote above suggests, the foreign powers executed anyone they even suspected of being a “boxer.” Furthermore, foreign retribution was not all they had to fear. The Chinese people were not just humiliated by the Boxer Uprising, they were angry. Much of that anger was directed at the martial arts community, which they viewed as the ignorant peasants who had incurred the wrath of the foreign powers, relying on superstitious nonsense that had been less than useless against western firearms. In the immediate aftermath, martial artists across the country were forced underground.


There is another dimension to this anger that I think is often neglected. Despite common perceptions that by this point the Qing Dynasty was already in decline, there had indeed been progressives within the government. In 1898, these progressives had initiated the “Hundred Days of Reform” (戊戌變法) in an attempt to reform and modernize. Their reactionary opponents, the leaders of the coup that ended those reforms, had also been the same faction that had allied themselves with and sanctioned the Yi He Quan. Thus, another legacy of the Boxer Uprising was that in the mind of progressives, the martial arts community was forever linked with the short sighted reactionaries who had blocked reform, failed to maintain the nation’s strength and provoked the foreign retaliation. Martial arts practice ended up on the wrong side of a growing intellectual movement.

It is often difficult to identify a specific date as the beginning of an intellectual movement, and just as hard to create a label that truly does it justice. The Self-Strengthening Movement (自強運動) of 1861 to 1895 represented the first turn towards the west for knowledge, at least technical knowledge. However, it remained a relatively conservative approach. When we speak of the New Culture Movement (新文化運動), we are not simply speaking of the advocacy of western learning, but also a disillusionment with and ultimately a rejection of traditional Chinese culture. A classic example of this thinking was the writer Lu Xun (魯迅). His “Diary of a Madman” implied that China’s traditional culture was cannibalistic, and “The True Story of Ah Q” showed the typical Chinese as weak and self-deceiving. The full-fledged New Culture Movement emerged as a call for the creation of an entirely new Chinese culture based upon global (i.e. western) standards, especially a dedication to science, rationalism and political democracy.


The movement had its foundations in the 1890’s, with increased contact with foreigners and the appearance of translations of western publications. Thus, in some respects we can also view the Boxer Uprising as a reactionary response to the same trends which were producing the New Culture Movement. After the uprising, the New Culture Movement identified the Yi He Quan, and by extension all martial arts practice, as emblematic of everything that was objectionable in the old culture and of the reasons why the people of China had become weak. If the Yi He Quan were an indication, then martial artists must be “backward” and “superstitious.” (Cohen xii) In his 1915 book, Sun Lu Tang hinted at these biases, saying “There was a prejudice in the old days that literates despised martial arts as martial artists were short on learning.” (Dan Miller’s translation)

The government briefly suppressed the practice of martial arts following the Boxer Uprising, closing private academies (武館) in the capital in particular. In 1905, another movement towards reform resulted in the abolition of the military examination system. Those martial artists who had prepared candidates for the exams, as well as those who had viewed martial arts training as preparation for a military career, faced a new reality. For almost a decade, the practice of martial arts seems to have sat on the edge of extinction. The real challenge remained the fact that in this new intellectual environment, martial art training was not simply unfashionable (it had always somewhat been) but was now identified as a symptom of the same feudal culture which had doomed the nation to failure and humiliation.


Of course, martial arts practice did not suffer extinction. Around the country, they reemerged in the mid-1910s along with the establishment of several organizations that today’s practitioners are familiar with; the preeminent of which is the “Pure Martial Athletic Association (精武體育會 Jing Wu Tiyu Hui). We must not only ask “how” this happened, we must ask “why?” It was at this point that martial arts practice most fundamentally changed. Prior to the turn of the century, martial arts practice had either been conducted by active military men or in villages where, in addition to providing training for their militia, it was a recreation for children and for adults during times when they were not engaged in agricultural labor. (Kennedy Jingwu p1). In this new period, martial arts practice becomes an urban activity engaged in by the middle class; for health, physical education and recreation.

Among those who contributed to the introduction of Western thought into Chinese society was Yan Fu (嚴復1854-1921), a scholar and translator whose translation of Thomas Huxley’s Evolution and Ethics (in Chinese 天演論) brought Social Darwinism to the forefront of Chinese intellectual discussion. In some circles it has been argued that Yan Fu deliberately ignored the ethical dimensions of Huxley’s original work to advance the political agendas of national competitiveness and physical self-strengthening. Yan Fu stated that “The power of a nation is based on people’s physical strength.” (Lu Zhouxiang p.484) His work made familiar the concept of “survival of the fittest” (in Chinese天擇).

It was Social Darwinism and “survival of the fittest” which prompted an interest in Western models of physical education (Ti Cao體操) and military drilling (Bing Cao兵操). The rational was that the nation was week because the population was physically weak. The poor suffered from poor diet, disease, and crowded living conditions. Xu Yi Bing (徐一冰), a pioneering educator who opened the “Chinese Calisthenics School” (中國體操學校) in Shanghai in 1909, believed much of China’s contemporary problems were a result of its lack of attention to physical education;

The people of our nation are weary and spiritless, our bodies emaciated by disease. We trudge on towards death, and if we bother to find why, we see that it is nothing else but the harm of our abandonment of [physical education].
(Marrow of nation P 2)

On the other hand, the educated had been raised in Confucian society which held deeply rooted prejudices about what the “proper man” looked like physically. He was pale skinned, thin, almost emaciated. This aesthetic reflected the many hours a Confucian scholar spent studying books and writing calligraphy. Also, musculature was viewed as an indication that the person engaged in manual labor. (Kennedy and Guo Jingwu 54-55) Chinese society lacked the modern, Western concept of public health and as a result had failed to properly evolve into a modern nation state.


To strengthen the nation and resist Western imperialism, physical education (體操) would produce a new generation of able bodied men with “martial spirit” developed by military drilling (兵操). Thus physical education and military training were perceived as over­lapping activities. It was, as Andrew Morris described it, a “militarized” physical education movement in which the Chinese initially looked to the German and Swedish models as opposed to the “sport”, fun and entertainment approaches of the Anglo-American model. As early as 1902, schools began to incorporate these “Ti Cao” calisthenics and gymnastics classes with “martial spirit” as their main goal. Beginning in 1904, private institutions focused on modern physical education also began to appear in major Chinese cities.

Thus, as much as the introduction of Western ideas produced a new manner of criticism of the martial arts, it also introduced a new context in which the martial arts might justify and legitimate themselves. Military-style calisthenics in the 1910s included some aspects of traditional martial arts, the famous novelist Mao Dun (茅盾) remembered practicing spear drills in middle school. (“My Life” p 72) Yet Western boxing and fencing were more universally practiced and respected. Even more telling, some physical education proponents also embraced Japanese Judo, seeing in it a martial art with traditional Japanese origins successfully converted to the standards of a modern international sport. (Marrow p 6) Martial arts would be acceptable only if they could demonstrate that they had been modernized and could serve as a proper form of physical education.

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