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Thoughts on “style” and “tradition”

1 Apr

What was Chan Tai San’s favorite system? What style do you teach? Which style is best? Is it a northern system? Etc etc blah blah…

Before I ever met Chan Tai San, I had done western boxing, had second degree black belts in Taekwondo and Hapkido and had studied Shuai Jiao and Hung Ga.

I learned a lot of things with Chan Tai San, but my primary area of study was “Lama Pai”. What exactly is (was) “Lama Pai”? Western Chinese long arm, Northern Chinese kicking, Mongolian wrestling, Southern Chinese short arm and a good deal of Indian martial art as well. To think of “Lama Pai” as a “pure system” is to miss the point entirely.

I should also note that Chan Tai San studied anywhere from 5 to 9 different versons / traditions / lineages / different teacher’s version of “Lama Pai” so his version was a mix of many things. Of course, Chan Tai San also knew Choy Lay Fut, Village style Hung fist, White Eyebrow, Mok Ga, Hung Fut and bits of a lot of martial arts. Some of them not even Chinese! Chan Tai San was very fond of both Japanese Judo and western boxing.

When we did demonstrations, whether it was Chan Tai San or any of the students, people were always confused. They would see elements of all the systems mentioned on our demonstrations. “Which was it” they wanted to know? It was Chan Tai San’s method, often influenced by what we the students had also done (a lot of my demos were influenced by my Hung Ga background as well)

Was Lama Pai Chan Tai San’s favorite system? NO. I can safely say that Chan Tai San’s favorite system was “take my fist and smash your face”. He was also pretty fond of “Kick you in the nuts”.

Of course, he had a lot of variations upon these systems. I still teach variations of “take my fist and smash your face” and “kick you in the nuts”. I was already teaching my own versions of these systems when Chan Tai San was still alive, and he was pretty supportive of my versions.

People don’t get who I am and why I am the way I am. They wonder (aloud) why I “left Chan Tai San’s teachings” when in fact they have no idea what Chan Tai San’s teachings were about. Only my hing-dai (training class mates) get it, because THEY WERE THERE. Even a lot of them don’t get it, because they were busy drinking the kool-aid….

Lion’s Roar Martial Arts, documenting my version of the Chan Tai-San lineage is available on (click)

Wu Lin should be a community, but often is just crabs in a barrel

30 Mar

The “Wu Lin” (“Mo Lam” in Guangdonghua) is a term that gets thrown around a lot in Chinese martial arts circles. It is supposed to be a community, but anyone who has spent any time in this community more often than not refers to the old “crabs in a barrel.” That is, the mentality of thinking best described by the phrase, “if I can’t have it, neither can you.”

If you’ve been in this community, I really don’t need to explain it to you. The obvious observation is that it is this mentality that has really held back Chinese martial arts. And to NO ONE’S BENEFIT!

Yesterday, I posted a blog praising and referring people to an old friend who does a different system and runs a separate organization. Some people were actually confused by that? But I support a lot of schools and organizations. I frequently take my students to seminars held by other instructors in other schools.

We got to all sorts of seminars, “modern” MMA seminars and traditional Chinese martial arts teachers. We had a wonderful time with Luo Dexiu of Taiwan. I’d recommend him (and HAVE!) to anyone!

And you know what is “funny”? I am not just showing some new fangled modern idea. My teacher had exactly the same mentality. And he also bemoaned the decline of Chinese martial arts because people were too busy being “crabs in a barrel”.


Jeng Hsing Ping’s Shuai Jiao (Swai Jiao)

29 Mar

Articles about Chang Tung Sheng / Chang Dong Sheng (常東昇) and his method of Shuai Jiao / Swai Jiao (摔角) appeared in English language martial arts magazines as early as the late 1970’s but they appeared in a surge in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s. A famous teacher with a verified record of fighting matches, including winning the 1933 national guoshu examination matches, most people who practiced Chinese martial arts were very interested in him and his methods.

I had been fortunate, my first Chinese martial arts training in southern Hung Ga had included correct instruction in joint locks, sweeps and throws. Of course, I was already a second degree black belt in Korean Hapkido, so I was knowledgeable and interested in grappling aspects. So when I saw a flyer for Shuai Jiao / Swai Jiao classes I investigated.

It is hard to imagine, but this was a time before the internet. Most Chinese martial arts schools didn’t advertise. They were NOT in the yellow pages. It was frequently word-of-mouth or personal introductions. I was not really sure how long Shihfu Jeng Hsing Ping had been in NYC, but there I was, in a Jeng swai jiao class.

If you understand how most Chinese martial arts schools are administered, it should come as no surprise when I tell you that while the school was Shihfu Jeng Hsing Ping’s, most of the instruction was done by his senior student(s). In particular, during my time there I was taught by James Chin. James was not only Shihfu Jeng’s disciple, he was also a very skilled student of Long Fist. He had trained in the legendary “5 Tigers” school which in New York City had a reputation almost like the Jing Wu! Again, just pure dumb luck, I found quality Chinese martial arts.

I claim no rank at all in Shuai Jiao / Swai Jiao. Another teacher from a different school DID offer me some rank, which I was not interested in. HOWEVER, I consistently tell people the time I spent at Shihfu Jeng’s changed my life. Of course, people know that it was there I met Stephen Laurette who introduced me to Chan Tai-San. Laurette also was a 7 Star Praying Mantis student and introduced me to the system and many of his classmates.

But I also must stress that learning Swai Jiao from James Chin prepared me for learning with Chan Tai-San. It gave me a new appreciation and new angles to look at things. It showed me the grappling that is integral to Chinese martial arts, but so seldom really addressed and trained.

James Chin just put up a new web site at He has some books and some instructional material that is either already available or will be available soon. I STRONGLY RECOMMEND THEM ALL. Perhaps more importantly, if you are in the New York area and have been looking to learn a very real, very complete Chinese martial art method, seek Shihfu Chin out. The Jeng school is authentic and deep. It is the kind of Chinese martial art that is seldom seen and, sadly, which is dying out.

As always, best wishes and go train!

Closed minds are NOT part of traditional martial arts

15 Mar

In the past, I’ve suggested (and even demonstrated) how some popular Wing Chun moves that are usually interpreted as strikes or blocks might more logically be grappling movements such as arm drags and arm drag counters.

You can certainly understand people getting upset when someone attacks their method; the internet is full of one group talking about how the other group is hopelessly lost and their stuff will never work. But is suggesting that something you do is MORE than it first appears, and that what you do has even more applications, isn’t really reasonably an “attack” upon what you do, is it? None the less, parties with torches organized to lynch me.

I have suggested that many of the kneeling positions found in Chinese martial arts are actually leg attack takedowns. That isn’t even a novel idea of mine; it is well discussed and known in Shuai Jiao (Chinese wrestling).

Fujian Dog Boxing remains a relatively rare method, though now you can find it online on, etc. Many of its positions are for throws, trips and ground fighting.

So I never quite get why people get upset when you suggest that traditional methods might be MORE than what they first appear to be? And my next reaction is, please do NOT wrap your self in the flag of “tradition” to justify those positions. “Traditional” was originally about men who fought to survive and we have countless stories about how the person who found a new method or new way to do things prevailed in combat. So stop it, just stop it.

Lama Pai Kung Fu classes in New York City

24 Feb

At learn more about the Chan Tai San Lion’s Roar Lama Pai Association secret group on facebook. Unlimited access to instructional videos.

If you are not in the New York Tri-State area and still want to learn the material being offered in the new association program, now is your limited time opportunity! Only $39 per month with no commitment gives you UNLIMITED ACCESS to the material.

Author, educator, combat sports coach and martial arts master; David A Ross has spent three decades helping the public better understand real martial arts. An adopted disciple of the late master Chan Tai-San, one of China’s national treasures. Close to three decades teaching and coaching, both champion fighters and regular people who just want to achieve their goals. The trainer of three world champions, twenty national champions, and many regional and local title holders in several forms of combat sports.

Sifu David Ross has spent decades developing a holistic martial arts education, combining the best martial arts with his own, unique “pillars of truth” world view which has helped thousands of people to achieve their personal goals and live their dreams. The beauty of his vision is that it is NOT just for those who want to compete or be a champion; he has proven time and time again that REAL MARTIAL ARTS are for everyone and everyone benefits.

“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.

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