The history of Chinese martial arts is as old as that of humanity. In order to defend himself, early man imitated the attack and defense movements of various creatures. Technically, these methods were crude and relatively unorganized. However, over time, as society and culture evolved, schools of philosophy and martial arts emerged, serving to organize systematic training methods. These arts, refined and perfected in China, were preserved mainly within family clans and religious temples. It is only within the past two or three generations that these arts have become accessible to the West.
As the martial arts of China are deeply founded in Chinese philosophy, they contain both a strong theoretical framework pertaining to technique and skill development, as well as a deep rooting in ethics and morals.
Chinese martial arts are a shimmering pearl in the traditional culture and civilization of China. An athletic discipline developed by the ancients, its skills have been passed from person to person, through generations. During its long history, it evolved from a primitive form to a scientific discipline through which practitioners unify mind, body and spirit.
Chinese martial arts provide opportunities for physical conditioning, self-defence, competition, entertainment and performance, and self-actualization. Practitioners gain insight into the principles and relationships of Yin Yang1, the Ba Gua2, and the Five Universal Elements3. True practitioners of martial arts aspire to a high moral code and virtue. The study of Chinese martial arts is a journey of self-discovery, through which we learn basic human and spiritual values.
THE ORIGINS OF CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS
The birth and development of the martial arts were greatly influenced by political, economic and military characteristics of the corresponding historical periods. As the arts evolved they progressed along their own rhythms to higher levels of perfection. The origins of Chinese martial arts trace back to the earliest days of human existence. In order to survive under the harsh conditions of nature, our ancestors made use of rocks and sticks to hunt for animals, food and clothing. Although hunting and fighting movements were instinctive, natural reflexes rather than structured martial movements, they formed the roots of modern martial skills.
During the primitive New Stone Age (BC 8000 – 5500), tribal disputes played a part in developing the fundamentals of combat skills. By the late Stone Age (BC 4000 – 3000), primitive hunting skills had already transformed from basic reflexes to purposeful acts of attack and defence. This was a significant advancement in the evolution of martial arts.
CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS IN ANCIENT TIMES4
In the Xia, Shang, and Zhou dynasties (BC 2100 – 770) China moved from slavery to a feudal societal system, and martial arts blended with military, education, ceremony and ritual. At this time, the arts incorporated simple weapons (arrows, spears) and hand fighting. This period laid the basis of Kung Fu5 as a martial art discipline in its own right.
The Spring and Autumn and Warring States Periods of the Zhou Dynasty (BC 770 – 21) was a time of vast upheaval. Kings and warlords vied for supremacy. Local governments oversaw training of warriors, and military strategy and intelligence was vital. During this chaotic period, Chinese martial arts were an essential military tool. In terms of variety and complexity, the arts underwent tremendous changes.
As society grew more complex, Kung Fu found a larger audience, establishing a rich folk culture. Chinese martial arts were a diverse discipline encompassing empty hand sparring and wrestling as well as weapons skill. People participated in athletic competitions, entertainment, and in daily physical conditioning regimens.
There is extensive information from the Spring and Autumn (BC 770 – 476) and Warring States (BC 475 – 221) periods describing how the Chinese had been seeking health through exercise. People began to realize the importance of holistic health, building one’s vitality and energy, and balancing the forces of yin and yang.
Animal-based fighting styles were an outstanding development during the Qin, Han and Three Kingdom periods (BC 221 – AD 280). Warriors were given a distinct status in society. Martial arts became a profession. Kung Fu forms evolved from the simple, single movements of the ancient Yan and Zhou periods, to the complex fighting forms.
During the Jin and the South and North Dynasties (AD 265 – 589), China was a mosaic of minority races from the North, and the Han people from central and Southern China. This period nurtured the development of philosophical schools including Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism. Under this climate, people began to associate the practice of martial arts with a state of mental and physical wellness.
At this time, the concepts of healthy living and vitality cultivation were widespread. The Internal training of Daoism advocated the cultivation of the ‘Three Treasures’6. This and other principles were pervasive in the lives of many Chinese. Kung Fu and healthy living became inseparable.
Rulers of the Sui and Tang Dynasties (AD 581 – 907) saw the vital importance of martial arts. In the Tang period, martial arts examination was adopted. The Chinese government rewarded outstanding warriors with wealth, prestige and official government positions. Thus, entering the martial world was regarded as a great honour.
In the Qin period (AD 907 – 979), swordplay was popular among scholars and performers. The performing industry allowed people to refine their swordsmanship to a very high level. Qi Gong7 progressively developed into three main schools—folk style, Buddhist and by far the most influential, the Daoist.
In the Song and Yuan Dynasties (AD 960 – 1368) feudalism was well-established. With frequent invasions by Manchus, Mongolians, and Tartars during the Song period, martial training in the military was a prime concern. As Kung Fu was widely practised, organizations called ‘she’8, meaning ‘society’ were set up by Kung Fu martial arts experts to socialize and learn together. Kung Fu in the Song dynasty was characterized by a more complex system with an identity separate from the military.
By the Song period, difficult economic times saw the emergence of the travelling Kung Fu performer. This reluctant figure took to the road in order to earn a living. To make their performances more pleasing, and to disguise the true meaning of their techniques, many performers added meaningless movements to their forms.
The Yuan Dynasty was ruled by Mongolians who were oppressive to the Han Chinese. People were banned from practicing martial arts, however Kung Fu survived despite these political and economic obstacles, going on to even greater success.
Kung Fu experts adapted their skills into operas and plays. The stage became a melting pot for Kung Fu and opera. This increased the artistic value of Kung Fu. People enjoyed Dragon, Lion and other folk Dances, as well as acrobatics and other performance arts. Many famous Chinese operas also incorporated Kung Fu.
In the Ming and Qing Dynasties (AD 1368 – 1911), feudalism in China was drawing to a close. People were class-conscious, and greater demands for personal expression and thought emerged. In 1368, peasants revolted to establish the Ming Dynasty. During this time, people took great interest in learning Kung Fu and martial arts schools prospered. Kung Fu played a primary role in daily life. Martial arts schools and styles simultaneously expanded. The once oral tradition of teaching Kung Fu was now being recorded in instructional manuals and published for widespread distribution.
Although Kung Fu during the Ming dynasty inherited fancy styles and techniques, it retained the practical nature of traditional skills. In terms of content and technique, new and better forms evolved. Illustrations and the recording of martial theory in the form of verse for oral recital were widely adopted as training methods.
As Kung Fu grew more refined, different schools created new styles and techniques. Some of these are still widely practised today with movements virtually unchanged. The birth of the many schools and styles was a positive trend. It enabled practitioners to learn various skills and gain understanding of different aspects of Kung Fu, raise their interest in exploring the complexity of the art, and improve the effectiveness of training and practice.
In 1644, after routing the Great Wall near Shanhaiguan, Hebei province9, Manchurians invaded Beijing and established the Qing dynasty. Under Qing rule, strict laws prohibited peasants and folks from Kung Fu training. However, the Qing continued to hold martial examinations and combat competitions to select fighters for their armies. Folk heroes and fighters vowed to rebel against the Manchu leaders and reinstate Ming reign. Secret societies and unorthodox religions organized their own members, creating their own styles, forms and weapons. Kung Fu was thus closely tied to these political revolutions and experienced significant growth and expansion during this period.
From the earliest time of the Stone Age to the nineteenth century, Chinese Kung Fu has evolved to a complex system. Besides wrestling, forms and weaponry, other related items of special interest were invented. These included stone lock, complex training structures, stone chop, iron canon, stone crusher, sandbag, wooden dummies, and plum flower posts. Kung Fu masters knew not only the standard repertoire of forms and weapons, but also usually specialized in unique training (qigong, internal training, power training etc.). At this high level, practitioners explored the close connection between qigong, healthy living, and medicine.
In the Qing period, the practice of internal breathing training advanced through Kung Fu masters who believed in the importance of cultivating will power, energy, and the mind. Both extrinsic and intrinsic disciplines coexisted. With emphasis placed on training the qi (energy), yi (will), shen (spirit), and xing (physique), Kung Fu was moving towards an awareness of mental and physical wellness.10
RECENT DEVELOPMENTS OF CHINESE MARTIAL ARTS
The 19th century saw the rise of modern warfare. Traditional weapons became virtually obsolete. The connection of classical martial arts with the military faded. Its main role now was for physical fitness and personal self-defence.
Since the 1860’s, western sports were spread and taught in China. The athletic spirit was abundant. Associations were formed to promote sports activities. The most influential athletic organization at that time was the Jing Wu Athletic Club11 of Shanghai.
The organization’s major aim was to promote Kung Fu and national pride. The Jing Wu School, meaning, ‘the best of Chinese martial arts’, was founded by Huo Yuan Jia12, along with several of the nation’s top masters who had broad vision, recognizing the inherent value in all Chinese martial arts. The Jing Wu System grew to become the most influential and famous organization to promote Kung Fu in the early 20th century.
Unlike the multitude of single-style schools that tended to be exclusive, secretive and territorial, the Jing Wu School was the first large-scale public institution that offered a diverse curriculum from several systems of martial arts. Like a college, students could choose the area of their academic focus. These objectives were widely supported, hence, its activities soon spread to Guangzhou, Foshan, and later to South East Asia as well as many countries overseas.
In 1911, an uprising led by Sun Yat Sen established the Republic of China.13 Kung Fu advocates were free to train and were encouraged to spread their skills. Martial arts fraternal societies, clubs, and guan14 were open for activities.
In 1927, the Chinese Nationalist Party opened the Central Kuo Shu (Martial Arts) Gymnasium in Nanjing to promote Chinese martial arts. In a public decree, it stated:
“Chinese martial arts are highly regarded in sports in addition to its traditional respected combat merit. At the deepest level, it calms the mind, generating qi from control of will power, cultivating our inner and physical strengths. The level of achievement in this discipline cannot be equalled by any standard in western boxing. For the paramount benefits it derives in the well-being of our people, it is therefore honoured as ‘Kuo Shu’15 (the art of the Nation)… the government supports Kuo Shu in the national athletic curriculum.”
Since the establishment of the Nanjing institute, the name ‘Kuo Shu’ has been adopted world-wide by many associations dedicated to promoting Chinese martial arts. The central Chinese government supported twenty-four provincial and about three hundred regional Kuo Shu institutes. Many branches were also set up in small districts and villages. In 1941, the Education and Military Departments formed a committee to research, compile and edit Kuo Shu teaching materials. All educational institutions were required to instruct Kuo Shu in their curriculum. Within the armies, Kuo Shu training was taken even more seriously.
Within the country, Kuo Shu exchanges occurred at various levels. Training classes and workshops were organized. Books were published. Competitions and demonstrations were organized with enthusiasm. From 1929 to 1948, seven national championships were held. In 1936, the ‘Chinese Kuo Shu Tour’ visited South East Asia. In August the same year, a Chinese Kuo Shu delegation visited Berlin, Germany to demonstrate Kuo Shu at the 11th Olympic Games, marking Kuo Shu’s first appearance as a demonstration event at the Olympic Games.
This period of development was interrupted by World War II and civil war, which created turmoil, chaos and instability in the country. Regretfully, the development of a great discipline was halted.
On October 1st 1949, the People’s Republic of China was established. Terminology was changed, reflecting the political climate of the time. Under the People’s Republic of China (PROC), Kuo Shu was renamed ‘Wu Shu’, literally meaning ‘martial arts’.17 Under the ‘New China’, Wu Shu underwent three developmental periods.
The highlight of the first period (1949 – 1955) period was in November 1953, when a national sports competition designed to foster racial harmony was held in Tianjin. Sports of the Chinese minority peoples were among the major events. This was a successful implementation of the cultural and minority sports policy of the New China. Subsequent similar events have never surpassed the spirit and style of the 1953 games.
During the second period (1955 – 1978) traditional Wu Shu suffered. Despite efforts to revive the national Wu Shu mandate, there was an overall regression and deterioration from 1950 to 1965.
In 1966 the Cultural Revolution spread like fire across the land. Left wing ideology dominated the country. In the midst of societal disorder, and political turmoil, economic progress were halted. The revolution sought to purify China of all things religious, philosophical or that smelled of the capitalist. Wu Shu was seen as an antiquated, obsolete folk art that perpetuated superstitions and ‘improper ideals’. Many Wu Shu practitioners and their families were “purged” or underwent ‘ideological cleansing’. Irreplaceable texts of ancient and traditional forms and reference books of martial arts contents were destroyed. Weapons were confiscated and destroyed and all official learning ceased.
The few Wu Shu techniques that survived had to pass government inspection. Martial movements were choreographed with the addition of dance-like steps so that Wu Shu could be dissociated from the concepts of self-defence, self-empowerment, and offensive strategy. Wu Shu was performed on the stage but its movements were extensively modified, buried under superficial, meaningless aesthetically oriented movement.
In 1972 Wu Shu was revived again in the New China. Despite the events of the Cultural Revolution, Wu Shu was once again a ‘cultural sport’ supported by the government. In schools and professional athletic institutes, students strove hard to achieve personal excellence. Success in Wu Shu was associated with social prestige and status. Professional teams were formed and judging criteria was examined. All these efforts reflected the enthusiasm and hopes the country had for Wu Shu.
This trend did not last as left-wing ideology once again took control. Due to the influence of some militants, offensive–strategic Wu Shu events were seen as politically dangerous and were therefore eliminated entirely from Wu Shu content. The people could not be allowed to learn skills which could be used to rise against the government.
Many competitive events existing under the Kuo Shu system, such as sparring, were discarded. Wu Shu now contained only individual weapon and fist forms. They were further created into competitive styles that were replete with gymnastic, acrobatic and dance-like steps.
During this time, eligibility to Chinese national Wu Shu events decreased, with some competitions limited to only 200-300 athletes. These participants excelled in gymnastic, acrobatic and aesthetic movements. The winner was whoever could jump the highest and leap the furthest with the best physical appearance and the most eye-catching content. These skills were regarded as ‘aspects of difficulty’ and were graded according to the “quality and quantity, level of difficulty, and overall aesthetic appearance”, analogous to modern Western gymnastics or figure skating competitions.
At this time, there was the odd creation of ‘Boxing of the Chairman’s Principles’, and ‘Non-Cultivated Boxing’. These were created to criticize feudalism, traditionalism, and the Confucian ideals of Chinese martial arts that conflicted with government policy. Other martial art forms such as ‘the Fist of Rules’ became the standard fist forms in the repertoire of the new China (referred to as the ‘Red Wu Shu’). With the emergence of this “Revolutionary Repertoire”, authentic traditional fist forms vanished. While some forms seemingly managed to survive the crisis, they were the same only in name, with completely different content.
In the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, the third period (1978 – present) began with efforts to rectify the damage done to Wu Shu and to revitalize this traditional art. The Chinese National Sports Committee had a mandate to promote Wu Shu as a national art, with its former esteem and prestige in the history, culture and tradition of China. With the full support of all, Wu Shu was returned to its former vitality.
The government spent millions of dollars on a project to “dig out the originals” in its plan to revitalize Wu Shu. Imprisoned athletes were released and accorded respect. Committees were charged with the formidable task of researching and recording all the traditional boxing forms. Interviews with surviving members of the eldest generations of boxers, weapons and manuscripts were collected again, not for destruction but for preservation and glorification in national museums. Items hidden during the revolution were donated to this worthy cause. National Wu Shu competitions, demonstrations and exchanges were organized.
The world of Wu Shu formerly limited to the competition of standardized individual forms, expanded. By the early 1980’s, the gates of Chinese martial arts were open, welcoming foreigners with Kung Fu fever, for travel and study. Schools of different styles thrived. International organizations formed and Wu Shu was again a major sporting event throughout Asia. More than 10,000 schools and clubs, and several millions of young students took up Wu Shu at this time.
In the 1990’s, the National Athletic Committee organized a meaningful competition called ‘The Home of Wu Shu’. This was an important step towards the widespread introduction of Wu Shu to the public. Wu Shu education was reborn in primary and secondary schools and universities, and reinstated into the school curriculum. Sports colleges offered professional courses for Wu Shu. The study of Wu Shu is now a highly respected professional science. To support the prosperity of Wu Shu development, China adopted a very open attitude in encouraging Wu Shu exchanges overseas.
This open-door policy has led to many improvements, yet the changes and restrictions enforced during revolutionary times continue to limit Wu Shu’s development. Modern Wu Shu, although widely popular, exists at a superficial level with little insight into deeper martial principles. In the past forty years Wu Shu has been merely a competitive sport, promoting only individual forms which emphasize the ‘Long Fist’ system. Although this system has its merits (i.e. gaining popularity, providing interesting performances and promoting the cinematic industry), its limitations and inadequacies in the discipline of Wu Shu cannot be overlooked. Genuine martial artists have long found Wu Shu fist forms like these dull and uninspiring. Its existence is solely a result of good public support by the Chinese government.
On the other hand, traditional Chinese martial arts continually and quietly grow in a different stream among the folk people. These arts, carefully preserved, have spread within China and overseas. Traditional Chinese martial arts have stood the test of time, weathering social and political storms, while maintaining its intrinsic value.
In order to attain a higher level of perfection, Wu Shu must undergo a series of changes in its general administration and competition systems, in its philosophy, theories, teaching references, stipulated fist forms, and so on. Wu Shu is a traditional culture, a holistic system of total self-development. It is a complex and multifunctional structure, and cannot be condensed to a simple sport.
The task of revolutionizing Wu Shu is not simply revamping its competitive rules and structure. Careful consideration must be given to its traditional characteristics, philosophical principles and spiritual values, while recognizing its existence in the modern world of sport. Insight must be gained into the role Wu Shu can play in the evolution of sports culture into a single universal system.
This tremendous responsibility must be taken seriously.
In looking at the development of Wu Shu in this contemporary period, the author expresses the following view:
First, with the implementation of the ‘Draft Article on the Competitive Rules on Sports for the People’s Republic of China’ since April 1956, Wu Shu has been classified as a demonstration event and hence the scope of Wu Shu development has been clearly directed towards performing art.
In the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, like other traditions, business, and professions, Wu Shu nearly suffocated. After 1978, it was very fortunate that Wu Shu regained its place and found a path of progress on the aesthetic and performance side of its development. By 1990, Wu Shu forms became a recognized international sports event.
In recent years, Wu Shu had the further opportunity to restore empty hand free-sparring (known as ‘san da’ or ‘san shou’18) to its curriculum with the purpose of exploring and advancing the combat and self-defence aspects of Wu Shu. Progress has been made but it is still far from what could be achieved in traditional combat.
From the perspective of performing art, Wu Shu has already reached a remarkable and unprecedented level of excellence in terms of performance, choreography, difficulty, aesthetics and the quality of the Wu Shu performers. Conversely, due to the great emphasis placed on Wu Shu as an aesthetic skill, and the significant achievements made in this respect, people, somewhat blinded to the truth, have tended to slight researches on the true quality and spirit of Wu Shu.
The true principle of Wu Shu is that “Through techniques you find the ‘Dao’ (way)”. ‘Dao’ is the virtue and principles of our nature, and techniques are an expression of the empowered self of our being. In its true image, Wu Shu is not only a structure of practical techniques. More importantly, it is a tool for martial artists to study the mystery of this universe and of life itself. It is a discipline of searching for self-enlightenment and wisdom.
The ‘Dao’ of our being encompasses disciplines and principles of philosophy, the art of war, medicine, psychology, and physiology. The expression of ’empowerment’ is by its nature a somatic science focusing on body physics. To study Wu Shu only in the perspective of individual fist and weapon forms as a performing art is entirely inadequate.
The most important issue currently facing Wu Shu is to clarify its direction of development. The study of Wu Shu for performance and competition alone denies its deeper value as a structured human science.
Throughout history, ancient culture has always been the guiding light of modern civilization. In essence, respect and mindfulness of our traditions implies our readiness and potential to cope with and to explore the future. We are not regressing, nor indulging in simple nostalgia. History provides insight into current events and clearer vision of the future. Understanding the experiences of our ancestors declares our intent to learn from their mistakes, to be enlightened by the accumulated wisdom of our past. “Reflect on the past in order to look forward wisely”.
Sources for this section:
Ma, Ming Tat. “Chinese Swordsmanship Series”, published by Lanzhou University.