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Chinese Martial Studies, Southern China, Wing Chun

Zhang Songxi, Ming era Southern Boxing and the Ancient Roots of Modern Wing Chun.

Trade, international and domestic, has shaped both life and martial culture in southern China. Honk Kong jade market. (Hat tip to my dad who took this picture).

Stanley Henning: Yongchun, Baihe and Wing Chun Boxing

In issue #38 (Vol. 2 No. 15) of Classical Fighting Arts Stanley Henning published a wide-ranging paper entitled “Thoughts on the Origins and Transmission to Okinawa of Yongchun Boxing.” (pp. 42-47).  Henning is one of the most important writers on the history of the Chinese martial arts in the English language today, and everything that he writes is well worth reading.

In this (somewhat difficult to parse) article Henning quite consciously conflates Fujianese Baihe Quan (White Crane Boxing) with Guangdong’s Wing Chun tradition.  Given their shared association with the place name Yongchun (Wing Chun in Cantonese) and their reliance on female creators (Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy vs. the story of the female boxer Fang in the Yongchun County Gazetter) Henning simply assumes that both of these arts must be closely related.  In fact, his assumption throughout the article is that Wing Chun is simply a branch of the original Yongchun boxing style that traveled a little further south and picked up stylistic differences as it reached Guangdong.

This theory strikes me as profoundly unlikely.  Having some experience with Wing Chun I can state with confidence that it doesn’t look anything like White Crane.  Yes it employs the triangular footwork common to many martial arts from Fujian.  Yet in terms of its actual movements, techniques and strategies, it has a lot more in common with Pakmei (White Eyebrow), Dragon and Southern Mantis than it does Baihe.  Unsurprisingly all of these arts are indigenous to the Pearl River Delta region.

From my point of view, a dispassionate reading of the evidence would indicate that Wing Chun is also a product of the Pearl River, probably dating to the early or mid-19th century.  Any resemblance between its heroines and those of the much more popular White Crane tradition to the north would simply indicate that someone who read too many Kung Fu novels in the 1920s or 1930s ripped these stories off and used them as part of his marketing campaign.

Yeah I know.  It’s not sexy, but in all honesty it really is the most likely scenario.  My academic training suggests that we should never attribute to ancient transmission that which can more easily be explained by recent, economically motivated, thievery.

When you get right down to it the denizens of China’s 20th century “Rivers and Lakes” seem to have valued a really good story much more than a history lesson.  Ng Moy just makes too good a story to resist and her narrative has been used and recycled throughout the region.  I am not sure that her brief literary appearance in the Wing Chun creation myth (which dates to no earlier than the 1920s-1930s) actually indicates any substantive dependence on the specific boxing traditions of Yongchun County in Fujian.

That part of Henning’s article actually didn’t bother me all that much.  I have seen other writers suggest a Fujianese connection with Wing Chun before, and there are similarities (especially in the footwork, but not the stances oddly enough).  This is the sort of alternative explanation that does deserve some very careful thought and consideration and I was glad that he was bringing it up.

A quiet neighborhood in Hong Kong. (HT Dad).

Qeneral Qi Jiguang’s “32 Forms” and the Origins of Wing Chun.

More interesting to me were Henning’s latter attempts (on page 46) to connect Yongchun boxing (which again for him means both the Baihe and Wing Chun traditions) to General Qi Jiguang’s “32 Form” for unarmed fighting which he published in his first (but apparently not the second) edition of New Book of Effective Discipline.  For readers who might be unfamiliar with his story, Qi was a young officer from Northern China sent to the south to help repel the Japanese pirates who became a threat to the state towards the end of the Ming dynasty.  Upon arriving in the region he formulated his own theory of how best to raise and train troops which he published after the conclusion of hostilities.

In the final chapter of his sprawling encyclopedia he advocated training troops in unarmed boxing.  This was an unconventional move and not something normally seen in the Chinese military at that time.  While he freely admitted that hand-to-hand combat didn’t really have any place on the battlefield, he felt that his troops would gain strength, stamina and courage in close-quarters combat as a result of this training.  General Qi Jiguang ended up being something of a celebrity in his own lifetime.  His ideas gained national prominence and influenced both the subsequent discussion of hand-combat training, and probably its technical evolution as well.

All of which is a complicated way of saying that Qi’s “32 Forms” are an important historical artifact in the history of Chinese hand combat dating back to the Ming dynasty.  They are all the more valuable as this is a period we actually don’t know very much about.  And therein lays our problem.

I am sure you have all heard the joke about the drunk who loses his keys one night while walking home from the bar.  A police officer sees him stooped under a street light, apparently looking for something, and offers to help.  He asks the drunk if this is where he lost his keys but is surprised when he responds “no, probably not.”  Confused the police officer then asks why he is looking here, to which the drunk responds “Because this is where the light is.”

I often sense something very similar in our discussions of General Qi Jiguang and his influence on the martial arts.  We don’t have a lot of records of unarmed boxing from the Ming Dynasty.  There are some, but not many.  Qi’s “32 Forms” are probably the most famous and commented upon, and so there is a natural tendency to tie them to absolutely everything.  I have also seen theories claiming that Taiji and Xingyiquan are derived from these 32 postures.

Hand combat was never actually the General’s major interest.  After the pirates he went on to do other important things, like building the Great Wall of China.  I doubt he would actually be very happy to discover that unarmed boxing, a somewhat eccentric hobby for a man of his stature, is what he is best remembered for in Chinese martial studies circles today.  The second, more widely distributed, edition of his book didn’t even include the final chapter on hand combat.  The General himself likely removed it, evidentially feeling that it was too frivolous to be included in such an official work.

Nor are we really sure how all of the “32 Forms” actually functioned.  Qi never bothered to explain them in great detail as he assumed that the officers would just go out and hire a martial arts instructor who was already an expert in this sort of stuff to teach the troops.  There was no need for educated professional field officers to actually do any of this themselves.  Essentially what he published was a mnemonic device to aid a professional military trainer, already an expert in his field, learn a new standardized curriculum for troop training. All we really have in reprints of his book are static stylized illustrations of individual postures and cryptic poems.  Many people have attempted to recreate his system, but given the paucity of data it is just too easy to generate what the field of statistics calls “false positives.”

Taiji, Baihe, Wing Chun and Okinawan Karate are four very different sorts of arts.  Yet multiple authors have tried to tie each of these to Qi’s “32 Forms.”  Given their apparent differences it is really hard to see how they all could claim a meaningful common origin.  If subsequent events led them to “change,” then it is those later events that we should really be examining in order to understand the “origin” and evolution of these fighting forms.  That which they share in common is so general as to be almost trivial.

There is one other thing about this article that we should review.  I know that Henning does not mean to do this.  In some respects he is simply responding to a conversation about the origins of Wing Chun that was already going on before he entered into it.  Yet in his argument we once again we see the culturally imperialist process at work which asserts that anything good or clever in Chinese society must have originated in the “central plains” of northern China.  The Cantonese speaking minority will always be uncultured, and incapable of producing anything of real elegance or value, in the eye of their social betters.

Why is it that we constantly feel the need to explain away the southern boxing styles by pointing to a celebrity from Northern China?  Why can’t the residents of southern China take credit for their own creations?  After all, these are arts that reflect the local environmental and social conditions almost perfectly.  After a while this constant need to place the origins of the Southern martial arts in the north, where no one does anything like them, just becomes prima facia absurd.

One could always object by pointing out that General Qi and his “32 Forms” were very interested in short boxing.  Wing Chun and Baihe both do a lot of short boxing, so there seems to be an empirical correlation.  But the truth is that every complete art has some “short boxing” techniques, and some “long boxing” entry strategies.  This goes for Wing Chun as much as anything else.  You just can’t have a fight without both sets of tools.  And besides, discussions of short boxing were just as common in the north in the 1700s as the south (Shahar 2007, p. 117).  Correlation does not indicate causation.

These problems with General Qi Jiguang do not mean that we have to give-up the search for the ancient origins of southern boxing, but they do suggest quite strongly that we should probably be looking for these things in the south.  Interestingly, one of the better known civilian martial artists to arise on the national scene at the end of the Ming dynasty actually was from the south, and thanks to a couple of historians who were willing to go out on a professional limb and write about a commoner, we know quite a bit (relatively speaking) about him and his style.

Two painters in a Hong Kong park (HT Dad).

Zhang Songxi and the Ancient Roots of Wing Chun

Zhang Songxi (c. 1520- c.1590) was a martial artist from the city of Ningbo, a busy port in Zhejiang Province (immediately north of Fujian).  His city was the licensed port of entry for the Japanese delegations that conducted the tribute-trade between the two countries.  In Chinese historical circles, Ningbo is remembered mostly as the place where the Japanese piracy dispute erupted after the Emperor of China cut trade between the countries.  But prior to that there had been a very important and vibrant exchange in martial knowledge (much of which focused on Japanese swords and Chinese spear and staff techniques) that enriched the martial traditions of both countries.  (For a fascinating discussion of this trade and its effect on the development of the Japanese martial arts see: Roald and Patricia Knutsen.  Japanese Spears: Polearms and their Use in Old Japan.  Global Oriental. 2004.)

I hope to explore the history of this early martial trade in future posts, but it should be no surprise to learn that Ningbo became known for its martial artists.  I think it is also significant to note that the oldest and most reliable account of Zhang Songxi’s life and career was preserved only in Japan.  Prior to the discovery and translation of this source Zhang Songxi only entered into the discussion of the Chinese martial arts because a later historian, Huang Zangxi (1610-1685), identified Zhang as part of what he called the “Neija” (Internal) tradition of Chinese boxing.  Sun Lutang and others later applied this categorization to the use of energy in Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua.  In reality it was originally meant as a political and social statement and had nothing to do with Zhang Songxi’s actual martial practice, nor was the term ever mentioned in his earliest biographies.

The oldest and most reliable information we have on Zhang Songxi comes from Shen Yiguan (1531-1616).  Shen was a Confucian scholar who served as the Emperor’s Grand Secretary from 1594-1606.  While it is not clear what Shen thought of martial artists in general, he was from Ningbo and was quite proud of his hometown and its role in fighting off the Japanese.  In fact, it was Shen who actually ordered trade with Japan suspended in 1594, triggering the Piracy Crisis that would catapult Qi Jiguang to national fame.  Shen recorded and discussed the careers of some of his hometown’s local “heroes” in his essay “The Biography of Boxer Zhang Songxi” which was part of the larger “The Government Records and Annals of Ningbo City.”

Shen begins by noting that Zhang Songxi is not the best known martial artist from the area.  That honor would go to one named Bian Cheng.  However Bian Cheng was a rude fellow.  His life did not conform to Confucian values.  Instead he sought fame and even managed to find it twice.  He turned to the martial arts to solve problems and taught widely, without showing any discrimination about the character of his students.  On the bright side he did manage to defeat a group of Shaolin Monks, brought to the area to help quell the pirates, when they sought to challenge him.

Better still in Sheng’s opinion was Zhang Songxi.  He was taught by another formidable, socially unreconstructed, local boxer named Sun Thirteen.  Shen describes Sun as “rough and brutal.”  We also know that he valued simplicity and directness.

Apparently he also valued theoretical parsimony, a trait still seen in Southern China’s compact, jewel-like, hand combat systems today. Sun claimed that his entire art could be described by just three keywords or guiding principles.  His most talented disciple was Zhang Songxi.

Zhang was a tailor by trade.  He earned the respect of Shen because he took what he learned from his master and he added the dimension of ethical refinement to it.  Rather than Sun’s three principles, Zhang taught five, with the last two being ethical and highly Confucian in nature.

Whereas Bian had been sought fame and brawled with the ill-behaved Shaolin monks, Zhang Songxi was retiring and refused guests or callers who were interested in his martial skills.  While Bian loved to teach (a vice in the eyes of Shen), Zhang taught only two disciples and had no sons of his own.  In Confucian terms the two figures are polar opposites and Sun Thirteen seems to bridge their worlds.

Luckily for us Shen’s interests in Zhang went beyond the merely ethical and he attempted to understand and reconstruct what his actual fighting style had been.  Unlike modern martial arts, what Zhang did had no name or creation story (at least not that I am aware of).  It was simply what he had learned from Sun Thirteen and innovated on his own.  The five keywords of the art, and my own abbreviated summery of Shen’s reconstruction of their meaning, are as follows:

1. Diligence: Train morning and night.  Don’t oversleep.  Prepare your own meals.  Avoid the temptation to take things easy, and be loyal.

2. Intensity: Use both hands [arms] to protect the center of the chest and the ribs.  The right hand protects on the right, the left on the left when moving.  Avoid over-extending your arm on a strike [keep the elbow slightly bent so that the arm can be pulled back and does not become a “dead weapon”].

Legs should be squeezed tightly together as if you were walking on a rail.  Avoid raising your feet high or sweeping wide.  Your feet [toes] should be “like a ‘T’ but not a ‘T’ or like a ‘V’ but not a ‘V.’  This will let you advance or retreat rapidly.  Mentally one must be constantly alert.

The stance should be stable with weight on your rear leg.  Use all of your senses together.  “Roll like a hedgehog, crouch like a tiger.  This is what arms law (binfa) calls ‘Being like a virgin.’  When the enemy opens the door it is advantageous to approach him.”

3. Directness:  “This is what is called ‘Afterwards be like a startled hare.’  Too far, and not far enough, both miss.  Don’t re-plan, don’t look back.  Don’t lose the moment.  You must hit the center of the joints.  Once you have set your will on a place, then exhaust every pore of your body’s force, so that they altogether advance, without the slightest discrepancy, like a ‘cat catching a rat.’

Thus in these three words (diligence, intensity and directness) all striking and thrusting techniques are exhausted.”

4. Respect:  Hide your strength, avoid challenges and exercise restraint.  Be warm, good, modest and yielding.  Avoid envy or striving.

5. Earnestness:  Show endurance, long suffering and patience.  Avoid incurring evil Karma or breaking the laws as there must be consequences to any action.*

(Unless indicated by quotes these are an abbreviation of the translation provided in Marnix Wells. “’Internal Boxer’ of the Ming Dynasty, Zhang Songxi.” Journals of Chinese Martial Studies.  Issue 5. (Summer) 2011. pp. 60-75.  The clarifications in brackets are my own).

It is easy to see how these points, especially numbers 4-5, would have appealed to Shen’s Confucian worldview.  In fact, one gets the impression that Zhong Songxi was influenced by Confucian ideas to a much greater extent than most other martial artists in the region, including his own teacher Sun Thirteen.

Nevertheless, from the perspective of the current post numbers 1-3 are the most interesting.  Wells notes that there are some literary links between the principal of directness described above and General Yu Dayou’s simple and direct method of pole fighting which was eventually adopted as part of the Shaolin curriculum.  Of course Yu Dayou is another important Ming era martial artist from the south.  Perhaps the idea of simple, linear, penetrating attacks carried out with forward pressure were already part of the region’s shared martial heritage?

The description of “Intensity” given above should be of immediate interest to many modern students of the southern Chinese martial arts.  The fact that the arms are used to protect the chest and organs means that the head must be held back to avoid being hit in the face.  This also fits with Sun Thirteen’s admonishment to keep your weight on the back leg, avoid wide stances, squeeze the legs together, and be ready to advance or move rapidly.

Clearly what Shen describes as the boxing style of Zhang Songxi has a lot more in common with many schools of southern Boxing (including Wing Chun) than the “32 Forms” of general Qi Jiguang.  Unfortunately Shen’s original account was lost and is just now entering the popular discussion.

In the fog buildings become the peaks of an unknown mountain. (HT Dad)

Southern Boxing and Trade: A fruitful research topic.

Wells concludes his article on a point that I believe is well worth considering.  In fact, I have argued something very similar in the manuscript on the social history of southern boxing that I am currently working on.  It was the vibrant trade networks of southern China in which Foshan, Guangzhou, Fuzhou, Taiwan, Okinawa and Japan were linked that generated the specific conditions necessary for the flowering of a wide variety of highly sophisticated boxing styles. A certain amount of trade and a free exchange of ideas seems to be a critical aspect of the incubation process for martial innovation, and southern China had abundant quantities of this resource.

Rather than trying to make grand pronouncements as to which northern culture hero created which art, perhaps we should instead study the sorts of raw materials that were already available in the region.  We would then be free to think carefully about how the forces of trade, conflict and imperialism might affect the development of these traditions in different places and at different times.

Discussion

11 thoughts on “Zhang Songxi, Ming era Southern Boxing and the Ancient Roots of Modern Wing Chun.

  1. I train in a Hakka art in Hong Kong. I trained in Yip Man wing chun in England for 16 years. The last 6 of them with the Lee Shing system which was far wider ranging than the Yip Man system (though Lee Shing was a early student of Yip Man). Lee Shing had previously learnt Wing Chun in China. His wing chun incorporated poems, metaphysical Chinese theory, more weapons and more types of interaction. Each form was placed on the placed on the dummy of which there were various configurations. Snake and crane were clearly delineated. Very little of this is online. The wing chun in Hong Kong seems empty by comparison – which is why I do a Hakka art. The Hakka arts have quite different body methods to wing chun – especially the general version of it. This is visible from the general fighting posture on first glance. White crane is a far closer art to wing chun – although there are some postural differences – at least as it was taught before Yip Man modernised and streamlined it.

    Posted by LF | April 11, 2016, 11:21 am

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