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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Arts and Religion, Martial Studies, Reviews

Why Religion Needs to Play a Greater Role in Chinese Martial Studies than it does in the Chinese Martial Arts.

Koi in a Hong Kong park (HT Dad).


Lately I have been thinking about the role of religion in the Chinese martial arts and the different (though related) question of its place in Chinese martial studies.  I blame Stanley Henning.

I should preface this post by saying how much I actually appreciate the scholarship of Stanley Henning and how much I have gained from him over the years.  If it seems like I keep coming back to criticize him it is not personal, far from it.  There are not that many prominent voices in the field of Chinese martial studies at any one time, and given how many topics he has written on, his is an easy one to engage with.

One of Henning’s many contributions over the last few years has been to shape the academic discussions of the Chinese martial arts and religion.  In the popular view all forms of Kung Fu are inherently mystical and every Sifu is expected to be a spiritual guru.  This is a dangerous attitude for martial arts students.  Great care and discretion needs to be taken in the selection of a guru, and I can tell you right now that there is nothing in the average martial arts education—even at the expert level—that actually qualifies one for the post.  If your Sifu expects you to defer to him or her as a spiritual guru that is not “traditional,” it is creepy and you should seriously consider leaving.

Such an attitude is also harmful in academic discussions.  It leads us to fundamentally misunderstand the economic, social and political nature of the martial arts and the role that they played in Chinese history.  As Henning, Kennedy and Guo, Lorge and many others have now pointed out, the vast majority of people who studied martial arts in China did so on a professional basis.  They were soldiers, caravan guards, criminals, mercenaries or opera performers.

A hand full of individuals probably studied the martial arts for health reasons.  There may well have been some cross-over between the martial arts and Daoist longevity exercises, but this association developed rather late and prior to 1911 was never really all that common.  Likewise, when one ran into the rare monk or a priest who studied the martial arts, it was usually that the temple needed to protect its wealth, rather than there being any sense of deep mystical connection between Buddhism and Daoism on the one hand and hand combat training on the other.

All of which is good and true and I won’t argue with one bit of it.  Generally speaking, religion is not really all that helpful when it comes to understanding the traditional Chinese martial arts.  So why do we in Chinese martial studies spend so much time talking about it?  Why do my posts on the martial arts and religion always command the biggest readership?  It’s a complex subject and it can be hard to take an unambiguous position on this.

Boats in Foshan’s Zhongshan Park

Stanley Henning on “Asia in Review”

While doing some research I recently discovered an interview with Stanley Henning that had been recorded in 2011.  Somehow I missed it at the time and with everything going on I haven’t had time to watch it until quite recently.  You can find it here.

Unfortunately the interview turned out to be pretty disappointing.  It was recorded for a program called “Asia in Review” that is somehow associated with the University of Hawaii.  The topic of the interview (how the martial arts effect Chinese thought) sounded interesting, and the entire thing ran close to an hour long, but there were problems.  The production was distractingly low budget, the interviewer knew nothing about the Chinese martial arts and he cared even less.  Needless to say the questions were not very interesting or informative.  They really only spent about ten minutes at the end of the program addressing the ostensible subject of the interview.

In short, it was just a distressing waste of time.  It was all the more upsetting as I would love to have an hour to sit down with Henning and pick his brain about the relationship between Chinese thought and the martial arts, or even just Chinese martial studies in general.  I morn for all of the interesting and insightful questions that never got asked, and the great discussion that never happened.

The silver lining was that Henning got ample opportunity to discuss his life story and military career (this seemed to be the only subject that generated actual interest on the part of the interviewer) and I got to learn all sorts of interesting personal information about this author I have been reading for years.  Some of it, like his exposure to the martial arts while deployed to Taiwan with the military during the Cold War, was interesting and potentially helpful in understanding where his scholarship and interests come from.  Henning himself came off as a very nice guy and was patient and good-natured to a fault.

The other slightly annoying thing about the interview was that Henning kept dropping these really interesting hints or nuggets of information that the interviewer, for the most part, didn’t pick-up on.  One of the most interesting of these (at least to me) happens at around 6:34.  Addressing the philosophical background of the martial arts Henning says that basically they are influenced by Daoism and folk Daoism, and that this shaped their view of strategy and the world.  Why?  Well because they [the creators of the Chinese martial arts] all read the ancient military classic by Sun Tzu.  He was in turn influenced by Daoism and so, by the transitive property, are the modern Chinese martial arts.  The interview came back to Sun Tzu a number of times, so he was definitely in the air.

This really surprised me.  It surprised me enough that I rewound the interview twice to make sure I actually understood what he was saying.  Why?  Because of this:

Stanley, E. Henning.  “Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts.” China Review International. Vol. 6 Num. 2, Fall 1999, pp. 319-332.

Henning’s 1999 article, part literature review, part call to arms, was a watershed moment for the field of Chinese martial studies.  I don’t think it would be too strong to call this article the Constitution of the modern field.  Or perhaps it would be more fitting to call it our “Declaration of Independence.”

Henning’s writing career had started a few years before “Academia” was published, but many of his initial efforts were published in Taiji or martial arts journals with limited circulation.  This was the first of his articles that was published in a widely respected mainstream academic journal.  Further, this was the very first article to deal with Chinese martial studies as a separate and valuable sub-field which transcended normal disciplinary lines.  Throughout its pages Henning argued that the study of Chinese history, popular culture and literature often made grievous mistakes when they ignored the role of the martial arts in culture, language and thought.  A specialized body of knowledge was needed to counteract these systematic misconceptions of the past.

The article was well timed and it caught the crest of a wave of academic thought that was just beginning to swell.  Setting aside for a moment the older English language literature on the martial arts, championed by individuals like R. W. Smith and Donn F. Draeger, a new and distinct conversation was starting to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  This growing scholarly interest in martial things was part of a broader shift in the way that popular culture was valued and understood.  The first English language monograph dedicated solely to Chinese martial studies in its most recent incarnation was the Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty by Douglas Wiles published in 1996 by the State University of New York (SUNY) University Press.

This fine volume notwithstanding, I prefer to date the start of the current discussion a bit earlier.  Joseph W. Esherick’s landmark study, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (California UP, 1987), while not dedicated solely to the martial arts, devotes substantial resources to the topic.  It also demonstrates all of the research and methodological innovations, from extensive archival research, to expert interviews, to attempting to place the martial arts in a broader social context, which would eventually come to define accepted practice in the current literature.

As impressive as the efforts of Esherick in the late 1980s and Wiles in the mid 1990s were, Henning took things one step farther.  He explicitly made the argument that Chinese martial studies was a field of expertise in and of itself, with its own vocabulary and concepts, and that other scholars in literature, history and area studies ignored it at their own peril.

In making his argument Henning focused on his linguistic skills and translation issues in the works of better known writers on Chinese culture.  Time and again he demonstrated that a lack of familiarity with the language of Chinese martial culture led these scholars to make incorrect translations or draw faulty conclusions.  Occasionally even specialists showed an embarrassing lack of familiarity with the most basic and ancient martial texts and references, including titles from the Former Han Bibliographies.

Henning reserved his sharpest criticism for Joseph Needham.  The highly respected author of Science in Traditional China (Harvard UP, 1981) did not claim martial pursuits as a special area of expertise, but that did not stop him from making the occasional pronouncement about the martial arts and their origins in his writings.  Henning quite correctly faults Needham for ignoring the original Chinese language resources and relying much too heavily on a single, highly unreliable, article (Herbert A. Giles. “The Home of Jujitsu” Adversaria Sinica. 1906).

The basic argument that Needham advanced, and Henning later savaged, was that the Chinese martial arts were descended from a branch of Daoist gymnastic exercises.  Henning dismisses this connection out of hand.  I think that Meir Shahar’s careful parsing of the issue probably comes the closest to the truth.  In the Shaolin Monastery (2008, pp. 137-182) he demonstrates that in fact there may be a connection, but that it is much later (late Ming) and more tenuous than either scholars or practitioners generally accept.

So one can imagine my surprise when I heard Henning in 2011 stating in an off-hand way that the culture of the martial arts was shaped by Daoism or, better yet, folk Daoism.  The connection to SunTzu is an interesting one.  On the one hand we know that Sun Tzu was very widely read.  Most educated people probably had a passing familiarity with him.  But most educated people did not do martial arts.  Sun Tzu was a standard text for the military service exam, though how much familiarity and critical analysis of the text was necessary varied, usually in a declining direction, over time.

Still, this is an intriguing notion.  Critics widely accept that Sun Tzu was influenced by then current philosophical ideas that were shaped by Daoism.  And the officers who were responsible for training the troops in the military arts were steeped in Sun Tzu.  Given that a disproportionate number of civilian martial arts instructors were retired military men, or individuals who had studied for the military service exam, might Sun Tzu really be the thread that runs through all of the Chinese martial arts?  And by extension, is modern Chinese martial culture “Daoist” in any meaningful way?

To be totally honest I have a hard time accepting either proposition.  The role of Sun Tzu is interesting.  I am going to dust off my copy of the military classics and give them another read through to see if I can get my head around the point he was trying to make.  But very few of the Chinese martial artists I know are at all familiar with any sort of classic literature.  I suspect that this is might be a generational thing.

Or maybe it is not.  As you go further back in time, the state of affairs appears to become bleaker.  In the 1930s the majority of martial artists were not even literate.  The situation in the late 19th century was even worse.  Sure the average peasant had an impressive familiarity with the Confucian Classics, but that was because those books were regularly read in public for the edification of the masses.  No one was hosting public readings of Sun Tzu’s thoughts on military leadership, or best practices for setting fire to an enemy camp, for public edification.

This right here is the problem.  Most of the martial arts that we have now emerged during the later 19th century, or early 20th century, and were created by people from working class backgrounds who would not have been overly familiar with these texts.  I am going to keep reading and thinking about it, but my gut tells me that it is a stretch.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should give up on studying the role of religion in the martial arts; yet ironically Henning does, or at least he appears to.

If Henning had focused on folk Daoism I think he would have much better support.  As near as I can tell every 10th building in some neighborhoods in Taiwan in a small traditional temple, everyone one of which has a military procession and lion dance team associated with it.  Occasionally these performances are put on by local kids from the neighborhood.  Yet as often as not it is actually a martial arts group that performs these functions, and very often this group is of a decidedly shady (dare I say “Rivers and Lakes”) nature.  These sorts of quasi-military processions are so common that Bortez has written an entire book about their relationship to martial arts, criminal sub-cultures and masculinity (Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters. University of Hawaii Press. 2011).  It is well worth the read if you have not looked at it yet.

Examples of these sorts of relationships are not hard to multiply.  I would venture a guess that a solid majority of anthropologists who have done ethnography on martial arts group in the Chinese community have also been interested in the cross-over between hand combat, group ritual and spiritual experience.  Adam D. Frank (2006) paints a picture of the Yang style Taiji community in Shanghai that, while not religious, is pretty explicitly spiritual.  Discussions of chi abound and everyone seems interested in plumbing the esoteric secrets of the art.  In fact, these Shanghai Taiji players are every bit as much a part of the “New Age” health and spirituality movement as their American students.  As far as Taiji is concerned both sets of students are part of the same movement, with the same books, products and gurus on both sides of the Pacific.

My sense is that this “New Age” stuff bothers Henning, and being part of the Taiji community he probably has to put up with more than his share of it.  He is absolutely correct that this sort of mysticism was not originally part of the vast majority of the Chinese martial arts.  And yet as the anthropologists are so fond of pointing out, it is part of them now, and understanding hand combat communities—as they actually exist in the here and now—necessitates addressing these questions.

Given that the ethnographers and “participant observers” have no choice but to wrestle with these issues, is it then safe for the historians to ignore them?  I suspect that this is another area where Henning and I might disagree.

Turtles in HK Garden (HT Dad).

Esherick, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts  

I think the nature of our disagreement is best illustrated by a divergence in our reading of Esherick.  In “Academia” Henning critiqued the propensity of historians to obsess unduly about the 19th century rebellions (White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, Taiping and Boxer) and the relationship of the radical religious groups that initiated these events to the martial arts.

Briefly, throughout the first half of his book (1987) Esherick notes a pattern whereby radical religious groups (which the average peasant wants nothing to do with) create martial arts schools as front organizations which allow them to operate in the community.  These martial groups are also sometimes used to funnel recruits, either disillusioned with their lot in life or perhaps entrapped in a web of favors and face, into the main body of the religious cult proper.

So the question now becomes, how closely aligned are these two halves (religious and military) of the organization?  Are the martial arts simply an extension of the group’s core religious ideology?  When you teach someone Plum Blossom Boxing in Shandong in 1897 are you actually indoctrinating them into the White Lotus millennial theology?

After examining the question Esherick concludes that the answer is a pretty resounding “no.”  Far from the martial arts being some sort of gateway drug to hard-core Daoist or Buddhist mysticism there was actually very little relationship between the two, even when joined in a single revolutionary organization.  Rather than being an extension of the religion, Esherick found that membership in a martial arts school was basically an enticement or a side-payment.

Martial arts lessons were a private good offered to members who valued the entertainment, sense of community, martial skills and health benefits they reaped for their own sake.  The whole thing was sort of like 19th century American fraternal orders offering life insurance policies to encourage membership.  Would it really make sense to say that a “term life policy” somehow reflected the esoteric world view of the Odd Fellows, or that that death benefits granted to the families of Masons were an artifact of 17th century European thought?  Probably not.  These things were fringe benefits to boost membership, clear and simple.

In fact, there is even the danger that once you have created these quasi-monetary rewards people might be less interested in the more ethereal bonds of friendship and social capital that the actual fraternal order is offering.  We know that this actually happened in a few cases.  More than one fraternal order ceased to operate as such and actually turned into a commercial life insurance company.  Amazingly some of these firms are still selling policies today.

This seems to have been the case in 19th century China as well.  These martial arts societies do not appear to have been terribly successful recruitment devices for the religious groups that sponsored them.  One must wonder whether in the minds of the students (or potential converts) they didn’t come to replace the religious community that backed them.

Thinking along similar lines Esherick notes, “The two elements, martial arts and heterodox beliefs, are clearly alternatives, not linked elements of a single tradition.” (note 25, p. 357).  Henning quotes this insight on page 327 of his article and then add “Members of heterodox sects might practice martial arts, but martial arts were not inextricably linked to spiritual practice.”  Throughout this article he seems to say that the job of Chinese martial studies is to correct the misconception that religion is critical to the Chinese martial arts, and then to move on, to get to what is really important, to the history of the arts themselves.

In practice it is not so simple.   Consider again the Lost T’ai-Chi Classic by Douglas Wiles (1996).  This was one of the few works that Henning gave a passing grade in his review.  Still, it did not escape unscathed.  While he notes that Wiles’ literary skills are excellent, unless you are deeply versed in the intricacies of Yang style Taiji, the book is of limited value, even to other martial artists.  Its scope is so narrow that its utility to the field is limited.

I believe this problem will emerge whenever we insist that the Chinese martial arts are our sole focus, or the “dependent variable” of our study.  Studies that attempt to explain a given martial art are always, by their very nature, going to have a narrow appeal.  Instead we need to look for ways in to use the martial arts as “independent variables,” the parts of the equation that do the explaining.  Chinese martial studies will only gain acceptance by the wider academic world through repeated demonstration that we can improve theories on a wide variety of topics such as identity formation, the emergence of nationalism, the evolution of civil society, the nature of epistemic communities or the interplay between local cultural values and the broader pressures of globalization (just to name a few possible examples).

It was Esherick back in 1987 who really demonstrated the direction that Chinese martial studies as a field should go.  Yes it is fun to know about bandits, militias and martial arts masters in Shandong in the late 19th century, if you are into that sort of thing.  Most scholars are not.  Yet it is vital to master this same information if you wish to discuss critical events surrounding the end of the Qing dynasty in an intelligent way.  What he gives us is a wonderful example of how we can structure our research using the martial arts as an independent variable in ways that will appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of readers and reviewers.

Deviant Behavior, Socio-Economic Analysis and Chinese Martial Studies

In that spirit, let’s briefly revisit Esherick’s essential insight about the nature of heterodox religion and martial arts in 19th century China.  He concludes that these activities were “substitutes.”  Take a moment to really think about what that means.  Two goods are substitutes precisely because they can both play the same basic functions in a person’s consumption decisions or life.  Well, no wonder the sorts of anthropologists who are interested in religious communities are also so interested in martial arts classes.  They note quite correctly that these structures seem to share a similar function in people’s lives.  That means you can actually learn something about how religious communities might function in unexpected ways by looking at a martial arts class.

And you know who else noticed this?  The imperial Chinese government.  Martial arts groups were dangerous and subject to periodic suppression for precisely the same reasons that religious groups were.  They were both avenues by which individuals in civil society might build strong associations and independent bases of power that the government could not control.  This sort of independent social organization was a danger, both socially and politically, and would not be tolerated.

So what else did traditional Chinese society and government see as being an “alternative” (or in my terminology a “substitute”) for martial arts training?  Criminality would have to be right at the top of this list.  The martial arts are very strongly linked to organized crime throughout China and its cultural diaspora.  These links were stronger prior to the 1990s, but they have by no means disappeared.  Triads have quite commonly used martial arts schools as front companies and recruiting stations, just as 19th century heterodox cults did.  The practice has been so common that throughout China and South East Asia that Kung Fu schools are often subject to police harassment as local government attempts to combat the growth of street gangs and youth delinquency.

And of course there is entertainment, usually the gritty, unappealing types of entertainment that involves a lot of “eating bitter.”  These modes of entertainment are typically characterized by a lot of strenuous physical training, like opera, military parades and Lion dancing.  Interestingly enough these are also all modes of performance that flirt quite explicitly with the idea that the dancer or the performer is subject to spirit possession.   Spirit possession practices are the most openly discussed with regard to temple military processions and ascetic demonstrations, but there is also a substantial literature on the role of “ghosts” in theater.

Let’s put all of our “alternative” deviant behaviors together.  We have heterodox religious practice–>martial arts–>criminality–>low class forms of public entertainment–>heterodox spiritual practices and the danger of rebellion.   Right here we have a pretty good snapshot of the margins of Chinese society, the so called land of “Rivers and Lakes.”  And from the perspective of Chinese martial studies this is great, because culturally “alternate” behaviors are also strongly linked to questions of socio-economic status, ethnic identity and gender.  So if you are an expert in Chinese martial studies you have a lot to bring to the table when it comes to studying anything related to popular culture, a hot topic.  It is precisely because these behaviors and traits are “substitutes” with each other, in the sense that Esherick identified, that we matter.

In a narrow sense religion is not particularly helpful to understanding the martial arts.  One can learn Five Ancestors Boxing, Hung Gar or Xingyi Quan and never wrestle with a single thorny theological issue.  But that does not mean that the field of Chinese martial studies can or should ignore these topics, as Henning seems to suggest.

On a methodological level the fact that martial arts and religious communities often seem to act as substitutes means that we can probably borrow or adapt a number of theories that have already been developed to deal with these more common questions.  Second, the fact that these activities are alternatives means that the boundaries between them may not be as hard and fast in the minds of actual practitioners as western trained historians might expect.  They may all be parts of a given lifestyle or identity.  Third, we need to continue to examine the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and (often heterodox) spirituality as this is important to the broader academic community.  Again we will only attract readers and get published if we address issues that are of actual relevance to readers today.  Helping to explore the popular dimension of the 19th century rebellions that brought down imperial China would be a great way to start.

Upon reviewing “Academia” it seems to me that Henning has not quite grasped the critical importance of this last point.  His historical approach doesn’t allow martial studies to provide the independent, rather than the dependent, variable.  He criticizes Wiles for writing a book that is impossible for the non-specialist to follow.  For spending his time producing something that is of no value to the vast majority of readers, and therefore not making an argument about why Chinese studies matters.

So what is Henning’s argument?  Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be one.  His article “Academia” is overly obsessed with questions of translation and sourcing.  On a technical level these are important, but if no one cares about martial texts it doesn’t really matter if you mistranslate some minor detail in them.  Likewise Joseph Needham may not have had a great grasp on the relationship between Daoism and boxing, but in the final analysis that wasn’t really what his book was about.  Hennings criticisms do nothing to decrease his stature as a scholar.  Instead they end up looking petty precisely because nowhere in this article does he actually articulate a vision of what Chinese martial studies could be.  Ironically to answer that question we need to shift our focus away from the martial arts and deepen our engagement with the rest of the field.


13 thoughts on “Why Religion Needs to Play a Greater Role in Chinese Martial Studies than it does in the Chinese Martial Arts.

  1. I really gained a lot from reading this article. I found this statement in particular aligned with my beliefs. “We will only attract readers and get published if we address issues that are of actual relevance to readers today.”

    I have felt this way ever since I first began my major in East Asian Studies and Chinese culture. I was reading a book on Oracle Bone Scripts and fortune telling in the library and was said to myself, “I’m probably the only person who has ever opened this book. This is ridiculous.”

    That’s when I decided that only way to reach people was to use what they were already interested in as the vehicle for higher level concepts. To that end I began a book project called The Dao of Dragon Ball:


    It’s a series of books and accompanying blog that discusses the most popular martial arts anime and manga in the world, called Dragon Ball. The series originates in Japan but is inspired heavily by Journey to the West and traditional Chinese martial arts concepts. It’s called The Dao of Dragon Ball because I use Dragon Ball to reveal Daoist and Buddhist concepts, spirituality, and martial arts principles to the reader, revealing the true inspiration for this epic series.

    I thought you might find it interesting since I’m attempting to do exactly what you suggested to do here.

    Posted by derekpadula | March 20, 2013, 4:50 am
    • Hello, its nice to meet you. I saw your ping back and started to read through your discussion this evening. I will need to go back when I have time to study it. I remember watching Dragon Ball when I was an undergraduate living in Japan. It is great stuff. I am sure I will be able to approach it with a lot more appreciation now.

      Posted by benjudkins | March 21, 2013, 4:56 am
  2. I am trying to get in touch with Stanley Henning. I’m a relative of his. If you can get this to him, that would be very nice. I am at alanhause@yahoo.com

    Nothing urgent, just trying to reestablish communications since a trip or 2 to Hawaii back in the 70’s.

    Thanks in advance, Al

    Posted by Alan Hause, Albany, CA phone 510 527 2830 | June 15, 2013, 2:31 am


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