Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.
Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.

This is Part One of a three part biographical sketch of Sun Lutang.  Also see Part Two and Part Three.

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding.  Source: Wikimedia.
Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.

Childhood: Overcoming Injustice with the Brush and the Sword.

The early years of Sun Lutang’s life are interesting enough to be the subject of a number of movies.  Originally named Sun Fu Quan, there is some debate as to when exactly he was born.  His daughter says that he was born in 1862 on a small farm outside of Baoding (south west of Beijing) in Hebei Province.  Sun’s father had never been very prosperous and did not marry until middle age.

Recognizing the intelligence of his son he sent him to study the Confucian classics with a local teacher when he was seven years old.  For the next two years Sun memorized and copied basic texts.  Despite his obvious intelligence his formal education came to an unceremonious end when his father’s crops failed and the family was forced to sell the farm to pay off debts or taxes.  A short while later Sun’s father fell ill and died, leaving the young boy fatherless and with no means of support.

Sun’s mother felt that she was unable to care for her child so she placed him in the home of a wealthy (but apparently sadistic) landlord as a servant.  Sun was never actually paid for his work but he was fed.  It seems that virtual slavery did not suit the young child’s personality and while he suffered through many beatings he started plotting a means of emancipation, at least to the degree that an eight year old child can imagine such things.

His first big break came in 1872.  While in a field tending sheep Sun came across an old man of about 70 leading an outdoor martial arts class.  The next day he returned and begged to be taught the martial arts.  When asked why he wanted to study boxing the naïve 11 year old bluntly told the teacher (surname Wu) about his situation and desire to take revenge on his employer and his equally abusive family.  Aghast at the tale of the young child life’s the older martial artist took him on as a student, but only after warning him that “The martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

I hope to explore Wu’s background and his influence on the young Sun in my next post.  While a good mentor for the boy his influence on him only lasted a couple of years.  On New Year’s Day of 1875 Sun got in a confrontation with the son and nephew of his employer.  After successfully defending himself from an unprovoked attack, his boss threatened to beat him to death and Sun’s term of “employment” as a household servant came to an end.

With no means of supporting himself, and no plans for the future, Sun fell into deep depression.  His only interest now lay in the martial arts, but even that was soured by the taunts of local villagers.  They felt that Sun was sure to grow up to become a bandit and a blight on the countryside and delighted in telling him so.  Statistically speaking they may have been correct.  Most “bandits” were young men without prospects or land who suffered an economic setback that forced them out of village life.

Not wishing to be a burden on his mother the young Sun resolved to hang himself.  Fortunately his suicide attempt failed and the boy was cut down by a passing traveler who took the boy home.  After assessing the situation he gave the family some money that they used to leave the hamlet and travel to Baoding proper where Sun had an uncle who ran a shop selling calligraphy brushes.  The uncle took in the struggling family and gave the young Sun a job as a clerk.  This was an immense step up in life from what he had known in the countryside and the Uncle proved to be a kind employer.  Further, his job in town put him in touch with the literary elements of society and gave him a chance to practice his calligraphy on scraps of paper.

It was through his Uncle that Sun would meet two men who would change his life forever.  The first of these individuals was a scholar named Zhang.  Zhang immediately recognized the young boy’s talents and invited him into his home to study calligraphy and literature.  He in turn introduced Sun to a friend of his named Li Kui Yuan.  Li Kui Yuan was a talented Xing Yi Quan student and the owner of the Tai An armed escort service.  He was delighted to find a student and resumed Sun’s formal instruction in the martial arts.

When he was 18 years old, Sun and Li went to visit Zhang on his 50th birthday.  Zhang took the opportunity to suggest that Li accept Sun as his formal disciple, and Li suggested that Sun should be engaged to Zhang’s 16 year old daughter.  Both ideas were heartily accepted and Sun place in society was now secure.  But he did not marry immediately.  Instead he and Li traveled to Beijing to study with Guo Yun Shen, Li’s original Xingyi Quan teacher.

Lion state at a temple on Emeishan.  source: Wikimedia.
Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.

The Wandering Years

By 18 years of age Sun’s life had changed dramatically.  His mother was cared for (by Zhang), he had a fiancée and the sort of martial education that would allow him to make his way in the world.  This was when most young martial artists would settle down and get on with the business of life.

But Sun was reluctant to marry immediately.  Nor did he only view the martial arts as a means of career advancement.  He wanted to understand them on a deeper level, and doing so meant leaving the confines of Baoding and traveling to the capital.  Guo Yun Shen would be the key figure in his subsequent development into a master.

Sun learned quickly as he studied with Guo.  The older master was impressed with the intelligence and footwork of the youth, enough so that he made him the formal inheritor of his lineage of Kung Fu.  He also bequeathed upon him the nickname “smarter than an active monkey.”

In total Sun spent eight years with Guo.  In addition to his earlier education with Wu and Li, he now had a formidable martial education.  But he was not done yet.  In 1889 Sun used an introduction from Guo to meet Cheng Ting Hua, a master of the relatively young Bagua system.  At the age of 27 Sun undertook a detailed study of this new art.

Sun studied with Cheng for three years.  In that time he focused on Dragon Style Bagua, Bagua Sword and spear training.  At the end of this period he was apparently left with additional questions, but Cheng claimed he had no more to teach him.

Instead he said that if he Sun wanted to understand the system more deeply he needed to study Daoism.  However, Sun was not free to undertake such a trip lightly.  He now had responsibilities to consider.  In 1892 he returned to Baoding, married his fiancé and saw the birth of his first son.  To support the family he started a popular school that attracted a number of students.

But the advice of Cheng was not forgotten.  In 1894/5 he set out for Sichuan province where he met the monk Zhi Zhen who taught him both Emei Qigong and the theory behind his approach to I-Ching analysis.  On the return trip Sun stopped at Wudang Mountain (an important site for Daoist instruction) and studied Qigong and immortality practiced with Jing Xu.  I hope to investigate this philosophical turn in Sun’s martial practice, and its specific connection to his trip to Emei, in the next post.

In 1896 he returned to his home town near Baoding with his wife and son.  During this period Sun established not only martial arts classes, but also literary clubs to help spread literacy and basic education among the peasantry.  He even appears to have started to lecture about philosophy directly in his classes.

While things were going well for Sun and his family, in 1899 we once again find them on the move.  This time he moved the whole family away from Baoding and relocated in Xing Tang, 120 km from Beijing (twice the distance of his previous residence).  Xing Tang now appears to be part of Shijiazhuang.

This move is usually passed over with relative silence in Sun’s various biographies.  That is unfortunate as it is probably one of the most interesting, and wisest, decisions that he made in his entire life.  The Boxer Uprising was brewing in in 1899 and there was substantial violence along the border between Hebei and Shandong.  The spreading violence was clearly headed to Beijing, and Baoding was directly in its path.

By late in 1899 inter-community violence was breaking out between Chinese Christians (often armed with modern western rifles) and anti-foreign Boxers (armed with spears and swords) in Baoding.  The area saw repeated massacres in February and March of 1900, when things started to spiral out of control.  Some of the most important violence of the early Uprising happened along the Baoding-Beijing railway to the east of the city.

Joseph W. Esherick reviews events in and around Baoding in his groundbreaking study The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987).  Most of the “Boxers” were impressionable country youth rather than sophisticated martial artists.  Many of them relied on spirit possession and magical formula for their military power, not years of formal training.  Still, it is undeniable that many martial arts schools in the region were caught up in the violence.  Others foresaw tragedy on the horizon and tried desperately to distance themselves from the coming cataclysm.

It would appear that Sun was in the later camp.  By moving his family to Shijiazhuang they avoided the brutal waves of inter-community violence, and later western retaliation, that tore Baoding apart.  It would certainly be interesting to know the fate of his Baoding students from this period, whether they too fled or if they stayed to fight.  Cheng Ting Hua, Sun’s Bagua teacher and the individual who sent him on his quest to study Daoism, was shot and killed by German troops during their sack of Beijing.

His new home was also far enough from the capital that he could continue to practice and teach the martial arts in the years after the Uprising.  This is significant as schools were being closed and martial artists were forced underground across the country.  In this period public sentiment turned decidedly against boxing and the traditional martial arts came closer to extinction than they have been before or since.

As a young man Sun Lu Tang was very interested in the practical applications of his fighting arts, something that is still reflected in the basic structure of Sun Taiji.  He fought in a number of challenge matches and worked as a guard and bodyguard.  However, later in his career he claimed that the martial arts were really for health maintenance and self-cultivation.  He famously told his students that if they wanted to fight they should “get a gun.”  One wonders how much of this shift in his attitude had to do with his philosophically inspired wandering, and how much of it can be attributed to the utter destruction of Baoding (and the murder of Cheng Ting Hua) during the throws of the Boxer Uprising.

One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising.  This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.
One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.

Sun Lutang on the National Stage

It is a minor miracle that the traditional modes of hand combat survived the social fallout from the Boxer Uprising.  The western retaliation in the wake of this wave of anti-Christian violence was terrible and indiscriminate.  Educated individuals around the country blamed martial artists (quite unfairly) for the diminished state of their country.  Nevertheless, after a few years had passed it became possible to reopen schools that were closed in the initial calamity.

In 1907 Xu Shichang, (still a Qing official) invited Sun to the far northeast of China (Feng Tian) to set up a school.  While there he defeated a local bandit who was terrorizing the area and may have been scheduled to fight with a foreigner in a public challenge match.  I cannot confirm its authenticity, but the popular story is that Xu Shichang called the fight off because he feared diplomatic retaliation if Sun defeated the foreigner.

The stay did not last long, though it helped to cement his relationship with Xu, a figure who would be an important politician in the Republic era.  It also introduced Sun to a new circle of potential sponsors.  Late in 1907 he returned to Baoding to reestablish his schools there after almost eight years of absence.

But politics would once again shape Sun’s destiny.  As we saw in our biography of Qiu Jin, the period before and after the 1911 revolution was an interesting time to be in Beijing.  Intellectuals were meeting across the city to discuss different ideas for reform and the future of the country.

These dynamic possibilities attracted Sun who must have bemoaned the diminished state of the martial arts.  He decided that if he was going to promote the martial arts on a national scale he needed to be in Beijing.  And so he moved his family to a little house in the capital.  As a result Sun had a front row seat for many key events in the revolutionary period.

In 1914 his daughter Sun Jianyu was born.  She would go on to become an important teacher of her father’s arts and a master in her own right.  The same year also saw a chance meeting with Master Hao Wei Zhen who fell sick while in the capital and was cared for at the Sun house.  He later repaid Sun by teaching him Wu style Taiji.  Sun studied Taiji for two years; this was the last major element of his martial education.  He was already 52 years old when he first undertook the study of Taiji.

Kennedy and Guo quite rightly call Sun the most important writer on the Chinese hand combat.  Through his books he has become probably the most influential martial artist of his generation.

His first book, a Study of Xing Yi Quan, was released in 1915.  This groundbreaking effort was the first really practical modern martial arts manual that could actually teach readers the key points of an art.  The text was relatively straightforward and helpful.  It was also the first book to contain a large number of photographs documenting every step of a movement or form.  Pretty much every martial art manual published from that point onward has copied Sun’s basic format.

This early work turned out to be just the beginnings of an ambitious publishing agenda.  In 1916 he published a Study of Eight Trigrams Boxing.  In 1921 he published A Study of Taiji Boxing, in 1925 he wrote The True Essence of Boxing (his most philosophical work) and in 1927 he released his monograph on the Bagua sword (jian).

The popularity of martial arts instruction started to pick up again in Beijing (and around the rest of the country as well) in the mid-1910s.  Recall that this is the era when the Jingwu association came to prominence in Shanghai.  Multiple groups were advocating saving the nation through “strengthening” it, and the traditional martial arts seemed to be an idea training tool.  That same philosophy appears to have appealed to Sun and he likely helped to popularize it.

In 1916 he joined the Beijing Sports Lecture Hall (which included such luminaries as Wu Jian Quan, Yang Cheng Fu and Li Jing Lin) where he taught classes on both the martial arts and Chinese philosophy.  The later subject was calculated to appeal to a more educated middle class audience, so this is clear indication that Sun was attempting to change the demographic profile of the martial arts.

A number or reformers during this period concluded that for the martial arts to survive they had to become more appealing to educated middle class individuals.  Sun’s emphasis on health and self-cultivation was one way of accomplishing this goal.  The Jingwu strategy of offering classes on photography or western sports was another.  This period of time is also important for the development of the five modern styles of Taiji, including Sun Lutang’s own offering that combines the essential insights of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua.

Sun’s growing reputation allowed him to rekindle his contacts in government.  In 1919 Xu Shichang secured him a government appointment to teach martial arts in the Presidential Palace.  Sun was subsequently assigned the rank of Lieutenant in the Nationalist military and held this position until he formally resigned it in 1924.

In 1922 tragedy struck when Sun’s third son, Sun Huan Min, died of complications from broken ribs after falling and injuring himself in a martial arts demonstration in Shanghai.  At that point Sun moved to Shanghai, a growing and dynamic metropolis, and established new schools with hundreds of students.

In 1924 Sun traveled briefly to Shanxi where he further expanded his student base.  He did not stay in the region long, and returned to Shanghai to teach in 1928 at the invitation of Zhang Zhi Jiang and Li Jing Lin of the Central Guoshu Institute.  Sun remained active with the Central Guoshu Institute for some time, receiving appointments in Nanjing and Zhe Jiang.  In 1931 he even opened a large all female class in Zhe Jiang that he later turned over to his daughter.  After the Japanese invasion of the country in 1931 he resigned his various appointments and returned to Beijing.

In late November or early December 1933 Sun began to have premonitions about his impending death.  His daughter states that he used his knowledge of the I-Ching to predict the exact day and time that he would die.  Believing that the end was near he returned to his home in Baoding.  After returning home he stopped eating and went into a state of almost continual meditation.  On the 16th of December he died in the same room, of the same house, that he had been born in.

An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.
An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.


Suns physical death did little to slow the flow of his ideas.  His theories about the martial arts, the value of health and qigong training, and the intrinsic connection between boxing and Daoism continued to gain adherents.  In fact, his ideas shaped the foundations that the Republican and post-war Chinese martial arts would be built on.  They still live on today.  While they are the subject of deep study by some martial arts students, they have also generated many popular assumptions about the “traditional” arts that are blindly perpetuated by the media and entertainment industry.

The previous review has only touched on some of the historical highlights of Sun’s long and eventful career.  What is still needed is a social history of his contributions to the martial arts, one that can connect him to the political, social and martial currents of his day.  After all, Sun’s innovations did not happen in a vacuum.  He lived in one of the most dynamic and interesting periods of martial arts reform.  We will turn to a more detailed examination of these issues in our next post.

Click here for Part II of our study of the life of Sun Lutang.