Longsheng county, Guilin, China.  Source: Wikimedia.
Longsheng county, Guilin, China. Source: Wikimedia.

Sun Lutang and the Field of Chinese Martial Studies

This post is the third and final installment of our three part review of the life and contributions of Sun Lutang.  Sun was a master of Xingyi, Bagua and Taiji boxing from Hebei Province who had an important impact on the development of the Chinese Martial Arts during the Republic period.  This was a critical moment in the reform and modernization of traditional hand combat.  Much of what we currently think of as the “traditional” Chinese martial arts first emerged between 1910 and 1938.

The first part of this series provides a basic overview of the life of Sun Lutang.  The second post revisits some of these points and illustrates the various ways in which Sun’s career helps us to understand the emergence of modern public schools and larger, multi-style, martial arts federations in the first two decades of the 20th century.

I suspect that a detailed and comprehensive study of Sun’s life would require a fair sized book.  In this, the final post, I have been forced to focus on just a few key points that are particularly salient to the field of Chinese martial studies.  As such, I concentrate on the origin and afterlife of his beliefs about Daoism and their impact on the Chinese martial arts.

I have chosen this research question for two reasons.  First off, it is directly relevant to a major debate in the field of Chinese martial studies today.  Anthropologists and those interested in China’s religious history keep discovering connections between spirituality and boxing.  Sometimes these are mediated by structures like theater, folk religion, exorcism or other rituals, but often they are not.  One suspects that the same sorts of people who are likely to be an active member in a local temple group are also the same sorts of people who might find boxing an appealing way to spend an afternoon.

Anthropologists who have written on these subjects include Daniel M. Amos and Ma Kai Sun.  “Spirit Boxing in Hong Kong: Two Observers, Native and Foreign” in Journal of Asian Martial Arts.  Vol. 8 No. 4 (1999): 32 pages; Bortez.  Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters.  University of Hawaii Press 2011; Adam D. Frank. Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts. Palgrave. 2006.

Arrayed against these ethnographers are a group of historians who have examined the same issue and come to a very different conclusion.  In their view observers who see deep substantial links between the Chinese martial arts and either Daoism or Buddhism are mistaken.  Occasionally what western observers mistake for Daosit philosophy is really just some widely spread element of Chinese culture which has become an almost universal metaphor.  The use of the “Five Elements” as a classification or mnemonic device in a number of arts might fall into that category.

Alternatively it is possible for two things (such as boxing and heterodox religious beliefs) to exist in the same community without one being built on the foundation of the other.  This is an important point to remember when discussing late Qing popular and millennial uprising.  Just because a local White Lotus group offered boxing instruction to attract members, we cannot immediately assume that the style they taught was deeply theoretically linked to White Lotus theology.

Lastly, it has been claimed that some activities that look military in nature (such as temple processions and martial exorcism) are in fact not so when examined on a deep level.  Yes many temples in Taiwan have a working relationship with a local martial arts school that helps out at festivals, but there are also many who do not, and instead rely on other sorts of social organization.

These historians see the relationship between the traditional Chinese martial arts and religion as being a late innovation.  In their view this association dates back to the early Republic of China period, and specifically to the innovative writings of Sun Lutang.  While they are aware of the mix of health, Daoist Qigong and boxing that emerged in the late Ming (see Shahar 2008) they view this as a minor trend with little substantive impact on the actual state of hand combat by the end of the Qing period.  Further, their position on these issues has come to dominate scholarly discussions of martial history.

Perhaps the most important writer in this school is Stanley Henning, who needs to be read and considered carefully by anyone interested in this topic.  Kennedy and Guo (Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals.  Blue Snake. 2005) have also made an important contribution to this growing consensus.  Douglas Wiles, one of the founders of the western branch of Chinese martial studies, has paradoxically argued that there is no indication whatsoever of religious Daoism in any pre-20th century Taiji text, yet this internal art remains a good way to learn about the importance of ritual in traditional Chinese life (“Taijiquan and Daoism: From Religion to Martial Art and Martial Art to Religion.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 16 (4). 2007. pp. 3-45).

Kai Filipiak (“Academic Research into the Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives.”  In Michael DeMarco (ed.) Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications. Santa Fe, NM: Via Media. 2012. pp. 24-28) has recently taken a middle road on the issue of spirituality in the martial arts.  He remains interested in a number of projects, such as expanding our understanding of the nature of monastic violence (outside of Shaolin) in medieval China, yet he has expressed deep reservations about many attempts to link hand combat and Daoism.  While he concedes that there are multiple connections between qigong and the martial arts, he points out that it is unclear at what point these connections were first made, or even where the various martial arts borrowed their practices and theories of Qi from.

Sun Lutang is a central figure in all of this.  In fact, his theoretical legacy is actually probably more important than his martial one (some factions in the Chinese martial arts community have distrusted him for a variety of reasons).  If we can better understand why Sun believed that there was a connection between Daoism and the martial arts, we might be able to bring some clarity to a major issue in the field of Chinese martial studies.

Additionally, Sun’s beliefs about Daoism and its centrality to personal cultivation touched on a number of other aspects of his life and career.  One cannot understand his theories of health, and why the martial arts should be connected to health and Qi cultivation, without first examining his basic philosophical beliefs.  Likewise, his books were designed to introduce his readers to both Daoism and the martial arts, and they did so from a very specific perspective.  Hopefully we can make headway on a number of different aspects of his legacy by exploring the philosophical and spiritual questions first.

Great Wall of China near Jinshanling.  Source: Wikimedia.
Great Wall of China near Jinshanling. Source: Wikimedia.

“Martial arts are not only for fighting, these principles are very deep.”

One might suspect that these lines ultimately originated with Sun Lutang.  Instead he attributed them to his first teacher, surnamed Wu, who introduced him to a variety of forms and skills associated with the Northern Shaolin tradition while he was employed as a servant by a wealthy landlord.  Of course these are exactly the sorts of things that any sensible martial arts teacher would say when approached by a child who flatly states that he wishes to learn the martial arts to extract a little justice from the richest and most powerful family in the area.

One can only imagine what the first meeting between the older, slightly incredulous, Wu and the young, desperately serious, Sun was actually like.  But what did Wu really believe about the martial arts?  Did he think there was something more to them than boxing?

One suspects that whatever else he accomplished, Wu must have spent quite a bit of time telling Sun stories of his youthful exploits on the “Rivers and Lakes” of China.  Sun only studied with Wu for about two years before his living situation fell apart, but Wu left a deep impression on Sun who was able to provide his own students with a surprisingly detailed account of his first village master.

Wu lived a long and eventful life.  Like Sun he became enamored with the martial arts at a young age.  After a particularly violent episode involving local bandits he was forced to flee his home village and the authorities.  Like so many other rural martial artists he scraped together a living wandering from place to place, performing martial feats in the markets and, when that failed, begging.

Wu related to Sun that during this period he attempted to intervene in a conflict that he came across and (as one might guess) found himself quickly outmatched and badly beaten.  Things may have turned out quite badly for him except for the intervention of a martial monk.  Wu claims that he then studied martial arts at the Shaolin temple for two years where he learned Tan Tui, 64 Hands Free Fighting, 72 Qin Na and some type of Qigong.

At some point after leaving the Temple Wu became involved in the Taiping Rebellion, fighting (once again on the losing side) against the Qing.  After years of military life Wu drifted back into the civilian realm and resumed his wandering and marketplace performances.  When Sun first encountered him he was about 70 years old, living somewhere outside of Baoding, and teaching martial arts to groups of local villagers at an outdoor “boxing ground” (probably of the type described by Esherick as being popular during that period).

Normally when I run across these sorts of accounts I simply dismiss them.  Usually accounts of meeting mysterious monks or fighting for “noble rebellions” are self-serving and unreliable.  In this case things are a little more difficult.  Wu’s accounts do not include the creation of a mysterious new style, or anything else that would be marketable. The entire area was a hotbed of sedition during the first half of the 19th century, particularly in poorer regions where the gentry’s ability to organize and discipline society was weak.

Further, the Shaolin Temple is actually not all that far away (particularly if one has decided that he needs to get out of Hebei).  Lastly, Sun himself must be considered a very reliable source.  He did not embellish his accounts of Wu or leave out embarrassing details (such as the spectacular failure of his various “rescue” attempts).  The skills that he attributes to his teacher are all pretty reasonable and widespread in the area.  Further, Sun himself undertook to the journey to at least two sacred mountains (Emei and Wudang), so it seems reasonable that he would have been able to discount an account that did not hold up.

Nor is it necessary that Wu ever studied at the Temple proper.  He never claimed to be a disciple of the Shaolin order.  We know that there were a number of subsidiary shrines in the region that attracted a large population of civilian martial artists, much to the chagrin of the local government.  And there were a number of lay Shaolin masters in the area.  In short, in the case of Wu it is hard to be totally dismissive of his account.

In addition to the normal assortment of boxing skills and forms Wu seems to have known at least three types of Qigong.  The first set of skills included “Lightness Qigong” focused, in the most mundane terms, on speed and footwork.  Stepping drills on plum blossom poles, climbing and running up walls were all part of this skillset.  Occasionally other practices might be integrated into it, including the ingestion of the ashes of magical spells written on strips of paper or breathing exercises.

Wu also taught Sun “Virgin Boy” Qigong, a set still used at Shaolin today.  This routine has no martial applications and requires extreme flexibility.  It is usually only introduced to children and one must practice it continually to be able to perform its postures in adulthood.  Lastly it would appear that there may have been some additional Qigong skill that Wu learned that he did not pass on Sun.

Wu is a fascinating figure in Sun’s early life.  Indeed, one of the interesting things about studying Sun’s life is that he introduces us to a number of such figures who might otherwise be overlooked and forgotten.  There is certainly a practical aspect to many of the skills that Wu taught Sun.  The performance of Virgin Boy Qigong is a good way to attract customers and make money in market places.  Likewise, the manipulation of hidden weapons (another skill the older martial artists introduced to Sun) is also a valuable skill in largely hostile urban environments.

Yet there was clearly a less practical side to Wu’s nature.  Both his flirtation with Shaolin and his later involvement with the Taiping rebellion suggest that he may have been open to a connection between boxing and greater spiritual or social aims.  This is really just a hunch on my part, but I suspect that already in his first few years of instruction Sun may have been introduced to the idea that there was some profound principal that lay behind boxing, and that Qigong was a means of discovering it.

Tourists visit The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. April,2010. Source: Wikimedia.
Tourists visit The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. April,2010. Source: Wikimedia.

Setting the Stage in Baoding and Beijing

The next aspect of Sun’s martial education took place in Baoding when Sun began to study with Li.  Li took the young man’s martial arts instruction in a different direction, introducing him to a new style, Xingyi Quan.  It is tempting to see the mark of Daoist thought all over Xingyi.  However, many of the most immediate parallels, such as the “five elements,” seem to be employed as metaphors and mnemonic devices rather than deep theoretical structures.  Nor do we have any evidence suggesting that Li may have had philosophical aspirations.

There is a good possibility that if Sun learned anything about Chinese philosophy during this period it would have been either from his uncle or Zhang, his future father-in-law.  Both individuals were men of letters and Zhang was a member of the local gentry.

Sun had a few years of formal education between the ages of 7-9.  This mostly consisted of the rote memorization of basic Confucian texts.  While working at his uncle’s shop Sun practiced his calligraphy and developed some measure of skill.  Impressed with his progress Zhang invited the boy to his home where he sponsored his study of calligraphy.  It was actually through Zhang that Sun was eventually introduced to Li.

It seems likely that if one is being tutored in calligraphy in a gentry household, discussions of literature, poetry or philosophy must come up.  Without them there is simply nothing to write.  Nor is it likely that these subjects received much coverage during his brief primary education.

I think that is safe to assume the real roots of Sun Lutang’s education and literary skills lay with Zhang.  It is also very interesting to note that Sun’s literary skills were being honed at the same time that he was being introduced to Xingyi Quan.  These two vast bodies of knowledge were coming from the hands of critical mentors, both of whom were friends and associates.  One would have to be an extremely dull student not to notice the cultural allusions in Xingyi Quan and not ask some questions about where these things came from and what their broader meaning was.

Living in a more comfortable literary environment Sun would have been free to ask these questions, and he was surrounded by supportive adults who may have even had something to say on the subject.  Still, it is interesting to note a few things that are missing here.  I see no evidence in the basic biographical sketch of Sun actively preparing to take the military service exam, as one might expect of a young martial artist with talent and some actual literary aspirations.  Some sources (Tong Xudong “Sun Lutang and his Contributions to Chinese Martial Arts” in Journal of Chinese Martial Studies. 2012 (Winter). Issue 6. pp. 42-55.) claim that in fact he took and passed the provincial xiucai exam at the remarkably young age of 12.  However, other important accounts, including the testimony of his daughter, say nothing about this.  I suspect that in the final analysis Sun did not see the official exam system, whether military or civil, as much of a plan for the future.

I also note that while Sun now had the literary and martial skills to pursue a more elite model of boxing, focusing on health, self-cultivation and Qigong (the sort of thing that had emerged as popular among a small subset of wealthy martial artists in the late Ming and early Qing) he either did not know of, or had no interest in this prior movement.  Unless he was exceptionally lucky, or Zhang was prodigiously well read, there is no reason to think that he would necessarily have run into any of these rare older texts.

Of course some things would have been more accessible than others.  The I-Ching (Yi Jing in Pinyin) certainly would have been present in his local environment, and this work would later have a profound effect on his career as a mature martial artist.  Further, certain military or strategic classics may have been available to Sun as a teenager.  Sun Tzu’s was commonly read and even memorized by individuals hoping to take the military service exam.

It is not hard to see the evidence of a certain sort of Daoist philosophy in the Art of War.  Stanley Henning has suggested that the wide distribution of Sun Tzu’s text might have been the avenue for the introduction of a certain informal Daoist school of thought into the Chinese martial arts.  While not a formal or rigorous theory of the martial arts, perhaps one could think of this as the acquisition of “Daoism by osmosis.”  Presumably the dosage would be higher for an impressionable youth capable of reading such a text on its own terms.

Still, the overwhelming impression that one gets is that during both the Baoding and early Beijing periods Sun’s interests in boxing lay mostly in the acquisition of technical excellence and fighting prowess.  At this point his biography does not differ all that greatly from any other country boxer (with the notable exception of his social and educational circumstances).

Things change radically following the end of his formal study of Xingyi Quan.  Li referred Sun to his own teacher in Beijing, Guo, with whom he practiced with for about eight years.  Guo then referred Sun to his friend and fellow martial arts teacher, Cheng Ting Hua, a second generation Bagua master.  Cheng had received his Bagua from Dong Hai Chuan.  While Dong claimed to have learned his style from a mysterious wandering holy man, most modern martial arts historians credit him with the creation of the style.

Cheng had a fearsome fighting reputation and that alone probably would have been sufficient to attract Sun.  Yet it is interesting to note that Sun was no longer a young man when he first took up Bagua.  Depending how you date his birth, he was already in his late 20s or possibly 30.  Being a professional martial artist at the turn of the century was a strenuous affair.  Injuries accumulated and medical care was not great anywhere in the world.  Even today a fighter or professional athlete would be considered past their prime at 30.  The same was basically true for martial artists in China (the myth of amazing qi powers not withstanding).

This was clearly the time to settle down and start a business, either a guard company or a school.  Sun was engaged, he had some prospects in life, and yet something seemed to be driving him onward.  With Cheng, his quest was refracted in a slightly different direction.

Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China.  Source: Wikimedia.
Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China. Source: Wikimedia.

Sun Discovers the Daoist Roots of Bagua

Cheng was impressed with Sun and agreed to teach him.  The two studied together for three years until yet another instructor pronounced his martial education complete.  At that point Cheng advised to his student to go out into the world and live the life of a martial artist, gaining the sort of experience that can only come from “doing,” rather than from “learning.”  His daughter reports that Sun was reluctant to leave at this time and obtained the following piece of advice from his teacher “If you want to climb the Holy Platform, it is necessary for you to study the origin and understand the principal of the Yi Jing.  I know that some people in Sichuan Province are especially skilled at these theories, you should travel there.”

This is a seemingly odd bit of advice to give a martial arts student looking to improve his boxing or footwork.  Why would understanding the origin of the Yi Jing, a book of omens, and one of the oldest books in the Chinese literary canon, be of value to a martial artist?  Daoist sages and scholars studied the Yi Jing, but few serious scholars were martial artists.  Wandering Daoist holy men were a different matter.  Many of them used market place demonstrations, like Wu, to sell medicine and amulets, or to build up congregational followings.  Yet these were not the individuals that Cheng was concerned with.

There is an even more interesting question that needs to be asked at this point.  Why Sichuan?  Much is made of the decline of Daoism as a social movement and philosophical school during the Qing and Republic of China periods.  The Ming emperors had actively supported certain branches of Daoism and had built up the Wudang Temple complex as a family sanctuary and retreat.

Unfortunately many subsequent scholars blamed a reliance on mysticism and magic for the fall of the Ming.  Official Qing orthodoxy was strongly Confucian and hostile to anything non-rational.  While the state tolerated Buddhism, Daoism lost much of its luster and institutional support.  A frequently cited statistic states that by the end of the Qing dynasty one only complete collection of Daoist scriptures remained in all of China (at Wudang).

Of course it is also possible to overstate the size of this calamity.  Vincent Goossaert (The Taoists of Peking, 1800-1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics.  Harvard University Press.  2007) has done an admirable job of reconstructing exactly what the Daoist religious and social element of Beijing was like while Sun Lutang was studying Bagua in the capital.  There was an incredibly complex network of Temples, teachers, mystics and ritualists spread across the city.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of urban Daoism during the Qing dynasty appears to have been greatly exaggerated.  There were quite literally dozens, if not hundreds, of teachers who could have initiated Sun Lutang into the mysteries of the Yi Jing (and immortality) in Beijing.  So why did he have to go to Sichuan?

Sacred mountains, and pilgrimage to sacred mountains, have long been an important part of Chinese culture.  And let’s not forget that Cheng wanted his student to get out and finally see the world.  But there may have been something more to this advice.  To begin with, Cheng probably knew his teacher Dong well enough to be suspicious about his many evasive accounts of where Bagua originated.  In fact, he likely guessed that the origin of his teacher’s style, characterized by unique circular forms, had something to do with his earlier wanderings in Sichuan province, long before he came to the capital and became a noted martial arts teacher.

Professor Kang Gewu, a noted Chinese martial arts historian and researcher, is currently the most respected source on Bagua’s origins.  Kennedy and Guo (2005) provide a brief biography and overview of his career for anyone interested in learning more about him (p. 64).

While conducting research for his master’s thesis, Kang traveled extensively throughout the country and collected hundreds of interviews and documents.  His reconstruction of Dong’s life is not without gaps and questions, but it is the most widely accepted one that we have.  Of course it should be noted that not all lineages of the Bagua clan agree with his claims.

Dong was born in Ju Jia Wu township in Wen An County, Hebei, sometime around 1813.  By his own admission he disliked farm work and was not content with the life of a peasant.  Instead Dong threw himself into the study of various local fighting styles.  Eventually he ran afoul of a local gentry family and was forced to flee his home village in 1853 (about the same time that Wu is on the road and finding adventure and the Taiping Rebellion).

It seems that Dong’s first stop was with a branch of his own family in Kai Ko village where he stayed with his cousin Dong Xian Zhou (known locally as a skilled martial artist) and apparently studied Ba Fa Quan.  Professor Kang believes that this introduction to Ba Fa Quan was a critical step in the development of Bagua and that many specific movements from his cousin’s style can still be seen in the composite art that he later created.

Kang reports that Dong then continued his journey further to the south and stopped at a number of places (Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang) before coming to the Da Ba mountain area on the border of Sichuan province.  Somewhere in this journey (possibly in Sichuan) Dong is reported to have joined a Daoist religious movement.  Specifically Kang claims that he became associated with the Long Men (Dragon Gate) school of Complete Reality (Quan Zhen) Daoism.

This is a venerable system of Daoist mystical thought and practice going back to the Northern Sung dynasty.  Quan Zhen philosophy and practice is very rich.  But this creates a problem.  We have no evidence that indicates that Dong was either literate or had much of an education.

In that sense it is hard to know what precisely he would have learned from his teachers.  It seems that a lot of the more complicated theoretical discussion would have been difficult.  For instance, while Dong uses the imagery of the eight triagrams of the Yi Jing (the “Bagua”), Kang doesn’t find any evidence that this device actually provided a theoretical foundation for his later art.  Rather it was adopted more for its symbolic value.

It seems likely that Dong would have been involved with this group on a more communal and ritual level.  That in turn is quite interesting as the Long Men sect of Daoism sometimes practices a form of moving meditation called “circle walking.”  In addition to walking the circle, this exercise involves the use of mantras and mindfulness.

Kang ultimately concludes that this is the source of Dong’s unique style.  After returning to Beijing he combined the boxing elements that he had learned from his cousin (and likely earlier teachers) with the circle walking method he mastered in the southwest, and created the art that is now referred to as Bagua.

However, Dong never claimed to be the founder of the style.  Instead he claimed to have received the art from a wandering holy man.  Of course Dong also claims to have been a court eunuch and quite a few other things that most martial arts historians now reject.  In fact, he was always remarkably evasive when discussing his past or the origins of his style.

Apparently Cheng knew enough about his teachers past to realize that there was some connection between the actual study of Daoism and the initial creation of Bagua.  Further, he suspected that this happened in Sichuan province, and so he advised his better educated and prepared student to focus his search for answers on Daoism and to look in the southwest.

Anyone wanting to know more about Professor Kang’s theories on the origins of Bagua and the arts actual connection to 19th century Daoist mysticism might want to check out this article at the Pa Kua Chang Journal.

Sun’s travels were better documented than Dong’s.  If his journal had not been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution we would probably have a detailed understanding of his investigation.  Still, we do know some critical facts.

After a multi-year delay he was able to travel to the famous Mt. Emei in Sichuan province in 1894.  While there he met and became the student of a teacher named Zhi Zhen.  With him he studied the origins and theory of the Yi Jing and Emei Shan Qigong.  I think that it is critical to note that this is probably different from what Dong studied while working with the Long Men sect.

On the return trip Sun took the opportunity to stop at Mt. Wudang.  The temple complex there has long been an important site for Daoist learning and received extensive patronage during the Ming dynasty.  Sun remained in the area for two years and studied the arts of immortality with Jing Xu.

A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing.  Source: Wikimedia.
A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.

The Development of Sun Lutang’s Daoist Synthesis

After returning to his home town near Baoding in 1896 Sun established a commercial teaching organization (the Pu Yang Boxing Association).  It is not known how much of his Daoist instruction was integrated into his teaching of this period.  One suspects that not much of it was.  In only three years the coming of the Boxer Rebellion would force him to abandon the area around Baoding for a safer location.

He may have started to integrate his own theories on Daoism into his martial arts in the Xing Tang period, but we have no evidence that directly testifies to it.  It is only after Sun moves to Beijing in 1910 that we start to have really well attested evidence that his synthesis of Daosit theory and martial practice has matured into a form that we would currently associate with his teaching.  Interestingly this period also coincides with his introduction to Taiji by Hao Wei Zhen.  One wonders to what extent the introduction of this new style spurred Sun to further synthesize and rethink the other elements of his martial and philosophical education.

Sun’s first publication (on Xingyi Quan) came out in 1915.  It was a remarkable work for its time, providing relatively comprehensive explanations of the art with lots of clear photography.  It was designed so that an individual (or better yet a small group) could read the explanations, study the form, work out together a few times a week, and actually make progress in the art over the course of a few years.  His subsequent books followed roughly the same pattern.

His books were not only a beginner’s guide to boxing, they were also a basic introduction to practical Daoism.  Sun believed that that the “inner-instinct” employed to anticipate and react in boxing was of the same root as the “way” in Daoism.  This method of anticipating and dealing with change was a creation of the ancient sages who in turn created the first “internal” boxing methods.  These methods depended on a highly developed sense of intuition (itself an extension of the survival instinct) and encouraged the flow and transformation of Qi (and thus good health), unlike external forms of boxing that relied only on brute muscular strength.

In the introduction to A Study of Taijiquan (2003 translation by Cartmell) Sun provides a revealing history of Chinese martial arts.  In his view these arts were first created as a method of combining stillness and motion so that the “insubstantial” Qi could be recovered.

Bodhidharma, a Buddhist saint,  played a critical role in this process.  Upon visiting the Shaolin monastery he found the monks weak and sickly.  He invented the Tendon Changing Classic and the Marrow Washing Classic to improve the health of the monks.  Sun did not believe these routines were meant to be martial in nature, merely beneficial to the health.

It was Yue Fe, the famous general of Chinese military lore, who later studied these classic physical and breathing exercises and understood their true nature.  He modified the forms, adding their martial applications, and created Xingyi Quan.  Sun then goes on to claim that Bagua is a derivative art.

Whereas Professor Kang felt it was derived from Ba Fa, Sun instead saw many similarities with Xingyi.  Of course his lifelong study of Xingyi would have done much to sensitize him to any parallels between these arts.  This then is the ultimate origins of the “internal” arts according to Sun.  They are the result of a Chinese general modifying health sets created by a Buddhist patriarch to solve an age old dilemma in Daoist mysticism and alchemy.

Sun provided a separate linage for the various branches of Taiji.  Like most other martial artists of the period he believed the Taiji was created by the mystical recluse Zhang Sanfeng on Mt. Wudang.  Having over exerted himself in the study of external martial arts, Zhang had damaged his Qi.  To recuperate he studied the Tendon Changing and Marrow Washing Classics and Zhou Zi’s Taiji symbol.  As he synthesized these two bodies of information he began to understand the system that regulated the flow of Qi between its pre-birth and post-birth states and he invented the art Taiji Quan.

There is a lot that one can draw out of these stories.  But the critical aspect in both cases is that Sun believed that the practices that we now refer to as the internal “martial arts” began with Doaist health and longevity practices that were first studied at holy mountains.  This knowledge was either lost or missing from the “external” styles.  Interestingly enough, some aspect of this crucial gnosis was also shared by Daoism, Buddhism and even Confucianism (see for example Sun’s occasional references to the Doctrine of the Mean).

This framework led Sun to claim that rather than being a minor or secondary consideration, the self-cultivation and health aspect of the martial arts were central to the entire enterprise.  They were the literal heart of the matter.  Once you mastered these skills other martial applications could be sought and added, but in Sun’s view pursuing the combat skills first was like putting the cart before the horse.

Sun was now free to build a vast synthesis of his martial and Daoist knowledge.  He used his philosophical understanding as the theoretical framework to order his introduction and understanding of martial knowledge.  What we see here is a switch in his approach from an “inductive” model to a “deductive” model.  We have gone from a situation in which many individuals saw and wondered about parallels, to one in which philosophical theories were presumed to be hegemonic and the applications of the martial techniques were modified to fit them.

An interior courtyard of Longhua Temple in Shanghai, China.  During 1927 the Right wing of the Nationalist party executed suspected communists from across Shanghai at this temple.  Source: Wikimedia.
An interior courtyard of Longhua Temple in Shanghai, China. During 1927 the right wing of the Nationalist party executed suspected communists from across Shanghai in this temple. Source: Wikimedia.

Sun’s Intellectual Legacy in the Republic of China

Suns books not only helped to spread and popularize Taiji and Bagua, they also helped to reignite the public interest in Daoism more generally.  More specifically he helped to popularize the sorts of breathing exercises that would later be systematized into “Qigong” in the 1950s.

Sun was also very fortunate in terms of timing.  The nation was concerned about imperialism and foreign encroachment in the early 20th century.  Political leaders sought to address these questions on a number of levels.  Some of these efforts included reforming education and improving the public health and physical strength of the Chinese people as a whole.

Many martial arts reformers, including the Jingwu Association, were publicly arguing that both of these problems could be addressed by introducing some sort of modernized martial arts curriculum into primary and secondary school education.  The martial arts should be a part of education reform because they would help to literally strengthen the nation, both in physical and spiritual terms.  Occasionally reformers pointed to the success of “Budo” in Japan to illustrate what might be possible in China.

Of course this could not be the old style hand combat of the Qing dynasty, taught in narrow secretive networks.  The new age demanded a reformed and open art that could be shared with the entire nation.  To be taught in large classes styles needed to focus on forms rather than personalized instruction and combat applications did need to be a major focus of the early phases of training.

This environment was primed and ready for Sun’s ideas.  They appreciated his simplified forms, open publications and emphasis on health and self-cultivation.  These same traits also made his work accessible to out of shape middleclass professionals who were interested in traditional boxing, but needed a social rational that would justify them picking up such a questionable pursuit.  Sun also gave lectures and taught classes on philosophy that would have been appealing to exactly this demographic.

It should be pointed out that Sun was far from the only voice in this field.  Newspapers and magazines during this period were full of articles with ideas about how the nation’s physical culture should be reformed.  Martial artists, badly damaged by the Boxer Uprising and then the end of the military service exam system in 1905, sought to use this burst of interest to modernize their arts and argued for their continuing relevance.  Andrew D. Morris had documented this era nicely in his monograph Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (2004).

What separated Sun from many of these other reformers was his interest in traditional philosophy.  The traditional martial arts could have gone in a lot of different directions in the 1920s and 1930s.  While some ideas, such as the need for an end to secrecy, were widely held among all the various reformers, others were more controversial.  Some voices advocated rebuilding the martial arts along the lines of modern western science, while different writers thought that the road to salvation lay in creating bayonet and sword routines that would appeal to the military.  Many reformers of this period would have found Sun’s interest in Daoism and longevity practices to be “superstitious” and counterproductive.  Still, this approach proved to be popular with a large chunk of the increasingly urban population.

If nothing else our review has shown that Sun’s reformulation of the traditional martial arts into a Daoist enterprise did not happen in a vacuum.  He was surrounded by other martial artists who also had questions about these same topics or (in the case of Dong) had even tried to fuse together these principals in the past.

Rather than reconnecting with the specialist literature on the martial arts, Qigong and philosophy that arose in the late Ming, Sun embarked on his own investigation and he drew his own conclusions.  His synthesis was simple enough that it could be picked up and practiced by non-specialists, introducing them to some elements of both the traditional martial arts and qigong.  But it was also complex enough to open a world of possibilities for future exploration.

After Sun there were a number of other manuals published that also integrated the “internal” martial arts and Daoism.  While Sun was the first to publish on this topic it does not appear that he was the only one thinking about it.  But he set a high standard for subsequent authors and this helped to improve the overall quality of writing in the Chinese martial arts.

Taijiquan in Lanzhou, Gansu, China.  Scenes like this are a reflection of the success of Sun's ideas about the true value and nature of the Chinese martial arts.  Source: wikimedia.
Taijiquan in Lanzhou, Gansu, China. Scenes like this are a reflection of the success of Sun’s ideas about the true value and nature of the Chinese martial arts. Source: wikimedia.

Sun Lutang and the Current State of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.

The traditional Chinese martial arts may have started out as a method for fighting, but in the post-WWII period they quickly became a means of identity formation.  It is not that the need for self-defense has ever really gone away, but other less tangible concerns have risen to the fore.  For displaced refugees in Taiwan and Hong Kong following the 1949 takeover, questions about what it meant to be Chinese while living in exile became critical.  The Cultural Revolution and its aftermath left a generation of young people in mainland China struggling to find their way in the world.  Likewise the martial arts in the west are often tied to a desire to self-create a new identity.

Sun’s philosophy, which many not have pleased reformers in the 1920s and 1930s, now started to serve a new purpose for a new generation of martial artists.  It seemed to embody those ancient values that ensured a sense of authenticity and rootedness.  In this ever drifting age of globalization, Sun’s ideas have come to represent values that many individuals around the world are actively seeking.

It may surprise readers that Sun is not always regarded as a great boxer in China, particularly among competing Taiji, Xingyi or Bagua lineages.  His modification and simplifications of the forms are not always appreciated.  The emphasis on health and basic fitness, rather than actual fighting and self-defense applications, in his lineage is often questioned.

I for one can understand that.  As I stated at the beginning of this series I am not from the Neijia community and my own approach to the martial arts (Wing Chun) is almost devoid of philosophical discussion.  That does not mean that I do not think that the martial arts cannot improve health or lead to self-cultivation.  But for the most part I believe that these other things are basically by-products of strenuous training in an environment where one is highly motivated and focused.  And if you stop being focused you are likely to be punched in the head or thrown to the ground.   Nothing focuses the mind quite like the desire not to be hit.

I worry about what will happen to the martial arts if that primal motivation is ever taken away.  If spiritual discipline is really your goal, why not just skip the middle man and become a Long Men Daoist in the first place?  If the martial arts are really about health and fitness, why aren’t we doing Yoga?

One of my concerns for the traditional Chinese martial arts is that in an era of intense economic modernization they might lose some essential part of their original spirit.  From my own limited perspective Sun is somewhat problematic because he starts by making the martial arts secondary to philosophical practice, and hence in some ways epiphenomenal.  Yet what I identify as a problem does seem to be part of his larger point.  Martial applications come and go.  Individual martial arts are created and then forgotten; yet there is more continuity here than we understand.

A number of important Wing Chun masters have attempted to integrate some of Sun Lutang’s basic reforms into their art.  Being a highly decentralized tradition these individual efforts have not been quick to spread, but it is interesting to me how easily this basic project can be adapted from one type of system to the next.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise.  Yet it does cause me to ask questions.  Sun’s basic propositions are by no means universal (it is not hard to find individuals who disagree with them), but they are about as widely held as any set of ideas that we do have in the traditional Chinese martial arts today.

What will his impact be in the future?  Will we continue to see the spread of these ideas?  Will Wing Chun and the other traditional Chinese arts, that initially had nothing to do with Sun, continue to become closed communities focused on health and identity formation?  Or will we see an increasing bifurcation in the hand combat community, between those who view these practices as being fundamentally about health and philosophy, and those that reject this as an early 20th century project?

While Sun’s legacy is also mixed in the field of Chinese martial studies, clearly he was an important author and an innovative practitioner.  Yet the more closely we look at Sun, the more individuals we find with shared interests.   Sun’s synthesis of the Daoism and the martial arts was his own unique creation, but his life and the subsequent reaction to his works show that there were both a number of other individuals asking similar questions and a general hunger among a large number of practitioners for this sort of discourse.

In that way carefully examining Sun’s life helps us to move beyond the more facile level of questions.  Clearly working class individuals were capable of having aspirations for culture and self-cultivation, just like everyone else in Chinese society.  Perhaps rather than asking whether the Chinese martial arts were ever related to Buddhism or Daoism (to any degree) it is time to reformulate our research questions.

Why were some Chinese martial artists in the 1920s and 1930s enamored with the idea of finding a link to possible ancient alchemical practices, while others insisted that such superstitions needed to be abandoned if the traditional arts were going to be saved?  How have questions of economic class and education interacted to affect the relationship between spirituality and the martial arts?  We rarely discuss it now but there were a number of wealthy scholars who collected swords and other important artifacts during the Qing dynasty.  They probably had some thoughts on these issues, but what were they?  Alternatively why in the current decade is the Chinese government generally more trusting of Qigong practice when it is embedded in a martial art than if it is practiced on its own in a religious or even a neutral space?  How did the martial arts come to be seen as a control for religious exuberance?

By better understanding the complex ways in which these forces have interacted in the past, we will undoubtedly give ourselves better tools for understanding what is going on in the present.