The Book Club: Chinese Martial Arts by Peter Lorge, Chapters 9-10: The Traditional Fighting Arts in a Modern World.

Painting on silk of a Qing soldier, anthropology collection of the University of Missouri.
Painting on silk of a Qing soldier, anthropology collection of the University of Missouri.


This is the third and final section of our review of Peter Lorge’s volume, Chinese Martial Arts: from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge UP, 2012). In part one of this post we reviewed the development of Chinese martial culture from the Bronze Age through the Medieval Period.  Section two covered the genesis of the traditional martial arts as a distinctive aspect of physical culture in the Song, Yuan and Ming dynasties. The current post looks at the further development of these trends in the Qing era and more recent attempts to transform the martial arts in the Republic and post-1949 Liberation eras.

Rather than being a simple book review, these discussions are an attempt to simulate what you might encounter in a college seminar on martial arts in the modern world. We strive to keep the discussion at the advanced undergraduate level. No previous experience is necessary and no special language skills are assumed. Just grab a copy of the book and try to keep up with the readings.

Qing Dynasty: The Immediate source of the Modern Chinese Martial Arts.

Lorge’s discussion of the Qing dynasty begins with a fairly lengthy historical overview of the sort that was missing from earlier chapters of his work. He does not tie this material directly to his treatment of the martial arts, but it does set the stage for some of the discussion that is to follow.

Lorge sees the era as fundamentally transformative. In his view it was a time when the nature of the martial arts were transformed by the march of technology. On the very first page of the chapter we read:

“The Qing Dynasty thus straddles two distinct periods of martial arts history: the end of the time in which hand-to-hand combat skills were useful on and off the battlefield, and the beginning of the time in which modern weaponry cast all of these skills in an antiquarian rather than a practical, light. It was that shift that laid the basis for much of our modern understanding of Chinese martial arts.”

Right from the outset I think he starts with a flawed premise. The truth was, hand-to-hand combat skills were already receding in importance at the end of the Ming.  By the 19th century no one questioned this. Perhaps the only martial arts weapon with any actual utility on the battlefield was actually the long spear. Even swords were rarely used by actual infantry except in desperation. Battlefield deaths overwhelmingly seem to have come from arrows, bullets and artillery, followed most likely by spear wounds and trampling.

General Qi Jiguang drilled his troops in the martial arts, including fencing and boxing, but even he was adamant that these techniques had no real place on the “modern” battlefield of the 1550s. Instead he saw the martial arts as a basic training technique meant to toughen both the bodies and psychological resolve of his troops. These were the central questions facing any military officer who was forced to train his units from scratch. As he rhetorically put the question “How do you take the weak and make them strong?”

In short, while the martial arts were associated with the military in the Qing dynasty, for the most part they were distinct from the really critical military skills of the period which included the more mundane, and less glorious skills, like riding a horse, fortifying an encampment or shooting a matchlock.

Why then did civilians pursue the martial arts? Often to gain employment in a realm where a different sort of force was employed. Bodyguards, watchmen and armed escorts were worried about bandits armed with handguns and knives. For them hand-to-hand combat skills were essential for the same reason that they still are for police forces around the world today. This is just a fundamentally tactically different situation than what one might encounter on the battlefield. Likewise opera performers relied on their martial arts skills to attract an audience and entertain the masses. Traveling challenge match fighters who made regular appearances at every temple festival were in a similar situation. And of course there were various civilian martial arts teachers that took students throughout this period and occasionally supplemented their income by acting as drill instructors for local village crop-watching societies or militias.

While the connections to the military were important, and a career as a soldier was something that young martial artists might aspire to, it is important not to lose sight of the fact that by the Qing dynasty the “traditional” fighting arts were already an overwhelming civilian mode of physical culture which responded to a broad range of needs in civil society. All of the martial arts directly discussed by Lorge in this chapter, whether Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Plum Blossom Boxing fall into this category. Even the preferred government term during the Qing for this sort of activity, “Quanban” (Fist and Staff), implied that this was a distinctly civilian form of combat and not the way that the “real military” trained or fought.

As such, a much more nuanced discussion of the role of technology in Chinese martial culture is called for. Why for instance was there actually an increase in the demand for boxing training among civilians at exactly the same time that handguns were becoming more common? Why did the martial arts function as a substitute for modern weapons in some times and places (Hong Kong in the 1950s) and as a compliment to them at others (among police officers in Foshan and Guangzhou in the 1930s)?

Readers should be aware that these questions are out there, but Lorge’s quick, off-handed treatment of the inevitably of technologically driven change actually obscures more about the development of the martial arts than it reveals.

Overall his treatment of the Qing dynasty seems to suffer from many of the same problems that were evident in his discussion of the Ming. His treatment of events is very brief and devotes only a few pages to the actual discussion of the various boxing styles of the period. This is something of a paradox as we have a fair amount of information about this era, and it is directly relevant to the emergence of the traditional Chinese martial arts as a social force in the 20th century. Of the handful of styles that receive individual mention all are concentrated in the “Central Plains” region. Taiji’s evolution and development receives the most attention as it illustrates some of the authors broader points. Xingyi Quan, Bagua and Plum Blossom are treated briefly.

No attempt is made to list, let alone discuss, the martial arts of any other part of China. This is problematic as it implies a unity of development that is not actually the case. As Lorge himself has noted at various points in his work, China is a big place and geography is often a key variable. It would be a mistake to assume that the martial arts of the Western regions of the state, or the South, looked exactly like and developed the same way as the three “internal” arts that the author focused on. Again, the lack of even a simple discussion that might point readers in different directions for their own self-directed study is distressing as the Qing is an era that we could actually do this for.

I think that the best aspect of this chapter was Lorge’s discussion of the growth and evolution of the “internal” vs. “external” debate in the Chinese martial arts. He certainly seemed to approach this question with more enthusiasm than his writing had shown since his discussion of the Song dynasty.

Note that after two almost purely descriptive chapters he finally lays out a theoretical argument (basically an extension of the one first offered by Wiles in the Lost Taichi Classics from the late Ch’ing Dynasty). He engages with a selection of relevant authors from the literature and marshals some evidence. Even more importantly he explains to his readers why this issue is important for the understanding and practice of the “internal martial arts” today. I would have liked to have seen this general approach applied more fully in the previous two chapters.

Lorge continued with the same theoretical/argumentative style as he moved into the discussion of the role of “self-cultivation” in Qing era martial arts. The information he provided was a solid basic introduction to the topic and it outlined the problem in a way that novice readers could understand. However, he takes this opportunity to continue his dispute with Shahar and Lin Boyan’s conclusions about the role of Daoist gymnastics in the development of late Ming boxing. Taking a somewhat softer tone than in the introduction, Lorge concedes that some literate elites may have been doing this, but goes on to question Shahar’s conclusions anyway. Oddly he reviews the same sources as Shahar and Boyan, but just comes to a slightly different reading of the situation. Given that Lorge has avoided delving into technical discussions of primary sources, it remains somewhat unclear why the reader is expected to privilege his reading of this material of Boyan and Shahar’s.

This discussion, and its disjoint with the surrounding material, really brings us back to the central problem with this chapter. Aside from the basic history that is available anywhere, almost the entire chapter is spent dispelling various myths and telling modern hand combat students what the Qing era martial arts were not. And that material was fine so far as it went.

Yet in the final analysis there was no real explanation of what Qing era martial arts actually were. The entire discussion of boxing is confined to a two-page aside on Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua. Lorge never even asks who practiced martial arts during this period, or how the answer to that question differed from the earlier Ming or Song eras.

The Foshan Jingwu building in the 1980s.  After the Cultural Revolution the local Jingwu association was revived, and it continues to exist today, but in a highly modified form from its original incarnation in the 1920s.
The Foshan Jingwu building in the 1980s. After the Cultural Revolution the local Jingwu association was revived, and it continues to exist today, but in a highly modified form from its original incarnation in the 1920s.

It seems to me that the best way to deal with misinformation in the modern martial arts community is spread some real information that can take its place. Instead of developing a comprehensive view of Boxing in late imperial China, Lorge basically tackles an ever expanding list of urban legends and popular misperception on an ad hoc basis. But even after addressing all of these questions the reader is left with no positive understanding on what Qing era martial arts really were or how different parts of society actually viewed them.

These criticisms not withstanding, Lorge did advance some good points in his concluding discussion which should provide a variety of readers with food for thought. I particularly liked his suggestion that style naming traditions became slippery in the late 19th and early 20th century. The question of when the various martial arts first got their name relates to his earlier discussion about the spread of lineages (or at least the idea of “lineage”) in the Song dynasty. That process seems to have come back into vogue in the late Ming, but it really accelerated, reaching a fever pitch at the end of the Qing.

As various civilian martial arts teachers competed against one another for students and influence in the late 19th and early 20thcentury (really the first era in modern Chinese history when a market in the martial arts could exist) long lineages and impressive creation myths (often drawn directly from works of martial fiction) became a mandatory advertising strategy. As the reputation of certain schools spread local rivals would occasionally attempt to trade off its reputation by adopting a new name or creation narrative.

Lorge notes for instance that Plum Blossom Boxing, long a favorite style of village boxers in Henan and Shandong, began to spread and diversify so fast at the end of the Qing dynasty that it stretches credibility. Further, when one actually examines the various schools in the region they exhibit such a wide variety of forms, training techniques and philosophies that it seems exceedingly unlikely that they were all an identical art only 100 years ago.

Lorge suggests that as the reputation of the style gained prominence in the region many local village styles flocked to its banner, giving up their own names (if they ever had them–most did not) and adopting either a common creation myth or positioning themselves as an “alternate lineage” within the Plum Blossom clan. This combination of the widespread adoption of style names, fictional creation narratives and lineages allowed certain arts to spread themselves through sociological processes much faster than it would have ever been possible to actually train students.

After looking at the history of my own art (Wing Chun) I also came to a similar conclusion.  Originally Wing Chun seems to have borrowed mythic elements of its creation story (and even its name) from Fujianese White Crane. At the time that was a more popular art with a solid Shaolin pedigree.

Then as Wing Chun became better known there was a sudden emergence of an immense variety of “lost lineages” and alternate forms that show many similarities to Foshan Wing Chun, but also a wide variety of differences. I suspect that if Ip Man had not come to Hong Kong and trained Bruce Lee, many of these same lineages would still exist, but they might positioned themselves with the region’s more popular Hung Gar or White Crane lineages instead. Rather than being static and unchanging through time, style names and lineage accounts are actually amorphous and constantly evolving.  Their actual function was to advertise something about the school, not to relate actual historical fact.  This basic insight is missing from most of the ongoing debates over “lineage politics” that seem to monopolize so much time and energy in the current era.

Yin Yu Zhan. Illustration from Slashing Saber Practice, 1933.  Kennedy and Guo provide a detailed discussion of his publications in their volume, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, 2005.
Yin Yu Zhan. Illustration from Slashing Saber Practice, 1933. Yin was a traditional martial artist who attempted to adapt his techniques so that they could be used by militia units armed with the “Dadao” across the country.  Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, 2005.

Traditional Chinese Martial Arts in the 1920s and 1930s

Chapter 10 covers the post-Imperial period. I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by this chapter. The historical review at the start of the chapter was generally more relevant to the concerns of martial artists today. It also set up the following discussion in which the evolution of the traditional hand combat schools simply cannot be understood divorced from the wider historical processes that they were involved in.

Lorge also points out some theoretically important distinction in the first part of his chapters. When discussing the martial arts in the Republic period it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the experiences of urban and rural martial artists. While remote village boxers continued to organize crop-watching societies (a form of local agrarian militia) and perform at local festivals, much as they always had, the activities of their more urban brethren were being rapidly transformed.

At the lower end of the socioeconomic scale workers in factories continued to study the martial arts (even hiring instructors to run classes) as a means of creating both a physical and social safety net. Meanwhile reformers were busy sanitizing the arts of “superstition” and “feudalism” so that they could be taught to educated middle-class individuals. It was hoped that such individuals would be the nation’s future, and so different martial arts societies vied for their tuition dollar.

At the same time there was an increasing distinction between the sorts of combat training provided to the military, and that which was taught in martial arts clubs and to paramilitary groups. That does not mean that military never studied hand to hand combat. In fact the rampant criminal environment that existed for much of the Republic period, along with the constant need for intelligence, insured that both the police and the military would be forced to think long and hard about the most efficient techniques to capture and arrest their opponents, as opposed to simply blowing them up. Still, the concerns and tactical problems faced by these groups were moving increasingly in a different direction than the “modernized” arts that were deemed fit for the nation’s emerging middle class.

The Bulk of the actual discussion of the martial arts in Chapter 10 revolved around the “institutionalization” of hand combat and the various attempts to bring this area under state control and subordinate it to the ruling party’s political agenda. Lorge focused mainly on the creation of the Central Guoshu Institute and to a lesser extent on the Shanghai based Jingwu (Pure Martial) movement. His discussions of both of these institutions drew heavily on Andrew Morris’ research on physical culture in Republic era China. These sections are also likely to be of some interest to most readers as the legacies of both of these institutions are being rediscovered by students both in China and the West.

Still, there are some limitations to this approach. Once again we need to really think about that division between urban and rural areas. While cities were the undisputed centers of political and economic development during this period, the vast majority of people lived in the countryside.

Neither the Jingwu or Guoshu movement did a great job of penetrating the countryside. At the height of its popularity Jingwu could be found in all of the major cities along the coastal regions of eastern China. It never was able to succeed in the northern interior or the west, but it did build quite a following in South East Asia. Despite having strong national backing (or perhaps because of the KMT’s obvious political involvement) the Central Guoshu Institute never even managed to spread itself that far. It too exerted its strongest influence in Eastern China. However, being a militarized political organization, it could only establish itself in regions that were controlled by the Nationalist party. And even some generals within the KMT were less than enthusiastic about the program.

Northern reformers associated with both Jingwu and the Central Guoshu institute claimed that the martial arts were dying in the 1920s and 1930s, and the only way to save them was to purge them of their feudal past and unify them under the modern and scientific administration of a centralized national organization. It goes without saying that these groups had political agendas and they saw spreading the martial art as a way to both “strengthen the nation” and promote that agenda.

Yet there is a problem with this narrative. The truth is the martial arts were not dying in the 1920s and 1930s. The spread of firearms was not destroying Kung Fu. Just the opposite was happening. There was an explosion of interest in the martial arts in practically all regions of the country during these decades. Many profitable schools were opened and lots of new styles were created. The marketplace for martial arts was booming, and very often that market was strongest in secondary cities and was fed with boxing instructors from the countryside. Jingwu and Guoshu are probably better understood as attempts to capture a piece of this action and to shape the general enthusiasm for civilian boxing than they are as genuine movements to save the martial arts. The martial arts didn’t need to be saved, they were probably more popular than they had been at any point in recent history.

Unfortunately, by focusing only on the big national reform projects (Jingwu and Guoshu) Lorge misses the broader picture. Try as it might (and it did try) the Central Guoshu institute never managed to bring this vast movement under its direction. How could it? It simply did not have access to most of the country or an actual ability to connect with most of China’s martial artists. This was the real tragedy of the Second Sino-Japanese War and the Liberation in 1949. The martial arts had just made a difficult transition to a new capitalist economy and a more open form of civil society where they could succeed independent of government sponsorship. They had proved that they could produce a product that people wanted to buy.  Yet just as this effort was starting to bear fruit it fell victim to shifting political fortunes.

Still, the reach of the Chinese nation has always been greater than the circumference of the Chinese state. The traditional arts continued to exist in places like Singapore, Malaysia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, the Philippines, Europe and even in the US. While Jingwu did have some lasting success in the diaspora, the vast majority of the arts that were practiced in these communities were folk arts (often from southern China or the newly popularized “internal arts”) that were successful in the marketplace of ideas.  For the most part these folk arts were firmly regional and were never part of the centrally led Guoshu system (Taiji Quan being the obvious exception).

These were the arts that were nurtured throughout the Cultural Revolution, and they were the arts that were taught to westerners. Ultimately these were the arts that shaped the fighting styles and attitudes of the foreigners who were responsible for reintroducing, and helping to re-popularize, the martial arts on mainland China in the 1980s. Lorge treats this acceptance of “foreign” attitudes about the martial arts as a particularly ironic form of “global pollution.”

Yet it is important to realize that the “official” Guoshu project that he focuses on never represented the experience or ideals of the vast majority of China’s martial artists.  It was a rather limited elite driven experiment that focused almost wholly on a handful of urban areas.

At least some of the more traditional hand combat material was preserved in the cultural diaspora, and it was even cultivated in the west. Ultimately that was what was returned to China. While its hardly surprising to discover that some individuals in northern China are uncomfortable with this sudden infusion, and even dominance, of southern physical culture and vocabulary (the term “Kung Fu” is much more commonly used in Cantonese than Mandarin for instance), we should at least acknowledge that much of this material is authentically Chinese. The “foreign” attitudes that are finding their way back into the Chinese martial arts today are sometimes nothing more subaltern dialects that had been there all along.

Still, there is only so much that can be covered in one chapter. In general this section of the book had more energy and enthusiasm than the discussion of the late imperial period. It makes arguments, addresses points in the literature, and throws out interesting discussions (such as the 20th century history of the Shaolin temple). Further, it covers a neglected time period in such a way that most readers will appreciate it and have something to talk about after reading it.

Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.  In many ways Ip Man represents the fundemental paradox of the modern martial art's quest for authenticity.  He was an undenibaly genuine and talented local martial artist, yet he is current being infused back into Chinese martial culture through the medium of almost entirely fictional films.
Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s. In many ways Ip Man represents the fundamental paradox of the modern martial art’s quest for authenticity. He was an undeniably genuine and talented local martial artist, yet he is current being infused back into Chinese martial culture through the medium of almost entirely fictional films.  This is Ip Man as he actually was,
And this is how he is imagined today, as an almost superhuman fighter.
And this is how he is imagined today, as an almost superhuman fighter.

Conclusion: What to Make of the Chinese Martial Arts.

While there may have been some ambiguity about Lorge’s intended audience at the start of his book, by the end its pretty clear that this text is meant to serve the needs of martial arts students with little background in actual Chinese history.  The text aims to review the existing literature rather than add any startling new conclusions to the field of Chinese martial studies.  If this is the task that Lorge has assigned to himself the real question is, how well does he do it?

The clear contribution of this book is to thoroughly wipe the slate clean, giving academically inclined Chinese martial artists a chance to further investigate their subject without being weighed down with decades of mythology, lineage politics and urban legends.

Still, there are some clear weaknesses in this volume.  The two greatest of which are the chapters on the Ming and Qing dynasty.  Given how critical events in these eras were to the emergence of the modern Chinese martial arts (as opposed to the Qin or the Han) it seems odd that Lorge would devote so little time and effort to developing detailed models of these periods.  After all, that is what a modern hand combat student really needs to think intelligibly about this history of her art.

Lorge anticipates this criticism in his Conclusion and informs the reader that he decided to spend a roughly equal amount of time on each era regardless of the size of the body of existing sources.  Presumably this was done to paint a more accurate picture of the role of the martial arts across China’s vast history, rather than just concentrating on a handful of recent events.

While a noble goal, and one that I fully sympathize with, I suspect that this editorial decision may have actually backfired.  Rather than correcting misconception it seemed to encourage the author to engage in too comprehensive a historical review in the early chapter, perhaps creating the illusion that we understand more about Bronze Age warfare than we really do, while radically truncating the the exploration of later periods, ignoring the many interesting questions and opportunities that they present.  Still, this type of “balanced” approach did give the author ample opportunities to combat the misconceptions of each time period.

That may have contributed to another weakness of the volume.  While the average college sophomore will be relieved of a lot of unhelpful cultural baggage when thinking about the martial arts, they will still have little or no familiarity with any actual time period or set of events in Chinese martial history.

Once again, it seems to me that the best way to create an informed student body is not to run through the historical record chasing myths, but rather to develop a helpful set of theories about the martial arts that can be backed up with actual facts.  It is not enough to simply tell undergraduates what the martial arts are not, we also need to give them some idea of what they are, or have been, to the various individuals who practiced them.

I suspect that those questions can really only be fully addressed or answered for the more recent eras of history.  The ancient archeological and textual record is just too spotty.  Most students would have benefited from fewer pages being devoted to the ancient past, and more being used to explore that actual lives and styles of martial artists in the Ming, Qing and Republic of China eras.

Still, these are largely questions of emphasis and style.  Supplemented with additional articles and chapters, Lorge’s volume would make a good addition to any undergraduate class on the Chinese martial arts.  Students will appreciate its simple clarity, and it will give them the basis of knowledge that they need to read and think about more detailed articles by other scholars.

Not only would I be very happy to use this text in a classroom, I would also recommend it to a colleague or friend who is interested in learning about the Chinese martial arts and needs a concise introduction to the topic.  After reading a book like this individuals will be in a much better position to know which more specific questions they want to tackle next.

6 Comments Add yours

  1. Rick Matz says:

    You have a really excellent blog here.

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by! I always enjoy reading CookDingdsKitchen as well.

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