Stairs at the Robert H. Treman State Park.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
Stairs at the Robert H. Treman State Park. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.

Kung Fu and Religion: The Emergence of the Modern Debate.

For most of the 20th century western academics paid little attention to the Chinese martial arts.  Popular culture did not elicit much interest from scholars who were more engaged with ancient history and revolutionary politics.  Still, there were always some voices who realized the importance of these topics, especially as they opened a window onto the motivations of both individuals and social groups at an almost granular level.

I like to date the start of the modern era of Chinese martial studies to the publication of Joseph W. Esherick’s path-breaking book, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987, University of California Press).  This volume won the prestigious John K Fairbank prize for 1987 and put the field on notice that it was not possible to talk about popular uprisings in northern China without addressing the role of traditional modes of combat in shaping and organizing these conflicts.

Obviously Esherick’s book did not focus exclusively on the martial arts.  His main object was to write a history of the Boxer Uprising.  He argued that to really understand the timing and origins of these events one needed to have a detailed understanding of the social history of Shandong province in the late 19th century.

An investigation of this situation led him to explore economic, political, social and even literary factors.  Obviously popular religion was an important topic that needed to be addressed.  Esherick also devoted a surprising amount of his research to understanding the local hand-combat subculture, including the role that it played in both the creation of militias and rebel groups.

The first western volume published by a major university press dedicated exclusively to the Chinese martial arts came out a few years later.  In 1996 Douglas Wile published the Lost Tai-Chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty (State University of New York Press).  In addition to providing a translation and discussion of certain texts that are of critical interest to Taiji Quan students, Wile sought to situate these works in the elite and popular cultures of the Qing Dynasty.

This more nuanced understanding allowed him to argue (as Tang Hao had previously done in the 1920s and 1930s) that Taiji was the product of 17th century innovation within the Chen clan (a military family) in Henan Province. The art evolved and was passed on throughout the 18th and 19th century before it was subsequently popularized and attached to legends of Daoist mystics by later reformers.  His research has helped to shape much of the current era of scholarship and his arguments have been critical to subsequent authors such as Stanley Henning (1999), Peter Lorge (2011) and Dominic LaRochelle (2013).

Yet something interesting happened between the publications of these two important works.  A debate has emerged in the field of Chinese martial studies.  Esherick situated the traditional hand combat schools in a milieu dominated by economic marginality and local heterodox (often millennial) religion.  He never claimed that Plum Blossom (a subject that he discussed at length) was inherently religious, yet he noted that it and other traditional boxing styles often went hand in hand with millennial sectarian movements.  In some cases religious sects even attempted to use boxing schools as a recruitment device or as a social club.  Nor was he the only one to make this connection.  The Qing government had also noticed the same trend.

Other elements of Chinese society have also been busy attempting to bridge these two areas.  Between the final decades of the Qing dynasty and the Republic of China era a number of reformers within the traditional martial arts community sought to link their fighting styles to various religious groups or traditions.  There were many reasons for this move.  Some teachers sought to use the renewed popularity of anti-Qing revolutionary groups to promote their arts on a commercial level in the 1920s and 1930s.  Other reformers, influenced in no small part by the Japanese model, sought to co-opt both religion and hand combat in an attempt to bolster Chinese nationalism.  Still other students, such as Sun Lutang, seem to have been driven by currents in popular religion and a genuine interest in mystical attainment.

While a popular move, and one that helped the newly reformed hand combat systems to thrive in the marketplace, this linkage was not without its critics.  In fact, the growing association between the martial arts and religion (both Buddhism and Daoism) was fiercely attacked by certain reformers (especially those in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements) who believed that the martial arts could only be “saved” through modernization and the purging of any mystical or superstitious associations.

Popular novels had portrayed martial artists as possessing mysterious “qi powers” from at least the time of the Ming dynasty.  While such stories continued to sell well these reformers warned that such images did nothing to promote the long term health of the art.

When the Chinese martial arts were introduced to the West in the post-WWII period most students simply accepted the Republic era folklore linking the arts to ancient mystical practices.  Historians and scholars, on the other hand, have been less willing to accept these stories.  Wile argued at length in his volume that there was no evidence to support an ancient Daoist origin for Taiji Quan.  Instead the art was the product of a military family in northern China, just as one might expect it to be.

I am not aware of any serious historian who currently believes that Taiji evolved anywhere other than the Chen Village.  But the larger issue of the association between hand combat and religion continues to be fundamentally contested.   In fact, one of the first academic articles in the current era of scholarship argued that the traditional Chinese martial arts were at heart a religious and community based exercised.  It was actually the reformers of the 1920s and 1930s, who were attempting to create an efficient and modern fighting system, that were fundamentally deluded about the true nature of the martial arts.

Waterfall at the Robert H. Treman State Park.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
Waterfall at the Robert H. Treman State Park. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.

Charles Holcombe and Chinese Combat as Theater

In the current era writers like Peter Lorge, Stanley Henning, Brian Kennedy and Dominic LaRochelle have been the most vocal in drawing bright lines between the practice of the Chinese martial arts and any supposed religious origin or spiritual influence.  Each of these individuals has favored a view that sees the hand combat schools as essentially practical in origin, and “corrupted” or changed by later innovations in the Republic period.

Individuals like Esherick, Meir Shahar and a large number of anthropologists have occupied a more carefully constructed middle ground.  They have either drawn on extensive historical research to associate certain martial practices with popular spiritual currents in the Ming and Qing dynasty, or else they have focused on the actual lived experience of martial artists in the 19th and 20th century.

At the opposite extreme we find Charles Holcombe.  A member of the history department at the University of Northern Iowa, Holcombe is primarily interested in Chinese studies and popular culture.  In the early 1990s he wrote a series of articles discussing the origins and essential nature of the traditional hand combat styles.

In 1990 he published “Theater of Combat: A critical Look at the Chinese Martial Arts” in the Historian (Vol. 52 No. 3, May).  In 1993 he presented this material to a more popular audience with the release of “The Daoist Origins of the Chinese Martial Arts” in the Journal of the Asian Martial Arts (Vol. 2 No. 1, 16 pages).  For the sake of brevity the current essay addresses only the first, peer reviewed, paper.

It goes without saying that getting a 20 page article on the Chinese martial arts published in a major professional journal in the early 1990s was a major accomplishment.  Holcombe’s piece reflects many of the same concerns that arose in Esherick (popular religion, rebellion and the social role of theater).  It also helped to establish the Chinese martial arts as a legitimate academic pursuit.  For that reason alone Holcombe should be remembered as an early pioneer of modern Chinese martial studies, and his work deserves careful consideration.

In addition to helping to shape an important debate, Holcombe’s article has the virtue of being extremely clear and to the point.  In fact, one might argue that he is actually a little too forceful in stating his opinions and findings.  I personally find that this is an area that requires nuance and willingness to compromise.  Holcombe, however, is not afraid to take controversial positions and defend them forcefully.  A close examination of his text often shows that there are good reasons for many of his positions, but the nature of his writing makes it easy to read a lot more into some of his more strident claim than might be necessary.  I suspect that this stylistic issue, as much as anything else, may be one of the things that attracted so much ire from later critics.

So what does Holcombe attempt to accomplish in his article.  He lays out his central aims right in the introduction:

“Everywhere in China the martial arts either present themselves in the guise of simple exercises or are shrouded in arcane religious mysteries.  Western enthusiasts often feel impelled to strip away these religious trappings and construct a version of the martial arts that is neither simple gymnastics nor religion, but emphasizes true hand-to-hand combat skills.  The question remains, is this an authentic understanding of the martial arts?


This religious heritage, in fact, turns out to be crucial to the development of a conscious martial arts tradition.  Before trying to analyze this religious heritage however one should survey the history of the technical side of combat skills in China, for the modern martial arts grew out of a distinctive approach to physical combat that has been characteristic to China since antiquity.”

Later in the article, while discussing the emergence of Hagiographa in the martial arts, he restates his case with characteristic directness:

“If it is necessary to debunk the Bodhidharma myth since it is historically false, we must also be wary of the modern materialist impulse to tear aside the veil of myth to uncover the real martial arts beneath.  The truth is that for most Chinese practitioners of the arts the myths were real enough, and spiritual goals, in any case, are more central to the historical martial arts than actual combat skills.  Rather than viewing myths and legends as effluvia from the “real martial arts,” it is more accurate to see the martial arts as a relatively minor by-product of the Buddho-Taoist popular religion and the medieval immortality cult.”

In short, the real reason that for the constant “reform movements” within the Chinese martial arts, all hoping to restore the fighting prowess of the various styles, is that these systems were just never very good at practical fighting in the first place.  Unarmed self-defense is a modern preoccupation (I suspect that Holcombe would say “delusion”) and this is not what the Chinese martial arts were originally designed for.

One would be correct in sensing the long shadow of Josph Needham in this view of the traditional fighting styles.  This famous scholar argued that Chinese boxing was derived from, and essentially a branch of, Daoist health exercises.  Holcombe cites his findings approvingly.

Stanley Henning, in his important article “Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts” (China Review International. Vol.6 No. 2.  Fall. 1999. pp. 319-332), has already criticized this view.  He demonstrated, quite correctly, that there were a number of problems with Needham’s reading of the basic history due to his general unfamiliarity with the subject matter.

Those incorrect views have then been magnified and projected throughout the literature by all of the subsequent authors who use him as a basic resource.  Henning goes on to argue that this demonstrates the need for a better informed and more reliable body of scholarship on the Chinese martial arts.  His article is critical as it lays out the constitutional argument for Chinese martial studies as a field.

One might assume that Henning’s take-down of Needham is fatal to Holcombe’s argument, but it is not.  In truth Holcombe does not really care all that much about the ancient origins of China’s various boxing systems.  Apart from a few citations of well-known sources and a little bit of hand waving, he doesn’t have a lot to say on the subject.

He is actually much more interested in the late 19th century.  It is the research of other historians like Esherick and Elizabeth Perry on the various late Qing rebellions (White Lotus, Eight Trigram, Boxer and even the Red Spears) that informs his views on the essential nature of the martial arts.

Here he is on much firmer ground.  One may argue that the schools of boxing promoted by various millennial cults were not actually grounded in “White Lotus” theology.  Yet it is harder to ignore the persistent and troubling relationship between peasant rebellions, popular religion and the organization of boxing societies.  I myself tend to believe that it is really economic and social pressures that lay behind this association, and yet it existed, at least in certain areas of China at certain times.

Of course those final qualifications are precisely the problem.  Holcombe was dependent on the secondary literature of his day, and the scholars that produced those books happened to be very interested in understanding the sources of revolution and rebellion in northern China.  So he spent a lot of time reading about the association between martial arts societies and revolution.  But is this really an accurate view of all 19th century martial arts, or was he the victim of “sampling bias” in his selection of observations?  I suspect that this is actually the critical flaw in his theory.  Nevertheless, it is still useful to set the issue of selection bias aside and look at what Holcombe actually wrote.

There are very good reasons to assume that both popular religion and martial arts would be associated with large rebellions.  These sorts of social movements need some way of unifying a group of otherwise diverse individuals and then empowering them.  The political scientist Anthony Marx has argued that religion often served as the glue that held contending factions together in pre-modern civil wars.  He notes that religion was often drafted into this role because there were just not that many other ideologies or identities that crossed both geographic and demographic lines.

In fact, the Chinese government actively suppressed any widespread social movement that it did not directly control.  Popular religion was one area that it was never able to effectively regulate, though not for lack of trying.  It is only natural that revolutionaries would turn to these groups as unifying identities.

Likewise, the village militia was the only combat organization that most peasants were at all familiar with.  These small organizations, sometimes sponsored by the local gentry, and other times entirely independent of social control, often turned to boxing instructors to act as trainers and coordinators.  In short, I doubt that it would be possible to stage a large scale 19th century peasant rebellion without somehow implicating the local temples or boxing instructors.  These were just about the only institutions that were actually available and useful.  That certain enterprising local leaders would seek to combine both of these forces under their control (as happened in the Eight Trigrams Rebellion) is not a great surprise.

Holcombe acknowledges in the conclusion of this article that in other times the martial arts may have been something very different.  He notes that in ancient China (the Han dynasty and such) the “martial arts” did not seem to exist as distinct from “military skills.”  So he concedes that at one point in time the martial arts may have been primarily about fighting.  Yet he points out that when thinking about the combat systems that actually exist now what we need to consider are the more recent periods.  After all, they gave rise to the modern practices which are currently under consideration.

Yet I wonder how many other authors actually agree with this.  I have argued elsewhere that the “Traditional Chinese Martial Arts” are basically a modern phenomenon that have their roots in the Qing and Republic periods.  What happened in the ancient past may be of historical interest, but it is not really accessible to modern students.

Still, it is evident that not everyone agrees with this outlook.  Henning is very interested in the military history of earlier eras, as is Peter Lorge.  In fact, almost the entire discussion in Lorge’s recent book focused on ancient Chinese history.  It seems that nothing after the Song dynasty really interested him, and his treatment of both the Qing and Republic period were so brief and cursory as to be of almost no value.

Notice what has happened.  When Lorge dismisses any discussion of spirituality in the martial arts he does so by focusing exclusively on the early period and dismissing more recent history as unimportant.  When Holcombe claims that the martial arts are in reality a branch of popular spirituality he does so by focusing on the late Qing and Republic period, while quickly skipping over most of the early dynasties.

Nor do the two really even disagree all that much on the proper way to characterize both periods.  Lorge tended to dismiss arguments about spirituality in the Chinese martial arts because of the transparent myth-making and religious innovations of the late Qing and Republic era.  Yet for Holcombe it was exactly these same features that make these periods critical for understanding what the “martial arts” actually are.  This seems like a spirited debate, yet upon closer inspection the two sides spend a lot of time talking past each other.

A dark pool at the Robert H Treman State Park.  Photo by Benjamin Judkins.
A dark pool at the Robert H Treman State Park. Photo by Benjamin Judkins.

Missed Opportunities: The Theatrical Turn in the Chinese Martial Arts

Not every problem in Holcombe’s piece can be attributed to a difference in priorities.  Towards the end of his article he introduces the topic of opera.  The martial arts have had a long association with the stage.  Many hand combat experts actually made their living as professional performers, either in opera troops or on the streets.

Further, “military stories” were popular with audiences and opera companies competed to have the most exotic and entertaining styles demonstrated on their stages.  Opera also had an important impact on the historical views of the average Chinese peasant.  Most of these individuals were illiterate and so their understanding of history and culture often came from these highly fictionalized stories.

Both Esherick and Holcombe note that operatic scripts had an important impact on the self-image and behavior of a large number of people in society.  Bandits would see themselves as akin to the heroes from Water Margin and rebels might rely on the Romance of the Three Kingdoms as their dominant mental map of large scale political action.

Unfortunately the entire discussion of opera comes off as a missed opportunity.  One would assume that given the centrality of religion to Holcombe’s argument he would have taken the opportunity to tie operatic performance to local religious culture.  Paradoxically he does not attempt to do this.  In fact, his entire discussion ignores any connection between the popular religion and opera.

Yet it was the local temples (and their charitable organizations) that usually hired the opera troops in the first place.  And while the entire community would come out to watch the performance, the affair was usually part of a religious ritual staged for the local gods.  It was their statues that would get the best box seats, allowing them to enjoy the show from the VIP section.  Further, the actors on stage were often viewed as being “possessed” by the “ghost” of the historical character that they portrayed.  To watch a traditional opera performance was to enter the world of the supernatural.

Given his interest in the spiritual beliefs and practices behind the Boxer Uprising (e.g., spirit possession by opera characters) one would have thought that this aspect of the theater would have received careful consideration.  In fact, if one were looking to make a connection between the origins of Kung Fu and spirituality, opera traditions are one of the places where I would start.

Holcombe appears to be unaware of all of this.  He instead uses the operatic tradition as an opening to discuss both modern and ancient popular novel.  Clearly there are some links with literary traditions here.  Yet most of the peasants who he describes as being so influenced by the opera would have been illiterate and unable to read any of the classical novels that he discusses.  They would have known these texts only through secondary oral performances.

In his conclusion Holcombe notes how White Lotus revolutionaries were able to adopt and manipulate the martial language of the theater to gain support among the uneducated and historically illiterate masses.  I feel that this is another missed opportunity.  I do not doubt that this happened.  But when it did it was not a case of a religious leader misappropriating theater to manipulate the local peasants.

Rather in rural China theater very much was part of the larger system of folk religion.  This use of operatic vocabulary might better be understood as a local religious figure speaking in the language popular spirituality.  This combination of millennial cults and theater might be better thought of as “popular religion all the way down.”

The real question, and it is one that Holcombe never actually stops to consider, is whether there is any actual martial arts happening in all of this.  Certainly there was violence, rebellion and martial values, but are those things really the same as the “martial arts?”  When you look at something like the Boxer Uprising there were lots of peasants practicing magical invulnerability techniques, and those were occasionally part of the martial arts, but how many actual boxing instructors joined the throng?

Certainly there were a few, but serious martial arts students were rather rare and they were vastly outnumbered by local displaced peasants who had little hand combat training.  This is actually one of the areas where Esherick comes in rather handy.  He provides a great case study of the Shandong Plumb Blossom clan’s involvement with the anti-foreign violence.  The vast majority of the local martial artists wanted nothing to do with it and could see all too well how it was going to end.  Only one pair of local instructors (and their students) actually joined the throng, and they were excommunicated by their school for doing so.

We have a heady mix of popular religion, martial mythology and violence here, but is this really a “martial arts” movement?

At the moment I think this question is impossible to answer.  It is not that we lack the data.  We have all of the historical detail we need (at least when talking about the major uprisings of late 19th century).  Our problem is actually one of conceptual clarity.  While Holcombe made a number of arguments about the place of the martial arts in popular culture, he never actually stopped to think critically about what they were.  For instance, given that there is no single universally agreed upon 19th century Chinese word for all martial activity, would this concept have even made much sense to the people whom he discussed?

Nor is Holcombe alone in this.  While a few authors occasionally offer some definition of the “martial arts” we, as a field, have yet to actually do the theoretical work of debating and flushing out this concept.  Even if we cannot generate a universally agreed upon definition at least we will be better for having gone through the exercise.

I actually suspect that conceptual fuzziness rests behind a lot of the debate on religion and the Chinese martial arts.  I plan on expanding this is a future post, but for the sake of argument I think that most people who use the term today see the traditional Chinese martial arts as something like this:

Figure 1

They are viewed as a single category which brings together practice, belief and symbols.  While many different groups may have practiced the martial arts they all share certain core techniques and characteristic.  Further, the martial arts are an important artifact of pre-modern indigenous Chinese culture.

If the ancient “martial arts” were a single, more or less, unified tradition than it might make sense to ask where “they” came from, and what influence religion had on “their” development.  Yet I suspect that this vision of the martial arts would have been alien to many of the inhabitants of ancient China.  I am still on the fence as to whether it is ultimately all that useful a concept for modern historians.

I suspect that most pre-19th century practitioners would have denied that there was any single over-arching identity that unified them.  The “traditional” fighting techniques can only exist as a conceptual category after the introduction of “modern” means of violence.  Prior to that they are not a “unique Chinese school of combat,” they are simply the actions of violent men.  I suspect that many of the individuals we now call “martial artists” would have seen their world as looking something like this:

figure 2

Notice that each of these groups exists as a separate sphere.  Some of these occupations overlap and shares a common identity with a few of their neighbors, but never with all of them.  The end result is a number of clusters, each of which represents a slightly different version of China’s martial culture.  In fact, it is probably necessary to speak of “martial cultures” in the plural rather than the singular.  Further complicating the exercise is the fact that the elements of this figure may rearrange themselves over time, or even as one travels from region to region.

All of these traditions have contributed something to the martial arts as they exist today, yet in traditional China they were all very different ways of life.  A bandit and a member of the Manchu elite likely had very different identities, even though they both spent a lot of time practicing archery.  The largest employer of hand combat experts was the military and there is no indication that their martial arts were anything but secular.

At the same time health practices were deeply influenced by Daoist thought, and medical doctors could and did prescribe either gymnastic exercises or martial arts practice to their patients.  Could you argue that there was a “spiritual” element behind this?  Perhaps, but the details of it would be very different from a rural Boxer who believed himself to be possessed by the Monkey King or an opera performer whose company was kept on retainer by a wealth temple.

The “traditional Chinese martial arts” is a quintessentially modern category.  It does not correspond to a single reality in Qing era China, let alone the Han or Shang dynasties.  The inherent fuzziness of this concept allows scholars to focus on different actors, different regions and different time periods in their attempts to determine the nature of the “real martial arts.”  To avoid confusion I suspect that we as field need to do two things.  First, we need to take greater care in constructing our research questions.  Second, we need to think critically about where many of our core concepts come from and how they are shaping our view of both the past and present practice of the martial arts.