How should we understand the traditional Chinese martial arts? Are these practices really intended to be a form of practical self-defense, or are they actually some other sort of social performance? Are the arts that we practice today “authentic?”
These are a few of the large questions that really drive the field of Chinese martial studies. Recently I reviewed a now classic article by Charles Holcombe (“Theater of Combat: A critical Look at the Chinese Martial Arts” in the Historian (Vol. 52 No. 3, May, 1990) which attempted to provide an answer to each of these queries. The author argued that the traditional Chinese martial arts are largely ineffective as actual combat systems as they were never really intended to function as such. Rather than being a practical program of military training, Holcombe claimed that these fighting systems were really an outgrowth of popular Daoist and Buddhist mystical practices.
Henning has argued elsewhere that this aspect of Holcombe’s argument falls flat because of his extensive reliance on Joseph Needham. While a preeminent historian Needham never made the martial arts the main focus of his research and his conclusions on this subject should be regarded with caution.
Nevertheless, Holcombe was on firmer ground when he pointed to the centrality of opera and other forms of public entertainment in late imperial China. The martial arts could always draw a crowd, and this is how a great many professional hand combat experts made a living. Holcombe argued that in the minds and rhetoric of millennial cult leaders it was all too easy to conflate the staged performance of social violence with the real thing. This then is the true nature of the Chinese fighting systems. They are primarily social in orientation, and it was really the modernizers and reformers of the 1920s-1930s, intent on transforming them into a practical system of self-defense, who were fundamentally mistaken.
Much of the subsequent development of the martial studies literature has argued against this early thesis. Shahar, Henning, Lorge, and Kennedy have all argued that the martial arts were both more tied to actual violence than their critics might like to admit and much less dependent on any specific philosophy or theology.
This sounds like progress, except that we are still having the same very basic conversation that Holcombe introduced in 1990. The historians in the field have introduced a lot of important nuance into our discussion. Yet the anthropologists who write on the Chinese martial arts simply take it for granted that they are mostly about social performance. Nor do their ethnographic observations do anything to challenge that view. If this is true today it is entirely possible that it was also true in the past. Further, while the persistent connection between boxing societies, millennial cults and late imperial rebellions may be difficult to theorize, one cannot simply ignore it.
I concluded my review of Holcombe by arguing that the problem may not actually be in how we are looking at the historical record. Indeed, Holcombe and his later critics actually show a remarkable degree of agreement on this front. Rather, the real issue is that we have not thought carefully enough about our core concepts. This creates a certain degree of slipperiness in our theories. The end result is that some individuals have one view of what constitutes the “authentic martial arts,” while other students may come to very different conclusions.
This is not surprising. The idea of the martial arts was introduced and popularized in the west by the Japanese. Their ancient feudal structure and later program of promoting “Budo” as an official ideology in the early 20th century led to a very unique relationship between their hand combat systems and the rest of society. There is simply no reason to think that these basic ideas should provide a workable map for understanding the intricacies of Chinese popular culture.
Conceptually speaking the term “martial arts” is a modern invention. It is an attempt to group like categories (from many cultures and different areas of the world) together because that project makes sense in relation to certain other modern ideas. But it is extremely unlikely that a 19th century bandit in the hills of southern China would see himself as a member of the same class of beings as a medieval Japanese warrior/bureaucrat simply because they both owned a couple of swords and a rifle.
The current post attempts to expand on this same basic idea. In my last essay I focused on how Chinese martial culture might look if we were to break things down by occupation and profession. Of course that is not the only way to map out what these relationships may have looked like. In fact, it simply pushes our question one step back. It is all well and good to say that village militia members may not have identified all that much with urban street performers, but the real question is why? Why did some groups develop shared identities, in certain times and places, while others were excluded?
If we could answer that question we might start to actually open a new window onto popular culture in late imperial China. Further, we might also have a better understanding how it was possible to eventually craft the (relatively) unified identity behind “Guoshu” (National Arts) and “Wushu” (Martial Arts) in the 20th century. Exploring these questions in depth would take a book, but in the current post I hope to point to a few places where we can start.
Mapping the Social Landscape of Late Imperial China
Dr. Victoria Cass (currently a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University) writes on Chinese literature and religion. She is perhaps best known for her 1999 volume, Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers). This popular work provides a highly accessible introduction to many of the central questions of gender studies in late imperial China. In fact, I used it as a source in my recent discussion of the literary antecedent of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.
One of the reasons why Dangerous Women works so well as a general introduction is that Cass realizes that it is not possible to talk about complex social structures as though they exist in a vacuum. These things occur in a specific time and place, and it is vitally important to understand that terrain. The social geography of late imperial China is complex and far from uniform. It is bisected by political upheavals and colored by competing vision of what the ideal society, and life, should look like.
As a result it is not enough to discuss “Chinese women” in the abstract. Rather, to have any level of real comprehension they must be examined in relation to these larger structures. The variety of choices and life-pathways that different women adopted are meaningless without at least some explanation of the environment that they lived in and the social and philosophical currents that informed their world.
Of course it is possible to make exactly the same argument about the “martial arts.” The traditional hand combat styles were a specific expression of larger trends within “martial culture.” However, like gender, martial culture is such a broad category of thoughts and values that it touches on practically everything. It is simply not enough say that it affects something. Rather the question is why does it express itself in a specific way in this setting, and yet it looks very different in another environment? In short, why is there no simple answer to the riddle of the Chinese martial arts?
To begin to examine these questions we need a map of the social geography of late imperial China. Since this is a brief blog post we will need a simple map that still has the necessary information to get us where we need to go. Luckily Cass provides us with just such an outline in the introduction to her volume. If you are interested in understanding more about Ming and Qing era popular culture, but you lack a background in the subject, this one chapter provides a pretty useful overview of the big trends that you should be aware of. Obviously Cass’ essay focuses on the role of women, but the basic discussion that she gives could inform any number of investigations.
Her basic argument is that popular culture in the late imperial period can be thought of as a dynamic interaction between three different sets of norms. In turn these yielded three competing visions of the ideal society.
The Cult of Piety
The first of these, and most widespread, was a “cult of piety” focused around proper behavior in the family (its major center of worship). The more common term for this “cult of piety” is Confucianism. Prof. Cass dislikes this label as the actual social performance of “virtue” often went beyond what any scholar or philosophical thinker might explicitly demand. Further, when discussing Confucianism the emphasis has historically been placed on elite males who comprised the government bureaucracy and local gentry. However, the more general cult of piety found expression in every facet of Chinese culture, even within areas that were traditionally treated with disdain, such as among women and martial artists.
The City Centered Romantic Movement
The Ming was also a time of economic growth and dynamism. This was seen in a number of areas but it was the most obvious in the expanding cities that attracted large populations during this period. The rise of a new strain of urban culture was most obvious in the south, in areas like Fujian and Guangdong. Both provinces were blessed with a number of good ports and they were nourished by the triangular trade between South East Asia, Southern China and Japan.
Urban spaces had definitely begun to develop their own character during the Song dynasty. However this process quickened during the late imperial period. Cities developed a new middle class with their own sense of identity and value. This new urban class gave rise to its own unique culture.
The cult of piety (which reigned in the countryside) was premised on an absolute devotion to the ancestors who had gone before; individuals who had quite literally become “household Gods,” who could only be appeased through the rigorous observation of propriety and filial decorum. This was the basis of all proper family arrangements, and by extension the state (which was seen as a family on an almost cosmic scale).
The piety demanded by this cult was dangerous because it called for the sacrifice of the self to uphold the norms of the systems, not just in abstract ways, but often also in very concrete and final terms. Scholars who accepted death rather than serving a new government, widows who committed suicide at the death of their husband and soldiers who fought hopeless battles against impossible odds were the saints and martyrs of this system.
Cass argues that these were not marginal or victimized people. Rather they were the fanatical followers of a very specific set of moral ideas. They believed that by enacting huge sacrifices to maintain virtue in their own lives, their families, communities and even the state would be blessed with stability and prosperity. Further these beliefs were reinforced and supported by the state who, through the Bureau of Rites, sought out those who had made heroic sacrifices and built monuments in their honor.
Yet this “Confucian” view of the family and the ideal society did not sit well with many members of the newly ascendant middle class. After all, these were the values of social elites and the rustic peasants who had a limited sense of their own class identity. Merchants and craftsmen were not particularly well regarded in the traditional Confucian social hierarchy and it seems that for many members of the middle class the feeling became mutual.
While success in the official examination system remained the only real means for political advancement, many of these urban families decided to instead turn their attention to building their own personal economic empires. I know from my historical work on Foshan that while these families continued to produce degree winners, very often these individuals made no effort to seek a career in government. Instead they turned their attention to the economic marketplace and the development of their own local communities.
China’s cities during the Ming were among the largest and most sophisticated in the world. Compared to those of a previous era, these would have been remarkably recognizable with businesses dominating the downtown and smaller shops and housing spreading out in rings. Entertainment was a major part of city life. Theaters, tea houses, street performances, displays of art and poetry, sophisticated geisha establishments and martial arts demonstrations were among the luxuries that could be found in any southern urban area of sufficient size.
What is most interesting to me about these urban areas is that they were so self-conscious of their identity and status. They fully realized that they were developing a new culture that differed radically from the cult of piety. They even coined a name for the process. It was called “ju bian” or the “great change.”
“Passion” and “authenticity” were at the heart of this transformation. Traditionalists found meaning through group membership and sacrifice. Yet the process of urbanization disrupted many of the most important traditional groups. The clan and the extended family became less relevant in urban areas as it was simply too expensive for all but the richest families to maintain a clan temple (though they did provide economic advantages if you could afford to build one). Instead smaller social guilds, literary schools and reading groups came to dominate the social scene. Some of these groups even adopted a reformist and political stance.
These associations helped to spread a new philosophy of the life throughout the urban middle class. They claimed that the key to a good life was to live with “passion” or “qing.” In modern terms we might say that this was a decisive turn away from the repression of the self for the benefit of others in favor of living an authentic life based on the expression of powerful and impulsive feelings.
The word “qing” refers specifically to romance and passion. Not surprisingly this new philosophy led to a profound shift in family life. Husbands and wives started to view each other as potential artistic and life partners rather than simply leaders and subordinates. Yet the “qing revolution” went far beyond the bedroom.
This same sense of authenticity came to be applied to every aspect of daily life. Urbanites came to appreciate, and find ecstatic meaning, in a well carved ink-stone, a miniature potted tree or the perfectly poured cup of tea. Some educated members of this class were even responsible for the renewed interest in Chan Buddhism which happened during the late imperial period.
The Revival of Reclusive Living
Taken to its furthest extreme the urban middle class evolved into something very different. The third social movement that Cass described was the path of the mystical (or simply mad) recluse. Such individuals were by no means a new element in Chinese culture. Daoism had long promoted a certain political quietism, encouraging truly cultured gentlemen to shun office, seeking instead the solitude of wild places and deep contemplation.
Nor, in all honesty, was this basic impulse really confined to a single philosophical movement. The Chinese popular religion had venerated mountains and grottos as sacred spaces from time immemorial. Nor was it all that uncommon for certain schools of Confucianism to claim that one could not be a truly cultured gentleman without being a recluse. Ironically it actually became something of a prerequisite for high office in certain times, meaning that it was not uncommon to find a fair number of “urban recluses” in Beijing or other important cities.
The obsession with living a natural and authentic life among the urban middle class in late imperial China set the stage for an explosion in the number of mystical recluses. These individuals tended to follow certain social scripts which made them easy to identify. Some hermits were actually able to find a place in the countryside, while others, because of career and business commitments, were instead forced to live out their calling in the cities. For such individuals a natural looking garden, a rustic study and an art collection assembled to express the power of wild, untamed spaces was the key to living the proper life.
On a certain level it did not really matter where most reclusive individuals lived. Indeed they could be found all over the country. Yet they were all united by a few key characteristics. What motivated them was a burning desire to somehow transcend the normal and “mundane.” Whereas the peasant might extoll the virtues of the clan, and the merchant the consumption of fine object, the hermit wished to rise above all of this. A return to nature and a “natural state” suggested one obvious way to accomplish this.
In practice this turn to the transcendent often necessitated some sort of ascetic practice. For the less dedicated urban recluse this might simply mean making a big show of turning away callers. But many individuals made more substantial sacrifices.
It was not uncommon for famous recluses to adopt vegetarian or other odd diets. Ascetic practices were the norm. Of course the Daoist longevity arts were pretty common, including both breathing exercises and more vigorous gymnastics. Military training occasionally fell into the realm of ascetic practices that might be adopted by an eccentric gentleman. If you really were planning on living by yourself deep in the wilderness such skills became very practical.
Bringing the Martial Arts Back Into Popular Culture.
I think we are now in a good position to reintroduce the traditional fighting styles to our conversation. We can gain a much better understanding of what the Chinese martial arts were by asking how they might have been expressed within each of these three different movements within popular culture.
In many ways the “cult of piety” forms the baseline that the other two social movements described by Cass grow out of and react against. As such it is appropriate to start here.
One might assume that the hand combat would be shunned in this sector of popular culture given Confucianism’s discomfort with martial values. Yet there were probably more martial arts practitioners who emerged out of this milieu than anywhere else. In fact, I would speculate that one of our great failings as a field has been our lack of attention to how Confucianism informed the ways that ordinary soldiers and militia members thought about their craft.
Where in the historical record do we find instances of martial artists coming out of, and responding to, the “cult of piety?” Many important military officers clearly fit this model. Traditional Confucian models of authority and social order are important for understanding the life of General Qi Jiguang. For instance, while he initially included a now famous chapter on the use of unarmed boxing in the training of military units in the military encyclopedia that he authored as a young man, he actually omitted that same discussion from the much better known second edition that was published later in his career. Why? It is likely that the more mature officer decided that the subject was not fit for high level official discussions. After all, boxing itself was a marginal practice that was often seen as being at odds with good social order.
The Loyal Soldier
Perhaps the most obvious place where you see these values played out are in the various clan militias of Southern China. Clan structures exist across China but for reasons that go beyond the point of this post they tended to be much stronger and more influential in Guangdong and Fujian. These clans routinely owned large amounts of property and even controlled local industries. In effect they functioned both as kinship groups and large private corporations.
Their need to collect rents, taxes and to protect their assets from encroachment by other clans, led these organizations to create their own military organizations. These existed “off the books” and were largely independent from state control. Such units would often hire professional martial artists to act both as instructors and as mercenaries to “stiffen the ranks” of their part-time militia members.
It was not unusual for clashes inspired by the economic interests of the various clans to escalate and turn deadly. When that happened the state was forced to step in. Of course the local government had no interest in actually dismantling the clan militias. These family based fighting units were the basic building blocks that the state controlled and gentry led militia system was constructed out of.
Still, publically delivering “justice” is a critical aspect of good governance. When this happened the clan that was determined to be responsible for a death or outbreak of severe violence would be forced to turn over to the state a number of individuals. Interestingly these were usually not the actual individuals who were responsible for the actual attack (at least if they had any value), but were instead much less important male members of the clan who were probably already wanted for a more minor offense. The state could then make a great show of publically executing these individuals who, in effect, sacrificed themselves for the protection of the clan as a whole.
Many of our more modern Kung Fu tales also make extensive use of the cult of piety. In the martial novels of Jin Yong heroes willingly sacrifice themselves for the nation and will go to almost any length to avoid breaking a promise of marriage. Their behavior is in line with the expectations of the cult of piety.
Such exaggerated acts function as important signals to the readers. In normal society physical violence is frowned upon and it raises serious questions about an individual’s character. Yet an exaggerated sense of loyalty, chastity or patriotism all demonstrates that a hero is capable of self-denial. In this way he is able to enact the quintessentially masculine virtue of the Confucian system.
Big City Boxers
All of this stands in stark contrast to the vision of martial excellence that emerged in the rapidly growing cities of late imperial China. Here the call to arms was not glorious martyrdom but rather commerce and enrichment. Of course the average soldier was not paid very much and it seems that many militia members made even less, so it is fortunate that the urban markets created new opportunities for a skilled boxer to monetize their skill.
Street performers and patent medicine salesmen were everywhere. They used martial arts displays to attract a crowd and sell their wares. Opera companies that could only perform a few times a year in the countryside found steady employment in the red-light districts of southern China’s cities. Further, organized crime needed a never ending supply of muscle.
Chinese cities could be dangerous places, and local businesses took precautions. Boxers were hired as warehouse and pawnshop guards. While steady employment these jobs lacked the prestige and pay of a position as a bodyguard or a position with an armed escort company. Professional martial arts instructors, some retired from the military but others from the civilian realm, were needed to teach all of these people. And the fact that they were paid in actual money meant that they could in turn pay for their instruction.
Other urban professions also called upon the expertise of martial artists. It was not uncommon for medical doctors or pharmacists to occasionally employ boxing training as a means of improving a patient’s health or stamina. Some of the most famous martial artists in all of southern China, including Leung Jan and Wong Fei Hung, actually made their living in medicine. While the connection between TCM and the martial arts would become much deeper and more robust in the Republic era, it is important to note that the roots of this connection can clearly be seen in the thriving urban culture of the late imperial period.
If martial arts training was motivated by simple necessity and service to the group in the countryside, when transplanted to the city it found itself incorporated into the larger structures of the rapidly growing economic markets. A wide variety of instructors, guards, gangsters, performers and even doctors had an opportunity to mix and exchange notes. In this way they formed their own “martial arts subculture,” one that was probably quite distinct from the militias and military units that dominated the country side. It is interesting to note that it was this urban faction of hand combat experts who probably contributed the most to the martial arts which were actually passed on to the modern era.
Retreating from the World of Rivers and Lakes
Still, this does not exhaust the list of social possibilities. As Cass reminds us the urbanization of the late imperial period gave rise to (or enabled) a resurgence of interest in the “reclusive life.” The most dedicated of these individuals hoped to attain a mystical level of “transcendence” beyond the concerns of ordinary life by cultivating the proper aura and engaging in certain ascetic practices. No doubt there were others who simply followed the fad as it was fashionable.
Cass makes it clear that this movement was so popular that it touched practically every area of Chinese popular culture and social life. As she eloquently (and ironically) put it, everyone knew a recluse. In what ways do we see these same basic tendencies reflected in the Chinese martial arts of the period?
This question gets to heart of our current controversy. Holcombe explicitly tied the martial arts to Daoist longevity practices and eccentric heterodox religious teachers. In effect he claimed that the “reclusive current” dominated the development of the Chinese martial arts. Others have argued against this. In basic historical terms there is a lot more evidence of purely secular practice than Holcombe was willing to admit. But where in the Chinese martial arts do we actually see the influence of the reclusive and mystical school? Again, it would be very odd if this trend touched all other areas of Chinese popular culture at one time or another, but managed to totally miss boxing.
Zhang Songxi (c. 1520- c.1590) was a martial artist from the city of Ningbo, a busy port in Zhejiang Province (immediately north of Fujian). The oldest and most reliable information we have on Zhang Songxi comes from Shen Yiguan (1531-1616). Shen was a Confucian scholar who served as the Emperor’s Grand Secretary from 1594-1606. While it is not clear what Shen thought of martial artists in general, he was from Ningbo and was quite proud of his hometown and its role in fighting off the Japanese. In fact, it was Shen who actually ordered trade with Japan suspended, triggering the Piracy Crisis that would catapult Qi Jiguang to national fame. Shen recorded and discussed the careers of some of his hometown’s local “heroes” in his essay “The Biography of Boxer Zhang Songxi” which was part of the larger “The Government Records and Annals of Ningbo City.”
Shen begins by noting that Zhang Songxi is not the best known martial artist from the area. That honor would go to one named Bian Cheng. However Bian Cheng was a rude fellow. His life did not conform to Confucian values (the cult of piety). Instead he sought fame and wealth. He must have been unusually persistent because even managed to find it, twice.
Bian turned to the martial arts to solve his personal problems and he taught widely, without showing any discrimination about the character of his students. On the bright side he did manage to defeat a group of Shaolin Monks, brought to the area to help quell the pirates, when they sought to challenge him.
Better still in Sheng’s opinion was Zhang Songxi. He was taught by another formidable, socially unreconstructed, local boxer named Sun Thirteen. Shen describes Sun as “rough and brutal.” We also know that he valued simplicity and directness.
Apparently he also valued theoretical parsimony, a trait still seen in Southern China’s compact, jewel-like, hand combat systems today. Sun claimed that his entire art could be described by just three keywords or guiding principles. His most talented disciple was Zhang Songxi.
Zhang was not a full time professional boxer but was actually a tailor by trade. He earned the respect of Shen because he took what he learned from his master and he added the dimension of ethical refinement to it. Rather than Sun’s three principles, Zhang taught five, with the last two being ethical and highly Confucian in nature.
Whereas Bian had sought fame and brawled with the ill-behaved Shaolin monks, Zhang Songxi was retiring and refused guests or callers who were interested in his martial skills. He spent time in isolation, and favored the life of an eccentric gentleman farmer.
The contrast between Bian and Zhang is fascinating. Clearly Bian and Sun represent the milieu of southern urbanism. They were professional teachers and they accepted money for their services. They advertised their skills widely and invested in building a reputation that could support them.
Zhang appears to have taken a different path. Not only did he refuse to serve the government, but he also withdrew from the life of the city. He is portrayed as having turned towards the reclusive path precisely because he had a richer understanding of the philosophy of boxing. Further, his biographer seems to grant him a certain level of transcendence. Of course this is only a single account, but it does indicate that even court historians were willing to admit that martial artists could become recluses or mystics.
A number of other examples of important martial artists being influenced by these same currents also come to mind. For instance, Chen Zhong You, famous for his Ming era study of Shaolin fighting techniques, spent the better part of his youth following martial monks on their various military missions and studying at Shaolin. Yet Chen was not from a military background. He was a younger son from a well to do gentry family. One would normally expect an individual like him to dedicate his life to earning a degree in the imperial exams. Instead he decided to leave home, live in the mountains and make a decades long study of pole fighting. It is hard to imagine a more ascetic route to personal cultivation.
There are a lot of things about his life and personal motivations that we do not know, and probably never will. However, it seems that one possible strategy for interpreting the facts that we do have would be to situate them within the “reclusive current.” Like so many other young men in the late Ming he seems to have developed an interest in the esoteric side of life and to have turned his back on more normal pursuits. Even the title of his volume on the Shaolin fighting arts, “Techniques For After-Farming Pastime” indicates that he was consciously emulating the mode of the outwardly rustic (yet inwardly cultured) hermits who dominated the period’s public imagination.
Of course otherworldly recluses have always been closely tied to the martial arts in the world of Kung Fu fiction. Countless stories, and more creation myths than I can count, start when the young hero meets a mysterious monk, nun, priest or hermit on the side of a mountain. Most of these stories are pure fiction. Yet in both the Ming and the current era a number of people did go to sacred or wild places explicitly to transcend the concerns of a normal life through one dedicated to practice and natural living.
It may be impossible to give any simple answer to the question of whether the traditional Chinese martial arts were actually meant to be an effective means of self-defense. Not only did the profession of individual students and practitioners vary, but there are other factors that need to be considered as well. The late imperial period saw a number of different trends within Chinese popular culture. In the current post we have reviewed three, but a more detailed treatment would certainly reveal others.
Each of these currents was broadly based and affected many areas of Chinese society. We should probably not be surprised to learn that they also had an important impact on the way that the traditional martial arts were expressed. In fact, the core values of “martial culture” could vary tremendously depending on whether the individuals in question were coming out of the “cult of piety”, the new urbanism or the resurgent rustic tradition.
If we wish to really appreciate the lives of China’s various martial artists, whether they were war heroes like Qi Jiguang, urban instructors like Chan Wah Shun and Leung Jan or reclusive masters like Zhang Songxi, it is important to situate them within the social landscape of their day. Only then can we really understand what they hoped to accomplish through their mastery of the martial arts.