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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies

Do the Chinese Martial Arts have One “Martial Culture” or Many?

Copies of the ancient Terracotta Soldiers arranged as modern sculptures.  Source: Wikimedia.

Copies of the ancient Terracotta Soldiers arranged as modern sculptures. Source: Wikimedia.

The impact of the Boxer Uprising was truly global.  The political context for the uprising was significantly influenced by national trends.  But in the end, the Boxers were really a regional movement.  With the exception of a few officially inspired Boxer “militia” in such places as Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, and the Northeastern provinces of Manchuria during the summer of 1900, the movement was essentially confined to the Shandong and Zhili portions of the North China plain.  Before all else, it is essential to look at the geography, the political economy and the social formations of this region—and in particular at Shandong, where it all began.

Joseph W. Esherick. 1987. The Origins of the Boxer Uprising.  Los Angeles: California University Press. p. 1.


The Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts – 5,000 Years categorizes the historical development of Chinese Wushu into the following different periods:

1. The Germinant Period in Remote Times (About 1.7 million years ago to the 21st century BC) 2. The Shaping of Ancient Wushu Systems (21st Century BC to 221 BC) 3. The Enrichment and Development of Ancient Wushu (221 BC to AD 960) 4. The Maturity of Ancient Folk Wushu (AD 960-1664) 5. Modern Wushu Moves towards Sports Development (AD 1664 to AD 1949) 6. Contemporary Wushu Enters into Competition and Comprehensive Development (AD 1949 – present).

Prof. Kang Gewu.  Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts – 5000 Years.  Santa Cruz, CA: Plum Blossom Publishing. 1995. p. VI. (The paragraph has been reformatted to aid readers).


Introduction: Kung Fu and Chinese Martial Culture

While there are relatively few books on the history of the Chinese martial arts we have been blessed with an overabundance of documentaries.  Some discretion is required on the part of the viewer as the quality of these offerings is quite varied.  Full length films produced by companies like Empty Mind can be both beautiful and informative.  But many other programs simply wish to capitalize of their subject’s value as a source of entertainment and camp.

I recently encountered a wonderful example of this later type in “Kung Fu Killers: The 10 Deadliest Kung Fu Weapons” aired in 2012 by none other than the National Geographic Channel.  In terms of sheer educational value I would rate this program as somewhat less enlightening than an all-night Jackie Chan Drunken Master marathon.  The fact that the producers of this show would actually declare the “flying guillotine” as Kung Fu’s most deadly implement (as opposed to some other weapon….which might have actually existed) should pretty much tell you everything that you need to know.

Which is to say that I loved it.  If watched with popcorn and a sense of humor it is actually pretty funny.  As an added bonus it has some good wushu demonstrations.  I also found the program’s overall entertainment value to be greatly enhanced by the narrator’s wonderfully straight-faced pontifications on the absurd.  At one moment the show focused on ox-tailed sabers from the late 19th century, only to jump back in time 2,000 years (or more) for a discussion of bronze dagger axes.  Some of the weapons were demonstrated by modern Wushu performers, while others were carried about by martial artists wearing ancient suits of armor.  This cornucopia of destructive implements was presented to the viewer simply as a collection of the deadliest “Kung Fu weapons” with minimal historical or social contextualization.

The manner in which this documentary was produced and presented got me thinking about one of the more important issues that seems to constantly reemerge in the field of Chinese martial studies.  Is it really possible to talk about China’s traditional “martial culture?”  Or should we be attempting to problematize this notion, and instead focusing our attention on the differences that existed between martial practices in various geographic locations and periods of time.

By extension, is it really correct to say that the modern martial arts have emerged from China’s ancient “martial culture”?  Or does their existence instead demonstrate the range and variability of the sometimes related, sometimes distinctive, martial cultures which might have existed in the past?  I have often used this concept uncritically.  Yet I suspect that our assumptions about this fundamental idea may have an important impact on how our research develops and what we will be able to understand about the martial arts in both the past and present.

Consider for instance the introductory quotations.  Both Professors Kang and Esherick are foundational figures in the modern literature on Chinese martial studies.  Kang is a well-respected scholar of martial arts history who has made numerous contributions to the Chinese language literature, as well as authoring one of the first solid volumes on the development of Wushu in English.  Esherick’s study of the Boxer Uprising demonstrated to the field that an in-depth understanding of martial movements and organizations was necessary to grasp not just the evolution of 19th century popular culture, but even the character of major political events.

Both of these individuals are fine scholars and capable of nuanced argument.  Still, their introductory quotes illustrate their contrasting views of the nature of the martial arts and their relationship to “martial culture.”  I have always found Kang’s short English language volume remarkable for the degree to which it connects current practices to ancient antecedents.  Nor is this merely a matter of happenstance.  This impulse seems to be deeply embedded in his apparently Marxist assumptions about the basic nature and progression of history.

By the time that you finish his narrative it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that all 5,000 years of China’s martial history has been leading inexorably to the creation of state sponsored exhibition Wushu and its inevitable inclusion in the Olympics.  In Kang’s timeline the martial arts, like all other forms of productive technology, evolve in response to some unseen teleological force.  Thus the state of martial development mirrors social and economic evolution.  Not surprisingly this sort of theoretical approach is commonly seen in both historical and social studies of the martial arts produced in the PRC.

I don’t really object to Marxist theories of history per se.  As a political economist who is interested in globalization I often run into variations on these themes, some of which are quite illuminating.  Yet these sorts of arguments also carry within them the seeds of a totalizing discourse.  If evolution is unilinear and inevitable, then regional variation is ultimately unimportant.  At best it is epiphenomenal, the result of pockets of institutional drag as the “historic forces of production” inevitable expand their influence throughout society.

Even non-Marxist approaches to sociology might lead us to question the ultimate utility of focusing on regional variations.  The basic argument of the “modernization” and the related “secularization” hypothesis in the field of sociology was that regional variation, including such markers as ethnicity, language and religion, would all be subsumed into a new rationalized whole, defined and controlled by the state.  As GDP increased and processes like urbanization and industrialization rolled forward all of the secondary institutions which traditionally mediated between the individual and the state would either be subverted to the demands of this new system or dismantled.

It does not take much imagination to see these basic forces at work in the world of the Chinese martial arts today.  Not so much in the global arena, but more specifically in the area of “official Wushu” as defined and controlled by the Chinese state.  In fact, these basic theories, both in their Marxist and more modernist forms, were likely influencing the institutions tasked with preserving the martial arts and ensuring their continued relevance in the PRC.

This is far from the only approach seen in the literature today.  Very different theoretical trends have been at work in other areas of the academy, including both area studies and more traditional history and anthropology departments.  Rather than focusing exclusively on the “big questions,” which mandate a systemic or nation-wide level of analysis, many scholars have become convinced that we can make more progress by instead turning to more focused regional studies.

Rather than endlessly debating generalities (were the martial arts ever linked to spirituality?) which rarely have any definitive and satisfactory answer, it then becomes possible to ask more limited, but also more tractable, questions (in what ways did Shandong’s peasant rebel movements make use of popular spirituality in recruiting members?)  This shift in perspective also necessitates a change in our dependent variables.  Rather than concentrating on a few systemic factors, investigators are now free to consider a wider range of factors at the local level.  By building a more reliable model of China’s regions, we can begin to better understand how its society as a whole functions.

In general this approach has been quite profitable.  Over the last several decades large scale surveys of culture, politics and history have given way to a multiplicity of more targeted research programs.  Esherick’s introductory quote helps to illustrate exactly how this transition happened.  While the effects of the Boxer Uprising were clearly national in scope, their origins could only be understood through a detailed analysis of local conditions, including the history of regional martial arts groups and their associations with various revolutionary movements.

Zhou period bronze "ge" or dagger-ax.  These weapons could be mounted on either long or short poles and were the most common battlefield weapon in Bronze Age china.  Their use may even date back to the neolithic period.  Lore discusses this weapons extensively in the first half of his book.  Source: Wikimedia.

Zhou period bronze “ge” or dagger-ax. These weapons could be mounted on either long or short poles and were the most common battlefield weapon in Bronze Age china. Their use may even date back to the neolithic period. Lore discusses this weapons extensively in the first half of his book. Source: Wikimedia.

One Martial Culture or Many?

Which of these approaches should the field of Chinese martial studies favor?  Should we presuppose the existence of a continuously evolving martial culture over China’s vast history, or should we instead start from the assumption that the various martial traditions in the literature can best be understood as discrete reactions to proximate opportunities, threats and social conditions?

At first it would seem to be safer to choose the later.  By adopting an approach that has already shown so much promise in the area studies literature we may be able to more effectively argue for the relevance of Chinese martial studies as a field.  Certainly we could make our research more directly relevant to a number of ongoing conversations in the literature.

Still, we should be careful not to walk away from the idea of a unified martial culture too quickly.  One of the unique things about Chinese civilization is its preservation of a truly ancient written corpus.  These works became the educational and philosophical basis of countless generations of leaders and social elites.  Certain classics that were known in the Han dynasty remained in circulation in the Song and even the Qing.

As Peter Lorge has demonstrated (Chinese Martial Arts, 2012, Cambridge UP) these works open an invaluable window of understanding onto China’s ancient Bronze Age martial traditions.  Yet that same avenue of understanding was also available to the Chinese themselves.  It is clear that later generations of readers attempted to model their understanding of subsequent martial developments on these classic texts.

Of course the martial practices themselves continued to evolve, change and diversify across time.  I do not mean to imply that something like the story of the “Maiden of Yue” constrained the actual practice of fencing in later periods.  Yet it did provide a common vocabulary and body of concepts which Chinese martial artists across vast reaches of time and space could use to discuss and explain their findings.

Nowhere is this basic continuity more evident than in the realm of Chinese archery.  Archery was a critical skill in early China.  As we examine the remnants of ancient texts and stories which have survived it is not at all clear that it is possible to separate the ritual and military aspects of Bronze Age Chinese archery.  Archery rituals were an important part of court life and one’s performance was thought to show your worth as a gentleman.

Confucius appears to have studied archery and according to some individuals he may even have been an archery instructor.  His inclusion of discussions of the archery rite within his teachings virtually guaranteed that the art would remain a critical aspect of Chinese society for millennium to come.

Stephen Selby has done an excellent job of tracing the pathways by which these early writings and ritual commentaries were transmitted through Chinese society and impacted later practice.  He has also noted the existence of dozens of more detailed archery manuals, some ancient, others of a more recent vintage, which also helped to convey a certain shared cultural practice over successive eras.  Again, I do not mean to imply that there was a single approach to archery which dominated Chinese practice from the Bronze Age to the Qing dynasty.  Rather the existence of a shared textual tradition allowed for a certain level of exchange and discussion to happen that may not otherwise have been possible.

The widespread popularity of novels such as Water Margin, Journey to the West and the Romance of the Three Kingdoms has served a similar function for later hand combat students.  These stories, along with countless other wuxia novels, have helped to create a shared set of images, symbols and expectations that are widely held throughout the various martial arts.  Regional theater traditions ensured that these ideas and concepts would be widely spread even before the growth of literacy.

The modern Chinese martial arts are remarkable precisely because they are built upon multiple interlocking textual traditions.  This has created a shared vocabulary of words and concepts that seems to transcend not just region but also time period.  So when thinking about this literature, and its impact on actual practice, the idea of an overarching and evolving “martial culture” might actually be quite useful.

The actual Terracotta Army archeological site.  Source: Wikimedia.

The actual Terracotta Army archeological site. Source: Wikimedia.

Regional Variation and Comparison in Chinese Martial Studies

Paradoxically the existence of a shared language can actually create as many puzzles for students of Chinese martial history as it solves.  While we can confirm that a similar set of written descriptions are being used for some set of activities across the centuries, it may be much more difficult to understand how the actual individuals behind these text understood their practices.  Their basic goals or motivations might change, and yet there would still be substantial pressure to describe what they are doing in “traditional” terms.

This set of problems has greatly complicated the discussion of certain rituals and self-cultivation exercises (like Qigong) in the Chinese martial arts.  Lorge made the interesting decision to basically omit most of these sorts of practices from his discussion of the development of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While he acknowledged that there are some very old descriptions of rituals and practices that sound quite similar to more recent exercises in the extent literature, he argued that in fact all we have is evidence of a common vocabulary.  Given the sparse nature of the ancient historical record he felt that that there was simply no way to deeply interrogate these practices and confirm that they actually corresponded with more modern ideas.

As a reader I wish that he would have attempted to answer some of these questions more directly, rather than basically setting the discussion aside.  Still, there is an undeniable element of logic in what he says.  Nor is this a situation that is limited to Qigong and breathing practices.

Consider something as fundamental as the state sponsored military examination system used to recruit officers for the imperial army.  This system was seen from the Tang to the Qing dynasty.  Obviously our best accounts of it date to the late imperial period.  But to what degree can we really generalize these discussions?  The basic social, political and economic institutions of life between the Tang and Qing are so different that it would be foolish to assume too much about the earlier era given only what we have learned about the later.

The further back in time you go the more severe the limits on generalization become.  This is a real issue in martial studies as individuals are always attempting to draw comparisons across vast stretches of time.  The National Geographic documentary that inspired this discussion thought nothing of juxtaposing 19th century civilian ox-tailed sabers with ancient military bronze dagger axes.  In the view of the shows directors (and presumably most of the audience) both of these combat systems were simply examples of “Kung Fu weapons” that could be directly compared, contrasted and ranked.

A comparison of military bronze weapons with civilian iron ones seems absurd on a number of levels.  Not only did these things never exist on the same battlefield, it is very unlikely that their respective wielders would have thought of themselves as partaking in a common “martial culture.”  I am not really sure how a Shi gentleman armed with a bronze dagger ax thought of himself, but I am pretty sure it was not as a practitioner of “Kung Fu.”

Of course the program in question was really aiming mostly for entertainment value.  Yet when I review Professor Kang’s short volume I cannot help but feel that the same basic exercise is going on, albeit in a much more subtle form.  There is no doubt that he sees a linear relationship between ancient, medieval and modern forms of wrestling and empty hand fighting.

Yet why should we assume this?  Boxing is such a simple concept that it seems like the sort of thing that could be created, forgotten and recreated endlessly.  While it is fascinating to hear that ancient Chinese Emperors devised wooden training dummies for their armies, should I necessarily assume a relationship between them and the Shaolin “hall of wooden dummy men” or even modern Wing Chun practice?

Someone once observed that in the social sciences we have essentially two types of people.  First there are “splitters” who look at groups and ask how best to divide them into categories based on their differences.  Next we have “lumpers” who instead favor building ever more expansive categories of correspondence based on observable similarities.  The exercise is not fundamentally different, but the sort of mindset between splitters and lumpers can be.  Given that that Kang’s study of the Chinese martial arts starts at 1.7 million years BCE (roughly 1.5 million before the first appearance of modern humans on the planet) I think we can safely classify him as a “lumper.”

While there may be good reasons to note the existence of a shared stratum of culture within the martial arts, the most basic questions that we as students face today revolve around differences.  These are sometimes expressed as chronological problems.  Why do we see more change in the basic structure of the civilian martial arts between 1870 and 1920 than in any other preceding 50 year period of the last 500 years?

In other cases these puzzles take on a more geographic focus.  For instance, what made Shandong and Henan such a hotbed for martial activity in the late imperial period?  Why does the martial mythology of south-western China place so much emphasis on female warriors?  Or how did the immigration patterns of individuals from Fujian province impact the development of the Asian martial arts from Japan to the Philippines?

Much of my own writing focuses on exactly these sorts of regional issues.  How did Foshan’s place as a hub of steel production and handicraft industries lead it to become a major player in the development of southern China’s martial arts traditions?  What impact did the rapid spread of secret societies in both Fujian and Guangdong have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts during the 19th century?  Given that Wing Chun was developed within the Cantonese speaking community of the Pearl River Delta, why does it bear so many similarities to the region’s Hakka arts?

Ancient Chinese anthropomorphic battle ax, Shang dynasty.  This ax was excavated in modern Shangdong in 1956.  It is the same as the axes that Lorge discusses extensively in the first section of Chapter 1.  Axes were used on the battlefield. to dispatch prisoners and as a symbol of military command.  this ax was likely burried with a wealthy individual from the period.  Source: Wikimedia.

Ancient Chinese anthropomorphic battle ax, Shang dynasty. This ax was excavated in modern Shangdong in 1956. It is the same as the axes that Lorge discusses extensively in the first section of Chapter 1. Axes such as this were used on the battlefield to dispatch prisoners and as a symbol of military command. This ax was likely buried with a wealthy individual from the period. Source: Wikimedia.


I suspect that these are the sorts of question that will teach us the most about how the traditional Chinese martial arts developed and interacted with other aspects of Chinese society.  Each of these research topics revolves around explaining variability.

We have another axiom in the social sciences that seems to apply here.  We often say that “a constant cannot explain a variable.”  Or in more basic terms, we cannot point to a static factor as an explanation for an instance of social change.  Only a variable, something that changes between observations, can be used to explain another variable.

This is precisely where the idea of a singular “martial culture” becomes problematic.  Ultimately we are interested in the idea of martial culture because we hope that it will do some work for us.  By learning about this we hope to be able to better understand things about Chinese society which were previously a mystery.

The very nature of a “shared language” is that it does not vary that much from place to place or across time.  That is what makes it useful as a platform for communication in the first place.  This is not to argue that such things never change.  Certainly they grow and evolve.  But in the short run Chinese martial culture seems rather static.

As such it is hard to see how it can be used to explain the sorts of sudden shifts that are seen in a large number of our discussions.  Did popular novels like Journey to the West affect how members of the Boxer Uprising understood their actions?  Almost certainly.  Can the popularity of such novels (or theater performances based on them) explain the Boxer Uprising?  Almost certainly not.  These forms of entertainment were universally popular across China in the 19th century, yet this uprising was clearly a product of a limited geographic area under immense economic and social strain.  A constant cannot explain a variable.

Still, we would be seriously mistaken if we were to assume that we could simply ignore cultural variables all together.  While they might be viewed as “constants” when we engage in systemic analysis, things look different at the regional level.  Every geographic location has its own circumstances and challenges.  While systemic pressures may be universal in a generic sense, how they are expressed regionally will have much to do with local circumstances and institutions.  As a result popular plays and spirit possession practices that are relatively benign in other areas of the country may suddenly take on new meaning in an area that is under stress.

This is where things begin to get really interesting.  In fact, they get so interesting that Esherick was able to spend about 350 pages exploring the very specific interactions between local circumstances and systemic forces.  That is really the key to the success of his study.  It is a pattern that we have seen in a lot of the best writing on China produced during the last few decades.

At the end of the day it may not matter so much whether an individual scholar adopts the assumption of a single “martial culture” or plural culture(s).  There are strengths and weaknesses to both approaches.  While I am always a little reluctant to speak in terms of a single universal institution, one cannot ignore the important role that shared textual traditions have played in shaping and coordinating China’s various hand combat systems.  Good research can be done on either side of this question.

Rather than simply advocating for one position I think it is actually more important to raise awareness of this basic debate.  Perhaps we sometimes fail to realize that this is an issue because of the specific research questions that we work on.  If one is deeply involved in the world of Wushu (as is Professor Kang) the existence of a single hegemonic martial culture may seem more intuitively obvious than if you worked with the Chinese diaspora communities in Singapore and Malaysia.

Why? Because on some level these same debates are actually happening within the martial arts themselves.  This makes it even more critical that students of Chinese martial studies be aware of them.


Detailed portrait of the head of a Terracotta Officer.  Source: Wikimedia.

Detailed portrait of the head of a Terracotta Officer. Source: Wikimedia.



6 thoughts on “Do the Chinese Martial Arts have One “Martial Culture” or Many?

  1. Nice discussion!

    As a basic rule of thumb, the puzzle you’re trying to answer should determine the level of analysis, no?

    What happens when you wish to do a comparative project within China, e.g. the Fujian martial habitus versus Guangdong or Shandong? What are the common variables? Where are there divergences? Is it a most similar systems design or a most different systems design?

    What happens when you wish to do a comparative project between the Chinese martial habitus and that of Japan? This changes the level of analysis from the types of projects in the preceding paragraph. What explains the different values placed on the spear at different historical times in each context, for example? In this context the leverage you gain from “lumping” similarities in Chinese martial cultures into a singular Chinese martial culture may be greater than a multivariate analysis of regional contexts. The same would go for Japan.

    A plurality of theoretical approaches to the same sets of issues generally leads to a more complete picture and starts to flesh out a discipline. How far does Chinese martial culture as an independent variable get us in explaining modern Fujian origin myths? What dynamics do we discover when Chinese martial culture as a whole is operationalized as the dependent variable? What then are the independent variables we wish to explore?

    Hopefully the field of Chinese martial studies will grow and various approaches will be employed. I would love to read them all!

    Posted by Andrew Shinn | November 22, 2013, 10:19 am
    • Hi Andrew,

      Thanks for stopping by and sorry to take so long to get back to your comment.

      You said:

      “As a basic rule of thumb, the puzzle you’re trying to answer should determine the level of analysis, no?”


      “A plurality of theoretical approaches to the same sets of issues generally leads to a more complete picture and starts to flesh out a discipline.”

      In general I agree with both statement. The basic problem as I see it is that scholars will not be able to choose their concepts (or to correctly measure them as “variables”) if they do not realize that there is actually a choice to be made. Terms like “martial art” and “martial culture” are used all the time but they come loaded with all sorts of baggage. Nor are they ever theoretically neutral. Its better to understand the tensions in these ideas and be able to make an informed choice about how you will deploy them in your research program. Figuring out how they actually apply to your level of analysis (which as you point out can vary quite a bit) is a critical part of that.

      But for some researchers I suspect the answer is going to be to simply set the concept back on the shelf and look for an alternative way of thinking about the problem. Is it better to lump everything together into a single concept like “Chinese martial culture” so we can do comparative study with Japan. A lot of scholars (myself included) would probably say yes. Yeah, we are creating a losing a lot of variability when we measure the concept at this level, but it can still produce interesting correlations and it can be useful for theory testing.

      But how far back in time can we really push this? Maybe we can make an argument that this sort of project works for the Qing and Ming. But could we do the same thing with the Song dynasty? How about the Han? At what point does this go beyond simple measurement error. When do we start creating “fictional units” for the benefit of our study? I don’t know.

      I don’t pretend to have an answer to all of this. Its not really the sort of question that needs a single answer. A lot of my research necessitates that I take a regional approach to these things. That is really a product of the questions that I am looking at. Other times I do find myself talking about martial culture in a unitary sense. But its still an interesting exercise to ask why both of these approaches are even possible (e.g., the importance of written texts to Chinese martial culture–something that is often ignored), and what their limits are.

      Posted by benjudkins | November 23, 2013, 10:23 pm


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