Youth engaged in militia training outside of Guangzhou in the 1850s.  Note the long thin blade being held behind the rattan shield by the kneeling individual.  source
Youth engaged in militia training outside of Guangzhou in the 1850s. Note the long thin blade being held behind the rattan shield by the kneeling individual. The individual with the spear appears to also be armed with a matchlock handgun.  source



No assertion is more fervently advanced on behalf of the traditional Asian martial arts than assurances of their great antiquity.  The relative ages of these systems seems to have become a matter of increased discussion and competition in the early 20th century.  Since that time their various creation myths have given way to a veritable antiquarian arms-race.

Some schools of Japanese swordsmanship and unarmed fighting can trace their histories back for hundreds of years through surprisingly well preserved written records.  Of course much of their nature and purpose has changed during the course of this history.

I recently read a discussion of modern competitive kickboxing in Cambodia that began by confidently asserting that the sport was based on an older fighting system which was at least 1,000 years old.  The author pointed to certain abstract reliefs carved on a temple and a few quotes by local informants as such strong proof of his assertion that no other discussion was necessary.

Writers on the Chinese martial arts routinely expound on Wushu’s long and illustrious history.  Even very respectable, historically sophisticated, authors like Prof. Kang Gewu seem to have no problem placing the genesis of the modern Chinese fighting systems in the distant past.  In fact, the first entry in his extensive time-line on the development of Wushu, titled the Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts – 5000  Years, dates to 1.7 million years ago!  This is more than one million years prior to the first emergence of modern humans on the planet.

He, as well as other Chinese authors, spends a surprising amount of time examining ancient lithic artifacts as a necessary part of the discussion of modern Wushu’s evolution.  After that exercise he moves into an even more detailed examination of “Chinese” warfare in the late Paleolithic and early Bronze Age.  In short, the title of his study is not simply an indulgence in rhetorical license.  He really does make an argument that Wushu has a history of over 5,000 years.

Nor should the Koreans be left out of this discussion.  In his extensively researched study of the origins and creation of Tae Kwon Do, Alex Gillis notes that many of this style’s schools emblazon their walls with the assertions that their art is “thousands of years old.”  In reality Tae Kwon Do is very clearly a post-WWII derivative of Japanese karate.  Worse yet, the “thousands of years” slogan was consciously created and promoted by exactly the same individuals who were busy transforming the local Karate establishment into a Korea’s new “national art.”

How should students of martial studies approach the persistent claims of ancient origins when dealing with modern hand combat traditions?  The following post argues that this ubiquitous phenomenon suggests some interesting truths about the nature and social purpose of these fighting systems.  Yet to really get at these questions we must first think more carefully about how we define the “martial arts” in an academic research program.

1860s photograph of a "Chinese Soldier" with butterfly swords.  Subject unknown, taken by G. Harrison Grey.
1860s photograph of a “Chinese Soldier” with butterfly swords and rattan helmet. Subject unknown, taken by G. Harrison Grey.

Understanding the “Martial Arts” as a Technical Transmission

One of the most exciting aspects of martial studies as a research area is its relative openness.  Not only are scholars from a wide range of disciplines engaging in a discussion of these questions, but an unprecedented number of martial artists are becoming interested in the history and social meaning of their practices as well.  This convergence creates opportunities for discussions between practical and academic students of the martial arts that can be very fruitful.

I think that it is probably easy to overlook how rare this conjunction of interests really is.  Macroeconomist and workers at a fast food restaurant may both be very interested in whether the minimum wage will be raised in the next year.  Yet rarely do the later attempt to read, let alone seriously engage with, the academic writings of the former.

The academic literature on the martial arts is much more likely to inspire interest among its subjects of study. Researchers might even benefit from the historical data and social connections that lay readers can provide.  Still, all of this common ground can mask some important differences in how scholars and practitioners understand the “martial arts.”

The fact that many (perhaps most) academic students of martial studies are also practitioners of these disciplines, while useful in many ways, can also muddy the conceptual waters.  One of the places where these differences are the most pressing is in the conceptual vocabulary that the two groups use to express their understanding of these fighting systems.

Readers might not suspect that there is any tension at all as both practitioners and academic students tend to employ the same vocabulary when describing these arts in technical terms.  Yet problems arise when we push beyond the most immediate levels and ask what the two groups actually mean by the words that they use in common.

Take for instance the term “martial art.”  Rarely do we stop to define or discuss this most basic concept.  Students from various styles might have slightly different understandings of what constitutes of a “martial art” in the abstract.  But almost all of them will understand this term to refer to a body of techniques, concepts and philosophical ideas about fighting.  The martial arts, in short, tend to be imagined as physical and cultural technologies.

This sort of technology can be passed on in a variety of ways.  Teacher/student transmission within some sort of school seems to be the “gold standard.”  But given the mind-boggling number of instructional books, DVDs, seminars and apps that are produced every year, it is clear that consumers have faith in a wide variety of educational methods.

Of course it is precisely these sorts of teachers, books, apps and DVDs that are also likely to advance the claim that the martial arts are “ancient” practices.  If one actually stops to consider what is being implied, this is a truly remarkable assertion.  It is almost intoxicating.  What other meaningful objects or technologies do most individuals interact with that can also claim such antiquity?

Most of us are employed in occupations that didn’t exist a century ago.  We work for corporations that probably did not exist even a decade ago.  The most popular forms of entertainment (film, TV, computer games, even the mass marketed novel) are all relatively recent inventions.  Even the “nation state system,” which structures almost every economic and political aspect of our modern lives is only a few hundred years old.  Other than a handful of religious texts, what in our current world really has a genealogy as ancient as that claimed by the martial arts?

I suspect that this appeal to antiquity succeeds in large part precisely because of its audacious nature.  It wows the student with the promise of something truly transcendent, and therefore legitimate.  And given that most of us have trouble understanding how different (and in many ways fundamentally inaccessible) even the recent past really is, we have no actual frame of reference with which to judge the credibility of these claims.

Then there is the problem of “evidence.”  Of course we must first begin by specifying evidence of what.  Notice that this is a step that generally does not happen in most popular historical discussions.

Given that most dialogues on the martial arts implicitly understand them as technical exercises, when they assert that their practices are “thousands of years old,” what they are really claiming is that their current technology of violence is identical to, and directly transmitted from, the physical culture possessed by warriors or sages of the ancient past.  Occasionally a specific philosophy (the Taiji Classics) or social agenda (“Oppose the Qing, Restore the Ming”) is also said to have been passed along.  But what most practitioners really seem to care about are the similarity of their physical skills to those practiced by their forbearers.

If one approaches the martial arts as a primarily technical exercise, it may be surprisingly easy to find evidence of “continuity” over time.  To begin with, most of these arts come with an “oral tradition” that asserts or simply takes the antiquity of the system for granted.   This provides a framework that students use to organize historical observations, and their understanding of earlier fighting traditions.  Such a framework also facilitates the almost universal temptation of “confirmation bias.”  It is the psychological process by which researchers over-emphasize facts that seem to bolster their beliefs about the nature of the world while disregarding contradicting evidence.

Of course these sorts of tendencies are by no means confined to popular discussions.  They often bedevil academic writing as well.  Scholars attempt to minimize these biases through well-defined methodologies, being transparent about sources and relying on external institutions like “peer review.”  Even then it must be admitted that total objectivity is probably impossible, and may not actually be all that desirable.

The problem with these sorts of “quality control” mechanisms is that they tend to be either expensive or time consuming.  As a result they are rarely employed in more popular modes of writing.  However, certain sorts of authors, notably journalists, have developed their own methods for dealing with at least some of these problems.

Yet our issues here go beyond writing strategies.  The very nature of the combat arts tends to promote “confirmation bias.”  The author of one of the papers I cited above noted that one can deduce a relationship between modern Cambodian kickboxing and ancient Khmer martial techniques through the carvings depicting military figures on some of the region’s ancient temples.  In examining these images some other observers have noted instances in which figures seemed to be in the act of striking their opponents with elbows.  Of course similar attacks are also employed in the region’s modern kickboxing.  This has led certain individuals to deduce that this traditional sport had enjoyed at least 1,000 years of continuous transmission.

Nor is this an isolated incident.  Archeological finds depicting ancient warriors in the kingdoms located on the Korean peninsula have been used to bolster the nationalist claims of Tae Kwon Do practitioners.  And students of Chinese martial studies have demonstrated a great interest in the Middle Kingdom’s ancient patterns of Bronze Age warfare going back at least as far as the time of the Shi noblemen.

Despite China’s great literary tradition, we must acknowledge that the ancient historical record is actually pretty thin.  When discussing the events of past millennia the student is forced to account for long silences and disjoints in the documentary resources.

Yes we may see an unarmed warrior striking an opponent with an elbow in one panel, but there are actually only so many ways in which one can attack.  All human being have two feet, two knees, two fists, two elbows, and (in extreme cases) one head.  The fact that an elbow strike was observed in the distant past only confirms that both modern and ancient warriors fight under the same set of biological constraints.  More interesting is the fact that other temple panels showed Khmer warriors fighting demonic creatures, yet that tradition does not seem to have persisted into modern kickboxing.

In any event, these biological constraints dictate that all systems of armed or unarmed combat, despite their place or origin, will seem more similar than different.  Spears, swords and bows are more or less universally employed and studied around the world.  The same goes for boxing and wrestling.

Given how fundamental a concept like “wrestling” is, more than one society might create a set of very similar physical practices.  When we see different groups of individuals, widely separated by geography or time, doing the same thing, we should probably start by assuming by parallel evolution rather than “mysterious transmission.”

This is not to say that direct transmission never happens.  Certain Japanese arts do trace their roots to China.  Likewise Shaolin managed to create and export a fairly stable pole fighting tradition during the late Imperial period.  But these relationships need to be carefully established through detailed scholarship rather than being simply assumed based on a few suggestive archeological finds.

Modern students tend to think of the martial arts as technological systems because that is how they encounter them.  They spend their time learning to recreate the movements, flow and power that their teachers demonstrate.  Immersing oneself in this bodily experience can even be an important tool in certain sorts of ethnographic research, particularly if one is interesting in the field of performance ethnography or questions of “embodiment.”

This is certainly a valid way of understanding the modern martial arts.  But it is not the only possibility.  I suspect that for many researchers, particularly the more historically and social scientifically inclined, there may be a more promising alternative.

Arnold Genthe and Will Irwin.  Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown.  New York: Mitchell Kennerley. 1913.  (First published in 1908).  A high resolution scan of the original photograph can be found at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley).
Arnold Genthe and Will Irwin. Genthe’s Photographs of San Francisco’s Old Chinatown. New York: Mitchell Kennerley. 1913. (First published in 1908). A high resolution scan of the original photograph can be found at the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley).

The Martial Arts as a “Social Institution”

Consider instead the martial arts as an “institution” as defined within the social scientific literature.  By this I mean that specific styles are understood as socially constructed bodies of practices, norms and identities that are conveyed over time.  Technical exercises may be part of the process of transmitting this institution, but there is always more to it than that.

I would posit that while most practitioners think of the martial arts as a purely “technical exercise” (including both a physical and cultural component), they actually tend to encounter and participate in them as “social institutions.”  One does not have to dig deep to find a certain hunger for discussions of modes of martial ethics, philosophical insights and a sense of shared community within most of the modern martial arts.  Nor is it a coincidence that the single most common sort of dialog pertaining to Kung Fu that one finds on the internet is a constant rediscovery and elaboration of the various creation myths.  After all, at their most basic level each of these stories is a parable of belonging and personal transformation.

A similar conclusion holds even if we consider things from a more materialist perspective.  Most of us gain access to a body of technical knowledge about the martial arts by joining a specific type of commercial network.  The public martial arts school is actually a relatively recent development in the history of Chinese hand combat.  These things did not appear prior to the end of the 19th century and they did not become common before about 1920.

Today the commercially funded public school is the defining social institution of the Chinese martial arts.  Older sorts of institutions (such as the “discipleship system”) to the extent that they still exist, have been modified so that they reinforce rather than challenge the economic logic of these new organizations.

Even the most basic goals of students of the Chinese martial arts are different now than they might have been 200 years ago.  While certain aspects of technical practice have remained the same, very few modern students engage in training because they expect the village militia to be called up.  Nor are many modern students amateur opera performers or part-time bandits.

Physical fitness, spiritual development, sporting competition and civilian self-defense are the major reasons that individuals seem to take up a martial art today.  Yet in the case of the Chinese hand combat schools, these sorts of motivations reflect the reform movements of the 1920s and 1930s much more than they do the high Qing dynasty ethos of the 1720s or 1730s.  While we may share certain technical practices with the past, almost everything else about the modern experience of the martial arts has changed.  By understanding these practices as relatively newly created social institutions, scholars can ask better questions about how and why they evolved.

This somewhat abstract discussion actually has important implications when we start to think about the 19th century history of some of today’s most popular martial arts.  Take Wing Chun for example.  The orthodox version of this style’s creation myth (popularized by Ip Man in Hong Kong in the 1950s) is interesting in that it does not claim great antiquity.

Instead it places the genesis of the art with the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple in the 1720s.  The fighting style was then passed down through a number of generations until the various pieces of it were brought together by the “Red Boat Opera Companies.” Following a socially disastrous local tax revolt in the 1850s, two opera performers taught it to Leung Jan, a pharmacist in Foshan, to thank him for offering them shelter.

Leung Jan had no intention of teaching the art publicly or opening a school.  Occasionally this is used as “proof” of his highly conservative ways, or the secret excellence of his Kung Fu.  In fact, there were no public martial arts schools during most of his life.  That most basic social institution, which structures our fundamental experience of the martial arts today, had not yet been invented.

One of the few individuals that Leung Jan did teach was a friend and neighbor from the marketplace named Chan Wah Shun.  Being younger his outlook on the martial arts was somewhat different.  During his generation the Hung Sing Association (the first large Choy Li Fut school in Foshan) proved that the local economy had monetized to the point that it was now possible to open something very much like a commercial public school.

Chan Wah Shun’s ambitions to follow in their footsteps were somewhat dampened by bad timing.  The early and late phases of his teaching career were separated by a long break caused by the social fallout of the Boxer Uprising.  The governor of the province, seeking to prevent copy-cat attacks on foreigners and Chinese Christians, moved quickly to suppress all local martial arts activity in the Pearl River Delta region in about 1900.  Even after it became possible to teach again, the reputation of the martial arts had been badly damaged.  In fact, 1900-1910 were probably the darkest years for the traditional Chinese fighting systems.

In total, Chan Wah Shun only taught about 16 students over the course of his career.  The last of these was the son of his landlord, a child named Ip Kai Man.  Unfortunately Chan soon fell ill and later suffered from a stroke.  Most of Ip Man’s training seems to have come from Chan’s second disciple, Ng Chung So.

The actual nature of Ip Man’s introduction to Wing Chun is somewhat hard to disentangle.  As the son of a rich merchant and landlord he spent most of his days studying literature rather than Kung Fu.  Then, as a teenager, he was sent to Hong Kong to attend a western high school.  This might have put an end to his Wing Chun training except that by an accident of fate he was introduced to Leung Bik, Leung Jan’s remaining son.

The elderly Leung Bik had never sought to teach Kung Fu and had not been involved with the new commercial institutions that were quickly transforming the world of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Instead his relationship with Ip Man seems to have reflected the older 19th century patterns.  He moved in with new student, who provided him with food, clothing and housing, in exchange for tuition.  In short, Leung Bik became a temporary member of the wealthy young student’s household.

This actually puts Ip Man in a very interesting position.  Much has been made of the fact that he received both a Confucian and Western education.  But in terms of understanding his Wing Chun, it is important to realize that he likewise received both a modern early 20th century and a more traditional 19th century introduction to the martial arts as well.  Few if any of Chan Wah Shun’s other students (perhaps with the exception of some of those who had previously studied in another style) could say this.

Ip Man carefully considered what he learned from both Chan Wah Shun and Leung Bik.  By his own admission he thought deeply about not just their techniques, but how they taught as well.  Except for a brief episode in the 1940s, Ip Man avoided opening his own school in Guangdong during the volatile Republic of China years.  Yet after fleeing to Hong Kong in 1949 he was left with little other choice.

His innovations in teaching techniques and humorous personality made him a popular instructor during much of the 1950s and 1960s.  A combination of factors, including the suppression of Wing Chun on the mainland, the socioeconomic character of some of his Hong Kong students, and the eventual celebrity of Bruce Lee, all conspired to make his branch of Wing Chun the most globally popular martial art to arise from southern China.

Let us pause to consider the following question.  What kind of story have I just told?  Most Wing Chun students would recognize this as an abbreviated history of their style.  Indeed a narrative very much like this one is told on a daily basis in Wing Chun schools around the world.  But is this narrative really the history of “Wing Chun” as a martial art?

Leaving aside the dubious historical credentials of the Southern Shaolin Temple and its subsequent destruction, I would argue that the real issue here is Leung Jan.  He is the first individual in Wing Chun’s genealogy whose birth and basic life story can be objectively verified.  Leung Jan represents the moment when the orthodox creation narrative transitions from the realm of folklore to history (loosely understood).

There is not really much doubt that the range of technical skills that Ip Man taught in Hong Kong (while modified through his own experience) ultimately came through Leung Jan.  They were transmitted to Ip Man through his son (Leung Bik), his student (Chan Wah Shun) and his grand-student (Ng Chung So).  Ip Man had the singular advantage of being able to see three different dimensions of the master’s transmission.

So does it stand to reason that Leung Jan must be the first known practitioner of “Wing Chun?”  Here things get more difficult.  If one is only interested in the transmission of an “embodied technology” the answer may well be, yes.  But did Leung Jan know that the name of the art that he practiced was “Wing Chun?”

I doubt that there can ever be a definitive answer to this question.  The name “Wing Chun” does not appear in surviving records as the title of a martial art in Leung Jan’s generation.  The names of some of the central characters in the Wing Chun creation myth first appear in a Wuxia novel that did not come out until about the time of Leung Jan’s death.

Further, critical figures in this story, such as Ng Moy, actually bear a much closer resemblance to the way that these characters were reimagined by subsequent authors writing in the 1930s.  I think that there is a good chance that Leung Jan’s explanation of the origins of his art differed substantially from what is passed on to students today.

Nor would this be a unique situation.  Historians interested in the origins of Taiji Quan point out that while the art practiced at Chen Village in the 18th century resembles modern Taiji in many respects, there are also some pretty clear differences.  Nor does it appear that the residents of Chen Village knew that they were practicing “Grand Ultimate Boxing.”  That name, and everything that it implies, was coined by a more elite individual who was watching Yang Luchan perform in Beijing at some point in the 1850s.  Nor is there any evidence of (most of) the “Taiji Classics” at Chen Village.  The literary and philosophical aspects of the art would have to wait to be “discovered” by the Wu brothers during the second half of the 19th century as well.

The end result of all of this is that the Taiji Quan practiced in Beijing in early 20th century was a fundamentally different sort of social institution than that practiced in Chen Village in the 18th.  Yes, important technical aspects of the art remained unchanged, but it was now distributed through public commercial schools rather than closed village lineages.  It was now taught as a form of physical culture rather than as a type of military training.  It was accompanied by an elite literature and philosophical system that were previously unknown within Chen village.  Even the name of the art was different.

While less jarring I would propose that we can understand Wing Chun as having gone through a similar transformation following the Leung Jan’s generation (at least in his lineage).  Leung Jan enjoyed the martial arts, but he had no intention of teaching them.  For him this was a system of personal practice (and defense) which probably grew out of his experiences in the turbulent 1850s.

It was only after his death that Chan Wah Shun was able to turn his master’s once private practice into what was essentially the first public commercial Wing Chun School which openly exchanged teaching for monthly payments of silver.

This transformation would have had many effects on Leung Jan’s art, some subtle, some more obvious.  The style’s name and history, while not really all that important in Leung Jan’s personal practice, would have become critical.  Such things are an essential part of advertising a school in the newly emerging competitive marketplace, as well as explaining to students what sort of community they have just joined.

Students today experience and understand Wing Chun as a relatively open institution built on the exchange of embodied practices and money.  This basic structure dates to the time of Chan Wah Shun.  The creation myth and folklore that monopolizes so much of the modern discussions of the style is probably even more recent than that.  When we as social scientists attempt to understand the popularity of Wing Chun, what it reveals about the development of civil society in southern China, or how it has been carried on the waves of globalization, the “social institution” that we are looking at is fundamentally different from anything that Leung Jan was ever part of.

Another picture of the same young militia group.  Luckily the hudiedao of the leader have become dislodged in their sheath.  We can confirm that these are double blades, and they are of the long, narrow stabbing variety seen in some of the prior photographs.  Source http:\\
Another picture of the same young militia group seen at the top of the post. Luckily the hudiedao of the leader have become dislodged in their sheath. We can confirm that these are double blades, and they are of the long, narrow stabbing variety seen in some of the prior photographs. Source http:\\

Conclusion: Focusing on Variables, not Constants, in Martial Studies

This should not be construed as an argument that everything in the Wing Chun system was invented whole cloth in the 1930s.  Neither social nor physical culture ever arises in a vacuum.  Everything has its antecedents.  Consider the role of pole fighting in the style.

Wing Chun’s famous “Six and Half Point Pole” form is actually shared with a number of other regional martial arts.  Given its widespread distribution, simplicity, and terrible practicality, I strongly suspect that it goes back to the days of mandatory local militia training in the 19th century.  In fact, the actual techniques and understanding of violence behind this pole method is probably one of those elements of the southern Chinese martial arts that actually is hundreds of years old, maybe even dating back to the heyday of military pole fighting in the 16th century.

Yet that is precisely the problem that we are faced with when attempting to define the “martial arts,” let alone date them.  Whatever modern Wing Chun is, it is clearly not a pure 16th century military training exercise.  Certainly some of its techniques may be shared with practices from that period.  Yet a lot of history has intervened along the way.  It is this subsequent historical evolution that makes Wing Chun unique.  It is what defines it as a social institution, distinct and different from other styles that it may share a certain body of practices with.

When we, as social scientists, fall into the trap of defining the martial arts only in technical terms (rather than as historically and socially defined institutions) we are in danger of losing sight of precisely those aspects of these systems that account for their change and dynamism.  It is within moments of transformation that we may be able to open a window onto the mechanisms behind the development of Chinese (and even global) society.

Of course dealing with changing and evolving institutions is never easy.  Do they simply respond to the structural constraints of the systems that define them, or do they maneuver within their environment in strategic ways?  How great of a role does individual agency actually play in the creation or transformation of a martial art?  And how should we define the moment when one institution dies only to be replaced by something new?

These are all challenging questions, but their answers are potentially important.  Before we can tackle any of these problems we must start by accepting that the martial arts, as socially defined institutions, are different today than they were hundreds, let alone thousands, of years ago.  Persistent attempts to link this or that art to a famous Ming dynasty personality or text are bound to obscure much of what is actually interesting about these modern practices.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Do the Chinese Martial Arts have One “Martial Culture” or Many?