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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Reviews

The Book Club: Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi

Cover of Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi.  Cambridge UP, 2012.

Cover of Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi. Cambridge UP, 2012.

Wang Guangxi. 2012. Chinese Kung Fu. Cambridge University Press. 115 pages.


The prestigious Cambridge University Press published not one but two books on the topic of the Chinese martial arts in 2012. Most students of martial studies will already be familiar with Peter Lorge’s volume Chinese Martial Arts: From antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. This was the first monograph by a major academic publisher attempting to provide a single volume introduction to the history of the Chinese fighting systems. As one would expect Lorge’s work has been discussed and reviewed in a number of places since its release

Less well known in martial studies is a slim volume by Professor Wang Guangxi titled Chinese Kung Fu.  The author of this second study brings impressive credentials to the table. According to his biography on the Cambridge University Press webpage he has taught and written extensively on both modern literature and the martial arts. Wang Guangxi was named a Fellow in the Henan Research Institute of Culture and History and is the Standing Director of the Modern Chinese Literature Research Society. He also serves as the Deputy Dean of the Wushu Culture Research Center in the Physical Education Institute of Zhengzhou University (located in Henan Province).

While this study appears to be Wang Guangxi’s sole foray into the foreign language market, it is a research area that he has been active in for some time. He has published multiple Chinese language volumes which have been cited in the western martial studies literature.

The book that we will be discussing today was not really intended as an academic work though, as I argue below, students of Chinese martial studies may actually find it more interesting than the general reader. Instead this volume was meant to be a quick introductory discussion of the subject for inclusion in Cambridge’s “Introduction to Chinese Culture” series.

While it has yet to attract much serious discussion, this volume appears to have succeeded in its basic mission of introducing Wushu to a large number of readers. It was originally published in both English and Chinese language editions in 2010 (with the subtitle “Masters, Schools and Combats”) by the China Intercontinental Press. The following year it was released in both Spanish and French. Then in 2012 the manuscript was acquired by Cambridge University Press who released a revised edition. It is this latest incarnation of the project that is addressed in this post.

A statue of a Qilin outside the Shaolin Temple in Henan.  Source: Wikimedia.

A statue of a Qilin outside the Shaolin Temple in Henan. Source: Wikimedia.

Structuring the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

When reading this text most readers will immediately realize that, no matter what his academic credentials, Wang Guangxi approached this project from the dual perspectives of practitioner and tour guide. While this work is clearly informed by “modern research” on the origins and nature of the Chinese martial arts, it does not confine itself to these subjects.

Instead it enthusiastically embraces discussions of the cultural, national, spiritual and philosophical nature of the Chinese martial arts. Nor does it shy away from making broad generalizations. While the author acknowledges the diversity of the Chinese hand combat systems, the overriding purpose of this study seems to be to reduce this variation through classification so that the “essential nature” of the martial arts can be revealed and explored as a national project.

The book begins with a brief description of the “Origins of the Martial Arts.” Anyone familiar with the Chinese language literature on this subject will already have a good idea of what to expect. Ancient lithic and Bronze Age artifacts are introduced and reviewed to establish the supposed historical continuity of these fighting systems. Nor does the author shy away from tying modern Qigong practices directly to ancient literary references.

Some of the photography included in this section (and throughout the book as a whole) is quite good. As a visual product this little volume is very appealing. I liked the range of images that the author drew on. The graphic design and layout felt quite modern and fresh. Later sections of the book even included a number of historic photographs that I had not seen before.

Next the author moved onto a discussion of the “Principles of Wushu.” This material might be of primary interest to a practicing student who is new to the Chinese martial arts. More academic readers will also find the general tone of this discussion quite interesting. The basic ideas that are introduced in this section are not fully developed until near the end of the book, but it serves as a good map of where the author is headed.

The third section of the book is one of the most interesting. In it the author lays out his own classification categories for thinking about and discussing the Chinese martial arts. The basic families are: Shaolinquan, Wudangquan, Emeiquan, Nanquan, Taijiquan, Xingyiquan, and Baguaquan.

It is interesting to stop and consider this typology. Not all of these categories are like things.

Nanquan (southern boxing) and Emeiquan are geographically based communities. Xingyi, Taiji and Bagua are not. Instead these are the “internal” styles that are all popular northern China. Shaolin and Wudgang are a bit more complicated. At first his discussion of Shaolin focuses on the temple, but it later becomes clear that this is being used basically as a catch-all category for the external schools of northern China. Likewise Wudang starts off by looking at specific events, but then it too morphs into an essentially geographic category.

One of my personal research interests is the nature of regionalism in the Chinese martial arts. As such I found his very brief (usually just 2-3 pages) overviews of each of the regions to be very interesting.

Nevertheless, this typology is far from a neutral description of the evolution of regional or historic patterns. In essence what it does is to classify all of the various hand combat systems into “regional identities” (most of which are never mentioned again in the remainder of the volume), while at the same time loudly proclaiming that the internal styles (representative of “Beijing Culture”) are in fact the “national face” of the Chinese martial arts. They alone manage to transcend regionalism.

Throughout his book Wang Guangxi will become bolder in his praise of these arts to the eventual exclusion of most everything else. Southern Boxing receives some recognition for its role in the global spread of the Chinese martial arts, but all of the styles grouped under Emei and Wudangquan simply vanish from the conversation.

One might also want to consider some other possible factors that are missing from this typology. Chief among them are the question of time. When did these various styles evolve? Why is it that the systems which arose during the 1920s often share certain characteristics?

This is an interesting point to contemplate as one reads through on the volume. On the one hand the author seems to have a very reductionist view of the various fighting styles. The Chinese martial arts possess their unique range of characteristics (as outlined in section two) precisely because they are “Chinese.” We are repeatedly informed that these stem from their shared heritage in “Daoism, Confucianism and Buddhism.” Of course this position has been widely debunked by most western students of martial studies. Yet I suspect that Wang invokes this spiritual triumvirate basically as a short-hand for the eternal and seemingly unchanging aspects of the Chinese nation and culture.

This vision of “Chineseness” is reinforced throughout the book with reference to the national character of various other peoples.  Wang Guangxi appears to access these “deep national traits” through an analysis of “their” martial arts. Ironically Thai Kickboxing seems to be his major foil for discussing (and criticizing) everything that is not Chinese. Western Boxing and Japanese Karate are also invoked throughout the text.  For some reason the Mixed Martial Arts appeared no where in his critique of foreign fighting systems.

I find these types of discussions to be deeply problematic. When attempting to describe the nature of the Chinese martial arts Wang Guangxi engages in a sort of “self-orientalization” that can be jarring. Few western scholars of the martial arts would be willing to accept a number of these characterizations. Yet I am more troubled by the fact that many general readers may simply accept these assertions without critical examination. After all, most popular discussions of nationalism and identity tend to be pretty essentialist.

The difference of course is that Wang Guangxi seems to be engaged in a conscious project of appropriating these signifiers as a means of expressing his own vision of what Wushu is, and its proper relationship with society. Readers should remember that much of this view would not have been acceptable in the 1970s, 1980s and even (I suspect) the 1990s. Nor would this be the first time that the evolving discourse of identity and the martial arts in China has resounded with western orientalist expectations, forming a positive or reinforcing cycle.

The historical treatment of the various regions and arts in this section of the text also show some interesting variability. When discussing the evolution of Taiji, Wang Guangxi wastes no time in dismissing the myths of a Daoist origin (which is slightly odd given his overall dedication to finding China’s philosophical heritage within the martial arts.) Yet when introducing Shaolin he treads much more carefully around the equally mythic involvement of Bodhidharma.

After the first third of the book the text breaks strides and abruptly switches topics. The author introduces a discussion of the various sorts of weapons seen in the traditional Chinese martial arts. In all honesty the inclusion of this section was perhaps the weakest editorial decision in the book.

I tend to be very interested in the topic of weapons training, but I have found that most discussions of the weapons in introductory martial arts texts quickly devolve into decontextualized lists. This was the case here as well. Rather than seeing yet another list of the various “short, long and hidden” weapons, I would have loved a much more detailed exploration of the evolution of sword practice in the Republic of China period, or the place of the pole and staff training in Chinese martial practice through the ages.

The real problem with this chapter is that it is basically irrelevant to the rest of the book. The author disrupts his argument to take this detour. That is unfortunate as this small volume is more than just a collection of random chapters. By the end it is clear that the author does have an overarching goal.

In the next chapter Wang Guangxi returns to a more elaborate treatment of the “characteristics of Wushu” introduced earlier in the volume. Overall the section is nicely done. Nevertheless, it is interesting to note that in contrast to the previous chapter’s emphasis on regionalism, this discussion treats the traditional martial arts as a single unitary phenomenon. This is possible because they are explained as an expression of a highly unified vision of Chinese society.

My favorite section of this work came in the chapter “Wushu and Chinese Culture.” The later part of this section was dedicated to a discussion of the traditional martial arts in novels, film and television. Bruce Lee is first introduced in these pages, and western readers may be interested to see how he is portrayed in comparison to Jet Li (by most accounts a more important figure in the history of modern Chinese domestic martial arts cinema).

But the author really excelled in his discussion of the evolution and impact of “New School” Wuxia novels in the post-WWII period. Obviously pride of place is given to Jin Yong, but a number of other important contemporary writers are discussed as well. For reasons that are not entirely clear to me western scholars often overlook the growth of this popular literature when discussing the modern evolution of the martial arts, and Wang Guangxi’s summary of the situation is a nice reminder of its importance.

Following naturally on the heels of the previous discussion, the author then addresses the global turn in the Chinese martial art. In some ways this chapter is the most problematic, but also the most revealing, section of the book. His examination of the global spread of the Chinese martial arts starts with, and focuses on, the question of national humiliation.

He identifies the two major international “clashes” of the Chinese martial arts as being the battle against Japanese piracy in the Ming dynasty, and the Boxer Uprising at the start of the 20th century. As one would expect he goes into some detail when discussing Shaolin’s role in the piracy crisis. Yet he then surprised me by passing over the Boxer Uprising (which he had previously brought up) in total silence.

Instead the chapter turned to an examination of all of the various challenge matches (real or imagined) fought by Chinese martial artists against western boxers or wrestlers in the late 19th or early 20th century. By the author’s own admission there are almost no solid facts about any of these episodes, let alone a verified record of winners and losers.

That did not stop him from discussing a “statistical analysis” of winners and losers, complete with preliminary conclusions about which styles had the most “victories.” Oddly no cases in which a Chinese fighter was defeated seem to have been included in this “dataset.”

The remainder of the chapter turned its attention to the more mundane aspects of the spread of the Chinese martial arts in the post-war period. While Wang Guangxi notes in multiple places the importance of the southern arts in the global spread of the Chinese martial arts, his telling of these events is in some ways quite different from the more established narrative on the same topic in the western literature. For instance, in this section he never really discusses the Kung Fu craze of the 1970s, and instead focuses on the success of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon” (rather than Bruce Lee) as the event which launched the TCMA into global consciousness.

The last chapter of the book was dedicated to a discussion of the creation and development of modern, government sponsored, Wushu. This is an important topic that hasn’t really received enough systematic attention and analysis in the west. The review of these events given in the present volume doesn’t go into great detail, but it still presents a nice timeline. I suspect that this is one area where students of martial studies might find some interesting new facts.

Shaolin Students

Students at a Wushu vocational school, near the Shaolin Temple. Photo by Justin Brice Guariglia. Source: http://fineartamerica.com

The Chinese Martial Arts in Popular, Academic and Apologetic Literature

By any measure this short study of the Chinese Martial Arts has been a commercial success. After its initial publication it was picked up by a prestigious American University Press where it received wide distribution. It has been translated into three languages and is easily available in Asia, North and South America and Europe. So has this volume succeeded in providing a brief introduction to the Chinese martial arts?

This is actually a difficult question to answer. If a non-specialist were to ask me for a recommendation to get up to speed on the nature and history of the Chinese martial arts (these are basically the topics that Wang Guangxi covers) I don’t think this volume would be my first choice. Instead I would probably recommend the first half of Kennedy and Guo’s volume on Chinese martial arts training manuals, or a few articles by Stanley Henning.

This is a well written, nicely produced and visually attractive book. The author takes a complex subject and explains it with clarity.  Still, when reading this book one has a sense that there is always something being left unsaid. In some cases Wang Guangxi has relied on current scholarship and a modern understanding on the Chinese martial arts, and in others he has ignored them in favor of more “traditional” answers. The end result is a bit confusing.

Unless a potential student was interested in studying a northern internal style, I suspect that some of the wisdom that the volume passes on might be less than helpful. It is extremely difficult to generalize about what the “traditional martial arts” believe because they don’t all teach the same things. Despite his best efforts I remain far from convinced that all of China’s martial heritage (in all eras) can really be distilled into three or four guiding principles. This is exactly the sort of discussion that I would leave to a specific school and Sifu to handle as they see fit.

Of course one quickly comes to the conclusion that the author is not really attempting to give an objective description of the vast variety of these social and fighting systems. Instead he has a vision of Chinese culture and its connections to the martial arts that he is promoting throughout this book.

That is not really a surprise. True objectivity is much rarer than one might suspect and pretty much all writing comes with some sort of argument. At this point it is important to clarify what sort of argument the author is really trying to make.

Generally speaking, popular works (such as the many “how to” books that we see in the martial arts world) make arguments about the desirability of some sort of practice or belief. Commercial instructors will publish books passing on the folklore and tactics of their art both to preserve their memory, but also to convince students of the superiority of their schools.

Most academic work also sets out to convince the reader of something. But in this case the real topic of conversation is usually theoretical. For instance, when D. S. Farrer writes about Kung Fu he is not primarily interested in relating the details of the Southern Mantis or Choy Li Fut community’s techniques or even history. Instead he intends to convince readers of the utility of “performance ethnography” as a research method by demonstrating how it opens a new window for insight onto what might otherwise be a confusing set of behaviors. In short, while Farrer may write a case study about Kung Fu, the actual subject of his research remains theoretical.

It is this emphasis that sets something apart as a piece of “academic writing.” Simply including footnotes, or referencing current research, does not actually make something “academic” in nature. Instead the writing must have bearing on (and be accepted by a community that is dedicated to) certain historical, causal, theoretical or qualitative questions.

This is important to remember when thinking about the sorts of literature that one encounters on the martial arts. A lot of what is referred to as “academic” work actually isn’t precisely because it does not bear on any scholarly debates. Instead it is a carefully written historical or philosophical discussion. There is nothing wrong with this. Often this sort of the non-academic, but high quality writing is the most interesting stuff out there.

I suspect that this volume actually falls into a third category, related, but somewhat distinct from, the previous two.  Apologetic literature often appears to be very “academic.” It routinely employs up to date research. It may even have footnotes and a scholarly apparatus. But the goals of apologetic literature are different from other sorts of writing.

Rather than resolving a purely theoretical question (which, truth be told, might not have a lot to do with the case study in question), apologetic work instead seeks to marshal arguments and evidence to defend a position.  This is done not to prove a specific theoretical point but for social purposes.  The goal of apologetics is to open a space for believers to maintain a “rational faith” in a given institution or practice.

Occasionally one encounters apologetic literature in the realm of literature and aesthetics. Yet it seems that the two subjects that are the most likely to generate these sorts of arguments are religion and nationalism.  One also encounters many apologetic discussions in debates about the legitimacy and history of various martial arts lineages.

Many of the somewhat paradoxical elements of Wang Guangxi text actually resolve themselves when read in an apologetic, rather than a scholarly, context. Indeed, there is a powerful sub-text throughout this book which seems to imply that the Chinese martial arts are threatened, and that they face great challenges in the future.

The author explicitly comes out and addresses these concerns in the final pages of the last chapter of the book. Yet one cannot help but suspect that this fear is actually structuring much of his argument. For instance, in the first half of the book Wang Guangxi repeatedly addresses the perception that the Chinese martial arts are an ineffective means of real self-defense. He argues that because these systems favor the moral development of the student over his military potential they simply introduce the practical material later in the curriculum. He states that if students simply stick with their training for another ten years they will discover that they are actually much more effective fighters than foreign external stylists such as Thai or western boxers. Of course by that point they will no longer feel a need to test their powers (again, because of the greater psychological development inherent in Wushu).

If this argument is not enough to convince the reader, the second half of the book takes a more direct approach. It pontificates on the various shortcomings of other popular national styles. The author then turns to his “statistical analysis” (no actual numbers are given, nor are the myriad of measurement issues in a study like this addressed) of 19th and early 20th century challenge fights to “prove” the superiority of the Chinese fighting systems in open combat. Lastly, the final chapter of the volume suggests that Wushu may have gone too far down the road of “performance” in the 1980s, and that the current decade needs to place greater emphasis on practical fighting.

In short, one of the central goals of this book seems to be to reassure readers of the combat ability of the Chinese martial arts. This is critical as the author has also imagined these systems as the acme of China’s ancient culture as well as its Confucian, Daoist and Buddhist heritage. Therefore to admit that some of these fighting systems might be less effective than some other “foreign” style would be to challenge core elements of the innate superiority of the Chinese nation.

Indeed, what really seems to be at stake here is Wang Guangxi understanding of the martial arts and their relationship with national culture. The official educational establishment surrounding the promotion of Wushu in high schools and universities seems to be built on a basic understanding very similar to his.

Yet when you begin to dig a little deeper into the subject it becomes apparent that the relationship between fighting styles and national identity is more complex than it may first seems. Wang Guangxi speaks at length about the indignity of foreign boxers and wrestlers challenging Chinese martial artists. Yet what he neglects to mention is that many of the best fighters to employ western boxing in the era were actually themselves Chinese. Western Boxing was very popular in China during the Republic of China period and it attracted a lot of indigenous athletic talent. Even famous martial arts personalities such as Tang Hao and Zheng Manqing associated with and befriended Chinese students of “western” boxing. Nor did every foreigner to set foot in China actually despise the Chinese martial arts.

When examined on a more granular level, these sorts of essentialist arguments portraying the various fighting systems as extensions of “national character” quickly begin to break down. I suspect that this sort of an intellectual system is precisely what Wang Guangxi is attempting to preserve. As a younger generation of Chinese individuals turn their backs both on this understanding of the martial arts, and some of the “core” cultural values that the author is attempting to promote, this task becomes more difficult.

Two students of Shaolin Kung Fu Training.  Source: Wikimedia.

Two students of Shaolin Kung Fu Training. Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: Who should read this book?

While I don’t think that I would recommend this book to someone looking for a purely descriptive overview of the TCMA, students of martial studies will find much of interest. Certain discussions in this book are well done and genuinely informative. Yet its real value comes from the fact that it seems to reflect a sort of dialogue and range of concerns that exist within China’s official “martial arts sector.”

I tend to think of this volume as a primary source which might be useful for a number of different types of research projects. It certainly contains a wealth of insights into the current discussion of nationalism within the Chinese martial arts, as well as the need for a new direction in Wushu. It is an interesting witness to the fact that while the Chinese martial arts establishment has no trouble embracing certain sorts of research, they seem to be remarkably resistant to other sorts of conclusions.

Given its clarity and easy availability this volume might make for an interesting unit in a martial studies class taught at either the graduate or undergraduate level. It could easily be supported by lectures and more theoretical texts on history, invented tradition or nationalism. The volume’s value lays in the fact that it skillfully captures current trends in the evolution of the Chinese martial arts.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: The Book Club: Chinese Archery by Stephen Selby – A Critical Text for All Students of Chinese Martial Studies.



6 thoughts on “The Book Club: Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi

  1. The first English version was very poor in its exposition, too much “Chinglish” made it very hard to read.

    Posted by Williamnorthernchinesemartialarts | March 31, 2014, 10:14 pm
  2. Reblogged this on SMA bloggers.

    Posted by Dave Kelly | April 9, 2014, 8:23 am


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