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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Arts and Religion, Martial Studies, Reviews

From Battle Magic to Self-Actualization: Understanding the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts


Leipzig Illustrierte Zeitung 1900, reproduction in Peking 1900, The Boxer Rebellion by Peter Harrington, p.24.  Source: Wikimedia.

Leipzig Illustrierte Zeitung 1900, reproduction in Peking 1900, The Boxer Rebellion by Peter Harrington, p.24. Source: Wikimedia.



Most historical debates (both popular and academic) about the Chinese martial arts pit two opposing visions against one another. Sociologically informed theories tend to see the Chinese martial arts as a manifestation of fundamentally secular historical, economic and military causes. The martial arts were a means by which individuals (usually soldiers, guards, bandits and opera performers) attempted to earn a living while embedded in the larger economy of violence which defined so many aspects of life in late imperial China. This approach has been championed by scholars (usually historians) like Peter Lorge, Brian Kennedy and Stanley Henning.

A number of other voices have challenged this view. They instead point to the importance of internal training in some18th century martial traditions (Marnix Wells), the degree to which 19th century Taiji was a conscious effort to recreate and preserve essential philosophical and cultural values (Douglas Wile), or the importance of monastic violence and popular religion (including opera) in shaping popular beliefs about the martial arts (Meir Shahar and Charles Holcombe). For these authors the hand combat systems must be understood primarily as a cultural complex rather than as a set of purely technical practices.

The debate between these two positions has been fruitful. We now have a much better idea of some of the pathways by which the modern Chinese martial arts evolved than we did even a few years ago. This set of debates gained traction in large part because it had clear implications for modern practitioners of the Chinese martial arts. How should these students understand their practices? Are these disciplines a practical exercise focused on self-defense which might also be understood as a means for building personal discipline and a secular type of self-actualization? Or are they instead a set of embodied spiritual, cultural and philosophical practices?

How do we know when the traditional Chinese martial arts have “succeeded” in their goals? Should we expect to see victory in the ring, or sense of spiritual satisfaction? Many current practitioners have debated these questions, and the foregoing historical literature has been used to support one side or the other.

Still, there are problems with some elements of this discussion. Often our basic concepts are wildly over determined. When we speak of the martial arts, what exactly do we mean? Are we speaking of a technology that is continuously transmitted through time, or do we instead imagine a set of institutions that is confined to a single era in history. Are the martial arts necessarily an “embodied practice,” or can we only understand their meaning by looking at the broader social discourse adopted by individuals who (ironically) often have nothing to do with the actual practice of these styles?

How we think about these specific issues colors the conclusions that we come to when describing the nature of the Chinese martial arts. More disturbingly, our basic assumptions often do more theoretical work for us than we care to admit. Our approach can totally obscure certain sorts of variables from view while accentuating our focus on a few seemingly critical factors. In Chinese martial studies as in so many other fields, there is no “data” independent of theory.

In the following post I would like to take a look at the idea of “self-actualization” in the Chinese martial arts. It seems that these hand combat systems have never been just about fighting. Perhaps that is because the actual reality of community violence is not really all that complex. It tends to be a matter of strength, experience, superior numbers and a basic understanding of how to best use the winds when burning down a rival village. Paramilitary groups around the globe have managed to produce prodigious amounts of pain and suffering without having to rely on the martial arts for instruction. The Chinese martial arts have survived as a set of social institutions to the extent that they have offered their communities other additional services, incentives and ways of creating meaning.

This discussion begins with a review of Esther Berg and Inken Prohl’s paper titled “’Become Your Best’: On the Construction of Martial Arts as Means of Self-Actualization and Self-Improvement” published in the recent special edition of the JOMEC Journal dedicated to martial arts studies. The essay once again demonstrates the contributions that the literature on comparative religion might make to our emerging field. In this essay I will only have the space to engage with one aspect of their research, but I encourage everyone to take a look at their full article. They put forward a strong argument that deserve careful study and consideration.

The current essay then goes on to examine a neglected historical moment in the transformation of the discourse surrounding the social meaning of the Chinese martial arts. Berg and Prohl looked at three cases that were critical to the formation of the current debate between the secular and religious variants of the “self-improvement” paradigm. In contrast, this essay will instead offer readers a short discussion of a different image of the martial arts which failed to capture the public’s imagination. Magical rituals were once a relatively common component of Chinese martial culture. Nor have they totally disappeared from the contemporary scene. Yet after about 1900 they became increasingly invisible in the national and then global discourse surrounding the Chinese martial arts. Yet other esoteric practices, including the search for immortality and “qigong” have remained present and even grown in importance. Why?

A short discussion of this transformation points out two things. First, there are many pathways that our current view of the martial arts could have evolved along. Secondly, it is difficult to treat the evolution of social discourses separately from the historically defined groups that both privilege and consume certain types of views. Our current western understanding of the Chinese martial arts is in many ways of product of attempts to make them fit for the consumption of educated urban individuals (as opposed to illiterate, mostly rural, workers) during the 1920s and 1930s. Class conflict and the evolution of China’s middle class have both had a profound effect on our current understanding of the martial arts which we are only now starting to realize.

When we look at the evolution of the martial arts we tend to view our subject through a contemporary or “presentist” lens. While inherited from the past, it shows only the pathway by which it evolved, and not the multiplicity of roads not taken. This obscures the importance of magical ritual in Chinese martial culture, even though such practices can still be seen in traditional temple processions and small martial arts clubs around the world today. Worse, it artificially narrows the range of subjects that could be investigated by students of martial arts studies.


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

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


Self-Actualization as a Core Concept in the Chinese Martial Arts Discourse

Perhaps no assertion is more often expressed in popular discussions than the belief that the martial arts are about more than “just fighting.” Whether this is objectively true or not depends a great deal on who one chooses to talk to and their understanding of hand combat. It is not really all that difficult to find students of Krav Maga, MMA or various schools of southern Kung Fu who will argue with some conviction that in fact the martial arts are about fighting, and as soon as one loses a single minded focus on the reality of violence something important is lost. Of course countless other teachers of Aikido, Judo or various styles of the TCMA would disagree with this position. Often such instructors see the cultivation of the individual (understood in a wide variety of ways) as the central objective, and combat preparedness as at best a secondary goal.

Yet in some very real sense this heterogeneity in the opinion of actual martial artists does not seem to matter. What is important is that the popular discourse surrounding the martial arts, defined in large part by the entertainment industry and journalism, have come to regard the martial arts as an exercise in self-actualization. Unsurprisingly this makes the Asian martial arts attractive to a large number of individuals who share these goals. They arrive at their new schools with a set of expectations that their teachers did not define. In some cases these expectations are largely validated by the philosophy of the style. In other cases I have seen the expectations of teachers and their students clash, sometimes spectacularly so.

In a recent article titled “’Become your Best’: On the Construction of Martial Arts as Means of Self-Actualization and Self-Improvement” (JOMEC Journal 5 2014: 19 pages) Esther Berg and Inken Prohl attempt to explain the origins of this near universal belief that self-realization is the ultimate goal of the Chinese martial arts.  Esther Berg, a former guest author here at Kung Fu Tea, is currently working on her dissertation in Religious Studies at the Cluster of Excellence for ‘Asia and Europe in a Global Context’ at Heidelberg University. Inken Prohl is a Professor of Religious Studies at Heidelberg and has written on both Shinto and Buddhism in Japan and the West.

Berg and Prohl begin their argument by noting that we can only understand and discuss the martial arts through the various ways in which they are mediated. Most people encounter the martial arts as a media driven discourse. Other individuals come into contact with them through larger social structures and institutions. For a smaller number of people the practice of martial arts also leads to a variety of types of understanding including “embodied” knowledge. Incidentally, this four part break down of the ways in which individuals might encounter the martial arts is a handy tool for students to keep in mind if they wish to avoid more simplistic or “reductionist” treatments of these systems in their own work.

Their argument then notes that in the current era the embodied practice of the martial arts has become deeply entangled with media representations and discussions of these systems. This should not come as a great surprise. After all, bodily practices are rarely self-interpreting. Individuals turn to complex systems of signs and culturally mediated meaning to learn what these sensations “mean.” In the current era media discourses are one of the most important vectors by which these symbols are encountered. Rather than drawing a distinction between “real” practice and “fake” TV or cinema representations, it is important to recognize that the former’s embodied sensations are always informed, interpreted, or even juxtaposed with the latter’s web of interpretation. How the practice of the martial arts is framed by various media discussions thus becomes an important element of a number of different research questions.

The authors then turn their attention to the German branch of the Chan Buddhist Shaolin Temple. Through a careful examination of the webpage and promotional materials that this organization uses to communicate with potential students, they note the various ways in which the Temple frames the martial arts as an explicitly “Buddhist” activity (even when pursued by agnostic pupils in a basically secular context). They further demonstrate that the temple’s approach to the martial arts promotes the common refrain that these systems are primarily focused on self-actualization and self-improvement.

This is quite fortuitous as it is what most potential students already believe, and it is probably what they have been searching for. The Temple’s webpage employs a number of generic symbols that have been widely associated with the martial arts as a means of attaining a mastery of the self since the 1970s with the release of TV programs such as “Kung Fu” and movies like “Enter the Dragon.”

While these expectations seem to have formed a virtuous cycle, the authors point out, quite correctly, that this current understanding of the Chinese martial arts, and even the Shaolin tradition, was by no means inevitable. In fact, when you consider them as a body technology it is clear that they don’t really contain this, or basically any other, discourse. Many meanings have been attached to these practices over the years. None of them are essential to the nature of the practice itself.

The current constellation of meanings that define the “essence” of the martial arts for most students in the modern world evolved through a social historical process. While a complex and multistage journey, their translocative historical analysis focuses on three key moments in the evolution of this understanding.

The first, and most controversial of these, occurred in the final decades of the Ming dynasty. While it is not the case that empty hand boxing was invented at the Shaolin Temple in Henan (a position commonly asserted in the popular literature) Shahar and others have demonstrated that the monks were important early adopters of this broader trend. Due to the fame of Shaolin, their activities were recorded in dozens of texts providing modern students with an invaluable (if geographically narrow) window into the emergence of what would become the modern unarmed boxing styles.

Following Shahar the authors note that the advent of unarmed boxing at this time was something of a paradox. The study of the martial arts had traditionally focused on more practical weapons training, and there was no lack of security concerns at this moment in history. That combat training would increase in popularity in the 16th and 17th centuries was quite understandable. But that the greatest growth would be seen in unarmed boxing (as opposed to archery, or the use of spears and swords) was not.

Shahar sees the sudden enthusiasm for unarmed boxing not as an expression of the era’s military situation, but as a result of large scale trends in civilian culture. This era saw the mixing of various traditions, previously considered incompatible, which helped to create a great synthesis and exploration of what was “fundamental” in Chinese society. This new understanding of culture was one of the great achievements of the late Ming dynasty. Of course such a move was not without controversy. It was frequently decried by conservative reformers in the Qing who saw in this new synthesis the roots of a sort of a “cultural confusion” that weakened the country and even contributed to its collapse.

Regardless, in the martial realm this “Ming Syncretism” allowed military monks at a Buddhist institution to experiment with Daoist gymnastic and medical practices in ways that would have previously been difficult. These new technologies could be used to embody and express their own Buddhist views of a transcendent truth. While much of the literature from this period was swept away in the dynastic transition, the basic idea that hand combat training could be used as a vehicle for spiritual cultivation, and ultimately transcendence, seems to have survived. This belief would blossom and find various forms of expression at both the plebian and more elite levels in the 18th and later 19th centuries.

If one idea pervades all three of Berg and Prohl’s cases it seems to be the thought that martial training could lead one to achieve a certain state of transcendence. There is not much evidence of this (in the admittedly very thin) historical literature prior to the Ming dynasty. Yet from the era of Ming syncretism onward it becomes an important (if still somewhat heterodox) idea that emerges time and again in China’s martial history. The new question becomes what is to be transcended and for what reason?

One of my former teachers liked to claim that “religion” was basically a 16th century word for nationalism. Indeed, many individuals have found a sort of self-sacrifice and transcendence in the birth of nations that was once reserved for the realm of religious and spiritual attainment. Perhaps it is not a surprise then that the authors locate the next major milestone in the evolution of the “self-actualization paradigm” in the struggles to “strengthen the nation” and then to define a “modern Chinese identity” that dominated the final decade of the 19th century and much of the Republic period.

Traditional Chinese organization split the social world along the axis of wu (military) and wen (civil). While civil values led, military attributes were seen as necessary for efficient implementation and the creation of order. Thus it is no surprise that at the same time that the newly minted Chinese nation began to debate the basic political and social institutions that would take it into the future, a detailed examination of its “physical culture” was also put on the national agenda. Without the physical strength and spiritual discipline necessary to build a strong people, no set of civil institutions, no matter how well conceived, could succeed. Clearly this process was shaped by China’s encounter with the imperialistic west and the resulting cultural shock that this created. Yet what is often missed is that the basic impulse behind the search for a new form of physical culture to bolster “self-strengthening” was fundamentally Chinese. This probably explains why the ensuing debate managed to capture the national spotlight to the degree that it did.

It was not at all clear that the TCMA would survive the purge and reevaluation of the nation’s physical culture. The humiliations of the Boxer Uprising were still too fresh in popular memory, and none of the major European powers, who were looked to as models, had anything that resembled traditional hand combat training. Of course the Japanese did, and their national program for the promotion of Budo helped to demonstrate that the martial arts could be part of the modern state building process.

This mission was taken up by a number of reformers in the early republic period, the most successful of which was the Jingwu Association.  More than any other group they argued that the TCMA could be separated from their feudal past. Inspired by the “New Culture” movement they argued that the superstitions and magical practices that had defined them could be stripped away leaving a core of pure physical movement that was at the same time totally unique to China, yet still compatible with a rational and scientific view. In fact, this was necessary to create a system of physical education that could strengthen both the body and mind of the people, allow them to stand up to foreign aggression or to tackle the challenges of modernization. By disciplining Chinese bodies the martial arts could literally save the nation.

Notice that once again a larger purpose beyond “mere fighting” is being envisioned for the martial arts. China may have been a poor country but no one imagined that martial arts students were going to fight the Japanese with their bare hands. Rather, in the vision of modern reformers the martial arts were reimagined as a vehicle for a sort of secular transcendence put at the service of the nation and state.

This move into a more secular and modern realm set the stage for the third period that Berg and Prohl decided to examine. Yet now the geographic locus of their investigation shifts. Rather than a discussion of purely Chinese history, their focus becomes “translocative.” In the final stage of this process Bruce Lee helped to bring together the previous traditions of “self-improvement” with two powerful new forces. The first of these was the rapidly evolving world of western popular culture. Bowman has observed that Lee, grasping the counter-cultural moment, detached the secularized ideal of transcendence from service to the state and instead promised that it (like so much else that was popularized during that period) could become a vehicle for the transformation of the individual or “self.” The media discourse around the martial arts that had been slowly growing throughout the 1960s latched onto this message spreading it far and wide after the release of “Kung Fu” the television series, and shortly thereafter Lee’s final film, “Enter the Dragon.” Nor is this new understanding confined to western media markets. Indeed, after the end of the Cultural Revolution the martial arts were revived in the PRC. As always, they were understood as many things by many people. Yet Lee’s assertion that hand combat training could be a vehicle for self-expression came to influence a new generation of Chinese practitioners.


An architectural detail showing a scene from the popular story Journey to the West.  Esherick noted that both Monkey and Pigsy, characters from this story well known to local prasants through popular opera and story telling traditions, were popular subjects of Spirit Possession.  Daniel Amos has noted that the same figures are still invoked by socially marginal Spirit Boxers in Hong Kong Today.  Source: Wikimedia.

An architectural detail showing a scene from the popular story Journey to the West. Esherick noted that both Monkey and Pigsy, characters from this story well known to local peasants through popular opera and story telling traditions, were popular subjects of Spirit Possession. Daniel Amos has noted that the same figures are still invoked by socially marginal Spirit Boxers in Hong Kong Today. Source: Wikimedia.


Dogs that Don’t Bark: Magical Martial Practices as the Path not Taken, or even Seen

Sherlock Holmes once observed that dogs who stay unexpectedly silent in the course of a crime reveal just as much (and perhaps a good deal more) about the perpetrator as those that send out a loud warning. The same can be said for social scientific research. Sometimes it is necessary to consider instances of peace if we wish to understand the causes of war, or to consider elements of the popular discourse that have disappeared over the years as well as those that have remained.

Berg and Prohl have done the field a great service by illuminating the pathway by which one of the central defining characteristics of the discourse surrounding modern Chinese martial arts came into being. While they readily acknowledge that there were any number of historical cases that could have been examined, they chose three. One that represented the pre-modern past, the next located on the cusp of the emergence of a modern nation state, and a third situated just at the birth of the popularization of “post-modern” values in the 1970s and 1980s.

Perhaps the most important movement in their story was the first, in the Ming dynasty. From the moment that the martial arts were imagined as a vehicle for transcendence their course seemed set. After all, what sort of transcendence is available in the pre-modern period except for the spiritual? Likewise in the modern era what sort of communities can anyone submerge themselves into quite effectively as “the nation”? Finally, as the institutions of the modern era come under attack in the early stages of globalization we see a new type of transcendence focusing on a very contemporary understanding of “the self” (one that likely would have been alien to any Ming era martial monk).

This presents us with something of a paradox. The authors began by asserting that the emphasis on self-actualization in the martial arts was not intrinsic or essential. Instead it was historically contingent and a result of a path dependent process. Yet looking at the progression that they have mapped out, it is hard to escape the impression that their vision of the martial arts closely mirrors the stages of modernization theory. If this is the case then the current state of the martial arts would seem to be pretty much predestined after all. And that would in turn suggest that perhaps the movement towards transcendence in the martial arts is intrinsic. The ways in which a practitioner understands this might evolve in each period in response to the teleological forces of history, but it does not appear that there is any way off this path.

Is there any room in our understanding of the martial arts for other sorts of agencies? Could individuals or groups have made decisions that would have led to a substantially different outcome? Or is the current discourse surrounding the martial arts simply a reflection of the (inevitable) modernization process?


A Chinese woodblock print showing the recapture of Tainjin during the Boxer Uprising.  Source: Wikimedia.

A Chinese woodblock print showing the recapture of Tainjin during the Boxer Uprising. Source: Wikimedia.


Battle Magic and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

The final decade of the 19th century saw multiple waves of anti-Christian violence sweep across China. For the most part these targeted foreign converts and their property, yet they varied in severity and duration. Some of the most serious violence was seen in Shandong province starting in the mid 1890s. Eventually these outbreaks would set the stage for the Boxer Uprising, a truly catastrophic event that would substantially shape the pathway by which China would enter modernity.

The Yihi Boxers (or Boxers United in Righteousness) did not simply arise from the parched earth of northern China. Joseph Esherick has noted that a number of geographic, social and international factors all coincided to allow this event to expand far beyond the other anti-Christian outbursts that were seen from Guangzhou to Beijing during this period. In fact, explaining the Boxer Uprising has been a major project for both Marxist and Liberal historians.

These scholars conducted extensive documentary and field research, often interviewing the children and surviving family members of individuals who were involved in the actual uprising. As a result we have at our disposal an intriguing body of observations documenting the various martial arts communities of Shandong province and their diverse reactions to one of the most important outbreaks of community violence in modern Chinese history.

I have always been surprised that these works are not discussed more frequently in the martial arts studies literature. I suspect that part of the problem stems from the fact that the martial arts societies of Northern China during the late 19th century do not always conform to our expectations of what a “proper” hand combat tradition should look like. Historians have developed good tools to deal with groups that are clearly sectarian, such as the various “Trigrams” and White Lotus societies that appear in local records. Alternatively there are a number of fairly orthodox boxing styles practiced in the region (both Greater Hong (Red) Boxing and Plum Blossom were locally popular) that still exist in a substantially similar form today. These groups tend to resemble any other northern village martial arts association.

However, there was a third type of group that turned out to be central to the outbreak of the Boxer Uprising. In some ways they defy easy categorization. These institutions combined orthodox martial arts training (including a background in both boxing and hard qigong) with more esoteric elements. In some cases this included spells and talisman that were supposed to make a student immune to the effects of weapons. In other traditions techniques were taught that would allow the student to be “possessed” by popular local gods (some of whom came out of opera performances) and to fight with their strength, ferocity and natural ability. Esherick maintains that it was the combination of these two different strains of esoteric battle magic that (with a number of more mundane factors) allowed for the creation the Boxers United in Righteousness.

There were other outbreaks of violence in the area that alerted the authorities to the impending crisis. One of the first of these was an uprising by a local Big Sword Society in 1896. This group of martial artists was backed by number of wealthy landlords who sought to protect their crops and investments from the banditry that was quickly consuming the countryside. As a result they formed local martial arts societies and sponsored a number of their tenants for membership as well. Given the ratio of wealthy landlords to indebted peasants in the region, one suspects that the vast majority of the membership of these societies fell into the latter category while its officers and organizers were found among the former.

Given the basic structure (elite led) and social function (bandit control) of the Big Sword Societies, one might assume that they were essentially local militias. This was not the case. The landlords that ran most of the branches of the Big Sword Society, while economically well off, were not generally of gentry rank. While the gentry ran the militias, the peasants had their mutual protection societies.

This lack of gentry involvement allowed, or even encouraged, the Big Sword Societies to employ a set of heterodox magical rites that were thought to confer invulnerability. These spells, originally taught by a wandering Daoist priest who had taken up residence in the area some years earlier, were taken very seriously by the local population and were the source of the group’s social influence. An investigation of this movement by the Daotai of Xuzhou paints a fairly detailed picture of exactly how the organization’s “Armor of the Golden Bell” technique functioned:


“When they study their techniques, the poor need not make an offering, but those who can, offer 6,000 Beijing cash as a gift. In the middle of the night, they kneel and receive instruction. They light lamps and burn incense, draw fresh water from a well and make offerings of it. They write vulgar charms (fu-lu) on white cloth. The words of the charms are vulgar and improper. There are such phrases as “Patriarch, Duke of Zhou; Immortals of the Peach Blossom; Golden Bell, iron armor protect my body.”

Those who spread the art can neither read nor write. They have others write for them. They also teach spells (zhou). While chanting spells they burn charms, mixing [the ashes] in water and instructing [the initiate] to kneel and drink. Then [the teacher] breathes in from above the lantern, and blows out over [the initiate’s] entire body. Then he beats him with a brick and staff. It is said that after much chanting for a long time, even firearms cannot harm one.

It is much like breathing exercises (yun-qi). Where the “breath” (qi) moves, even a fierce chop cannot penetrate. But if one loses concentration, then the blade will enter. The simple people do not understand, and think it is a magical technique.”

Report of the Daotai of Xuzhou quoted in Esherick p. 105


There are a number of interesting things to note in this account. While the rites described are certainly heterodox they betray no sign of White Lotus theology. Thus the origin of the Big Sword Societies does not lay in the world of the sectarians, but probably the types of generic popular religion that the local people were already familiar with. Esherick concludes that “In its essence, the Big Sword Society was an association of martial artists, whose technique was aided by a rudimentary set of charms and spells which helped to provide the confidence and concentration so necessary for their gong-fu to succeed.” (p. 107)

More interesting to me is the fact that even though the local population probably had a very good understanding of what the group was up to, the local gentry and officials did not. In addition to reporting on the activities of this group, the daotai is forced to translate and explain them in an effort to make them intelligible to his much more elite audience. It is interesting to note that he does not doubt the basic efficacy of the group’s techniques. Rather he simply assumes that all right thinking people know that magical spells are bogus. In his view the locals are actually harnessing the power of internal Qi or “breath” training, of the sort seen in immortality exercises, yet they are too ignorant to understand the actual source of their power.

From a modern standpoint it is odd to see the dismissal of magical ritual as bunk only to turn around and endorse qigong as a means of making one invulnerable to swords, spears and bullets. Both positions would seem to be equally distant from the standards of “modern rationalism” that the Jingwu Association and later reformers worked so hard to impose on the Chinese martial arts.  Esherick makes clear is that while not all traditional fighting styles practiced these sorts of techniques, they were fairly common in late 19th century northern China.

Yet as the report reveals, they were not equally common in all sorts of social circles. The practitioners of the Armor of the Golden Bell may have varied in income level, but they were all fundamentally peasants. Few if any of these individuals had much formal education. Further, they were all inhabitants of the countryside. Their world, with its Daoist inspired battle magic was far removed from the more educated and urban environment that late 19th century military officers and regional officials occupied. They too understood the concept of battle magic, but for them the practice was based in a more sophisticated model of internal alchemy. In fact, Marnix Wells and Douglas Wile have already discussed at length how these ideas seem to have grown in popularity in elite circles from the late 18th century onward.

If one were guided by a modernization based theory of the Chinese martial arts it might be assumed that magical spells and chants were abandoned shortly after the Boxer Uprising, and that Daoist related breathing exercises went shortly thereafter. This provided the space for the more modern emphasis on self-improvement and self-actualization (usually understood in secular terms) that dominates the martial arts today.

Yet the actual picture is more difficult to interpret. Certainly there are martial arts groups that conform to and promote this basic understanding of their history. And I think that Berg and Prohl’s model explains the vast majority of what is seen in the west (which is their major focus).

Yet in both Taiwan and current mainland China the “modernists” did not win the day. Internal training and Qigong-esque practices remained quite popular with martial artists who fled to Taiwan in 1949. And after a short period of attempting to enforce a more modern and secular view of the martial arts, even Wushu authorities in the avowedly secular PRC have embraced the Daoist and supposedly “internal” origins of many leading styles including Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua. Often this meant consciously deciding to dismiss or ignore the research of Tang Hao and other recent historians so that a more culturally congruent (yet totally ahistorical) view of the origins of these arts could be embraced. While the Western martial arts discourse has come to favor a secularized self-improvement message, more in tune with New Age thought than anything actually Buddhist, in China neo-Daoism seems to have been the victor.

Clearly the TCMA are struggling in their homeland. Fewer students are taking up these styles, and the survival of some schools is in question. Yet to the extent that these hand combat systems are valued it is often because they are seen as important repositories of intangible elements of Chinese culture. All of this is also a result of the effort to reform the martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s. It was not simply enough to make them “scientific.” One also had to change their social image.

Traditionally the martial arts had been strongly associated with the rural agrarian world. Indeed, most of the people who practiced them in the 19th century were from the countryside. Yet if they were to survive in the coming age they needed to be re-imagined so that they would be socially acceptable to educated, middle class, urban individuals. Nor were all of these individual radical reformers. Those who were could certainly follow the Jingwu Association. Yet in the 1930s the Central Guoshu Institute reoriented the reform movement in an important way that is not always obvious to outside observers.

While still seeking to purify the martial arts they did so from the perspective of the “National Essence” rather than the “New Culture” movement. They were looking not just for a physical technology, but for other historical, social and cultural elements that could preserve China’s unique identity in the face of the existential threat posed by Communism on the one hand and the Japanese on the other. Of course not any values would do. Those that were promoted tended to be the more sophisticated and elite elements of the imperial past. These often focused on the stories of the illustrious origins of these fighting systems and their compatibility with sophisticated models of Daoist medicine. While the National Essence movement was friendlier to traditional elite culture, it also had no place for popular talismanic and battle magic.


"Monkey Boxers" performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930.  Source: Taiping Institute.

“Monkey Boxers” performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930. Source: Taiping Institute.


Conclusion: One Pathway or Many in the Chinese Martial Arts

It is critical to remember that there were limits to the power of groups like the Jingwu and Central Guoshu organization. While important the majority of China’s martial artists never actually had much to do with either association. As such they did not really have the influence necessary to impose changes on the ground, except perhaps through their example and the introduction of different business models. Yet as wealthy groups with strong backing from society and the government they were able to shape the discourse about the martial arts that arose in period books, newspapers and periodicals. Indeed, these are the very sources that most modern historians are forced to rely on when investigating the evolution of the Republic period martial arts.

This discourse was absorbed by elites in other places as well, including Taiwan and Hong Kong. The Hong Kong film industry, which in reality was always somewhat separate from the more traditional martial arts community, adopted many of these elements of discourse, as did martial arts novelists.  Much of the current discourse on the martial arts that we see in the west today is a continuation of ideas and debates first laid down in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s.

Yet practice is a stubborn thing. While martial magic has disappeared from our discussions of the nature of Chinese hand combat, it never vanished from its actual practice. The same sorts of spirit possession rituals practiced by the Yihi Boxers at the turn of the century reemerged in Fujian Province in revolts during the 1930s. In fact, Amos has reported extensively on the same possession techniques being employed by marginal martial artists in Hong Kong in the current era. Likewise the ethnographic work of Boretz has demonstrated that magical and ascetic practices in local temple military troops is an important mechanism by which masculinity can be expressed and reproduced for marginalized young males who are cut off from other more respectable forms of social performance.

While present in the current era such topics receive little attention in the literature on martial studies. This is a shame. It is fascinating to note how broad the embodied experience of the martial arts can be compared to the relatively more disciplined discourse that has arisen around them. It is not simply the case that the traditional martial arts could have come to modernity through many different pathways. In fact they did. We are currently living in a world with multiple competing Chinese martial cultures.

It may be fruitful to consider whether these other visions of China’s martial culture would also have produced an emphasis on self-actualization had they become the socially dominant paradigm. This question is not easily answered. Some of the ritual and magical practices outlined by Boretz do seem to follow the same basic logic of “self-production.” Yet other practices, such as the possession by stereotyped opera deities are more problematic. That may lead to an individual being able to borrow or tap into a certain type of social prestige, yet this clearly has little to do with modern notions self-improvement and self-realization. The great fear of traditional practitioners is that a student’s true personality may become lost or damaged through repeated bouts of spirit possession.

Ultimately this uncertainty is a good thing. It suggests that Berg and Prohl were correct in their initial assessment that the Chinese martial arts are not inherently a vehicle for self-actualization, and that our current emphasis on these ideas is a result of path dependent developments rather the inevitable process of modernization. Had the Manchu princes in Tianjin been able to hold off the second Japanese assault in 1900, or had the Boxers succeeded in their assault on the Foreign Legation in Beijing early in the siege, our current discourse about the essential nature of the Chinese martial arts might be very different. That is an exciting think to contemplate.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Leung Kai’s Ghost Story: Remembering a Modern Choy Li Fut Master.


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