A Dragon Dance performed by the Ben Kiam Athletic Association in Manila, Philippines, sometime during the 1950s.  Copyright Tambuli Media.
A Dragon Dance performed by the Ben Kiam Athletic Association in Manila, Philippines, sometime during the 1950s. Copyright Tambuli Media.


The Assignment


Interested readers will have to wait a little longer for the article promised in the title. A few months ago I was contacted by an editor for a new ABC-CLIO encyclopedia (on popular culture in Asia) about the possibility of writing a number of articles on the Chinese martial arts. Originally they wanted three or four articles of 1500-2000 words a piece.

There is no compensation for writing these entries. It’s a brilliant business plan. You get other people to work for you and then you don’t pay them.

Nor does one receive much credit for writing encyclopedia articles within the academic world. I suspect that a lot of RPT committees would just view stuff like this as a waste of time that could have been spent on more productive endeavors. Needless to say I was not at all sure that I wanted to take the offer. But after mulling it over I decided that a couple of articles like this might help to introduce future readers to a different vision of martial arts studies.

I should probably be working on this project right now, but at the moment I find myself facing a new dilemma. After some further editing decisions were made it was decided that there would only be room for a single article on the Chinese martial arts, and that would have to be shortened to 1200 words.

Bruce Lee is not getting his own entry, which is surprising given that this is an encyclopedia of popular culture. Instead he will be covered in a 300 word sidebar, as will the Shaolin Temple. This then leaves me with roughly 1200 words to introduce everything about the Chinese martial arts other than Bruce and Shaolin.

There was also this helpful note at the top of the style guide:

“The primary audience for almost all ABC-CLIO encyclopedias and other reference works is upper-level high school and undergraduate students, as well as laypeople. Please don’t write at an excessively high level, appropriate mainly for academic or professional colleagues, or use a heavy citation style, referencing only academic journals and publications. You may need to explain unfamiliar terms the first time they are used….”

I suppose that the advice is sensible enough, but it does undercut my initial back-up plan to just reference everything in footnotes. While the original group of interrelated articles would have been challenging to write, trying to do everything in one (even shorter) entry presents its own puzzles.

It is never possible to say everything on a subject. All academic writing (not just short entries) involves deciding what is to be included and what is better left aside. In fact, good theories are useful to readers precisely because they simplify overly complicated subjects. On a purely intellectual level I agree that parsimony is useful and appropriate in this situation.

Yet I now find myself facing a very practical puzzle. With a topic as vast as the Chinese martial arts, where do you start? How much should you really try to do in a couple of pages? How do you succinctly introduce a topic that is interesting precisely because of its seemingly infinite variability that has grown up over time? In a format like this, is it ever possible to avoid the trap of telling only a single story about the Chinese martial arts?

And avoiding references to academic journals? Now that is just heresy.

Bowl with dragon over waves. Qing Dynasty, 1722-1735.  Walters Art Museum.  Source: Wikimedia.
Bowl with dragon over waves. Qing Dynasty, 1722-1735. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.



The 1000 Faces of the Chinese Martial Arts

Thanks to my recent book project, and all of the reading and writing that I have been doing for this blog, I haven’t felt the need to dive into any new research. Still, I have been spending some time thinking about the best way to approach this subject. As part of that process I have been looking up articles on the Chinese martial arts in a variety of reference works to see how other authors had tackled the challenge.

So far Stanley Henning has been the clear winner. Anyone looking for the definitive reference work on the martial arts need to check out the two volume collection edited by Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth titled Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation (2010, ABC-CLIO). The format of this particular work is a little different from what might expect. Rather than short, alphabetically arranged entries the articles are group first by geographic region and then topically. Each of these longer pieces delves a little more deeply into its assigned topic and does not shy away from including discussions of the academic literature. The end result is an incredibly useful work for anyone who writes on martial arts studies. I actually keep my copy just behind my computer.

Henning was tapped to provide a number of articles (at least seven) dealing with the Chinese martial arts. These included an overview of Chinese boxing styles, the development of the martial arts in China, their subsequent expression in Hong Kong and Taiwan, prominent hand combat theories and women in the Chinese martial arts. A few other authors also contributed articles to this section.

It is hard not to be jealous of Henning, especially given my current predicament. He had the space to develop a real overview of the Chinese martial arts that conveyed much of the best of his own perspective on this topic. His use of Chinese language sources throughout these articles is particularly helpful. Then again, he was writing for an encyclopedia of the martial arts, rather than one which only intended to touch on these subjects in passing.

Anyone looking for a quick overview of the Chinese martial arts who doesn’t want to spend the time necessary to work through books like Lorge, Morris, Shahar or Kennedy and Guo would be well advised to check out Henning’s contributions to this work. All of his articles are good, but upon rereading them I found myself especially drawn to his initial statement on the subject (pp. 89-92.) Consider his opening sentences:


“China is a vast country with a complicated topography. Its population includes both the Han majority culture and dozens of minority cultures. In this environment, people used martial arts for a variety of reasons—community or personal defense, festival arts, moving meditations. All of these aspects are reflected in contemporary descriptions of martial activities in both Kaifeng and Hangzhou, capitals of the Northern and Southern Song dynasties respectively (960-1279), and continuation to this day. Thus, the outstanding characteristic of the Chinese martial arts is the incredible proliferation of styles…..”


This captures the essential dilemma of discussing the Chinese martial arts. As I have said many times before, despite our habit of discussing them in unitary terms, they were never just one thing. Instead they reflected the life experience of many different types of individuals, from soldiers to market place performers, over a wide stretch of territory and time. While there is little doubt that these individuals shared certain cultural norms and practices, it seems unlikely that they would have always embraced each other as fellow travelers simply because they all owned a sword and had a passing interest in boxing or wrestling.

Yes, there are certain elements that seem to unite the stories of China’s diverse martial artists. Yet by in large each of these narratives also reflects the many ways in which the martial arts were a tool that expressed (and responded) to very diverse local conditions. In some places these systems focused on the need to protect the village from bandit armies. In other locations the threat was lineage feuds within the community itself. In other times the martial arts may have been most commonly seen on the opera stage where they were a way of making a living. And all of this is very different from the world of the Republic era martial arts reformers (the Jingwu and Guoshu movements) that gave rise to modern, global, practices that we now identify as the “Chinese martial arts.”

I love Henning’s article because he immediately begins by warning against the ever present temptation to reduce everything to a single historical, theoretical or practical dimension. The Chinese martial arts are fascinating to us as both practitioners and scholars because they accurately reflect the complexity of the social processes that gave rise to them. When we simplify these practices to a single narrative about Kung Fu we not only misunderstand the martial arts, but we lose the ability to learn new things about China and its changing place in the global world. I envy Henning because he was able to spend his first 1,200 words explaining precisely why a two page summary of the Chinese martial arts will never do them justice.


Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing.  Source: Wikimedia.
Detail of the Nine Dragon Wall in the Forbidden City, Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.




Who Creates the “Martial Arts”?

One of the other things that I liked about Henning’s essays were their topical focus. Rather than trying to cover all of the relevant material through an ever expanding pool of expository subheadings he looked at a small number of big questions (gender in the martial arts, the Chinese martial arts outside the mainland) and allowed these more theoretical issues to structure his presentation of the data. Green and Svinth no doubt deserve much of the credit for this as I have noticed the same pattern throughout the collection.

Some of the other articles I have looked at did not have this same set of editorial decisions on their side. Such pieces seem to typically begin with a few words on really ancient history (I am actually a little mystified that all discussions of the modern martial arts must begin in the bronze age) followed by an ever increasing number of (often unrelated) subheadings. Popular topics include Shaolin and Bodhidharma, wude, bandits, popular 20th century martial artists, “internal” vs. “external” styles, wuxia novels, the Boxer Uprising and finally Hong Kong martial arts films. This might be followed up with a concluding discussion of the declining popularity of traditional Kung Fu, the spread of MMA and modern combat sports in China or the incredible global success of Taijiquan.

At first glance these entries seem to present readers with an organizational problem. All of these things are elements of the Chinese martial arts (or martial culture). What seems to be missing are the intermediary steps connecting them into a single coherent whole. One might suspect that restricted word limits may have something to do with this confusion.

Another possibility is that there is something more significant generating the confusion. Over the years Chinese citizens have applied a number of different terms to their fighting systems and none of them exactly correspond to the historical nuances (and baggage) that accompany the modern English category “martial arts.” More precisely, the martial arts have been imagined slightly differently in China’s various regions, eras and social systems. Given the complexity of the country’s geography and history, that is simply to be expected. Yet none of these terms actually correspond all that well with popular usage of the term “martial art” today.

Our word is essentially a modern construction. It is very much a product of America’s 20th century engagement with Asia where our long history of orientalism collided with the forces of imperialism, immigration, war and globalization. The unspoken subtext that always seems to precede the martial arts is “traditional.” And how “traditional” Asian cultures have been imagined in the west (indeed, whether such a thing as “Asia” can even be said to exist in any sense other than in the cultural imagination) is an incredibly fraught subject.

This may help to explain the jumble of subheadings that accompany most discussions of the martial arts. These things are not grouped together because they would have always appeared as related categories to contemporary individuals. I think that General Yu Dayou would have had harsh words for anyone who said that what he did was closely related to performance techniques of marketplace jugglers. Yet it is the idea of the “traditional” (and the related need to defend it against extinction) that unites these disparate physical technologies, mythologies, trades and theories into one category called “the martial arts” in the both the western and modern mind.

Indeed, the very idea of the “traditional martial arts” only makes sense when it is placed in silent opposition to our common sense understanding of the “modern world.” That seems to be the silent or missing parameter in so many discussions of the martial arts. Thus in reading the various reference works out there, I often get the sense that these articles do a better job explaining how we collectively imagine an “oriental past” (even if much of it only happened 50 years ago) rather than illuminating how contemporaneous practitioners of the martial arts understood their lives and practice.



Late Ming, Embroidered Panel featuring dragons.  Circa 1600.
Late Ming, Embroidered Panel featuring dragons. Circa 1600.


Conclusion: Further Readings

At this point I remain unsure how I should approach my own article. I want to convey something of complexity of the Chinese hand combat systems. Better yet, readers should understand that this is a reflection of the intricacy of Chinese history, culture and geography. That is where the value of the Chinese martial arts ultimately lies. At the same time, I owe it to my readers to give them a few concrete starting points for thinking about specific aspects of the martial arts. Keeping those particulars from dominating the story (and hence reducing it to a single dimension) is the challenge that I now face.

Of course any encyclopedia article worth its salt will inspire the reader to go on and discover more for themselves. This process is usually aided by a list of recommended readings. Given that these count against my word totally I only want to give a handful. Further, the publisher’s style sheet specifically warns against providing a list of academic articles.

Instead I would like to provide a mix of more scholarly and popular books that might facilitate further exploration of the Chinese martial arts. You can see my tentative list of five suggested readings below. What would be on yours?


Further Readings


Stanley E. Henning “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965” in Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth (eds.) Martial Arts in the Modern World. Praeger, 2003.

Adam Hsu. The Sword Polisher’s Record: The Way of Kung Fu. Tuttle, 1997.

Peter Lorge. Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century. Cambridge UP, 2012.

Meir Shahar. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and Chinese Martial Arts. University Press of Hawaii, 2008.

Wang Guangxi. Chinese Kung Fu. Cambridge UP, 2012.




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