Everything about the Chinese Martial Arts, in 1200 Words or Less

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?



10 Comments Add yours

  1. I feel your pain.

    In that encyclopedia, see my entry on the topic of “Asian Martial Arts in the United States and Canada,” where I had to beg and borrow to get my princely 2500 words. The North American timeline isn’t as long (ca. 1850 to present), but the scope and diversity of arts are comparable.

    Given your limits, I’d consider some brief topical discussions. You don’t have space to answer questions, but you do have space to pose them.

    For instance, consider the jingoism of the orthodox presentation, where the CMA typically begins and ends with Han. Hui, Uighurs, Tibetans, and so on are generally left out of the standard telling. Yet in most societies, boxing is done by members of financially strapped minority groups. If China is different, why? Perhaps because the Han histories are the ones most commonly presented in 20th century comic books and newspaper sports pages? Certainly much of what everybody knows about the stuff in the USA is owed to what one used to read in comic books and sports pages. If that’s the case, then a whole lot of work remains to be done.

    As for the Han tradition, consider festival settings. How much of the traditional story is owed to documented fact, and how much to theatrical presentations associated with Boys Festival and so on?

    Speaking of Boys Festival, consider bachelor subculture. With the Han often abandoning baby girls at birth (with the lucky ones being adopted by Hui), presumably third sons had a problem finding a spouse. So, did these youth hang around boxing gyms the same way that street youth used to do in the industrial cities of Europe and North America? If the answer is yes, then the search should introduce one to some of the better-known writers, too, some of whom no doubt did their most important work with a glass in hand, same as their peers in the New York working press of the National Police Gazette era.

    Lords of disorder are probably noticeable, too. The world turns upside down for a day. Carnival, Duesshera, and Muharram. Self-flagellation. Purification of the flesh. How better to do this than via stick fights and diets?

    Truly theatrical presentation is slightly different. Themes in the theater rarely change over time. The Stranger with No Name rides into town, and ends up killing all the bad guys. Opera, Punch and Judy, and Hollywood all have the same themes, just different media.

    There is also the circus. Back in the day, it was a big deal when the circus came to town. And what is a standard feature of a circus? Strongman acts. Some of the first Asians in North America and Europe were circus performers. Presumably these performers did the same act in San Francisco as they had been doing in Canton and Tokyo, just for different marks.

    Finally, consider that rich men hire athletes to serve as proxies. Today, computer billionaires compete by buying football teams. Before that, Regency Fancy and underworld bosses had boxers. Indian rajahs had wrestlers. Japanese daimyo had sumotori. What was the Chinese equivalent?

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thanks for the words of encouragement. You have certainly suggested a number of interesting questions. I touched on the issue of “bare sticks” a few months back, but demographics is certainly something that needs more discussion in our treatment of the martial arts. Any chance you would be interested in submitting a guest post on that? I quite enjoyed your article in that encyclopedia as well!

      1. I don’t know enough about Chinese demographics to speak to it. However, I do know that the folks who did taiji at the 1936 Olympics included several Muslims, and that the promotion itself was orchestrated, in part, by a fellow who went on to become a muckety muck in Japanese-controlled Manchukuo. This suggests people who are not in the mainstream in either the Communist or Nationalist spheres.

        One could do a huge project on boxing, wrestling, and martial arts in Shanghai between the World Wars. White Russians, Communist Koreans, the Green Gang, Fairbairn and Sykes; they’re all there.

        For the demographics of mid-20th century US professional boxing, see this 1952 article by Weinberg and Arond. It’s what got me thinking about this type of thing. If their thesis applies to professional boxing throughout the USA and Western Europe, why or why doesn’t it apply elsewhere? Or does it? At least in professional boxing and muay Thai, their thesis continues to apply quite well. http://www.jstor.org/discover/10.2307/2772326?uid=3739960&uid=2&uid=4&uid=3739256&sid=21106417778533

        Bachelor subculture was important back in the days of John L. Sullivan. That was the era of barber shops and National Police Gazette, when Pullman porters delivered the news with the train. I’m just barely old enough to remember going to some of those barbershops. Those magazines aren’t for little fellows. Then hair got long, and magazines such as True went out of business. Were there equivalent Chinese papers during the late 19th and early 20th centuries? If there were, then I’m guessing that they represent the motherlode.

  2. Alex Channon says:

    My initial feeling would be to consider the most likely audience – which as you’ve pointed out is probably going to be high school kids or first year undergrads. Personally I would bet that they’re most likely to be reading this sort of text if they’re researching for an assignment, rather than out of personal interest.

    If the encyclopedia is focused on pop culture in Asia, then I’d think about what types of assignments students of Asian studies and/or global cultural studies at this level are likely to be set. What kinds of theoretical or topical material will benefit them the most in this respect; and which particular stories, characters, or issues are the best for exemplifying those points? Might help whittle down the options a little, keep it from becoming too vague or diffuse.

    And for further reading, I don’t think there’s any harm in signposting this very site, provided the publisher are ok with web references!

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thanks Alex! Solid advice indeed. Given that this will be in a resources dedicated to popular culture rather than Chinese history or military history I should probably be slanting the discussion in those terms. As you say, it would certainly help me to choose my 1200 words more wisely.

  3. Andrew Shinn says:

    As for books, I think the Another volume by Adam Hsu (in English) is even better than The Sword Polisher’s Record. Lone Sword Against the Cold Cold Sky, is a deeper treatment than the previous, which is primarily a collection of his previously published magazine column.

    Also Chinese Martial arts Training Manuals by Kennedy and Guo.

    A surprisingly broad treatment of training methods and classifications and a bit of a who’s who comes from Kung Fu Elements by Liang Shouyu.

    I’m really curious to see your 1200 word treatment. I almost want to try and write one myself with those constraints, just as an exercise to see what I come up with.

    Keep us informed!

    1. benjudkins says:

      Hi Andrew. I am afraid to say that I haven’t read “Kung Fu Elements” by Lian Shouyu. I will need to rectify that. Your point about Hsu is well taken. I enjoyed both books and was thinking about the going with the first one precisely because it might be more accessible to someone with minimal background (but a growing interest) in the Chinese martial arts. Kennedy and Guo may make it onto the suggested reading list as well. I thought about putting their short work in Jingwu on there (it seems to fit the target audience quite well), but decided it might be too specific. Maybe the more general discussion in their work on martial arts training manuals is the way to go. Thanks for the suggestions!

      1. Andrew Morris’s Marrow of the Nation also has an excellent chapter on martial arts.

  4. J. Ranger says:

    I think there needs to be a tremendous shake up of the ‘accepted histories’ of this, which have for far too long been domain of sino-philes and blinded martial artists with vested interests.

    Perhaps the subject of the next book or study could be: martial artists in the east – good guys or bad guys?
    It’s time for a major rethinking of the traditional master being the uncorrupt, freedom fighting, hero.

  5. J. Ranger says:

    Speaking from personal experience, I think it should be added that there is an extremely nefarious side to some chinese martial artists (the grandmasters) which is about the Hongmen, secret societies, political connections and plotting to take over your neighbourhood from a chinatown meeting room.

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