I was recently having a conversation with T. W. Smith who runs the Kung Fu Podcast. He was developing an idea for a show and asked me what five specific moments did the most to transform Kung Fu. It’s a fascinating question, and a difficult one. Short lists are always a little more challenging than longer ones, especially when you are forced to prioritize such diverse experiences. So I rattled off about a dozen contenders and left it at that.
Still, it is an intriguing question. After considering it a little longer I have decided to share my first cut at this problem here. To make the challenge a little more tractable I decided to impose some ground rules. First off, all of these moments need to fall between the late imperial period and the present day. Truly ancient events (such as the invention of the sword or fire) are excluded from this discussion.
Second, each of these events needs to impact the Chinese martial arts as a whole, not just a single style. Obviously most things originate with a given system, and that is fine, but their lasting impact needs to be more universal in nature.
Lastly, we are looking for discrete moments in history when something changed rather than a slow evolutionary process (say the emergence of the “armed escort” business). As we will see in our conclusion, splitting events into these two categories can be a tricky business. Very few moments of lasting social consequence emerge tabula rasa.
So what are my top five? Here are some clues to think about before you read on. How many can you guess from the dates?
1. Huangpu River Delta, July 21st, 1553
2. Jiangnang, in the first few weeks of 1562
3. Sishui Village, Henan Province, 1781
4. Shanghai, July 7th, 1910
5. Hong Kong and Beijing, 21st of January, 1982
The Battle of the Huangpu River Delta, 1553
Everyone in the martial arts world is familiar with the legend and reputation of the Shaolin Temple. Even many individuals with no connection to the Asian fighting systems have been influenced by this master symbol of the martial arts. From Hip Hop’s Wu Tang Clan, to Darth Vader’s betrayal and destruction of the Jedi Temple, Shaolin has left a mark on both Chinese and global popular culture.
Why? Given that this temple was destroyed in 1928 (and what remained was badly suppressed during the dark years of the Cultural Revolution) how has this monastic order managed to gain such a grip on the popular imagination? How did the Shaolin Temple become a top destination for martial arts tourists today?
The answer to this riddle can be found in the political and economic turmoil that was set in motion following the publication of edicts which restricted seaborne trade in the second half of the Ming Dynasty. While the social effects of trade could be disruptive, countless villages and towns along the coast of China were dependent on this commerce for their survival.
The results were predictable enough. Pirate fleets composed on Japanese warriors, unemployed Chinese sailors and foreign mercenaries took advantage of the situation to claim the waterways and coastlines of central and southern China for themselves. Local officials were helpless in the face of their advance due to the weakened state of the regular Ming military, or were actually cooperating with these pirate navies to keep commerce and trade flowing.
The Chinese government responded to this crisis by raising new types of troops that could be more easily paid for. Part of this process included the requirement that major Buddhist temples (who often controlled massive agricultural estates and thus needed their own security forces) send monastic armies to help fight the pirate disturbance.
Vice Commissioner Wan Biao of the Nanjing Chief Military Commission ordered the Shaolin Temple in Henan to provide just such an army in 1553. While the Shaolin Temple had been training individuals in the military arts (and specialized in pole fighting), it had never fielded an expeditionary force of this nature so far from home.
On July 21st of 1553 a monastic army of 120 individuals engaged a roughly equally sized group of pirates in the canal region of the Huangpu River Delta. After defeating them in their initial engagement the monks gave chase (for 10 days) and annihilated every last survivor. Ming military officials were impressed with both the tenacity and skill of their victory. While they killed over 100 pirates, the monks suffered only four casualties. Other victories followed. (Interested readers will want to consult Meir Shahar for more on this episode.)
These events ignited an explosion of interest in various Shaolin fighting methods during the remainder of the 16th and 17th centuries. The temple was mentioned in countless martial arts manuals, distinguished military encyclopedias and popular novels. Indeed, the later Qing and Republic era rediscovery of Shaolin was built on a foundation laid in the 16th century. But how did anyone find out about their exploits? Clearly the pirates were not the ones talking.
To answer that question we must turn to a scholar and geographer named Zheng Ruoceng (1505-1580). Meir Shahar notes that while he was not a degree holder his expertise was greatly appreciated by local military officials. Zheng was also a proponent of the increased use of private and monastic armies to solve the Ming government’s chronic military shortfalls. In 1568 he wrote a volume titled The Strategic Defense of the Jiguang Region. This included a shorter work titled the “Monastic Army’s First Victory” in which he extolled the virtues of Shaolin’s martial monks and used them to bolster his own thesis. These arguments found a receptive audience in officialdom, and eventually trickled down into other layers of society. While Shaolin’s martial monks scored some impressive victories, Zheng did as much as anyone else to turn them into a legend.
A New Treatise of Military Efficiency, 1562
Civil observers like Zheng Ruoceng were not the only ones to take note of Shaolin’s success in the field. The brilliant young General Qi Jiguang also had a lot to do with the popularization of the Shaolin brand. At the time of the pirate attacks little of the old Ming military structure survived. When General Qi Jiguang arrived in the field to take up his command he discovered that he had few troops with any training. As such he was forced to find new ways to raise, train and arm his own troops while at the same time working out strategies to defeat a new type of enemy.
This detailed engagement with the question of troop training fed his preexisting interest in the martial arts. In 1562, fresh from his own victories against the pirates, he wrote an encyclopedia titled a New Treatise of Military Efficiency relating what he had learned. While some chapters covered questions of tactics, strategy and logistics, others took a more detailed look at troop training.
These chapters provide us with an invaluable glimpse into the world of the Chinese martial arts as they existed in the late 16th century. As one would expect Qi focused most of his attention on battlefield weapons. But his book also provides a list of many of the styles that were popular with boxers as well as his own critique of the general situation. It should also be noted that his section of pole training mentions Shaolin, which had recently won fame for its skill in this discipline.
Still, it is the final chapter of this work that is the most important for students of martial arts history. Seeking to correct what he perceived to be the weaknesses of the major boxing styles, Qi included his own synthesis of unarmed postures along with wood cut illustrations and poetic couplets to aid in training.
This effort is remarkable as it is the first time that we see the suggestion that boxing should be used as a form of basic military training in the Chinese literature. In his own text the general was quick to point out that such skills were basically useless on the battlefield (dominated as it was by the bow and the spear). Still, he found that unarmed combat training could strengthen troops both physically and psychologically, making them more effective when they closed on the enemy. Mastering disciplines like boxing and pole fighting could also give recruits the skills they needed to pick up other weapons more quickly.
During the later Qing and Republic eras the Chinese military would once again look to unarmed combat training as a vital tool in “making the weak strong.” Just a few weeks ago I was reading an article on the changing place of the martial arts in the PRCs rapidly modernizing army. The individual being interviewed pointed out that the use of unarmed combat training had been an effective training tool since the time of the revered general and national hero Qi Jiguang. While the dynasty that he served may be long gone, it seems that the general’s thoughts on the utility of the martial arts in the military realm are still being invoked in policy debates today.
Theorizing the Internal Martial Arts
As Marix Wells has noted, the public’s demand for well-developed philosophies or theories in the ancient martial arts are rarely satisfied with actual historic documents. The Shaolin Temple inspired many Ming and Qing era texts on the martial arts, but none of them articulated a coherent and overarching philosophy of “Shaolin Boxing.” Likewise Wudang is often said to be the spiritual home of Taijiquan, yet it also lacks a surviving and well documented body of theories. As Douglas Wile has argued the “Taiji Classics” probably date to the second half of the 19th century and reflect events and attitudes at the end of that dynasty rather than its heyday.
This is what makes the works of Chang Naizhou so valuable. A resident of Sishui Village in Henan Province, his writings leave us with the first fully developed theory of the “internal martial arts” to be found in the Chinese corpus. Chang (1724-1783) is also a fascinating figure because he had a foot in many worlds.
As a youth he received a traditional Confucian literary education. Later he pursued his love of boxing and sought out teachers from various styles. Eventually creating his own “Chang family” system.
Geographically speaking, his home was located between Chen Village (the birthplace of Taijiquan) and the Shaolin Temple. Economically he emerged from a well-off family, but he lived in an environment plagued with drought and outbreaks of banditry. The circumstances of his birth suggest that Chang would be well situated to bring all of these worlds together into a single creative synergy.
Indeed, that is exactly what happened. In 1781 he completed a manuscript titled “Chang Style Boxing.” It is clear from the multiple prefaces attached to the piece that he had been working on it for a number of years. His manuscript included discussions of the cultivation of Qi, boxing techniques and weapons work. All of this was woven together into the very first discussion of the internal martial arts.
It is also important to consider the timing of Chang’s work. Being situated as it is in the 18th century, it falls between the boom years of the mid 17th and later 19th centuries when works on the martial arts became more common. Most of the late imperial manuals and descriptions that we have date to these two other eras. Yet the 18th century is something of a dark hole. Economic and political issues (including periodic prohibitions against the teaching of the martial arts) meant that not a lot of material was produced in this period.
Of course that does not mean that people gave up the practice of boxing. Chang illustrates that they did not. His work shows how the martial world of the late Ming dynasty was transmitted and transformed during the 18th century. When looking at his writings scholars have detected the stamp of General Qi jiguang’s publications (his name long since forgotten by the boxers who continued to teach his methods). They have also noted many philosophical and textual parallels between his works and the later “Taiji Classics.”
Chang’s 1781 manuscript was a seminal moment in the development of not just of his own family style, but all of the internal martial arts. In some ways he set the standard for theoretical rigor and cultural depth that many Chinese martial artists still aspire to today. He also opened a window onto a critical time in the development of the Chinese martial arts. One can almost sense the past and present touching in his writings.
The Birth of Middle Class Martial Arts and the Search for “National Salvation”
If Chang Naizhou signaled new possibilities for the development of the martial arts at the end of the Qing dynasty, the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association opened a new vision ideally suited to China’s early Republican period. Founded in Shanghai by a committee of Cantonese businessmen in July of 1910, this organization would become the driving force behind the modernization of the Chinese martial arts.
The years following the end of the Boxer Rebellion had not been good ones for the hand combat community. While there were a number of innovative teachers during this period, mass public opinion had turned decisively against this body of practices. In the opinion of the May 4th Reformers, traditional boxing was simply too feudal, backwards and superstitious to be part of modern and progressive society that was being built.
A number of martial artists disagreed with this sentiment and put forth plans by which the traditional hand combat systems would preserve the best of the past while contributing to the new society that was coming into being. Yet no voice was heard more clearly in this national debate than Jingwu’s. Harnessing both the mystic that followed the death of Huo Yuanjia and the new possibilities opened by the rapidly expanding publishing industry, Jingwu expanded beyond its base in Shanghai and used articles, editorials and modern advertising strategies to turn itself into the first truly national martial arts brand.
Their approach to teaching the martial arts was also innovative. Rather than simply relying on local instructors they instead created a set of standard forms that would be taught in more or less the same way at all chapters across the country. With clear guidelines for advancement one could work through the curriculum and become a certified instructor in a relatively short time. Better yet, schools or companies that hired a Jingwu instructor could be certain of the quality of the instruction that they would receive.
Other changes were also part of the Jingwu approach to the martial arts. The organization went out of its way to make these practices attractive to educated, middle class, urban residents. Such individuals had not had much to do with traditional boxing in the past, but were attracted to the new organization’s emphasis on modern physical fitness and patriotism. Jingwu also put substantial effort into the creation and promotion of programs to attract more women into the martial arts.
Jingwu was the first truly successful public martial arts brand. It demonstrated the demand for these practices among diverse groups and their potential as a leisure, rather than professional, activity. Most importantly, it showed that the practice of the traditional Chinese martial arts was not only compatible with life in modern society, but that it carried distinct benefits. In short, if you practice a relatively open and progressive style of Chinese martial arts today, you probably owe the pioneers of the Jingwu Association a debt of gratitude.
Return to the Shaolin Temple
The Shaolin Temple, sometimes referred to as the spiritual home of the Chinese martial arts, was the very first item on our list. As I end this discussion I would like to return to the venerable institution, or at least a fictionalized vision of it.
The Cultural Revolution (1965-1975) was not a good time to be a traditional martial artist in mainland China. Communist social reforms in the 1950s had already eliminated many of the basic social institutions (clan associations, labor unions, secret societies, political factions and landlords) that tended to support martial arts schools. As Amos has argued elsewhere, this had a devastating effect on the practice of the traditional arts in the PRC.
He notes that the situation during the Cultural Revolution itself was more complex. While many martial artists were publicly attacked, other teachers and secret society members began to very carefully reassemble their instructional networks as a type of safety net when it became clear that the conventional organs of the Communist Party were no longer capable of protecting them from the Red Guards.
As the Cultural Revolution ended these networks began to reappear in public parks marking the first steps in the tentative return of the folk martial arts (as well as more problematic secret societies). Yet this development alone was not enough to ignite the Kung Fu Fever that gripped the PRC during the 1980s. A spark was needed; something which would signal that spiritual healing might be found in a return to certain elements of traditional culture.
Jet Li’s 1982 film “The Shaolin Temple” that would provide this spark. The first Hong Kong action film to be produced on the mainland since 1949, the movie literally shocked audiences with its portrayals of conflict and violence. These things had been strictly censored during the Maoist period. Their long absence from the screen made their return in “The Shaolin Temple” all the more powerful.
Generations of immigrations, as well as the flight of a number of important teachers in 1949, ensured that the Chinese martial arts had survived throughout the diaspora. Hong Kong, Taiwan, Malaysia and Singapore all had thriving martial arts communities by 1982. Bruce Lee’s film “Enter the Dragon” had ignited a Kung Fu craze of its own in the West almost a decade earlier, forever enshrining the Chinese martial arts in global popular culture.
Yet it was “The Shaolin Temple” that both signaled the renewed social acceptability of the traditional martial arts within the PRC and fed the furnaces of demand. Overnight classes were filled with a seemingly endless supply of students looking to rediscover an aspect of themselves and their culture through the medium of the martial arts.
Conclusion: The Illusion of Discrete Events
Typing this list of critical events, I wonder if I have not violated one of the ground rules set out at the beginning of the exercise. Readers will recall that we were more interested in identifying discrete moments in history rather than slow and progressive trends.
Yet none of my suggestions really exist in a vacuum. Each of them is the culmination of a much longer set of transformations that went before them. Shaolin was forced to develop a military capacity to defend its estates (due to the weakness of the government) long before the state ever called on it to produce a monastic army.
General Qi Jiguang’s works would have reached relatively few readers on their own. Rather it was the promotion of later publishers and scholars, each advancing their own agenda, that made his works (as well as those of Chang Naizhou) famous among students of martial arts history in the 1920s and 1930s. And while Shaolin has a fascinating history that it can be proud of, its fame is really the product of media discourses (first publishing in the Ming dynasty and then film in the 20th century) that it cannot control. In some ways each of the examples that I listed above is really more of a tipping point, when larger social trends become manifest, rather than a truly discrete event.
Ultimately that is a good thing. If the martial arts really did operate in a social vacuum we would not be able to learn much about the world through their study. Yet as this thought exercise demonstrates, they have an uncanny knack for revealing trends that are floating just beneath the placid surface of social history. That is precisely what makes martial arts studies so interesting.
What do you think? What distinct events or turning points would make your list of five moments that transformed Kung Fu?
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: The Wing Chun Jo Fen: Norms and the Creation of a Southern Chinese Martial Arts Community.
May 8, 2015 at 6:45 pm
I would note the spread of Wing Chun in Europe (especially in Germany in Italy) in the 1980s, probably mostly due to the franchise business practices used by Leung Ting and Keith Kernspecht and their development of the training school at Langenzell Castle in Germany.
Another big burst if interest followed the release of the first Ip Man film.
May 8, 2015 at 11:39 pm
Great idea for an article! Don’t totally agree and
need to do my own version 🙂
May 8, 2015 at 11:47 pm
That is the beauty of the exercise.
May 9, 2015 at 12:05 pm
Reblogged this on vinn's place.
May 9, 2015 at 6:14 pm
Omiohoh meaning o merciful Buddha
October 19, 2019 at 11:23 am
One point of interest about General Ch’i’s text on pugilism is that all of the 32 methods he anthologized are to be found in one or another school of Taijiquan. When T’ang Hao the first modern Chinese martial arts scholar visited Chen Village in the 20’s and 30’s the only 2 martial texts he found there were “The Song of Sparring” and General Ch’i’s text.
June 29, 2022 at 5:51 pm
Great summary! Though this is more of a footnote, I think it’s worth noting that Jet Li was hired due to his accomplishments in the sport of wushu, which emphasized standardized curriculum choreography. I’m wondering if the training Jet Li went through as a child had any connection with the Jingwu Association’s methods/system of training.
I have also heard anecdotally from a Beijing-er contemporary that the sport’s emphasis on choreography rather than sparring made it easier to show a “civilized” side of Chinese culture and martial arts. I’m certain that was a factor for why a very young Jet Li was part of the Chinese Wushu Team visiting the US to perform for President Nixon.
For this reason, I find it so interesting that Shaolin Temple’s earliest claim to fame was due to their kill count in battle, while I distinctly remember watching modern Shaolin Temple movies (by Jet Li and others) emphasizing that Shaolin monks are not supposed to kill any living thing.