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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Wing Chun

History, Mythology, Technique and Philosophy: Finding the “True” Origins of the Asian Martial Arts

Painting of a man yielding two long iron whips on pith paper. Canton, mid 19th century. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.

Painting of a man yielding two long iron whips on pith paper. Canton, mid 19th century. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.




History is difficult. It goes beyond gaining access to appropriate sources, records and languages. The challenges that we face are often more basic and conceptual. At the present moment there is a lot of interest, both in popular and scholarly discussions, in finding the “real origins” of various Asian martial arts.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise. A number of these fighting systems have strongly linked their credibility as hand combat practices to very specific genealogies or fantastic creation myths. And as scholars attempt to establish martial arts studies, a different “quest for origins” is emerging, one that will allow us to understand the contributions that these systems have made to the maintenance of a wide range of identities and social institutions.

Whether our conversation is popular or academic in tone, one specific problem always seems to emerge. The ways in which we want to speak about “origins” are concrete, singular, linear and logical. And yet most events of sufficient complexity to be of any interest to social scientists do not actually emerge this way. A gap exists between the language that is used (both spoken and conceptual) and ways in which complex systems actually generate social outcomes.

Consider the following exercise. Think about an event of real significance in your life; the start of a relationship, getting your first professional job or even purchasing your first car. If I were to ask you about this event three different times, in three different settings, I am fairly certain I would get three different versions of the story. Simply consider all of the various ways in which you have already described your profession, your faith or dislikes in the past. Does this mean that the first two times you told me the story about your job that you were lying? Or worse yet, that people are infinitely changeable and there is no discernible logic of causality at work in our lives?

I do not think so. Rather, because our lives are the product of multiple complex systems (psychological, cultural, economic, political….etc) most of the decisions that we come to are “overdetermined.” Or to put it slightly differently, there are many sorts of constraints that help to explain our actions, and they are no less real for the fact that we often perceive their workings dimly if at all.

I suspect that individuals tell the same story differently because as their setting changes other factors are moved to the forefront of their thought. They become more conscious of new parts of the puzzle. So it seems appropriate to tell the story that way in a given setting. This is why to really know our teachers, friends and parents we listen to their stories not once, but many times. Why should it be any different with the martial arts?

The same basic problem emerges when we debate the first instance of any behavior. Who was the first person to teach Chinese martial arts in America? Who wrote the first book of Taijiquan? Who was the first individual to challenge the way in which the modern world perceived China? These are all questions that have been discussed at length. And as we listen to the ensuing debates one cannot help but think that often these discussions talk past one another. Yet given the complex nature of causality, how could it be otherwise?

While it is probably impossible to fully account for the complexities of causality within an empirical case study or historical discussion, there are somethings that we can do to alleviate the problem while at the same time producing a richer picture of the social environment which created the outcome that we are interested in. The key is to remember to tell our story more than once, and to do so in systematic and rigorous ways.


Image of a man holding a "horse knife." Guangzhou, mid 19th century. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.

Image of a man holding a “horse knife.” Guangzhou, mid 19th century. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.



LaRochelle and the Four Types of Origin Stories

Recently I had an opportunity to read a paper by Dominic LaRochelle (Laval University) titled “The Daoist Origins of Chinese Martial Arts in Taiji quan Manuals Published in the West.” Building on the prior writing of Douglas Wiles (who looked at late Qing and Republic era Taiji quan manuals in China) this paper argued that the authors of English language Taiji publications closely followed older Chinese literary models in advancing the view that the art of Taiji was a fundamentally spiritual and Daoist undertaking. La Rochelle noted that this discourse was in active opposition to a more historically rigorous line of argument (originally championed by Tang Hao) that tends to see Taiji as the result of military, social and political causes clustered around Chen village in Henan. Further, the actual content of this “Daoism” in practice tends to much more closely resemble contemporary western spirituality than traditional Chinese religion.

In building his case LaRochelle reviews a number of Taiji publications produced in the West, and examines the rhetorical strategies that each adopts in positioning Taiji as a uniquely Daoist practice. While the common critique of such material is that it is profoundly simplistic and unoriginal, with each work simply republishing what had come before, things became more complicated as each account of Taiji’s origins are subjected to a close reading. Rochelle found that while each work ultimately came to the same predetermined conclusion, their actual understanding of what it meant to say that Taiji was a Daoist art varied quite a bit. This, in turn, effected how various authors described the origins of the system.

To simplify, LaRochelle found that one could identify four different types of (non-exclusive) creation narratives for Taijiquan. Depending on the type of argument that authors wished to make they tended to explain the creation of the art in terms of its technical, philosophical, mythological or historical origins.

For instance, a technical argument about the Daoist nature of Taiji might focus on the similarities between ancient Daoyin gymnastic practices and a modern short form. Philosophical discussions find deep resonances between elements of practice and classical literary texts including the Yijing or the Dao De Jing. Mythological accounts often trace their roots back to Mt. Wudang, and include stories such as the famous account of the crane and snake or the involvement of immortal saints. Finally historical accounts of the origins of the art often take the form of lineage discussions in which complex chains are created connecting sometimes dubious ancient ancestors to modern practitioners in a single flow of martial legitimacy. Because these different modes of argumentation are not necessarily exclusive some texts managed to weave more than one strain into their accounts of Taiji’s origins.

LaRochelle’s article focused primarily on the ways in which Taijiquan emerged as a Daoist practice in the West, and at some point I would like to return to this basic thesis. Yet what really struck me as I reviewed this piece was his four part typology of “origin” stories. Indeed, the Chinese martial arts are rife with such accounts, and I am always keeping an eye open for a better way to classify and sort these creation myths. The four part system that he proposes is nice because it is fairly comprehensive yet not overly complicated.

I also think that we can expand this approach in some easy ways to make it even more useful. For instance, discussions of the creation of many arts other than Taijiquan might benefit from just such a device. “Historical” discussions of Wing Chun tend to give pride of place to lineage genealogies spreading out in both directions from Leung Jan. “Mythological” approaches draw freely on southern China’s rich folklore concerning the burning of the Shaolin Temple. Ip Man’s own account of the system combines both of these aspects.

More “technical” discussions tend to find parallels with the arts of Fujian province or to look back to the region’s long history in training local militia forces in the use of Long Poles and Hudiedao. Stanley Henning has sought to go further, connecting the technical genesis of both White Crane and Wing Chun to specific postures preserved in the woodblock prints that illustrated General Gi Jiguang’s Fist Classic.

If we were to apply the same degree of scholarly rigor to the philosophical origins of the art we would likely be forced to look at a number of the “Cotton Boxing” manuscript textual traditions that circulated in the Pearl River delta region during the late 19th century. Or, as I recently touched on in my recent study, we would need to seriously consider how the ethos of Southern China’s rapidly evolving economic markets provided a social space in which local martial arts traditions could grow and evolve in a purely civil context. In contrast the popular philosophical discourse often seen within the Wing Chun community focuses on both Chan and Daoist parallels.

All of this complicates how we look at competing hypotheses. Can we simply dismiss out of hand any discussion of the burning of the southern Shaolin Temple as objectively “untrue?” Is Henning’s theory linking the ultimate origins of Wing Chun (and a number of other arts including Taiji) to the popular dissemination of the Fist Classic correct by virtue of the fact that it references the oldest existing document that seems to show technical movements similar to modern Wing Chun (and a number of other arts) in a coherent form? I think that the framework advanced by LaRochelle would urge caution.

This should not be taken as an embrace of absolute relativism on his part or my own. While I believe that responsible historians have to be modest in making affirmative claims about the past I absolutely accept that we can use empirical evidence to test and discard less effective theories. Yet what exactly are these things supposed to be theories of?

The real value in adopting a conceptually complex understanding of the problem of origins is that it forces us to move beyond simple debates and to think more carefully about how we construct our theories in the first place. When we discuss the origins of Wing Chun, Taijiquan or Karate, what are we actually trying to understand? Are we really looking to challenge what we know, or are we instead interested only in gathering evidence to support a predetermined ethnonationalist, spiritual or modernist agenda? And if we are asking fruitful questions, what specifically do we want to know?

Jon Nielson, my co-author and a scholar in his own right, is also a full time professional Wing Chun instructor. He is deeply engaged in studying, understanding and deconstructing his style’s basic forms. Thus when he searches for the “origins” of Wing Chun he is very much interested in the sorts of technical history that Henning is talking about. If he can understand the ultimate origin of the Six and a Half-Point Pole form, he may acquire additional information about what its movements originally implied in a military context and how they might better be performed. Interestingly he has less interest in whether anyone practicing this proto-art would have called it Wing Chun (or anything else).

I think that these questions are fascinating. And when I am in the training hall I am deeply engaged with them. But I have a day job as a social scientist. I study the Chinese martial arts academically to better understand how civil society works, the ways in which new identities form and how communities react to stress and violence. These are questions of vital interest in understanding not just the past, but our present environment.

From my perspective, knowing when and why a group of martial artists took up a new name and formed a new social organization is of critical importance. What social institutions facilitated this transformation? What threats did they perceive in the local environment? What larger myth complexes inspired them? How this process unrolled between the 1850s and the 1890s is actually relevant to theoretical discussions in a number of fields. But how the Six and a Half-Point Pole form evolved over the same 30 year stretch probably is not. So which of these approaches to the arts origin is “true?”

This is a question that simply does not make much sense. Again, this is not a call for post-modern relativism. Some historical theories may be much better than others and they should be treated as such. Yet it is a helpful reminder that the martial arts which we have today are, like most complex phenomenon, massively overdetermined. They exist at the confluence of rich streams in economic, political, military, cultural and social history. Rather than arguing which of these sources in the most important in some universal sense, we should instead ask ourselves what exactly we are proposing a theory of, and what source of data would best test the specific hypothesis that derive from this theory. I don’t think that this step alone would resolve all of the big debates in Chinese martial studies, but it would help to make those discussions more productive and focused.

A man with a sword (dao) and shield. Guangzhou, mid 19th century. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.

A man with a sword (dao) and shield. Guangzhou, mid 19th century. Source: Digital Collections of the New York Public Library.



Conclusion: Martial Arts Studies as an Interdisciplinary Project

Occasionally our goals are grander. Rather than attempting to understand a single aspect of an art (or place) we set aside the resources to advance a more comprehensive study. Rather than following only a single chain of causality back through time we strive to understand the nature of the territory that structured and gave rise to a martial art. Douglas Wile has attempted such a project with his investigations of Taijiquan. Meir Shahar has done much to advance our understanding of the Shaolin tradition in late imperial China. And I have attempted to illuminate the world of the Republic era southern Chinese martial arts.

One of the things that all three of these projects have in common is their complexity. If you sit down and begin to map out the causal mechanisms discussed in each of these books you will quickly come across a lot of moving parts. That, I think, is why LaRochelle’s relatively simple typology really grabbed my attention. I spent quite a bit of time attempting to explain to my readers why an interdisciplinary approach to the martial arts was necessary. Yet if you expand his model from the realm of the purely empirical to the theoretical, it gets to the same place in an intuitively appealing way.

Interdisciplinary work is not necessarily easy, and it is a concept that poses its own challenges. In my personal opinion the very best such work is produced cooperatively by multiple scholars with a deep appreciation of both the tools and limits of their own fields. I am always the most excited about work that creates new communities of researchers united in the pursuit of questions that had previously eluded any one discipline.

Also critical are research projects that probe the limits of a field and its key theories or methods. These are often not well understood. When we challenge the boundaries of the various disciplines we expose their fundamentally artificial nature. Paul Bowman’s recent monograph on martial arts studies does exactly this, demonstrating that the study of these fighting systems might help us to reconfigure the ways in which we attempt to understand our world in fundamental ways.

Still, both of these approaches to interdisciplinary research are challenging. The first requires the resources necessary to sustain not just an individual research project, but an entire team of scholars. In practice that means winning a substantial grant. The second presupposes a deep background (and interest in) a variety of theoretical literatures. Still, they do not exhaust the list possible approaches to interdisciplinary research and writing.

Those working on more empirically focused projects, or who need to produce rich, yet still theoretically tractable case-studies, would do well to consider this four part outline. Anyone investigating the origins of a martial arts style, group or practice is likely to encounter a variety of creation myths. Sorting these into the technical, philosophical, mythological and historical categories proposed by LaRochelle is a great way to begin to get your hands around the discourses that exist within a given community.

When it comes time to more rigorously discus the group’s actual origins, these same four categories can provide critical balance. The technical origins of an art may focus on the transmission of its actual movements and pedagogical traditions. The origins of the folklore and myths surrounding an art can say something about its place in popular culture, the groups within society that it appeals to and the social functions that it performs. Historical discussions will likely turn our attention to the lives and contributions of individual practitioners. And philosophical questions can tell us something about the larger cultural constructs that structured their approach to the world.

Adopting each of these approaches will require delving into different literatures and bodies of theory. That is always a complicated and time consuming process. Yet one of the great benefits of embracing an interdisciplinary approach to the question of “origins” is to move us away from overly simplistic or “silver bullet” models of causality.

This approach promises another benefit as well. The embrace of a more complex framework naturally redirects our focus from the individual fighting system outwards towards the society and environmental conditions that gave rise to it. This is a critical point. If Martial Arts Studies is to succeed as a research area in the current era, this is where our focus must most often be.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Bodhidharma: Historical Fiction, Hyper-Real Religion and Shaolin Kung Fu



3 thoughts on “History, Mythology, Technique and Philosophy: Finding the “True” Origins of the Asian Martial Arts

  1. Fascinating as always, thank you. I always like the way you write so capaciously (if that’s the word) about methodology. I really enjoyed the discussion of overdetermination here, which is useful for me in thinking about how I’m trying to deal in a piece of writing about films I’m working on at the moment. Interestingly, I was also reading today a back issue of the /London Review of Books/ where Adam Phillips discusses Freud’s practice of “over-interpretation” as a method, and this rather chimes with what you say about historical methodology here. Discussing Hamlet, and having produced a rather over-authoritative or over-certain reading, Freud writes that “Just as all neurotic symptoms, and, for that matter, dreams, are capable of being ‘over-interpreted’, and indeed need be, if they are to be fully understood, so all genuinely creative writings are the product of more than a single impulse in the poet’s mind and are open to more than a single interpretation.” Phillips glosses this: “You can only understand anything that matters – dreams, neurotic symptoms, people, literature – but over-interpreting it; by seeing it, from different aspects, as the product of multiple impulses. Over-interpretation, here, means not settling for a single interpretation, however apparently compelling … Over-Interpretation means not being stopped in your tracks by what you are most persuaded by; to believe in a single interpretation is radically to misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and interpretation itself.” (LRB, v 37 n 5, p. 14.)

    Stay well!

    Posted by Luke | December 22, 2015, 6:08 pm
    • Thanks for the very thoughtful addition to the conversation!

      I particularly liked this line “to believe in a single interpretation is radically to misunderstand the object one is interpreting, and interpretation itself.”

      Of course a lot depends on keeping in mind what you are trying to do at the outset. Am I here to give an causal explanation of an event, a rich description of it, or a historical/cultural interpretation? I think a lot of difficulty occurs because students aren’t always clear about the nature of their project up front.

      The question of how you use “over determination” as a research or interpretive methodology really bring that much more basic point to the fore.

      Posted by benjudkins | December 22, 2015, 6:17 pm


  1. Pingback: Approaching the “Armed Martial Arts of Japan”: Thoughts on Comparison, Theory and Progress in Martial Arts Studies | Kung Fu Tea - February 21, 2016

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