Martial Arts History, Without Chronology

An astronomical clock in Prague. Photo by Andrew Shiva. Source: wikimedia.
An astronomical clock in Prague. Photo by Andrew Shiva. Source: wikimedia.




Your mission, should choose to accept it…


Recently I have been invited to contribute chapters to a number of upcoming projects.  I am still attempting to decide what some of these should be, but in two cases the editors of the volumes in question have approached me with specific requests.  For instance, in the next few months I am going to be putting together a generously sized chapter on the history of the Chinese martial arts.

This is a great opportunity, especially as I am coming off a major project of my own and have been thinking about the social history of these fighting systems for a few years.  And it is nice to be presented with a very specific brief.  It saves one the mental energy of having to dream up a project that will fit the larger mission of an edited volume while still advancing your own research agenda.  That can be a tricky. Finally, after spending so much time on regional and local history, it will be nice to get a chapter out articulating a more global view of the Chinese martial arts.

Still, an assignment like this is not without its challenges.  Over the last week I started to do some background reading and research.  That basically means rereading the classic books, looking for new publications, revisiting some of my favorite articles and reviewing what I have already said about the topic elsewhere.  This sort of review is a great way to discover where my personal views have evolved over the last couple of years.

Nor can we afford to ignore some of the very nice treatments of the history of the Chinese martial arts that are already out there.  As I have mentioned before, Stanley Henning’s “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965” in Green and Svinth’s Martial Arts  in the Modern World (Praeger, 2003) provides a great introduction to the subject.  It has always been my “go-to” recommendation for someone who thinks they might be interested in learning more about Chinese martial arts history.

More committed readers would do well to check out Lorge’s Chinese Martial Arts (Cambridge, 2011) for the best single volume treatment of the subject.  And those interested in delving deeper into the Republican period (the era I find to be the most interesting) must familiarize themselves with Andrew Morris’ chapter on the topic in Marrow of the Nation (California UP, 2004). Interested readers already have a number of good options to draw on as they explore the development of the Chinese martial arts.

Yet as I reread these and other sources over the last week it occurred to me that there is something else that these works have in common besides their quality.  All of them present a fairly linear, straight forward, account of the development of the modern Chinese martial arts.  Various authors might choose different start and finish dates, yet the feeling of chronological progression pervades all of these works, especially as we come to the more “modern” eras.

This is quite understandable.  In many ways the present really is a product of the past.  It is not unreasonable to see a degree of casualty in the march of time.  Yet if we are not careful our accounting of chronology can quickly slip into a sort of martial teleology, where these fighting systems are inexorably drawn through history, shaped by shadowy forces, and destined to assume some predetermined final form.

This tendency is most clearly visible in some (though not all) historical accounts produced by academics in mainland China.   In this case the source of their theoretical slant is fairly obvious.  The Marxist forces of “historic materialism,” that are believed to have shaped every other social institution, have evolved the Chinese martial arts from a state of lower barbarism (e.g., there is a very good reason that so many of these histories begin with totally improbably accounts of kung fu having been invented to fend off wild animals) and ending with the inevitable triumph of state sponsored Wushu.

I have discussed the shortcomings of these sorts of accounts elsewhere. As students of martial arts studies we should acknowledge that national sponsorship of, and involvement with, the martial arts has often been a powerful force in reshaping them to fit the perceived needs of the state.  These same social and political forces have also had a powerful impact on the ways these arts are discussed in some corners of the scholarly literature.

Nor are these tendencies restricted to socialist states.  Indeed, the demands of modernization and nationalism (as seen in cases of 20th century Japan, Korea and Indonesia among others) have also had a substantive effect on how the martial arts of these states are viewed by their citizens and discussed by scholars.  One suspects that even modernization and secularization theory (touchstones of sociological thought in the West) have had a profound (and less visible) effect on the ways that the martial arts are discussed among scholars.

The unavoidable problem in all of this is the necessity of simplification.  The martial arts of even a single country (in my case China) are a frightening large subject.  Nor are trends always headed in the same direction.  A close examination of the “facts on the ground” will show that many individuals can be seen to harness these social institutions in the pursuit of their own agendas.  For every reformer that advances in public sphere another teacher will emerge demanding a return to a remembered or (more likely) imagined past.

Making sense of this mass of often contradictory data is the job of a historian, and some sort of theoretical framework is the intellectual tool that is employed in doing that.  As such we cannot avoid the necessity of either simplification or theory.  Yet is a linear chronological framework, heavily inflected with either modernist, nationalist or Marxist assumptions the best way forward?  To answer that question we would first have to consider some alternatives.


Clockwork gears at the Liverpool World Museum. Photo by Somedriftwood. Source: Wikimedia
Clockwork gears at the Liverpool World Museum. Photo by Somedriftwood. Source: Wikimedia




Ordering Principals: The Levels of Analysis


The “Levels of Analysis” is a conceptual tool that students of sociology and political science have used for grouping and evaluating families of theories for decades.  I have discussed different variants of this idea in previous posts.  It may also be able to offer some insight into our current dilemma.

The Levels of Analysis framework traditionally suggests that sociological theories can be divided into three (or possibly four) categories.  In my field these are “systemic” theories (those that seek to understand the nature of complex systems as a whole), “institutional or domestic” explanations (attempts to understand the roles of various social groups) and lastly “individual level analysis” (typically focusing on cognition, decision making and psychology).  While the passage of time does not vanish in any of these categories, it can be understood in different contexts and in less reductive ways.

Let us begin by considering some approaches to the problem that might be classified as residing at the “systemic” level.  Recent trends in Asian Studies have emphasized the need to move beyond an emphasis on events in individual states and to look instead at the complex political, social and economic interactions that were often affecting an entire region.  For instance, during the 19th and early 20th centuries, events and attitudes in Japan and China were not as independent from each other as many nationally focused histories would have us believe.  Developments in one state often had a profound influence on every country in the region.

This was certainly true of the Chinese martial arts community.  Reformers were very much aware of what was happening in Japan.  They noted the Japanese government’s more robust support of Budo with envy.  They were aware of Judo’s growing popularity within the international community.  Tang Hao specifically championed many of their methods during the early days of the Central Guoshu Institute.  Yet very few studies have taken up these influences, and I am aware of no substantial comparative case studies.

Thus one possible approach to the problem might be to reject the notion of writing an isolated history of the Chinese martial arts at all.  Instead a regional study, focusing on why similar trends found often very different expressions in even close neighbors, might be more interesting.  At minimum, developments in China should be plotted against, and compared to, events elsewhere in Asia.  An emphasis on strategic forms of social and political influence would replace simpler notions of the “progress of history.”

Another systemic approach might reject the state or the nation as the ultimate unit of analysis.  In my own research on the Chinese martial arts the urban/rural cleavage that dominated so much of popular culture in the late Qing and Republic eras has emerged as a powerful analytical lens for understanding the essential nature of these fighting systems.

More specifically, this conceptual framework problematizes the assumption that the Chinese martial arts share a single historical trajectory.  While urban reformers in the 1920s and 1930s struggled to create secular and scientific fighting systems at the disposal of the state in its revolutionary struggle, their rural counterparts in northern China were busy creating Red Spear units, employing the martial arts to reinforce local leadership structures and promoting magical practices (such as spirit possession and invulnerability techniques) that had not been seen in the region for generations. Both of these strategies were responses to the economic and social strains of “modernization.” Yet they suggest that single linear narratives of the “evolution” of the Chinese martial arts are leaving out some of the most important parts of the story.

The situation is similar at the domestic level of analysis.  Perhaps the most obvious approach here would be to focus on the state/society cleavage.  Indeed, the nature of the martial arts at specific points in time might be a valuable tool for understanding exactly how much influence that state actually commanded.  It might then be possible to group together periods when the state was particularly strong or weak, and to think more carefully about the impact that this had on the development of the martial arts.  Such an approach might also reveal underlying patterns in the relationship between the civilian martial arts and the realm of civil society that might not otherwise be apparent.

The domestic level of analysis is often said to include norms or beliefs about how various social institutions should function.  A discussion of the martial arts in the modern period could be organized by the emergence of certain strains of thought at various points in time.  The popularity of modernist philosophies has come and gone.  Likewise, the fortunes of certain notes of cultural fundamentalism have risen and fallen.  How can these trends (not all of which are linear in nature) help us to understand the history of the Chinese martial arts?

It is not hard to imagine what an “individual level” approach to this problem might look like.  “Great man” biographies have been the stock and trade of historical accounts for decades.  Their stories provide a level of granular discussion and detail that is often missing from systemic or institutionally focused accounts.  Not only can this give us a sense of what it was like to actually be a martial artist at a given moment in history, it can speak directly to the sequence of events leading up to important moments of change.

Nor do the Chinese martial arts lack for important figures demanding greater examination.  Sun Lutang has always struck me as a seminal figure whose life illustrates many important trends in the Chinese martial arts.  In the South Gu Ruzhang plays a similar role.  Likewise the career of the groundbreaking historian Tang Hao, while tragic, illustrates critical trends in the social discussion of the Chinese martial arts.

The challenge with biography is extrapolating from the realm of specific events to general conclusions.  And the life of any single subject is limited in length compared to the scope of even the recent history of the Chinese martial arts.  Still, the social and highly networked nature of this community suggests that if a historian were to skillfully choose two or three figures whose lives intersected, it might be possible to tell much of the story of the modern martial arts while remaining grounded in actual biographical detail.

Nor should historians feel the need to focus only on famous personalities.  Students writing social histories might gain inspiration from the lives of lesser known figures such as the reluctant rebel Zhao San-duo, Fei Ching Po (an ill-fated professional gambler) or the southern martial arts teacher Li Pei Xin. Marginal individuals often face similar struggles, and turn to the martial arts for remarkably similar reasons, even at different points in history.  This illustrates some important structural facts about these fighting systems and their role in Chinese society.  Indeed, some of these patterns have proved remarkably resistant to the “march of history.”


Deconstructed clock gears. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia.
Deconstructed clock gears. Public Domain. Source: Wikimedia.




Conclusion: Moving Beyond the Levels of Analysis


Each of these approaches to discussing the development of the Chinese martial arts has strengths and weaknesses.  None of them are perfect.  As with all such frameworks, each will leave out some part of the story while drawing our attention to a variable that is usually neglected.  This is the original sin of all theory.  I suppose that it can also be thought of as “employment insurance” for academic writers as it strongly suggests that a single account of a phenomenon will never be satisfying.  Students will always prefer to have (and debate) a variety of perspectives.

Perhaps the greatest benefit in moving away from a purely chronological account of the development of the Chinese martial arts is simply to present these systems in a new and exciting way.  One that will spark renewed interest and novel insights on the part of the reader.  They might also move us out of the realm of teleology, reminding us that these fighting systems have been many things in the past, they constitute a vastly complicated realm in the present, and they are likely to take on many new forms in the future.

The conclusions of Marxist or modernist historians notwithstanding, the development of these systems has never been linear so much as it has been “rhizomatic.”  When one pathway has been obstructed seemingly dormant and forgotten possibilities have sprung forth.  While we can always reconstruct a linear “just so” story about how we got here, I doubt that the same logic would ever allow us to extrapolate very far into the future.

Nor should we forget that there is more to the Chinese martial arts than states, voluntary associations and individual practitioners.  Beliefs about these practices have also been carried throughout history on the powerful currents of vernacular opera, wuxia novels and most recently film.  Indeed, the very thought that something now “lost” must once have existed has proved to be a powerful incentive to engage in the re-invention of “tradition” within the Chinese martial arts.

It would be hard to imagine the state of the modern martial arts in China today without the release of the Shaolin Temple in the early 1980s, or Jin Yong’s various novels in Hong Kong.  The Chinese martial arts exist in a perpetual state of revival precisely because individuals find social meaning in the act of reviving them.  They are seen as a source of cultural heritage because they have been accepted as such by vast audiences who do not practice them and know them only by their media representations.  Nor is the current situation all that different from the world of professional story tellers, operas and wuxia novels in the 19th century.

Finding a way to better integrate these discussions of media discourse and popular culture into individual, institutional and systemic histories remains a challenge.  It is difficult to construct a single framework that can account for both institutional and cultural variables.

Frequently cultural trends appear within accounts of practicing martial artists as exogenous shocks (or vice versa).  Understanding how to bring these two types of discussions together is one of the more important challenges facing martial arts studies as an interdisciplinary field.  As we structure our regional accounts, institutional explanations, or biographical explorations of the martial arts, we cannot afford to lose sight of their origins and place in popular culture.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  The Book Club: Chinese Kung Fu by Wang Guangxi



One Comment Add yours

  1. A pure chronology works if you view it as pointillist. You make no assumptions about what the pattern is. You simply place the dot. Eventually, you stand back, and a pattern emerges. Frequently, the pattern that emerges is not the pattern you expect. Sometimes, the explanation for the odd pattern is simply that you have identified holes in your research. Other times, the story “everyone knows” is flawed. Either way, it is a fun methodology. Unfortunately, it’s a Big Data answer, and that means a lot of reading. An alternative is to pick a city or place where the martial activity took place, and you track it over a distinct period of time. Then you research everybody and everything involved. Who begat whom? Why here, and not there? Who provided the barn or storeroom where the training took place? How were uniforms made? What happened in public exhibitions. By name, you follow well-known participants out from this center, and you follow other participants into that center. Arrests, divorces, military service. These things matter. In the end, every club in the same town has a different and distinct history. If nothing else, this club survived while that one did not. Why? To answer the question, no generalizations are allowed, and the opinion of the ex-wife and the guy who quit 30 years ago matter just as much as do the opinions of Grandmaster Flash. (Indeed, they are probably more important than those of Grandmaster. Grandmaster exaggerates.) Then match with photos and identification numbers. Photos often tell stories that never made it into the papers. Me? I’ve used both approaches. I personally prefer the pointillist approach, but the families of the people who were there prefer the community-based approach. Encyclopedia projects, on the other hand, typically require you to summarize topics such as “Asian martial arts in North America, 1850 to present,” into 3,000 words or less, without leaving out anything important. Doing that requires you to summarize several monographs into a sound bite, and then string all those sound bites together into something that is not so dense that it puts even your mother to sleep.

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