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Chinese and European Fight Books: The Value of a Comparative Approach

A print from the Gold Saber Illustrated Manual of saber swordsmanship published in 1725. Posted and translated by Scott M. Rodell. Source: http://steelandcotton.tumblr.com

A print from the Gold Saber Illustrated Manual of Saber Swordsmanship, published in 1725. Posted and translated by Scott M. Rodell. Source: http://steelandcotton.tumblr.com

 

 

Introduction

 

The Acta Periodica Duellatorum, an academic journal dedicated to the study of the Western martial arts (edited by Daniel Jaquet), has just released it latest issue.  At least two of these articles will be of interest to readers of Kung Fu Tea and are highly recommended.  The first, by Sixt Wetzler, asks whether a comparative study of European and Chinese fight books is possible and, if so, what it might achieve.  The second, by Eric Burkart, reminds us of the limits of such resources, as well as our efforts to resurrect “authentic” martial arts from the distant past.  Taken as a set these articles make an important contribution to the growing discussion of historic Chinese martial arts training manuals and their uses by modern martial artists.  I hope to discuss both of these works during the coming week.  But first a few thoughts on the relationship between the written word and the traditional Chinese martial arts might be in order.

For a set of practices transmitted only as “oral traditions,” the Chinese martial arts have managed to amass a surprising large collection of written texts over the centuries.  Indeed, it may be time to reevaluate some of our basic assumptions about these arts and the society that passed them on.  Increasingly students of Chinese history are becoming aware that a wide variety of individuals with only marginal literacy managed to take an active interest in China’s written popular culture.

Ethnographers who visited “Phoenix Village” in the early 20th century found that “book clubs” were a pervasive form of sociality among the town’s housewives.  Much to the consternation of the village leadership, local merchants sold popular novels, plays and all manner of stories which had been transcribed into a phonetic set of characters (probably similar to Japanese hiragana) that allowed these women, few of whom had much in the way of formal education, to read stories of both romance and tragedy.  Meir Shahar, in his groundbreaking work on the popular literature chronically the erstwhile monk and folk hero “Crazy Ji” found exactly the same thing in the northern half of the country.  And as we have previously discussed here, there was apparently an entire genre of cheap, mass produced, boxing pamphlets (complete with wood block illustrations) that were circulating in southern China throughout the 19th century. Thus the sudden expansion of martial arts publishing in the early 20th century (documented quite well by Kennedy and Gao) might be better understood as a continuation of previous trends within the market for popular publications rather than a completely new development.

The Chinese martial arts, while at heart an embodied practice, have always had a rich relationship with the written word.  Their popular image was defined as much by classic novels (Water Margin), vernacular operas (Journey to the West) and even fighting manuals (such as Cheng Zongyou’s influential Ming era work popularizing the Shaolin staff tradition) as by village militia instructors.  Indeed, on a personal note I am starting to suspect that the often heard refrain (discussed at length by Andrew Morris and others) that the martial arts needed to be made literate “to be saved” was something of a rouse on the part of 20th century reformers (including those associated with the Jingwu and later Guoshu movements).

It was not so much that Qing era martial culture had left no written record.  Southern China was practically afloat in hand copied “cotton boxing” manuals (see the Bubishi for an example of this literature), and practically every adult could recite the story of “Wu Song Beats the Tiger” from memory. Rather, the problem was that these were the “wrong” sorts of texts.  They focused on secretive local traditions rather than attempting to “strengthen the nation.”  They popularized magical themes rather than promoting modernization and Western science.  They were hand copied by students rather than being printed with an impressive array of photographs.

In short, they were everything that later 20th century reformers wanted to forget.  And so they did.    We often forget that reprints of late Ming era fighting manuals (including some of the ones discussed below) circulated throughout the Republic period martial arts community.  Still the message went out.  The traditional Chinese arts are weak and in need of modern reform as they have left no written legacy.  In strictly empirical terms, neither half of that equation was exactly true.

I consider the current rediscovery and study of these earlier textual traditions to be one of the more important trends seen within the Chinese martial arts today.  My own interests lay mostly in 19th and 20th century sources as they are more closely related to my own area of interest.  Luckily translators like Paul Brennan and Tim Cartmell have done much to make this material available to western students of martial arts studies. For historians of the Republic period, these manuals are important primary sources, rich not just in technical advice but also social observation.

Other authors and translators, such as Jack Chen (from www.chineselongsword.com) and Scott M. Rodell (who recently wrapped up the “year of the dandao”) have focused on earlier periods of history. The late Ming (and early Qing) produced its own rich collections of manuals focusing on both a variety of weapons as well as unarmed combat.  These illustrated, sometimes beautifully produced, works were the basic historical sources employed by authors like Meir Shahar, Peter Lorge and (much earlier) Tang Hao.

Of course China was not the only area of the world to be producing fight books during the 16th century.  A parallel literary tradition was developing in Europe at approximately the same time.  Between the 14th and 17th centuries that region also produced an intriguing written record of its various combat traditions.

In some respect these European works are better known.  Art historians had long been fascinated by the illumination, illustration and engraving that went into producing these discussions.  Some of these volumes are richly bound visual treasures that one suspects had more to do with the advertising of wealth or status than actual instruction.  Other texts were much simpler in their feel and production.

Students of the Historical European Martial Arts (HEMA) have been hard at work translating, interpreting and experimenting with these volumes for a number of years.  Lacking a “living tradition” to fall back on, they have been forced to rely on textual study and technical experimentation in their attempts to restore these lost fighting arts.

Nor do they labor in isolation.  Recent years have seen increased interest in applying these same research methods to the resurrection of older Ming and Qing era martial and military traditions.  Yet are these two bodies of literature really comparable?  Can similar methods of analysis be applied to both sets of literature?  And what can scholars or students of the martial arts really hope to learn from such a comparative case study?

 

A comparison of Western and Chinese Fight Book Illustrations used by Wetzler. Source: https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/apd.2016.4.issue-2/apd-2016-0010/apd-2016-0010.xml

A comparison of Western and Chinese Fight Book Illustrations used by Wetzler. Source: https://www.degruyter.com/view/j/apd.2016.4.issue-2/

 

“Your Kung Fu is very good, Master Fiore!”

 

These are a few of the questions that Sixt Wetzler (an occasional guest author here at Kung Fu Tea) addressed in his paper comparing Chinese and European fight books.  He begins by noting that isolated studies of a single martial art can have certain drawbacks.  Specifically, it is difficult to generalize from a solitary observation how a given fighting system reflects both the realities of combat as well as the social, cultural, economic and other structures that contributed to its development.  To paraphrase Max Mueller, if you have only (academically) studied one martial art, you have really understood none.  Comparison between multiple cases is often the key to bringing a wide range of variables into sharper focus.

Yet, as Wetzler points out, the comparative exercise is not without its pitfalls.  To begin with, none of us can be experts in everything.  Almost inevitably we will be more familiar with one of our objects of study than the other.  In practice this means that we will often approach one of our subjects through a frame of reference that really only works for the other side of the equation.  Hence when we see similar movements, techniques or weapons in a new system, we might misunderstand their actual significance or meaning.  Rarely will a single set of preexisting assumptions work equally well for all of our observations.

While these sorts of assumptions are often troublesome, they are also impossible to escape.  Every attempt to gain new insight must begin somewhere.  Yet careful scholarship, and the use of appropriate theoretical frameworks, can help to ensure that our starting assumptions do not dictate our final conclusions.

At this point Wetzler returns, briefly, to the question of definitions within scholarly enquiry.  As regular readers will note this is a topic that has generated much discussion over the last year. Yet rather than offering a new definition of the martial arts, Wetzler instead makes a few more basic points about their role in research.  Indeed, the comparative method presupposes a certain degree of agreement on basic questions of definition.

Quoting Freiberger he notes:

“The starting point of a comparative study can be a definition of terms (as wide and open as possible) to isolate the topics of study; and a result of the comparison will be a modification and precision of the terms.  These more precise terms can then be the basic for a further comparative study [which] will prevent the essentialisation of terms.”

On a more personal note I will add that in my experience definitions tend to meander and shift between projects in an almost rhizomic way, rather than progressing to an ever more refined state (which might imply exactly the sort of teleological essentialism that both Freiberger and Wetzler are trying to avoid.)  In any case, when we compare two items (in this case Chinese and Western fight books) our aim is not to say “Both of these volumes are an example of category X.”  The very fact that such books were produced in different cultures, distant from one another in space and time, makes this class of typological arguments dubious at best.  Rather, our goal is to consider both the similarities and differences between these two phenomenon, and to use them to generate a better set of questions about how society, culture and the nature of combat shape fighting systems in general.

Wetzler then moves on to a brief discussion of both the European and Chinese fight book traditions.  Given the centrality of these texts for HEMA students (and readers of the APD) he assumes a relatively high degree of prior familiarity on the part of the reader.  Thus he passes over the Western tradition more quickly that students approaching this topic from the Chinese perspective might like.  If I have a single complaint about this article it is that I (as a non-specialist) would have liked a more detailed discussion of the breadth and variety of Western manuals that informed his thinking.

Wetzler’s discussion of the Chinese Ming era martial arts training manual tradition is more detailed.  He initially approaches the topic using Kennedy and Gao’s system of classification for Chinese fight books.  In a sense that is not terribly helpful in the present case as most of their work (like my own research) really focuses on the modern period.  Thus if one is only looking at 16th century manuals their analytical framework does not provide much in the way of typological detail.

However, Wetzler did offer a brief synopsis of the development of this literature, as well as a list of some of the most prominent authors of the period.  I suspect that readers will find this immensely helpful.  I cannot even begin to count the number of times when I have found myself scribbling a similar timeline down in the margin of my notes.  As such, it is nice to have it all in one (easily cited) place.

At this point the author transitions to a more focused discussion of specific areas of comparison between the two traditions.  This begins with questions of materiality.  Who produced these works?  What technologies did they employ?  How were they intended to be marketed or distributed?  Who were their readers?  For what purpose were they produced?

One might be tempted to make broad generalizations about the Chinese and western traditions at the beginning of this exercise.  It might even be possible to point to patterns of difference that would seem to undercut such a cross-cultural comparison in the first place.  For instance, the woodcut illustrations seen in most Chinese manuals are not as detailed and crisp (nor as anatomically accurate) as what one might see in an Italian renaissance fencing manual.  It could be argued that this lack of detail suggests that we are dealing with totally different sorts of manuscript traditions.

Wetzler reminds us, however, that there is a danger in constructing “ideal types.”  In fact the quality of the printing and depth of description varies vastly among both Western and Chinese examples.  The more relevant question might actually be to what extent can, or should, we attempt to treat either of these assumed categories as a unified genre.  The material nature of a book often suggests clues as to who owned it, and what its intended function really was, that can be useful in sorting this out.

The various ways that fighting techniques are textually described also makes an interesting point of comparison.  While some western texts offer expansive descriptions of techniques (often framed as conversations), others appear to be simple lists of notes recorded for personal study.

Both Chinese and western texts adopt a similar strategy of defining a larger movement repertoire that will be taught by dividing it into small digestible pieces, introduced one or two movements at a time.  As a student of the Chinese martial arts I was surprised to discover that the authors of some Western fight books used rhymed formulas to help their students remember key aspects of technique.  Of course these were a standard pedagogical tool in Chinese manuals.  Less surprising was the revelation that both genres developed their own technical vocabularies that are now difficult for specialists to decipher.  It was also fascinating to see the different ways that authors attempted to solve the problem of conveying footwork and movement patterns through a static medium.

Obviously there are limits to what can be accomplished here, no matter how detailed your engravings or expansive your text.  As the old adage goes, one cannot learn Kung Fu from a book.  There is simply too much implicit knowledge embedded in the details of our movement to ever be conveyed in any written manual, especially one that crosses temporal and cultural boundaries.  Burkart expands on these themes in his own article, but I will leave that discussion for next week.  Yet it is interesting to see how authors in various traditions struggled with the limitations of their medium.

Wetzler, a curator at the German Blade Museum, was also interested in what these textual traditions suggested about the role of weapons in their respective cultures.  Both libraries featured a variety of weapons.  Yet he concluded that the balance of weapons favored by the two groups of authors skewed in noticeably different directions.

Since this observation was connected to Wetzler’s final point of comparison I will deal with them together.  While European fight books strongly favored the sword as the de facto weapon of defense, Chinese sources were much more likely to focus on the spear.  As Peter Lorge points out, not only were Chinese spearmen well trained, one could make an argument that they were over trained (at least according to the books that we have inherited from the past).  Rather than focusing on the basic skills needed to fight in ranks, a wider range of techniques were studied covering all conceivable situations.

While our discussion to this point has focused on similarities, this shift in emphasis brings forth a notable difference.  Both Chinese and Western authors were vocally concerned with the fighting efficiency of their respective arts, and dismissed anything that was “flowery” or “impractical.”  Yet this last point suggests that their martial cultures were quite different in certain critical respects.

Many of the Western fight books that Wetzler references were written for an upper middle-class urban, largely civilian, audience.  Swords were a matter of dueling, self-defense and honor.  No matter their advantages, one simply could not walk around town armed with a pike.  While some European texts do address actual battlefield conditions (where pikes were rather common), Wetzler observes that they appear to be in the minority.

In contrast, a larger percentage of the Ming era manuals that he discusses were written by army generals who were concerned with questions of basic troop training.  Even the civilian authors on his list (such as Cheng Zongyou) were engaged with questions of militia training and management.  Given the disorder, banditry and rebellions that plagued the late Ming, this emphasis on battlefield combat is not surprising.  In 16th century China, the spear was king.

All of that this would change rapidly in the coming decades.  As Shahar notes, the advent of the Qing dynasty did not mark the end of the Chinese martial arts so much as their transformation.  Increasingly the audience for hand combat training was civilian in nature and less interested in the sorts of tactical and strategic considerations that had previously been considered vital. From this point onward fighting manuals gave more weight to unarmed fighting, self-defense and medicine.  The timing and nature of shifts within in a literature is another area that might benefit from the comparative method.

Dr. Sixt Wetzler showing off a fight book from the collection of the German Blade Museum.

Doctoral candidate Sixt Wetzler showing off a fight book from the collection of the German Blade Museum.

 

Conclusion

 

Wetzler’s excellent paper provides students of martial arts studies with a brief introduction to a potentially voluminous subject.  Clearly there are differences between the Chinese and European fight book traditions.  For that matter there is an interesting pattern of variation within each of these groups.  Yet fruitful comparative studies draw on differences as well as commonalities.

The recent enthusiasm for the “re-discovery” of historical fighting systems (in both the East and the West) should also cause to stop and ponder why these works, neglected for so long as inscrutable or simply irrelevant to the modern world, are suddenly capturing the imagination of a global audience.  As both Burkart and Wetzler suggest, while these texts may be ancient, the uses they are currently being put to are quite modern.  This raises a number of pressing theoretical questions for students of martial arts studies.  Perhaps some of them will be addressed at the upcoming conference on fight books, hosted at the German Blade Museum in Solingen, in the autumn of 2017.

oOo

If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”

oOo

Discussion

5 thoughts on “Chinese and European Fight Books: The Value of a Comparative Approach

  1. Now, this is a conference I would be interested in. Is there already a date for this?

    Posted by Klaus Beck-Ewerhardy | January 16, 2017, 3:07 pm
    • Dear Klaus,

      the call for papers for the conference is out – you can find it here:
      http://www.klingenmuseum.de/assets/files/CfP_Fight_Book_Conference_RZ.pdf

      Hope to see you in Solingen! 🙂

      Best regards
      Sixt Wetzler

      Posted by Sixt Wetzler | March 17, 2017, 11:27 am
      • Funnily enough, I have just been writing an article concerning openess and exchange between European and Asian Martial Arts without really having a target publication for it. It could be a short aside or a bridging-speech between two “real” contributions.
        On the other hand, I directly had an idea for the presentation of a modern bagua-treatise and its applicability to European sword-fighting if this would be interesting. I could mail you the other article if you are interested.

        Best greetings,

        Klaus

        Posted by Klaus Beck-Ewerhardy | March 17, 2017, 2:21 pm
  2. Thank you for posting. I’ve learned a lot. Good day.

    Posted by Wellesley Martial Arts | January 19, 2017, 12:26 am

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