***I am very excited to introduce the following guest post by my friend Scott Phillips.  In this essay Scott draws on his extensive study of modern Chinese religious and social history in an attempt to develop a powerful new concept for describing and theorizing the massive reforms of the Chinese martial arts that occurred during the Republic period.  I thought that his idea was intriguing when he first told me about it a few months ago, and I am very happy that he agreed to compose a guest post that could be shared with the readers of Kung Fu Tea.  Hopefully this essay gets people thinking, debating and talking about how we should understand the trajectory of the Chinese martial arts during these critical decades.  Enjoy!***



The YMCA Consensus

by Scott Park Phillips


The Need for a Proper Name


Sometimes for an intellectual project to move forward a whole body of study has to be given a proper name. In this post I intend to coin a new term, The YMCA Consensus. The major cultural shift that happened at the beginning of the 20th Century has been a difficult obstacle to discussions about the cultural history of Chinese martial arts. Thus I’m proposing we give this cultural shift a name so that we can move the discussion forward.

For instance, when I explain to people that in China theater was subject to various forms of suppression, they naturally want to know why. And generally they want to configure an orderly victim-oppressor framework with which to understand this assertion. Generally in the West we understand the suppression of theater for two reasons, obscenity and subversion. And because of that bias we tend to see the problem as a discourse between a puritanical movement and resistance to it, or between a social order and an attempt to disrupt it. But the actual reason for suppressing theater in China was to break the connection between martial skills, public performance, and religious institutions, as part of a cultural movement to establish a new order. The main public justification offered for ongoing acts of suppression was that the combination of theater, martial skills, and religion kept the Chinese nation weak, vulnerable, ignorant, backward, and superstitious.

I wrote the book Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater, and Religion (2016) because my interest in performance skills, martial skills, and religious experience gave me unique insights into the history of Chinese martial arts that were mostly absent from either popular or scholarly discussions of the subject.


1919 Shanghai YMCA basketball team. Source: Kautz family archives, University of Minnesota Libraries.




Until quite recently, scholars of Chinese religion were averse to discussing or investigating martial arts or martial skills. (Avron Boretz, Douglas Farrer, and Meir Shahar are recent exceptions.) Informally, it was considered career suicide. This has been justified in all sorts of ways, mainly that it is difficult to escape personal biases and that the subject is politically charged, but frankly, it requires very specific skill sets that few Chinese religious scholars have acquired.

It is largely agreed among Chinese religious scholars who look at the early 20th Century, that there was a massive shift in practice and perspective that coincided with government restrictions and forced codifications of doctrine, practice and institutional frameworks (Goossaert, 2011; Palmer, 2011; Liu, 2009).

These ideas about what religion should be came from many sources. Sun Yet-sen and Chang Kai-shek were Protestants and both married to the daughters of Charlie Soong, a wealthy and influential Christian missionary trained in the United States. Towards the end of the Qing Dynasty, it was common for Chinese elites to voice the view that traditional society was crippling innovations in technology, commerce, the emancipation of women, education, science, and medicine. These voices were amplified after the Boxer Rebellion and culminated in the May 4th Movement which, after gaining the support of the new government, became a powerful voice for radical changes in society.

Under the new Republic (1911), the fate of religion was debated, and the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) became the model of acceptable religious institutions. I am making this statement in hindsight, they did not name the YMCA specifically, but it is accurate. All religious organizations had to have outreach, charity, a membership, a regular constituency, a popular moral code for upright living, and many other elements of Evangelical Protestantism. Most importantly ritual was repressed and ridiculed if not outright banned. Theater which put gods and demons on the stage as sources of divine power was soundly rejected along with exorcisms of any kind (Paper, 1995). Martial skills which had been integrated with theater and religion had to be purified of superstitious and backwards elements, so that what had been a storehouse of chaotic forces and cosmos-rectifying intentions could be taught at the YMCA.

To describe this change, religious scholars sometimes use the term Protestant, or Protestantization (Palmer, 2011). They also use Scientization to refer to the project of adopting scientific sounding language to describe inner alchemy, meditation, qigong, or martial arts in an attempt to confer authority under the new consensus (Liu, 2009). While we could easily see suppression, especially as it escalated to mass murder during the Communist era, as ALL BAD—modern anthropologists have tended to emphasize the incredible resilience, innovation, creativity, and cooperation that the Chinese people have shown in continuing to practice these traditions (Lagerwey, 2010).


Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900. This picture came out of the same milieu as the one above it. Notice the wide rounded blades used by these performers. Such weapons had a lot visual impact but were relatively safe to use on stage.





Theater, defined broadly to include stage performance, masked processions, exorcistic puppet shows, home entertainments, spirit mediums, and street performers, has been given too little attention by scholars. In China theater was a profoundly physical art form with almost no documentation of method prior to the 20th Century. The most elaborate forms (opera) were performed by a permanently degraded caste, called mean people (jianmin) (Johnson, 2009). Some of the best studies make use of a play or a festival schedule and attempt to contextualize it with other supporting materials written by elite observers (Volpp, 2011; Johnson, 2009). There is a consensus among anthropologists of Chinese culture that religious ritual and theater are inseparable (Chan 2006; Lagerwey, 2010). Most of the informants who have studied Chinese theater report being required to learn some martial arts as part, if not the core, of their basic training (Riley,1997). The first Chinese films grew out of this theater tradition, but by 1930 the Shanghai film industry was shut down as theatrical martial arts displays were banned. The consensus against the integration of theater, martial skills, and religion had the force of government to back it up.

It should be noted that the YMCA and other Christian Evangelical organizations were profoundly anti-theater. They saw it as the source of Chinese resistance to “the Good News” Modern Western institutions were bringing. Chinese theater put unruly gods and demons on the stage as sources of history, social organization, moral order, and inspiration; the YMCA saw theater as the enemy.

From the beginning of the Republic, the YMCA Consensus was the official policy of both the Nationalist and the Communist factions; it was somewhat weaker in Hong Kong, which under exceptional British protection, became a refuge for those fleeing Communism (Judkins, 2015). Hong Kong movies which were banned in the PRC, unselfconsciously employed pure martial artists alongside Beijing opera trained performers, thus violating the consensus in a myriad of creative ways.



Heibi Guoshu School, located in Tianjin (1927). Source: Taiping Institute



Martial Arts


Under the YMCA Consensus, martial arts which were fully integrated with theater and religion had to be purified of superstitious and backwards elements. At first this movement was called Jingwu, pure martial arts, and Tiyu, physical culture (Morris, 2004). Later, as it took a role in the establishment of nationalist body discipline it was called Guoshu (national arts). After the Communist revolution in 1949 it was called Wushu.

Among scholars of Martial Arts in the first half of the 20th Century there was little dissent. While it is difficult to determine what is propaganda and what is serious scholarship, there is little doubt that the two most well known scholars Tang Hao and Xu Zhen were fully indoctrinated into the YMCA Consensus. This is a particular problem for a few Western scholars who have repeated their “findings” uncritically; Peter Lorge and Stanley Henning come to mind. For example the 16th Century general Qi Jiguang, whose writing has rightly been pointed to as an early source for Tai Chi and other martial arts, is presented as a “pure martial artist” with no religious or theatrical connections. This is really a sin of omission. He was in fact a deeply religious man, who practiced the golden elixir (jindan) in nine stages, healing by exorcism, and was involved in rituals for transforming the battlefield dead into ghost soldiers (guibing)(Berling, 1980; Meulenbeld, 2015). He also had a profound connection to the immortal Zhang Sanfeng through his meditation teacher who was a direct disciple of the immortal (Dean, 1998). As a military leader encamped for many years fighting pirates on the coast he worked closely with the local gentry and almost certainly sponsored theatrical festivals as part of the local liturgical calendar. Such things would have been expected of a man in his position (Dean 1998; Berling 1980). Lorge, Henning, and many others, frame Tang Hao’s work as debunking myths, when in fact he was attempting to impose the YMCA Consensus on those who still dared to hint at the theatrical and religious synthesis of martial arts (Lorge 2011, 219; Henning, 1994,1995).


The Chinese Boxing Club of Fukien Christian University. Source: http://findit.library.yale.edu



Why Call it a Consensus?


The inspiration for naming this change in Chinese culture the YMCA Consensus comes from a 2011 blog post by David Chapman. In the post titled “The Crumbling Buddhist Consensus,” Chapman summarizes many of the conflicts in modern Buddhism. He coined the term Consensus Buddhism to describe the coordinated response of Buddhist teachers in the West to suppress the more chaotic and ungainly aspects of Buddhist practice. This coordination happened toward the end of the 1980s as Buddhist lineages, initially populated by sex-positive and consciousness-expanding Hippies, were coming into conflict with the puritanical values of the larger culture. There were numerous scandals surrounding promiscuous, and otherwise badly behaved, teachers. That consensus lasted more than 25 years. But, in short, as second generation teachers became experts in language and history, they looked in vain for Buddhist teachings on peace, love, and understanding, much less “social justice” or “social engagement.” This new breed of Buddhist teachers realized these concepts are not authentically Buddhist, and since then, edgier practices like tantra have grown in popularity.

Besides being an inspiration for the YMCA Consensus, Chapman’s work is a powerful investigation of the way religion and culture interact, and how East meets West. I recommend it to everyone interested in the history, dissemination, and evolution of martial arts.

The YMCA Consensus was not a discourse between two competing social movements, tradition and modernity for instance. It was a conscious decision to re-center Chinese culture. That new center controlled many Chinese institutions, including military and educational. A discourse suggests a back and forth. The YMCA Consensus was a very strong political movement that swept up the majority of the population. Over forty years it expanded and contracted as institutions and individuals reacted or adapted to it. When the Communist took over in 1949, they made it absolute.

Previous scholars who have peeked in around the edges of this subject have most often referred to the YMCA Consensus as Nationalism, by which they usually mean Fascism. Understandably scholars wish to use the same terminology when discussing both China’s and Japan’s transitions to Modernity, but the parallels do not justify it, they are simply too different. Discussions of Communism sometimes get mixed in also–Communism broke the records for mass torture and intentional starvation of the Chinese people–but Communism did not change people’s understanding of martial arts, it simply continued and amplified the YMCA Consensus established earlier. Studies of theater also use the term Nationalism, but use the term Modernity to refer specifically to the process of aesthetic purification. Referring to the same cultural movement, religious scholars use the awkward terms Protestantization or Scientization.

Building on Chapman’s work I would like to coin the term the YMCA Consensus to describe the transition to Modernity that happened in China between 1890 and 1940. Specifically it refers to the process by which people came to see theater, religion and martial arts as separate subjects.




Scott Park Phillips lives in Bolder Colorado, where he integrates the teaching of Chinese martial arts, dance, improvisational theater, and Daoist cultivation. He writes the blog “Weakness with a Twist,” and is the author of Possible Origins, A Cultural History of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater, and Religion, published by Angry Baby Books (2016). He is currently working on two separate monograms which are alternate histories of Taijiquan and Baguazhang incorporating their theatrical and religious origins.







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