Few individuals have influenced our understanding of the martial arts during the late Ming dynasty more than Cheng Zongyou. His manuals provide historians a glimpse into a world of martial arts practice that is at the same time familiar and strange. His works describe an environment that is characterized by a multiplicity of competing schools and ongoing disputes about the authenticity and legitimacy of various techniques. Cheng’s frequent use of Buddhist metaphor when describing the Shaolin fighting method, while more superlative than theoretical, even seems to have resonances with the way the Chinese martial arts are often discussed today.
Yet his beloved pole fighting method was not only intended for the training ground. Cheng was promoting the martial arts in an era when China’s people were threatened by insurrection, pirates and the rise of bandit armies. Martial artists were in demand as military trainers. At least one of Cheng’s instructors would die in battle while leading military expeditions in the field. As the security situation deteriorated the gentry and rich landlords increasingly turned to private militias to maintain some semblance of order, if not actual peace. This was the world that inspired Cheng Zongyou to take up the brush and to begin to systematically record and explore the era’s martial arts.
I have quoted Cheng’s various writings in many places on this blog. Yet by some oversight he has never received a post of his own. As such I have decided to make Cheng Zongyou’s career the next addition to our ongoing “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” occasional series. All the information here is available in the secondary academic literature. Hopefully I will be able to clarify a few things for myself by gathering it all into one place.
Life and Career
Most entries in this series start out with a biographical discussions of the individual in question. In this case, our exploration of Cheng Zongyou’s background must be brief as we do not know much about his life. Stanley Henning reports that Cheng was probably born in 1561 (Martial Arts of the World, 95). Unfortunately, we do not know much about other life events, or even when he died.
Meir Shahar has written more about Cheng’s contributions to the martial arts than any other scholar in the English language literature. His treatment of Cheng’s life can be found in his 2001 article “Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice” (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 359-413) or in a slightly expanded form in his 2008 volume, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts (Hawaii UP, see especially 56-62). Readers should also note his translation in the 2005 Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture titled “Cheng Zongyou’s Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method.” Most of the research on this figure in the Chinese academic literature remains untranslated.
While many details about Cheng’s life are a mystery, we know a bit more about his family. Shahar notes that he was a son of a wealthy gentry family in southern Anhui province. There had been a number of degree holder’s in the Cheng clan, but in Zongyou’s generation the deteriorating security situation seems to have shifted the family’s interests in a notably martial direction.
Cheng Zongyou was far from alone in his interest in the martial arts. We know that several brothers shared his interests, and that he had both uncles and nephews who also took the military exams and devoted themselves to the martial arts. In fact, Shahar reminds us that during the late Ming many young gentlemen (the author Wushu being a prominent example) turned their interests to military matters. Rather than this being a hobby one suspects that their families decided that this was necessary to defend their economic and social status in changing times. As such, Zongyou’s study and research appears to have been both financially and socially well supported. Returning to his hometown after decades of study and travel Cheng Zongyou managed to raise a model militia, trained using his own techniques, composed of at least 80 members of his own estate. This framework is important to bear in mind when discussing his earlier training.
As a younger man Cheng Zongyou (and a number of other close family members) traveled to the Shaolin Temple in Henan province. His subsequent publications claim that he studied with a succession of renowned teachers and mentors for over a decade before finally following one of his instructors on expeditions outside of the temple. The instruction that he received within the walls of the temple seems to have been the basis for much of his later activity as an author.
Henning characterizes this as a “claim,” rather than as a fact, in his 2010 article for Green and Svinth (“China: Martial Arts” 95). His caution should be carefully considered. We do not have any independent documentation (that I am aware of) that places Cheng Zongyou at Shaolin during this period. And even during the Ming, many martial artists were attempting to ride the venerable temple’s coat tails.
When we turn to circumstantial evidence is the picture is mixed, but it seems to lean in Cheng’s favor. It is odd that in his extensive discussion of Shaolin’s pole fighting Cheng makes no mention of the simplified system that General Yu Dayou introduced to the temple a generation before. That might reflect the interests of his teachers, or that as a relatively recent addition, it did not appear to be “authentically Shaolin” from Cheng’s point of view. Indeed, he mentions the supernatural origins of the Shaolin method in multiple places in his subsequent publications.
On the other hand, Cheng does discuss several teachers who do appear in other period texts and records. Further, he describes the process of learning at Shaolin in some detail, as well as exploring new trends that he has seen at the sanctuary. For instance, in his 1610 Exposition on the Original Shaolin Staff Method we find the following aside on the growing popularity of unarmed boxing (still at this point a new trend) at the temple:
“Someone may ask: “As to the staff, the Shaolin [Method] is admired. Today there are many Shaolin monks who practice hand combat (quan), and do not practice the staff. Why is that?
I Answer: The Shaolin Staff is called the Yaksa (Yecha) [method]. It is a sacred transmission from the Kimnara King (Jinnaluo wang) (Shaolin’s tutelary diety, Vajrapani). To this day it is known as “Unsurpassed Wisdom (Bodhi)” (wushang puti). By contrast, hand combat is not yet popular in the land. Those [Shaolin monks] who specialize in it, do so in order to transform it, like the staff, [into a vehicle] for reaching the other shore [of enlightenment.]”
(Shahar’s 2008 translation of Shaolin Gungfa, page 114).
Cheng Zongyou paints a fascinating picture in which the late Ming Shaolin monastery has come to function as a military school for the state. Within the sanctuary one can find dozens of instructors who are offering classes to a variety of students rather than promoting the highly exclusive lineage systems that we tend to associate with the martial arts today. That makes sense as Shaolin was attempting to offer all the basic skills that a young officer might need. Cheng Zongyou mentions receiving instruction in not just pole fighting but also the spear, fencing, archery and even riding. Of all these subjects, Shaolin was most famous for its expertise in the pole, and Cheng’s description makes it clear that this topic was being tackled by many teachers.
Returning to Henning’s original question, is Cheng Zongyou offering us an “authentic” glimpse at the Shaolin staff method? Or to put it differently, is he acting as a good Confucian and simply relating the learning of the sages for the edification of his readers, or is his work more innovative than its title may suggest. Did later readers inherit Shaolin’s pole method, or Cheng’s?
The nature of instruction at the Temple itself, as described by Cheng, complicates any attempt to answer such a question. Rather than there being a single unified Shaolin approach to pole fighting the temple featured a variety of teachers. Their approaches were apparently different enough that students made conscious decisions to seek out some mentors rather than others. Cheng describes the composition of his first major work as follows:
“My great uncle, the military student Yunshui and my nephews Junxin and the National University student Hanchu had studies with me once at Shaolin. They pointed out that so far the Shaolin staff method had been transmitted only orally, from one Buddhist master to the next. Since I was the first to draw illustrations and compile written formulas for it, they suggested I publish these for the benefit of like-minded friends. At first I declines, saying I was not equal to the task. But then illustrious gentlemen from all over the land started commending the supposed merits of my work. They even blamed me for keeping it secret, thereby depriving them. So finally I found some free time, gathering the doctrines handed down to me by my teachers and friends, and combined these with what I learned from my own experience. I commissioned an artisan to execute the drawings, and, even though my writing is somewhat vulgar, I added to the left of each drawing a rhyming formula (gejue).”
Given that Cheng was combining the insights of some instructors, but not all, while at the same time adding his own experiences and insights, one wonders whether his work should actually be regarded as an innovation within the Shaolin pole fighting method rather than a simple transmission. Indeed, the very act of taking an exceedingly complex body of material and reducing it to a single text implies not just a loss, but also a transformation of the material.
Cheng seems to have suffered remarkably few misgivings regarding the nature of his project. In the current era we almost reflexively question one’s ability to “learn Kung Fu from a book.” Cheng, on the other hand, informs his readers that with the addition of woodblock images (a recent trend in Ming era publishing) readers would be able to do just that:
“Just casting a glance at one of the drawings would probably suffice to figure the position depicted therein. Thus the reader will be able to study this method without the aid of a teacher. Despite an apparent simplicity, each sentence captures the secret of victory and defeat, each drawing harbors the essence of movement. Even though staff fighting is called a trivial art, its explication in this book is the result of strenuous effort.”
Many martial artists in both China and the West have spent a good deal of time attempting to reconstruct Cheng’s various methods, and it seems that the process is generally more difficult than he suggests. It is likely that Eric Burkart’s recent work on European fight books may be of some help here. Cheng simply assumed that any reader who picked up his book would already share much of his knowledge about specific techniques, vocabularies and even basic (culturally determined) habits of movement. Given the constraints of space inherent in the publishing enterprise, that which is assumed to be “common knowledge” is almost always left out of a fight book. This makes their later reconstruction (centuries after these deep forms of cultural knowledge have died) a fundamentally creative and rhizomic process. Thus, another layer of interpretation and mystery is inserted between modern readers and the actual substance of Ming era Shaolin practice.
While Cheng did not restrict his writing to the Shaolin pole method, it was clearly his passion. The 1610 Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method is longer than his next three books combined. These were released in 1621 (along with the Staff Method) in a collection titled Techniques for After-Farming Pastime. While outwardly bucolic one suspects that this title was meant to hail other landlords and members of the gentry who were thinking of organizing their own community militias out of the ranks of local peasants.
This collection included works on the crossbow, the spear and the saber. Of these efforts, the last is probably the best known. Rather than discussing the Chinese military dao this work reflects the interest in Japanese swordsmanship that had been inspired by the coastal raids of the 16th century. Peter Lorge notes that Cheng had studied his “Dandao” techniques with Liu Yunfeng, who in turn was a direct student of Japanese fencing (2012, 179). This work begins with a number of combat applications against the spear, before providing a dulon suitable for solo-practice. This comes with a movement diagram similar to those used in the Staff Method.
Lorge observes that while this was popular among Chinese martial artists at the time, the actual practice of the dandao and other schools of Japanese fencing appear to have died out quickly. General Qi Jiguang proved that better training and the use of pole arms was the easiest way to defeat Japanese swordsmen. Of course, that same trend was playing itself out on Japan’s battlefields and the sword increasingly became a weapon of personal defense (179). This suggests that subsequent flurries of interest in the dandao (and Cheng’s text) in the Qing and Republic eras might best be understood as revival movements.
In 1629 Cheng went on to publish another manual titled History of Archery. Stephen Selby suggests that like his Staff Method, this work is inherently conservative. It again ignores the innovations that General Yu Dayou and Qi Jiguang introduced to simplify military archery and instead favors the older techniques of the early Ming dynasty. Still, Cheng’s illustrations were path breaking. Selby states that his manual was the first to provide detailed illustrations of techniques that had been written about for hundreds of years but were never clearly visualized (2000, 276).
Unfortunately, we do not know how Cheng’s story ends. Perhaps that is poetic justice as his contributions to the Chinese martial arts live on. At multiple points (during the Republic, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and today) Chinese students have exhibited renewed interest in his work. Nor can scholars deny the historical and descriptive importance of his writing.
Cheng Zongyou paints an image of the Chinese martial arts that is almost intoxicating for modern readers. It all seems so familiar. His descriptions of a thriving Shaolin temple, or the era’s many disputes and rivalries, sound so vivid. The images in his texts are evocative, if not always descriptive. Likewise, his use of Buddhist metaphors promises a merging of the martial and philosophical realms that has proved deeply appealing to individuals in both the East and West. Cheng seems to function as a bridge between the present and a past that we wish existed.
Yet careful readers will also detect disjoints that, in their own way, are just as informative. His was a world in which unarmed Boxing was just starting to capture the public imagination, and most martial arts instruction happened on the militia training ground. Rather than learning in modern schools, those who could afford to do so hired instructors who became part of their estates, or traveled to defacto military schools like Shaolin or Emei. Nor were these skills purely academic. Even famous teachers might be cut down while fighting bandit armies, as was the fate of one of Cheng’s Shaolin instructors.
While at a recent workshop I was listening to several scholars debate the translation of a 17th century Japanese medical text. One of the diseases that it mentioned seemed to share many of the characteristics of Anorexia. But other elements of the description did not fit that pattern. And still others pointed to behaviors that may have been more religious in nature.
As the conversation went on a more experienced researcher, with considerable expertise in this area, stepped in to remind the group that, in general, it is just not possible to impose modern disease diagnosis on older medical texts. Our world view is not their world view. Our empirical observations are not their empirical observations. When we impose modern categories on ancient documents we inevitably damage our ability understand the world that they lived in while still failing to make the facile analogies that we seek.
I was reminded of this conversation as I reviewed the sources on Cheng Zongyou and the ways that they were sometimes used in popular discussions. Like that medical text, he is challenging precisely because he seems to hover right on the edge of our modern understanding of the Chinese martial arts. And it is just so easy to romanticize his decade at Shaolin at the height of its Ming glory. Who among us would not jump at the chance to do that? Yet we cannot fully appreciate Cheng’s vision of the Chinese martial arts if we ignore the many differences in an attempt to bring his experiences closer to our own.
Preface – Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method
The Shaolin Monastery is nestled between two mountains: that of culture (wen) and that of fighting (wu). Indeed this monastery has transmitted the method of staff fighting and the doctrines of the Chan sect alike, for which reason gentlemen throughout the land have always admired it.
Since my youth I was determined to learn the martial arts. Whenever I heard of a famous teacher I wouldn’t hesitate to travel far to gain his instruction. Therefore I gathered the necessary travel expenses and journeyed to the Shaolin Monetary where I spent, all in all, more than ten years. At first I served Master Hongji, who was tolerant enough to admit me to his class Even though I gained a sketchy understanding of the techniques’ broad outlines, I didn’t master it.
At the time Master Hongzhuan was aleady an old man in his eighties. Nevertheless his staff method was superb, and the monks venerated him the most. Therefore I turned to him as my next teacher, and each day I learned new things I had never heard of before. In addition, I befriended the two Masters Zongxiang and Zongdai, and I gained enormously from practicing with them. Later I met Master Guang’an, one of the best experts in Buddhist technique. He inherited Hongzhuan’s technique in its entirety, and had even improved upon it. Guang’an tutored me personally, and revealed to me wonderful subtleties. Later I followed him out of the monastery and we traveled together for several years. The marvelous intricacy of the staff’s transformations, the wonderful swiftness of its manipulations—I gradually became familiar with them, and I attained sudden enlightenment (dun). I chose this field as my specialty, and I believe I did have some achievements.
As for archery, riding, and the arts of the sword and spear, I paid quite some attention to their investigation as well, however by that time my energy of half-a-lifetime had already been spent. My great uncle, the military student Yunshui and my nephews Junxin and the National University student Hanchu had studies with me once at Shaolin. They pointed out that so far the Shaolin staff method had been transmitted only orally, from one Buddhist master to the next. Since I was the first to draw illustrations and compile written formulas for it, they suggested I publish these for the benefit of like-minded friends. At first I declined, saying I was not equal to the task. But then illustrious gentlemen from all over the land started commending the supposed merits of my work. They even blamed me for keeping it secret, thereby depriving them. So finally I found some free time, gathering the doctrines handed down to me by my teachers and friends, and combined these with what I learned from my own experience. I commissioned an artisan to execute the drawings, and, even though my writing is somewhat vulgar, I added to the left of each drawing a rhyming formula (gejue).
Together these drawings and formulas constitute a volume, which I titled: Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method. Just casting a glance at one of the drawings would probably suffice to figure the position depicted therein. Thus the reader will be able to study this method without the aid of a teacher. Despite an apparent simplicity, each sentence captures the secret of victory and defeat, each drawing harbors the essence of movement. Even though staff fighting is called a trivial art, its explication in this book is the result of strenuous effort.
If this book serves like-minded friends as a raft leading them to the other shore [of enlightenment], if they rely upon it to strengthen the state and pacify its boarders, thereby spreading my teachers’ method and enhancing its glory, yet another of my goals would be accomplished.
(Shaolin Gungfu circa 1610. Translated by Shahar (2008) 56-59).
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