Kai Filipiak. 2012. “’Saving Lives’—Lu Kun’s Manual on City Defense.” Journal of Chinese Military History. 139-188.



Winter is a great time to catch up on one’s reading. And if you run a blog that means catching up on your book reviews as well. Sadly, I have a pile of backlogged books sitting by my computer right now. Some will be reviewed in future issues of the journal, others here at Kung Fu Tea. A few of them will probably find their way into more general discussions. But as I sat down to make a dent in that pile over the weekend I found myself drawn to a weighty article perched at the very top. As regular readers already know, most of my own research focuses on the Republic period. But one of my goals for the next year is to do some reading on earlier developments in the martial arts of the Ming Dynasty.

While I am familiar with many of the basic sources of the 16th and 17th centuries, I have always had a harder time putting together a rich picture of the periods social life, and how the martial arts fit within it. Some of this frustration is inevitable as the further back one goes, the thinner the historical record becomes. We have much more information about the lives of ordinary people in the Qing dynasty than the Ming. And clearly the modern era is even better understood.

This is critical for students of martial arts studies as when we discuss the development of these fighting systems we are inevitably delving into the realm of the common people. Even in those few cases where we discover local officials or members of the gentry taking an interest in boxing (as happened from time to time), it remains clear that these individuals were descending into the realms of popular culture.

This suggests a number of questions. While they were clearly excluded from the official flow chart of “good governance,” what role did martial arts masters play in the informal exchanges of power that made local governance possible? And why might some privileged individuals have decided to engage with these figures in the late Ming (and again in the late Qing)?

While not a particularly recent publication, I was drawn to Prof. Filipiak’s article precisely because he spoke to these issues. To be more precise, he was gracious enough to introduce general readers to the Ming dynasty official and author Lu Kun, who took an interest in military matters. Lu Kun’s thoughts on the role of the government in promoting local martial arts traditions as part of a strategy of regional defense would resonate within certain circles. His works was reprinted many times throughout both the Ming and Qing dynasties. Indeed, when local magistrates faced down bandit, pirate and rebel armies during the middle of the 19th century, they often did so with Lu Kun’s eminently practical manual of city defense at their side. Far from suppressing this Ming era military work, the Qing government seems to have actively supported it, and even honored the memory of Lu Kun when the Daoguang Emperor enshrined him in the Confucian Temple.


A set of Qing Era spearheads. Weapons such as these continued to be the mainstay of local militias well into the Republic period. Source: A great article over at mandarinmansion.com


An Unlikely Military Authority

In many respects its ironic that Lu’s military writings would have had such a profound impact on the late imperial period as he was, in all honesty, no military expert. Lu Kun (1536-1618) was actually a very successful literary scholar and official. As near as we can tell he had no training in the martial arts during his youth, and he took little interest in these questions early on in his career. Lu was a native of eastern Henan province. He was born in Ningling county (a relatively peaceful area at the time) and passed the palace literary examination in 1574. His first assignment as a local magistrate was to Xiangyuan in Shanghai. This went well and he was later transferred to the more strategically important border region of Datong. This inspired his first interest in military matters and wall building/maintenance. He subsequently spent the rest of his career in the capital where his habit of writing scathing reports and criticizing the administration at every turn won him few friends. All of this trouble causing did, however, cement Lu’s reputation as the ideal Confucian official. One suspects it may also have been one reason why it was so easy for the Qing to later rehabilitate him.

Lu was eventually forced into early retirement on the grounds that he was just “too ill” to continue to serve the state in an official capacity. One would not have guessed that the ever upright Lu was in poor health given the vigor with which he approached his retirement. This included a number of writing projects, but also a blossoming interest in very practical aspects of community self-defense.

His first statements on these issues can be found in his 1598 Records of Practical Government. Filipiak notes that this work was a reflection on his time in Shanxi, where he first encountered the paradox that while the local magistrate is a purely civil officer, with no direct command over military forces, he is expected to lead the defense of the civilian population in times of crisis. Doing so often takes the form of city (siege) defense. And so Lu informed his readers about the details of maintaining fortifications, administering military law, implementing the Baojia (mutual surveillance system), and training a militia without any access to actual military assets. These last two areas suggest the importance of cultivating the proper relationship with martial arts masters. In times of crisis these civilian assets would become crucial to any attempt to carry out government policy.

Filipiak notes the Records of Practical Government sits nicely within a well established genre of late imperial publishing. Successful civil servants would write guide books, or manuals, addressing the challenges of certain offices (such as being a new magistrate) or issue areas (dike maintenance). These works tended to be written for an elite audience comprised of junior officials setting out for new assignments, examination students, and members of the gentry who took an interest in local government. This is important as it starts to give us an indication of who else, besides local practitioners, might have been taking an interest in the martial arts during the Ming dynasty.

This was not the only work in which Lu addressed military issues. Filipiak also describes a memorial that he wrote titled Explaining the Hardships of the People Living along the Border. Unsurprisingly this work focused on Lu’s observations in Datong. It was more directed to the failings of the formal military system, particularly the examination system used to select and train officers. Yet when comparing these two works it quickly becomes evident that rather than writing truly general manuals, most of Lu’s works really reflects very specific environments and tactical situations.

This same habit is also evident in his third (and most important) military work, the Book on Saving Lives (1607). After returning home at the end of his period of official, service Lu apparently began to look for local projects that needed work in and around the small city of Ningling. Like so many other retired officials he made himself useful with proposals for maintaining the local dikes. But his major project quickly became a far reaching effort to rebuild and update the defensive walls around the city. This included not just construction on the walls themselves (which had deteriorated to the point that they needed extensive yearly maintenance), but clearing away shops and residences from both sides of the fortifications, engineering a moat, and putting social and financial institutions in place to support the city’s defense.

Just as had been the case in the capital, Lu Kun’s extreme diligence in these matters seems to have earned him few friends. His efforts proved to be both costly and socially disruptive, and his writings indicate that he felt scorned by some in local society. Unsurprisingly, most people did not see the need for such extreme measures given that this was a relatively peaceful period in eastern Henan’s history. One might instead have expected such defensive efforts to emerge out of the later (or earlier) periods of unrest.

The timing of Lu Kun’s seminal work on city defense is one of the major mysteries that Filipiak attempts to unravel throughout his article. He concludes that Lu’s time in government had sensitized him to the precarious nature of local security and gave him a front row seat from which to observe the erosion of China’s military and civil institutions. While there was a calm in the early 17th century, Filipiak argues that Lu concluded that the situation could not last.

His historical training had taught him that provincial capitals would be among the first targets of both rebel and bandit armies. Yet Ming military doctrine had no provision for the systematic defense of these secondary cities. Lu’s work, while deeply inured in the specific tactical and social situation in Ningling, became something of a rallying cry for magistrates and gentry members who shared these concerns, both in the Ming and the Qing dynasty. In fact, Filipiak’s documentary history of the text suggest that it stayed in circulation for a remarkable percentage of the late imperial period. This work was still be read and quoted during the mid 19th century disturbances that would ultimately give rise to the modern Chinese martial arts that we practice today. While Lu Kun’s neighbors found him difficult to live with, subsequent generations proved to be an appreciative audience.


Battle of Tonguzluq. Note the walled camp and towers. Source: http://www.battle-of-qurman.com.cn


Describing the Text

Filipiak provides readers with a detailed description of the text. In doing so he follows the basic outline employed by Lu Kun himself. The text was divided into three, somewhat confusingly titled, sections. These are: “Necessary Arrangements of City Defense,” “Necessary Arrangements in Case of Banditry,” and “Necessary Arrangements for Protection.” The first chapter focused on the problems of urban and human geography. This included the administration of walls, methods for controlling the population during wartime, instructions on how to run granaries and dig wells, and strategies used by opponents to exploit the structural weaknesses of Chinese cities.

The second section turned its attention to the more purely tactical questions of how one conducted warfare once the city walls had been breached and enemy forces were in the streets. In actuality the populace had few good options. Lu Kun’s advice basically came down to flee if possible, or prepare for suicidal resistance.

The final (and for us most interesting) section of the text returns to the question of wall and moat preparation. It then goes on to provide a discussion of raising and training a militia.
What quickly becomes apparent upon reading Lu Kun’s text is that without local martial arts traditions, it would be basically impossible for the magistrate to raise anything like a functioning militia or to mount a coordinated city-wide defense. This is because magistrates, as civil officials, had broad powers when it came to organizing the civilian population. But they had little claim on the specialized skills and training of military officers. And since most of the national army was stationed around the capital or placed on the northern border, in most cases there was no chance of smaller cities receiving timely military aid.

Throughout his text Lu discussed different strategies for militarizing the population. He notes that the system of labor dues (an obligation which local citizens owe the government) could be brought into play. If the magistrate encouraged popular archery practice, then labor dues might be paid through this skill, rather than by assigning individuals to the standard road or dike maintenance crews. Likewise, the restoration of the mutual surveillance system of household organization was critical for both taking a census of the population and creating efficient lines of communication within the city.

In times of need this network could also be mobilized to provide large numbers of men to defend the walls. These individuals would be trained by a group of 20 dedicated militia members (individuals who drilled for city defense on a regular basis). The militia, in turn, were expected to be members of local martial arts schools. It thus behooved the local magistrate to familiarize himself with, and be on good terms with, the local boxing traditions. Due to the weakness of the state and official military institutions, Lu Kun, like so many other Ming officials, realized that these individuals were critical to actually carrying out government policy at the local level.

Historical discussions of the government’s relationship with the martial arts during the late imperial period often get very complicated. The Qing have a negative reputation for their efforts to ban Han martial arts. In point of fact much of this stigma is undeserved. The Ming also put out lots of proclamations cracking down on the martial arts, as has pretty much every other Chinese government at some point, including the current one. The basic problem is that if these actors were powerful enough to fight bandits in their own county, then they were also well positioned to become the bandits that stripped neighboring regions bare. Reports of such behavior tended to inspire periodic imperial warnings about the dangers of martial arts groups during the Ming and Qing.

Lu Kun’s book is important as it provides an alternative perspective on this situation that focused on the local level. Rather than banning weapons ownership by the people, he suggests mandating it. Rather than restricting boxing practice he encourages it. He even goes so far as to advise magistrates to create structures by which peasants might dedicate themselves to regular martial arts practice during the winter months. Martial arts are not the only (or even most) important part of his book. Lu Kun spends lots of time talking about how to run a granary during a siege, and how to convince the gentry to donate wealth for city defense. Indeed, it seems that one might be able to simplify his discussion by breaking the question of city defense down into the “three factors of production” that we use in political economy theory (geography, money and human resources). Yet the martial arts are the critical factor in his efforts to organize and build the military capacity of the people. As such, his discussion ends up providing a very detailed portrait of the place of these schools in local Ming society.

Still, some critical questions basically go unanswered. What exactly do the martial arts organizations get out of all of this? They are, after all, the individuals who are being asked to put their lives on the line for the greater good (and the magistrate’s future career prospects). As a painfully upright Confucian scholar Lu Kun, seems to neglect this most important bit of local politics. His book contains lots of discussion of what “loyal subjects” and “obedient citizens” should do, yet one gets the sense that his primary plan for motivating individuals was fear.

Quite a bit of space is dedicated to the topic of martial law. Filipiak notes that this is actually one of the most paradoxical elements of Lu’s work. To put the matter succinctly, its not entirely clear where Lu Kun is getting his notions of “martial law” from. His proposed punishments for cowardice on the part of militia members and citizen soldiers were brutal in the extreme. In his view heads should roll for even minor infractions. As a civil servant and magistrate he would be well aware that his proposed methods were in clear violation of the civil code. Even more interesting is that they also violated the Ming dynasty’s rather extensive system of military laws and punishments. Indeed, beheading a soldier for his first act of desertion was expressly forbidden under Ming military law. Thus Lu was holding his militia to a standard that was unsupported by either civilian or military legal principals. Perhaps the most reasonable explanation of the text might be that in times of crisis Lu Kun was arguing that local officials would need to maintain order through terror.

Still, as a matter of practical statecraft, threats of bodily violence have their limits. That is especially true when the individuals that you seek to threaten (the martial artists and militia members) are the same ones that you rely on to carry out the threat. This situation just reeks of a lack of credibility. At some point we must return to the question of what the martial arts organizations expected to receive in way of actual compensation for their labor.

Other authors, including Robinson in his landmark Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven have suggested that what specialists in violence actually received as payment was a certain amount of willful blindness on the part of their superiors and employers. So long as these groups defended the local capital, collected taxes or kept the county’s roads free of bandits, local officials made a point of not asking too many questions about what they were doing in neighboring cities or counties. Basically they were allowed to engage in a certain amount of corruption and banditry to pay their own salaries.

Surprisingly, even the stalwart Lu Kun gives some credence to this view. When discussing how one might convince local martial arts masters to join the cause he suggests such individuals might be provided with a couple of literal “get out of jail free” cards that they could use to redeem themselves should they get in trouble with local officials. Lu never shows any interest in how these individuals might seek to use that legal deference to enrich themselves, or how a reliance on mostly uncompensated civilian martial arts institutions might contribute to the atmosphere of chaos that was threatening the empire even while it ensured a degree of local stability. To draw once again from modern political economy theory, while martial groups could be quite useful locally, the limitations of the office of magistrate provided these individuals with little incentive to investigate the “divertible externalities” that their strategies generated. Students of martial arts studies should approach Saving Lives as a primary text only after having absorbed Robinson’s arguments about the sources of social disorder in the Ming.


Communist Party Women’s Militia in Yanan, 1938. Photographer unknown.


Conclusion: The Value of Saving Lives

The biggest problem with Lu Kun’s work, however, is that its generally unavailable in the West. While a growing number of Ming era martial arts texts have been translated in the last few years, the genre of city defense manuals has remained virtually untouched except by specialists within the field of Chinese military history. The real value of Filipiak’s review article is that it presents this fascinating text to a much larger non-specialist (if still scholarly) audience.

Students of human security and gender studies will find Lu Kun’s treatment of women interesting. Sociologists and anthropologists will discover compelling discussions of local society. Lastly, students of martial arts studies will see in his work insights regarding the place of the martial arts in late Ming society, and the various ways by which these organizations were able to exercise a degree of informal influence through a system of local governance that, while officially suspicious of boxing groups, was never the less forced to depend on them.

It would be great to have a complete translation of Lu Kun’s works. Filipiak provides us with the next best thing in form of dozens of lengthy quotations which pepper his critical treatment of the text. These do an excellent job of illustrating the overall nature of the manual as well as proving some critical details of Lu Kun’s thinking. For instance, when discussing the importance of martial arts organizations we read:

“Starting today, it is absolutely necessary that the people of each village form Survival Associations and hold meetings for four months, between the tenth month and the third month. Except for males older than sixty and younger than fifteen, as well as crippled and feeble men, each baojia unit must choose one hundred strong males armed with long spears, arquebuses, axes, bone flowers, staffs, bows and arrows, sabers, muskets, whips, and iron clubs. Each man is responsible for his own weapon. Every day in the morning and in the evening, when the gong sounds, the men practice fighting. As a motivation, wagers are made on martial arts competitions similar to tossing and pitching arrows into a pot. In all the villages and suburbs there are several thousand men who teach and practice military methods. Should there be an expert of martial arts, make him leader and recommend him to the officials. Give him one or two exemption cards. If he committed a crime, he can escape flogging by giving one card…The training of martial arts may be left to the people. However, officials should examine their martial abilities every month. Reward and punishment can be used as motivation. (Filipiak, 176).

Lu Kun seems to be of the opinion that while there is no reason for the magistrate to be an expert in martial arts, but he should certainly be on working terms with those who are. Further, local officials need to be able to judge the effectiveness and quality of martial arts training and displays. The fate of local society might rest on the degree to which these civilian scholars are able to become masters of the military realm.

Did Lu Kun succeed in accomplishing these goals? Filipiak notes that local gazetteers state that the walls of Ningling were strengthened and rebuilt following his retirement to the region, though they do not credit this action to a single individual. Still, it seems likely that Lu Kun’s lobbying efforts ultimately bore fruit.

On a tactical level, one might note that Saving Lives is notably flawed text. While it attempts to be practical, Filipiak concludes that it is clearly the work of an individual lacking any battlefield experience. Lu’s proposed solutions to problems (for instance, using “demon soldiers” to raid the camps of bandit armies at night) are formulaic and do not suggest a detailed understanding of what these individuals would actually do, or how their actions might demoralize a real enemy. At other times his estimates for how many individuals a local militia unit might raise seem wildly optimistic. Nor is the statutory basis for Lu’s thoughts on martial law ever made clear.

Still, such objections may only serve to reinforce Lu’s larger point. In times of calamity the defense of the local population would often fall to civil rather than military officials. This was due both to how the Ming military was deployed, but also the degradation of the state’s abilities in the 16th and 17th centuries. Civilian magistrates would never have the same level of experience and training of their military colleagues. But through intelligent statecraft, and forming alliances with individuals within society who did know how to raise funds and train militia members, it was still possible to prevent the sacking of provincial capitals and save lives. Making alliances with local martial arts groups was a crucial part of that process in the late Ming.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Qilin Dance During the Lunar New Year and Southern Chinese Martial Culture.