Zhou Kun Min. 2017. Quanzhou Taizuquan: The Art of Fujian Emperor First Kung Fu. Tambuli Media. 241 pages. $32.95 USD.
I recently hosted a round table discussion focused on the state of the martial arts publishing industry in 2018. It was an eye opening event, and if you missed it, be sure to check it out. Much of this conversation focused on the challenges facing the traditional publishing industry today. In retrospect the trials seem obvious. Books stores are vanishing before our eyes, readership for everything is down, and who is going to buy an introductory text on a new art when YouTube is giving it all away for free?
Still, as someone who is primarily a consumer of martial arts literature, I would like to bring a slightly different perspective to this conversation. I think that we are entering a new golden age of martial arts publishing. It may be that owl of Minervia flies only at nightfall, but wisdom is in the wind. While the number of titles on display at your local Barnes&Noble is down, it is clear that the quality, production values and insight available in many recently published books would have been unthinkable in the 1970s, 1980s or 1990s. YouTube and the UFC may have deflated much of the popular interest in the traditional martial arts. But the audience that remains is experienced, educated and demanding. Nor does it appear that these shifts in demographics and audience tastes are confined to North America.
Tambuli Media’s recent translation (Carol Lyngarde-Lane and Simon T. Lailey) of Zhou Kun Min’s 2007 Quanzhou Taizuquan is a prime example of what this new golden age is producing. Before discussing the contents of this book, a few words about its author are in order. After that we will move on to the contributions that it might make to various practitioner audiences, and the window onto Fujianese martial culture which it opens for historians and sociologists of the Chinese martial arts.
While Zhou’s book was not the first manuscript written on Taizuquan (readers should note that he quotes a manual by his teacher at various points), it has proved to be influential within Mainland Southern kung fu circles. There are two reasons for this. The first is the nature of the work itself. The phrase “labor of love” may be over used, but in this case it is certainly correct. Zhou clearly loves the city of Quanzhou, and the region’s unique martial history. And he has devoted large parts of his adult life to mastering Taizuquan. All of this is woven together in an elegantly written text which effortlessly switches between technical discussions, quotations from Ming era martial classics and ancient literary references.
Indeed, Zhou seems determined to portray Grand Ancestor boxing as an area where the wu and wen, the martial and the literary, meet. This impressive synthesis of knowledge is used to culturally situate the city of Quanzhou within the larger narratives of Chinese history and nationalism. One suspects, for instance, that the frequent references to General Yu Dayou (who grew up in the region) function more to make Taizuquan and Wuzuquan central to Chinese martial history (a subject usually dominated by discussions of Northern styles and personalities) than to describe the profusion of modern pole and staff forms. Taken together this heady mixture of regional history, local physical culture and national narrative paints a detailed portrait of identity and belonging within Quanzhou’s martial culture.
If the sheer merits of the text were not enough to win over its Chinese language readers, Zhou Kun Min himself was well situated to inspire respect. Zhou’s background is interesting in that it combines a lifelong study of the martial arts with a successful career in politics. His official biography notes that he began a formal study of the area’s fighting systems in 1961 at the Quanzhou Wushu Research Society, before joining the Xiamen University Wushu Team in 1963. In 2005, he was appointed Chairman of the International Southern Shaolin Wuzuquan Fellowship, which acts as something of a regulatory body for the style. He was also the personal instructor of the Abbot of the Quanzhou Shaolin Temple.
In the professional realm he served as the Secretary-General to the Communist Party Quanzhou Municipal Party Committee and as the Deputy Head to the Quanzhou City Standing Committee. Eventually he was named the Deputy Mayor to the Quanzhou City. Promoting tourism, local pride and historical awareness are important goals for many regional officials throughout China. Indeed, its interesting to look closely at the prefaces to this volume, some of which were contributed by other local officials and public servants. They discuss not just Zhou’s career as a martial artist, but also as a local leader. Issues such as the awarding of regional “Intangible Cultural Heritage” status and “soft power” come up in these discussions. While practitioners often skip the front matter of volumes such as these (looking to get right to the “good stuff”), students of martial arts studies will often find in these framing discussions a wealth of information about the place of hand combat in local society.
In short, Southern Shaolin practitioners in Fujian province had a number of reasons to sit up and take note when this book was published. It was not only a remarkable repository of local history and lore, but it came from a source that was well connected in multiple circles. Zhou used this platform to advance a number of his own theories on the origin and nature of Taizu and Wuzuquan, as well as their relationship with one another. Rather than settling for the commonly accepted (and more historically plausible) narrative that Cai Yu Ming created Five Ancestors by drawing concepts from the most popular styles in late 19th century Quanzhou, Zhou seeks to redefine the name. In his usage it encompass the five arts (Taizuquan, Southern Lohan, White Crane, Monkey and Yijin Jing) that historically dominated the region. The history of Wuzuquan is thus extended back through the development of each of these styles, and a common origin seems to be implied (p. 194).
This hypothesis has two main implications. First, it effectively makes Taizuquan a leading part of much older Wuzuquan, rather than seeing it as one of multiple influences that helped to shape a relatively young (and distinct) art. This is the more obvious effect and Mark Wiley, in his own preface, addresses some of the reasons why readers may not want to reimagine the history of their art in response to this theory. Yet on a deeper level Zhou’s move expands the reach and prestige of both Wuzu and Taizuquan, effectively making them a master symbol for organizing the martial heritage not just of the Quanzhou region, but all of Fujian. One wonders whether his political instincts may have helped to shape what is in some ways an intriguing redefinition of the martial community.
Discussions with some of my contacts leads me to suspect that Zhou’s hypotheses have been much more readily accepted in Mainland China than in other regions. Clearly this notion appeals to readers in Fujian, while those in South East Asia, North America or Europe seem more likely to stick to the traditional narrative that sees Cai Yu Ming as the true author of a much younger (and more innovative) Five Ancestors style.
The translation of this volume is faithful to the original text, and relies on many of the idioms that those who already have a background in the Southern Chinese martial arts will find familiar. In the case of archaic or local references a series of helpful “translator notes” have been included. Unfortunately the volume has no “works cited” section. These are uncommon in popular publications, but given the sheer number of late imperial texts that Zhou draws from, it would have been very helpful for anyone seeking to track down his many references. As it stands now, amateur historians and linguists might spend months digging into all of the quotations that he discusses.
Following the introductory prefaces, the book provides two chapters which will be of the greatest interest to general readers. Chapter 1 introduces the history of Taizuquan. This quickly evolves into an extensive discussion of Quanzhou’s martial history dating back to the Song Dynasty. Chapter 2 provides a more structured overview of the Taizuquan system as it is practiced today. This inspired countless YouTube searches as I tried to find examples of the rich variety of weapons and training techniques that the author described.
The tone of the text changed in Chapters 3-5. While the first section was geared towards a general readership, these discussions focused on questions that would be of most interest to Taizuquan or Wuzuquan practitioners. Here one finds a general discussion of pedagogy and training, followed by a breakdown of key techniques and a review of three of the style’s most important empty hand sets (starting with the famous “Three Battles” form).
Chapters 6 & 7, and the volume’s end matter, again have their own distinct feel. Students of Southern arts other than Taizuquan may find these chapters to be of particular interest as they systematically address core concepts shared across Southern kung fu. Wuzuquan is emphasized throughout this section, but as someone more familiar with the fighting arts of the Pearl River Delta, this is where I found myself being pulled into a martial dialogue with the author. The postscript and epilogue feature translations of a number of short articles by both the author and his daughter. Given the exhaustive nature of the foregoing discussion, these serve to refocus our attention on the key concepts, techniques and ideas that make Taizuquan unique. They also provide a bit of a framework for organizing the wealth of information and history that have come before.
The book itself is nicely produced. Its of a slightly larger format and full of photographs. This is particularly helpful when working your way through the more technically focused sections, or when comparing the illustrations in the book to video clips from other sources. The text is visually easy to read, though those who are new to the Chinese martial arts may have trouble following the author’s highly metaphorical literary style.
Indeed, the more familiar a reader already is with the subject matter, the more they are likely to get out of this book. In that sense this really is an encyclopedic study of Fujianese martial culture rather than a “how to” guide for beginners. Some readers may find that to be frustrating. Originally a Chinese language text, it doesn’t always follow patterns of organization and layout that Western readers might expect. Of course the greatest source of frustration for many readers will likely be Zhou’s personal theories on the history and development of Five Ancestor’s Boxing.
Still, as I have argued before, these works are of interest to students of martial arts studies because they are our primary source documents. It is important that we not lose sight of that fact. There are many interesting books being written in China right now, and almost none of them will ever be translated into English. Quanzhou Taizuquan is a rare exception, and it offers an important glimpse into the sorts of historical and sociological discussions that are currently occurring in the Fujian region. It nicely illustrates the usually hidden nexus between regional martial arts tradition, local officials and the promotion of tourism and regional culture. It documents both a popular local style, and how the community which transmits it has evolved over time. In short, students of Southern Chinese martial culture will want to take a close look at this book.
Practitioners of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts will also find much to enjoy. Obviously this text is primarily aimed at Taizuquan and Wuzuqaun students. But the theoretical and conceptual discussions in the book (and its historical arguments) will likely be of interest to anyone who practices within the Southern Shaolin tradition. Those students of the Okinawan arts who are interested in researching the history of their practice may also find this book helpful.
Always insightful and occasionally provocative, Quanzhou Taizuquan is sure to appeal to a wide range of readers. Arguments about the decline of the traditional arts notwithstanding, this volume illustrates my contention that we are fortunate to have entered a particularly fruitful time for martial arts publishing. It is fascinating to see what can happen when the demands of an informed readership are met by mature scholars and masters.
If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: The Chinese Gentle Art Complete: Reviewing the Bible of Ngo Cho Kun (Five Ancestors Boxing)