Chinese post card showing a young girl studying a sword routine as her teacher looks on.


Lu Zhouxiang. 2018. Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts. New York and London: Routledge. 232 pages. $140/$45 USD (Hardcover/Digital).


Perhaps the clearest testament to the growing enthusiasm for Martial Arts Studies is the number of books and edited volumes released by scholarly presses in the last few years.  In addition to those published by traditional university presses, or as part of dedicated MAS series, a variety of commercial publishers have also entered this field. As in any research area, the quality of these works has varied. Routledge is one publishing house that has shown a notable enthusiasm for Martial Arts Studies, and its latest monograph, Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts (2018) by Lu Zhouxiang, is sure to find an enthusiastic readership. Comprehensive without being verbose, this brief history of the Chinese martial arts (from the bronze age to the current decade) is likely to end up on a variety of course reading lists and bibliographies.

Lu is an author who knows, and demonstrates an enthusiasm for, this material.  All of that comes across in a book which introduces a substantial amount of information while still being an easy read. In fact, I managed to work my way through the entire volume (about 180 pages of substantive text) in only two sittings. That may be as much a testimony to the passion that the author brings to his material as the intrinsic clarity of his writing.

The volume itself is well constructed and includes many illustrations and facsimiles of objects or practices referenced in the text.  These add context without being distracting. While the hardbound volume is expensive, it should stand up to frequent use. The book’s index, however, could be more detailed.  Readers will also note that the endnotes and lists of works cited are placed at the conclusion of each chapter, rather than at the close of the volume.  I found that this made cross referencing the author’s notes quite easy.  But I did miss having a single comprehensive bibliography at the end of the volume. It was also a somewhat strange omission that the volume’s index did not include the names of most of the major authors who were referenced in the text.  Given the importance of the growing dialogue between various historical theories within the Chinese martial arts, that struck me as an unfortunate oversight.

Lu’s substantive discussion was divided into five short chapters bookended with both an introduction and conclusion.  These were arranged historically.  Indeed, the historical approach continues to be the most common lens through which the Chinese martial arts are viewed.  While Lu titles his book as an exploration of “politics and identity,” it is actually arranged as a brief historical overview of the totality of the Chinese martial arts.

This structure tends to emphasize the author’s contention that in every era the Chinese martial arts have been shaped by the policies and political aspirations of the Chinese state. The view of politics explored throughout this book is the traditional one of historians and political scientists, and not the more personal sort favored by students of cultural or critical studies. Given this statist orientation, it is not surprising that nationalism dominates the discussion of identity.  Other identities which are frequently implicated in discussions of the martial arts (e.g., gender, regional/national, urban/rural, sexual, generational, socio-economic class) are never explored. Lu’s methodological approach to uncovering the relationship between martial arts and the state is textually and empirically driven. Practices and their relationship are outlined for a given era, but they tend not to be critically assessed.  Instead the author is forced to quickly move on to the next period or major incident.


Politics and Identity in the Chinese Martial Arts


This general pattern of exploration is established in Chapter 2. This section provides an overview of the most ancient discernable era of Chinese military history.  Lu begins by reviewing the archeological and textual evidence on the Shang and Zhou dynasties. After a brief overview of this period he then proceeds to the Qin and Han, the Jin and Northern and Southern Dynasties, the Sui and Tang, and finally the Song and Yuan periods.

Given the vast amount of history covered most of this discussion was very brief, and students of Chinese martial studies (or military history) will already be familiar with most of the sources that Lu cites. However, his detailed treatment of the Song dynasty stands out as a highlight of the first half of the book.  The increased urbanization of this period allowed for the development of social practices (later expanded during the Ming) that begin to resemble modern Chinese martial arts.  While individuals certainly fought with swords, or pursued health-based practices, in ancient China, very little of this material seems to have much bearing on the modern practices that we refer to as “martial arts” (other than being the fodder for the serial construction of “invented traditions” by various cultural and political entrepreneurs).  This changed in the Song.  Given how quickly that era tends to get reviewed in other sources, I enjoyed the fuller treatment that Lu provided.

Chapter 3 introduces readers to the late imperial period, or the Ming and Qing dynasties. This is an immensely important era in both the technical and cultural construction of the martial arts.  It also provided Lu with an opportunity to examine some of the major schools (Shaolin, Wudang/Taijiquan) as well as formative events (the Taiping Rebellion, rise of secret societies, Boxer Uprising). Once again, Lu moves through a massive amount of historical material quickly and transparently, pointing out the major trends or advances in each era.

Given the relative scarcity of historical sources most of this material has already been introduced (and often discussed in much greater detail) in a variety of other sources. Lu’s discussion will clearly be a handy overview of the period for those entering the field of Chinese martial studies for the first time.  Still, it is disappointing that he did not take the opportunity to substantively engage with the arguments and observations made by Western scholars including Stanley Henning, Meir Shahar or Peter Lorge.  It would have been interesting to see what Lu made of Shahar and Lorge’s disagreements over the substantive meaning of the Shaolin tradition, or Henning’s analysis on the earliest appearances of the “internal” and “external” terminology in the opening years of the Qing dynasty.

Unfortunately, none of these authors are referenced in the chapter. In one sense that is not a huge loss as Lu’s seems intent on providing a simple historical overview, and he can certainly rely on prior Chinese scholarship to do that.  Yet this strikes me a missed opportunity to open a deeper dialogue between the Western and Chinese literatures. Still, the events at the end of Chapter 3 (most notably those surrounding the Boxer and 1911 uprisings) provide Lu with an opportunity to introduce more substantive discussions of the relationship between politics, nationalism and the martial arts.

I suspect that most readers will agree that Lu’s real contributions to the literature can be found in the second half of his volume.  When discussing martial practices in the ancient past we have relatively few sources and they are already well understood.  As we approach the current era the richness and complexity of the documentary record increases, as does the substantive similarity of martial arts practice.

Lu’s treatment of the Republic period (Chapter 4) begins with an examination of the rising tides of militarism within the Chinese martial arts and their association with nationalism.  These connections are then developed in his examination of Ma Liang (an individual whose legacy I have reviewed here and here). This section is particularly refreshing as Ma is something of a neglected figure in the Western literature. Stanley Henning has examined his (somewhat mixed) legacy.  Yet Ma does not really appear in the works of Andrew Morris, which have had a shaping impact on current discussions of Republican martial arts.  As such Ma’s contributions tend to get lost in our more detailed debates about the Jingu and Guoshu movements.  The prominent treatment that Ma receives in Lu’s volume may help to correct that tendency.

This chapter is also interesting as Lu begins to introduce asides on cultural history.  Some of this was evident in his prior discussions of Ming era wuxia novels. Yet his discussions of later periods are more systematic, focusing on the development of both swordsmen novels and martial arts films.

Still, it is hard to fully address so much material in such a short space. While Lu introduces readers to the innovations of Ma Liang and the Jingwu movement, he never has an opportunity to explore the political and financial setbacks that crippled both movements. Likewise, Guoshu’s contributions are duly cataloged, but not its various failings to effectively implement its own goals.  Students who are unfamiliar with this period may review this material and see only a smooth developmental trend when in reality the progression of the martial arts was stochastic at best.  Periods of growth were punctuated with reversal and notable losses throughout the Republic era. That criticism, grounded in the structure of Lu’s project, holds somewhat true for the entire volume. When we examine the past from our current position it is all too easy to reconstruct a smooth path leading inexorably to the present. Yet this sort of view is always a retrospective creation that tends to gloss over the many reversals and failures that foreclosed the paths not taken. We create a vision of an inevitable, rather than a highly contingent, present.

The strengths of Lu’s texts are magnified in the final two sections. Chapter 5 covers the Maoist era, providing western readers with a much-needed overview of the development of Wushu in the PRC after 1950, and its survival during the dark years of the Anti-Rightist campaigns and the Cultural Revolution.  Events in Hong Kong and the Chinese diaspora are touched upon in the discussion of wuxia novels and film, but for the most part Lu’s focus remains on the development of Wushu in the mainland.


A student performs at a demonstration near Mt. Song. Source:


Much the same can be said of Chapter 6.  Focused on the current era, this discussion provides an overview of the creation of modern governmental policy towards Wushu, its transformation into a competitive sport and its involvement with various domestic and international campaigns, including the Olympic movement.  This chapter again emphasizes the relationship between nationalism (understood now as the quest for “Chineseness”) and the martial arts.  Yet by the end of the volume China’s rich folk-martial arts tradition seem to have fallen by the wayside.  Instead Lu provides a highly institutional view of Wushu focusing almost exclusively on its official and para-official manifestations, both at home and abroad.

This choice is somewhat paradoxical.  On the one hand it allows for a detailed exploration of competitive and elite Wushu which is much needed in the Western literature.  Yet it also leads Lu to describe the global transmission and flow of the Chinese martial arts in ways that would seem one-sided or unrecognizable to most Western students of the TCMA. Even his discussion of media and movies becomes somewhat strained as we see Lu describing why the Ip Man film franchise “failed” in the West, when in fact it has proved to be quite popular in certain market segments and boosted the fortunes of the Wing Chun community. This was another section of the manuscript where Lu could have benefited from a substantive engagement with the various film and cultural studies scholars who have already explored the successes and cultural impact of the various martial arts film genres in great detail.

Finally, readers are treated to a short concluding discussion.  After reviewing the basic historical outline of the Chinese martial arts (always framed through their collective relationship with the state), Lu turns his attention to their future.  He begins by reviewing the positions of a number of noted Chinese scholars who argue that the advent of state-sponsored sports Wushu has been a dead end.  They note that China has not been successful in securing a place at the Olympic table (though the sport of Wushu has become quite popular in places like South East Asia). Some even argue that the economic and cultural subsidization of competitive Wushu has weakened the older and more culturally authentic lineages of “traditional” martial arts.

Lu’s own position in this debate is a full-throated defense of both the necessity and inevitability of modern Wushu, with everything that this entails in terms of simplification, standardization, state leadership and an emphasis on competition.  He begins, quite correctly, by problematizing the distinction between any “modern” and “traditional” practice.  Lu argues that all of these things are quintessentially modern practices which have reformed themselves in various ways as they have traveled to the current moment.  Indeed, Lu openly embraces an argument that I share. The martial arts have survived only by changing in every era.  It seems counterintuitive to expect that we would be the only generation exempt from that task.

And this is where his argument ends.  As he has already implicitly illustrated throughout the previous chapter, Lu believes that it was the state directed simplification and modernization of Wushu (as well as its subsequent promotion through various cultural diplomacy programs) which is responsible for the widespread popularity of the Chinese martial arts throughout the global system. Calls to rethink the system are misguided as, fundamentally, it has worked.

I suspect that many Western readers (especially those personally involved in the Chinese martial arts) would disagree with this assessment.  They would probably think back to the immense importance of Bruce Lee’s films, and the waves of Chinese immigrants in the 1960s and 1970s, who were responsible for planting the seeds of Chinese martial culture in an entire generation of Western students well before the era of “opening” explored by Lu.  Still, we must also be careful about dismissing his argument too easily.  Sport Wushu is growing very quickly in some areas of the world including Africa, South East Asia and Eastern Europe.  It seems that we might even be witnessing a second global transmission of Chinese martial culture, one that might play out very differently than “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s.  If this turns out to be the case, readers might look back and see Lu’s final arguments as being prophetic rather than purely descriptive.

While I might disagree with aspects of his conclusions, in some ways this was my favorite section of the book. It was the only time that Lu fully exposed and explored a major debate within the Chinese language literature on the martial arts.  I would have gladly traded the first two chapters of historical review for a more detailed exploration of exactly how this and other debates developed during the Maoist and current era.  So much of the material from the Ming and Qing dynasties has been reviewed elsewhere, and as Lu himself so clearly illustrates, the practices that we call “Chinese martial arts” today are really a product of a period of rapid modernization and nation building that didn’t start until the late 19thcentury. It was in the discussions of these more recent periods that we see Lu’s own voice begin to emerge from the confines of “historical consensus.”

I doubt that all readers will appreciate Lu’s emphasis on modern competitive Wushu. Yet this is one aspect of the Chinese martial arts that is often lost in the waves of historically focused studies of events in the post-1949 diaspora.  That is why I subtitled this review an “essential overview” of the Chinese martial arts. Theoretically informed readers will immediately realize that every “view” comes from a certain perspective. Ultimately, we will need multiple perspectives when attempting to grapple with a phenomenon as complex as the modern Chinese martial arts. The clarity of Lu’s work, as well as the tight focus of his individual chapters, suggests that this is a work that could be easily integrated into a variety of undergraduate curriculums.  What makes it essential is his framing of this discussion from a perspective that is often missing on those same reading lists.



About the Author: Lu Zhouxiang is Lecturer in Chinese Studies within the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at the National University of Ireland Maynooth, Ireland.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: Reality Fighting and the End of Civilization