Taizu, first emperor of the Song Dynasty. Source: Wikimedia



I have always wondered about the Song period (960-1279) and its connection to the modern Chinese martial arts (let’s say 1850 to the present).  One could be forgiven for placing the genesis of our current systems sometime in the final century of the Ming.  Afterall, this is when we see the very first surviving works of both armed and unarmed combat being printed.  And it’s clear that many innovations were happening, both in the practice of the martial arts, but also in how society viewed them.

Still, the 1550s-1650s really represented the full flowering of seeds that had taken root earlier in the Song Dynasty, before they were forced to lay dormant during the massive social disruption of the Yuan and early Ming transition periods. Exploring that assertion has proved to be difficult.  First, my immediate era of interest is the late-Qing and Republic.  As such I do not feel qualified to hold forth on the Song.  Yet even the most confident students of the dynasty’s history would be forced to admit that there is another, almost insurmountable, problem.  Our earliest complete primary sources on the TCMA date only to the second half of the Ming.  And even that period is sparsely documented compared to what we know about the late Qing and Republic.

It is very difficult to delve into Song era martial arts as we have practically no sources to work with.  While speculation is easy, the dearth of resources makes producing well supported scholarship a challenge.  Still, the asides and references to martial arts that begin to appear in other works during this period suggest that a fascinating process of change was getting under way.  Better yet, it seems as though these processes were closely tied to more fundamental transformations that were remaking Chinese society during this three century period.

Many of the casual discussions of the Song which I see fixate on the military weakness of a state that could not push back the northern invaders.  Indeed, the Song would be repeatedly threatened, divided and later destroyed by these mounted peoples, making it easy to fixate on the state’s deficiencies.  Yet there are other ways of measuring a state’s strength, and honestly, 300 years is a long time any sort of government to last.

Measured in economic and social terms, the Song was perhaps the most powerful state on the planet, and by a very healthy margin.  Agriculture was fundamentally transformed during this period, and much of the population of China shifted from growing a single crop of wheat a year, to harvesting multiple crops of rice.  This vastly increased the amount of food that could be grown, and as a result China’s previously stable population doubled in a short period of time.

Such a population explosion doesn’t come without problems.  New peasant communities found themselves forced to reclaim marginal lands with lower yields.  This would eventually lead to the familiar issues of rural poverty and banditry.  Yet in the aggregate the nation’s wealth exploded.  This led to the rapid growth of economic markets (supported by sophisticated credit management systems including the printing of paper money), increased specialization among workers, and the spectacular growth of China’s cities.  The creation of market-based trade centers allowed for the creation of fundamentally new types of urban areas (some of which had populations of over 1 million people) that had not been in China before.  And that would be absolutely critical for the development of martial arts in both the Song and later Ming dynasties.



A History of Chinese Martial Arts

All of this was brought to mind as I found myself reading through a relatively recent publication by Routledge titled A History of Chinese Martial Arts (2019) edited by Fuhua Huang and Fan Hong.  I suspect that we will be seeing a full review of this book in both the journal and here on the blog soon.  But before sending it out to a reviewer I wanted to spend some quality time with this volume myself.

I will admit to being a little disappointed by what I discovered.  I had assumed that this would be an edited volume of fairly recent Chinese language scholarship on the martial arts.  Something like that is desperately needed as there is very little engagement between the academic communities in China and the West on this subject and I was hoping for a strong first effort.  Instead I discovered that Fuhua Huang and Fan Hong has translated and edited something more akin to a single volume textbook, first published in Chinese in 1997 by the People’s Sports Press.

The book itself is a committee project with various authors being assigned to write unsigned chapters.  Further, each chapter seems intent in laying out and describing the known sources rather than engaging in source criticism or more theoretical research.  One might almost think of the book as a very short encyclopedia composed of a handful of very long articles.

Still, after reading the volume I have warmed to it.  This was a book that most of the middle-aged scholars of martial arts in China today would have read while in university, and in that respect it’s important for coming to terms with the development of the current Chinese language literature.  While it’s not the edited volume I had hoped for, I think it can still make an important contribution to our understanding of the conceptual (and sometimes ideological) ways that the martial arts have been framed within the Chinese scholarly literature.


Armor during the Song.


Exploring the Song

It also succeeded in rekindling my curiosity as to what exactly was happening within Chinese society during the Song.  The volume’s chapter on that period (written by Zhang Xuanhai) did an excellent job of laying out four areas where we see fundamental changes within the Chinese martial arts during this period.  The first of these would have to be within the state’s own official military apparatus.

The early Song Emperors (starting with Taizu) put great emphasis on reforming and strengthening the army.  This included, for the first time, the printing and distribution of illustrated works on standardized modes of military training.  The seven military classics were also brought together, edited, printed and made an official subject of study for military examination students.  In keeping with the economic and market reforms of the period, soldiers were redefined as employees (rather than conscripts, or seen as a hereditary caste) and the state applied its industrial might to developing new types of weapons including sabers (lacking the long thin blades and ringed pommels of their predecessors) and crossbows.

What was even more striking, however, was the changing relationship between this sort of official military training and society’s population as a whole.  One of the reasons why the Song state (while fairly sophisticated) appears weak was that society was growing so rapidly.  Recall, this was a period in which China’s population doubled in only a few generations putting a lot of stress on all preexisting institutions.  In such a setting it was only natural for the more socially engaged and market focused civil servants to look to society to provide solutions to its own problems.

For instance, the military was tasked with providing comprehensive training in archery and other skills to the heads of civilian administrative units of 50 or more households.  Once these individuals had been trained (over the course of multiple years), they returned to their points of origin and were tasked with drilling the local populations in these same skills.  Of course, civilian household were already economically self-sufficient.  While they might require the state to provide weapons and training, doing so was a much cheaper way to address local security issues than to have hire and maintain vast standing armies. The creation of large-scale programs such as this would have had an important disruptive impact on preexisting local martial practices.

This was not the only instance in which we will find the Song government pushing martial knowledge into local society.  Cultural historians remember this period as one in which there was an explosion of new voluntary societies and social groups.  As the population grew and the economy diversified it seems only natural that new modes of civic organization would be necessary.  Of course, much of the existing scholarship has focused on the creation of literary societies.  Afterall, they left a written record.  Yet this same explosion of new groups also appears to have happened in the martial realm.

Perhaps the best-known example would be the “Archery Society,” established in Heibi Province to allow the local peasants to better deal with the threat of pervasive banditry and violence.  Again, family members sent a “volunteer” to drill with the society, which was then provided with weapons and some training from local elites and then the government.

The threat of Jurchen raiders led the government to encourage the creation of a “Loyalty Society” which seems to have operated along similar lines. Given the pressing threat emanating from the north, this group was larger and seen across a wider geographic area.  Like the Archery Society, it also pushed military skills into growing local communities. However, as Zhang points out, once these skills entered the wild, the government’s ability to control their application was limited.

It is no surprise then that local peasants would sometime coopt these, or similar, military institutions for their own purposes.  In some cases, this was the carrying out of feuds with local villages or economic rivals.  In more serious circumstances such groups may have been activated during tax rebellions or other anti-government uprisings. It would be fascinating to know more about these societies, but to the best of my knowledge they left us nothing in the way of literature or first-hand accounts of their martial activities and management.  Instead historians are left with a handful of tantalizing discussions in other sources.

The situation in the city is, if anything, even more interesting.  During the Tang Dynasty China’s capital (and many of its other cities) were defined by a system of walled wards contained within an outer city wall.  In effect, neighborhoods were segregated by social status and function, and each was surrounded by a wall of its own.  Homes were not allowed to have direct access to the street, and there was a strict curfew after which everyone had to be within their own area.  The placement and size of centralized markets was also carefully regulated.  The end result was that even the largest Tang cities had little in the way of nightlife.

The quickly growing cities that characterized the Song could not have been more different.  There is some evidence that early Song officials attempted to set up a Walled Ward system, but it never stuck.  Further, the curfew in the capital was dropped soon after the creation of the new government.  Houses opened directly onto busy commercial streets full of shops, teahouses, restaurants and offices that never seemed to close.  These were cities that privileged commerce and trade over the constraints of geomancy and cosmological symmetry.  Entire districts were given over to entertainment (termed Washi or Wazi).  These might contain a dozen different sheds (some enclosed, others more open-air) in which a wide variety of entertainment could be found.

Much of this amusement took the form of martial arts.  Zhang notes that urban martial arts societies (with names like “the Cudgel Society”) made use of these spaces from both training and fitness.  Some of these were open to amateur students, while others seem to have been the domain of professionals.    However, it seems likely that the vast majority of visitors to the Washi encounter the martial arts as a type of performance that one paid to see.  Demonstrations of exotic weapons skills are mentioned in accounts of trips through the capital, as are contests of wrestling and unarmed combat.  Period sources even tell us that there were no few than six famous female martial arts performers in the capital (out of a list of 48 notable individuals).

Opera was an even more common venue where one might find displays of martial skills.  For the most part these commercial stages continued to be laid out in the same way as their temple counterparts and one suspects that they were still understood as having the same sort of ritual function.

In his discussion of the Washi, Zhang focused of citizens going out to get “exercise,” though it’s worth remembering that not everything that happened in these cities (and around the martial arts) was as wholesome as that.  Many of the patrons of these districts were soldiers frequenting musical shows staged by prostitutes.  The new Song cities developed something akin to a red light district, and that is where one was also likely to find martial arts performances.   Of course, less famous performers could be found in practically any public space or marketplace.

Tales of martial heroism were the stock and trade of the many the professional storytellers who worked in the local teahouses, and even the individuals who ran puppet theaters.  Lest we forget, many of the great martial novels that we know from their Ming editions (such as Water Margin) were actually compiled during the Song or Yuan and better represent the social milieu of that period.

It is thus worth noting that we are unlikely to ever find instance of “pure” martial practice, untouched by either the sorts of ritual and religious practices that held social groups together (particularly in the countryside), or the popular media of urban markets (opera, story tellers, and new types of novels).  These things grew up together.  It is frustrating that we have so few sources about the actual practice of the martial arts during the Song, but it is very instructive that so much of the material that we do have comes from accounts of the capital’s pleasure districts, marketplaces and theaters.  It would appear that no matter how far back you go, you simply cannot disentangle the practice of the martial arts from their popular representation.


A river scene at Kaifeng, capital of the Song dynasty.



One of the things that typically bothers me about single volume histories of the Chinese martial arts (at least those that are structured chronologically) is that each chapter, no matter how slight or abundant the surviving resources, is roughly the same length.  The end result is that one spends pages slowly parsing archeological finds in the pre-dynastic periods, and then rushing all of the Qing (which really set the stage for our current practices) in the same length of time.

A number of the later chapters in this volume seem to suffer that same fate.  In truth there is just no way to get through the martial arts of the Ming or the Republic period in only one chapter.  Yet Zhang’s contributions on the development of the Song dynasty struck me as hitting the sweet spot.  The relatively tight page constraint gave the author just enough time to lay out a fascinating image painted by the primary sources, but not so much that the sections dragged.  As a social scientist I would have liked to see much more discussion of the underlying economic, religious, political, cultural, military and social transformations that characterized the era, and how they might have influenced or been reflected in the development of the martial arts.  Still, that sort of discussion would have gone well beyond the mandate of this volume, and given how few detailed sources we have, any such effort would have to be limited.  Still, it is a conversation that those who are interested in Chinese martial studies need to have.

Zhang managed to give us just enough detail to emphasize two concluding points.  I have previously pointed both of these things out when discussing martial arts in the late imperial period, so it was fascinating to see them emerging here as well.  To begin with, it is impossible to discuss “Chinese martial arts” in the singular.  These practices have meant so many things to so many people over the geographic and temporal scope of “China” that generalization is dangerous.  That is a point that cannot be emphasized enough.

Zhang’s three-part division between the martial arts as used in the imperial military, the arts as practiced by civilians in the countryside, and finally their very different course of development within the newly emerging Wanshi underscored this point.  Techniques, and even organizational/cultural points of reference, may well have been shared. It would be a huge mistake to assume that “flowery opera” only influenced urban martial artists, or that religious rituals were confined to heterodox sects in the countryside.  And I assume that pretty much everyone who ever learned a martial art or combat sport in the Song derived some recreational benefit from its practice.

Yet this shared cultural milieu cannot blind us to the fact that individuals in these three different areas often had their own challenges and strove to accomplish unique goals.  Yet in all of these cases the practice of martial arts came to be understood as a means of expressing the agency of both specific communities (village chapters of some martial society during a tax revolt) and even individuals (professional wrestlers or marketplace performers seeking fame).  While it is easy to point to the differences, on a structural level this is very similar to what would reemerge as the TCMA entered the modern period.

Nor, when discussing structural issues, can we ignore the role of demographic change and market growth in all of this.  While researching my own book on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts, I discovered that rapid population growth in the second half of the Qing dynasty, as well as a massive infusion of capital due to global and regional trade, was critical for understanding the rapid development of the boxing in Foshan, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.  Put simply, one cannot tell the story of development and popularization of arts like Choy Li Fut or Wing Chun without first exploring the urbanization of the Pearl River Delta region in the Late Qing and Republic periods.

Zhang’s account of the Song generalizes this finding to China as a whole.  Historically speaking, its almost certain that the majority of martial artists lived in the countryside.  During the 1920s Northern China’s Red Spear militias claimed many tens of millions of members, while at its height the primarily urban, bourgeois, Jingwu movement had only a fraction of that membership.  Still, the monetization of the economy, the growth of markets and shifts in urbanization all seem to be critical in the creation of certain sorts of institutions (schools, styles, multi-generational voluntary associations) that we typically associate with the martial arts today.  Again, this reminds us that we cannot come to terms with these fighting systems when we remove them from the social systems that gave rise to them.  Chinese martial studies must always be an interdisciplinary, and probably comparative project.  When read through such a lens, it is clear that hand combat in the Song dynasty was laying a foundation for the future.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Zhang Songxi, Ming era Southern Boxing and the Ancient Roots of Modern Wing Chun.