Cantonese Opera Performers in San Francisco, circa 1900. Xiqu (Chinese Opera) and Popular entertainment has been linked to the martial arts since at least the Song dynasty. Southern stylists may also wish to note the butterfly swords in this scene.


“If it is necessary to debunk the Bodhidharma myth since it is historically false, we must also be wary of the modern materialist impulse to tear aside the veil of myth to uncover the real martial arts beneath.  The truth is that for most Chinese practitioners of the arts the myths were real enough, and spiritual goals, in any case, are more central to the historical martial arts than actual combat skills.  Rather than viewing myths and legends as effluvia from the “real martial arts,” it is more accurate to see the martial arts as a relatively minor by-product of the Buddho-Taoist popular religion and the medieval immortality cult.”

Charles Holcombe, 1990, “Theatre of Combat: A Critical Look at Chinese Martial Arts.”



I have spent more time contemplating the preceding quote from Charles Holcombe than I care to admit.  It is somewhat frustrating to have spent so much time thinking about an article which, by my own scholarly standards, is not particularly good.  I have dealt with Holcombe previously on the blog. If one is interested in an art like Wing Chun, which wears its associations with local theater traditions on its sleeve, that is not a surprise.  Holcombe was perhaps the only voice in his decade to try and lay out how xiqu (or more colloquially, Chinese Opera) may have impacted the martial arts, and why in the process of modernization those linkages would have been obscured so totally that it is no longer self-evident to Western audiences.

To the extent that Holcombe’s article is remembered, it is probably for the exchange regarding the connections between religion, spirituality and the Chinese martial arts carried out with Stanley Henning.  In his short essay “On Politically Correct Treatment of Myths in the Chinese Martial arts” (written for a practitioners newsletter rather than an academic journal) Henning seems to imply that Holcombe’s article was a shot at his efforts to reintroduce Republic era scholarship into the discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the West.  In a piece that sometimes feels like it is built on misreadings and “gotcha” moments, rather than any real attempt at engagement, Henning offers that Holcombe should have been taking Tang Hao to task, and not himself, as it was Tang Hao who triumphantly tore the veil off of Chinese martial arts mythology and initiated the scholarly study of the matter.  The passage is bizarre as while Tang Hao is remembered as the godfather of martial arts history in China, he was never a formally trained academic (by profession he was a lawyer), and his conclusions are no longer the final word on anything. Scholarship has very much moved on in the last 100 years.  In any case, Tang Hao’s ideological investments undercut his value as a scholar of religion, something which he never claimed to have much interest in anyway.

Upon rereading Henning’s attack on Holcombe, one would assume that the two agreed on nothing.  This is not entirely the case, indeed in some ways they were quite similar.  While Henning earned a Master’s degree, his work on the Chinese martial arts was always a labor of love rather than a product of the formal academic lifecycle of tenure and promotion.  Looking over his publishing record, Holcombe, who has both a PhD and academic position, seems to have focused more on his teaching career, producing the sorts of publications that support classroom discussion rather than lots of research.  What they have in common is that they both seem to have been drawn into this exchange by something personal rather than by their professional commitments.

More specifically, they were motivated to pick up their pens by something that they saw, and really didn’t like, in the popularization of the Chinese martial arts in the 1980s.  For Holcombe it was clearly the notion that the Chinese martial arts were supposed to stand on their own as hand combat systems for the hardened warrior, rather than existing as one part of a larger social complex.  Going back to General Qi Jiguang, he attempted to suggest that never in documented history had Chinese hand combat been understood in this way.  Henning’s complaints are straightforward.  He seems to dislike hippies and those turning to the TCMA as part of the Western counter-culture movement.  This was not in keeping with his understanding of Chinese military history.  Even when Henning is forced to acknowledge the existence of religiously themed myths, he denies that they necessarily implied any type of spiritual commitment on the part of those who told or heard them.

This should not be taken to imply that Holcombe is in favor of the sorts of religion that (in his view) gave rise to the Chinese martial arts. Lest we become confused he notes in his conclusion:

“This was the environment in which the legend of the martial arts was born, amid an atmosphere heavy with ignorance, religion and the occasional deliberate manipulation of both.  The martial arts reflect the escapist fantasies—and lack of critical faculties—of the illiterate common man, but for many ordinary Chinese these legends also provide a paradigm that gave meaning to their lives and invested them with purpose, courage and nobility.”

This paragraph is probably critical to understanding the vitriol that Henning unleashed on Holcombe.  With the exception of a short nod to courage at the end, he stops just short of calling the Chinese martial arts an “opium of the masses” and reminding us that in throwing off kung fu we have nothing to lose but our chains.  What on the surface seemed like an investigation into the development of the Chinese martial arts hid a more fundamental debate.  Henning assumed that only certain rationalist approaches to the Chinese martial arts were valid for practitioners today, whereas Holcombe believe that it is silly that anyone in the West would practice these systems and seems to think that perhaps we will give up the habit if shown the error of our ways.

Given the unending interest in the deep origins of the Chinese martial arts, and what connection, if any, they have with traditional religious practice, I am genuinely surprised that this exchange has not attracted more scholarly interest.  Perhaps I shouldn’t be as the dates of the various pieces (1990, 1999) are early enough that the conversation had moved on by the time that Martial Arts Studies, as a field, came onto the scene.  But maybe its something else.

Leaving aside the question of whether this was really a good faith exchange, it seems unsatisfying for another reason. While the two pieces come to diametrically opposed conclusions regarding the origins of the martial arts, both somehow seem to agree that this is a conversation that is not worth having.  Neither of them take the new religious movements that swept China during the late Imperial period seriously despite their important historic and social consequences.  For Henning they are merely a 200-year blemish on China’s otherwise lustrous 3,000 year history of military excellence, whereas for Holcombe they are so self-evidently marginal as to make the entire topic unworthy of further study.  What serious scholar has time to invest in the “escapist fantasies—and lack of critical faculties—of the illiterate common man?”  It might be tempting to view Holcombe’s article as an early glimmering of Martial Arts Studies, yet in truth his conclusion also represents what our field has been forced to resist.



Tai Chi, Baguazhang and the Golden Elixir

I was inspired to go back and reread the exchange between Holcombe and Henning before (and then once again after) reading Scott Park Phillips latest volume Tai Chi, Baguazhang and The Golden Elixir (Angry Baby Books, 2019). In terms of full disclosure I should state that Scott is a personal friend whom I have known for many years.  I always find his writing thought provoking. While we agree on some things (such as the general importance of ritual to understanding any type of social organization in Late Imperial China) we have disagreed on other matters.

Unlike Scott, I am not a student of either Taijiquan or Bagua.  While my research interests mostly lay in the South and the Republic era, Scott’s are firmly rooted in the North, and the Ming/Qing.  I am interested in more general questions about the role of ritual and theatricality in the Chinese martial arts writ large (again, a number of Southern styles are less squeamish about such matters).  But more than that, I think that curiosity finally got the better of me.  In the three decades since Holcombe, where has the popular discussions of these questions gone?

Most of the books that I discuss here at Kung Fu Tea are academic in nature.  This one is not.  Nor does it try to be.  Fundamentally this is an apologetic text, written from a faith position different from my own, in which Scott (who is quite serious about his own Daoist practices) lays out his beliefs about how the Chinese martial arts evolved, and how he has integrated them with his own spiritual practices. He then offers insights about the fruits of such projects which he hopes might be meaningful for other practitioners.

I am not sure that Scott would agree that this is an accurate representation of his efforts, but I feel that seeing the text in this way will be helpful to the reader.  Indeed, his volume clearly draws from a deep, years-long, reading of the scholarly literature on the Chinese martial arts, theater and religion.  It presents itself as having a standard scholarly apparatus including citations and bibliography.  The greatest strength of this work is that he took the time to do a detailed review of the scholarly literature, reading broadly and deeply in a variety of areas.  In this way he came up with some very interesting sources that had not previously been discussed in the Martial Arts Studies literature.

Much of what is new and surprising is concentrated in the first half of the volume which is dedicated to an examination of Taijiquan’s development.  The sort of boiler-plate history that the volume opens with is also good, but will mostly be of interest to practitioners who lack any sort of systematic training in Chinese history.  Much of the basic information about xiqu and ritual in the volume will be quite helpful for individuals who are new to these subjects. This is where this book’s greatest value may lie for the general reader.

Scott’s most important insights in the first half of the volume are two-fold.  Having traced Taijiquan back to the poetic listing of techniques in General Qi Jiguang’s Fist Classic (1563), he notes that a full biographical exploration of Qi’s life turns up some interesting facts.  First off, after coming south in the campaign against the Wokou, Qi received medical treatment from, and became the student of the sage and religious entrepreneur Lin Zhao’en.

Lin is best remembered today as the driving force behind the Three-in-One religion (Sanyijiao) which would become quite popular in the late Ming and had a large presence in Fujian.  Scott notes that Lin was responsible for medically treating the General for what Qi believed to be a serious and incurable disease.  He did so, at least in part, by teaching him the psycho-physical meditation practice known as the Golden Elixir which was something of a specialty in his system.

It is also important to note that Lin was engaged in the conflict with the pirates. As a local notable he was instrumental in raising money, distributing talisman as part of the magical war effort, performing rituals for the war dead and dealing with some of the public health issues that always arise in the aftermath of large-scale conflicts.  Lin himself attributed the efficacy of many of his efforts (and the Golden Elixir) to the immortal sage Zhang Sanfeng whom he contacted through spirit writing rituals.  Qi and Lin would become good friends and (to cut to the chase) Scott concludes that Zhang Sanfeng and the Golden Elixir had a shaping impact on Qi’s promotion of hand combat training that would, in some form, go on to become Taijiquan.

I suspect that Scott’s efforts to underline the connection between Qi (who is typically only discussed in military histories) and Lin (who most frequently appears in religious histories) will inspire some fruitful follow-up by other members of the field.  But this was not his only contribution.  While examining Qi’s literary legacy he ran across a long play titled Sanbao Taijian Xia Xiyang Ji or “Admiral Zheng He’s Journey to the West in a Boat” (1597).  Drawing on previous academic analysis of this piece he notes that it was likely understood at the time as a commentary on the tumultuous state of trade in the South and the policies of General Qi.


A statue of Zhang Sanfeng in Wuhan, Hubei province. Source: Want China Times.


Things get more interesting when we turn to the 57th chapter of this work.  This story features a sequence in which Zhang Sanfeng is commissioned by the Buddha to retrieve the Emperor’s Seven Star Black Flag (in the play the Yongle Emperor is unaware that he is a reincarnation of the warrior god Xuanwu).  As often happens in comic stories about the immortal Zhang Sanfeng, things quickly go sideways and he inadvertently finds himself in a clash with 24 of the palace guards.  The text lists a number of movements used in the fight, and there is a surprising degree of correspondence to the techniques named in Qi Jiguang’s fist poem.  This means that we now have a well attested literary work associating Zhang Sanfeng with specific movements that would later be associated with Taijiquan in circulation at the end of the 16th century.

Taken together Scott concludes that there must have been a body of preexisting lore connecting martial arts practice, Zhang Sanfeng, and the Golden Elixir.  This was all connected and popularized through various types of Chinese theater (including xiqu, but also other art forms such as puppetry and storytelling), literature and ritual.  Still, there are substantial hurdles that must be crossed in coming to these conclusions.

It is one thing to note that General Qi learned Golden Elixir practices from an important local patron and sage, but it is quite another to assert that he must therefore have understood them as the motivating force behind his boxing.  The support for the former idea is much better than the later.  Given the importance of Lin to the war effort, a diplomatic historian might ask just how substantive Qi’s interests in these matters may have been.  The formation of ritual communities is important in Chinese society as it allows for new types of social alignment, and Lin and Qi were men who needed each other’s support if either was going to accomplish their goals.  Indeed, Lin even set aside land for a temple to be built for Qi as a top adept.  This certainly suggests a degree of closeness. Their relationship is a great discovery. But there remains a number of missing links that historians might like to see clarified.

Likewise, the play itself is a wonderful find that poses interesting questions.  Scott surmises that it is evidence of a preexisting milieu of folk traditions linking Zhang Sanfeng to the art that would be become Taijiquan (or simply had combat in general).  That is certainly a possibility, but lacking any sort of evidence about local oral traditions, this is fundamentally an argument from silence.

If the assertion that the entire play is a satirical discussion of Qi Jiguang is correct, other ways of reading this chapter also suggest themselves.  Rather than being evidence of an unknown oral tradition, the fact that we see the same named boxing techniques appearing in both cases (the preface of the play is dated 1597) could simply be an attempt to mock Qi’s boxing chapters (published in 1562-1563).

We know that this chapter was not republished in the second edition of the volume at the end of Qi life, and it is a subject that he may well have become sensitive about. In any case, as Scott notes, Zhang Sanfeng doesn’t seem to perform any of the named “taijiquan” techniques.  They are being done by the soldiers rather than the saint, which seems to further the possibility that this is a case of literary parody.  Afterall, the express purpose of Qi’s martial poem was to train soldiers and entertain the troops.

Other issues are more obvious. In many places this volume is not footnoted as well as it could be.  Where there are two or three notes per page a historian might prefer to see five or six.  In a few instances this makes it difficult to distinguish conclusions or assumptions that are coming from the secondary literature, versus those that the author is making. However, if you are already familiar with the literature that Scott is working with that is less of an issue. For a popular book it is well documented, and it presents a number of connections or findings that other scholars will want to chase down.

Nevertheless, some issues arise when it is time to evaluate the quality of historical observations or judge between two competing theories.  This popular volume doesn’t really have any sort of theoretically informed way of contrasting the theories of rational reductionists and the insights of religious studies.  It generally accepts the interpretation of (possible) facts that come the closest to supporting the hypothesis and underplays or dismisses those that do not.  Where the historical record offers only silence, this book hypothesizes what would likely be found if not for the malicious destruction of information in the 20th century and then proceeds as those these surmises are confirmed facts.  Indeed, arguments from silence are found throughout this volume.

This becomes particularly troublesome when it comes to the question of intentionality.  The historical record on the martial arts is very thin even for the relatively well understood periods like the Ming and Qing. (Before that all that exists are the titles of lost books and passing literary references.)  Even when we think we know what happened, we rarely have any sort of reliable insider knowledge as to what a given actor’s intentions really were.

This is critical as one of the basic tenants of writing good history (or theory testing in the social sciences) is that we must not infer someone’s motives from their actions, or worse yet, the outcomes that we observe.  Because people are always engaging in complex strategic interactions with each other, their observable actions are very often not representative of inner values.  If we wish to speak to what is going on inside someone’s head, “why” they did it, rather than the more readily observed “what” occurred, we need to have specific types of evidence such as interviews, diaries, personal letters, etc.

We work hard to train young scholars to be cognizant of this as it’s just too easy to assume that “of course” we understand what was motivating our research subjects.  Still, if that has proved to be elusive in cases as well documented and as near in time to us as the Cuban Missile Crisis (just to name one example where much ink has been spilled),  how much more important is it to use caution when dealing with sparsely documented events that happened in 16th century China?  While Scott has revealed important facts about what Qi Jiguang and a theatrical author may have done, caution is advised in evaluating how they might have understood these practices or texts.



The second half of the volume, focusing on the development of Baguazhang, has a distinctly different tone.  Whereas the first half of the book was built around an exploration of certain texts and personalities that had been neglected in the previous literature, the second part relied extensively on the author’s training in Indian dance and reasoning by ethnographic analogy.  Scott’s familiarity with these other schools of bodily practice suggested certain interpretations of Baguazhang movement and training techniques.  He links these to hypothetical, now lost theatrical or ritual enactments of the god Nezha.

I will fully admit that I am at a loss as to what to do with much of this material.  Certainly, the idiosyncratic weaponry associated with Nezha in some myths shows up in Baguazhang.  Yet this entire argument lacks the supporting textual finds seen in the first half of the book.  Rather, time and again Scott returns to the sorts of practices that “should” have existed in the past which modern scholars cannot observe because they have supposedly been suppressed. Of course, it is really hard to empirically differentiate that which has been forced down the memory hole from that which may not have occurred in the first place.  Again, we are faced with the dangers of making arguments from silence.

This is not to say that there are no ways of dealing with missing observations in the methodological literature.  One might try to employ the hypothetical-deductive method asking “if X was true (but cannot be directly observed), what else might have been true or different other than the main dependent variable.”  In practice it is a tricky technique to pull off, and you can see Scott reaching for it at times. But more often than not what he comes up with is another possible variable that has also been suppressed by the ever present “YMCA consensus” (which is Scott’s take on Goossaert and Palmer’s (2011, p. 73) widely used “Christian-secular normative model.”)

The fundamental issue as I see it with Scott’s Baguazhang argument is this: Nezha does seem to have been a relatively well-known god in Northern China, and he did play a role in a popular novel at the time known as the Canonization of the Gods (discussed by Meulenbeld 2015).  But there were a lot of other gods in that work that might have deserved attention as well.  I am just not sure that an affinity for moving in circles is a strong enough correlation to support this theory.  Further, Bagua students who managed to escape the cultural purges of the 20th century by fleeing to South East Asia, Taiwan or Hong Kong, didn’t preserve any Nezha rituals in their communities as one might hypothesize that they should?  Even if we allow that supporters may have turned away from Nezha after he failed to protect his tutelary city, Beijing, during the Boxer Uprising, it seems odd that absolutely no references, half forgotten memories or misunderstood images of him should exist when other prominently deities encountered during the Boxer Uprising (the Monkey King and Pigsy come to mind) continued to be quite popular.

Scott attempts to break the impasse by linking Nezha to the Eight Trigrams Revolt and a number of other social disturbances that wracked Northern China (including the Boxer Uprising).  This led me to contact another friend, Israel Kanner, who has collected a variety of documents from Plum Blossom Boxing traditions dating from the 16th to the 18th centuries.  Each of these is interesting as they include the working of “civil” aspects of the community that often focused exclusively on ritual, magic and religious questions as opposed to the “martial” faction that trained martial arts.  In his dissertation research, which also focuses on Northern China, Kanner has found no appearance of the god Nezha in any of the religious, martial, or governmental material on the heterodox martial arts groups that he has collected.

Perhaps Plumb Blossom was an outlier and every other group of martial artists, bandits, actors and rebels were actively involved with ritually enacting Nezha prior to 1900.  Maybe it all happened exactly the way Scott said.  But this is the problem when we start making (and accepting) arguments from silence.  We lose the ability to choose between alternate explanations.  Suddenly the fact that much was destroyed in the 20th century can be used to justify just about any reconstruction of the Chinese martial arts.  Scott seems aware of (and frustrated by) these limitations, but like many practitioners he still prefers to fill in the blanks rather than to say “We just don’t know where x came from, and given the state of the historical record, we will probably never know with certainty.”

The volume’s final section on the Golden Elixir suggest why this is.  It is well presented and is open about its goals and values.  It might even be better to read it first just to understand where the author is coming from before embarking on the rest of the volume.

Rather than sharing a scholarly discussion of the Golden Elixir, Scott detailes his own personal experience and practice of this tradition.  He is very open about the fact that his Daoist teacher did not practice martial arts, and that he was left to discover a synthesis of these two practices that worked for him.  It seems to have been an engaging project that caused him to rethink a great many subjects.  It has led Scott to strong and beautiful conclusions about what the Chinese martial arts can be, and a real sense of frustration as to how they are often approached today. Throughout his volume Scott rejects the vision of China’s modernizers during the late Qing, Republic and Communist Eras.  While admitting that there were problems with the older theatrical-ritual frameworks (such as Boxer Uprising), he stands by his argument for returning to a premodern approach to the Chinese martial arts.  It is this highly personal description of his own practice that explains the antagonism towards modernity (at least as it has been applied to religion and martial arts) that runs throughout his book.


Taijiquan. Source: Edwin Lee/flickr



I began this discussion by noting that many readers will feel frustration if they try to approach Scott’s work as a detached academic one. That would be a mistake on two levels.  First, after reading this volume I think it’s clear that, as much as he enjoys engaging with the academic literature, he is really much more interested in talking with practitioners than professors.  After all, they are the ones who are really sustaining these arts, and so they are the ones whose experience of them might be changed.  Second, as a work coming from a specific practice-based faith tradition, this can more profitably be read as an act of apologetics rather than history.

History and the social sciences are concerned with the marshalling of observations and the testing of theories. Very often we encounter really interesting questions in academics that we just can’t speak to as the evidence to do so no longer exists, or we cannot access it.  In graduate school we all learn how to figure out what sort of data we actually have (or could reasonably expect to find) before constructing that killer dissertation question.

Apologetics, on the other hand, isn’t really about disproving hypothesis.  It takes as its mission the opening of an intellectual space where a rational, committed person can sustain and grow some belief or practice.  This appears to be why Scott is unable to simply say “We will probably never know.”  At every historical dead-end he is compelled to seek a space where a serious student of Daoist practice might find meaning in the martial arts (and xiqu).  In the final analysis, his quest for Nezha is a deeply personal one.

I really enjoyed this book.  The first half of the work gave me a number of subjects to track down, some of which I am genuinely surprised have never been discussed in the martial arts literature before.  Never underestimate the power of a good literature review!

Still, I did find it rather odd that the one person missing from Scott’s discussion was Charles Holcombe.  The irony is that Holcombe could easily be read as a direct progenitor of Scott’s argument.  While the state of literature has progressed far beyond what it was in 1990, many of Scott’s major beats are anticipated in Holcombe.  I was less surprised that there was no engagement with Henning.

It might be interesting to end this essay by briefly considering how this book fits within the two starting points to this conversation discussed in the introduction.  One of Henning’s major complaints with Holcombe (and it was a valid one) was that he spoke only in generalities.  It seems hard to imagine you could actually make the sort of argument he wanted to lay out without looking at specific case studies.  If we leave the apologetic aspects of his engagement with Taijiquan and Bagua aside for a moment, Scott actually served to advance this debate by delving headfirst into two very specific case studies.

In point of fact he may not have chosen the two best cases to make his argument, or to disprove Henning’s.  I think that some of the stuff on the Taijiquan side was interesting, though he overstates his conclusions.  Baguazhang was always going to be a very hard case as we just have so little 19th century documentation to work with.  I suspect he went into it with a sense of personal commitment (e.g., he wanted to understand the origins of his own practice) rather than because it was the best case to evaluate a specific theory.

As Israel Kanner has noted, Chang Naizhou presents us with the rare case of a well-documented Qing era martial artist who explicitly discussed the Golden Elixir.  Further, we have all sorts of ritual and religious texts associated with Northern Chinese Plum blossom communities from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  Sadly, neither of these traditions have anything to say about Nezha. Yet if the goal of our study was to demonstrate once and for all that ritual and popular culture (e.g., xiqu) had a critical impact on the way that Chinese martial arts communities developed, these cases would have made a stronger argument.

The feeling that I was left with at the end of Scott’s book was markedly different from that which came out of the Henning-Holcombe exchange.  Despite the fact that they found themselves on opposite sides of the issue, the effect of both of these authors was to shut down future discussions of the role of ritual, religion and theater in Chinese martial arts.  So far as Henning was concerned, the way forward was shown by China’s May 4th intellectuals and other social reformers in the 1920s.  Of course, these were exactly the same individuals who were going around closing Buddhist and Daoist temples, so one might consider their opinions on the matter to be somewhat conflicted.  Holcombe seems to have concluded that such subjects simply should not be of interest to serious people as they were the “escapist fantasies” of an ignorant peasantry.

Still, these “escapist fantasies” have proved themselves to be incredibly resilient.  Local religious traditions are once again a force to be reckoned with in many areas of Mainland China, and of course they never vanished from areas like Taiwan or South East Asia.  Increasing numbers of martial artists in the West are asking sophisticated questions about both Buddhism and Daoism which can no longer be dismissed as the rambling of confused hippies.  Despite our personal feelings as to how the martial arts should or should not be practiced, these are trends that students of martial arts studies should be prepared to wrestle with.  Scott’s book both illustrates an insider’s perspective on what is driving this, as well as suggesting avenues for more fruitful exploration in the future.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Five Thoughts on Lineage, Legitimacy and Manipulation in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts