Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.



Welcome to week four of “History of East Asian Martial Arts.”  This series follows the readings being used in Prof. TJ Hinrichs’ undergraduate course of the same name at Cornell University.  This is a great opportunity for readers looking to upgrade their understanding of Martial Arts Studies.  It is also important for those of us in the academy who are thinking about how we can craft classes, or create new units, that draw on Martial Arts Studies in our own teaching.  Rather than reporting on the class discussion and lecture, this post will introduce the readings and some of the study questions that have been assigned.  I will give my own quick take on this material at the end of the post.

There are two sorts of readings that one is likely to encounter in any history class.  First we have “primary source documents.”  These are historical texts that date directly to the period of study.  Alternatively there are “secondary sources.”  These are commentaries by later scholars attempting to analyze, theorize or explain what we find in the primary sources.  This basic distinction was used to structure the students’ readings for this unit.


Required Readings

Primary Sources

“Shi Jin the Nine-Dragoned,” Patricia Ebrey, ed., Chinese Civilization: A Source Book, 2nd edition. New York: The Free Press, 1993, 226-237.

“From The Romance of the Gods (Feng-shen yan-yi): Nezha and His Father,” An Anthology of Chinese Literature: Beginnings to 1911, Stephen Owen, Trans. New York: Norton. 1996. 771-806.


Secondary Discussion

David Ownby. 2002. “Approximations of Chinese Bandits: Perverse Rebels, Romantic Heroes, or Frustrated Bachelors?” in Chinese Femininities, Chinese Masculinities: A Reader. Berkley: University of California Press. 226-250.

Mark Meulenbeld. 2015. “The Order of the Ming Novel: Hierarchies of Spirits and Gods.” Demonic Warfare: Daoism, Territorial Networks, and the History of a Ming Novel. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. 191-199.

Victoria Cass. 1999. “Warriors and Mystics.” Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies, and Geisha of the Ming. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield. 65-85.


About the Readings

All students in the class were expected to read both of the primary documents and one of the three  (more theoretical oriented) secondary sources.  Nevertheless, anyone who follows Kung Fu Tea will probably want to tackle all of the material as its all important.

The story of Shi Jin is drawn from the beginning of the Ming novel Water Margin, which you can find in numerous places on the internet (read chapter 2 in this PDF).  The translation in Ebrey is very readable, but its not necessary.  Pretty much any retelling of his story will work.  I would really encourage readers to start with this piece as Water Margin is the “Old Testament” of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While a fictional story, this is actually a pretty realistic account of how local martial artists and village leaders might find themselves getting caught up in the world of banditry, even in relatively prosperous times.  Likewise, there are many retellings of the story of Nezha’s epic conflict with his father (this link provides a quick summary of the story).  If you can’t locate Owen’s translation any of these will do.

The secondary readings for this week focus quite heavily on the role of gender and ritual in the construction of the social order that supports (and even necessitated) the creation of these fighting systems.  In purely historical terms, Ownby is a must read.  I would prioritize getting my hands on that source. Meulenbeld helps to contextualize the Nezha narrative.  If you don’t have a copy of his work, Meir Shahar and Scott Phillips can provide critical context for understanding this story.  Cass’ work is a wonderful reminder that there were important female warriors, rebels and mystics in the Ming Dynasty.   However, her chapter has been even more important for me when trying to decode and theorize the rise of female martial artists in popular novels during the Qing.  We will be coming back to this one.



Study Questions

With regard to the primary source:

  1. What is each author (or perhaps story teller) attempt to achieve in these passages?  What specifically are they arguing for against as they recount the violent exploits of Nezha and Shi Jin?
  2. Which Confucian values are embodied by the heroes of these works?  Where are they shown as falling short of the dominant social norms of the day?
  3. Both Nezha and Shi Jin are famous martial heroes.  How does the author demonstrate this excellence to the audience? How are they discussed in terms of strength, agility, technical ability, or magical prowess?
  4. In what ways did these literary models (Water Margin and the Canonization of the Gods) effect the behavior of Chinese rebels or martial martial artists in the late imperial period?


Quick Thoughts

The stories of Shi Jin and Nezha are both so rich that there is no single theme that all readers will gravitate towards.  Likewise, the secondary readings could easily facilitate discussions that draw out the religious, gendered or political dimensions of martial arts practice in the late imperial period.

That, in itself, is an important observation about hand combat.  These systems of practice, and their representations in literature and theater, provided individuals with powerful multi-vocal symbols which could connect together many areas of life.  Ownby discusses the importance of martial arts training as a skill that would allow underemployed young men to move around the countryside seeking their fortune in the wake of the late-Qing population explosion.

Yet they didn’t just facilitate geographic travel.  Martial arts also provided marginal individuals with tools and models to reimagine their lives in fundamental ways.  This symbolic flexibility helps to explain the long running popularity of these fighting systems as cultural symbols.  It also suggests that while technical study and storytelling existed in somewhat separate cultural spheres, both were doing important work during the late imperial period.

We can see this flexibility in how central social vlaues were discussed in our two primary texts.   Stylistically, the stories of Shi Jin and Nezha differ in tone and content. The exploits of Nezha are as fantastic as those of Shi Jin are grounded.  Where as the first hero relies on magical weapons and esoteric skills, the later learned his martial arts from a former military trainer. Rather than doing battle with dragons and mysterious immortals, as Nezha does, Shi Jin is forced to negotiate with the bandit forces that surround his home village.  One might even be tempted to see a foreshadowing of the division between fantastic Wuxia movies and Hong Kong’s gritty Kung Fu films in these two medieval novels.

Despite their differences, these stories also share important thematic beats.  Any Confucian reader would quickly note that both Nezha and Shi Jian are terrible children that utterly fail in their responsibility to show respect to their parents.  This is the most obvious in Nezha’s case. His lack of impulse control, combined with godlike power, constantly drags his family in crisis.  Recall that under imperial law parents could be held liable for the crimes of their children.  Nezha’s theory that he could dissolve filial bonds by mutilating his body to “return his flesh and bones to his parents” through ritual suicide is absolutely abhorrent to orthodox Confucian thought.  What a child owes their parents is not a pile of organs, but an unmutilated body, preferably one that is used to create offspring that preserve the family line, and support the parents in their old age. Nezha’s failure as a filial son would have been clear to readers long before he took up arms against his father, necessitating intervention by the Unity Daoist.

Shi Jin is equally unfilial, though this may not be as obvious on the first reading of his story.  To begin with, the personal relationship between the young martial artist and his father seems to be a warm one. The father dotes on his son, hiring martial arts instructors and allowing him to tattoo nine dragons on his body.  It should be noted that during the Ming dynasty tattooing was seen as an affront against the body that one had received from their parents.  Further, the author of this story goes to great lengths to describe the elaborate and expensive funeral that Shi Jin provided for this father when he died. This would seemingly suggest that Shi Jin was a filial son.

Perhaps that might have been the case if he was born into a military family.  But he was not.  Shi Jin’s father was a farmer and village headman with important responsibilities to the community.  Shi Jin would have been expected to follow in his footsteps, maintain the family homestead, provide children to ensure the continuation of the ancestral cult, and to do his utmost to improve the economic situation he had inherited (probably by buying more land).

Rather than doing any of this he squandered his resources on martial arts training and tattoos, refused to marry and had no children.  It is not a surprise to learn that his mother died of frustration over her son’s behavior.   Shi Jin’s disastrous alliance with the local bandits (abandoning his duty to his family, the community and the state) would ultimately lead to the loss of the family land and the destruction of his home village.  This was the worst outcome imaginable according to the value system of late imperial peasants. Further, in dying without an heir both Shi Jin and his parents would be left to wander the eternities as hungry ghosts.

Still, there is an important distinction in how the authors of these two works deal with their respective unfilial children.  The story of Nezha is ultimately that of his taming.  His Daoist teachers may have be willing to forgive his wanton murder of local dragons, but they refused to overlook his affronts against his father.  It is only after gifting Nezha’s father control over a magical golden pagoda that can contain (and torture) his son that the proper family order is restored.  Only at that point can Nezha play his appointed role as a popular deity.

There is clearly a balancing act in this story.  Nezha is a powerful and important figure precisely because he dangerous.  This is a guy who can take down Thunder Spirits.  But he is only useful once the damage that he can do is put in the service of the dominant social order.  Audiences might laugh at the exploits of this child-god, but like the Monkey King, his story ultimately reinforces the dominant Confucian social order of late imperial China rather than undermining it.

Shi Jin’s narrative is more complicated.  While it is clear that his actions fly in the face of the dominant social order, the author goes out of his way to paint Shi Jin in a sympathetic light.  While he fails in the critical filial duties (to marry, bear children, and put the needs of the family first) he succeeds in others (to provide an elaborate funeral for his father).  While he fails in his duty to the state and even his home village, he is exceedingly dedicated to his friends.  One suspects that the reader is meant to see Shi Jin as as exemplar of “loyalty.”  That too is one of the core Confucian values.  Yet the core Confucian relationships and their values are relative.  One’s first responsibility is always to the family and the state.  Loyalty to friends comes in a distant second.

Yet that is never the case in Water Margin.  One of the novel’s defining features is its insistence on the inversion of the traditional values, placing loyalty between sworn brothers above virtually all else.  There is much that we could say about this.  For our current purposes it is probably enough to note that this construction of an alternate value system suggests that martial arts are being used to create distinct subcultures related to, but separate from, the dominant social discourse.

David Ownby’s “Approximation of Chinese Bandits” illustrates why this might be. Pervasive female infanticide during the late imperial period (as well as the practice of concubinage by the economic elite) meant that marriage was simply not an option for many marginal young men.  These individuals could not fit into a Confucian structure built on the twin assumptions of inheritance and marriage.  Avron Bortez has gone even farther and argued that the basic masculinity of “Bare Sticks” (unmarried males) was denied by the Confucian value system.

Marginal men would thus have every reason to create social subcultures that afforded them a degree of recognition and prestige.  Nor is it a surprise that rather than totally breaking with society’s dominant value systems they would instead seek to reorder them in such a way that they could be the masters of those norms (loyalty to friends and martial strength) that married family men would have the least ability to embody.

Ming era novels are important historical resources as they offer a glimpse into the way that people understood martial arts during the late imperial period. They also suggest that there was a fair degree of flexibility in how martial values were being constructed.  Whereas the Canonization of the Gods argues that the such strength is only realized when it is subordinated to larger community structures, Water Margin acknowledges that a growing portion of the population has no place within these institutions, and is actively seeking to create subcultures that officials will have to accommodate, or seek to suppress.  Perhaps this is why the line between Chinese martial artists and bandits has always been a thin one.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Doing Research (5): Lies I Have Told About Martial Artists