Wing Chun in Singapore.  A class using a variety of traditional training modalities. 



Welcome to week ten 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.  It concludes with some of my own thoughts on the questions that have been raised in the week’s assigned texts.

Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that I have been patiently waiting all semester for Week 10.  Frequent allusions to “thousands of years of history” notwithstanding, the Chinese martial arts which are actually practiced today were either reshaped or developed between the mid 19th and mid 20th century.

It is important to remember that these fighting arts are simply one aspect, a single manifestation, of popular culture.  As society changes, they must also evolve.  Thus the martial arts practiced today reflect the many debates about modernity which gripped China for much of the 20th century.  The various way in which they attempted to codify these ideological disputes in embodied practice is one of the things that makes them of such great interests to historians and social scientists.

These are only some of the topics covered in this weeks readings.  It wouldn’t be hard to structure an entire class around a comparative examination of the way these debates played out over the course of the 20th century in China, Japan and the West.  There would certainly be ample literature to support such a project.


Required Readings

  • Henning Eichberg, “A Revolution of Body Culture? Traditional Games on the Way from Modernisation to ‘Postmodernity,’” Body Cultures: Essays on Sport, Space, and Identity, (London: Routledge, 1998), 128-148.
  • Paul A. Cohen, “Mass Spirit Possession,” History in Three Keys: The Boxers as Event, Experience, and Myth, (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 96-118.
  • Peter Lorge, “Post-Imperial China,” Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 212-237.
  • Susan Brownell, “Wushu and the Olympic Games: ‘Combination of East and West’ or Clash of Body Cultures?” Perfect Bodies: Sports, Medicine, and Immortality, Vivienne Lo, ed., (London: British Museum, 2012), 59-69.


Further Suggested Readings

  • Andrew Morris. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. University of California Press.  Chapter 7: “From martial arts to national skills: the construction of a modern indigenous physical culture,” 1912–37
  • THE ANNALS OF JINGWU (精武體育會, Also known as the Pure Martial 10 Year Anniversary Book) by the Jingwu Athletic Association. Shanghai: December 1919.


Notes on the Readings

Our schedule has been revised to reflect a post-COVID-19 world where students cannot simply visit the library to look at some of the physical volumes on reserve.  As such, there has been some shuffling in the reading list.  Still, the reading that we could get on the electronic reserves provided the undergrads with a nice overview of the area.

Obviously any reader of Kung Fu Tea will already be familiar with Peter Lorge’s important Chinese Martial Arts (Cambridge UP, 2012).  While his discussion on the post-1911 period is the least detailed chapter in the book, it quickly gets readers up to speed on the important national and regional trends that shaped the Chinese martial arts in the first half of the 20th century.

The selection from Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys provides a starting point (or foil) to this discussion by reviewing spirit possession and invulnerability practices during the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900).  The national humiliation that resulted from this episode seriously damaged the popularity of the Chinese martial arts for the better part of a generation.  During the 1910s and 1920s, reformers within the New Wushu, Jingwu and Guoshu movements would work hard to distance themselves from this legacy while their opponents were equally persistent in tarring them with that brush.  Cohen’s entire book is mandatory reading for serious students of Martial Arts Studies, but for this unit only a single chapter is assigned.

Henning Eichberg’s chapter has largely escaped discussion within the field as he has very little to say about martial arts.  However, this work merits attention as it provides a broader historical and sociological discussion of the mechanisms behind the globalization and reform of all sorts of physical culture movements during the 20th century.  Much of his attention is focused on the rise of national level physical culture discourses in Eastern Europe during the 19th century, and the reemergence of similar interest in the post-Soviet era.  His typology of traditional, modern and post-modern practices might be of interest to students of East Asian sports development.

Susan Brownell also explores the global context of international sports competition, but more explicitly addresses the success of some martial arts within the Olympic movement (Judo, Taekwondo and now Karate) in comparison to Wushu’s repeated setbacks.  She asks readers to consider multiple explanations for Wushu’s failures to gain the IOC’s approval and focuses on the ways that Western understanding of the body conditions what we consider to be a “proper” sport.  While  I have some quibbles about this article (the discussion of how most new events enter the olympics is fairly dated) her basic conclusions seem sound.  One strongly suspects that Wushu’s headwinds reflect both China’s struggle to gain more influence within the IOC institutionally, as well as its efforts to spread its body culture globally.

Still, I might suggest that readers also consider a few additional readings.  The seventh chapter of Andrew Morris’ Marrow of the Nation is perhaps the single most influential piece that has been published on the modern history of the Chinese martial arts. There is no need to take my word of that.  Simply pay attention to the footnotes of practically everything published after its release to get a sense of the impact that Morris has had on the development of our field.  Given his foundational status, I would say that this chapter needs to anchor any discussion.

Nor would such a reading list be complete without some primary sources.  While procuring these for earlier periods of Chinese history was difficult, in the current case we are blessed with an embarrassment of riches.  The 1910s-1950s saw an explosion of publications on the practice and philosophy of the Chinese martial arts.  Most of these pieces also feature numerous photographs giving us a sense of how authors and publishers imagined martial Chinese bodies.  Paul Brennan has recently completed a translation of the Jingwu Association’s  10 year anniversary volume published in 1919.  The opening prefaces and essays are short, but rich in detail for anyone wanting to understanding the cultural and ideological trajectory of the Chinese martial arts during this period.  I would highly recommend adding this, or something like it, to your personal reading lists.


Discussion Questions

  1. How does Eichberg’s schema situate traditional, modern, and postmodern phases of “traditional games”? Are these schema useful for analyzing the development of Chinese (and Japanese) martial arts? How so?
  2. In what ways did the processes of re-inventing Chinese martial arts traditions differ between the Ming/Qing and the twentieth centuries (particularly with regard to Jingwu/Guoshu)?
  3. How do the notions of “tradition” and “reform” evolve in various periods of Chinese martial arts history?  Consider both mass spirit possession among the Boxers (1899-1900) and later writings on the emergence of Qigong (1980s-1990s) and its “spiritual” manifestations?
The Chinese Boxing Club of Fukien Christian University. Source:


Can Tradition Tell us About the “Reality” of Chinese Martial Practice?

As I listened to the students discuss this week’s reading questions, my mind kept drifting towards the ways that “tradition” and modernization (or maybe “science”) has been contested in the modern history of the Chinese martial arts.  It would be all to easy to pin this on the Republican era reformers of the Jingwu Association, or the Centeral Guoshu Academy.  Yet in truth these ideas remain very much with us and seem to be driving concepts within the global TCMA community.

Thanks to COVID-19, martial arts practitioners in the West are spending even more time at their keyboards than normal.  As a result a certain type of discourse, which was pretty common to begin with, seems to be emerging even more frequently than I had previously noted.  I am particularly fascinated by instances in which Western martial artists watch a video of someone in China or Hong Kong doing something slightly innovative and begin to loudly proclaim that not only is what they are watching garbage, but that it is “not even a real Chinese martial art.”  This is not to imply that gatekeeping behavior never happens in China. It certainly does.  And the quality of random videos on social media is highly variable at the best of times. But the frequent emergence of these Western voices of tradition strikes me as interesting.

The video that caused this week’s conflagration emerged out of the corner of social media dedicated to Wing Chun.  Given its self-conception as a “serious fighting art,” viral defeats of supposed Wing Chun masters at the hands of middling MMA fighters in social media videos have caused waves in the community.  As a result, over the last few years we have seen an increase in the numbers of schools that integrate competitive full contact (MMA-type) sparring into their curriculum.

On the surface this would seem to be a pretty clear violation of “tradition.”  Ip Man taught many practical skills. And by all accounts he encouraged his students to get outside and mix things up on the streets as a way of gaining practical experience.  But whatever Hong Kong’s legendary roof top fights were, they were not five minute MMA sparring rounds complete with gloves, mouth-guards, head gear and extensive ground fighting.  It can be challenging to imagine how Wing Chun’s concepts should manifest themselves, what they should look like, when moved into a different spatial and cultural environment from the one that they evolved in.  And while some readers commended the Chinese martial artists for getting in the ring for a serious workout against individuals from a different style (and it should be noted these were ongoing video training journals, not challenge fights), the vastly more commentators felt the need to note that what they saw “doesn’t look like Wing Chun” and in a few cases “shows no evidence of having any relationship to Chinese martial arts.”

That last point is a particularly vexing charge to toss at actual Chinese martial artists, living in China, attempting to adapt their style to deal with new challenges and training modalities coming largely from the West.  Still, it is not an uncommon sentiment.  I have run into this statement so many times that it hardly registers anymore.  Perhaps it is time to consider what is really going on here, and what it might suggest about prior periods where notions of “tradition” were also invoked in debates about the fundamental nature of Chinese martial arts.

As a matter of intellectual policy, I take a rather expansive view of what defines “Chinese martial arts culture.”  Rather than forcing the lived experiences of a continent full of people, across literally centuries of time, to conform to an arbitrary definition of my own creation, I prefer to let the individuals whom I am researching debate, stabilize and deconstruct these definitions for me. The process of how this happens is actually much more important than any single definition that might emerge at a given time or place.

In practice this means that “Chinese martial arts” are what Chinese fighting communities (and other adjacent populations) actually do, and this changes over time.  Some of the changes have been pretty radical and remind us that the Chinese martial arts never existed in pristine isolation from the rest of the world.  We could all multiply examples.  Ancient chariot warfare in China bore more than a passing resemblance to chariot traditions in the near East where the basic technology likely originated.  But eventually charioteers and dagger-axes gave way to infantry armed with steel swords and spears.  In time they would be supplemented with horsemanship, archery and saber technology developed by nomadic northern tribes but quickly adopted by the Han.  The sudden appearances of Japanese pirates wielding katanas touched off a revival of interest in two handed dao and jian among the martial artists of the late-Ming.  Further, modern Japanese training methods and the global popularity of Judo were major topic of conversation among all Republican era martial arts reformers during the 1920s-1930s.

I do not doubt that that in such a thing as “Chinese body culture” exists, or that it has a large impact on how the traditional martial arts are practiced and performed.  Yet it would clearly be an error to assume that it is essentialist in nature and unchanging through time.  Put simply, charioteering is no longer the apex of martial arts achievement that it once was.  Things change, almost beyond recognition, in the very long run.  And in the short-term world of market competition and fads, they can be hard to spot as well.  Social media videos of Taijiquan and Wing Chun masters being unceremoniously flattened have had a notable impact on the sorts of physical training Chinese consumers find desirable.  As such, “bodily culture” seems to be something that is negotiated, stabilized and retrospectively identified in the medium term.

In that sense I suppose I can agree with the Western critics of the Chinese Wing Chun school.  What they were doing didn’t look a lot like the Wing Chun that I learned.  How could it?  It was occurring in a different physical and cultural space administered by a different set of explicit and implicit rules about what a proper fight should look like.  To be totally honest I have a hard time imagining that any art would look the same when subjected to so many layers translation and dislocation.

Perhaps what we should take away from this is that “bodily culture,” as a category, is not timeless and unchanging.  It may not even monopolize current cultural values.  Chinese fighters can certainly train for, and obsess over, MMA matches without surrendering their native cultural.  Rather, the “bodily culture” that we enjoy in the martial arts reflects negotiations and stabilizations that happen within explicitly subcultural communities.

This is important as while subcultural groups often draw values and concepts from the dominant culture, they are not defined by them.  Thus they have a degree of social flexibility which allows them to respond to shocks in their environment.  This is critical for martial arts communities as one of their primary social functions is to provide support during times of crisis.  These are moments when adaptation is necessary.

Westerners falsely viewed the turn of the century Boxers as a quintessential manifestation of everything that was backwards and dangerous about traditional Chinese culture.  Its true that spirit possession, theater and martial arts groups were all aspects of local Chinese society.  Yet by focusing on these discrete points, we miss the rather obvious truth that the eruption of the Yihi Boxers in 1899 was a new event that shocked many Chinese people who actually witnessed these events on the ground.  Yes they understood all of the individual cultural pieces that would go on to define the Boxer movement. But now they were coming together in new ways that allowed for different social actions than the Big Sword Societies that came before, or the Red Spears that would emerge two decades later.  To simply harp on the fact that all three groups used some sort of invulnerability magic, and were thus “traditional,” misses the extent to which each one of them was actually an innovative response to a different set of problems.

Likewise, it is easy to locate the technical origins of the Qigong Fever of the 1990s in state led medical innovations that happened during the 1950s.  But if we leave the trauma of the Cultural Revolution out of our story, or forget to mention the scaling back of the science based hospital healthcare system in the 1990s (due in large part to China’s ascension into the Western led WTO system), we miss the degree to which this eruption of “traditional” culture was really an innovative response to an economic shock that largely originated outside the Chinese state.  One cannot address a crisis without innovation, and you cannot reassure the people without also arguing that on a deep or fundamental level, “nothing has changed.”  Discourses promoting the notion of tradition or continuity are part of the very fabric of social adjustment.

Calls to respect tradition can thus be used to delegitimize change and innovation, perhaps by a group of American Wing Chun enthusiasts who got into Kung Fu after watching the Ip Man films. One suspects that at least some Westerners have been drawn to the TCMA over the decade precisely because they were looking for an alternative to MMA. Unfortunately, as Rey Chow reminds us, such arguments can often manifest as calls for coercive mimeticism when they occur in a cross-cultural setting charged with Orientalist desire.

Alternatively, tradition can be invoked by reformers to legitimate change within a practice. Witness the army of Chinese writers now producing weekly columns arguing that MMA was actually invented in China because Bruce Lee did some ground fighting in that one scene in Enter the Dragon. Our experience of “tradition” as a social category is result of countless ongoing negotiations just like this one.

So did the Chinese Wing Chun students that inspired this discussion abandon their native “body culture” by virtue of getting in the Octagon?  I suspect that for a definitive answer we will need to revisit this question in another 10-15 years.  That is how long cultural negotiation (and generational change) takes.  If Chinese fighters continue to perform well in UFC events, further popularizing what had been Western training modalities, we maybe seeing the start of a new chapter in the development of Kung Fu.  Alternatively, if Wushu finally makes it into the Olympics and becomes a major source of Gold medals and nationalist pride, things could go very quickly in a different direction.  I am sure that no matter what happens, claims of “tradition” will prove to be the perfect tool to naturalize China’s ever evolving martial art body culture.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Telling the Story of China’s Martial Arts: Julius Eigner, Foreign Journalists and Nazi Propaganda