Early 19th Century Mural, Shaolin Temple. This work of art depicts the monks demonstrating their Martial Arts for a visiting Qing dignitary. Luckily this historically significant piece of art survived the 1928 destruction of the temple.
Early 19th Century Mural, Shaolin Temple. This work of art depicts the monks demonstrating their Martial Arts for a visiting Qing dignitary. Luckily this historically significant piece of art survived the 1928 destruction of the temple. Source: Wikimedia.



This is the third and final installment of our in-depth review of Meir Shahar’s groundbreaking work, the Shaolin Temple.  Today we will be looking at the evolution of unarmed boxing in late Ming and Qing era China.  I suspect that this is the critical material that most readers have been waiting for.  After all, this is how we imagine the Shaolin monks today.

Still, I admit to having some misgiving.  First off, I am sad that our collecting reading of this volume is coming to an end.  I have read this book many times before, yet I always find new additional details and benefit from the chance to see the text in a new context.

I also regret that this conversation is coming to an end because I have a nagging feeling that Shahar’s work is not yet finished.  I really consider chapters 3-4 to be a tour de force.  They are as close as anything that you will find to a definitive treatment of monastic violence at Shaolin in the late imperial period.   While I would have appreciated more detail about the internal structure of the order and day to day life in the Temple, he painted a remarkably complete portrait of its involvement with the military realm.  In comparison, his concluding chapters, which focus on the ascendency of unarmed combat in the late 16th century and its evolution through the mid-19th century, leave many questions unanswered.

For instance, given the outright dismissal of any connection between ancient Daoist gymnastic practices and the martial arts by Kennedy, Henning and others, why exactly is Shahar so convinced that not only are these development connected, but that Daoyin provide the basic conceptual framework that all unarmed fighting forms are built on?  This assertion seems to contradict much of what we learned in Chapters 3 and 4.  The “original Shaolin pole fighting method” described Cheng Zhongyou was very practical and totally devoid of any health-based component or emphasis on self-cultivation.  Nor did Cheng Zongyou show any awareness of Daoism or even much interest in Buddhism.  These omissions do not appear to be a fluke occurrence.  Most of the other extent 17th century accounts describe Shoalin’s warrior monks as being hardened soldiers (and in some cases war-criminals) and not the sorts of individuals that one would normally expect to dabble in Daoist immortality practices.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but many of the Temple’s 17th century warrior monks were young men who probably expected to die violently.  It makes sense that they would be obsessed with strict military training.  It is much harder to explain why at least some of them suddenly develop an enthusiasm for mystically infused, militarily impractical, hand combat forms starting in the mid-16th century.  This does not fit the image of Shaolin that we developed in Section 2 of this book.

For that matter, why was the rest of China increasingly interested in hand combat during the final years of the Ming?  This was a period of constant civil disturbances.  Practical combat ability was an actual necessity for any community at the end of the Ming era.   So how exactly should we understand the sudden growth of medically oriented, religiously infused, hand combat practices in this very dangerous period?  Hopefully we will have a chance to address these questions bellow.

A detailed view of one of the previosuly discussed 19th century murals. Original published source unknown.
A detailed view a different 19th century murals in the White Robe Hall at the Shaolin Temple. Original published source unknown.  If anyone knows who first published these photos please let me know.  I would like to use them in a manuscript.

Chapters 5-8: Shahar’s Model of the Invention of Hand Combat in Late Imperial China.
The third section of Shahar’s work is titled “Fist Fighting and Self-Cultivation: 1600-1900.”  This is an apt summery of what you will find in the remainder of his work.  Gone are the discussions of battlefield tactics and the Shaolin Temple as a practical military academy.  Starting in chapter 5 the reader’s attention shifts to the evolution, and rising popularity of, unarmed boxing.

Shahar also makes it very clear that, in his view, this trend was not driven by an interest in practical self-defense.  Instead the move to unarmed boxing, both at Shaolin and in the nation as a whole, seems to have been the byproduct of a broadly based desire for new modes of self-cultivation that included both medical practices and a syncretic philosophical component.  So to restate his basic argument, something changed in late Ming popular culture (Shahar never really explicitly identifies what) and hand combat was re-imagined and popularized as a solution to a widely perceived problem.

One of the other trends that a careful reader will note is the quiet retreat of the Shaolin Temple.  During the Ming dynasty this institution had been nationally known for the skill of its warriors and was located at the very center of a national complex for the production of warrior monks.  While these facts are occasionally disputed by modern martial artists seeking to minimize the contributions of Shaolin, Shahar provides period texts, inscriptions and archeological evidence to make his point in a definitive fashion.  There can no longer be any doubt that Shaolin was not just involved in monastic violence, it was at the leading edge of this complex Ming era trend.

Yet as soon as we begin to study unarmed combat things change.  In chapters 5 and 6, the Temple moves from being the star of the show to a minor player of regional significance.  Rather than Shahar describing the monastery itself, increasingly we hear about the wider world of regional martial artists and the contributions that they made to the Temple.

Geographically speaking, Shaolin was exceptionally blessed if one was looking for hand combat instructors.  There is no evidence that the Temple ever developed its own unique forms of hand combat in the late Ming or early Qing.  Instead it drew on styles that were being practiced by local civilians in an attempt to study and perfect them.  Fortuitously Taiji, Xingyi, Bagua and Plumb Blossom boxing were all invented or developed within a days travel of the temple.  The entire area seems to have been a hotbed for martial innovation.  Shaolin was part of this environment and it helped to refine, collect, advertise and transmit important developments in the arts.

Shahar goes well beyond the Temple’s walls in his attempts to build a comprehensive picture of the era’s of martial development.  Unfortunately, the archeological evidence that enriched his earlier chapters starts to recede.  This is an important observation in itself.  Apparently perfecting boxing did not lead to large inscribed stone monuments in quite the same way that donating trained armies to the Ming did.

As a result Shahar is forced to rely solely on the extent literary record.  He is able to draw on a number of surviving hand combat manuals, travel diaries, poems, popular and military encyclopedias.  In a few instances he even turns to fiction in an attempt to reconstruct the birth of modern Chinese hand combat.

Further, Shahar reminds us that we really are looking at the birth of the modern martial arts (a few of which still exist today) when we examine the events of this time period.  Modern martial artists often posit a continual line of transmission linking the modern martial arts with their Bronze Age, or even Stone Age, predecessors.  Shahar remains unconvinced, and I must admit that I echo his skepticism.  It is important to understand why so that one can really grasp his argument about hand combat being a product of the Ming.

Almost every article or book on the martial arts produced in China today seems to start with an identical affirmation claiming that the indigenous Chinese arts are at least 5000 years old.  They were invented to protect people from “wild animals” and later “hostile tribes.”  I swear, every book or article I pick up seems to start with the same exact paragraph.  It has become some sort of literary ritual.

But does this make any logical sense?  Ancient Chinese tribes had a tiger problem so they invented Chin Na?  As Prof. Filipiak notes, the conceptual and cultural space between throwing a rock at a wild animal and kicking an opponent in the head while in a martial arts tournament are pretty huge.  Academic thinkers need to be careful with our concepts.  They are our most important tools.

This means that when we create labels we need to only link related things.  We are probably doing ourselves a disservice when we conflate modern martial arts and ancient methods of wildlife control.  For that matter, it is not really clear what the modern martial arts actually have to do with a lot of other material in the larger conceptual category of “martial history.”

Chinese history from the Bronze Age onward presents us with a number of other problems.  We know that during the Warring States periods militaries would entertain officials by staging fights or duals between soldiers.  A couple of varieties of wrestling have been popular activities at different points in Chinese history.  Archery has also been a perennial favorite pastime of gentlemen and soldiers alike.  Of course there is also the famous case of the “Sword Maiden of Yue” and the inclusion of the titles of books about pugilism in the still extent Han era bibliographies.  Anyone interested in a brief time-line of this material may want to consult Kang Gewu’s Spring and Autumn: The Spring and Sutumn of Chinese Martial Arts – 5000 years (1995).

It is precisely this “5000 year” claim that causes so much confusion when researching the origins of the Chinese martial arts.  Should modern scholars really be looking to draw direct connections between everything that we have in the present, and everything that we read about the distant past?  Or should we be willing to admit that most of what we read about the in the past probably went exist long ago, and much of what exists in the present is a recent innovation and a response to more modern circumstances?

As I have stated many times before, the martial arts must be recreated in every generation.  Sometimes this is a simple matter of re-imagining their place in society or coming up with a new business model.  In other cases most martial knowledge has been forgotten and this “recreations” must happen on a much more fundamental level.

While we know the titles of some ancient Han era texts about boxing (at least that is what we presume they were about), the books no longer exist and it is impossible to know what relationship, if any, they have to modern styles.  Likewise some of the ancient forms of wresting sound interesting, but we don’t know much about them.  And when you start looking into the details it turns out that they could be fairly different from a modern jujitsu class.  One particularly popular sport revolved around a human wrestler attacking and killing a declawed, defanged, bear or tiger.  This may have later evolved into something that resembled sport wrestling.

In short, this ancient school of “hand combat” likely started off as a sport like bear baiting, but played out with human gladiators rather than mastiff dogs.  Conceptually speaking this sort of behavior is actually closer to the rituals of the “royal hunt” than it is to the modern world of the martial arts.

The tale of the “Maiden of Yue” is more interesting as “she” left a detailed account of the use of the elements and other philosophical concepts in fencing.  Of course we have very little context for this account.  And the very fact that it was written down in the first place would seem to indicate that what she was doing was considered exceptional and strange (even if worthy of imitation).

On the other hand, the account actually does sound a lot like Ming era martial arts.  The mixing of philosophical concepts with practical techniques is certainly suggestive of what a lot if masters were aiming for.  Of course Ming era martial artists were very familiar with her story and may have taken it as a model for what a more integrated approach to self-cultivation and fighting should look like.

This gets us closer to the truth.  Unarmed boxing is, and has always been, a marginal activity.  There are a couple of reasons why you might need to do it.  It might be a form of entertainment, exercise, health insurance or self-defense—but even then it was usually paired with weapons training.  Given the massive historical disjoints we see in even the most critical institutions of Chinese life, I am not sure why we would necessarily expect that this one set of marginal skills to somehow enjoy an uninterrupted transmission since the Stone Age.

Hand Combat seems to be the sort of thing that was invented, lost, and then redeveloped when needed over the course of Chinese history.  Further, martial artists not only invent their techniques anew in each generation, they also created a “social constitution” that explained the purpose and origin of their arts.

Very often these narratives seek to create a sense of legitimacy and authenticity by establishing a long, unbroken, genealogical connection with the past.  Even Chinese language martial studies scholars have gotten in on the act as they seek to establish the importance of their academic field.  That’s fine.  I can imagine all sorts of cultural and economic reasons why a martial artist in China, Korea or Japan might claim a 5,000 year old heritage.  But I am not sure that we should actually structure our research questions around these claims.

This is fortunate for Shahar as it would appear that by the middle of the Ming dynasty almost no one in China was actually doing anything that resembled unarmed martial arts.  There were plenty of schools of combat, but they all seemed to involve spears, poles, swords, horses and most especially, bows.  Some sort of unarmed combat was likely integrated into these other disciplines.  Serious combat fencing, in both the west and east, almost always involves some understanding of kicking, wrestling and the ability to land a solid punch.  But it seems that very few individuals were promoting “unarmed combat” as separate discipline divorced from the rest of combat.

In China we get the first really strong literary evidence that things are changing, and that unarmed fighting was becoming something other than just brawling, in the mid-16th century.  By the 1580s there are a handful of authors, including General Qi Jiguang, who report being instructed in the unarmed martial arts and subsequently become advocates for the practice.

These socially important individuals were often taught by unlettered teachers.  Ergo we know that by the 1580 we were in the second or third generation of the repopularization of hand combat.  Further, these arts were rare enough, even to individual in the military, that authors were forced to describe in some detail what they were, and why you might do them.  Apparently there was nothing intuitive about general Qi’s suggestion that “unarmed combatives” might play an important role in basic military training.  So by end of the 16th century there had been a generation of authors capable of describing unarmed martial arts, but the reading public still needed to be educated.

According to the literary evidence provided by Shahar word spread quickly.  The popularity of the unarmed martial arts exploded between 1580 and 1640.  Cheng Zongyou reports that already by the 1580s some Shaolin monks were practicing boxing with the aim of ‘perfecting’ the unarmed arts, much as they had done with the pole.

Even though none of the arts being practiced at Shaolin were developed there, the name of the monastery would become indelibly linked to the region’s fighting styles in the following generation.  The popularity of the unarmed martial arts would continue to grow and blossom under the Qing in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Readers should pay special attention to Shahar’s discussion of two texts.  The oldest editions of these works are hand copied volumes from the Republic era, but literary evidence and expert opinion both indicate that they are authentic texts descended from a single manuscript and fighting tradition that likely originated at Shaolin in the closing decades of the Ming dynasty.

These works are the Hand Combat Classic and Xuanji Acupuncture Points.  Apparently their transmission originated with a Shaolin military monk named “Xuanji.”  His existence and some of the details of his career can actually be documented through archeological evidence recovered at Shaolin.  Not only was he a martial monk, but he was the “superintendent,” or head of the martial monk corps, in the 1630s.

The manuscripts in question were made by his civilian lay students, and were passed on by their students (all outside the monastery) until the manuscript tradition was divided, transmitted again, and ultimately ended up yielding two related, though slightly different, books.  These came to the attention of researchers and scholars in the 1920s and 1930s.  Together these two manuscripts provide a fascinating peek into the evolution of unarmed training at Shaolin prior to its 1644 destruction.  They also demonstrate how its arts survived within non-Buddhist lines of transmission up through the current era.

These texts are also interesting in that they are conceptually quite advanced.  Ideas like, “Yin and Yang,” “overcoming strength through softness” and a debate about the utility of long-range entry vs. short-boxing (“chang quan” vs. “duan quan”) are all present in these manuscripts.  In fact, that same debate still rages within the Chinese martial arts community today.  A number of the styles discussed in these manuals are actually still recognizable, including Druken, Lost-Track and Plum Blossom Boxing.

It is also interesting to note that contrary to popular belief, the creation of the Ming era hand combat systems was probably not a long slow evolutionary process taking hundreds of years.  Within a century (probably four generations) these arts went from practical non-existence to a level of technical and philosophical sophistication that is quite similar to what we see today.  This should not surprise us.  After all, Ueshiba’s invention of Aikido is a great case study on how even complicated and sophisticated martial arts can come together in a short period of time.  But for some reason we always seem to forget this fact when discussing the Chinese martial arts.

While primarily interested in hand combat, each of these texts also shows a pronounced fascination with Daoist medicine and relies heavily on ideas like “Qi,” “median line” and “acupuncture points” when discussing both health exercises and how to best execute an attack.  It should be remembered that these ideas are totally absent from the discussion of pole fighting that emerged from Shaolin in the 1580s.

Further, Shaolin was a Buddhist temple.  Still, within 50 years of the time that Cheng Zongyou wrote his account, these distinctly Daoist practices and medical ideas (some concerning basic healthcare, others related to the more spiritual quest for immortality) had been accepted at the Temple and were evidently being integrated into its unarmed combat training.  At any other time in Chinese history this would have been a very unexpected development.  Yet the late Ming was a period of enthusiastic syncretism and intellectuals were actively looking to identify similarities between Confucianism, Daoism and Buddhism.   Ming era boxing was affected by these intellectual currents.

Kennedy and Guo, along with Stanley Henning and other informed authors on the Chinese martial arts, have argued extensively that hand combat training and spirituality are two entirely different things.  They claim that modern western practitioners tend to demand a level of spirituality and mysticism from the Chinese arts that never really existed.  These persistent misconceptions tell us more about the New Age movement than they do the Chinese martial arts.

According to this school of thought the martial arts were primarily a job skill for working class individuals looking for employment.  Most Chinese people are not very religious in the western sense of the word.  Historically few knew much about formal Daoism and almost no one actually became a practicing Buddhists.  The usual figure that I see claims that less than 3% of the Chinese population was ever a practicing Daoist, Confucian or Buddhist.  Of course the number of people who worshiped at local heterodox temples or family shrines might have been much higher.

This line of argument seems to have originated with Tang Hao, the first really academically oriented student of martial arts history in China.  Tang wanted to see the Chinese martial arts rejuvenated and used as a source of strength to resist both external invader and internal enemies in the 1930s.  He despised anything that smacked of irrational superstition as in his view it devalued the martial arts as a “modern, scientific,” project.  According to Tang all mysticism and any talk of immortality or “Qi” was an advertising ploy invented by unscrupulous Republic era Sifus trying to take advantage of uneducated, backwards, consumers.

And most of the time Henning, Kennedy and Tang are exactly correct.  It turns out that a lot of fictional material about incredible feats of Qi was integrated into the martial arts in the Republic of China period.  Further, many (maybe most) 19th and 20th century martial artists were guys just looking for a steady job who would have been equally turned off by western or eastern New Agers.

For instance, when I look at the historical origins of Wing Chun, I see no evidence that this is actually a “Buddhist” art.  Most of the attempts to infuse it with deep Daoist meanings are simply implausible.  The sorts of Daoist ideas that are occasionally discovered in Wing Chun, like “Yin versus Yang,” or the “Five Elements” were so widely dispersed in the popular culture of the time that all one has really “discovered” is that Leung Jan and Ip Man were, in fact, Chinese.  Stories about Shaolin are a later advertising pitch tacked on to meet expectations and attract students.

It might be tempting to just pitch the entire discussion of spirituality in the Chinese martial arts altogether.  But that might not be a great idea.  To begin with, anthropologists who do actual ethnographies just keep discovering these connections and beliefs no matter what the historians think of them.  In the current era spirituality in these Chinese martial arts community is just a “fact on the ground” and one must deal with and try to understand it rather than wishing it away.

On the other hand, Shahar’s exploration of 17th and 18th century texts seems to indicate that this is not a new development.  The late Ming was a time of growing interest in religion, mysticism and syncretism in Chinese society as a whole.  You can see this in all sorts of other areas besides just the martial arts.  Further, this infusion of hand combat practices with philosophical discussions, as well as health and self-cultivation practices, seems to be what is responsible for their sudden success in the first place.  Both illiterate and educated individuals alike were part of these trends, and both of these groups contributed to the massive growth of popularity in the Chinese martial arts.

These tendencies were further developed during the mid-Qing when there was a renewed focus on self-cultivation and the relative peace of the era made hand combat training a luxury that individuals felt like they could afford.  Shahar also states that it was this intoxicating mixture of mysticism, philosophy, health and combat that drew the monks of Shaolin to the unarmed martial arts.  After all, what sort of self-respecting monk could possibly turn away from such a thing?

A different view of the same mural. Shaolin, 19th century. Original published source unknown.
A different view of the same mural. Shaolin, 19th century. Original published source unknown.

What is my motivation? Religion, Conflict and the Development of the Chinese Martial Arts.

I am going to skip a summary of Chapter 8, which deals with the Qing government’s relationship with Shaolin.  It is mostly a non-story told for the benefit of modern martial artists who may have seen one too many Kung Fu films.  Long story short, the Qing never destroyed the temple.  In fact, they rebuilt it.  As long as there was no evidence that the residents of Shaolin were totally ignoring monastic law or building an army of disaffected martial artists (and they were not), the monks were free to spend as much time on Kung Fun as they wanted.  The Qing state never seriously thought of Shaolin as a threat.  Instead they treated it like a national historic treasure.

This chapter does not sit well in the last section of the book and has little to do with hand combat.  I would have placed it with the basic history covered in chapter 1-2.  In fact, that is where I have already addressed most of this material.

Instead I am more interested in Shahar’s very short (three page) conclusion.  He seems to be aware that the last section of his book may have raised as many questions as it answered, and he attempts to address some of those issues here.  I would have loved to see him spend another 20 pages on this exercise.  In fact, his lack of resolution to some rather central question is my biggest objection to the second half of this book.

Why don’t we begin by giving the author the benefit of the doubt and assuming that the rise of hand combat was the result of increased syncretism in Chinese society?   I would have loved an explanation of these central trends that did not treat them as an external event, or an exogenous variable.

For instance, the late Ming saw a general collapse in the economic and internal security situation around the country.  There were peasant revolts, border incursions, failed harvests and the ever present plague of bandit armies.  The Ming state had never been very strong, but things got markedly worse after 1550.  It is not all that hard to see how this might increase Shaolin’s profile as a military academy.  That would even make logical sense.  But how is all of this related to the rise of hand combat and its various esoteric aspects?

This is a real puzzle.  The fact that hand combat became even more popular in the early Qing is easier to explain.  Most individuals accepted the new government within a single generation and it went out of its way to bring peace, stability and economic recovery to the people.  Training for constant warfare was no longer an issue in the 1680s the way it had been in the 1580s.  So it would have made perfect sense if this was when everyone decided to hang up their spears and switched to boxing.

But it did not happen exactly that way.  Boxing starts to gain popularity in the 1580s, precisely when there was the most need for Shaolin to act as a practical military academy.  The gentry should have been taking Cheng Zongyou’s advice and training peasant militias, not playing with Daoist medicine and boxing.

In fact, the world that Shahar describes in chapters 3-4 of his book does not look much like the world of chapters 5-6.  You would be forgiven for thinking that all of the material in 5-6 postdates the events of chapters 3-4.  Yet if you sit down and actually compare the time-lines of the chapters, we you will see that there is actually substantial overlap between sections 2 and 3 of this book.  We are actually talking about two different aspects of the same world here.  How these two very different movements within the martial arts of the late Ming related to each other remains a mystery.

Evidently there was a wider debate raging over the heart and soul of the Chinese martial arts that Cheng Zongyou only hints at.  This debate happened at Shaolin, and it happened in a lot of other schools and books.  In fact, I suspect that it is still happening on internet discussion boards and in scholarly articles today.

In that sense Shahar is not only correct but prophetic.  Most of the styles that people practice today are not quite as old as Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Drunken Boxing.  A lot of modern styles actually originate in the middle of the 19th century.  But they inhabit a world, and carry on a set of debates, that began in the Ming-Qing transition.

Children train at a Wushu based boarding school in Dengfeng, near the Shaolin Temple.
Children train at a Wushu based boarding school in Dengfeng, near the rebuilt and restored Shaolin Temple.  Source: Wikimedia.

Conclusion: Why Study the Emergence of the Unarmed Chinese Martial Arts.

This transition did not happen quite the way it is imagined by most martial artists today.  The Qing never burned Shaolin, and Shaolin was never a central player in the development of hand combat.  During the critical decades of 1550-1600 it was more fully invested in the military (pole fighting) vision of the martial arts.  Yet this is still a critical era to understand, and looking at Shaolin’s later involvement with the unarmed arts is a great way to do that.

When we study these resources we discover that the links between hand combat, religion and the idea of self-cultivation may be older than Tang Hao would lead us to expect.  These connections were present from the very genesis of the modern unarmed martial arts.  Rather than debating whether religion and philosophy are important to the Chinese arts, perhaps it is time to start asking some more specific question.

For instance, when, and under what circumstances has religion become an important factor in the development of the martial arts?  Why are some arts, like Wing  Chun, very practical and agnostic, while others, like Bagua, have apparently never seen an apocalyptic peasant uprising that they did not need feel a need to be part of?

Does this have to do with the structure of a martial art, its philosophical background, or is it something else entirely?  How are the correlations between hand combat and spirituality related to questions of geography and the economy?  Shahar cannot answer all of these questions.  No single book could.  Yet when our field can, not only will we better understand the martial arts, we will have a firmer grasp on Chinese history and society as a whole.