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Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (6): Ng Chung So – Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”

Gates of the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton. Source: Authors Personal Collection.
Gates of the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton. Source: Authors Personal Collection.

Note: this article originally appeared as a guest post at “Wing Chun Geeks.”

Ng Chung So: Looking Beyond the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun”

The origins of Wing Chun are shrouded in mystery.  We seem to like it that way.  It is the reason that people are drawn to them.  Who can resist the urge to throw back the curtains and reveal a hidden past?  The impulse to plumb the depths of history is all the greater when our current discourse privileges questions of “authenticity,” “lineage” and “tradition.”  For many modern practitioners Wing Chun is an extraordinary treasure, so it just makes sense to assume that it must have emerged from an equally extraordinary set of circumstances.  We try hard to attach it to mythic temples, poorly understood rebel movements and operatic culture heroes.ng chung so

Paradoxically this same enthusiasm does not extend to the more recent periods of history.  In the late 19th century Wing Chun was an obscure local style practiced by a handful of individuals.  By the 1930s it had become a more popular regional style taught in a variety of settings, including public schools and private clubs, by a number of individuals along the Pearl River Delta.

Who were these teachers and how did Wing Chun really emerge as a public art?  What was the martial arts marketplace of Foshan actually like in the 1920s and 1930s and what role did Wing Chun play in this unique local subculture?  How can researching the modern history of the Chinese martial arts help us to better understand the development of “civil society” in southern China during the early 20th century?  In my humble opinion, these are actually the much more interesting historical questions.

While one loses the opportunity to discuss the various creation myths, and the supporting theories that have grown up around them, we gain access to some actual historical sources.  This information allows us to paint an accurate picture of the milieu that modern Wing Chun arose from.  That in turn may reveal something about the fundamental nature of the art that so many of us practice today.

It is also critical to remember that what Ip Man was doing in Hong Kong in the 1950s was in large part a response to the perceived successes and failures of what he had seen in Foshan during the 1920s and 1930s.  If you wish to understand contemporary Wing Chun the most important thing to study is not its ultimate origins, but rather the modern historical environment that these approaches emerged out of and reacted against.

When thinking of Wing Chun during the 1910s, 1920s and 1930s, one name stands out from the rest.  Ng Chung So was probably the single most influential public figure in Wing Chun from the time of Chan Wah Shun’s retirement until the advent of Ip Man’s public teaching career in Hong Kong.  For much of the 1910s and 1920s Ng Chung So was the only figure actively teaching in Foshan.

Shrine to Guanyin at the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Source: Wikimedia.
Shrine to Guanyin at the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Source: Wikimedia.

  More than that, he was very much the public face of the art.  Ng Chung So trained an entire generation of Sifus who would go on to advance the art in the 1930s.  He provided a central location where Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi (later styled the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” by local newspaper writers) could meet, relax and practice with other students whom Ng had trained.

The social disruption that befell Guangdong’s martial arts community with the Japanese invasion in 1938, the Communist take-over in 1949 and the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s left Ng without a large lineage of direct students.  Most Wing Chun practitioners today look back to either Ip Man or Yuen Kay San as the founders of their school.  As a result, Ng Chung So is rarely remembered in historical discussions.  When he does come up he is often relegated to the status of a supporting character of no particular interest.  Not only is this inaccurate, it diminishes the history of the style in some fundamental ways.

In subsequent posts I hope to shed light on some of the other neglected Wing Chun figures of the 1920s and 1930s.  Yet before that we must set the stage by discussing the life and career of Ng Chung So.  We will also need to know a little bit about where he (and the early Wing Chun students) fit into Foshan’s larger marketplace for hand combat instruction.

 

Foshan’s Martial Arts during the 1920s

Foshan had been one of the richest and most commercially successful towns in all of China early in the 19th century.  It was blessed by a confluence of geographic factors.  It was situated on multiple branches of the Pearl River making it a natural point for manufacturing and shipping.  The town had vibrant markets in a number of products and produced most of the handicraft goods consumed by the larger city of Guangzhou.  Close proximity to iron deposits also made Foshan a center for metal work.  In fact, it held the imperial iron monopoly, ensuring that merchants from across the region would have to travel to Foshan multiple times a year to buy its products.  The local economy also benefited from a number of other industries including sericulture, pottery and papermaking.

Unfortunately things changed later in the 19th and early 20th century.  Multiple local waterways silted up making the region less convenient for trade.  The opening of new port cities along the eastern coast of China resulted in Guangzhou losing its monopoly on foreign trade.  This depressed economic growth in the provincial capital and hurt employment across the region.

Increased trade with Hong Kong helped to sustain the region, but by the 1920s Foshan was a sleepier place.  The economy was still dominated by handicrafts and what we might now call “light industrial manufacturing.”  In the countryside complex systems of agricultural landownership contributed to the growth of a wealthy class of landlords.  As a result, Foshan’s contained both prosperous “new gentry” families, who tended to be merchants, as well as a variety of semi-skilled workers who lived substantially different lives.

This emerging pattern of class stratification was replicated in the martial arts of the region.  The most popular martial art practiced in Foshan was Choy Li Fut.  The Hung Sing Association was one of the oldest and best established Choy Li Fut schools in the region.  Its many branches and Lion Dance associations boasted thousands of members.  Most of the students of this style came from the large class of semi-skilled workers that drove the local economy.  The Hung Sing Association was big enough that it even became an important force in local politics, until it was suppressed in the anti-leftist campaigns of the Nationalist Party in 1927.

The next largest institutionalized player in the local martial arts landscape was the Foshan branch of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association.  While the arts it taught were transplanted from northern China, the Jingwu Association really took root and bore fruit in the south.  This organization fell apart in most areas of the country after a series of bad investments in the 1920s, yet it continued to thrive and grow in Foshan and Guangzhou throughout the 1930s.

Unlike the Hung Sing Association, Jingwu concentrated on recruiting educated, middle class individuals who had a modern outlook on life.  It presented a modernized and sanitized vision of the traditional arts where old superstitions were done away with and the latest scientific training methods were adopted to promote the strength and salvation of the nation.  The Jingwu Association was very well connected to the local merchants and the commercial sector, but it tried to stay out of national politics.

These were the two big players that dominated the local landscape in Foshan during the 1920s.  Where they had thousands of students, other styles and associations claimed hundreds, or perhaps only dozens, of followers.  Smaller local players tended to include the more “traditional” southern arts such as White Crane, Hung Gar, the family styles and of course Wing Chun.

This is a critical point.  When thinking about the entire marketplace of martial arts in Foshan during the 1920s, we must remember that Wing Chun was just a minor style among many other (usually much larger) associations.  The challenge facing Ng Chung So, Chan Yiu Min and other early practitioners of the art was to carve out a social space in which Wing Chun could thrive. To do so they had to both demonstrate the art, but also make alliances with economically and politically connected actors in the local environment.

 
The Legacy of Chan Wah Shun

Chan Wah Shun, a student of Leung Jan, was the first individual to attempt to open a public school (“public” in the sense that instruction was open to students primarily based on their ability to pay tuition).  His experiment was only a partial success.  He had the misfortune to find himself teaching at the turn of the century and in the years directly following the upheaval caused by the Boxer Uprising.  These were dark times for the traditional Chinese martial arts, which were explicitly blamed and held accountable for the disastrous events of 1900-1901.  The truth is that the traditional hand combat systems came closer to extinction in these years than at any other time during the modern era.

Needless to say, the audience for Chan Wah Shun’s art was not as large as it might have been had he opened his school a generation earlier or even as late as the 1920s, when boxing started to regain its popularity.  His high tuition rates probably did not help matters.

Still, it is important to note that in the late 19th century most people who studied the martial arts did so because they hoped to find employment as a soldier, night watchman or some type of guard.  People from rural regions tended to study boxing either as a means of personal advancement, or because they were involved in a local militia or crop watching society.  The idea that the martial arts could be a part-time hobby for middle class individuals was just barely starting to take root in the early years of the 20th century.

While Chan Wah Shun’s tuition seems outrageous from a modern perspective, it was really more comparable to paying for an associates degree or some sort of accreditation program that would help you to get a job in the future.  Between the general funk that all of the martial arts were experiencing at the turn of the century, and the high cost of instruction, it is not surprising that Chan Wah Shun is said to have only had about 16 students.  While he succeeded in making the art “public” (to those who could afford it) Wing Chun had yet to gain the backing of an independent and thriving body of students.

Chan Wah Shun did more for Wing Chun than to simply train a small core of apprentices.  He went out into the community and interacted with other martial artists.  Over the years he gained a reputation as a talented fighter and a competent master.  He personally earned respect for the Wing Chun system in the local area.  The reputation that he built turned out to be important because it helped to advance the careers of a number of his students.  Other Wing Chun players from his generation, such as Leung Bik, tended to be more circumspect and were not as eager to put themselves out in the marketplace as public figures.  In commercial terms this probably granted a certain advantage to Chan Wah Shun’s students.

Chan Wah Shun’s most successful student, and the one that assumed this public role, was Ng Chung So.  Chan Yiu Min, the son of Chan Wah Shun, inherited his father’s medical knowledge and went on to open at least two martial arts schools of his own.  He is an important figure in his own right, but an exploration of his career will have to wait for another post.  Ng Chung So was really the first of Chan’s students to emerge as a successful public teacher.  He became the public face of Wing Chun in Foshan in the nineteen-teens and twenties.

Ironically much of Ng Chung So’s basic biographical data is poorly understood.  The Ip family generally states that he was born sometime in the 1860s and died in the 1930s.  An alternate tradition preserved by Yiu Choi’s descendants claim that he was not quite that old.  They guess that he was born in the 1880s and may have lived up through the 1950s.  If Ng Chung So did die during the 1950s then it should be possible to sort this out with the help of local documents and other primary source materials.  I am not aware of anyone having tackled this question yet.

Fortunately we do have some good details about other aspects of his early life.  Ng Chung So was born into a fairly well off family that was connected to Foshan’s handicraft industries.  His father was the owner of a prosperous ceramics shop.  Rich deposits of local clay made Foshan a natural center for the ceramics industry.  In fact, pottery is still produced in some quantity in the region today.  As a young adult Ng Chung Sok would start his career in the same industry.

His father was on friendly terms with Chan Wah Shun (who at the time was likely practicing traditional medicine).  When Chan Wah Shun started to teach, he immediately enrolled his two sons Ng Siu Lo (the older brother, and Chan’s first disciple) and Ng Chung So (the second son, and Chan’s second disciple).  Multiple sources indicate that in the earliest phase of his career Chan actually taught the boys in their own home.

This practice was not all that uncommon.  Occasionally wealthy individuals might hire boxing instructors for their sons either as a source of exercise if they seemed sickly, as a form of diversion, or to prepare them to take the military service exam as an adult.  Home-schooling such students was a common practice for a number of reasons.  There were not all that many suitable commercial or public spaces in southern China, especially if one lived in an urban area.  Occasionally temples were rented by martial artists, but for wealthier individuals it was more common to either support an instructor as part of their household, or to at least have the instruction carried out within their own walls.wing chun in foshan

According to the Ip family tradition, Chan Wah Shun was unable to publically teach while Leung Jan was still active in the area.  The older master had no desire to teach and so his student was constrained by social convention not to.  Leung Jan may have retired around 1895.  All martial arts instruction in the region was disrupted by the Boxer Uprising (1900), and was specifically prohibited by the local government for a few years after that.  Local officials in Guangzhou feared that copy-cat attacks on British merchants and tourists would be used as a pretext for the British Navy in Hong Kong to seize the entire Pear River system, so they enforced this ban quite rigorously.

It seems reasonable to guess that Ng Chung So received his initial period of instruction between 1895 and 1900.  Of course these dates are just approximations, and are very dependent on which family history you accept.  They should be approached with some caution.

By about 1905 a sense of normalcy was restored and multiple martial arts institutions (including the Hung Sing Association) reopened their doors in and around Foshan.  It was at this point that Chan Wah Shun approached Ip Oi Dor about renting the Ip clan temple for use as a school space.  This was where Ip Man would first become aware of Wing Chun and would later become a student of Chan Wah Shun himself.

It seems that both of the Ng brothers resumed training with Chan Wah Shun after he reestablished his school in its new location.  Nevertheless, it would appear that it was the second son who was either the more dedicated or successful student.  As his teacher’s health began to deteriorate towards the end of the Foshan phase of his career, Ng Chung So handled more of the class instruction.  He was responsible for teaching the younger disciples, including Ip Man, much of the system.  When he finally retired (apparently after having had a stroke) Chan Wah Shun entrusted the continuing education and care of his youngest disciples to Ng Chung So.  At that moment the informal leadership of the public aspect of Wing Chun in Foshan passed into his hands.

 

Ng Chung So: The Forgotten Face of Wing Chun

It is commonly asserted that Ng Chung So was the only individual (or possibly one of a very small number) to teach Wing Chun in Foshan for some years after the death of Chan Wah Shun.  It appears that Ip Man continued to study with him until 1908 when he left to attend high school in Hong Kong.  Ip Chun reports that upon his return Ip Man discovered that Ng Chung So was one of the few disciples of Chan who was still active and the only one who was publically teaching.

We do not know very much about this early period of instruction.  Ng Chung So apparently followed the family business and had a ceramics store of his own as a young man.  Perhaps that gave him the monetary and spatial resources he needed to finance his interest in Wing Chun and continue to teach the art?

We have more information about the later phase of his teaching career in the 1930s.  Unfortunately it can be difficult to parse fact from rumor when discussing these years.  Leung Ting claims that from about the mid-1930s onward Ng Chung So taught out of the backroom of an opium and gambling den located on Shi Lu Tau Street (“Entrance to the Rocky Road”) in Foshan.

This establishment may either have been a joint venture between Ng Chung So and Yiu Choi (his student), or it might have actually been owned by the latter’s elder brother, Yiu Lam (also known as “Bird-fancier Lam”).  Again, one must be careful with accounts like this.  The liberal use of opium fits into many romantic reconstructions of life in China during the 1920s and 1930s.

Of course by the middle to late 1930s morphine and heroine were causing much more serious drug problems.  Leung Ting dismisses the social relevance of the rumor that he himself passes on by noting that in the 1930s opium use was legal, and so this was not a big deal.

Of course the situation, if true, would be much more complicated than that.  Opium was legal in some respects, but only if it came from certain sources and its distribution, use and the treatment of addicts were all nominally controlled by the state.  The Nationalist Party leadership made deals with certain gangs granting them the right to distribute certain quantities of narcotics in return for set fees.  Of course it was not uncommon for various criminal organizations and the state to violently clash over these agreements.  The questions of legality notwithstanding, there were strong social prohibitions against the use of opium.  Anti-opium leagues were vocal in the south, and the Nationalist army in Guangzhou had even executed a number of soldiers for opium use.

The social significance of drug use, or an association with the drug trade, was very much dependent on what sort of patronage networks you happened to be part of.  At the very minimum, if Ng Chung So was operating out of a known opium den in the 1930s it might indicate that he was connected to important local political factions who benefited from this trade.  In fact, the Wing Chun community of the 1930s and 1940s had a number of connections with local Nationalist Party (GMD) officials, but that is a topic for another post.

Despite his surroundings, or perhaps because of them, Ng Chung So was successful in attracting a number of students.  Following the pattern established by Chan Wah Shun tuition was high and most of his followers came from well-off merchant families. Among his best known students we find He Zhao Chu (the son of a wealthy bakery owner), Li Shou Peng (a prominent local doctor), Zhang Sheng Ruo (son of a wealthy wing chun historyhardware store owner), Li Ci Hao, Luo Huo Fu (owner of a successful restaurant) and Liang Fu Chu (treasurer of the Ping Xin Restaurant).  Additionally, the so called “Three Heroes of Wing Chun,” Yuen Kay San, Yiu Choi and Ip Man, all either associated with, or studied at, Ng Chung So’s school.

It is now possible to say something about the socio-economic profile of Wing Chun and its place in Foshan’s martial arts community.  Ng Chung So was in direct competition with the Jingwoo Association for young, modern, educated students.  However, where Jingwu promised modernized, scientifically reformed, boxing subordinated to the goal of “national salvation,” Wing Chun remained a firmly traditional and local style.  It existed alongside local power structures and its goals were parochial rather than national in scope.  In fact, this tension between localism and nationalism, or regional versus national control, was one of the defining social cleavages of the entire Republic of China era.  Foshan’s martial arts history is interesting precisely because it throws these larger struggles into such sharp relief.

Like Ip Man, Ng Chung So also suffered financial setbacks in the 1930.  Local lore related by multiple sources indicates that Ng was not an effective money manager.  Reportedly he squandered his fortune feasting and drinking with his friends and Kung Fu brothers.

Again, it is hard to know exactly what to make of these accounts.   Chinese folklore is full of stories of wandering swordsmen who disregard wealth but value loyalty and hospitality above any other virtue.  This creates a two-fold problem.  Actual martial artists apparently felt some pressure to live up to the norms of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  In some cases this may have contributed to their eventual impoverishment.

Still, almost all of these accounts come from the students and friends of a given master after they have passed on.  The stories that these students tell are always so similar in their basic structure that one suspects that these norms may have also been affecting how a teacher was remembered, quite apart from his actual personality.  In short, the image of the spendthrift swordsman is a common stereotype in martial arts hagiography.

Of course there are also a number of other reasons that a formerly wealthy individual might lose a lot of money during the 1930s.  The great depression affected China as well as the rest of the world, and many previously promising investments failed.  The local economy was stagnant during much of this period, and the government instituted a variety of extraordinary tax programs to pay for it its military expenditures.  At least some of these taxes more or less took the form of wealth confiscation.   In this sort of economic environment, hunkering down and consuming your capital rather than investing it is not an irrational strategy.  We should at least remember these background factors when considering Ng Chung So’s financial difficulties.

Money problems aside, Ng’s efforts to promote and strengthen Wing Chun were a success.  During the 1920s and 1930s he personally trained many of the Wing Chun Sifu’s that would go on to prominence in the local community.  These same students were also able to provide some level of financial support to their teacher as his economic situation deteriorated.  Ng retired from public instruction sometime in the 1940s (possibly during the Second World War) and moved in with Yiu Choi who continued to support him as a “private tutor.”

 

Conclusion: Ng Chung So’s Place in the Wing Chun Community

As the popularity of Wing Chun has exploded, both after Bruce Lee’s death and the latest spate of Ip Man movies, there have been numerous attempts to paint one individual or another as the “leader” of Foshan’s Wing Chun clan, and the true “inheritor” of the system.  Many of these arguments are transparently political, placing one lineage against another, and more recently, martial artists on the mainland against those in Hong Kong.  Unfortunately most of these accounts promote a partial or unrealistic vision of the martial arts in Foshan.  That is a problem, because Foshan actually has much to teach us about how the Southern Chinese martial arts developed and interacted with the broader social community.

In actual practice, Wing Chun does not appear to have had specific “inheritors” and “leaders.” Yet if it did, the “leader” of the Wing Chun clan during these years would have been Ng Chung So.  While Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi are remembered as the “Three Heroes of Wing Chun” for their remarkable fighting prowess, it was actually Ng Chung So who built the schools, trained the students and kept the public face of the art alive.

This is critical because at the end of the day the martial arts are a voluntary social systems. They require regular investments of both human and social capital if they are to thrive.  Ng Chung So appears to have understood this, and so he continued the work that Chan Wah Shun had started.

Unfortunately the social structures that underpinned the entire martial arts community of Foshan were badly damaged by the events of 1949 and later the Cultural Revolution.  Ng Chung So’s students seem to have been hard hit.  By in large, they did not return to the art.  His memory does not enjoy the active support and promotion of any major lineage today.

Further, each lineage has a very understandable tendency to rewriting history in its own image.  As a result the real contributions of Ng Chung So to the Wing Chun community are largely forgotten.  He is rarely mentioned in current discussions and when he comes up he tends to be cast as a strictly supporting or subordinate figure.  Yet that is not how he was perceived at the time.  Coming to terms with Ng Chung So’s contributions and legacy is a necessary first step in exploring other forgotten aspects of the Wing Chun community during the 1920s-1940s.

foshan temple
Turtles swimming in the rain at the Foshan Ancestral Temple. Turtles are symbolically associated with the Northern Warrior (the titular diety of the sanctuary) who is often shown as a snake wrapped around a turtle. Photo Credit: Whitney Clayton. Source: Authors Personal Collection.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (4): Sun Lutang’s Unified Theory of the Chinese Martial Arts: Daoist Spirituality, Health and Boxing (Part III)

Longsheng county, Guilin, China. Source: Wikimedia.
Longsheng county, Guilin, China. Source: Wikimedia.

Sun Lutang and the Field of Chinese Martial Studies

This post is the third and final installment of our three part review of the life and contributions of Sun Lutang.  Sun was a master of Xingyi, Bagua and Taiji boxing from Hebei Province who had an important impact on the development of the Chinese Martial Arts during the Republic period.  This was a critical moment in the reform and modernization of traditional hand combat.  Much of what we currently think of as the “traditional” Chinese martial arts first emerged between 1910 and 1938.

The first part of this series provides a basic overview of the life of Sun Lutang.  The second post revisits some of these points and illustrates the various ways in which Sun’s career helps us to understand the emergence of modern public schools and larger, multi-style, martial arts federations in the first two decades of the 20th century.

I suspect that a detailed and comprehensive study of Sun’s life would require a fair sized book.  In this, the final post, I have been forced to focus on just a few key points that are particularly salient to the field of Chinese martial studies.  As such, I concentrate on the origin and afterlife of his beliefs about Daoism and their impact on the Chinese martial arts.

I have chosen this research question for two reasons.  First off, it is directly relevant to a major debate in the field of Chinese martial studies today.  Anthropologists and those interested in China’s religious history keep discovering connections between spirituality and boxing.  Sometimes these are mediated by structures like theater, folk religion, exorcism or other rituals, but often they are not.  One suspects that the same sorts of people who are likely to be an active member in a local temple group are also the same sorts of people who might find boxing an appealing way to spend an afternoon.

Anthropologists who have written on these subjects include Daniel M. Amos and Ma Kai Sun.  “Spirit Boxing in Hong Kong: Two Observers, Native and Foreign” in Journal of Asian Martial Arts.  Vol. 8 No. 4 (1999): 32 pages; Bortez.  Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters.  University of Hawaii Press 2011; Adam D. Frank. Taijiquan and the Search for the Little Old Chinese Man: Understanding Identity through Martial Arts. Palgrave. 2006.

Arrayed against these ethnographers are a group of historians who have examined the same issue and come to a very different conclusion.  In their view observers who see deep substantial links between the Chinese martial arts and either Daoism or Buddhism are mistaken.  Occasionally what western observers mistake for Daosit philosophy is really just some widely spread element of Chinese culture which has become an almost universal metaphor.  The use of the “Five Elements” as a classification or mnemonic device in a number of arts might fall into that category.

Alternatively it is possible for two things (such as boxing and heterodox religious beliefs) to exist in the same community without one being built on the foundation of the other.  This is an important point to remember when discussing late Qing popular and millennial uprising.  Just because a local White Lotus group offered boxing instruction to attract members, we cannot immediately assume that the style they taught was deeply theoretically linked to White Lotus theology.

Lastly, it has been claimed that some activities that look military in nature (such as temple processions and martial exorcism) are in fact not so when examined on a deep level.  Yes many temples in Taiwan have a working relationship with a local martial arts school that helps out at festivals, but there are also many who do not, and instead rely on other sorts of social organization.

These historians see the relationship between the traditional Chinese martial arts and religion as being a late innovation.  In their view this association dates back to the early Republic of China period, and specifically to the innovative writings of Sun Lutang.  While they are aware of the mix of health, Daoist Qigong and boxing that emerged in the late Ming (see Shahar 2008) they view this as a minor trend with little substantive impact on the actual state of hand combat by the end of the Qing period.  Further, their position on these issues has come to dominate scholarly discussions of martial history.

Perhaps the most important writer in this school is Stanley Henning, who needs to be read and considered carefully by anyone interested in this topic.  Kennedy and Guo (Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals.  Blue Snake. 2005) have also made an important contribution to this growing consensus.  Douglas Wiles, one of the founders of the western branch of Chinese martial studies, has paradoxically argued that there is no indication whatsoever of religious Daoism in any pre-20th century Taiji text, yet this internal art remains a good way to learn about the importance of ritual in traditional Chinese life (“Taijiquan and Daoism: From Religion to Martial Art and Martial Art to Religion.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts 16 (4). 2007. pp. 3-45).

Kai Filipiak (“Academic Research into the Chinese Martial Arts: Problems and Perspectives.”  In Michael DeMarco (ed.) Asian Martial Arts: Constructive Thoughts & Practical Applications. Santa Fe, NM: Via Media. 2012. pp. 24-28) has recently taken a middle road on the issue of spirituality in the martial arts.  He remains interested in a number of projects, such as expanding our understanding of the nature of monastic violence (outside of Shaolin) in medieval China, yet he has expressed deep reservations about many attempts to link hand combat and Daoism.  While he concedes that there are multiple connections between qigong and the martial arts, he points out that it is unclear at what point these connections were first made, or even where the various martial arts borrowed their practices and theories of Qi from.

Sun Lutang is a central figure in all of this.  In fact, his theoretical legacy is actually probably more important than his martial one (some factions in the Chinese martial arts community have distrusted him for a variety of reasons).  If we can better understand why Sun believed that there was a connection between Daoism and the martial arts, we might be able to bring some clarity to a major issue in the field of Chinese martial studies.

Additionally, Sun’s beliefs about Daoism and its centrality to personal cultivation touched on a number of other aspects of his life and career.  One cannot understand his theories of health, and why the martial arts should be connected to health and Qi cultivation, without first examining his basic philosophical beliefs.  Likewise, his books were designed to introduce his readers to both Daoism and the martial arts, and they did so from a very specific perspective.  Hopefully we can make headway on a number of different aspects of his legacy by exploring the philosophical and spiritual questions first.

Great Wall of China near Jinshanling. Source: Wikimedia.
Great Wall of China near Jinshanling. Source: Wikimedia.

“Martial arts are not only for fighting, these principles are very deep.”

One might suspect that these lines ultimately originated with Sun Lutang.  Instead he attributed them to his first teacher, surnamed Wu, who introduced him to a variety of forms and skills associated with the Northern Shaolin tradition while he was employed as a servant by a wealthy landlord.  Of course these are exactly the sorts of things that any sensible martial arts teacher would say when approached by a child who flatly states that he wishes to learn the martial arts to extract a little justice from the richest and most powerful family in the area.

One can only imagine what the first meeting between the older, slightly incredulous, Wu and the young, desperately serious, Sun was actually like.  But what did Wu really believe about the martial arts?  Did he think there was something more to them than boxing?

One suspects that whatever else he accomplished, Wu must have spent quite a bit of time telling Sun stories of his youthful exploits on the “Rivers and Lakes” of China.  Sun only studied with Wu for about two years before his living situation fell apart, but Wu left a deep impression on Sun who was able to provide his own students with a surprisingly detailed account of his first village master.

Wu lived a long and eventful life.  Like Sun he became enamored with the martial arts at a young age.  After a particularly violent episode involving local bandits he was forced to flee his home village and the authorities.  Like so many other rural martial artists he scraped together a living wandering from place to place, performing martial feats in the markets and, when that failed, begging.

Wu related to Sun that during this period he attempted to intervene in a conflict that he came across and (as one might guess) found himself quickly outmatched and badly beaten.  Things may have turned out quite badly for him except for the intervention of a martial monk.  Wu claims that he then studied martial arts at the Shaolin temple for two years where he learned Tan Tui, 64 Hands Free Fighting, 72 Qin Na and some type of Qigong.

At some point after leaving the Temple Wu became involved in the Taiping Rebellion, fighting (once again on the losing side) against the Qing.  After years of military life Wu drifted back into the civilian realm and resumed his wandering and marketplace performances.  When Sun first encountered him he was about 70 years old, living somewhere outside of Baoding, and teaching martial arts to groups of local villagers at an outdoor “boxing ground” (probably of the type described by Esherick as being popular during that period).

Normally when I run across these sorts of accounts I simply dismiss them.  Usually accounts of meeting mysterious monks or fighting for “noble rebellions” are self-serving and unreliable.  In this case things are a little more difficult.  Wu’s accounts do not include the creation of a mysterious new style, or anything else that would be marketable. The entire area was a hotbed of sedition during the first half of the 19th century, particularly in poorer regions where the gentry’s ability to organize and discipline society was weak.

Further, the Shaolin Temple is actually not all that far away (particularly if one has decided that he needs to get out of Hebei).  Lastly, Sun himself must be considered a very reliable source.  He did not embellish his accounts of Wu or leave out embarrassing details (such as the spectacular failure of his various “rescue” attempts).  The skills that he attributes to his teacher are all pretty reasonable and widespread in the area.  Further, Sun himself undertook to the journey to at least two sacred mountains (Emei and Wudang), so it seems reasonable that he would have been able to discount an account that did not hold up.

Nor is it necessary that Wu ever studied at the Temple proper.  He never claimed to be a disciple of the Shaolin order.  We know that there were a number of subsidiary shrines in the region that attracted a large population of civilian martial artists, much to the chagrin of the local government.  And there were a number of lay Shaolin masters in the area.  In short, in the case of Wu it is hard to be totally dismissive of his account.

In addition to the normal assortment of boxing skills and forms Wu seems to have known at least three types of Qigong.  The first set of skills included “Lightness Qigong” focused, in the most mundane terms, on speed and footwork.  Stepping drills on plum blossom poles, climbing and running up walls were all part of this skillset.  Occasionally other practices might be integrated into it, including the ingestion of the ashes of magical spells written on strips of paper or breathing exercises.

Wu also taught Sun “Virgin Boy” Qigong, a set still used at Shaolin today.  This routine has no martial applications and requires extreme flexibility.  It is usually only introduced to children and one must practice it continually to be able to perform its postures in adulthood.  Lastly it would appear that there may have been some additional Qigong skill that Wu learned that he did not pass on Sun.

Wu is a fascinating figure in Sun’s early life.  Indeed, one of the interesting things about studying Sun’s life is that he introduces us to a number of such figures who might otherwise be overlooked and forgotten.  There is certainly a practical aspect to many of the skills that Wu taught Sun.  The performance of Virgin Boy Qigong is a good way to attract customers and make money in market places.  Likewise, the manipulation of hidden weapons (another skill the older martial artists introduced to Sun) is also a valuable skill in largely hostile urban environments.

Yet there was clearly a less practical side to Wu’s nature.  Both his flirtation with Shaolin and his later involvement with the Taiping rebellion suggest that he may have been open to a connection between boxing and greater spiritual or social aims.  This is really just a hunch on my part, but I suspect that already in his first few years of instruction Sun may have been introduced to the idea that there was some profound principal that lay behind boxing, and that Qigong was a means of discovering it.

Tourists visit The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. April,2010. Source: Wikimedia.
Tourists visit The Hall of Prayer for Good Harvest at the Temple of Heaven in Beijing. April,2010. Source: Wikimedia.

Setting the Stage in Baoding and Beijing

The next aspect of Sun’s martial education took place in Baoding when Sun began to study with Li.  Li took the young man’s martial arts instruction in a different direction, introducing him to a new style, Xingyi Quan.  It is tempting to see the mark of Daoist thought all over Xingyi.  However, many of the most immediate parallels, such as the “five elements,” seem to be employed as metaphors and mnemonic devices rather than deep theoretical structures.  Nor do we have any evidence suggesting that Li may have had philosophical aspirations.

There is a good possibility that if Sun learned anything about Chinese philosophy during this period it would have been either from his uncle or Zhang, his future father-in-law.  Both individuals were men of letters and Zhang was a member of the local gentry.

Sun had a few years of formal education between the ages of 7-9.  This mostly consisted of the rote memorization of basic Confucian texts.  While working at his uncle’s shop Sun practiced his calligraphy and developed some measure of skill.  Impressed with his progress Zhang invited the boy to his home where he sponsored his study of calligraphy.  It was actually through Zhang that Sun was eventually introduced to Li.

It seems likely that if one is being tutored in calligraphy in a gentry household, discussions of literature, poetry or philosophy must come up.  Without them there is simply nothing to write.  Nor is it likely that these subjects received much coverage during his brief primary education.

I think that is safe to assume the real roots of Sun Lutang’s education and literary skills lay with Zhang.  It is also very interesting to note that Sun’s literary skills were being honed at the same time that he was being introduced to Xingyi Quan.  These two vast bodies of knowledge were coming from the hands of critical mentors, both of whom were friends and associates.  One would have to be an extremely dull student not to notice the cultural allusions in Xingyi Quan and not ask some questions about where these things came from and what their broader meaning was.

Living in a more comfortable literary environment Sun would have been free to ask these questions, and he was surrounded by supportive adults who may have even had something to say on the subject.  Still, it is interesting to note a few things that are missing here.  I see no evidence in the basic biographical sketch of Sun actively preparing to take the military service exam, as one might expect of a young martial artist with talent and some actual literary aspirations.  Some sources (Tong Xudong “Sun Lutang and his Contributions to Chinese Martial Arts” in Journal of Chinese Martial Studies. 2012 (Winter). Issue 6. pp. 42-55.) claim that in fact he took and passed the provincial xiucai exam at the remarkably young age of 12.  However, other important accounts, including the testimony of his daughter, say nothing about this.  I suspect that in the final analysis Sun did not see the official exam system, whether military or civil, as much of a plan for the future.

I also note that while Sun now had the literary and martial skills to pursue a more elite model of boxing, focusing on health, self-cultivation and Qigong (the sort of thing that had emerged as popular among a small subset of wealthy martial artists in the late Ming and early Qing) he either did not know of, or had no interest in this prior movement.  Unless he was exceptionally lucky, or Zhang was prodigiously well read, there is no reason to think that he would necessarily have run into any of these rare older texts.

Of course some things would have been more accessible than others.  The I-Ching (Yi Jing in Pinyin) certainly would have been present in his local environment, and this work would later have a profound effect on his career as a mature martial artist.  Further, certain military or strategic classics may have been available to Sun as a teenager.  Sun Tzu’s was commonly read and even memorized by individuals hoping to take the military service exam.

It is not hard to see the evidence of a certain sort of Daoist philosophy in the Art of War.  Stanley Henning has suggested that the wide distribution of Sun Tzu’s text might have been the avenue for the introduction of a certain informal Daoist school of thought into the Chinese martial arts.  While not a formal or rigorous theory of the martial arts, perhaps one could think of this as the acquisition of “Daoism by osmosis.”  Presumably the dosage would be higher for an impressionable youth capable of reading such a text on its own terms.

Still, the overwhelming impression that one gets is that during both the Baoding and early Beijing periods Sun’s interests in boxing lay mostly in the acquisition of technical excellence and fighting prowess.  At this point his biography does not differ all that greatly from any other country boxer (with the notable exception of his social and educational circumstances).

Things change radically following the end of his formal study of Xingyi Quan.  Li referred Sun to his own teacher in Beijing, Guo, with whom he practiced with for about eight years.  Guo then referred Sun to his friend and fellow martial arts teacher, Cheng Ting Hua, a second generation Bagua master.  Cheng had received his Bagua from Dong Hai Chuan.  While Dong claimed to have learned his style from a mysterious wandering holy man, most modern martial arts historians credit him with the creation of the style.

Cheng had a fearsome fighting reputation and that alone probably would have been sufficient to attract Sun.  Yet it is interesting to note that Sun was no longer a young man when he first took up Bagua.  Depending how you date his birth, he was already in his late 20s or possibly 30.  Being a professional martial artist at the turn of the century was a strenuous affair.  Injuries accumulated and medical care was not great anywhere in the world.  Even today a fighter or professional athlete would be considered past their prime at 30.  The same was basically true for martial artists in China (the myth of amazing qi powers not withstanding).

This was clearly the time to settle down and start a business, either a guard company or a school.  Sun was engaged, he had some prospects in life, and yet something seemed to be driving him onward.  With Cheng, his quest was refracted in a slightly different direction.

Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China. Source: Wikimedia.
Giant Buddha Statue of Leshan, Sichuan, China. Source: Wikimedia.

Sun Discovers the Daoist Roots of Bagua

Cheng was impressed with Sun and agreed to teach him.  The two studied together for three years until yet another instructor pronounced his martial education complete.  At that point Cheng advised to his student to go out into the world and live the life of a martial artist, gaining the sort of experience that can only come from “doing,” rather than from “learning.”  His daughter reports that Sun was reluctant to leave at this time and obtained the following piece of advice from his teacher “If you want to climb the Holy Platform, it is necessary for you to study the origin and understand the principal of the Yi Jing.  I know that some people in Sichuan Province are especially skilled at these theories, you should travel there.”

This is a seemingly odd bit of advice to give a martial arts student looking to improve his boxing or footwork.  Why would understanding the origin of the Yi Jing, a book of omens, and one of the oldest books in the Chinese literary canon, be of value to a martial artist?  Daoist sages and scholars studied the Yi Jing, but few serious scholars were martial artists.  Wandering Daoist holy men were a different matter.  Many of them used market place demonstrations, like Wu, to sell medicine and amulets, or to build up congregational followings.  Yet these were not the individuals that Cheng was concerned with.

There is an even more interesting question that needs to be asked at this point.  Why Sichuan?  Much is made of the decline of Daoism as a social movement and philosophical school during the Qing and Republic of China periods.  The Ming emperors had actively supported certain branches of Daoism and had built up the Wudang Temple complex as a family sanctuary and retreat.

Unfortunately many subsequent scholars blamed a reliance on mysticism and magic for the fall of the Ming.  Official Qing orthodoxy was strongly Confucian and hostile to anything non-rational.  While the state tolerated Buddhism, Daoism lost much of its luster and institutional support.  A frequently cited statistic states that by the end of the Qing dynasty one only complete collection of Daoist scriptures remained in all of China (at Wudang).

Of course it is also possible to overstate the size of this calamity.  Vincent Goossaert (The Taoists of Peking, 1800-1949: A Social History of Urban Clerics.  Harvard University Press.  2007) has done an admirable job of reconstructing exactly what the Daoist religious and social element of Beijing was like while Sun Lutang was studying Bagua in the capital.  There was an incredibly complex network of Temples, teachers, mystics and ritualists spread across the city.  To paraphrase Mark Twain, the death of urban Daoism during the Qing dynasty appears to have been greatly exaggerated.  There were quite literally dozens, if not hundreds, of teachers who could have initiated Sun Lutang into the mysteries of the Yi Jing (and immortality) in Beijing.  So why did he have to go to Sichuan?

Sacred mountains, and pilgrimage to sacred mountains, have long been an important part of Chinese culture.  And let’s not forget that Cheng wanted his student to get out and finally see the world.  But there may have been something more to this advice.  To begin with, Cheng probably knew his teacher Dong well enough to be suspicious about his many evasive accounts of where Bagua originated.  In fact, he likely guessed that the origin of his teacher’s style, characterized by unique circular forms, had something to do with his earlier wanderings in Sichuan province, long before he came to the capital and became a noted martial arts teacher.

Professor Kang Gewu, a noted Chinese martial arts historian and researcher, is currently the most respected source on Bagua’s origins.  Kennedy and Guo (2005) provide a brief biography and overview of his career for anyone interested in learning more about him (p. 64).

While conducting research for his master’s thesis, Kang traveled extensively throughout the country and collected hundreds of interviews and documents.  His reconstruction of Dong’s life is not without gaps and questions, but it is the most widely accepted one that we have.  Of course it should be noted that not all lineages of the Bagua clan agree with his claims.

Dong was born in Ju Jia Wu township in Wen An County, Hebei, sometime around 1813.  By his own admission he disliked farm work and was not content with the life of a peasant.  Instead Dong threw himself into the study of various local fighting styles.  Eventually he ran afoul of a local gentry family and was forced to flee his home village in 1853 (about the same time that Wu is on the road and finding adventure and the Taiping Rebellion).

It seems that Dong’s first stop was with a branch of his own family in Kai Ko village where he stayed with his cousin Dong Xian Zhou (known locally as a skilled martial artist) and apparently studied Ba Fa Quan.  Professor Kang believes that this introduction to Ba Fa Quan was a critical step in the development of Bagua and that many specific movements from his cousin’s style can still be seen in the composite art that he later created.

Kang reports that Dong then continued his journey further to the south and stopped at a number of places (Jiangsu, Anhui, Zhejiang) before coming to the Da Ba mountain area on the border of Sichuan province.  Somewhere in this journey (possibly in Sichuan) Dong is reported to have joined a Daoist religious movement.  Specifically Kang claims that he became associated with the Long Men (Dragon Gate) school of Complete Reality (Quan Zhen) Daoism.

This is a venerable system of Daoist mystical thought and practice going back to the Northern Sung dynasty.  Quan Zhen philosophy and practice is very rich.  But this creates a problem.  We have no evidence that indicates that Dong was either literate or had much of an education.

In that sense it is hard to know what precisely he would have learned from his teachers.  It seems that a lot of the more complicated theoretical discussion would have been difficult.  For instance, while Dong uses the imagery of the eight triagrams of the Yi Jing (the “Bagua”), Kang doesn’t find any evidence that this device actually provided a theoretical foundation for his later art.  Rather it was adopted more for its symbolic value.

It seems likely that Dong would have been involved with this group on a more communal and ritual level.  That in turn is quite interesting as the Long Men sect of Daoism sometimes practices a form of moving meditation called “circle walking.”  In addition to walking the circle, this exercise involves the use of mantras and mindfulness.

Kang ultimately concludes that this is the source of Dong’s unique style.  After returning to Beijing he combined the boxing elements that he had learned from his cousin (and likely earlier teachers) with the circle walking method he mastered in the southwest, and created the art that is now referred to as Bagua.

However, Dong never claimed to be the founder of the style.  Instead he claimed to have received the art from a wandering holy man.  Of course Dong also claims to have been a court eunuch and quite a few other things that most martial arts historians now reject.  In fact, he was always remarkably evasive when discussing his past or the origins of his style.

Apparently Cheng knew enough about his teachers past to realize that there was some connection between the actual study of Daoism and the initial creation of Bagua.  Further, he suspected that this happened in Sichuan province, and so he advised his better educated and prepared student to focus his search for answers on Daoism and to look in the southwest.

Anyone wanting to know more about Professor Kang’s theories on the origins of Bagua and the arts actual connection to 19th century Daoist mysticism might want to check out this article at the Pa Kua Chang Journal.

Sun’s travels were better documented than Dong’s.  If his journal had not been destroyed during the Cultural Revolution we would probably have a detailed understanding of his investigation.  Still, we do know some critical facts.

After a multi-year delay he was able to travel to the famous Mt. Emei in Sichuan province in 1894.  While there he met and became the student of a teacher named Zhi Zhen.  With him he studied the origins and theory of the Yi Jing and Emei Shan Qigong.  I think that it is critical to note that this is probably different from what Dong studied while working with the Long Men sect.

On the return trip Sun took the opportunity to stop at Mt. Wudang.  The temple complex there has long been an important site for Daoist learning and received extensive patronage during the Ming dynasty.  Sun remained in the area for two years and studied the arts of immortality with Jing Xu.

A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.
A Daoist Priest in Modern Beijing. Source: Wikimedia.

The Development of Sun Lutang’s Daoist Synthesis

After returning to his home town near Baoding in 1896 Sun established a commercial teaching organization (the Pu Yang Boxing Association).  It is not known how much of his Daoist instruction was integrated into his teaching of this period.  One suspects that not much of it was.  In only three years the coming of the Boxer Rebellion would force him to abandon the area around Baoding for a safer location.

He may have started to integrate his own theories on Daoism into his martial arts in the Xing Tang period, but we have no evidence that directly testifies to it.  It is only after Sun moves to Beijing in 1910 that we start to have really well attested evidence that his synthesis of Daosit theory and martial practice has matured into a form that we would currently associate with his teaching.  Interestingly this period also coincides with his introduction to Taiji by Hao Wei Zhen.  One wonders to what extent the introduction of this new style spurred Sun to further synthesize and rethink the other elements of his martial and philosophical education.

Sun’s first publication (on Xingyi Quan) came out in 1915.  It was a remarkable work for its time, providing relatively comprehensive explanations of the art with lots of clear photography.  It was designed so that an individual (or better yet a small group) could read the explanations, study the form, work out together a few times a week, and actually make progress in the art over the course of a few years.  His subsequent books followed roughly the same pattern.

His books were not only a beginner’s guide to boxing, they were also a basic introduction to practical Daoism.  Sun believed that that the “inner-instinct” employed to anticipate and react in boxing was of the same root as the “way” in Daoism.  This method of anticipating and dealing with change was a creation of the ancient sages who in turn created the first “internal” boxing methods.  These methods depended on a highly developed sense of intuition (itself an extension of the survival instinct) and encouraged the flow and transformation of Qi (and thus good health), unlike external forms of boxing that relied only on brute muscular strength.

In the introduction to A Study of Taijiquan (2003 translation by Cartmell) Sun provides a revealing history of Chinese martial arts.  In his view these arts were first created as a method of combining stillness and motion so that the “insubstantial” Qi could be recovered.

Bodhidharma, a Buddhist saint,  played a critical role in this process.  Upon visiting the Shaolin monastery he found the monks weak and sickly.  He invented the Tendon Changing Classic and the Marrow Washing Classic to improve the health of the monks.  Sun did not believe these routines were meant to be martial in nature, merely beneficial to the health.

It was Yue Fe, the famous general of Chinese military lore, who later studied these classic physical and breathing exercises and understood their true nature.  He modified the forms, adding their martial applications, and created Xingyi Quan.  Sun then goes on to claim that Bagua is a derivative art.

Whereas Professor Kang felt it was derived from Ba Fa, Sun instead saw many similarities with Xingyi.  Of course his lifelong study of Xingyi would have done much to sensitize him to any parallels between these arts.  This then is the ultimate origins of the “internal” arts according to Sun.  They are the result of a Chinese general modifying health sets created by a Buddhist patriarch to solve an age old dilemma in Daoist mysticism and alchemy.

Sun provided a separate linage for the various branches of Taiji.  Like most other martial artists of the period he believed the Taiji was created by the mystical recluse Zhang Sanfeng on Mt. Wudang.  Having over exerted himself in the study of external martial arts, Zhang had damaged his Qi.  To recuperate he studied the Tendon Changing and Marrow Washing Classics and Zhou Zi’s Taiji symbol.  As he synthesized these two bodies of information he began to understand the system that regulated the flow of Qi between its pre-birth and post-birth states and he invented the art Taiji Quan.

There is a lot that one can draw out of these stories.  But the critical aspect in both cases is that Sun believed that the practices that we now refer to as the internal “martial arts” began with Doaist health and longevity practices that were first studied at holy mountains.  This knowledge was either lost or missing from the “external” styles.  Interestingly enough, some aspect of this crucial gnosis was also shared by Daoism, Buddhism and even Confucianism (see for example Sun’s occasional references to the Doctrine of the Mean).

This framework led Sun to claim that rather than being a minor or secondary consideration, the self-cultivation and health aspect of the martial arts were central to the entire enterprise.  They were the literal heart of the matter.  Once you mastered these skills other martial applications could be sought and added, but in Sun’s view pursuing the combat skills first was like putting the cart before the horse.

Sun was now free to build a vast synthesis of his martial and Daoist knowledge.  He used his philosophical understanding as the theoretical framework to order his introduction and understanding of martial knowledge.  What we see here is a switch in his approach from an “inductive” model to a “deductive” model.  We have gone from a situation in which many individuals saw and wondered about parallels, to one in which philosophical theories were presumed to be hegemonic and the applications of the martial techniques were modified to fit them.

An interior courtyard of Longhua Temple in Shanghai, China. During 1927 the Right wing of the Nationalist party executed suspected communists from across Shanghai at this temple. Source: Wikimedia.
An interior courtyard of Longhua Temple in Shanghai, China. During 1927 the right wing of the Nationalist party executed suspected communists from across Shanghai in this temple. Source: Wikimedia.

Sun’s Intellectual Legacy in the Republic of China

Suns books not only helped to spread and popularize Taiji and Bagua, they also helped to reignite the public interest in Daoism more generally.  More specifically he helped to popularize the sorts of breathing exercises that would later be systematized into “Qigong” in the 1950s.

Sun was also very fortunate in terms of timing.  The nation was concerned about imperialism and foreign encroachment in the early 20th century.  Political leaders sought to address these questions on a number of levels.  Some of these efforts included reforming education and improving the public health and physical strength of the Chinese people as a whole.

Many martial arts reformers, including the Jingwu Association, were publicly arguing that both of these problems could be addressed by introducing some sort of modernized martial arts curriculum into primary and secondary school education.  The martial arts should be a part of education reform because they would help to literally strengthen the nation, both in physical and spiritual terms.  Occasionally reformers pointed to the success of “Budo” in Japan to illustrate what might be possible in China.

Of course this could not be the old style hand combat of the Qing dynasty, taught in narrow secretive networks.  The new age demanded a reformed and open art that could be shared with the entire nation.  To be taught in large classes styles needed to focus on forms rather than personalized instruction and combat applications did need to be a major focus of the early phases of training.

This environment was primed and ready for Sun’s ideas.  They appreciated his simplified forms, open publications and emphasis on health and self-cultivation.  These same traits also made his work accessible to out of shape middleclass professionals who were interested in traditional boxing, but needed a social rational that would justify them picking up such a questionable pursuit.  Sun also gave lectures and taught classes on philosophy that would have been appealing to exactly this demographic.

It should be pointed out that Sun was far from the only voice in this field.  Newspapers and magazines during this period were full of articles with ideas about how the nation’s physical culture should be reformed.  Martial artists, badly damaged by the Boxer Uprising and then the end of the military service exam system in 1905, sought to use this burst of interest to modernize their arts and argued for their continuing relevance.  Andrew D. Morris had documented this era nicely in his monograph Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China (2004).

What separated Sun from many of these other reformers was his interest in traditional philosophy.  The traditional martial arts could have gone in a lot of different directions in the 1920s and 1930s.  While some ideas, such as the need for an end to secrecy, were widely held among all the various reformers, others were more controversial.  Some voices advocated rebuilding the martial arts along the lines of modern western science, while different writers thought that the road to salvation lay in creating bayonet and sword routines that would appeal to the military.  Many reformers of this period would have found Sun’s interest in Daoism and longevity practices to be “superstitious” and counterproductive.  Still, this approach proved to be popular with a large chunk of the increasingly urban population.

If nothing else our review has shown that Sun’s reformulation of the traditional martial arts into a Daoist enterprise did not happen in a vacuum.  He was surrounded by other martial artists who also had questions about these same topics or (in the case of Dong) had even tried to fuse together these principals in the past.

Rather than reconnecting with the specialist literature on the martial arts, Qigong and philosophy that arose in the late Ming, Sun embarked on his own investigation and he drew his own conclusions.  His synthesis was simple enough that it could be picked up and practiced by non-specialists, introducing them to some elements of both the traditional martial arts and qigong.  But it was also complex enough to open a world of possibilities for future exploration.

After Sun there were a number of other manuals published that also integrated the “internal” martial arts and Daoism.  While Sun was the first to publish on this topic it does not appear that he was the only one thinking about it.  But he set a high standard for subsequent authors and this helped to improve the overall quality of writing in the Chinese martial arts.

Taijiquan in Lanzhou, Gansu, China. Scenes like this are a reflection of the success of Sun's ideas about the true value and nature of the Chinese martial arts. Source: wikimedia.
Taijiquan in Lanzhou, Gansu, China. Scenes like this are a reflection of the success of Sun’s ideas about the true value and nature of the Chinese martial arts. Source: wikimedia.

Sun Lutang and the Current State of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts.

The traditional Chinese martial arts may have started out as a method for fighting, but in the post-WWII period they quickly became a means of identity formation.  It is not that the need for self-defense has ever really gone away, but other less tangible concerns have risen to the fore.  For displaced refugees in Taiwan and Hong Kong following the 1949 takeover, questions about what it meant to be Chinese while living in exile became critical.  The Cultural Revolution and its aftermath left a generation of young people in mainland China struggling to find their way in the world.  Likewise the martial arts in the west are often tied to a desire to self-create a new identity.

Sun’s philosophy, which many not have pleased reformers in the 1920s and 1930s, now started to serve a new purpose for a new generation of martial artists.  It seemed to embody those ancient values that ensured a sense of authenticity and rootedness.  In this ever drifting age of globalization, Sun’s ideas have come to represent values that many individuals around the world are actively seeking.

It may surprise readers that Sun is not always regarded as a great boxer in China, particularly among competing Taiji, Xingyi or Bagua lineages.  His modification and simplifications of the forms are not always appreciated.  The emphasis on health and basic fitness, rather than actual fighting and self-defense applications, in his lineage is often questioned.

I for one can understand that.  As I stated at the beginning of this series I am not from the Neijia community and my own approach to the martial arts (Wing Chun) is almost devoid of philosophical discussion.  That does not mean that I do not think that the martial arts cannot improve health or lead to self-cultivation.  But for the most part I believe that these other things are basically by-products of strenuous training in an environment where one is highly motivated and focused.  And if you stop being focused you are likely to be punched in the head or thrown to the ground.   Nothing focuses the mind quite like the desire not to be hit.

I worry about what will happen to the martial arts if that primal motivation is ever taken away.  If spiritual discipline is really your goal, why not just skip the middle man and become a Long Men Daoist in the first place?  If the martial arts are really about health and fitness, why aren’t we doing Yoga?

One of my concerns for the traditional Chinese martial arts is that in an era of intense economic modernization they might lose some essential part of their original spirit.  From my own limited perspective Sun is somewhat problematic because he starts by making the martial arts secondary to philosophical practice, and hence in some ways epiphenomenal.  Yet what I identify as a problem does seem to be part of his larger point.  Martial applications come and go.  Individual martial arts are created and then forgotten; yet there is more continuity here than we understand.

A number of important Wing Chun masters have attempted to integrate some of Sun Lutang’s basic reforms into their art.  Being a highly decentralized tradition these individual efforts have not been quick to spread, but it is interesting to me how easily this basic project can be adapted from one type of system to the next.

Perhaps this should not be a surprise.  Yet it does cause me to ask questions.  Sun’s basic propositions are by no means universal (it is not hard to find individuals who disagree with them), but they are about as widely held as any set of ideas that we do have in the traditional Chinese martial arts today.

What will his impact be in the future?  Will we continue to see the spread of these ideas?  Will Wing Chun and the other traditional Chinese arts, that initially had nothing to do with Sun, continue to become closed communities focused on health and identity formation?  Or will we see an increasing bifurcation in the hand combat community, between those who view these practices as being fundamentally about health and philosophy, and those that reject this as an early 20th century project?

While Sun’s legacy is also mixed in the field of Chinese martial studies, clearly he was an important author and an innovative practitioner.  Yet the more closely we look at Sun, the more individuals we find with shared interests.   Sun’s synthesis of the Daoism and the martial arts was his own unique creation, but his life and the subsequent reaction to his works show that there were both a number of other individuals asking similar questions and a general hunger among a large number of practitioners for this sort of discourse.

In that way carefully examining Sun’s life helps us to move beyond the more facile level of questions.  Clearly working class individuals were capable of having aspirations for culture and self-cultivation, just like everyone else in Chinese society.  Perhaps rather than asking whether the Chinese martial arts were ever related to Buddhism or Daoism (to any degree) it is time to reformulate our research questions.

Why were some Chinese martial artists in the 1920s and 1930s enamored with the idea of finding a link to possible ancient alchemical practices, while others insisted that such superstitions needed to be abandoned if the traditional arts were going to be saved?  How have questions of economic class and education interacted to affect the relationship between spirituality and the martial arts?  We rarely discuss it now but there were a number of wealthy scholars who collected swords and other important artifacts during the Qing dynasty.  They probably had some thoughts on these issues, but what were they?  Alternatively why in the current decade is the Chinese government generally more trusting of Qigong practice when it is embedded in a martial art than if it is practiced on its own in a religious or even a neutral space?  How did the martial arts come to be seen as a control for religious exuberance?

By better understanding the complex ways in which these forces have interacted in the past, we will undoubtedly give ourselves better tools for understanding what is going on in the present.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (4): Sun Lutang–Secrecy, Reform and the Creation of the Modern Martial Arts School (Part II).

Antique map of Beijing circa 1888. This map represents the capital as Sun Lutang would have known it as a young man. While these sorts of map lack modern scale, they often convey important social information about the shape and makeup of a community.
Antique map of Beijing circa 1888. This map represents the capital as Sun Lutang would have known it as a young man. While these sorts of maps lack modern scale, they often convey important social information about the shape and makeup of a community.

 

Introduction: Sun Lutang at the Crossroads of Modernity

In the first section of our special series on Sun Lutang we presented an outline of the life and career of a key figure in Chinese martial studies.  Sun has made many contributions to the traditional martial arts community.  He is responsible for innovations as diverse as the use of photography in training manuals, the popularization of the term Neijia (or internal) as a descriptive category, the pronounced emphasis on health and philosophy in the Chinese martial arts, and the creation of his own style of Taiji.  His ideas have been incredibly important.  For better or worse they have shaped the subsequent development of the martial arts in every region of China and the west.  We will look at this legacy in more detail in the next post.

From the perspective of Chinese martial studies, perhaps the greatest gift that Sun left was a rich and well documented life that intersected with some of the most important social, political and martial trends of the era.  Even though Sun’s detailed diary of daily life was lost in the Cultural Revolution, we still have a surprising amount of information about his life, study, travels and thoughts on the state of the martial arts.  He associated with many of the leading lights of the period and witnessed critical events in the formation of the social systems that we now refer to as the “traditional martial arts.”

Sun Lutang’s life provides students of Chinese martial studies with a surprisingly clear window into the past.  By carefully studying his associations and innovations it is possible to gain a much greater understanding about how the martial arts of northern China were evolving and changing at the end of the 19th century.  His biography, when placed in the proper context, reads like a textbook of martial arts history.

The following post goes back and reviews a couple of trends that first arose in our brief summary of Sun’s life and career.  Our goal is to ask how these events illustrate larger themes or questions in Chinese martial history.  No shocking revelations emerge from this exercise.  Yet a much more nuanced view of the basic institutions of Chinese martial culture emerges when they can be studied within the career of a single martial artist.

Closed Doors vs. Secure Networks: The Economics and Social Functionality of Traditional Instruction.

We have all encountered the debates before.  Who was a “closed door” student of whom?  Who can really claim to be a true inheritor of some style of Kung Fu?  Of all of the criticisms that one can make of the Chinese martial arts, a lack of interest in politics will never be one of them.  At the end of the day all sorts of debates in the modern Chinese martial arts seem to devolve into attempts to criticize or illegitimate the quality of someone else’s instruction.

The idea of “secrecy” has infected the Chinese martial arts like a virus.  It seems that everything that emerges out of this cultural milieu continues of have issues with secrecy.  Even in my own art, where Ip Man loudly and explicitly rejected the idea of “secrets techniques” and “closed door” teachings, there are still vigorous debates as to which of his students was his supersecret “closed-door disciple.”  The answer of course is that none of them were.  Yet the idea of secrecy is so deeply embedded in the culture and the mythology of the martial arts that it is hard to exorcise.  After all, we all know that this is how the arts were originally taught.  Right?

Well, not quite.  It is true that the modern institution of the public commercial school is a fairly recent invention.  To have public commercial schools a few things need to be in place first.  You need to have a monetized economy where people have jobs that afford them free time and pay them a cash salary that they can pass along to their teachers.  The creation of lots of cheap, easily available, commercial real estate also helps this process along.

In short, our current martial arts institutions are an outgrowth of modern capitalism.  They are a natural extension of our social and economic world.  However, early 19th century China was not really a “capitalist” place according to our current understanding of the term.  For the most part the economy was not monetized.  Except for a small group of very wealthy individuals, most people rarely had access to cash.  The Qing government didn’t even bother to consistently mint coins as they accepted tax payments in raw one ounce silver ingots or Mexican silver dollars.  In short, while there may have been groups of people who wanted to learn the martial arts, there usually was not a really easy way to pay the teacher.

Payment often happened “in kind.”  One paid a teacher by inviting them to live with you, providing them with rice, new shoes, and new clothing.  While effective, this situation is not very economically efficient.  It is hard for a martial arts teacher to monetize the value of his knowledge or skill with “in kind” payments.  As a result many of the best martial artists would simply work for the military or an escort company (some of the few places where you could earn a regular salary) and not teach at all.  Teaching was often seen as a “retirement job.”

The best teachers were usually supported by a single family.  A father might hire a teacher, who lived as part of the household, to teach his sons.  This might be seen as a means of preparing them to take the government’s military service exam.  Obviously this sort of instruction was private.  But was it really “secret”?

The answer is no.  It many have been a source a jealousy, and certain ideas were exclusively held, but the teaching was not “secret.”  If you had enough money to support and house a full-time teacher, you too could know the martial secrets of the universe.  This was a system characterized by inefficiency, but it was not driven by secrecy.  After all, these teachers were looking for a way to support themselves.   Too much secrecy would work against their basic economic goals.

A western style map of the area around the capital. This is the region where most of Sun Lutang's life happened. First published in 1875.
A western style map of the area around the capital. This is the region where most of Sun Lutang’s life happened. First published in 1875.

Occasionally other teachers were able to find a way around this dilemma.  In theory it would be possible for a group of students to support a teacher just as easily (or more easily) than a single family could.  In practice this was usually a challenge, especially when dealing with impoverished peasants.

While everyone would want to enjoy the benefits of the teaching, when it came time to pay their fair share, a lot people would come up short.  This is the basic idea behind the “free rider” problem in economics.  Cooperation is rare in large groups because individuals do not directly bear the costs of defection and enforcement is difficult.  I have long suspected that many of the strongly community/family oriented norms seen in traditional martial arts schools (where a Sifu is treated, in some ways, as a father) were a partial attempt to solve the free rider problem.  But that is a subject for a different post.

What you do see in northern China in the 18th and increasingly in the 19th century are traveling martial arts teachers.  They would have a circuit and would go from one village festival to the next.  Festivals often corresponded with the selling of crops so these were rare times when peasants had disposable income.

Such individuals would set up outdoor boxing grounds, give demonstrations, sell medicine, and (if they were better known) recruit students and hold classes.  This sort of rural instruction at outdoor boxing grounds is precisely how some of the most important styles in Northern Chinese hand combat, such as Hong Quan and Plum Blossom Boxing, were spread.  Esherick has even written short biographies on a number of these sorts of instructors which can be found in his volume on the Boxer Uprising.

In fact, it is in a setting exactly like this where Sun Lutang first encounters Master Wu teaching a group of local peasants the finer points of Shaolin boxing.  Wu’s life history is very instructive.  Like Sun he grew up hard and traveled extensively.  Given his location and era, his claim to have studied at Shaolin is actually pretty plausible.  His martial repertoire, which included Hong Quan, 64 Hands Free Fighting, and “Virgin Boy” Qigong (among other forms), would have fit right in at the venerable temple.  More interesting was the fact that Wu was a veteran of the terrible Taiping Rebellion, the largest and most destructive civil war in all of human history.  After the end of that conflict he made a living as a public performer, traveling from market to market.

The ease with which Wu accepted Sun as a student is interesting.  Sun had to petition for acceptance, but it is clear he had nothing of value to offer his teacher.  In short, Wu (70 years old at the time) made his living teaching the martial arts in a “traditional” setting, yet he was probably teaching all comers, even penniless youths like Sun.

A different model of martial arts instruction can be seen after Sun arrives in Baoding.  Here he is introduced to his twin mentors, Zhang and Li Kui Yuan.  Li was a student of Xingyi and became Sun Lutang’s second hand combat teacher.  This is interesting as it appears that Li did not teach a large number of people.  Why?  Because he had a more effective means of monetizing his skill.  He was the owner of a successful armed escort service.

This career path was probably not open to Wu for a variety of social reasons.  In order to be allowed to operate in public spaces (like markets), armed escorts had to have the trust of local officials.  Li was a known quantity and his social network included scholars, like Zhang.  It was precisely these contacts with social elites that allowed him to make a living.  It probably was not necessary for him to teach to support himself.

But sometimes individuals teach for other reasons.  A friend of mine in Chengdu has been interviewing local martial arts masters.  One of the interesting (and sad) things that emerged from these interviews is that with the current contraction of interest in the martial arts, there are not enough students to go around.  There are a lot of individuals with a lifetime of skills who wish to pass something on, but they just can’t find anyone who is interested in learning.  It seems that teachers need students as much as students need teachers.  At its most basic level what we are discussing is a profoundly human relationship.

When you look at the amount of effort that Li invested in Sun, apparently only because the boy showed an interest in the material, I start to suspect that this is not the first generation with a deficit of students.  Studying the martial arts was not a socially prestigious activity in the 19th century, especially not in the social circles that Li moved in while in Baoding.  Like the old Chinese proverb states, finding the right student can be just as difficult as finding the right teacher.  In fact, many of the accounts of late 19th century China that I have reviewed would seem to indicate that it was actually a “buyer’s market.”

Sun was eventually adopted by Li as his formal disciple.  Lacking a father, I suspect that this ceremony had deep resonances for him that went well beyond their martial significance.  It does not appear however that Sun was a “closed door” student of Li in the more esoteric sense of the word that is common today.  This term has been invested with all sorts of exotic meaning in countless martial arts novels, radio programs and movies.  Its original meaning was actually more mundane.  Such a student lived full time with the teacher, often taking care of household chores and helping to maintain the school, so that they could dedicate themselves to full-time study.

Living with your teacher gives one an opportunity to observe their practice and martial philosophy in detail.  Often those aspiring to a martial career of their own might live with their teacher, though this was not always the case.  Sun appears to have continued to work for his Uncle (who, unlike his first employer, was kind and actually paid him) during this period.  Yet there is no indication that Li purposefully held back information simply because Sun had not yet been taken on as either a formal disciple or a “closed door” student.  In fact he indicated very strongly that he taught the young boy everything he knew and even introduced him to his teacher to continue his formal education.

This brings us to the next stage of our observation.  In popular discussions the institutions of traditional martial arts instruction are always viewed as primarily an engine of secrecy.  Their great virtue in the eyes of the movie going public seems to be their perennial exclusion of “outsiders.”  But when you look at Sun’s life as it has been outlined in my previous post, it is clear that this view doesn’t really capture the true essence of how these institutions functioned in a real social setting.

Rather than being purely about exclusion, the traditional modes of education created artificial hierarchies meant to entice people to join.  These hierarchies gave individuals a chance to build social status that they might not otherwise have.  That promise of social status was in turn a means of attracting students (like Sun) who might otherwise have spent their time developing other talents.  It was the “myth” of secrecy and exclusion that made the promise of inclusion and status so attractive.

When looking at late 19th century martial arts history it is vital to understand this powerful psychological dynamic.  At the same time, it is probably better not to believe all of the propaganda.  It does not actually appear that many people were ever turned away from martial arts instruction for any reason other than a lack of money, and in some cases (like Sun) even that could be overlooked.  We must not confuse this “veneer of exclusivity” for real elitism.  It seems that most martial arts teachers benefited from the former but could not actually afford the latter.

Another map of the capital. This one was published two years after Sun Lutang moved there from Baoding. Circa 1912.
Another map of the capital. This one was published two years after Sun Lutang moved there from Baoding. Circa 1912.

Promoting the Chinese Martial Arts: From Networks to Public Institutions.

The traditional modes of instruction did more than just create artificial power structures for the achievement of social status.  They also became powerful networking systems.  As one might expect, the dominant metaphor used to define and understand these networks was the traditional Chinese kinship system.  This gave one an immediate frame of reference to understand ones social relationships with other practitioners of the same style who you may have never met before.

These networks of social relationships were very important to the people that constructed them.  Workers in Guangdong in the late 19th century used them to network and find out about employment opportunities.  I am sure that individuals in Northern China did exactly the same sorts of things.

These networks also became an infrastructure that could facilitate the transfer of martial knowledge.  They were a means by which one could branch out, travel and get introductions to study with different teachers.  Rather than being exclusively about secrecy, traditional martial structures actually provided students with access to a vast network of information and contacts.

The average martial artist, intent on getting a job and making a living, probably did not do much to exploit these opportunities.  Sun Lutang’s life as a young adult is fascinating precisely because he did call on the full resources of his martial network.  Not only did he exploit direct lineage relationships (traveling to Beijing to study Xingyi Quan with Guo Yun Shen for eight years), he drew on other types of friendships and alliances as well.  From Guo he received a letter of introduction recommending him to Cheng Ting Hua, an important Bagua instructor.  He subsequently studied with Cheng for another three years.  In short, a detailed examination of Sun’s studies can teach us much about the actual social structures of 19th century martial arts communities.

His frequent travels make it clear that Sun had a degree of flexibility in his life that not all martial artists of the period were as lucky to possess.  But it is also clear that an overriding ethic of “secrecy” was not the thing holding them back.  Rather than seeing traditional martial arts kinship systems as “engines of exclusion,” they are better viewed as secure social networks, in an otherwise dangerous environment.  The very purpose of these networks was to build social status and make the open sharing of information possible.

This is a critical point as social reformers after the Boxer Uprising would spend a lot of time criticizing the traditional martial arts community for its fratricidal and superstitious secrecy.  There were very few protests from the traditional martial arts community over these demands for reform.  They certainly realized the value of exchange and discussion and they saw their institutions as something that accomplished those goals.

Given the quasi-feudal economy that existed at the start of the 19th century, these traditional teaching structures might have been the most efficient institutions possible.  However, the basis of Chinese economic life was being rapidly reformed.  This made new types of cooperation, sharing and networking possible.  Ever the innovator, Sun would be at the forefront of these reforms.

I think that we need to look to early 20th century “Swordsman” novels, and later Kung Fu movies, to understand the emergence of our current ideas about traditional martial arts networks.  These stories often revolved around deadly rivalries between schools and the theft of an ultra-secret text that revealed the true heart of Kung Fu.

Apparently someone did steal a book from Sun Lutang.  It was his daily diary, taken by a live-in student.  While I am sure there was a lot of interesting information about the day to day life of the master in that volume, I doubt there was any hidden wisdom.  Instead what the wayward student likely discovered was a painstaking record of exactly how many hours his teacher had dedicated to practice and hard work.

I have noted in another post the interesting observation that Chinese martial arts students from the 1960s-1980s were often actually much more “conservative” in their understanding of “martial virtue” than their teachers.  The life experience of individuals like Sun Lutang, T. T. Liang or Ip Man were shaped by tremendously tragic events and vast military conflicts.  Having seen quite a bit of real conflict in their lives I think that these individuals knew exactly what the martial arts were, and none of them were too attached to traditional institutions.  Rather their loyalty lay with the goals that those institutions were meant to accomplish.  When times changed they simply created new teaching structures.

It seems that later generations of hand combat students, more concerned with identity formation than survival, came to see “traditionalism” as a goal in itself.  This is a very different attitude than what we see exhibited in the lives of most of the early 20th century martial arts masters.  While some of these individuals may have been socially conservative, as a group they are better characterized by their pragmatism.

Again, we see this in the life of Sun Lutang.  Even though he was trained on a traditional “boxing ground” in the 1870s, by the 1910s he is running large modern commercial schools with hundreds of students around Hebei province.  Apparently he continued to accept these students with the traditional rituals, but there can be no doubt that the institutions they were educated in were quite distinct from what he had grown up with a generation before.

A detailed map of the capital proper. This is how Beijing was laid out for most of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Circa 1890.
A detailed map of the capital proper. This is how Beijing was laid out for most of the Ming and Qing dynasties. Circa 1890.

Reforming the Chinese Martial Arts to Save the Nation

When examining the middle and later period of Sun’s life we should also note the development of a new sort of martial arts institution.  The rituals and practices of a traditional “lineage” education were quickly adapted by commercial public schools in the 1910s and 1920s.  This process of consolidation and evolution was made possible by the increased monetization of the economy.  It was also driven by the growing emphasis on training better educated urban workers and professionals.  These individuals had money, but they also had demanding day jobs.  Classes had to be restructured so that information could be conveyed within a 1 hour class period.  Further, these classes had to be offered either before of after the close of the working day, or sometimes during the lunch hour.  In short, the martial arts had to be remade to fit around a typical industrial work schedule.  Again, we see a veneer of “traditional exclusivity” being placed around what is actually a quintessentially modern public institution.

But that veneer of secrecy was not always good marketing.  In some situations it was necessary to publicly demonstrate one’s dedication to the nation, modernization and revolutionary goals.  As a result an entirely new set of non-lineage based cooperative institutions begin to emerge in the urban areas of China between about 1910 and 1928 (when the spread the of Guoshu movement finally collapsed this section of civil society).

The hallmark of these groups was a call for “national salvation” through martial arts education.  Typically such groups combined the efforts of teachers from a number of different styles.  They publicized the martial arts, called for reform (usually by ending the twin perils of “secrecy” and “superstition”) and published lots of newspaper and magazine articles on how hand combat training was compatible with “modern life.”  Of course they also offered classes, often at very reasonable rates, to both the public and local schools.

Jingwu was the first of these groups to really explode on the national scene, but it was far from alone in the field.  It seems that every city of any size had at least a few of these modern martial arts federations.  A classic example might be the Tianjin China Warrior Society (based in Tianjin) which did much to popularize and spread Xingyi Quan throughout Hebei and actually published a few of Sun’s books.  The network that formed around the “Yi” schools (later the Zhongyi Association) in Foshan is another example.

The Beijing Sports Lecture Hall, which Sun joined in 1915 or 1916, was a similar institution.  It taught multiple styles of Taiji and a few other martial arts to the local citizens of Beijing.  Sun saw his involvement with the group as a way to save the Chinese martial arts, strengthen the people of the country, and contribute to the welfare of the Chinese nation.  These grandiose sounding goals were very common.  They are not all that different from what a member of the Jingwu Association or the Tianjin Chinese Warrior Society might have claimed.

An interesting question to ask is why this sudden interest in patriotic community building emerged within the Chinese martial arts community in the first place.  Clearly some of the later groups were formed as a response to the initial success of Jingwu and the other early pioneers.  But there was a lot of activity in this area around 1910, well before most people in the Chinese martial arts community would have had any opportunity to hear about Jingwu.

I suspect that there are three related issues that can account for this sudden burst of institution building and reformist zeal.  To begin with, the Chinese martial arts were in genuine peril after the 1900 Boxer Uprising.  Not only was civilian hand combat briefly suppressed by the state, but it became deeply unfashionable.  This was something of an accomplishment given that it had never been that popular in the first place.

The Boxer Uprising was an embarrassment to the nation and it led to renewed calls for modernization.  This happened in the military realm in 1905 when the Qing abolished the Military Service Exam.  Training students to take that exam had been one of the main professional callings of martial arts teachers throughout China.  Many people trained in the martial arts explicitly because they wanted a career in the military.  That career path was, with some exceptions, closed to martial artists after 1905.

In short, the Chinese martial arts took two critical hits in a five year period.  Lots of hand combat teachers found themselves unemployed at exactly the same time that their skills are being publicly ridiculed and blamed for the weak state of the nation.

This is the environment that fueled the burst of social organization that took place over the next decade.  Social elites were paying more attention to physical culture as they looked at reforming the national education system and military, but the traditional martial arts were being shut out.  In order to save their arts, and position in society, hand combat teachers began to organize in an attempt to prove their revolutionary credentials and demonstrate the benefits of martial arts training to a modern state.  And the Japanese system of “Budo” just to the east was a powerful argument that this could be done.

I think that this is the main reason why these groups were so desperate to get government backing in the first place.  Most martial artists had worked for the government (specifically the military), right up until 1905.  Jingwu may have been somewhat unique in its steadfast dedication to civil society.  I suspect that most of these groups were actually more interested in renewed government patronage, and were only too happy to be incorporated into the government run Guoshu network after 1928.  Still, the evolution of the martial arts in the 1910s and 1920s was shaped in important ways by large, non-lineage based, public institutions.  It is important to understand where they came from and how they functioned.

A modern tourist map of Beijing. Note how much the the city has grown over in size over the last 100 years. Vintage maps can be a useful research tool when writing on Chinese martial studies.
A modern tourist map of Beijing. Note how much the the city has grown over in size over the last 100 years. Vintage maps can be a useful research tool when writing on Chinese martial studies.

Conclusion

Some individuals dedicated their entire lives to these institutions.  It is clear that Sun did not.  He taught at the Beijing Sports Lecture Hall, and even offered classes on Chinese philosophy there in an attempt to attract more educated, professional students.  But it appears that Sun also accepted other official appointments and teaching responsibilities during this time.  He also taught a huge number of students in his private “lineage” schools.

His elite networking and role as a leading public intellectual of the martial arts were both critical activities during the 1920s.  Friends in high places could open many doors.  For instance, the widespread adoption of martial arts training as part of the secondary school physical education curriculum throughout the nation was due in no small part to countless friendships cultivated between local martial artists and provincial officials.

Secondly, as more educated people became interested in the martial arts there was an increased demand for a new type of literature.  While swordsmen novels remained popular, students now wanted more practical information.  This demand was driven by the vastly increased number of urban consumers with buying power who began to study the martial arts during this period.  The efforts of Sun and other to change the social profile of the martial arts led directly to the explosion of the Republican era martial arts manuals discussed by Kennedy and Guo.

Contrary to their off-handed assertion, small mass-produced boxing manuals or chapbooks had existed in the late Qing period.  I hope to discuss a translation of one such source in a coming post.  But there is no doubt that printed martial arts manuals became vastly more common as number of educated middle-class martial artists exploded.

Sun’s five books were some of the most important works on the martial arts published in this period.  In fact, I think it is safe to assert that his lasting impact on the Chinese fighting arts came through his publications.  In lineage terms, he was never quite as successful as some of the other top martial artists of the period (usually named Yang), and so he does not get quite the same respect in China that one might expect given his actual contributions.

Still, his ideas have lived on and are incredibly important.  They have been disseminated through countless reprints of his books (now firmly in the public domain) and through the lectures and discussions of many other martial artists who may, or may not, remember to properly cite their original source material. Anytime you go to a Taiji class and hear inscrutable conversations about what someone is doing to their “qi,” they are (usually unconsciously) repeating something that Sun said almost 100 years ago.  The current fashion of martial arts, Daosim and qigong based health practices that many of us now take for granted would not exist without Sun’s books.

Sun’s career is remarkable because he was both part of the general movement to modernize the martial arts, making them accessible to educated individuals, but unlike most of his contemporaries, he could actually give those middle-class minds something to wrestle with.  I think that, more than anything else, explains his lasting influence on the Chinese martial arts.

In the final installment of this series we will take a closer look at the origins and after life of some of Sun’s key ideas.  Why did he believe that the Chinese martial arts were intrinsically linked to Daoism?  What exactly did he mean by “internal”?  In what ways are these ideas still shaping the martial arts today?

Click Here For the Third Section of our Three Part Series on the Life and Influence of Sun Lutang.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (4): Sun Lutang and the Invention of the “Traditional” Chinese Martial Arts (Part I)

Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.
Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.

I am currently working on a paper that has me thinking about Sun Lutang again.  To my mind he has always been one of the quintessential pioneers of the modern Chinese martial arts.  So here is Part One of a three part biographical sketch.  Also see Part Two and Part Three.  Enjoy!

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.
Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.

Childhood: Overcoming Injustice with the Brush and the Sword.

The early years of Sun Lutang’s life are interesting enough to be the subject of a number of movies.  Originally named Sun Fu Quan, there is some debate as to when exactly he was born.  His daughter says that he was born in 1862 on a small farm outside of Baoding (south west of Beijing) in Hebei Province.  Sun’s father had never been very prosperous and did not marry until middle age.

Recognizing the intelligence of his son he sent him to study the Confucian classics with a local teacher when he was seven years old.  For the next two years Sun memorized and copied basic texts.  Despite his obvious intelligence his formal education came to an unceremonious end when his father’s crops failed and the family was forced to sell the farm to pay off debts or taxes.  A short while later Sun’s father fell ill and died, leaving the young boy fatherless and with no means of support.

Sun’s mother felt that she was unable to care for her child so she placed him in the home of a wealthy (but apparently sadistic) landlord as a servant.  Sun was never actually paid for his work but he was fed.  It seems that virtual slavery did not suit the young child’s personality and while he suffered through many beatings he started plotting a means of emancipation, at least to the degree that an eight year old child can imagine such things.

His first big break came in 1872.  While in a field tending sheep Sun came across an old man of about 70 leading an outdoor martial arts class.  The next day he returned and begged to be taught the martial arts.  When asked why he wanted to study boxing the naïve 11 year old bluntly told the teacher (surname Wu) about his situation and desire to take revenge on his employer and his equally abusive family.  Aghast at the tale of the young child life’s the older martial artist took him on as a student, but only after warning him that “The martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

I hope to explore Wu’s background and his influence on the young Sun in my next post.  While a good mentor for the boy his influence on him only lasted a couple of years.  On New Year’s Day of 1875 Sun got in a confrontation with the son and nephew of his employer.  After successfully defending himself from an unprovoked attack, his boss threatened to beat him to death and Sun’s term of “employment” as a household servant came to an end.

With no means of supporting himself, and no plans for the future, Sun fell into deep depression.  His only interest now lay in the martial arts, but even that was soured by the taunts of local villagers.  They felt that Sun was sure to grow up to become a bandit and a blight on the countryside and delighted in telling him so.  Statistically speaking they may have been correct.  Most “bandits” were young men without prospects or land who suffered an economic setback that forced them out of village life.

Not wishing to be a burden on his mother the young Sun resolved to hang himself.  Fortunately his suicide attempt failed and the boy was cut down by a passing traveler who took the boy home.  After assessing the situation he gave the family some money that they used to leave the hamlet and travel to Baoding proper where Sun had an uncle who ran a shop selling calligraphy brushes.  The uncle took in the struggling family and gave the young Sun a job as a clerk.  This was an immense step up in life from what he had known in the countryside and the Uncle proved to be a kind employer.  Further, his job in town put him in touch with the literary elements of society and gave him a chance to practice his calligraphy on scraps of paper.

It was through his Uncle that Sun would meet two men who would change his life forever.  The first of these individuals was a scholar named Zhang.  Zhang immediately recognized the young boy’s talents and invited him into his home to study calligraphy and literature.  He in turn introduced Sun to a friend of his named Li Kui Yuan.  Li Kui Yuan was a talented Xing Yi Quan student and the owner of the Tai An armed escort service.  He was delighted to find a student and resumed Sun’s formal instruction in the martial arts.

When he was 18 years old, Sun and Li went to visit Zhang on his 50th birthday.  Zhang took the opportunity to suggest that Li accept Sun as his formal disciple, and Li suggested that Sun should be engaged to Zhang’s 16 year old daughter.  Both ideas were heartily accepted and Sun place in society was now secure.  But he did not marry immediately.  Instead he and Li traveled to Beijing to study with Guo Yun Shen, Li’s original Xingyi Quan teacher.

Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.
Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.

The Wandering Years

By 18 years of age Sun’s life had changed dramatically.  His mother was cared for (by Zhang), he had a fiancée and the sort of martial education that would allow him to make his way in the world.  This was when most young martial artists would settle down and get on with the business of life.

But Sun was reluctant to marry immediately.  Nor did he only view the martial arts as a means of career advancement.  He wanted to understand them on a deeper level, and doing so meant leaving the confines of Baoding and traveling to the capital.  Guo Yun Shen would be the key figure in his subsequent development into a master.

Sun learned quickly as he studied with Guo.  The older master was impressed with the intelligence and footwork of the youth, enough so that he made him the formal inheritor of his lineage of Kung Fu.  He also bequeathed upon him the nickname “smarter than an active monkey.”

In total Sun spent eight years with Guo.  In addition to his earlier education with Wu and Li, he now had a formidable martial education.  But he was not done yet.  In 1889 Sun used an introduction from Guo to meet Cheng Ting Hua, a master of the relatively young Bagua system.  At the age of 27 Sun undertook a detailed study of this new art.

Sun studied with Cheng for three years.  In that time he focused on Dragon Style Bagua, Bagua Sword and spear training.  At the end of this period he was apparently left with additional questions, but Cheng claimed he had no more to teach him.

Instead he said that if he Sun wanted to understand the system more deeply he needed to study Daoism.  However, Sun was not free to undertake such a trip lightly.  He now had responsibilities to consider.  In 1892 he returned to Baoding, married his fiancé and saw the birth of his first son.  To support the family he started a popular school that attracted a number of students.

But the advice of Cheng was not forgotten.  In 1894/5 he set out for Sichuan province where he met the monk Zhi Zhen who taught him both Emei Qigong and the theory behind his approach to I-Ching analysis.  On the return trip Sun stopped at Wudang Mountain (an important site for Daoist instruction) and studied Qigong and immortality practiced with Jing Xu.  I hope to investigate this philosophical turn in Sun’s martial practice, and its specific connection to his trip to Emei, in the next post.

In 1896 he returned to his home town near Baoding with his wife and son.  During this period Sun established not only martial arts classes, but also literary clubs to help spread literacy and basic education among the peasantry.  He even appears to have started to lecture about philosophy directly in his classes.

While things were going well for Sun and his family, in 1899 we once again find them on the move.  This time he moved the whole family away from Baoding and relocated in Xing Tang, 120 km from Beijing (twice the distance of his previous residence).  Xing Tang now appears to be part of Shijiazhuang.

This move is usually passed over with relative silence in Sun’s various biographies.  That is unfortunate as it is probably one of the most interesting, and wisest, decisions that he made in his entire life.  The Boxer Uprising was brewing in in 1899 and there was substantial violence along the border between Hebei and Shandong.  The spreading violence was clearly headed to Beijing, and Baoding was directly in its path.

By late in 1899 inter-community violence was breaking out between Chinese Christians (often armed with modern western rifles) and anti-foreign Boxers (armed with spears and swords) in Baoding.  The area saw repeated massacres in February and March of 1900, when things started to spiral out of control.  Some of the most important violence of the early Uprising happened along the Baoding-Beijing railway to the east of the city.

Joseph W. Esherick reviews events in and around Baoding in his groundbreaking study The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987).  Most of the “Boxers” were impressionable country youth rather than sophisticated martial artists.  Many of them relied on spirit possession and magical formula for their military power, not years of formal training.  Still, it is undeniable that many martial arts schools in the region were caught up in the violence.  Others foresaw tragedy on the horizon and tried desperately to distance themselves from the coming cataclysm.

It would appear that Sun was in the later camp.  By moving his family to Shijiazhuang they avoided the brutal waves of inter-community violence, and later western retaliation, that tore Baoding apart.  It would certainly be interesting to know the fate of his Baoding students from this period, whether they too fled or if they stayed to fight.  Cheng Ting Hua, Sun’s Bagua teacher and the individual who sent him on his quest to study Daoism, was shot and killed by German troops during their sack of Beijing.

His new home was also far enough from the capital that he could continue to practice and teach the martial arts in the years after the Uprising.  This is significant as schools were being closed and martial artists were forced underground across the country.  In this period public sentiment turned decidedly against boxing and the traditional martial arts came closer to extinction than they have been before or since.

As a young man Sun Lu Tang was very interested in the practical applications of his fighting arts, something that is still reflected in the basic structure of Sun Taiji.  He fought in a number of challenge matches and worked as a guard and bodyguard.  However, later in his career he claimed that the martial arts were really for health maintenance and self-cultivation.  He famously told his students that if they wanted to fight they should “get a gun.”  One wonders how much of this shift in his attitude had to do with his philosophically inspired wandering, and how much of it can be attributed to the utter destruction of Baoding (and the murder of Cheng Ting Hua) during the throws of the Boxer Uprising.

One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.
One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.

Sun Lutang on the National Stage

It is a minor miracle that the traditional modes of hand combat survived the social fallout from the Boxer Uprising.  The western retaliation in the wake of this wave of anti-Christian violence was terrible and indiscriminate.  Educated individuals around the country blamed martial artists (quite unfairly) for the diminished state of their country.  Nevertheless, after a few years had passed it became possible to reopen schools that were closed in the initial calamity.

In 1907 Xu Shichang, (still a Qing official) invited Sun to the far northeast of China (Feng Tian) to set up a school.  While there he defeated a local bandit who was terrorizing the area and may have been scheduled to fight with a foreigner in a public challenge match.  I cannot confirm its authenticity, but the popular story is that Xu Shichang called the fight off because he feared diplomatic retaliation if Sun defeated the foreigner.

The stay did not last long, though it helped to cement his relationship with Xu, a figure who would be an important politician in the Republic era.  It also introduced Sun to a new circle of potential sponsors.  Late in 1907 he returned to Baoding to reestablish his schools there after almost eight years of absence.

But politics would once again shape Sun’s destiny.  As we saw in our biography of Qiu Jin, the period before and after the 1911 revolution was an interesting time to be in Beijing.  Intellectuals were meeting across the city to discuss different ideas for reform and the future of the country.

These dynamic possibilities attracted Sun who must have bemoaned the diminished state of the martial arts.  He decided that if he was going to promote the martial arts on a national scale he needed to be in Beijing.  And so he moved his family to a little house in the capital.  As a result Sun had a front row seat for many key events in the revolutionary period.

In 1914 his daughter Sun Jianyu was born.  She would go on to become an important teacher of her father’s arts and a master in her own right.  The same year also saw a chance meeting with Master Hao Wei Zhen who fell sick while in the capital and was cared for at the Sun house.  He later repaid Sun by teaching him Wu style Taiji.  Sun studied Taiji for two years; this was the last major element of his martial education.  He was already 52 years old when he first undertook the study of Taiji.

Kennedy and Guo quite rightly call Sun the most important writer on the Chinese hand combat.  Through his books he has become probably the most influential martial artist of his generation.

His first book, a Study of Xing Yi Quan, was released in 1915.  This groundbreaking effort was the first really practical modern martial arts manual that could actually teach readers the key points of an art.  The text was relatively straightforward and helpful.  It was also the first book to contain a large number of photographs documenting every step of a movement or form.  Pretty much every martial art manual published from that point onward has copied Sun’s basic format.

This early work turned out to be just the beginnings of an ambitious publishing agenda.  In 1916 he published a Study of Eight Trigrams Boxing.  In 1921 he published A Study of Taiji Boxing, in 1925 he wrote The True Essence of Boxing (his most philosophical work) and in 1927 he released his monograph on the Bagua sword (jian).

The popularity of martial arts instruction started to pick up again in Beijing (and around the rest of the country as well) in the mid-1910s.  Recall that this is the era when the Jingwu association came to prominence in Shanghai.  Multiple groups were advocating saving the nation through “strengthening” it, and the traditional martial arts seemed to be an idea training tool.  That same philosophy appears to have appealed to Sun and he likely helped to popularize it.

In 1916 he joined the Beijing Sports Lecture Hall (which included such luminaries as Wu Jian Quan, Yang Cheng Fu and Li Jing Lin) where he taught classes on both the martial arts and Chinese philosophy.  The later subject was calculated to appeal to a more educated middle class audience, so this is clear indication that Sun was attempting to change the demographic profile of the martial arts.

A number or reformers during this period concluded that for the martial arts to survive they had to become more appealing to educated middle class individuals.  Sun’s emphasis on health and self-cultivation was one way of accomplishing this goal.  The Jingwu strategy of offering classes on photography or western sports was another.  This period of time is also important for the development of the five modern styles of Taiji, including Sun Lutang’s own offering that combines the essential insights of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua.

Sun’s growing reputation allowed him to rekindle his contacts in government.  In 1919 Xu Shichang secured him a government appointment to teach martial arts in the Presidential Palace.  Sun was subsequently assigned the rank of Lieutenant in the Nationalist military and held this position until he formally resigned it in 1924.

In 1922 tragedy struck when Sun’s third son, Sun Huan Min, died of complications from broken ribs after falling and injuring himself in a martial arts demonstration in Shanghai.  At that point Sun moved to Shanghai, a growing and dynamic metropolis, and established new schools with hundreds of students.

In 1924 Sun traveled briefly to Shanxi where he further expanded his student base.  He did not stay in the region long, and returned to Shanghai to teach in 1928 at the invitation of Zhang Zhi Jiang and Li Jing Lin of the Central Guoshu Institute.  Sun remained active with the Central Guoshu Institute for some time, receiving appointments in Nanjing and Zhe Jiang.  In 1931 he even opened a large all female class in Zhe Jiang that he later turned over to his daughter.  After the Japanese invasion of the country in 1931 he resigned his various appointments and returned to Beijing.

In late November or early December 1933 Sun began to have premonitions about his impending death.  His daughter states that he used his knowledge of the I-Ching to predict the exact day and time that he would die.  Believing that the end was near he returned to his home in Baoding.  After returning home he stopped eating and went into a state of almost continual meditation.  On the 16th of December he died in the same room, of the same house, that he had been born in.

An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.
An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.

Conclusion

Suns physical death did little to slow the flow of his ideas.  His theories about the martial arts, the value of health and qigong training, and the intrinsic connection between boxing and Daoism continued to gain adherents.  In fact, his ideas shaped the foundations that the Republican and post-war Chinese martial arts would be built on.  They still live on today.  While they are the subject of deep study by some martial arts students, they have also generated many popular assumptions about the “traditional” arts that are blindly perpetuated by the media and entertainment industry.

The previous review has only touched on some of the historical highlights of Sun’s long and eventful career.  What is still needed is a social history of his contributions to the martial arts, one that can connect him to the political, social and martial currents of his day.  After all, Sun’s innovations did not happen in a vacuum.  He lived in one of the most dynamic and interesting periods of martial arts reform.  We will turn to a more detailed examination of these issues in our next post.

Click here for Part II of our study of the life of Sun Lutang.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (3): Chan Wah Shun and the Creation of Wing Chun

A street scene from Guangzhou  circa 1890, close to the time that Chan Wah Shun would have started teaching.

Chan Wah Shun and his Place in the Modern Wing Chun Community

One of the biggest problems in researching the history of the martial arts is the martial artists themselves.  They love their styles (or the businesses that they support) so much that everything needs to have an elaborate back story.  A straight forward account of the first guy to open a Wing Chun school is not enough.  Instead we need a tale of mystery, adventure, and potentially traitorous opera-singing terrorists.  Even though all of the evidence points to Wing Chun being an indigenous creation of Southern China, there is an almost irresistible urge to tie the art to some great legendary figure of the “Central Plains.”  Whether it is Ng Moy, Tan Sau Ng or General Qi Jiguang is almost besides the point.  All of these stories are responding to the same basic social needs, and ignoring historical reality.

Why is this a problem?  If you are an amateur martial artist and these sorts of myths give you a vocabulary to think about your own journey of personal transformation they are not an issue.  If, however, you are a historian or a social scientist attempting to understand the rise of modern Chinese civil society by watching the growth and the evolution of the market-place for hand combat instruction, now we have a problem.  The truth is that Wing Chun is not nearly as old as most people assume.  Its creation story probably dates back to the 1920s or 1930s.  The body of techniques it is based on were probably first brought together in one place by Leung Jan in the mid-19th century.  But how old is it as a “martial art”?

That is a tricky question to answer.  There is something undeniably subjective about it.  Martial artists in Southern China have been using the basic structures and short-boxing theory of Wing Chun since at least the end of the Ming Dynasty.  The basic concepts and movements seen in the “six and half point pole” are probably a good deal older than that.  However, “Ng Moy” as the patron saint of the art dates to the 1930s, which is also the first time that the art gained real popularity in Foshan.

To help solve this dilemma I think we need to be more specific about what a “martial art” actually is (at least in the modern Chinese context).  There is a difference, for instance, between being a martial artist and a military trainer.  Many martial artists occasionally worked as trainers, but they are clearly not the same job and no one treated them as such.  Both jobs focus on basically the same military skills and techniques (at least in the late 19th century).  Both soldiers and traditional martial artists studied archery, horsemanship, pole fighting and fencing.  The difference was that the martial artists did this within a social context that was explicitly geared toward the preservation and dissemination of these skills in the future.  There is an interesting “educational” aspect to the Chinese martial arts (probably influenced by Confucianism).  The army was never intended to act primarily as a school.  When one trainer got old and retired you hired a new one.  What was “eternal” was the military unit not the techniques of its combat instructors.  These could actually vary quite a bit.

And this, in a nut shell, is why we need to pay a lot more attention to Chan Wah Shun, and a lot less attention to shadowy revolutionary figures or even Leung Jan.  The good news is that Chan Wah Shun is a figure that we know a fair amount about.  Unfortunately we cannot say the same for Wong Wah Bo, Leung Yee Tie or Painted Face Kam.

Almost all of us encounter Wing Chun as a “martial art,” not a random collection of military skills.  That is probably what Leung Jan had.  He probably got one set of skills from the Leung family school, and another from his contacts in the opera world.  This was old, authentic material.  Yet it was probably Leung Jan that combined them and shaped them into a form that we might find recognizable today.

What he did not do was to seriously teach his art and that is why, in a purely social-scientific sense, it does not make much sense to view him as the founder of “Wing Chun.”  Yes it might be Chinese social tradition to do so, but “social tradition” is sometimes not that helpful to a historian.  Wing Chun exists as a social community, and Leung Jan did not create that community.  He contributed a valuable body of techniques to it.  But he refused to teach anyone other than his two children and a single colleague from the market place.

Students today usually view this as some sort of supernal mystery.  Or we assert (with no actual evidence) that Leung Jan was just “very conservative” and that he intended for Wing Chun to be a “family style.”  Given that no one in his family ever opened a school, or even taught their own kids, that seems highly unlikely.

Here is a much more likely scenario.  Leung Jan was a really successful businessman and a respected doctor.  Boxing was popular in Foshan, but it was never seen as “respectable” by most of his patients.  Plus it was a hard skill to monetize given how the economy was structured for most of the 19th century.  Then there was the very real economic and social conflict that seemed to accompany the martial arts in Foshan during the 19th and 20th centuries.  In fact, the martial arts are basically a tool for affecting the outcomes of “social conflicts.”  Leung Jan didn’t have a dog in that fight.  He had nothing to gain by teaching, so he didn’t.  This is a pretty similar story to the one that we can tell about Ip Man prior to 1950, or Yeun Kay San.  It should not be that farfetched to assume that the same basic mechanisms were at work in Leung Jan’s life as well.

Chan Wah Shun was in a different situation.  By the end of his career the local economy had evolved.  More transactions were monetized and more modernization had happened.  There were suddenly a lot more ways to make cash money with your martial arts skills.  A Chinese hand combat school from 1900 still looks pretty different from one today, but we are now well on that path.  Besides, the great commercial success of the Hung Sing Association (also located in Foshan) gave Chan Wah Shun a model for how this could be done.

This allowed him to open a school that taught people who were willing to make a serious monetary investment, either because they came from well off families (the only sorts that had spare silver laying around) or because they anticipated getting a job as a security guard (sort of like paying for an associates degree at a community college).  It was a good plan, except for the timing.  The Boxer Uprising in 1900 nearly destroyed the Chinese martial arts and made them deeply unfashionable among exactly the student base that Chan Wah Shun was trying to reach.  Even the venerable Hung Sing Association was forced to close its doors during this period.

So once again, rather than assuming that he was “very traditional” in his selection of students (something which there is no actual evidence to support) we might better understand the small size of his school as a combination of bad luck and a business model that was a bit before its time.  Still, Chan Wah Shun laid the foundations for the growth of Wing Chun in the 1920s and 1930s.  Without him it is unlikely that anyone would have heard of this art or that there would be much desire for it today.  Chan Wah Shun was the first person to attempt to publicly teach Wing Chun and he shaped it into a true “martial art.”  I have always believed he deserves more careful study and respect than he gets.

Below is a brief, two page, sketch of his life from my forthcoming volume (co-authored with Jon Nielson) A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts: Identity, Conflict and the Creation of Wing Chun.  I have shortened the account, eliminated the detailed discussion of his students and taken out the footnotes to make it more suitable for a blog post.  Still, I hope there is enough information here to inspire some good conversation.  If you want to read more, it will all be there in the upcoming book:

Chinese military archery training in the second half of the 19th century.

Chan Wah Shun and the Foshan Wing Chun Tradition: A Biographical Sketch

In the words of Ip Man “Leung Jan grasped the innermost secrets of Wing Chun and attained its highest level of proficiency.”  While it remains unclear how many students he actually taught in Foshan, there can be no doubt as to which of his disciples was the most influential.  It was Chan Wah Shun (1849-1913) who transformed Wing Chun into a public art.

In doing so he was following the trend previously established by local schools like the Hung Sing Association.  This group taught Choy Li Fut and was the largest and most important public martial arts school in Foshan.  While the school was reformed and reopened by Jeong Yim in 1867 (following the Red Turban Revolt) it was once more forced to close in 1901 due to the Boxer Rebellion.  It is interesting to note that Chan Wah Shun’s move into the public sphere happens just as the Hung Sing Association reopens its doors.

While Chan Wah Shun gained a fair degree of notoriety in local martial circles, there are still many unresolved questions regarding his early life.  Leung Ting places his birth in the year 1833 while Huang Xiao Hui and Huang Hong favor the year 1849.  Given the importance of the events of the 1850s, this decade discrepancy has quite an effect on how one might imagine Chan’s early life and formative years.

This uncertainty might be impossible to definitively resolve, but we may still be able to state which of the two scenarios is more plausible.   If Chan Wah Shun was born in 1833 and he began to practice Wing Chun when he was 25 (as Leung Ting asserts) then he would have commenced his studies in 1858.  Given that Leung Yee Tai and Wong Wah Bo probably did not seek refuge with Leung Jan until 1855-1856 this raises some difficulties.  First, one wonders whether Leung could really have learned enough in two years to take on students.  Secondly, in 1858 the opera ban was still in place and much of Foshan was in ruins.  Given that Wong Wah Bo and Leung Yee Tai were both still around, and supporting themselves by teaching martial arts, it is not clear why Chan Wah Shun simply did not go to them (or one of their associates) instead.

If we accept Leung Ting’s assertion that Chan was about 25 when he commenced his studies, but instead assume that he was born in 1849, he would have begun his training in 1874.  By this point in time the opera singers would have moved on and Leung Jan may have had an opportunity to establish his reputation in local medical and martial circles.  While either set of dates could work, this second possibility seems more plausible.

Throughout the course of his life Chan had a varied career.  He was born in Manin Village in Shunde.  As we have already seen, this was a generally conservative farming region characterized by rich landlords and strong local gentry.  It was also known for its strong militia organizations which hired such luminaries as Chan Heung (the creator of Choy Li Fut) to act as trainers and drill instructors.  We can probably assume that Chan was first exposed to martial arts as a child.

At the age of 13 Chan was sent to work at a rice shop in Foshan.  Later he started a business as a moneychanger in the market place (where he first met Leung Jan) and acquired the nickname “Moneychanger Wah.”  While silver was the official tender, smaller transactions were carried out with copper or bronze coins.  In any quantity these could be quite heavy, but Chan was known for his height and strength.

Exactly how Chan was first introduced to Wing Chun is subject to some debate.  The standard Ip family story is that he ran a money changing stall outside of Leung Jan’s pharmacy.  He was unaware that his neighbor was a martial arts master until one day (while taking shelter from the rain) he discovered Leung Jan teaching his sons and begged to be accepted as a student.  Huang Xiao Hui and Huang Hong instead claim that Chan Wah Shun was first taken on as a student by Li Hua (or “Wooden Man Hua”) who was himself a student of Leung Jan.  Chan studied with him until his death, at which time he began to learn from Leung Jan himself.

In addition to martial arts, Chan Wah Shun also inherited Leung Jan’s medical skills.  He eventually became an accomplished bone setter and herbalist in his own right and went into practice for himself.  He even assumed many of Leung Jan’s duties as the old master prepared for retirement in 1895.  Ip family lore also claims that this is when he began to teach Wing Chun publicly.  While Leung Ting relates a number of stories of Chan Wah Shun teaching students much earlier (usually while keeping the relationship secret from Leung Jan), the more common accounts state that Leung Jan did not wish to teach martial arts publicly, and hence Chan Wah Shun could not.  However, immediately upon his master’s retirement Chan Wah Shun began to accept students.

Chan was the first individual to teach Wing Chun publicly, yet he faced a number of distinct challenges.  To begin with, he suffered a stroke and retired in 1911, meaning that at most he only had a 15-16 year teaching career.  Further, the Boxer Rebellion in 1900-1901 caused general chaos and damaged the reputation of hand combat schools across the country.  The provincial government closed martial arts studios throughout Guangdong in 1901 in a bid to prevent copycat attacks on foreigners.  They quite correctly perceived that any provocation might give the British naval squadron stationed around Hong Kong a pretext to seize the entire Pearl River.

The legacy of the Boxer Rebellion proved to be toxic to China’s traditional hand combat community.  At a time when the Chinese people were actively contemplating the future and far reaching political and social reforms, martial artists appeared backwards, feudal and superstitious.  In short, the traditional modes of hand combat came to embody all of those values that the nation was moving away from.  It would not be until the 1920s that a new generation of more urban and intellectual martial artists would arise and argue (successfully) that the traditional arts could be a key element of China’s modern identity.

This historical background should help to frame our understanding of Chan Wah Shun’s efforts to spread Wing Chun.  Between 1895, when he first began to publicly accept students and 1901, when the government suppressed martial arts schools and associations, Chan would have had at most five years to gather and teach his pupils.  This is barely enough time to instruct a generation of students in the Wing Chun system.  Other schools in the area resumed instruction somewhere between 1903 and 1905, so it seems safe to assume that this is probably when he reopened his doors as well.  Chan Wah Shun only had a little over six years to train the rest of his disciples at a time when the popularity of traditional boxing was at an all-time low and his health was starting to fail.

When we combine this with the fact that Chan charged a considerable amount of money for instruction, it is not that hard to understand why, according to Ip Man, he only had about 16 students.  The small size of his school accurately reflects the marginal position that traditional modes of hand combat occupied at this point in time.

Little to nothing is certain about Chan’s first period as a teacher.  However, after the dust settled from the Boxer Rebellion it is known that he approached a prominent local businessman and landlord named Ip Oi Dor (Ip Man’s father) and rented space in the Ip family temple to conduct his classes.  His students were not great in number but must have come from the better elements of society if they could afford the entrance fee of 20 taels of silver as “Red Envelope Money” and an additional 8 taels of silver in monthly tuition.  This was much more than the Hung Sing school charged its members and it reflects the high degree of correlation between different hand combat schools and Foshan’s radicalized class structure.  Wing Chun truly was, and would remain for much of the 1920s-1940s, a rich man’s game.  Even with these structural restraints, the art gained more public exposure during this period than it had ever enjoyed in the past.

While Ip Man asserts that Chan Wah Shun taught as many as 16 students we have not been able to locate a list that is both complete and credible.  Huang Xiao Hui and Huang Hong, in their chapter written for Ma, go farther than any other source listing a total of 11 direct students.  Their brief biographies of Chan’s students and grand-students helps to paint a fascinating picture of life within Foshan’s Wing Chun clan from the 1920s-1940s.  Given that Chan’s teaching happened in two distinct eras, separated by an abrupt break, it is perhaps not surprising that it is so difficult to assemble a complete class roster.  Following Chan’s retirement in 1911 he returned to his native village in Shunde where, according to local tradition, he passed on a distinct version of his art that can still be seen today.  Given his overall condition and short time to teach, it is unclear what Chan himself was able to convey.  Of course some of his other students were also in the area.

Jingwu (Chinwoo) Association Hall in Foshan. Completed in the 1930s, this sort of public infrastructure supporting the martial arts would have been unheard of in Chan Wah Shun’s time. The martial arts were deeply unfashionable for most of his teaching career. This, more than other other factor, probably accounts for the small size of his school.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part I.

Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the later Jingwu Association, another liberal group seeking to use the martial arts to reform and “save” chinese society.

 

***Greetings!  This was my first entry in the long running “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series. Rather than just profiling the most famous martial artists I attempted to look at the actual life experiences of a wide range of individuals.  I took as my first subject the revolutionary poet Qiu Jin.  If you are unfamiliar with her legacy be sure to read on.  Also, click the link at the end for the second part of this essay.***

 

Anachronism and Misunderstanding in the Chinese Martial Arts

This is the first post in a new occasional series here at “Kung Fu Tea.”  These entries will provide brief biographies, and pose some thoughtful questions, about the lives of China’s martial artists.  Given my research interests a lot of these individuals will be from the South, but as the series goes on I hope to expand the scope of my expertise.

One of the basic problems when it comes to writing about Chinese martial culture is the very phrase “martial arts.”  These words are saddled with a lot of baggage in modern western society, much of which is uniquely unhelpful when it comes to understanding the vast range of past (or even current) practices.  Casual readers assume as a matter of course that they know what the “martial arts” are.  After all, they watch Kung Fu movies, they did some Judo in college or they drop their daughter off for her Tae Kwon Do “Little Tigers” class every Wednesday.  This erroneous assumption of expertise then leads to misunderstanding once they begin to seriously delve into questions of martial history or culture.

Much of what we do today has vanishingly little in common with what the east Asian martial arts actually were in most times and places.  This is especially true when one starts to think about the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Many of the outward trappings of modern commercial martial practice in America (crisp white uniforms, colored belts, discipline, militarism that “build character,” and franchised distribution) are actually artifacts of the Japanese post-Meiji Restoration renaissance in hand combat training.  These practices were exported to America after WWII, especially with the growing popularity of Judo, Aikido and later Karate.

American consumers have accepted this commercial ethos on such a deep level that it has almost become subconscious.  All martial arts must have colored belts and complex advancement tests…because that is what martial arts do, right?  Needless to say the traditional Chinese arts were usually taught quite differently.  Yet increasingly we are seeing Kung Fu schools (even within the style of Wing Chun-which ostensibly rejects such conventions) handing out colored sashes and on-line Sifu’s bragging as to what rank they have achieved in a grading system that was invented in California in the late 1990s.

In the world of commercial martial arts practice I find these trends to be merely irritating.  But when discussing history they are genuinely dangerous.  All of which brings us back to the essential purpose of this series of biographical posts.  We often have an artificially narrow view of what the traditional Chinese martial arts were and how they were expressed.  If it wouldn’t fit in a strip-mall storefront we don’t recognize it as part of the martial realm, even when wonderful examples of it are right in front of our eyes.

For instance, when was the last time that you saw a discussion of horsemanship as a critical skill in the traditional Chinese martial arts?  Or archery?  How about an ability to master the subaltern dialects and coded speech patterns of bandits and secret society members so that either negotiations or interrogations could be carried out?  Yet in the mind of most Ming and Qing era soldiers and martial artists these were the skills that basically defined the profession.  Clearly there is a need to broaden our view of who the Chinese martial artists were and the sorts of varied life experience they possessed.

My overriding goal in this series of posts is to demonstrate that the “Chinese martial arts” were never just one thing.  We need to better appreciate the richness of the lived experience of the “martial artists” that we find in the historical record.  Indeed, this may even necessitate abandoning the concept that there is any such thing as the “Chinese martial arts” as a singular, easily understood, category.  Instead what we actually see are a wide variety of martial practices adapted by different sorts of people for their own reasons at various times and place.  Rather than discussing “Chinese martial culture” in the singular it should be discussed in the plural.

Portrait of Qiu Jin, dressed in male Chinese attire.

Qiu Jin and the State of the Literature

Qiu Jin (November 8, 1875- July 15, 1907) is perhaps the most interesting martial hero to emerge from Southern China in the early 20th century that almost no-one in the west has ever heard of.  Even in martial arts and political circles I get mostly blank stares when I mention her name.  She is better known among the small circle of scholars that study gender or revolution in modern China.

The situation is all the more puzzling as she is far from forgotten in either China or Japan.  The Chinese consider her to have died a martyr to the 1911 revolution and a substantial body of folklore and legends have grown up around her life.  The government has even built a memorial and small museum in her honor.  Her life has also been the subject of a number of scholarly treatments in Japan.  These focus both on her revolutionary exploits and her poetry, some of which was quite accomplished.

Most of the best scholarship on Qiu Jin is actually published in Japanese.  I spent a semester going through it with a Japanese graduate student and the exercise was interesting.  However, its probably not necessary if one’s main interest in Qiu Jin is the martial arts aspect of her career.  Yamazaki Atsuko’s 2007 volume Shu Kin Kaen No Hito contained a brief but helpful discussion of her childhood exposure to, and training in, martial arts.

Perhaps the most reliable discussion of Qiu Jin’s life and revolutionary career in the English language literature can be found in the writing of Mary Backus Rankin.  In 1975 she published a conference paper and book chapter titled “The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch’ing: the Case of Ch’iu Chin.”  The piece appeared in Women in Chinese Society (Stanford UP, 1975) edited by Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke.  Also valuable is the discussion of Qiu Jin provided on pages 85-93 of Jonathan D. Spence’s The Gates of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolutionaries 1895-1980. Penguin. 1982.

Qiu Jin is an important figure to understanding both emerging Chinese nationalism and feminism in the late Qing period.  Her literary output needs to be better researched.  Also interesting is how her background in Chinese Wuxia novels and martial culture conditioned her behavior as a revolutionary.  Clearly we need a comprehensive English language biography on this figure.  While that is beyond the scope of any blog-post, it is possible to summarize what we know of her life and military career and to ask some thoughtful questions that might stimulate future research.

The Life of Qiu Jin: Feminist, Revolutionary, Poet, Terrorist, Martial Artist.

Qiu Jin was born in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in 1875.  She was born to a mid-level gentry family that might have enjoyed a very comfortable existence, except of course for the decline of the Confucian trained bureaucracy that accompanied the end of the Qing regime.  Her family was relatively rich with degree holders, though not all of them got the best postings.  Her great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother all held various positions within the government, but her father never rose much above the level of local secretary even though he was probably a Juren degree holder.  As a girl she grew up at the family estate in Shaoxing in Zhejiang.  While she lived in number of places including Beijing and Japan, Qiu Jin repeatedly returned to northern Zhejiang and seemed to have considered the area home throughout her far ranging career.

Rankin points out that the family’s educational background was probably critical to Qiu Jin’s later development and unorthodox outlook on life.  Far from being stifling or overly conservative, the family seems to have been part of a minority Confucian school of thought that saw women as being capable of moral development, ethical behavior and excellence in education.  While by no means universally held, gentry families from this school tended to educate their daughters and even encourage their artistic pursuits in the areas of writing, literature, poetry and painting.  This certainly appears to have been the case with Qiu Jin who proved throughout her revolutionary career that, while she was perfectly happy to even engage in violent struggle, her pen was the sharpest weapon of all.

Qiu Jin seems to have been indulged by both her parents and other male family members.  Her feet were bound as a child, but not very tightly.  She is remembered as having an uncommonly active and athletic childhood.  She learned to ride a horse, to shoot a bow and at least some sword play.  She is also said to have developed the ability to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. (see Rankin 46 also Yamazaki).

Swords would play a reoccurring role, both in her life and literary work.  As an adult student in Japan, Qiu Jin is said to have carried a short sword and was even photographed with a long knife.  Other individuals remember her training with, or talking about, swords as an adult after her return to China.  How much of this was learned in her youth is open to interpretation, and there is not a lot of really detailed information on her early martial curriculum.

So, was Qiu Jin studying the “martial arts?”  From the point of view of a modern American reader the answer would probably be no.  There is not much here that we recognize.  She had no “style,” no “school” and no official and much beloved teacher.  There is no evidence that she ever studied unarmed combat of any kind, and the thing that seemed to illicit the most comment from her contemporaries were her skills on a horse.

Yet from the point of view of those around her Qiu Jin certainly was certainly studying the martial arts.  A family such as hers lived and died by producing young men who could pass the civil service exam and maintain the family’s place in the gentry-class.  Yet such clans rarely placed all of their eggs in a single basket.  While the civil-service exam was much more prestigious, the state also ran a military-service exam.  This system provided much of the nation’s officer corp.  These were also important jobs that paid a steady income and provided some social status.

The military service exams expected their students to have mastered the basic Confucian library but to also be familiar with a number of military texts including Sun Tzu.  Practical aspects of the exam included archery, horsemanship, strength and the ability to perform sword routines, often with blades of different weights.

Qiu Jin’s extended family was attempting to prepare some of their male children to take the military service exam and so they were teaching these skills.  Indeed, her cousin Xu Xilin (later a fellow revolutionary) spent most of his career at the margins of military and law enforcement circles.  Qiu Jin was indulged and allowed to study these more active subjects with her male peers even though these things traditionally lay outside the realm of propriety for female members of the gentry-class.

It is not really clear how seriously Qiu Jin took this training or what sorts of skills she actually achieved (though by all accounts she was an accomplished rider).  What was most interesting to the local community was that she was doing these things at all.  It is also known that as a literarily talented child Qiu Jin immersed herself in the tales, stories and novels of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  She was enchanted with stories about bandits and heroes who sacrificed themselves for the nation.

I suspect that from her point of view these novels were, in fact, the true heart of the matter.  To her the martial arts were not simply a style or a set of techniques.  Rather they were a set of philosophical commitments and a way of life.  To be a martial artist was to be a person who exhibited the qualities of martial valor.  These norms were very much at odds with the Confucian worldview that surrounded her, and they helped to shape much of her revolutionary career.  For Qiu Jin to be a “martial artist” was to live the life of a wandering swordsman.  She called herself a “revolutionary” because that was the terminology of the time and indeed, a revolution was brewing.  Yet what she really seemed to seek was justice on a personal scale.

For her, to be a martial artist was to be a “revolutionary.” Yet her definition of the later term has always seemed to her critics to be oddly primitive and apolitical.  She had no specific agenda or set long term goals for the state.  It seems that in Qiu Jin’s mind a “revolutionary” was simply a western gloss on the beloved knights-errant of her childhood reading.

Scholars have not fully grasped the degree to which Qiu Jin’s “revolution” was a sort of political-theater in which the military values of the heroic side of Chinese culture were scrupulously observed and performed.  Many of the more paradoxical elements of her life, such as her penchant for cross-dressing or her near suicidal death (in which she allowed herself to be captured knowing that she would be tortured and executed) can be better understood within the context of late 19th century martial novels and plays than most historians to date have realized.  Early 20th century feminist thought or western politically radical literature actually provides little guidance in these areas.

Qiu Jin repeatedly discussed her fascination with the story of Hua Mulan, another Chinese woman who cross-dressed, took up arms, and fought to save the nation.

Her educational background is important for another reason as well.  While certain styles of martial arts with names and well defined social boundaries did exist in China from at least the Ming onward, these things appear to have been the exception rather than the rule.  Most members of the gentry who studied martial matters did so in a private setting with certain concrete career goals in mind.  These schools had no names because they had no public function.  Their sole function was to advance the reputation and economic fortunes of a single local clan.  However, they very often employed talented scholars, retired military trainers and civilian martial artists.

Likewise when most peasants in the countryside studied martial arts it was to be part of a village militia.  Some of the Big Sword societies had a unique style that they taught.  For instance we know from Qing court records that Plum Blossom Boxing was popular throughout northern China early in the 19th century.  Yet most people studied what the local drill instructor taught and probably didn’t associate any special name or “style” with what they were doing.  Our insistent attempts to discover modern schools and lineage structures in the past (when they very likely did not exist) causes a lot of needless confusion and frustration.

The career of Qiu Jin illustrates this nicely.  It is precisely those questions about her background (what was the name of her style?) that demonstrates the shortcomings of our modern understanding of the Chinese martial arts in the 19th century.  While this is the time period from which the “modern” approach to the Chinese martial emerged, not everyone was part of these trends.  Rural peasants and gentry members, who were deeply steeped in the martial arts, tended to view of this material in ways that seems odd to modern sensibilities.

We will look more closely at Qiu Jin’s adult interests in the martial arts and her short-lived career as a political terrorist and revolutionary in the next post.

[Click Here To Continue To Part II]

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (24): Wen Shengcai, Wing Chun’s Assassin

A Cantonese Opera performance in San Francisco, circa 1900.

 

On Legends and their Grains

Not all legends contain a grain a truth. Such an assertion is wishful thinking and sells short the remarkable faculty that is the human imagination. Still, grains manifest frequently enough that they keep historians and folklorists on their toes. When more than one appears in the same story they can become the source of creative confusion.

Consider the case of the Pied Piper of Hamelin. This is one of those unique legends that weaves multiple truthful strands into an otherwise fantastic morality tale. The existence of these kernels has attracted a large number of researchers over the years. Sadly, one of them is that a large number of children really were lost from the town sometime in the late 13th century (some sources date the year of the catastrophe to 1284).

Second, a musical figure wearing colorful clothing does appear to have become something of a local hero at about the same time. Still, it seems improbable that he spirited away any children. The “Pied Piper” was revered in the 13th century, even being memorialized in a stained glass window in the local church.  Sadly, that structure was destroyed in a fire a few centuries later, but we still have some written descriptions of the original window.

Historians and genealogists have noted that there were multiple rounds of out migration from Hamelin as new areas opened to settlement in Poland, eastern Germany and Transylvania. (That last one, unsurprisingly, did not end well). These waves often featured an outflowing of children and landless youth who were either recruited from, or in some cases sold by, the town to brightly dressed recruiters and labor organizers.

J.R.R. Tolkien, in his role as a professor of medieval literature, noted that creative individuals often drew on a wide variety of historical sources and combined, hybridized, reimagined, inverted or reframed them in an attempt to generate new stories that were engaging and meaningful.  When examining a legend historians or philologists can sometimes pick out identifiable fragments of what came before, but the important aspect of the process is the recombination, and what that suggests about the author’s creative world.

The story of the Pied Piper is simple enough that one can see the process that Tolkien described. Likewise, we can find these same mechanisms at work in the creation myths and subsequent legends that define the shared culture of the Chinese martial arts. The relatively recent vintage of many of these styles makes the process more transparent than if we were dealing with something from the classical past.

Consider tales of the Red Boat Opera’s political assassins, diligently seeking the overthrow of the hated Qing. A popular class of legends throughout Southern martial culture, and especially within the Wing Chun community, they focus on the marginal and mobile nature of the Cantonese theater companies that plied the waterways of Guangdong during the festival seasons, moving from one small village to the next and staying only a few nights in any location. Such craft were ubiquitous on the branches of the Pearl River, passingly mostly unnoticed by respectable society.

Actors really were trained in various types of martial arts which made up an important part of their performance skill sets. Even though they predated the historical Red Boats, which didn’t appear until the 1870s and would reach their zenith in the 20th century, there were also vague memories of the flamboyant role that opera performers had played during the Red Turban Uprising (which was essentially a tax revolt) during the 1850s. Vernacular opera was even banned in the area for a decade following the uprising as the government cracked down on all sorts of subversive forces.

Perhaps it was only natural that as Wing Chun gained popularity in the 1920s these earlier memories would be combined with the sudden growth of Chinese nationalism and anti-Manchu sentiment that accompanied the 1911 birth of the Republic. While many martial arts styles strenuously denied any link to theater, Wing Chun is unique in the degree to which it openly celebrated this, placing Leung Jan at the nexus of a shadowy past in which the style was spread by legendary actors, and the current era when historically verifiable (and often relatively affluent) students begin to appear. Given the popular enthusiasm for revolutionary heroes in the 1920s-1930s, it is not surprising that we begin to see all sorts of stories of anti-government actors murdering hated officials with their incredible martial skills before vanishing into the Pearl River’s crowded water ways.

The obvious issue with these stories, much like the Pied Piper, is their fantastic nature. As I have noted in several previous posts, the Chinese authorities were nothing if not bureaucratic and kept very detailed personnel records on the transfers, promotions, demotions or unexpected deaths of their officials. Any deaths, mysterious or mundane, generated a detailed investigation that would get passed all of the way up the chain of command to the throne itself. Needless to say, there is no historical evidence of politically motivated kung fu killers plying the waters of the Pearl River. The amount of real-life paperwork that such a campaign would have generated is mind boggling.

This should not be taken to mean that everything was peaceful, or that being a government official was necessarily a safe occupation. During the early 19th century pirate fleets of hundreds or even thousands of vessels burned small cities with an alarming degree of regularity. Later local clans fought small scale civil wars among themselves that sometimes-required government intervention. Secret societies, many of which had rituals promising to “Restore the Ming” were increasingly being implicated in all sorts of organized crime, and by the end of the century good old-fashioned banditry seemed determined to take up the slack left by the disappearance of the pirates. Nor can we forget the importance of salt and opium smuggling to the local economy. All of which is to say, there was no dearth of opportunities for young men seeking to “test their Kung Fu” in southern China during the tumultuous 19th century. But this type of violence tended to be apolitical and fairly well understood.

That would change in the early years of the 20th century.  This was the period when foreign diplomats began to send intelligence cables reporting rising levels of national consciousness within the Han population and violent revolutionary feelings among a minority of them. In 1905 Sun Yat-sen and Song Jiaoren founded a genuinely political secret society named the Tongmenhui which attempted to recruit young intellectuals and revolutionaries at the same time that it combined the efforts of smaller anti-government groups.  The early 20th century would see a number of high-profile political assassinations of government officials. Sadly, politically motivated killings would remain a common feature of Chinese public life throughout the 1940s. Yet these acts were carried out with explosives, rifles and handguns rather than kung fu.

 

Wen Shengcai, 1870-1911, prior to his execution. Source: Wikimedia

 

Wen Shengcai, 1870-1911

Still, there seems to have been a natural confluence among certain individuals whose political beliefs attracted them to both martial arts practice and revolutionary terrorism. We have already discussed the important case of Qiu Jin. What is often forgotten is that the first Wing Chun practitioner to gain national notoriety within China was another such individual.

We do not have many details of Wen Shengcai’s life, but he is Wing Chun’s best-known revolutionary martyr.  Born to a poor family in the Meixian District of far eastern Guangdong in 1870, he lost his father at age six. When he was 14 (1884) Wen was abducted and subsequently trafficked as unskilled labor to a tin mine in Ipoh Malaysia where he was subjected to much abuse. Eventually he managed to escape and make his way back to China.

Wen stopped in Qinzhou (which was then part of Guangdong) upon his return. While there he studied a branch of Wing Chun. At some point in time he briefly joined the army but did not have much of a career.  In 1901 Wen Shengcai traveled to Taiwan where he stayed for about two years. After that he returned to Southern China, and then journeyed back to Malaysia to once again find work as a miner.  In 1906 Sun Yat-sen visited the area in an attempt to raise money for his cause and recruit followers. Wen was moved by one of his speeches and soon joined a branch of the Tongmenhui which was less interested in political philosophy than taking “direct action.” He is said to have been a very active member and organizer while in Malaysia.

In March of 1910 Wen returned to Southern China determined to carry out a high profile political killing. His initial plans were thwarted when he was unable to procure the types of explosives necessary to carry out a bombing, but he did succeed in acquiring a handgun.  His intended target was Li Zhun, a high-ranking officer in the Chinese Navy.

On April 11 Wen Shengcai went to a teahouse near the Yantang Airport. A number of government officials had gathered there to watch an aerial exhibition sponsored by the French. At the end of the event he rushed out of the teahouse firing at what he believed to be Li’s screened sedan chair.  In fact the vehicle was occupied by General Fu Qi who died after being shot in the forehead, temple, neck and torso. Fu Qi’s son, in the following sedan chair fled and raised the alarm as Wen Shengcai tried to escape the scene. But unbeknownst to him, Wen was followed by a plainclothes detective as he fled through a wooded area. After emerging on the other side, he was tackled to the ground and more police officers were called.

On April 15th Wen Shengcai was executed at the age of 41. He immediately came to be seen as a nationalist martyr and his exploits were reported in papers throughout the diaspora. Wen’s life even seems to have become the subject of opera performances throughout southern China. As near I can tell, very little of this political discussion mentioned anything about his study of the martial arts. We can verify nothing about his experience with Wing Chun through standard historical sources.

In the decade after his death this aspect of Wen Shengcai’s story was amplified by certain voices within the Jingwu Association.  What is not often appreciated is that while Jingwu originated in Shaghai, most of its founding members were actually expatriate businessmen from Guangdong. While they did not promote or teach the southern arts, they certainly took a keen interest in events in the area. This can be seen in their 10th anniversary commemorative volume published 1919.  In a section of miscellaneous thoughts (many of which focused on political or social criticism) Chen Tiesheng, Jingwu’s main propogandist and journalist recorded the following note:

“Wen Shengcai, the martyr who assassinated Fu Qi, was from Mei County, Guangdong. He was skilled in the Wing Chun boxing art. His son Weiqin is now a martial arts instructor in Wuyangcheng [another name for Guangzhou, Translation by Paul Brennan].”

This brief remembrance is significant as it is the very first published mention Wing Chun that I have been able to find.  Further, this was directed at a national readership, effectively recasting Wen Shengcai’s narrative in such a way that his association with the Chinese martial arts became his defining attribute. In so doing Chen Tiesheng sought to polish the revolutionary credentials of these practices at a time when they were increasingly coming under attack by the “May 4th” modernists.

Nothing lasts forever, not even revolutionary fame. Wen Shengcai has subsequently been all but forgotten in the modern Wing Chun community. I don’t think I have ever seen his story discussed in English language sources. To be honest, there isn’t much written about him in Chinese either. He is the sort of figure that gets short encyclopedia entries recounting his deeds, but not his life. Most of these focus only on the killing of General Fu Qi, totally skipping the trauma of his youth or experience with the martial arts.

Still, there was a time in the early 20th century when this part of his narrative was more widely known and celebrated. One cannot help but notice that this is roughly the same era when most of Wing Chun’s modern myths and legends were starting to come together. I wonder how much of Wen Shengcai’s memory, combined with older legends of the Red Turban uprising and the generally activist atmosphere of the time, has shaped our imagination of Wing Chun’s revolutionary past. One way or another, it is important to realize that Wen, not Bruce Lee or Ip Man, was the first Wing Chun student to become a nationally recognized figure in China.

 

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If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part I.

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Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (23): Fu Zhen Song – Southbound Tiger

Source: https://www.facebook.com/Fu-Style-Internal-Martial-arts-System-傅振嵩傳內家拳-111903698917070/

 

History as the cure for Ideology

Everyone has a personal mental image of the Chinese martial arts.  The detail may vary, but there are some undeniably common elements.  Grainy photos, complex postures, exotic weapons, strangely vigorous old men. The few remaining images of Fu Zhen Song, especially those in which he is holding his signature Bagua Dao, a gift from the general and warlord Zhang Zoulin, check all of the boxes. I suspect that a non-trivial number of practitioners actually imagine one or more of these photographs when they hear the words “traditional Chinese martial arts.”

In discussions of martial arts history my friend TJ Hinrichs is fond of saying that history, despite its challenges, is the cure for ideology. When we really understand the past we also realize where our images of it come from, how they have been shaped, and what work they have done in shaping our current society.  The present and the past never exist as two entirely separate entities. Nowhere is their mutual dance more apparent than in our imaginations of these traditional fighting systems.

This is not to say that a close examination of history always tames our vision of the past. It may remain as confusing or bewildering as ever. Seeing the past and really understanding it on a personal level are two different things. As we have been warned, it is a foreign country. Sometimes our examinations of it only serve to bring those paradoxes into sharper relief.

Still, in a time and a place where everyone is sure that they know exactly what the traditional Chinese martial arts really are, that they have studied their boundaries and can comment on their weaknesses, a little disorientation might be a good thing.  Becoming uncomfortable with our past is often the first step in wondering how many other things the present might be.  What latent potentials have we not exhausted in our parade of viral YouTube videos?

Few martial artists are more interesting than Fu Zhen Song (1872-1953) in this respect. Students of Baguazhang, his primary art and the area in which he achieved the greatest fame, may already be familiar with his legacy.  Fu style Bagua remains popular in Guangdong, Hong Kong and in some diaspora communities. History aficionados might recognize him as one of the famed “South Bound Tigers” who in 1928-1929 brought the new Guoshu program, and a variety of Northern styles, to Southern China. I have already discussed those events in some detail in my book on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts, but Fu was only mentioned in passing in that work as he didn’t engage in the sort of systematic institution building which was the focus of that project.

This is a shame as few of the Republic’s masters had a more varied or fascinating career.  Fu’s peripatetic life contains many twists and suggests lingering, unanswered, question. Yet it also exemplifies the ability of the Chinese martial arts to function as a pathway for social mobility for poor youth from the countryside during times of almost unimaginable political and social upheaval. Fu’s life was shaped by the banditry and militarization that defined the end of the Qing dynasty, and the early years of the Republic. The social networks shared by martial artists, soldiers, armed escort companies and bandit chieftains proved to be essential in not just surviving, but thriving, in the volatile world of the 1920s and 1930s.

Through of his expertise in the martial arts, Fu received the support and sponsorship of some of the most powerful men in China. In exchange he would support their mission of building a strong and unified state through martial practice. The entrance of the northern fighting systems into the south was not a matter of happenstance.  Both his contributions to that event, and life in general, can only be understood when we place them in the proper social/political context.

As with other entries in this series, I should begin with the disclaimer that I am not a Baguazhang student and my own practice of the southern arts falls far outside Fu’s sphere of influence. This biographical sketch does not claim to use any secret or closely held information. I have relied on a handful of published sources that have discussed Fu Zhensong’s contributions to the internal arts as well as my own understanding of political and social worlds that he attempted to navigate.

By far the most helpful of the existing sources is Lin Chao Zhen’s (edited by Wei Ran Lin and Rick L. Wing) Fu Zhen Song’s Dragon Bagua Zhang (Blue Snake Books 1997, 2010). While not attempting to be a scholarly book, the historical discussions in the first two chapters of this work are truly important.  At one point in time, prior to the current explosion of publications on the topic, this would have been one of the best sources on modern Chinese martial arts history that readers could hope to encounter. The editors of this work did an excellent job parsing conflicting accounts and reconstructing the most likely course of events. Yet as a popular work they did not list the specific sources they were dealing with, and there appear to be a few minor mix-ups as they move into discussion of the politically chaotic environment within the KMT during the 1920s. Still, their book is clearly where anyone interested in reading more about Fu’s life should begin.

 

Source: https://www.facebook.com/Fu-Style-Internal-Martial-arts-System-傅振嵩傳內家拳-111903698917070/

 

Bandits and Boxers

Fu Qian Kun was born to a farming family in Mape Village in Henan province sometime around 1872. The exact date, like many other details of Fu’s early life, remains a matter of dispute.

Students of Chinese martial history will no doubt be familiar with the many surveys of this region that have been completed by scholars such as Esherick, Perry and Cohen as they attempted to deal with the region’s long history of social unrest and the eventual outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1900. While most details of Fu’s childhood and early life are missing, we actually know quite a bit about the world that he grew up in. Shaped as it was by successive waves of famine and banditry, it is unsurprising that the martial arts would be a critical force during his formative years.

Tradition within the Fu family lineage note that Mape followed the common regional pattern of setting aside a plot of land as a communal boxing ground. The village would hire outside instructors who taught skills that could be used for community defense, or simply for entertainment during the agricultural slack season. Such village boxing grounds would become central locations in the rise of Plum Blossom Boxing, the Big Sword Society and later the Yihi Spirit Boxing movement. They would survive as a social institution well into the twentieth century when they were repurposed as the training ground from the Red Spears that resisted local warlords, KMT tax collectors, and Japanese invaders with equal ferocity. Given the weak position of the gentry and landlords in these more marginal areas, boxing grounds became an important mean of social organization in a crisis and a means of asserting local autonomy.

Lin notes that in 1888, when Fu Qian Kun was about 16, the village decided that it was expedient to hire a communal martial arts instructor. Chen Yanxi (father of Chen Fake) received a contract and traveled from Chen Village to begin teaching at the Mape boxing ground. It is believed that his curriculum would have included “Old Frame” Chen-style Taiji (larger circles, with a pronounced emphasis on striking), a push-hands method and probably spear work (a Chen family specialty and practical skill for a community worried about bandit incursions).

Lineage tradition states that Fu’s family was poor and, not being able to afford the tuition, he stood outside the boxing ground copying the movements from afar until Chen Yanxi took notice of him and, realizing his dedication, accepted him as a student. Lin and Wing note this reading of events sounds suspiciously like a number of other stories. Such stereotyped tales are probably retold as a way to emphasize the dedication of the student and the virtue of the teacher. A more likely scenario is that, given the lack of security in the region, all available young men would have been encouraged to study with the boxing master as this functioned as a type of militia training that the community as a whole benefitted from. Indeed, Fu’s martial practice would remain intertwined with military for most of his life.

It is unclear exactly how long Chen Yanxi remained in Mape. We know that after he left the village hired Jia Qi Shan, a Bagua master and student of Dong Hai Chuan, as their next instructor.  Sources say that Fu studied with Jia for 8-9 years and may have become his formal disciple. Lin and Wing caution that those numbers don’t actually fit well with Fu’s life. This may be the amount of time he worked with both Chen and Jia, or he perhaps he continued his association with Jia after they both left the village.  The existing accounts are not clear on this point.

What we do know is that Fu began to go by the name Fu Zhen Song (“to overcome the mountains”) around this time. With a background in both Chen Taijiquan and Baguazhang, Jia encouraged his student to travel to Beijing in order to gain connections and experience the larger world of martial arts mastery for himself.  It seems likely that Fu was in his mid 20s when he took this step. There are also accounts that suggest that Fu himself may have served as the village boxing instructor at some points during this period.

If so, his tenure was likely to have been an eventful one. 1900 saw widespread violence as the Yihi Boxer movement swept the countryside of Northern China before centering its fury on the foreign presence in Beijing.  The immediate aftermath of this was more bloodshed and foreign military raids into the countryside around Beijing as the seven powers attempted to hunt down any remaining Boxers. Nor can we forget the lingering effects of the famine that motivated so many young men to join the ranks of the Yihi Boxers in the first place.

Social violence echoed throughout the countryside and Mape village was not spared. There are accounts of Fu personally facing down a small gang of local bandits while armed with a pole (possibly made of iron) in 1900.  In another account, which Lin and Wing deem to be credible, Fu was forced to interrupt his time in Beijing (where he was studying Bagua with Ma Gui, a senior disciple of Yin Fu) to return to his village in 1908 where there were rumors of trouble.

In the most spectacular versions of the story Fu, discovering the villagers massively outnumbered by a force of 300 bandits, Fu offered to fight a duel with their top 20 men.  The bandit leader was so impressed with his subsequent victory that he broke off the assault.  However, Lin and Wing note that Fu’s own account of the events (while cryptic) is far more realistic.  When directly questioned later in life he told his student Lin Chao Zhen “They told me there was trouble, so I grabbed a spear and went out to face them.  There were about 30 of them. I fought them, they left.”

According to Lin and Wing, it seems likely that Fu killed two of the raiders in a clash between roughly equal numbers of villagers and bandits. The legal repercussions for killing someone in Imperial China were serious, and on the dusty northern plains the line between one village’s militia and the next’s bandit gang was paper thin.  It was not uncommon for villages militias to turn bandit and raid neighboring settlements in times of famine, or for them to be used to settle disputes.  We don’t really know what sparked this particular clash, but its implications were serious enough that Fu left home and he doesn’t seem to have really returned. Instead this clash seems to mark the beginning of a long period of martial pilgrimage that would only end with his settlement in Guangzhou in 1928.

Banditry was a major problem in the final years of the Qing dynasty.  Successful groups could assemble forces numbering in the thousands and occasionally tens of thousands. These bandit armies would lay siege to small cities and challenge the authority of civil and military authorities. Lacking other options, the state sometimes dealt with particularly successful bandits by offering them commissions as military officers in exchange for their services hunting down other bandit groups or suppressing insurrection in the countryside. Like the martial arts, banditry proved to be a pathway for social advancement for some of China’s landless youth during volatile times.

Nor should we underestimate just how high one’s fortunes could rise.  Republic era generals Zhang Zuolin and Li Zongren were important figures in the political history of the 1920s and 1930s. Both men also crossed paths with Fu at various points.

Zhang and Li each began their rise to power as bandit chieftains in some of the same areas of Northern China that Fu would explore as a member of an armed escort company.  Both men would successfully parlay their original commissions by the Imperial military into positions of influence, and immense personal enrichment, in the armies of the 1920s and 1930s.  During the early 20th century they would also use their followers as “armed escort companies” when periods of relatively peace allowed regional trade in Henan and Shandong.  Fu’s formative years occurred in decades when the line between martial artists, bandit, soldier and armed escort/security guard were thin and ever shifting.  Indeed, these social networks would have an important shaping impact on Fu’s own rise to prominence.

Between the years 1910 and 1913 Fu Zhen Song traveled widely, exploring northern China.  In 1910 he was hired by one of Henan’s many armed escort companies, the Heng Xin Bio Ju. While working with them he traveled the dangerous routes between Henan and Shandong until the firm was ultimately forced to close by the conclusion of the revolution in 1912.

Fu continued to travel for another year, apparently seeking out martial arts instruction.  During late 1912 or 1913 he encountered noted Daoist and swordsman Song Wei Yi (1855-1925). While he may have studied some sword material with him, Lin and Wing report that his main aim was to learn Taiji Lightening Palm and Rocket Fist.

During this time Fu somehow found the opportunity to marry Han Kunru, the daughter of another martial arts teacher from Northern China. They would eventually have four children in total, two sons and two daughters. The elder son would go on to inherit his father’s martial lineage, and later taught Mark Bow Sim, the mother of film star Donnie Yen. While the younger son was not interested in martial arts, there are accounts of both daughters assisting their father in Taijiquan demonstrations.

 

Source: https://www.facebook.com/Fu-Style-Internal-Martial-arts-System-傅振嵩傳內家拳-111903698917070/

 

Soldiers and Warlords

Fu’s life began to head in a different later in 1913.  At the age of 41 he formally enlisted in the military after receiving an invitation to act as a drill and martial arts instructor for General Liu Zhenhua.  At the time Liu was a prominent figure in the Beiyang army. That institution would fragment following Yuan Shikan’s attempts to declare himself emperor (and his subsequent death) in 1915. Its disintegration would put China firmly on the path to warlordism in the early years of the Republic.

The upheavals of 1915 saw Fu resign from the military and leave his post training a dadao unit. Still, he would not stay away from the military for long.  After a few more years of travel and work as an independent martial artist, Fu would re-enlist in the military in 1920 (now age 46) with the combined Heibei-Shandong United Army under the command of renown General Li Jinglin. Known as the “Sword Saint,” Li is best remembered for his support of the Chinese martial arts (especially Song Wei Yi’s Wudang sword method) later in life. Yet in the early 1920s his troops saw frequent action, often in alliance with the military faction led by General Zhang Zuo Lin.

The sources that I have seen are silent as to why, and under what capacity, Fu decided to reenlist. Perhaps he was working as a trainer, but it seems that it took some effort to attract Li’s attention and to achieve a command of his own. This occurred only after Fu managed to distinguish himself in a martial arts exhibition with a display of his external styles that the General (always a boxing enthusiast) was attending. Fu was given command of a 100-man martial arts company that was drilled in a variety of more combative techniques.

At this point Fu’s fortunes began to rapidly accelerate. In 1921 (or possibly 1922) Fu took part in a martial arts exhibition in Tianjin. General Zhang Zoulin (the “Old Marshall”) was so taken with this performance that he awarded Fu the not insubstantial prize of $1,000 and a huge dadao or baguadao, that would go on to become Fu’s signature weapon, seen in so many of his existing photos and used in countless public demonstrations.  Later General Zhang appointed Fu as a coach at the Northern Martial Arts Institute where he would have the privilege of training two of the General’s sons.

Still, I don’t think that this should not be understood as a fundamental shift in patronage. I suspect that General Li Jinglin remained Fu’s main benefactor throughout this period. After being routed by Wu Peifu in 1922, Li sought refuge with Zhang brining his still intact forces with him. One suspect that Fu’s various appointments happened at Li’s suggestions or instigation. Nor would this be the last time that Li recommend Fu for a high-profile teaching assignments.

Li and Fu also engaged in a productive exchange of skills.  Both had a prior relationship with Song Wei Yi, though it seems that they studied different subjects.  Fu learned Song’s sword system from Li, who was a major promoter of Wudang sword.  In exchange Fu taught him Bagua.

Zhang’s somewhat tumultuous career would shape the lives of both Fu and Li for the next five years. The civil regime that Zhang established in Manchuria proved to be one of the most effective local government in all of China for a time, encourage economic growth and trade. Still, Zhang’s military ambitions would ultimately undermine this, leading to his own murder at the hands of his supposed Japanese allies.

After the tumult of the second Zhili-Fengtain War in 1924, Zhang’s military forces underwent a fundamental reorganization. As a result of this, General Li Jinglin’s portfolio was expanded and he was named the Commander-in-Chief of the Three Eastern Provinces. Fu received a promotion of his own, now being tasked with a battalion of 500 soldiers.

Again, the situation proved to be short-lived. Zhang’s military and economic position were ultimately unstainable. After a final falling out with Zhang, Li resigned and retired in 1927. Fu also retired from the military at roughly the same. While he would not return to active service, his contacts with various officers and warlords would continue to shape his career in the coming decades.

The timing of Li and Fu’s retirement left them well position to find a place within the newly unified government that Chiang Kai-shek built in the wake of the Northern Expedition. For martial artists the most important institutional innovation of this period was the creation of the Guoshu movement, which received strong backing from some elements of the KMT. Indeed, the new institute in Nanjing proved to be the perfect job for General Zhang Zhi Jiang (director), and the newly retired Li Jinglin (vice chairman) who remained a major force promoting the martial arts as a unifying and strengthening force for the new China.  Zhang Zhi Jiang appointed Fu as a chief instructor in the Wudang section of the organization, likely at Lin’s instigation.

This was an important time for Fu. His training of military personal tended to focus on practical skills and the use of the dadao rather than the intricacies of Baguazhang or Taijiquan performance. His association with the Central Guoshu Institute allowed him to return his focus to the more civil aspects of his training, all of which would become critical as he later turned his attention to the formulation of a unique “Fu-style” of both arts. While in Nanjing he was also able to renew his contacts with other luminaries within the Chinese martial arts community.

Among the most important of these were Sun Lu Tang (1862-1933) and Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936). Fu studied with both men, and exchanged his newly acquired knowledge of Wudang sword for Sun’s own style of Taiji and Xingyiquan. Lin and Wing conclude that Fu was influenced by Sun’s more philosophical theories of the martial arts and that they became a major motivating force in his own creation of the Fu style Baguazhang and Taiji.

 

Source: https://www.facebook.com/Fu-Style-Internal-Martial-arts-System-傅振嵩傳內家拳-111903698917070/

 

The Southbound Tiger

Still, Nanjing was not to be Fu’s long-term home. He acquitted himself well in the Central Guoshu Institute.  Lin and Wing note that in April of 1928, at the age of 54, he fought and defeated a challenger in a tournament in Beijing who had already defeated multiple younger martial artists aligned with the Guoshu program. Later that year he gave a public Bagua demonstration at the first national martial arts examination in Nanjing.

This proved to be a fateful event. One of the many spectators at the proceedings was General Li Jishen, commander of the Eight Route Army and the Governor of Guangdong. He was impressed with the new Guoshu program and resolved to fully back the movement in Southern China. I have discussed the details of this episode in my book on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. Briefly, Li saw the martial arts as a tool that could strengthen the people while promoting a greater sense of national, rather than regional, identity. The new Guoshu program, which was strongly oriented towards the northern arts, provided him the perfect instrument for accomplishing this goal.

At General Li Jinglin’s recommendation, Li Jishen invited five master to come to Guangzhou and, with a generous budget, establish a branch of the new national program there.  Once again, Li recommended his protégé Fu for the prestigious teaching position.

Upon arriving in Guangdong, the ambitious scale of what Li Jishen intended became clear.  Legislation was drawn up requiring the registration of all independent martial arts schools in the region.  Second, local martial arts associations and instructors were prohibited from opening any new schools. All new schools in the region would have to adhere to the official Guoshu curriculum and philosophy. If any of these policies had actually been enforced with the full weight of the local government and military, the results would have been catastrophic for the development of the Southern Chinese martial arts.

Yet, as so often happened, infighting and rivalry within the KMT undercut policy implementation. Within a few months of establishing his new Guoshu program, General Li Jishen found himself intervening in a leadership crisis that would see him marginalized within the Nationalist Party and ultimately turning to the Communists. His replacement, General Chen Ji Tang, immediately went about dismantling his predecessor’s expensive, and socially intrusive, Guoshu program.

This was not end of Gusoho in Guangzhou. Gu Ruzhang, another of the Li’s South Bound Tigers, created a second, much more modest, Gusohu organization which absorbed many of the government civil servant who had dominated the student body of the first school. However, without the lavish levels of government budgetary support (as well as legislation suppressing the other southern styles), Guoshu was now forced to compete on a more or less equal footing in what was already a very vibrant marketplace.

In the long run this seeming setback probably helped to spread and popularize the Northern arts in southern China. Li’s “South Bound Tiger” were forced to open their own classes throughout the region which would only succeed to the extent that they actually served the needs of the local population, as opposed to wished of the provincial governor and the military. Fu even found himself cooperating with the erstwhile competition. In addition to teaching both his own private classes, and those in the new Guoshu academy, he also became a fixture in Guangzhou’s Jingwu branch.

Originally Guoshu had been imagined as a replacement, not a compliment, for the waning Jingwu program. Where as Jingwu had promoted a vision of Chinese strength and nationalism that was mostly apolitical, Guoshu was aggressively statist in its orientation and took as its central goal increasing the loyalty of the people to the KMT and Chaing Kai-shek. These avowedly political values were the reason why Guoshu tended to position itself as a replacement, rather than a compliment, to other martial movements. It was also the reason why the leaders of areas of China that were not strongly in Chiang Kai-shek’s camp tended to avoid the program all together. It is thus politically and socially important to note that while Fu and his fellow Tigers eventually enjoyed success in the spreading of Northern styles throughout Southern China, this success came through marketplace competition and even cooperation with the Jingwu Association.

Sadly, there is less reliable information about this period than one might like.  Lin and Wing rightly note that there are many stories of brutal challenge fights between Northern and Southern masters but its hard to know what to do with these. It is interesting to note that in the folklore of the Northern systems, it is inevitable that the Northern master wins.  Yet somehow when Southern lineages tell these stories the victors are always the resilient local masters.  In any case, so many of these stories contain clearly borrowed or stereotyped elements that it seems unlikely that we can use them as a historical guide.  For instance, the authors one instance in which Fu supposedly injured a rival Taijiquan instructor in a bout of push-hands, and was then forced to rely on his knowledge of internal medicine and energy flows to heal his erstwhile rival. This same feat has also been attributed to countless other masters.

What does seem to be clear is that Fu continued to draw on his contacts with various high-ranking military officers as he built his organization and gained students.  General Li Jinglin moved to Guangzhou for a time during this period. While I have seen no indication that Fu taught at the Whampoa military academy or its successor, it is clear that he continued to train a number of soldiers during the 1930s.  Lin and Wing indicate that these students generally received practical combative drills, while most of his civilian students were interested in Taijiquan. Up until 1935 Fu taught Sun Lu Tang’s approach to the art, before moving to his own synthesis.  While Fu was best known for his contributions to Baguazhang, that system tended not to be as popular with average students.  Finally, he taught his now completed Fu style to a handful (6-7) of personal disciples as well as his son. Perhaps his most important private student during this period was the young General Sun Baogang.

Fu seems to have become unexpectedly wealthy for a martial arts instructor during the 1930s.  In a period when few individuals in China could even aspire to own a car, he had two, including an imported British Austin. Lin Chao Zhen discussed his Master’s popularity during this period and his frequent public appearances. Still, there are some suggestions in these accounts that Fu might have been a difficult collaborator. Lin Chao Zhen notes that Fu would refuse to attend any festival or demonstration where he did not receive top billing. If he discovered that he was not the highlight of the program after arriving, Lin notes that his teacher would simply walk out without a word of warning to the organizers.

General Sun was accepted as Fu’s personal disciple in 1937 or 1938. One suspects that this marked the highpoint of his influence within the Southern Chinese martial arts community. In October of 1937 the Japanese invasion forced the closure of most of the martial arts schools in the region. Fu, like others, began to offer instruction to various patriotic groups and hastily arranged Big Sword chapters. More specifically, he took up a position at the People’s Anti-Japanese Athletic Association in Guangzhou. He was 66 years old at the start of the war.

Like so many other martial artists, Fu retreated before the Japanese advance. Before leaving the Pearl River Delta he buried his prized Baguadao, awarded to him by General Zhang Zoulin in 1921. Sadly, he would be unable to retrieve the sword after the war either because it was looted (a fate shared by many buried treasures) or its actual location was forgotten.

Taking his family, Fu moved to the small village of Qujiang, near Shaoguan (then called Kukong), in the far northern reaches of Guangdong.  It was in Shaoguan that the provincial government established its temporary headquarters.  Fu does not appear to have been inactive during this time. Lin and Wing note that in 1938 he started his own Taijiquan journal titled the Taiji Special. This publication ran for about a decade (though I am uncertain as to how wide its circulation was). The editorial statement, which they were kind enough to partially translate, suggests a fairly mainline Guoshu orientation.

The years following the end of the war in 1945 were difficult ones for Fu, now 73. He returned to Guangzhou and lived in a house owned by General Sun, along with the General’s sister and her son. Fu provided private lessons for the General’s nephew. He was less successful in reestablishing his network of personal students and classes. Given the general hostility toward the martial arts in the immediate aftermath of WWII, this is not really a surprise. Still, his situation improved when his family returned to the area and his son could help with the teaching load. Fu continued to do larger public demonstrations. He also enjoyed leading a rotating two month Taijiquan class at the local YMCA.

The KMT finally collapsed in 1949 as the Communists seized control of the rump national government in Guangzhou.  General Sun Baogang fled to Hong Kong.  Following a well-established pattern he turned to martial arts instruction as a retirement job and spread his teacher’s Fu style of Baguazhang and Taijiquan throughout the colony. Indeed, Hong Kong proved to be an excellent platform for launching a number of Chinese martial arts, including Fu’s synthesis, into the global marketplace.  But that story will have to wait for another day.

Fu Zhensong and his family remained in Gungzhou as the city transitioned to the new order. Fu would even live to see the reemergence of interest in Wushu (as the term Guoshu was now distinctly out of favor) in the early 1950s.  He gave his final public performance of his beloved Dragon Baguazhang to thunderous applause at a public demonstration in 1953. He would die later that same evening at the age of 81.

 

Source: https://www.facebook.com/Fu-Style-Internal-Martial-arts-System-傅振嵩傳內家拳-111903698917070/

 

Conclusion

While not a Bagua student, I find it hard not to be fascinated with Fu’s life and contributions. Clearly his role in the promotion of the Northern arts in southern China was critical. He also seems to have been the only one of the South Bound Tigers to really make Guangzhou his home.  One can only imagine what he would have thought of the near tropical south after half a lifetime spent on Northern China’s cold and dusty plains.

Yet as a student of Chinese martial studies, I believe that the value of Fu’s life transcends his contributions to Baguazhang or Taijiquan. His career bears vivid testimony to the ways in which the martial arts could open possibilities for travel and social advancement that would be otherwise unthinkable for so many young men from modest backgrounds. None of the biographies I reviewed mentioned any period of prolonged formal education in Fu’s background.  One rather suspects that he would agree with General Li Zongren (another northern bandit chief turned warlord and acquaintance) that the education he received came directly from the “university of the Greenwood Forest.”  Still, in the tumultuous years of the 1920s and 1930s, that was enough to rise to surprising heights.  Further, Fu’s career is important in that it illustrates the continued importance of military associations and sponsorships to so many of China’s professional martial arts instructors during the Republic period.

This does not mean that Fu was teaching complex Buagua routines to General Li Jinglin’s dadao troops.  Indeed, he was quite explicit in noting that what he taught to his military and civilian students was actually very different.  Still, Fu’s career stands as an important reminder of a time when martial arts training allowed one to travel not just the countryside, but to cross the boundaries between farmer, bandit, soldier and respected teacher.

 

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If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (21): Zhang Zhijiang, Father of the Guoshu Movement

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Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (9): Woman Ding Number Seven: Founder of the Fujian Yongchun Boxing Tradition

Qing era painting of a general's wife and her female retainer. Source: New York Public Library, electronic collection.
Qing era painting of a general’s wife and her female retainer. Source: New York Public Library, electronic collection.

Introduction: Gender and the History of the Chinese Martial Arts

Women are a challenging subject in Chinese martial studies.  One the one hand traditions about female boxers, nuns, bandits and heroes abound in the folklore of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  These stories are more common in some geographic locations and at certain times than others.  For instance, stories about female martial artists became markedly more popular at the end of the Qing dynasty and really exploded during the Republic of China period. 

As this was the era that most deeply stamped the modern Chinese martial arts, it is not surprising to discover that the same motifs and archetypes that were developed in those periods are still with us today.  It is impossible to come to terms with the traditional Chinese fighting styles as a popular culture phenomenon without first considering the issues of folklore and gender.  Luckily we still have a huge body of historic novels, operas and oral traditions for study.

The situation is less straight forward for individuals who approach the question from a strictly historical perspective.  Many of the most popular traditional martial arts have a female ancestor or hero somewhere in their pantheon.  The hand combat traditions of southern China seem to be particularly well blessed in this regard.  Wing Chun, Phoenix-Eye Fist and White Crane are just three examples of regional styles that claim to have been founded by women.  These claims often have a substantive impact on how practitioners understand both the history and the performance of their art.

Yet historically speaking very few women ever studied the martial arts in traditional Chinese society.  Almost all of the stories about such individuals that are currently discussed are, upon closer examination, ahistorical.  There is no proof that anyone named Yim Wing Chun ever existed, and there is very good evidence that Ng Moy is a literary creation of the late 19th century.

Nor is it simply a question of who did or did not exist.  The stories that we pass on about female boxers do not fit very well with what we actually know about Chinese society or popular culture in the late imperial period.  If we are simply discussing these stories as folklore, that is fine.  In fact, it is great.  Fantasy is revealing precisely because of the leeway it grants us to explore our hopes and fears. 

Yet if you are actually trying to understand social, economic or political conditions in 19th century China these modern tales obscure more than they reveal.  As such we should not be surprised if there is a certain tendency to ignore the question of female involvement in the martial arts in an attempt to get on with the “real work” of history.

While an understandable reaction this position leads to its own set of pitfalls and dark alleys.  The traditional martial arts seem to have been about two things.  First, they were a matter of security.  That may have been the physical security that comes from protecting oneself against bandits or it could just as easily be applied to the idea of economic security, important to so many of the instructors, performers, guards and wanders who depended on the martial arts to make a living.  Later in the 19th and early 20th century boxing took on an additional dimension.  It became a tool for asserting a certain set of social values, and reaffirming one’s place in the community.

Chinese women were not immune to either of these categories of concern.  They too were caught up in the cycles of violence that occasionally gripped social life.  They too might make a living as an itinerant street performer, acrobat or singer.  And they too had to wrestle with what it meant to be a Chinese woman in a rapidly changing world. 

In short, when we assert that martial studies is important because of what it can tell us about the evolution of Chinese society and popular culture, we are at the same time committing ourselves to thinking very carefully about the various roles (some central, others tangential) that women played in this world.  We cannot ignore the reality of female involvement in the martial arts simply because the existence of such individuals was rare (and one suspects even more rarely remembered), or because such accounts seem to provide too much cover for “Republic era fiction.”

For the last few months I have been thinking about how to include more profiles of female practitioners in the “Lives of the Martial Artists” biographical series.  There are a number of figures from the Republic period (my main research era) that I would like to discuss.  Of course there are always challenges.  Finding reliable sources on Chinese martial artists is never easy.  Nevertheless, the more pressing concern is actually theoretical.

When discussing the biographies of male martial artists there is a well defines set of conversations that seems to structure our investigations.  There are a number of different “types” of martial artists that seem to reoccur and the most important questions revolve around how these individuals related to the broader economy of violence in the rest of society.   Due to their rarity, and different social roles, female martial artists do fit easily into these same conversations.

Nor do important social trends ever emerge independently from local history.  In today’s post we will go back and examine the life of the oldest verifiable female martial artist in the history of southern China that I am currently aware of.  We will also review a simple framework for thinking about the major divisions in social life in late imperial China as a way of better situating these early female boxers.  Lastly we will briefly examine how stories of these early female martial artists grew and evolved as we move into the Republic period.  This discussion will provide us with a richer social context to better understand the innovations and reforms of a later generation of female martial artists.

Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Japan Photos.
Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Photos of Japan.

Ding Number Seven and the Origins of White Crane Boxing

The historical records produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties contain a number of references to female martial artists.  These sources clearly indicate that they were massively outnumbered by their male brethren, but as a category they were never entirely absent either.  Of course “martial arts” as a conceptual category is a comparatively recent invention.  Most of these individuals were identified and discussed using different professional markers.  They were remembered as entertainers, vagabonds, criminals, healers, mystics, saints and in one memorable case even a rebel general.  The fighting arts (and their related body of traditional physical culture) might play a role in each of these professions.

There are far fewer cases in which a woman was explicitly identified as a full time martial arts instructor with a large number of students.  And I am aware of only a single a instance in which a historical woman was acknowledged by later male writers as the founder of area’s martial tradition.  But before we can explore further we need to know something about the sorts of resources that are available to students of Chinese martial history.

“Gazetteers” are a fascinating historical resource for anyone interested in life in late imperial China.  These records were by their nature both geographically bounded and technical.  They might focus on a region, a province, a county, a city, a temple or even an important waterway.  The ostensible point of a gazetteer was to gather the information that a busy outside government official or visitor might need to get up to speed on a new posting or assignment.  As such these books are a valuable historical resource which provide maps, community histories, economic discussions, biographies of notable citizens and local color.  

Members of the gentry were usually tasked with writing and editing the gazetteers.  This was considered a prestigious assignment as the editor of such a volume had the ability to shape the local social and historical record.  A review of these books shows that the families of the editors were inevitably remembered as “illustrious scholars” and “paragons of virtue.”  It is important to take the social history that one finds in these books with a grain of salt, but they remain a vital resource for understanding local history in China.

The editors of these volumes usually went to some effort to put their best foot forward and appear as orthodox and socially respectable as possible.  As a result gazettes often omit the sort of information that might be most useful to the historian of the martial arts.

Douglas Wile discovered a classic case of this while researching his landmark volume on the early Taiji literature (1996).  The Wu brothers, who had important careers as high ranking public servants, were also gifted literary scholars.  They put these skills to good use by editing the local county gazetteer after retiring from public office, as well as discovering, editing and preserving the oldest still existing manuscript tradition of what we now call the “Taiji Classics.”

In fact, all three brothers were deeply involved with and committed to, the practice of Taiji.  It is thus odd that the historical volume that they edited contains no references to Taiji, or to the brothers other very substantial military exploits.  Wile debates how we should interpret this silence.  Was it some hint of sedition?  Possibly.  But a simpler explanation would be that a public airing of such an eccentric interest in a “dignified” source would bring embarrassment to the Wu family.

Marnix Wells has fared better with the use of gazetteers in his research.  The county records that he dealt with in his investigation of Chang Naizhou not only preserved his memory, but it went into detail on the biographies of a number of other martial artists in the region.  This is really about the best scenario that you can hope for.  Yet in many cases these records simply pass over the martial arts in silence, not because they were actually absent, but rather because they were viewed as undignified or unorthodox by the volume’s editor.

The other difficult thing about gazetteers is finding and translating them.  Localities were supposed to update these records regularly.  Some did, while others were pretty lax.  Nor is there a central clearing house for this information today.  A few of these volumes (generally the ones for the more important areas) have been republished, but most of this information is still sitting in library stacks and private book collections in China.  Actually getting ahold of all of the information that you would like to see, and successfully translating it, can be a major feat of scholarship in itself.

Luckily for us the editors of the late 17th century gazetteer for Yongchun County, Fujian Province, had no moral objections to the martial arts.  We are also fortunate in that what he had to say was deemed important enough to warrant subsequent republishing and discussion, first by scholars in China, then by Stanley Henning in the United States.

Very often information about important martial artists (if any is included) will be found in the section on local biographies of noteworthy private citizens that most county gazetteers seem to have included.  The brief account quoted by Henning and others states that during the Kangxi era (1662-1735) a woman named Ding Number Seven moved to Yongchun with her husband.  Together they taught a number of individuals including 24 disciples.  The most important of these was an individual named Zheng Li.

Zheng warranted his own entry in the volume.  It focused on his immense strength and boxing skills.  The discussions of his feats included a stereotyped defeat of a water buffalo (which he pulled the horns off of) and a shaolin monk (who later became a friend and teacher).  Zheng was taught by Woman Ding, and he in turn provided instruction to most of the lineages that were still operating in the area at the time that the account was written.

So when does this account date to?  We do not have an exact date, but we do have some clues.  The list of southern gazetteers provided by James Tong indicates that Yongchun County did not update their records frequently (Disorder Under Heaven, 1992).  As such it looks like this account might date to the 1684 edition of the local gazetteer.   If these dates are correct than Ding Number Seven would have been active sometime between 1660 and 1680.  Given that the account indicates as least two generations of instruction have passed, this would indicate that she was probably teaching in the 1660s.

Of course this account is also interesting for what is left out.  We hear very little of her husband and his accomplishments.  One wonders if perhaps she was included because she was both a martial artist and a “virtuous widow,” a group that always enjoyed recognition in these lists (see the discussion in Victoria Cass, 1999).

Nor do we know the name of the style that she taught.  Today she is revered as the ancestor of Yongchun White Crane Boxing.  Yet neither avian nor geographic nomenclature are mentioned in the account of her teaching, just the size of her school.  Readers are also never told where she learned her art.  Was it from her husband?  Or possibly her father? 

While the biographical account of Zheng Li is full of exaggeration and folklore (the defeat of a bull-type creature is one of the classic markers of a martial arts legend, as is a confrontation with a Shaolin monk) his teacher’s life lacks any fantastic elements.  The account is all business, possibly too much so.

Subsequent versions of her story were more expansive and attempted to fill in these blanks.  Perhaps the best-preserved account from this era is found in the Bubishi.  This enigmatic work represents a Fujianese martial arts manuscript tradition dating from the last half of the 19th century.  The manuscripts in question were preserved in Okinawa (hence the Japanese title), and went on to influence the development of that island’s indigenous fighting traditions. 

The manuscripts included in the Bubishi are written in Chinese and include discussions of martial arts history, ethics, White Crane and Monk Fist styles, vital point strikes and traditional Chinese herbal medicines.  The manuscripts are sometimes heavily illustrated and often appear without any specific order.  An almost identical work entitled the Secret Shaolin Bronze Man Book was preserved by the Liu family in Fuzhou leading to the conclusion that the work was originally composed in China rather than Okinawa.

The volume begins its discussion of White Crane Kung Fu with the following story:

 

“In spite of his fighting skills in Monk Fist Boxing, Fang Zhonggong was no match for the scoundrels from a neighboring village who deceived and then viciously beat him while vying for control of his village.  The injuries Fang sustained during the altercation were so severe that he was unable to fully recuperate and fell gravely ill.  Attending to by his loving daughter and personal disciple, Fang Qiniang, his condition gradually deteriorated.  No longer even able to eat, he finally died.

Deeply troubled by the loathsome circumstances of her beloved father’s death, Fang Qiniang vowed to take revenge.  Although just a country girl from the rural village of Yongchun, Fang Qiniang was nevertheless a promising and spirited young woman.  She longed to vindicate her family name, but she had not yet mastered the fighting skills her father was teaching her.  She deeply pondered upon how she might find the power and strength to overcome such adversaries.

One day, not long after the tragedy, Fang was sobbing over the memory of her loss when suddenly she heard some strange noises coming from the bamboo grove just outside her home.  Looking out the window to see what was making such a racket, she saw two beautiful cranes fighting.  She noticed how the magnificent creatures strategically maneuvered themselves away from each others fierce attacks with remarkable precision.  In the midst of piercing screams, the vigorous and lethal pecking was well concealed.

Deciding to frighten off the creatures, Fang went outside and grabbed the long bamboo pole she used for hanging clothes to dry.  As she approached the cranes, Fang swung the pole but was unable to get close.  Each time she attempted to swing or poke with the pole, they sensed her proximity, and, before the pole could reach its intended target, the birds instinctively evaded her every effort and finally just flew off.

Reflecting deeply upon this incident, Fang concluded that it was a revelation and soon set about evaluating the white cranes’ instinctive combat methods.  If someone could fight the way the white cranes had, that person would be unbeatable.  After considerable time and study, Fang finally came to understand the central principles of hard and soft and yielding to power.  Fusing the central elements of Monk Fist gongfu with her own interpretation of the birds innate defensive movements she created a new style.

After three years of relentless training, Fang developed into an unusually skillful fighter.  Capable of remarkable feats of strength and power, Fang Qiniang was no longer the weak and frail girl she once was.  Her skills and determination finally gained her a notable reputation.  Undefeated in those three years, Fang’s innovative style ultimately became one of the most popular civil self-defense traditions in and around Fujian Province, and became known as Yongchun White Crane Boxing.”

 

The Bubishi demonstrates that within two centuries the creator of Yongchun Boxing had evolved from a historical person with a number of personal students to a full blown initiatory figure with a martial arts mythology of her own.  A comparison of the early account of “Ding” to the later stories of the woman “Fang” provides an excellent illustration of how it is that myths emerge and crystallize around the barest historical details.  Note also how the questions posed by the short biographical sketch are systematically answered throughout the later extended story.

Rather than coming to the county with her paradoxically quiet husband, she is now attached to a father capable to teaching her Monk Fist Style.  This certainly explains where Feng learned her art.  Yet she did not teach Monk Fist to her students?  Instead her father conveniently dies at the hands of bandits and she is forced to innovate to avenge the family name. 

While the theme is a common one in martial arts legends, it still serves to introduce the vision of the fighting cranes that has been central to the development of martial arts in the Yongchun region.   Further, Feng’s encounter with fighting cranes at her moment of greatest loss and despair shows an uncanny resemblance to Ng Mui’s later epiphany in the aftermath of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. 

Of course this new account raises its own set of questions.  Did Feng use her new found martial prowess to carry out an act of bloody revenge?  And what of the missing husband?  Did she ever go on to marry? If not, why?  Lastly, who was Feng Zhonggong?  Given the abrupt start of the story it would appear that the Bubishi is only presenting a tantalizing fragment of what was once a longer narrative.

Current folklore, still in circulation among modern martial artists, has taken up each of these questions in turn.  It takes no great leap of imagination to see Fang Zhonggong as an escapee from the ruins of Shaolin.  This conclusion may even be implied in the 19th century fragment of the story that we still poses.  He is obviously not a monk as he has married and has a daughter.  Still, many lay Buddhists studied martial arts at Shaolin in both legend and fact.  This would certainly seem to explain how he learned Monk Fist style in the first place. 

His daughter’s use of the long pole in her attempt to scare off the noisy cranes is highly suggestive of the historic Shaolin pole fighting style.  Lastly, the Bubishi claims that Feng always taught that it was only through the cultivation of inner peace and harmony that true martial mastery could be achieved.  It also states that her ideas about this were handed down from the ancient past through her father and were not native to Fuzhou.

Modern readers have accepted this implied Shaolin connection without hesitation.  Ng Ho reports that in some versions of the story Feng Qiniang refuses to marry, becomes a Buddhist nun herself, and changes her name to Yongchun (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  In the end he concludes that from a folklore perspective “It is impossible to ascertain whether Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang and the nun Yongchun were one and the same person or three distinct individuals.”   I agree with this basic conclusion that the myth takes a single identity and reworks it into multiple stories.  To this list of overlapping stories we can also add the Abbess Ng Mui. 

Historically speaking, the faded memory of Ding, a real martial arts instructor in Yongchun Village, has inspired the foundation myths of both Wing Chun and White Crane, as well as the individual legends of the Yim Wing Chun, Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang, and most recently the Nun Yongchun or Ng Mui.  All four of these individuals probably represent different aspects of the same legendary figure.

 

 Women Naginata Warriors, Gaurdians of the Chiyoda Palace, Covering the Retreat from a Burning Castle. By Chikanobu, 1896.
Women Naginata Warriors, Gaurdians of the Chiyoda Palace, Covering the Retreat from a Burning Castle. By Chikanobu, 1896.

Thinking About Female Martial Artists in the Late Imperial Period

How should we seek to situate the historic accounts of Woman Ding Number Seven?  Just as importantly, how should we understand the evolution of her reputation over time?  In what ways does the growth of this subsequent tradition illustrate the expectations and possibilities that female martial artists worked under?

The critical item to take away from the older account was that not only did some women seriously study the martial arts, but they might even have been reasonably expected to teach.  The subsequent 19th century expansion of the original story can be viewed as an attempt to erase any ambiguity on that front.  Ding’s husband was entirely erased from the memory of the White Crane system.  Given the highly patriarchal nature of Chinese society, this is a fact that invites some careful consideration.

Victoria Cass has provided us with a simple three part typology for considering the different aspects of Chinese popular society in the late imperial period that a woman might be required to function in.  While much of her volume, Dangerous Women (1999), focused on female mystics, martyrs and prostitutes, she also explicitly addressed martial artists and rebels.  As such I think that this is a good starting point for thinking about Ding and her legacy.

Geography played a strong part in the popular imagination in both the Ming and Qing period.  In fact, it became a sort of mental filing mechanism for various sorts of experiences, and subsequently different philosophies of the best way to achieve the “good life.”  The three main geographic domains that seem to have captured the public imagination were the quaint villages of the countryside, the burgeoning cities of the south and rustic mountain retreats.

The lives of individual women can also be thought of as being structured by each of these domains.  The small town was the stronghold of traditional morality.  Women played a crucial role in the maintenance of this system. 

Cass objects to the term “neo-Confucian” as it excludes too many important cultural elements (particularly as they pertain to the female members of the household).  This was a social system that was ordered by the principals of hierarchy, loyalty and (most critically) sacrifice.  Individuals were expected to sacrifice to show their fealty to the larger social structures, and in so doing they brought order to not only their own lives, but also to the entire community. 

Sometimes (such as the through the suicide of a “virtuous widow”) this creation of good order was seen as taking place on a cosmic scale.  Cass sees women as often fanatic participants in, and defenders of, what was essentially a dangerous cult.  Specifically, it was dangerous because of the size of the sacrifices that social decorum could demand of any of its members at a moment’s notice.

It would not be hard to see Ding within this world.  In fact, this is almost certainly the world that both she and the subsequent gazetteer editors inhabited.  Whereas later accounts dismiss her husband, the clear implication in the original text is that she was married to a martial artist and moved to Yongchun because of him.  These are the actions of an obedient wife.  Her involvement with the martial arts might be seen as the sacrifice of a gentle life, and a certain vision of femininity, to the demands of the “family business.”

Admittedly these are probably are not the first ideas that would occur to most modern readers of this biographical sketch.  Yet if Ding was to be included as an example of a “leading citizen” in a document like this, than she would have to conform to the stringent expectations of neo-Confucian orthodoxy.  If she was widowed at a young age (as seems a likely possibility) it is probably worth noting that she doesn’t appear to have remarried or to have had children.

The second geographic domain is more urban.  The city was the home of a new type of popular culture.  Here men and women sought to build a different life based not on the idea of “sacrifice” but “authenticity.”  Strong feelings and impulses were seen as the well spring of life, rather than something that needed to be placed on the altar of the family and the state. 

More egalitarian relationships were forged in the home and more economically equal modes of production happened on the street.  Urbanization saw the creation of a new class of town folk and merchant.  Women in cities became merchants, writers, healers and teachers in great numbers.  The city was often decried for its prostitution and “moral degradation,” but the truth was that it opened a wide variety of new economic opportunities for woman that had never been available in the countryside.

Female acrobats and martial artists occasionally performed in the streets.  Likewise the early Republic saw a number of all female opera troops in southern China.  There is some indication that Ding also succeeded in this commercial world.  She had a large number of students for someone from a small village and her fame spread well beyond the borders of Yongchun.

The last geographic area is the mountain retreat.  This is the realm of the recluse or mystic.  Individuals retreated from the concerns to the world to follow the path of the dao, placing themselves in direct contact with strong natural currents.  Cass argues that this trend was actually a direct outgrowth of the success of late imperial urbanization.  In some way the mystical turn was a reaction against urbanization, but one that preserved the importance of “authenticity” as a central value.

Throughout the Ming and Qing periods mystics were thought to acquire magical powers through their isolation and devotion.  Some were sought out as healers, while others became spiritual gurus.  Some of the more eccentric ones were simply sought out as curiosities and highly prestigious dinner guests.

In the late 19th century mastery of the martial arts came to be closely aligned with this vision and the social values that went with it.  This transition is actually pretty evident in the history and folklore of the hand combat systems.  Early in the 19th century much of the martial arts seem to revolve around the need for sacrifice to defend the village from concrete physical threats.  As the threats of the late 19th century became more metaphysical in nature, the martial arts took to the mountains, metaphorically speaking.  Early in the 1800s a highly desired teacher might have been a military trainer or a distinguished veteran.  But by the end of the 19th century only a secluded mystic would do.  If they claimed a Shaolin heritage, so much the better.

A painting of Hua Mulan.
A painting of Hua Mulan. Source: Wikimedia.

Again, there were older cultural precedents that one could draw on in the construction of this vision of martial virtue.  Consider for instance the archaic story of the Maiden of Yue, which was discussed in martial circles throughout the Ming and Qing:

“[An advisor speaking to his King]….I hear there is a young woman of Yue who came from the Southern Forests; the people of Yue speak highly of her.  I think your Majesty should send her an invitation and you can see for yourself how good she is.’

So the King of Yue sent an emissary with a polite invitation to ask whether the King could get her advice on skill in use of swords and halberds.

The Young Woman of Yue traveled north for her audience with the king.  On the way, she men an old fellow who said his name was ‘Old Mr. Yuan.’

He said to the young woman, ‘I hear you fight well with a staff.  I’d like to see a demonstration.’

She replied, ‘I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.’

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo.  But the bamboo was rotten at one end.  The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up.  The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but the girl parried straight back, thrust three times and finally raised her end of the bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan.  Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape.  Then each went their own way, and she went to meet the King.

The King asked her, ‘of all the methods of fighting with the staff which is the best?’

She answered, ‘I was born in the depths of the forest and I grew up in the wilds where no other people ever ventured.  So there was no “method” for me and I followed no course of instruction, for I never ventured into the feudal fiefs.  Secretly I yearned for a true method of fighting and I practiced endlessly.  I never learned it from anyone: I just realized one day that I could do it.’

‘And what method do you practice now?’ asked the King.

‘The method involves great mystery and depth.  The method involves “front doors” and “back doors” as well as hard and soft aspects.  Opening the “front door” and closing the “back door” closes off the soft aspect and brings the hard aspect to the fore.

‘Whenever you have hand-to-hand combat, you need to have nerves of steel on the inside, but be totally calm in the outside.  I must look like a demure young lady and fight like a startled tiger.  My profile changes with the action of my body, and both follow my subconscious.  Overshadow your adversary like the sun; but scuttle like a flushed hare.  Become a whirl of silhouettes and shadows; shimmer like a mirage.  Inhale, exhausting, moving in, moving back out, keeping yourself out of reach, using your strategy to block the adversary, vertical, horizontal, resisting, following, straight, devious, and all without sound.  With a method like this one man can match a hundred; a hundred men can match ten thousand.  If Your Majesty wants to try me out, you can have a demonstration right away.’

The King of Yue was overjoyed and immediately gave her the title ‘Daughter of Yue.’  Then he ordered the divisional commanders and crack troops to practice the new method so that they could pass on their skills to the troops.  From then on, the method was known as ‘The Daughter of Yue’s Swordsmanship.’”

                     Translation by Stephen Selby. Chinese Archery.  Hong Kong University Press. 2000. pp.155-157

 

As the biography of the Woman Ding Number Seven evolved into the tale of the tale of “Fang”, daughter of a “Shaolin monk,” other literary patterns and inspirations were brought in to enrich the mix.  Notice for instance how in the later version of the story Fang uses a pole in a test of skills with a heavenly animal, much like Maiden of Yue in the ancient account.  Both of them are without a male protector, and both are left to their own devices to devise a system of defense that will work for a woman.  In so doing they both reveal the fundamental principles and philosophy behind the Chinese martial arts.  And while Ding may have started off in the heart of a village surrounded by students, Fang, like her ancient predecessor, inhabits the wilderness.  In her later literary guises he even takes up residence at “White Crane Temple” in the mountains.

 

A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.
A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.

Conclusion

In future installments of this series I would like to take a closer look at some of the prominent female martial artists and reformers of the Republic period.  But to do that it is first necessary to gain a better understanding of the historic roles that such individuals have actually played.  Our examination of Woman Ding demonstrates that while not common, important female martial artists did exist in the late imperial period and that they could be remembered as foundation figures.

Still, the progression from “Woman Ding” to “Feng” suggests that there has always been a strong tendency to understand and frame these discussions within larger archetypal narratives.  Changes in Chinese popular culture account for not only the drastic increase in stories about female martial artists in the late Qing and Republic era, but also the way in which those stories evolved.  Rather than seeing women warriors as a bulwark of neo-Confucian values, they are increasingly perceived as guardians of a transcendent set of truths about Chinese identity and the true nature of power.  These were topics that generated much anxiety at the time.

This narrative potential had been present for centuries.  Indeed the story of the Maiden of Yue was told in many places during the Ming dynasty.  But it wasn’t until the more existential challenges of the early 1900s that this vision became a popular mode of social expression. 

The groundwork has now been set for a monumental shift.  Not only will the social reforms of the late Qing and Republic era bring more women into the martial arts than ever before, but they will also be inheriting a very specific set of cultural expectations.  They will be seen as both guardians of the essence of Chinese culture and potential reformers in the face of serious threats to that tradition.  A number of female martial artists during the 1920s and 1930s will seek to seize this banner.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (4): Sun Lutang and the Invention of the “Traditional” Chinese Martial Arts (Part I).

Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.
Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.

I am currently working on a paper that has me thinking about Sun Lutang again.  To my mind he has always been one of the quintessential pioneers of the modern Chinese martial arts.  So here is Part One of a three part biographical sketch.  Also see Part Two and Part Three.  Enjoy!

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.
Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.

Childhood: Overcoming Injustice with the Brush and the Sword.

The early years of Sun Lutang’s life are interesting enough to be the subject of a number of movies.  Originally named Sun Fu Quan, there is some debate as to when exactly he was born.  His daughter says that he was born in 1862 on a small farm outside of Baoding (south west of Beijing) in Hebei Province.  Sun’s father had never been very prosperous and did not marry until middle age.

Recognizing the intelligence of his son he sent him to study the Confucian classics with a local teacher when he was seven years old.  For the next two years Sun memorized and copied basic texts.  Despite his obvious intelligence his formal education came to an unceremonious end when his father’s crops failed and the family was forced to sell the farm to pay off debts or taxes.  A short while later Sun’s father fell ill and died, leaving the young boy fatherless and with no means of support.

Sun’s mother felt that she was unable to care for her child so she placed him in the home of a wealthy (but apparently sadistic) landlord as a servant.  Sun was never actually paid for his work but he was fed.  It seems that virtual slavery did not suit the young child’s personality and while he suffered through many beatings he started plotting a means of emancipation, at least to the degree that an eight year old child can imagine such things.

His first big break came in 1872.  While in a field tending sheep Sun came across an old man of about 70 leading an outdoor martial arts class.  The next day he returned and begged to be taught the martial arts.  When asked why he wanted to study boxing the naïve 11 year old bluntly told the teacher (surname Wu) about his situation and desire to take revenge on his employer and his equally abusive family.  Aghast at the tale of the young child life’s the older martial artist took him on as a student, but only after warning him that “The martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

I hope to explore Wu’s background and his influence on the young Sun in my next post.  While a good mentor for the boy his influence on him only lasted a couple of years.  On New Year’s Day of 1875 Sun got in a confrontation with the son and nephew of his employer.  After successfully defending himself from an unprovoked attack, his boss threatened to beat him to death and Sun’s term of “employment” as a household servant came to an end.

With no means of supporting himself, and no plans for the future, Sun fell into deep depression.  His only interest now lay in the martial arts, but even that was soured by the taunts of local villagers.  They felt that Sun was sure to grow up to become a bandit and a blight on the countryside and delighted in telling him so.  Statistically speaking they may have been correct.  Most “bandits” were young men without prospects or land who suffered an economic setback that forced them out of village life.

Not wishing to be a burden on his mother the young Sun resolved to hang himself.  Fortunately his suicide attempt failed and the boy was cut down by a passing traveler who took the boy home.  After assessing the situation he gave the family some money that they used to leave the hamlet and travel to Baoding proper where Sun had an uncle who ran a shop selling calligraphy brushes.  The uncle took in the struggling family and gave the young Sun a job as a clerk.  This was an immense step up in life from what he had known in the countryside and the Uncle proved to be a kind employer.  Further, his job in town put him in touch with the literary elements of society and gave him a chance to practice his calligraphy on scraps of paper.

It was through his Uncle that Sun would meet two men who would change his life forever.  The first of these individuals was a scholar named Zhang.  Zhang immediately recognized the young boy’s talents and invited him into his home to study calligraphy and literature.  He in turn introduced Sun to a friend of his named Li Kui Yuan.  Li Kui Yuan was a talented Xing Yi Quan student and the owner of the Tai An armed escort service.  He was delighted to find a student and resumed Sun’s formal instruction in the martial arts.

When he was 18 years old, Sun and Li went to visit Zhang on his 50th birthday.  Zhang took the opportunity to suggest that Li accept Sun as his formal disciple, and Li suggested that Sun should be engaged to Zhang’s 16 year old daughter.  Both ideas were heartily accepted and Sun place in society was now secure.  But he did not marry immediately.  Instead he and Li traveled to Beijing to study with Guo Yun Shen, Li’s original Xingyi Quan teacher.

Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.
Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.

The Wandering Years

By 18 years of age Sun’s life had changed dramatically.  His mother was cared for (by Zhang), he had a fiancée and the sort of martial education that would allow him to make his way in the world.  This was when most young martial artists would settle down and get on with the business of life.

But Sun was reluctant to marry immediately.  Nor did he only view the martial arts as a means of career advancement.  He wanted to understand them on a deeper level, and doing so meant leaving the confines of Baoding and traveling to the capital.  Guo Yun Shen would be the key figure in his subsequent development into a master.

Sun learned quickly as he studied with Guo.  The older master was impressed with the intelligence and footwork of the youth, enough so that he made him the formal inheritor of his lineage of Kung Fu.  He also bequeathed upon him the nickname “smarter than an active monkey.”

In total Sun spent eight years with Guo.  In addition to his earlier education with Wu and Li, he now had a formidable martial education.  But he was not done yet.  In 1889 Sun used an introduction from Guo to meet Cheng Ting Hua, a master of the relatively young Bagua system.  At the age of 27 Sun undertook a detailed study of this new art.

Sun studied with Cheng for three years.  In that time he focused on Dragon Style Bagua, Bagua Sword and spear training.  At the end of this period he was apparently left with additional questions, but Cheng claimed he had no more to teach him.

Instead he said that if he Sun wanted to understand the system more deeply he needed to study Daoism.  However, Sun was not free to undertake such a trip lightly.  He now had responsibilities to consider.  In 1892 he returned to Baoding, married his fiancé and saw the birth of his first son.  To support the family he started a popular school that attracted a number of students.

But the advice of Cheng was not forgotten.  In 1894/5 he set out for Sichuan province where he met the monk Zhi Zhen who taught him both Emei Qigong and the theory behind his approach to I-Ching analysis.  On the return trip Sun stopped at Wudang Mountain (an important site for Daoist instruction) and studied Qigong and immortality practiced with Jing Xu.  I hope to investigate this philosophical turn in Sun’s martial practice, and its specific connection to his trip to Emei, in the next post.

In 1896 he returned to his home town near Baoding with his wife and son.  During this period Sun established not only martial arts classes, but also literary clubs to help spread literacy and basic education among the peasantry.  He even appears to have started to lecture about philosophy directly in his classes.

While things were going well for Sun and his family, in 1899 we once again find them on the move.  This time he moved the whole family away from Baoding and relocated in Xing Tang, 120 km from Beijing (twice the distance of his previous residence).  Xing Tang now appears to be part of Shijiazhuang.

This move is usually passed over with relative silence in Sun’s various biographies.  That is unfortunate as it is probably one of the most interesting, and wisest, decisions that he made in his entire life.  The Boxer Uprising was brewing in in 1899 and there was substantial violence along the border between Hebei and Shandong.  The spreading violence was clearly headed to Beijing, and Baoding was directly in its path.

By late in 1899 inter-community violence was breaking out between Chinese Christians (often armed with modern western rifles) and anti-foreign Boxers (armed with spears and swords) in Baoding.  The area saw repeated massacres in February and March of 1900, when things started to spiral out of control.  Some of the most important violence of the early Uprising happened along the Baoding-Beijing railway to the east of the city.

Joseph W. Esherick reviews events in and around Baoding in his groundbreaking study The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987).  Most of the “Boxers” were impressionable country youth rather than sophisticated martial artists.  Many of them relied on spirit possession and magical formula for their military power, not years of formal training.  Still, it is undeniable that many martial arts schools in the region were caught up in the violence.  Others foresaw tragedy on the horizon and tried desperately to distance themselves from the coming cataclysm.

It would appear that Sun was in the later camp.  By moving his family to Shijiazhuang they avoided the brutal waves of inter-community violence, and later western retaliation, that tore Baoding apart.  It would certainly be interesting to know the fate of his Baoding students from this period, whether they too fled or if they stayed to fight.  Cheng Ting Hua, Sun’s Bagua teacher and the individual who sent him on his quest to study Daoism, was shot and killed by German troops during their sack of Beijing.

His new home was also far enough from the capital that he could continue to practice and teach the martial arts in the years after the Uprising.  This is significant as schools were being closed and martial artists were forced underground across the country.  In this period public sentiment turned decidedly against boxing and the traditional martial arts came closer to extinction than they have been before or since.

As a young man Sun Lu Tang was very interested in the practical applications of his fighting arts, something that is still reflected in the basic structure of Sun Taiji.  He fought in a number of challenge matches and worked as a guard and bodyguard.  However, later in his career he claimed that the martial arts were really for health maintenance and self-cultivation.  He famously told his students that if they wanted to fight they should “get a gun.”  One wonders how much of this shift in his attitude had to do with his philosophically inspired wandering, and how much of it can be attributed to the utter destruction of Baoding (and the murder of Cheng Ting Hua) during the throws of the Boxer Uprising.

One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.
One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.

Sun Lutang on the National Stage

It is a minor miracle that the traditional modes of hand combat survived the social fallout from the Boxer Uprising.  The western retaliation in the wake of this wave of anti-Christian violence was terrible and indiscriminate.  Educated individuals around the country blamed martial artists (quite unfairly) for the diminished state of their country.  Nevertheless, after a few years had passed it became possible to reopen schools that were closed in the initial calamity.

In 1907 Xu Shichang, (still a Qing official) invited Sun to the far northeast of China (Feng Tian) to set up a school.  While there he defeated a local bandit who was terrorizing the area and may have been scheduled to fight with a foreigner in a public challenge match.  I cannot confirm its authenticity, but the popular story is that Xu Shichang called the fight off because he feared diplomatic retaliation if Sun defeated the foreigner.

The stay did not last long, though it helped to cement his relationship with Xu, a figure who would be an important politician in the Republic era.  It also introduced Sun to a new circle of potential sponsors.  Late in 1907 he returned to Baoding to reestablish his schools there after almost eight years of absence.

But politics would once again shape Sun’s destiny.  As we saw in our biography of Qiu Jin, the period before and after the 1911 revolution was an interesting time to be in Beijing.  Intellectuals were meeting across the city to discuss different ideas for reform and the future of the country.

These dynamic possibilities attracted Sun who must have bemoaned the diminished state of the martial arts.  He decided that if he was going to promote the martial arts on a national scale he needed to be in Beijing.  And so he moved his family to a little house in the capital.  As a result Sun had a front row seat for many key events in the revolutionary period.

In 1914 his daughter Sun Jianyu was born.  She would go on to become an important teacher of her father’s arts and a master in her own right.  The same year also saw a chance meeting with Master Hao Wei Zhen who fell sick while in the capital and was cared for at the Sun house.  He later repaid Sun by teaching him Wu style Taiji.  Sun studied Taiji for two years; this was the last major element of his martial education.  He was already 52 years old when he first undertook the study of Taiji.

Kennedy and Guo quite rightly call Sun the most important writer on the Chinese hand combat.  Through his books he has become probably the most influential martial artist of his generation.

His first book, a Study of Xing Yi Quan, was released in 1915.  This groundbreaking effort was the first really practical modern martial arts manual that could actually teach readers the key points of an art.  The text was relatively straightforward and helpful.  It was also the first book to contain a large number of photographs documenting every step of a movement or form.  Pretty much every martial art manual published from that point onward has copied Sun’s basic format.

This early work turned out to be just the beginnings of an ambitious publishing agenda.  In 1916 he published a Study of Eight Trigrams Boxing.  In 1921 he published A Study of Taiji Boxing, in 1925 he wrote The True Essence of Boxing (his most philosophical work) and in 1927 he released his monograph on the Bagua sword (jian).

The popularity of martial arts instruction started to pick up again in Beijing (and around the rest of the country as well) in the mid-1910s.  Recall that this is the era when the Jingwu association came to prominence in Shanghai.  Multiple groups were advocating saving the nation through “strengthening” it, and the traditional martial arts seemed to be an idea training tool.  That same philosophy appears to have appealed to Sun and he likely helped to popularize it.

In 1916 he joined the Beijing Sports Lecture Hall (which included such luminaries as Wu Jian Quan, Yang Cheng Fu and Li Jing Lin) where he taught classes on both the martial arts and Chinese philosophy.  The later subject was calculated to appeal to a more educated middle class audience, so this is clear indication that Sun was attempting to change the demographic profile of the martial arts.

A number or reformers during this period concluded that for the martial arts to survive they had to become more appealing to educated middle class individuals.  Sun’s emphasis on health and self-cultivation was one way of accomplishing this goal.  The Jingwu strategy of offering classes on photography or western sports was another.  This period of time is also important for the development of the five modern styles of Taiji, including Sun Lutang’s own offering that combines the essential insights of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua.

Sun’s growing reputation allowed him to rekindle his contacts in government.  In 1919 Xu Shichang secured him a government appointment to teach martial arts in the Presidential Palace.  Sun was subsequently assigned the rank of Lieutenant in the Nationalist military and held this position until he formally resigned it in 1924.

In 1922 tragedy struck when Sun’s third son, Sun Huan Min, died of complications from broken ribs after falling and injuring himself in a martial arts demonstration in Shanghai.  At that point Sun moved to Shanghai, a growing and dynamic metropolis, and established new schools with hundreds of students.

In 1924 Sun traveled briefly to Shanxi where he further expanded his student base.  He did not stay in the region long, and returned to Shanghai to teach in 1928 at the invitation of Zhang Zhi Jiang and Li Jing Lin of the Central Guoshu Institute.  Sun remained active with the Central Guoshu Institute for some time, receiving appointments in Nanjing and Zhe Jiang.  In 1931 he even opened a large all female class in Zhe Jiang that he later turned over to his daughter.  After the Japanese invasion of the country in 1931 he resigned his various appointments and returned to Beijing.

In late November or early December 1933 Sun began to have premonitions about his impending death.  His daughter states that he used his knowledge of the I-Ching to predict the exact day and time that he would die.  Believing that the end was near he returned to his home in Baoding.  After returning home he stopped eating and went into a state of almost continual meditation.  On the 16th of December he died in the same room, of the same house, that he had been born in.

An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.
An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.

Conclusion

Suns physical death did little to slow the flow of his ideas.  His theories about the martial arts, the value of health and qigong training, and the intrinsic connection between boxing and Daoism continued to gain adherents.  In fact, his ideas shaped the foundations that the Republican and post-war Chinese martial arts would be built on.  They still live on today.  While they are the subject of deep study by some martial arts students, they have also generated many popular assumptions about the “traditional” arts that are blindly perpetuated by the media and entertainment industry.

The previous review has only touched on some of the historical highlights of Sun’s long and eventful career.  What is still needed is a social history of his contributions to the martial arts, one that can connect him to the political, social and martial currents of his day.  After all, Sun’s innovations did not happen in a vacuum.  He lived in one of the most dynamic and interesting periods of martial arts reform.  We will turn to a more detailed examination of these issues in our next post.

Click here for Part II of our study of the life of Sun Lutang.

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