“When the World is at Peace, a gentleman keeps his Sword by his side.” ~ Wu Tsu
Welcome to the first in a series of articles about the history of martial arts. Each post will cover a different “style” of martial arts from all over the world. Trace it’s origins and history, it’s influences on culture, and look at some awesome photos of people being kicked in the face.
In this first installment we will take a look at Chinese martial arts in general. Known in the West as kung-fu. The term kung fu doesn’t actually refer to a particular style of martial arts though. In China, kung fu is a general term referring to one’s skill or level of training and expertise in a certain area. For example, you could have strong kung fu in cooking. To have kung fu was to be strong in your profession or skill of choice. “My kung fu is stronger than yours.” The term directly referring to martial arts is wushu, a combination of two different words. Wu meaning martial or military and shu meaning method, skill,or discipline. It was most likely first used to mean military discipline as Chinese martial arts,like most martial arts, were developed by soldiers. There are many different styles and sub-styles in Chinese martial arts, and we will address many of them individually in future installments, but for now we will focus on the history and evolution of the art form in general.
There is no easy way to peg down the exact beginnings of Chinese martial arts. Many of the early disciplines and forms of combat they utilized were picked up in conflict and sparring with warriors from India and the surrounding area as well as native forms. Also picking up ideas of pressure points, meditation, and their own form of yoga,known as quiqong . Chinese martial arts emphasis the inner qi(chi) or “life force”. A strong part of martial arts is the exercise and meditation needed to focus this qi, as well as the concentration of it into martial arts strikes to increase force. In legend, Chinese martial arts are said to have been introduced by the mythical Yellow Emperor Huangdi, over 4,000 years ago. The earliest recorded systems of martial arts appeared during the Shang Dynasty from 1766 – 1122 B.C., called Shǒubó and Xiang Bo. In 509 BC it is said that Confucius suggests to then Duke Ding of Lu that people outside the military begin practicing martial arts as a means of spiritual unity and harmony. This is really what opens up martial arts and begins to create the philosophical and technical diversity that is present today. Jiao Di, a form of combat wrestling, becomes popular in the first century BC and it becomes a national sport during the Qin Dynasty. It was a mixture of throws and strikes with an emphasis on pressure points and joint manipulation. You could probably compare it to a Greek or Persian wrestling match from the time but with more Vulcan Nerve Pinches.
It is also around this time that different camps pop up devoted to weapons and hand to hand disciplines respectively. Hand to hand masters begin developing and separating “hard and soft” techniques. Hard techniques involve meeting force with force. It is an example of using the opponent’s momentum against him but more so the force of their strike against them. These are moves intended to damage and break bones. Hard techniques are heavily prevalent in various forms of Iron Palm. Soft techniques also involve momentum manipulation but to a less forceful degree. Instead of meeting them with an equal or greater force, you simply misdirect or unbalance the point of their attack. A good example of these techniques is Wing Chun, a Chinese forerunner to judo. The foundations of these philosophies could be applied to both armed and unarmed combat, with only slight variations in method needed to accommodate.
Martial arts philosophy and discipline was also adaptable to large scale combat and the way one approached war. One of the greatest martial arts books ever written was penned in China in late sixth century B.C. by military general Sun Tzu. Entitled “The Art of War” , it contained not just a new way to conduct war but new ways to think about war. An entirely new “philosophy of war” based on the same philosophies taught by masters all across China. There is debate as to Sun Tzu’s actual existence and the actual date The Art of War was written, but there is no debating their impact on Chinese culture and philosophy(see what I did there?).
The Art of War contains 13 chapters, each detailing a different strategy or philosophy. Among them, knowing your enemy, aided by the surreptitious use of spies. Never engage without being able to see a clear outcome,meaning do not waste force on needless confrontation. Be creative. Do not fall into a set pattern or style and give your enemy the opportunity to plan ahead. Above all be prepared. Battles are won or lost before they ever begin. Even if outnumbered, preparation and unity will greatly increase your chances of winning.
The Art of War quickly became the book on military strategy and philosophy in China. Traditional Chinese history states that Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor of a unified China, credited The Art of War with helping him end the Warring States Period in China. It is also credited with helping to unify Japan and was held in high regard by various samurai masters including Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu. Various historical military commanders from Napoleon to Colin Powell have all credited Sun Tzu’s book with helping develop their strategies.
Taoism, or Daoism, is an ancient Chinese philosophy/religion founded by Lao Tzu sometime in the 2nd century B.C.(also disputed) and is one of the earliest organized philosophical influences on Chinese martial arts. The Tao Te Ching contains writings on several philosophies that can be applied to martial arts study and discipline including acting through inaction, integrity and respect for one’s opponent, and a heavy influence on qigong and spiritual meditation. The Eight Immortals is a Chinese fighting style based on the revered figures of Taoist lore.
Obey the principles without being bound by them.
The first organization to institutionalize martial arts training were the Shaolin Monks. Combining Buddhist philosophy and some of the most rigorous training regiments in history, the monks of Shaolin Temple became some of the most respected practitioners of martial arts in all of Asia. Much of the Shaolin lore and fighting style is hard to confirm and mostly the stuff of legend. Several documents exist, dated between the 6th and 7th centuries A.D., referencing Shaolin participation in combat and lauding their skill with the staff and various “iron fist” techniques. The Shaolin style seems to center on hardening parts of the body to withstand the most brutal force applied against it. Even if many of the training techniques exhibited in movies, such as repeatedly punching gravel or a hard surface to increase the strength and toughness of the hands, is exaggerated, it very much keeps in line with Shaolin martial philosophy. Shaolin boxing is very much a style of hard techniques and their legacy lives on not just in China but across greater Asia.
Many of the martial arts styles developed during and shortly after the Warring States period, are not practiced in modern China or have developed into something entirely different from it’s origins. With the dawn of the 20th century China went through many traumatic periods. Internal rebellion and external invasion had changed the practice of martial arts. During the Boxer Rebellion, so named for the martial arts practiced of the rebels, many saw martial arts as a means to promote national unity and pride. Martial arts had long been practiced by the citizenry but many teachers and masters simply did not open their doors for lessons. The government worked with them to try and change that. They encouraged masters to open schools and take on students. These masters spread the relatively new styles they had been taught by their masters or learned through their own study. This is really what determined the variety of martial arts we see in China today. It’s dissemination into culture is due mainly to the Maoist revolution and the instillation of Imperial China. Many masters and teachers did not like the government’s crackdown on martial arts training and simply fled the country. Eventually they opened up schools around the world and began taking on non-Chinese students. One of the first and most controversial Chinese martial arts schools to open in America was the Lee Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute, in Seattle. Run by a man named Bruce Lee.
These early teachers took a lot of the heat in the beginning for daring to teach foreigners martial arts. Eventually the old generation gave way to the new and Chinese martial arts began to spread around the world. Chinese martial arts exhibitions became world wide phenomenons. Wushu became a catch all term for the exhibition and organization of the sport of martial arts. Chinese martial arts also found incredible popularity on film. For decades “kung fu films” had been a staple of Chinese cinema but not until the breakthrough of the aforementioned Bruce Lee, in America, did martial arts cinema become a worldwide genre unto itself. Interest in martial arts reached an all time high. In many places teachers had to turn students away as enrollment in their classes had already well exceeded intended capacities. Many famous martial artists like Jackie Chan and Jet Li parlayed their skill into Hollywood movie stardom. Martial arts had spread Chinese culture further and faster than any could have imagined. Renewed interest in the art and culture of China, along with a burgeoning economy, spurred diplomatic talks between China and the U.S., and President Richard Nixon was eventually able to “open China to the West” in the 1970’s. Today Chinese martial arts is one of the most popular and respected forms of art in the world. And it is very much an art. The elegance and flow of movement is very much like the aesthetic qualities we look for in dance and painting.
Well, I hope you enjoyed this short history of Chinese martial arts. In the next installment we will look at Japanese martial arts before diving into individual forms in proceeding installments. As always I look forward to your questions and insights on this subject. One of tremendous interest to myself.