Martial Arts: Chinese Martial Arts

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The Chinese term wushu (martial arts) is usually applied to fighting techniques practiced by individuals in a nonmilitary setting, as distinct from the training methods (bingfa ) of soldiers in a regular army. Individual techniques within the martial arts tradition are usually called in Chinese quan or, less commonly, zhang. There are dozens of quan styles; some of the most famous are Shaolin Quan (Shaolin Hand-Combat), Taiji Quan (Great-Ultimate Hand-Combat), Xingyi Quan (Form-and-Intention Hand-Combat), and Bagua Zhang (Eight-Trigrams Hand-Combat).

The terms quan (literally, "fist") and zhang (literally, "palm") evince the significance of unarmed hand-combat in the Chinese martial arts. Even though each and every quan system has developed its own techniques of armed combat (usually with swords, spears, and staffs, but sometimes with such quintessential weaponry as metal-tipped fans), the foundation of all is empty-handed combat. Another characteristic of the Chinese martial arts is the stringing together of fixed positions into determined practice sequences, which define a given quan style. The invention of new body or weapon postures, or the combination of existing ones into new sequences, amounts to the creation of a new style, or substyle, of fighting.

The Chinese martial arts, of course, are first and foremost effective fighting techniques. However, their appeal to people of diverse interests, ages, and social backgrounds indicates that they have other dimensions as well. Young and old alike attest that the martial arts contribute to physical health and mental well-being. Whereas for some they are a competitive sport (some quan styles are included in international competitions such as the Asian Games), others consider them a performing art. (In traditional China, martial artists often made a living by giving public performances on holidays and at temple fairs, and some of their outstanding descendantsBruce Lee [Li Xiaolong, 19401973] and Li Lianjie [Jet Li, b. 1963] for examplehave made careers in the movies.) Finally, the martial arts are embedded in a rich matrix of Chinese religious and philosophical ideas. It is this unique combination of military, therapeutic, athletic, theatrical, and religious goals that is one of the martial arts' most striking features.


The history of the Chinese martial arts became the subject of critical inquiry during China's Republican period (19111948). Its pioneering scholars were Tang Hao (18971959) and Xu Zhen (18981967), who were followed, beginning in the 1970s, by such scholars as Lin Boyuan, Matsuda Ryūchi, Ma Mingda, Cheng Dali, and Douglas Wile. Despite their outstanding achievements, however, the history of Chinese martial arts is not yet fully charted. The following brief outline is therefore tentative only.

Ancient foundations

Contemporary Chinese martial arts share at least some similarities with ancient Chinese gymnastics. An elaborate gymnastics system called daoyin (literally, "guiding and pulling") is described in texts and paintings from the first centuries bce. Individual daoyin exercises were often namedlike training sequences in the modern martial artsafter specific animals that they purported to imitate, including, for example, the monkey, swallow, bear, tiger, deer, dragon, and toad. Another similarity between daoyin gymnastics and the later martial arts is the emphasis on breathing techniques and the internal circulation of vital energy, qi. Thus, in both systems external limb movement is joined by internal meditative practice.

Ancient Chinese literature highlights the therapeutic efficacy of daoyin gymnastics, classifying it as a branch of the medical science of "nourishing life" (yangsheng ). Archaeolo-gy has shed light on this medical significance: In 1973 an annotated illustration of daoyin exercises was unearthed in Hunan, and in 1983 a daoyin manual was discovered in Hubei. Dating from the second century bce, both the illustration (known as Daoyin tu ) and manual (titled Yinshu ) assign specific daoyin exercises for the treatment of specific illnesses. Four centuries later, the famous physician Hua Tuo (d. 208) created "Five Animals Exercises," which were each intended for the cure of a particular disease.

The medical significance of daoyin gymnastics was joined by religious import. In the course of the first centuries ce, daoyin exercises were incorporated into the emerging Daoist religion. Gymnastics was integrated with dietary, alchemical, and meditative techniques in search of the Daoist goal of immortality. Thus, daoyin gymnastics share with the martial arts not only certain principles of practice, but also medical and religious goals. The major difference concerns the latter's expressed martial purpose. Unlike the martial arts, ancient gymnastics was not combat related. The available sources do not assign daoyin any military significance.

As distinct from daoyin gymnastics, there also existed in ancient China a system of empty-handed combat called shoubo, which some scholars regard as the predecessor of quan -style fighting. Even though the available sources on shoubo are limited, Ma Mingda claims to perceive in it the four principles of kick (ti ), grasp, (na ), throw (die ), and hit (da ), which characterize the later period martial arts.

The emergence of quan systems

Even though daoyin gymnastics, and possibly shoubo combat, contributed to the evolution of martial arts, the emergence of distinctive quan styles occurred much later. The earliest evidence of individual unarmed techniques characterized by quintessential sequences of positions dates from the Ming period (13681644). Sixteenth-century military experts such as Qi Jiguang (15281588), Zheng Ruoceng (fl. 15051580), Tang Shunzhi (15071560), and He Liangchen (fl. 1565) allude to over ten quan styles, including, for example, Wenjia Quan (Wen-Family Hand-Combat), Song Taizu Chang Quan (Emperor Song Taizu's Long Hand-Combat), Hou Quan (Monkey Hand-Combat), E Quan (Decoy Hand-Combat), and Tongzi Bai Guanyin Shen Quan (Acolyte Worships Guanyin Miraculous Hand-Combat). The Ming period also witnessed the publication of the earliest extant manual of quan fighting: Qi Jiguang's Quan jing jieyao (Essentials of the classic of hand-combat, c. 1562), in which the famous general selected what he considered to be the best positions of earlier styles.

Ming-period quan techniques served as the foundation for the Qing-period (16441911) evolution of fighting styles with which we are familiar today: Taiji Quan, Xingyi Quan (originally called Liuhe Quan), Bagua Zhang, and Shaolin Quan all date from the Qing. The origins of at least some of these styles can be traced back to the dynasty's early days. Taiji Quan and Xingyi Quan, for example, are usually ascribed to the seventeenth-century martial artists Chen Wangting (from Henan) and Ji Jike (from Shanxi) respectively. As for the Shaolin Monastery's Buddhist monks, they too turned their attention to quan techniques in the course of the Ming-Qing transition. Shaolin clerics had been practicing fighting ever since the Tang period (618907), when they lent military support to Emperor Li Shimin (600649). However, all through the Ming period their quintessential weapon was the staff (gun ). Only in the course of the seventeenth century did unarmed quan fighting eclipse staff training in the monastery's regimen.

Daoyin vocabulary already figured in some Ming-period martial arts; however, only in the course of the Qing period was the ancient gymnastics tradition fully integrated into unarmed fighting, creating a synthesis of martial, therapeutic, and religious goals. Most Qing-period quan styles combine external limb movement with internal meditative practice. Qi circulation techniques figure prominently in Qing-period martial arts manuals, such as Taiji quan jing (Taiji classic; c. nineteenth century) and the writings of Chang Naizhou (fl. eighteenth century). A similar emphasis upon "internal strength" and spiritual perfection is also apparent in the Yijin jing (Sinews-transformation classic), which is significant as the earliest source of the legend of Bodhidharma (fl. 500 ce). Even though it was authored in the seventeenth century, the manual presents itself as if it had been compiled a millennium earlier by the Indian saint (in his native Sanskrit). Thus, the Yijin jing initiated the widespread legend according to which Bodhidharma invented the Shaolin martial arts.

The integration of martial arts and daoyin gymnastics occurred, at least in part, in the context of armed sectarian activities. Leaders of popular messianic uprising, such as Wang Lun (fl. 1770s) taught their disciples quan and qi circulation alike. Often they began their careers as itinerant martial artists, making a living by public demonstrations of martial skills, as well as by healing. The intimate connection between martial arts, religion, and rebellion is apparent in shared nomenclature. Fighting techniques and sectarian groups sometimes shared the same titles: Eight Trigrams (Bagua), for example, was the name of a group that revolted in 1813.

During the late Qing and Republican periods the martial arts were incorporated into the rhetoric of national rejuvenation. The disintegration of the Qing regime and the incursion of Western (and Japanese) colonial powers threatened the existence of a Chinese political entity, and created fears lest China's cultural identity be lost as well. As in the case of other national movements, it was argued that the recreation of a Chinese political body necessitated a rejuvenation of its citizens' physical bodies. Being native, the martial arts were deemed appropriate for the task. Now renamed "national arts" (guoshu ), fighting techniques such as Taiji Quan spread from isolated agricultural areas into China's biggest cities.

By the second half of the twentieth century, the Chinese martial arts had been internationalized. Chinese masters who traveled abroad and foreign students who studied in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and mainland China brought the martial arts to millions of Western practitioners. Native lineages of Taiji Quan, Shaolin Quan, and other fighting styles emerged in numerous countries, where local martial arts manuals and magazines are published in a variety of languages.


Arguably, the religious significance of the martial arts has been an important factor in their popularity outside their homeland. Chinese quan styles combine the goal of physical strength with the search of spiritual perfection. This synthesis is apparent not only in martial arts manuals, but also in the tradition's artistic representations. Martial arts novels such as Jin Yong's (Louis Cha) Tianlong babu (Extraordinary beings, date) and award-winning movies such as Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Wohu canglong, 2000) present the perfect warrior as spiritually enlightened. His or her religious attainments are articulatedin novels, films, and martial arts manuals alikeby a rich language that draws on diverse textual traditions. Even though they are often combined, it is possible to discern at least three religious vocabularies within the martial tradition: Daoism, Chinese cosmology, and Buddhism.


Ancient daoyin gymnastics evolved partially in the context of Daoist religious practice. By the time this calisthenics tradition was incorporated into the late Ming and Qing martial arts, it was imbued with a rich Daoist vocabulary, which depicted the religious goal of immortality, as well as the various meansdietary, medical, alchemical, and meditativeof attaining it. For example, in some Daoist visualization practices the adept concocts in his brain, which serves as a crucible, an elixir. By drinking it, the practitioner creates an imperishable internal body, which, shedding the external one, emerges to immortality. This mystical language is reflected in Qing-period martial arts manuals, as in the following passage by Chang Naizhou:

Training the body unifies our external form; training the qi solidifies our internal aspect. When we are as strong and firm as iron, we naturally develop an indestructible golden elixir body. In this way, we transcend the common, enter sagehood, and attain the highest level. If it is said that an enemy does not fear us, this is of little significance. (Wile, 1996)

Chinese cosmology

The unity of microcosm and macrocosm, which characterizes much of traditional Chinese philosophy, implies that the martial artist can reenact cosmic processes within his or her body, thereby attaining unity with the universe's underlying principles, or, as the Western scholar would term them, the divine.

The Chinese worldview does not recognize an external creator god. Instead the world is usually regarded as having evolved through a process of differentiation from a primordial unity called taiji ("great ultimate"). In this process of evolution several stages, or forces, are discernible, including yin and yang, the five elements (wuxing : water, fire, wood, metal, and earth), and the eight trigrams (bagua ), which form the core of the ancient Yi jing (Classic of changes). In such fighting styles as Taiji Quan and Bagua Zhangwhich are consciously named after the cosmologythe practitioner reenacts the process of universal differentiation. The practice sequence opens in the quiescence of the primordial taiji, and proceeds through the interplay of yin and yang, the five elements, and the eight trigrams to a profusion, which equals the myriad phenomena. The training sequence does not end however in this state of multiplicity. Rather, the practitioner goes back in time to the origins of the universe, receding from the myriad things to the eight trigrams and five elements, contracting further to the two cosmic principles yin and yang, and culminating in the tranquility of taiji. Thus, the martial artist achieves, in his or her body, a mystical experience of unity with the undifferentiated whole that preceded cosmic fragmentation.


As early as the Tang period, Chinese Buddhist martial practice was related to Buddhist martial mythology. Despite the religion's prohibition of violence, it featured a significant number of military gods, who could be relied upon as an excuse for warfare. Thus, Shaolin's tutelary deity was the fearsome Vajrapāi (Chin., Jingangshen), also known as Nārāyaa (Chin., Naluoyanshen), who was believed to bestow physical strength on fighting monks. As indicated by his name, Vajrapāi's original weapon was the mythic vajra (literally, "diamond"). However, in the course of the Ming period, when they developed techniques of staff fighting, Shaolin monks altered Vajrapāi's image, arming him with a staff. The relation between martial deities and martial monks was thus reciprocal: Fighting gods such as Vajrapāi sanctioned monastic violence, at the same time that fighting monks changed the deities' weaponry to suit their own military training.

Twentieth-century martial arts manuals associate the Shaolin fighting style not only with Buddhist mythology but also with the Buddhist search for enlightenment. Shaolin's abbot Yongxin (b. 1965) describes Shaolin Quan as "martial Chan" (wuchan ), arguing that it is no different from meditation, the reading of scriptures, or any other form of self-cultivation practiced in the Chan (Jap., Zen) school. Some practitioners argue further that it is possible to perceive a Chan logic within Shaolin Quan's sequences of positions, which create patterns only to destroy them, thereby liberating the practitioner from preconceived notions.

It remains to be examined, however, when Chan vocabulary was first integrated into Chinese fighting styles such as Shaolin Quan. Preliminary investigations suggest that it is lacking from Shaolin-related literature all through the sixteenth century. But we know that Japanese Chan masters such as Takuan Sōhō (15731645) associated the martial arts with Buddhist self-cultivation. It is possible, therefore, that Chan rhetoric was introduced to the Chinese martial arts through Japanese influence. The notion that Chan could contribute to martial courage, for example, has been shown by Tang Hao to have been borrowed from Nitobe Inazō's Bushidô: The Soul of Japan (1899) into the Shaolin quanshu mijue (Shaolin hand-combat method secret formulas), first published in 1911.

See Also

Bodhidharma; Buddhism, overview article; Chan; Daoism, overview article; Taiji; Yinyang Wuxing.


Cheng Dali. Zhongguo wushu: Lishi yu wenhua. Chengdu, People's Republic of China, 1995.

Despeux, Catherine. "Gymnastics: The Ancient Tradition." In Taoist Meditation and Longevity Techniques, edited by Livia Kohn, pp. 225261. Ann Arbor, Mich., 1989.

Lin Boyuan. Zhongguo tiyu shi, vol. 1: Shangce, gudai. Beijing, 1987.

Ma Mingda. Shuo jian cong gao. Lanzhou, People's Republic of China, 2000. An excellent collection of articles on various aspects of the Chinese martial arts by a leading expert.

Matsuda Ryūchi. Zusetsu Chugoku bujutsu shi. Translated into Chinese as Zhongguo wushu shilue. Taipei, Taiwan, 1986. An excellent general history of the Chinese martial arts.

Shahar, Meir. "Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 61, no. 2 (2001): 359413.

Tang Hao. Shaolin quanshu mijue kaozheng. Shanghai, 1941.

Tang Hao. Shaolin Wudang kao (1930). Reprint, Hong Kong, 1968.

Wile, Douglas. Lost T'ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch'ing Dynasty. Albany, N.Y., 1996.

Wile, Douglas. T'ai Chi's Ancestors: The Making of an Internal Martial Art. New York, 1999.

Xu Zhen (Zhedong). Guoji lunlue (1929). Reprint in series no. 1, vol. 50, Minguo congshu. Shanghai, 1989.

Zhongguo wushu baike quanshu. Beijing, 1998. A comprehensive encyclopedia that summarizes twentieth-century research on the Chinese martial arts.

Meir Shahar (2005)

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