Here at the frontier, the leaves fall like rain. Although my neighbors are all barbarians, and you, you are a thousand miles away, there are still two cups at my table.

Ten thousand flowers in spring, the moon in autumn, a cool breeze in summer, snow in winter. If your mind isn't clouded by unnecessary things, this is the best season of your life.

~ Wu-men ~

Thursday, November 18, 2021

A Brief History of Chinese Martial Arts

At National Geographic, there was a surprisingly good article that offered a brief history of Chinese Martial Arts. Below is an excerpt. The full article may be read here.

Qi Jiguang certainly knew his way around a battlefield. A military leader in the 16thCentury, during the Ming dynasty, he spent many years defending eastern China from attacks by Japanese raiders and pirates, and later oversaw a massive reinforcement of the Great Wall of China. He is also credited with being the first person to document Chinese martial arts – in his military manual New Treatise on Military Efficiency (or Jixiao Xinshu).

According to Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts, this is “the earliest, verifiable source that actually explains martial arts as a practical set of moves or ideas”. In its 14thchapter, translated as ‘The Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness’, Qi explains the importance of unarmed combat as a vital tool to train soldiers. 

Of course, martial arts had existed for centuries before Qi defined them. One legendary exponent of the practice – Hua Mulan, the 5th-century Chinese warrior of folklore, and the hero of Disney's Mulan – is today honoured with an eponymous style of tai chi. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic.)

And while this hints at the venerability of the activity, it's literally not even the half of it. “There are mentions stretching back more than two thousand years,” Clements tells National Geographic. “[The philosopher] Confucius himself mentions the ‘war dances’ of the Bronze Age, which are liable to be the ancient term for some kind of weapons-based calisthenics. But we don’t know what these war dances actually comprised.” 

Shadowy beginnings

In their broadest definition, martial arts – systems of combat, essentially – have existed for as long as humans have been killing each other. Depressingly, that’s the entire history of our species.

According to the International Wushu Federation, the governing body for wushu (or Chinese kung fu) in all its forms worldwide, “the origins of wushu may be traced back to early man and his struggle for survival in the harsh environment during [the] Bronze Age, or even earlier, a struggle that led to the development of techniques to defend against both wild animals and other human beings”. 

Throughout ancient Chinese historical writings there are numerous references to different codes of unarmed combat. Crucially, though (like the aforementioned Hua Mulan herself) none can be historically verified. For that reason it might be wrong to accept them as more than myth or folklore.

As Clements stresses: “It’s very frustrating for the historian, because we go overnight, in the 16th century, from having no evidence at all to having claims that martial arts have been around for at least 500 years or even longer. But there’s no intermediate stage that allows us to verify that information.”

In any history of Chinese martial arts, there is one early pioneer who crops up again and again – that’s Sun Tzu, author of the 5thCentury BCE treatise, The Art of War. Clements is not so sure, however.

“There are plenty of martial arts teachers who will quote from The Art of War and say it’s a manual of martial arts, but Sun Tzu makes no mention of unarmed combat – and really doesn’t have a whole lot to say about armed combat either. So some of his aphorisms can be applied to unarmed combat, but were never intended for that purpose.” (In 2012 Clements published a new translation of Sun Tzu’s book). 

Around the same time as The Art of War, stories arose of the Maiden of Yue – a female martial arts instructor who famously counselled her king, Goujian, on fighting methods. Clements points out that there’s no proof the story is based on real events, but that “it’s fascinating to see the matter-of-fact way in which one of the earliest martial arts teachers in the records is a woman”.

“There’s this chauvinist assumption that war is a man’s job and a man’s calling, but Goujian doesn’t seem to care,” he adds. “He knows she’s the best and so she’s the one he wants to hire.” 

This story itself has echoes with that of Hua Mulan, who as the fable recounts, disguised herself as a man in order to take the place of her ailing father in the imperial army. Her subsequent mastery of the skills of combat and rise as a warrior was the subject of The Ode of Mulan, an anonymous folk poem believed to have been written in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD).     

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