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 ~

Saturday, January 29, 2022

The Golden Age of Kung Fu

When was the Golden Age of Shaolin Kung Fu? Maybe it was in the late 20th century. Below is an excerpt from an article at Kung Fu Tea, which examines this question. The full post may be read here.

Accepting the“traditional” Chinese martial arts as a product of the modern world.

If I were to conduct a pole and ask the average student of the Chinese martial arts when the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu was, what sort of responses do you think we would get? The Han dynasty? The high Ming? The 1700s? All of these would be wrong. There were fewer people studying anything that would look even remotely like the martial arts in China at those points in time than there are today, and by a quite substantial number at that.  Village militia training has never been quite the same thing as the “martial arts.”

A few students of history, realizing that the modern Chinese hand combat styles are a lot younger than most people assume, might put forward some more reasonable guesses. Maybe they would place the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, or Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s. These would be good guesses.  They were certainly seminal moments in the development of the Chinese martial arts.

Nevertheless, I suspect the real “Golden Age” of Chinese martial arts didn’t start until 1982 and it ran through sometimes in the late 1990s. It is hard to imagine isn’t it. The traditional Chinese martial arts reached the pinnacle of their popularity, social acceptance, and (truth be known) quality, in the post-Cultural Revolution period. At least this is when their popularity seems to have peaked in mainland China. Places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the west are all on slightly different historical trajectories.

The 1980s and 1990s were remarkable decades.  At no other point in Chinese history had so many people taken up the martial arts or done them so well. The current situation in mainland China is bleaker. Some things are going rather well. The martial sports, Sanda and performance Wushu (subsidized and protected by the government) are quite popular. Wushu may even be accepted as an Olympic sport at some point, though it still has a number of hurdles to overcome. And the idea of the“martial arts” remains a hot commodity with consumers. Lots of good books and movies are being produced. There is even an unprecedented outpouring of high quality academic writing on the history and sociology of Chinese martial studies.

Still, other developments look ominous. Due to increased competition and economic changes, enrollments are dropping in all sorts of “traditional” (non-Wushu) hand combat schools. Further, the market for traditional martial arts is being dominated by a handful of quickly growing styles that have managed to catch the attention of the media while other arts sink into obscurity. The future of Taiji Quan and Wing Chun seems secure. The ultimate fate of many other traditional arts is less certain.

In order to better grasp the changes that we are currently seeing, it is necessary to be able to put all of this in its proper historical perspective. The images that I selected for this week are designed to help us do that. They look back to the events that sparked the 1980s Kung Fu craze (in mainland China) and remind us that we are actually living in the first post-Golden Age generation of the Chinese Martial Arts. The declines that we are seeing now are not as deeply rooted as the popular imagination makes them out to be.

While subtle changes in the economy and society are important when attempting to understand these declines, on a fundamental level they have nothing to do with the “modernization” of China.  When properly understood, it becomes apparent that the specular growth of interest in the Chinese martial arts in the 1980s and 1990s was itself a result of the modernization of the Chinese economy and the liberalization of society. When we look at the “traditional” arts that exist today, we are looking at a quintessentially “modern” phenomenon. While some of these arts may need to adapt, they remain fundamentally compatible with the modern world. The main question is, can they do it in time?

“The Shaolin Temple” Ignites a Kung Fu Craze

Both of our pictures today are original press photos taken by a press photographer in China in 1982. The newspaper industry has long since gone digital and it is often possible to buy original press photos on ebay for almost nothing as the old collections and archives are liquidated and smaller publications go under. I was quite lucky to find these. Both photos were in basically good shape, though the one with the three children was slightly damaged as can be seen in the scan below.

In 1982 the Hong Kong director Chang Hsin Yen released “The Shaolin Temple” staring Jet Li, a young Wushu performance champion. This was the first Hong Kong based martial arts movie to be filmed in China. More importantly, it was also the first martial arts film of any kind to be shown in China since the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese government tightly controlled the film industry and attempted to improve the morality of the people by strictly censoring most portrayals of violence and nearly any allusion to sex. It must then have come as a shock to mainland movie goers in 1982 to sit down to a film and to be immediately thrown into a three hour orgy of Hong Kong style violence.  All of this emotional energy within the audience was then linked to the martial arts, a topic that had been strictly forbidden only a few years before, and had been neglected in favor of more conventional western sports since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Add in a graphical revival of the traditional Shaolin mythology and Chang Hsin Yen succeeded in creating what was essentially dynamite on celluloid.

It is hard to overestimate how much of an impact “The Shaolin Temple” has had on the Chinese public.  Gene Ching has rightly called it the “Star Wars of China,” but in some senses even that analogy falls short.  Star Wars debuted at a time of national anxiety, after the loss of the Vietnam War, when Americans were questioning their values. The Shaolin Temple followed a much worse period of national disruption. The Cultural Revolution has been described as a period of collective national insanity for China. Jet Li’s performance dramatically closed the book on this hated chapter in Chinese history and was graphic visual proof of the increasing liberalization of society.

In short, by the time this film hit the street the traditional Chinese martial arts were primed for an explosion. The social energy unleashed by this film was so massive that it even reached the pages of the NY Times.  In 1982 and 1983 the Times ran a couple of very interesting, and even insightful, articles on both the film and the broader revival of the actual Shaolin temple.

Shi Dechan, Guardian of the Wisdom of Shaolin

Like so much else in China, the monks of the Shaolin Temple had fared badly during the Cultural Revolution. The community shrank and many individuals were forced to flee into the hills and local communities to avoid persecution. The filming of this movie, using the actual temple as its backdrop and the aging community of monks as extras, signaled a new era of social acceptance and respectability for the monks. Shortly thereafter individuals began to return to the community and the long hard work of rebuilding could begin.

Our first picture is a wonderful portrait of Shi Dechan (b. 1907-1993), the acting or “honorary” Abbot of Shaolin.  Today Shi Dechan is probably best known for the small cameo he was given at the beginning of the film where he can be seen welcoming foreign dignitaries from Japan. However, he made a number of other much more substantive contributions to the Shaolin community over the years.

Probably born in 1907 he was sent to the Shaolin temple in 1916 following the deaths of his parents. He was liked by his teachers and was eventually accepted as a member of the community. Shi Dechan’s specialty was always medicine. As a young monk he traveled to a number of different temples to learn Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi manipulation techniques and Bonesetting. I have seen some sources that list him as a master of Xiao Hong Quan (Small Red Fist) but I have not been able to confirm this or to locate a list of his martial students.

Shi Dechan had the misfortune to see, and even lead, Shaolin through some of its darkest chapters. He returned to the temple from his medical studies in 1927, just as the conflicts during the warlord period was reaching a crescendo.  He returned only a year before the Temple would be burned to the ground by a local warlord.

He was one of the few monks who remained at the community and assumed increasing leadership responsibilities. It seems that by the start of the Cultural Revolution he may have been the defacto leader of the remaining Shaolin community. I ran across the following reminisce in the obituary of another monk who survived the same period:

“In order to protect the cultural relics from future damage and loss, Ven. Suxi assisted the then honorary abbot of Shaolin Monastery, Ven. Shi Dechan in distributing a portion of the Sutras and inscribed tablets to each of the monks, ordering them to memorize them completely- even so far as the calligraphic style used to write them and their dates. It all had to be memorized accurately. That way after all had passed they could be recovered. After reciting and memorizing, the monks then buried the texts and statues underground.”

Shi Dechan also played a critical role in Shaolin’s modern history by serving as a Master and mentor to Shi Dequan.  Dechan passed on to Dequan his vast knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine.  Dequan later had the opportunity to attend a modern medical school but he practiced extensively in very poor areas with no access to modern pharmaceuticals and little equipment or support. He was forced to draw on the totality of his medical knowledge and local resources to help his patients.

Dequan’s life history is fascinating and I should probably profile him on our “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” series. Looking at the challenges that faced both him and his teacher, I can say with all honesty that you just could not make this stuff up. No one would believe you. Dequan is best known now as the author of the“Shaolin Encyclopedia.” This four volume, 1000 page publication, is the most complete database on monastic Chinese fighting systems currently available.  It even includes a selection of texts that were copied by a monk who visited and left Shaolin in 1927, months before its original library burned to the ground.


Wednesday, January 26, 2022

Master Huang's 20 Important Points

Master Huang XingXian was a senior student of Cheng Man Ching, who taught a great many students and has had a tremendous influence on practice of this particular form world wide. Below is a short video which encapsulates Master Huang's 20 important points of form practice.



Sunday, January 23, 2022

Digging Deep

You know the type of training I'm talking about: 100 of every break fall you know, or 1000 sword cuts, or 1000 punches on the heavy bag or something.

We train. We learn to dig deep. 

Over at the Art of Manliness, there was a very good article about this. Below is an excerpt. The full post may be read here.

Awhile back I was doing a HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) workout over on a nearby running/biking trail. Along the trail there’s a fairly steep hill that takes about a minute to sprint up at full speed. For my workout, I would charge up the hill as fast as I could, walk/jog back down, and repeat the sequence ten times. It puts you in a nice amount of pain.

Halfway through the last sprint in my set, my legs and lungs were crying for mercy. I felt sure my body could not possibly run a single more step. But just as I was about to slow down into a walk, a pair of lovely ladies crested over the top of the hill and came jogging towards me. In that moment, an involuntary pride response kicked in, and I somehow found another gear and continued to haul butt to the top of the hill.

A seemingly insignificant moment in my life, but it actually spurred a great deal of reflection. I had felt sure I was physically spent, but then found deeper reserves of strength left to tap. My mind had lied to me. What else, I wondered, might my mind be lying about?

As it turns out, a great deal. We all have deep wells of strength that we may never even know exist, as they are closely guarded by a brain that would rather loaf and maintain the status quo than take you to the next level. But don’t be fooled by this tight-fisted sentinel – you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger than you think.

You’re Physically Stronger Than You Think

Athletes have always known there is a connection between one’s mind and one’s performance – that you can will yourself to keep going when the body grows fatigued. But recent studies have shown that the mind can have quite the opposite effect – slowing you down before you’re actually physically spent. In essence, the very fatigue your brain fights against was created by…your brain!

This fact was fascinatingly demonstrated in a study conducted by scientists from the University of Kent in England and the French Institute of Health and Medical Research. In the study, two groups of men spent 90 minutes sitting in a chair. The first group was asked to count flashing letters on a computer screen (a task proven to induce mental fatigue), while the second group watched a relaxing nature video. Then the men in both groups pedaled a specialized ergometer, while electrodes zapped their leg muscles in order to produce “maximum contractile force.” The more fatigued a muscle is, the less it will respond to these shocks.

The men in the first group who had done the letter counting task tired out 13% faster than those who had watched the movie, and they perceived the exercise as being much more difficult than the second group did.

Yet the muscles of both groups responded exactly the same way to the electrodes, producing just as much force from the shocks. The men in the first group, whose minds had been tuckered out by the counting task, felt more tired and gave up more easily, but their muscles were in fact just as fresh as the men who had simply watched the movie. As the researchers concluded, “our feelings do not always reflect our physiological state.”

In another study conducted at Northumbria University in England, cyclists were put on stationary bikes and told to pedal as fast as they could for about 2.5 miles. After several of these sessions, the cyclists had gotten a sense of what seemed to be the fastest pace they were capable of.

Then the researchers put a computer screen in front of them which displayed a virtual course and two avatars – one which would represent the current rate at which the participant was pedaling the stationary bike, and one which the cyclist would be “racing” against. In the first group, the cyclists were deceived and told that the avatar they would be “competing” against would be moving at the pace of their own previous best effort. In fact, the avatar would be going 2% faster than the cyclist’s personal record. In the second group, the participants were informed upfront about the competing avatar’s speedier pace.

Cyclists in the second group, doubting they could possibly go 2% faster than their previous best effort, gave up and simply matched their old PR.

But the deceived cyclists, believing that the competing avatar was simply going at their own best pace, and knowing they were capable of duplicating that pace, sped up to catch it, and thus unknowingly went 2% faster than they ever had before. (2% may not seem like much, but it can make a huge difference in a race environment.)

What’s going on in these studies? While the extent of an athlete’s capabilities has usually focused on things like muscles, heart, and lungs, it seems the mind also plays a crucial role in setting limits for one’s performance. Timothy Noakes, professor of exercise and sports science at the University of Cape Town in South Africa, calls this limit-setter the “central governor” of the brain. And this governor is conservative. It’s easily worried about you using up your body’s limited fuel, and so puts the brakes on your exertion long before you’ve reached your true physical limits. Yet you may never know that you’ve got more to give, as your brain is very adept at deceiving you into thinking that you can’t possibly go any faster or harder.

In other words, your brain is lazy, and a no good, yellow-bellied liar.

You’re Mentally Stronger Than You Think

Just as your brain can convince you that you’ve reached your physical limits when you really haven’t, it can also tell you you’re too tuckered out for mental tasks, when your noodle actually has more to give.

Some of the most fascinating studies on the link between the mind and physical exertion have shown that simply swishing a sugary drink in your mouth and then spitting it out without swallowing it can boost athletic performance by 2% (again, despite the small number, this represents a significant boost). Your body uses glucose for fuel during exercise, but the swish-n-spit effect occurs even when the muscles still have plenty of glucose left to burn, and even though the athlete hasn’t actually ingested any glucose! The sugary drink in the mouth tricks the brain’s anxious, bean-counting central governor into thinking that more fuel is on the way, leading it to relax its guard on your supply so you can continue to push yourself.

Researchers wondered if the swish-n-spit effect would also work when it came to sticking with purely mental tasks. As we’ve discussed before, your willpower is a finite resource that is depleted each time you exercise your self-control. If you use your willpower up on one task, you then have less of it for the next one. It used to be thought that this process of willpower depletion occurred because exercising self-control utilized glucose in the body, and the lower your glucose went, the less willpower you had at your disposal. For this reason, eating something was suggested as a way to replenish your willpower supply, and indeed studies showed that willpower-depleted individuals were able to exercise greater self-control after they had a snack, particularly something sweet.

But a recent study found that simply swishing a sugary drink in the mouth without swallowing it had the very same effect. Participants were first given a willpower-sapping task like working on impossible-to-solve math problems, reading a boring piece of writing, or avoiding a plate of cookies and eating radishes instead. With their mental fortitude sapped, they would then give up more easily when presented with another tedious task. However, when the participants swished their mouths with a sugary drink in between the self-control-requiring tasks, they stuck with them longer. Even though the participants hadn’t actually ingested any glucose, sensing sugar in the mouth was enough to trick the anxious, fuel-monitoring central governor into girding up their minds for another round of effort.

Just as with physical exertion, your brain lies to you about what you’re mentally capable of; it tells you your willpower is tapped out, when really there’s plenty of mental energy being held in reserve.



Thursday, January 20, 2022

Vintage Video of WWi and WWII Us Army Judo Training for Combat

Below is a ~30 minute vintage video depicting the US Army using Judo for hand to hand combat training in both WWI and WWII.

Monday, January 17, 2022

Modern Karate

Martial arts change and evolve for better or worse. Like a game of telephone, what is passed along with each teacher to student over the generations is affected by personalities, cultures, motivations, current events and countless other variables.

Below is a post that appeared at The Shotokan Times regarding the present state of karate. All martial artists should find this thought provoking. The full post may be read here.

So much of modern Karate is far from practical like the traditional masters taught, especially the Karate of Gichin Funakoshi. Self-defense skills are of minor importance in many schools, and rank codes have become too important. That endangers karate students and leads to delusions. By Jeff M. Christian (Instagram: @jeffshotokan)

“A path is made by walking on it.”
Zhuang Zhou
I believe in Karate. Real karate. Practical Karate. Traditional Karate. I want to practice the Karate that Funakoshi Sensei practiced in Okinawa for practical self-defense.

For the most part, I love my training. I am in the dojo four-to-five times a week. I train hard, and take Karate seriously as a discipline of mind, body, and spirit. But the way many dojos operate set people up for disappointment, and even danger. Therefore, I will make four observations, and offer four solutions.

1. Practical Karate Requires Full Contact

Too much of our training in contemporary Karate lacks one key ingredient: Full contact. We punch at the air. We kick at imaginary opponents in front of us, beside us, and sometimes behind us. In kumite drills, we make some contact, but we have to be careful. We are instructed to exercise “control.” 

Unfortunately, “control” often means, “pull your punches.”

I had this realization recently when my son and I decided to take an introductory Krav Maga class. Krav Maga is a combatives based fighting system. Not so much a martial art as it is a way of defending by attacking. I told my son when we were finished that I would describe the experience as “Full Contact Crossfit.” Trust me when I say that I mean no disrespect in that statement; actually, I mean quite the opposite.

It was a great workout, involving full force punches into a thick pad held firmly by your partner. Knees to the pad. Punches to the pad. Full contact. Hard as you can hit. 

The Lack of Pad Training in Modern Shotokan

Now keep in mind that I have practiced some form of Karate or martial art since I was nine years old. 

I have grown children now, so let’s just say that I have been at this a while. But because many of my punches and kicks have been directed at my imaginary friend instead of an opponent with a thick pad, my wrists and arms were incredibly sore the next day. Despite some training with a Makiwara and a heavy bag, nothing prepared me for punching a pad a hundred times at full force.

I mentioned my sore arms and wrists to a Karate friend of mine. He suggested, “Well, you were punching the bag wrong.” I suppose that is possible, but I do not think so. I am usually careful to punch with good form the majority of the time. I think instead that I am not training enough with full contact. My suspicion is that I am not alone in this. 

Practical Karate Requires Full Force

Furthermore, we need opportunities in training with opponents attacking at full force and full speed. 

Obviously we cannot train at such intensity, or people are going to get injured. We have to be realistic. With gloves and pads, along with using handheld bags and pads, we can simulate the need punch with greater force. Still, the occasional bruise is to be expected. 

What if we train a couple of times a week outside the dojo to punch a Makiwara? We need to practice our kicks and punches on a heavy bag. Otherwise, we may believe that we will be able to use Karate in a self-defense situation if the need arises.

2. The Super Hero Delusion

We imagine street fights in the dojo. Our senseis show us techniques to counter punches to the face, kicks to the groin, and multiple opponents. It looks great. But in a real world situation, will these training sessions actually work?

Practical Karate is not Choreography

Rory Miller in his book, Meditations on Violence, offers the most realistic answer to that question. 

Unless we understand the way the mind and body freezes under stress, a thousand kumite drills will be of no use to us whatsoever. You know the drill. A training partner comes at you at medium speed, and you know exactly what he is going to do. Step forward, punch to the chin. You, in your carefully choreographed kumite technique, step back with the correctly corresponding foot. Cross your arm in front of your body while you raise it just over your head. Open your torso forty-five degrees. If you open it fifty-five degrees, that will probably work, but you should strive for forty-five.

Granted. If you practice this technique for twenty years with multiple opponents at least three times a week, it will probably work in an emergency. I want to make clear that I make this observation as someone who practices such techniques multiple times a week. My criticism is not from the outside, but from deep inside the dojo. But my concern is simple: Will it work?


Friday, January 14, 2022

The First Wing Chun School

Below is an excerpt from Kung Fu Tea which discusses the formation of the first Wing Chun school that can be historically verified. The full post may be read here.

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.


Tuesday, January 11, 2022

Traditional Chinese Medicine and Wing Chun Kung Fu

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea about traditional Chinese Medicine and Wing Chun. The full article may be read here.

 A Typology of Traditional Chinese Medical Practices

In my previous post on this subject I concentrated almost exclusively on Qigong in the 1990s.  Further, when discussing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) I treated the category monolithically and defined it in opposition to the western biology based model of medicine.  For the purposes of the current post it is necessary to provide a little additional nuance to our discussion.

There are a number of conventional ways to classify the various branches of TCM and what I am about to propose fits none of them.  Since I am proposing an economic model of TCM’s relationship with the martial arts I found it necessary to develop a typology of various treatments that focused primarily on their mode of social organization and cost to the patient.  This particular typology should help to illuminate a subtle shift in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with TCM which might otherwise evade our detection.  Readers should note that while the association between TCM and Wing Chun starts strong, fades, and then returns, different treatments are favored in both the first and last periods of the following case study.  Why Wing Chun practitioners favor different types of TCM in the first and third time periods is the critical question that we are seeking to answer.

Briefly we can start by classifying different TCM strategies into two categories.  There are “external” treatments (cures that focus on an agent or remedy that is external to the patient) and “internal” practices (treatments that attempt to regulate some aspect of the patient’s health only through means that are embedded directly in the body or psyche.)

Figure 1: Traditional Chinese Medicine

“External” Treatments

“Internal” Treatments

Herbal Medicine Bone Setting Acupuncture Therapeutic Exercise Qigong (Breathing Exercises)         Neijia Martial Arts (Taijiquan)  Meditation and Visualization

Typical “external” treatments usually involve a visit to a doctor who prescribes an herbal or animal based medicine from China’s vast traditional cornucopia.  Often herbal remedies are prescribed preventatively in an attempt to maintain a favorable homeostasis within the patient’s body.

While probably the most commonly acknowledged branch of TCM, herbalism does have some significant drawbacks from a patient’s point of view.  Many of the ingredients used are very expensive.  Further, there is the general belief that the longer one continues treatment the higher the dose that must be prescribed to maintain the drug’s efficacy.  This is a problem for those with chronic conditions such as arthritis or cancer.  Additionally, there is a growing awareness that some traditional and popular herbal remedies can actually be harmful.

Anyone taking traditional herbal medicines should make sure that they know exactly what is in the preparations they ingest.  Multiple studies in America and Europe have shown that not all of the ingredients in Chinese herbal medicines are always listed or even legal.

The most common herbal preparation used in Wing Chun circles today is Dit Da Jow.  Applied as a topical anti-inflammatory to relieve bruising and swelling, Dit Da Jow can be quite helpful.  However, many traditional practitioners maintain “secret” recipes and the additional ingredients added to these brews are not always effective or even safe.  It is ultimately the patients responsibility verify the ingredients of any traditional medication that they use.

TCM doctors may also prescribe a number of different “external” treatments. Acupuncture uses the insertion of small needles along meridian lines to aid or restore the flow of Qi (the body’s natural energy in TCM).  Alternatively, “cupping” involves vacuum sealing a bowl or cup to different areas of a patient’s body.  Both of these practices are fairly commonly encountered.  While they do not use exotic ingredients they are performed by trained professionals in specialized clinics.  Once again this tends to increase the costs of “external” medical interventions.

More popular in recent years have been “internal” (neijia) treatments.  These practices attempt to heal by focusing on elements embodied within the patient or her psyche.  Breathing exercises (Qigong) are probably the most commonly encountered internal practice.  By focusing intently on their own breath, practitioners hope to gain control over their emotional or physical state.  Breathing exercises have a long history in Chinese medicine.  When accompanied by certain landscape-based visualization exercises they form an important part of Taoist religious ritual and immortality exercises.

The mainland communist government briefly promoted Taiji Quan and other internal practices in the 1950s as they seemed to present an inexpensive and uniquely Chinese alternative to western medicine.  In fact, the term “Qigong” does not appear in the classical Chinese literature at all.  What is so often observed in public parks in China today is a neologism dating to no earlier than the middle of the 20th century.

While there was a brief period of florescence in the 1950s these practices quickly faded as western medical treatments became more widely available.  It wasn’t until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, followed by the privatization of medicine in the late 1980s and early 1990s pricing most consumers out of the market, that Qigong reemerged as a viable healthcare strategy.

This reemergence was aided by the creation of new institutions and traditions that helped these practices to thrive in a modern free-market economy.  In the past spiritual teachers or martial artists who taught Qi manipulation were referred to as “Laoshi” or “Shifu.”  In the public marketplace of the 1990s these figures tended to lose their spiritual and martial orientation and were usually referred to by the term “Daishi” (great teacher).

While some individuals spend a great deal of money on seminar tickets and books, Qigong training is fairly inexpensive.  Almost all approaches to the art emphasize “self-healing.”  Further, the study groups that form around the art can become important social networking and support structures.

Wing Chun and Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1900-1949.

For all of the popular mythology surrounding Ng Moy and the revolutionary opera singers of the Red Boats, it is critical to understand that the first three or four generations of verifiable Wing Chun practitioners were resolutely bourgeois.  Leung Jan was a successful medical practitioner and merchant.  This, much more than his martial arts, was what he was remembered for by the local community.  Likewise Chan Wah Shun took up a medical practice and managed to make a comfortable living between that and his occasional martial arts instruction.

The so called “three Heroes of Wing Chun” (Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi) were all from wealthy families and did not personally feel the need to work for much of their early adult lives.  Lai Hip Chi fits into the same mold as well.  Other important early Wing Chun students, such as Jiu Chow and Jiu Wan, had coveted jobs with the local branch of the Nationalist Party (GMD) which afforded them time to research and teach the martial arts.

Through the 1930s Wing Chun was overwhelmingly aligned with the landlords of the “new gentry” class and the GMD.  It actively opposed the Hung Sing Association in its efforts to support the Communist party in the Hong Kong strike of the mid-1920s.  While a few working class individuals, such as Pan Nam, did take up the art, such individuals appear to be the exception rather than the rule.  They were also more common late in this period.

In fact, one of the things that makes the history of Wing Chun so interesting is that while most martial arts were popular only among the working poor during the early 20th century, here we have an institution that is consciously aligned with the most wealthy, conservative and even “reactionary” elements of Guangdong society.  Just look at the number of early Wing Chun practitioners who end up working for the police or military.  It is little wonder that the Communists took a dim view of the practice after 1949.

During this period western medicine was still being introduced and it was not yet widely available.  Most Wing Chun students had to rely on TCM.  Luckily Wing Chun was often taught in tandem with a sophisticated school of traditional medicine up through the outbreak of WWII.  After all, two of the art’s founding figures, Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun, were respected medical professionals.

Given the relative wealth of the Wing Chun community in this period, we would expect them to be able to afford the best healthcare.  At the time the gold standard was herbalism.  This is exactly what Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun, and later his son Chan Yiu Min, specialized in.  The medical practices of these men focused on the mixing and prescribing of drugs to prevent illness and re-balance the body’s natural homeostasis.  Only wealthy patients would be able to afford this sort of treatment, but that was not generally an issue as that was the social circle that these early Wing Chun masters moved in.  Likewise it was mostly wealthy individuals who could afford Wing Chun instruction between 1900 and 1939.

Clearly these early teachers were knowledgeable about other areas of TCM as well.  Wing Chun has an important Bone Setting tradition (a form of therapeutic massage or chiropractic healing) that dates to this period.  Given the prevalence of sports injuries in martial arts training, this skill has certainly served the Wing Chun clan well.  Further, there is some evidence of older breathing exercises going back to this time period.  The Yuen Kay San lineage has a number of Qi cultivation forms (kidney breathing) that may predate more recent trends in Qigong (more research is needed to confirm this).  Still, it is clear that the major medical emphasis within the Wing Chun clan during this early, and relatively privileged, period was the complex system of traditional herbal medicines.

Wing Chun and the Fading of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1950-1990.

World War Two and the subsequent Japanese occupation did little to promote the fortunes of Wing Chun.  The art did recover somewhat between 1945 and 1949.  Unfortunately, this brief flowering was crushed by the ultimate Communist victory in China’s long running civil war.  The Communists had a lot of reasons to dislike Wing Chun.  This was a violent reactionary art closely tied to the reactionary land owners and rich merchants of Guangdong, their sworn enemies.  Further, a number of individuals in the Wing Chun community (including Ip Man) had served as police officers and detectives at the same time that the GMD was using law enforcement to investigate, interrogate, and even execute suspected Communists.  Not all Wing Chun teachers fled in 1949 (for instance Lai Hip Chi and Sum Num stayed), but Wing Chun was effectively crippled on the mainland.  It would not begin the process of recovery and rebuilding until the 1980s and 1990s.

The situation was different in other places like Hong Kong and Vietnam.  Ip Man managed to start a vibrant Wing Chun community after he fled into exile in 1949.  It is often said that he was the first individual to publically teach Wing Chun.  This commonly repeated assertion is mostly nonsense.  Many individuals had taught very publically before him, but the events of 1949 erased or helped to obscure their legacy.  Nor did they ever achieve the fantastic levels of recognition that Ip Man earned.  From Hong Kong he was in an ideal position to send students abroad at a time when the Chinese martial arts were just starting to trend in the global market.  While Ip Man was not Wing Chun’s first public teacher, he was certainly its most successful.  But what did he teach his students about medicine?

For the most part he seems to have ignored the subject.  The image of Wing Chun that emerged in the 1950s was that of angry young men fighting on rooftops and settling scores in secret challenges matches.  A less charitable reading of this period might instead characterize it as one in Wing Chun was closely linked to street violence and youth delinquency.  That is certainly how the Hong Kong police perceived the situation.

The sorts of students that came to Ip Man in the 1950s were, by in large, not very interested in traditional medicine.  Young people rarely are.  Further, Hong Kong had a relative abundance of high quality modern western medical care.  Certainly some students like Moy Yat and Ip Man’s children (to name just two examples, there were also others) expressed an interest in TCM and learned the old man’s art.  Most, however, did not.

It is remarkable how important health practices were to practitioners in the 1930s and how much they faded in the 1950s and 1960s.  Wing Chun was quickly and efficiently rebranded as a street fighting and self-defense art divorced from the world of traditional Chinese philosophy and cosmology.  It is often said that in Hong Kong Ip Man simplified the teaching system, removing the “five elements” and the “eight directions” as these were no longer helpful metaphors when coaching his modern, urbane, western educated students.  Yet without these metaphors it is impossible to master the complex world of Qi cultivation and traditional herbalism.

Nevertheless, there is one interesting development in this period.  Ip Man’s students and children report seeing him perform Siu Lim Tao very slowly (emphasizing the ‘Three Prayers to Buddha’ chapter) as a form of breathing exercise dedicated to building and (and presumably moving) his Qi.  This may have happened in his lineage in Foshan as well, but I have yet to find any direct reference to it.  It is suggestive to note that breathing exercises are observed in the Ip Man clan for the first time at about the same period that they are being promoted as a form of healthcare for the masses on the mainland.

Still, Qigong did not enter most Wing Chun schools.  To the extent that these practices were acknowledged they were generally treated as being esoteric (or private).  The primary emphasis of the art remained its fighting acumen and not techniques for self-cultivation.

The major exception to this trend was William Cheung’s 1986 book How to Develop Chi Power (Ohara).  The text starts with a basic introduction to Qi and the ideas behind Qigong.  Through a creative historical narrative Cheung managed to attribute the exercises in his book to both the ancient Chinese sages and Bodhidharma (an Indian Buddhist monk revered by some martial artists because of his legendary association with the Shaolin temple).  He then provides a set of simple exercises for building Qi with Wing Chun drills and the Siu Lim Tao form, much as Ip Man is reported to have done.

Cheung’s efforts on this front appear to have been slightly ahead of their time.  However, he was clearly responding to a perceived demand within the broader western Chinese martial arts community for a beginner’s introduction to Qigong training.  I think the most remarkable aspect of this work was how little engagement it received from the broader Wing Chun community.

Wing Chun’s Careful Embrace of Qigong, 1990-Present.

The silence with which most Wing Chun instructors treated Qi started to crumble in the early 1990s.  This was just a decade after “Qigong fever” had gripped the newly liberalized mainland and seekers in the west were starting to be reintroduced to the possibilities of TCM through various “New Age” sources.  A survey of works from this period shows that some Wing Chun instructors enthusiastically embraced these trends and the general medicalization of the Chinese martial arts.  Other teachers comment on these events with some reservations.  Lastly, a large faction of Sifus rejected these practices altogether.

One of the more influential Wing Chun books to come out in the 1990s was Wing Chun Kung Fu: Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for Self Defense and Healing by Ip Chun and Michael Tse (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998).  This short work ends with a chapter on Qigong practice in Wing Chun, advising students of the health benefits of regular and dedicated breathing practice.  They are instructed that this is best achieved by slowly working through Siu Lim Tao.

This opinion, however, does not seem to be shared equally by both authors.  Michael Tse, who wrote the English text of the book, is much more enamored with Qigong than his teacher and coauthor.  In fact, Tse founded a successful magazine in 1990 that ran for 20 years and actively promoted the mixing of a variety of martial arts (including Wing Chun) with the latest medical trends emerging out of China. The back issues of Qi Magazine (available for free online) are a wonderful resource for those interested in the growth of the market for TCM within the western martial arts community.

Ip Chun’s thoughts on these trends seem to be more faithfully flushed out in another work co-authored with Danny Connor, Wing Chun Martial Arts: Principles & Techniques (San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1993).  In an interview published in this text Ip Chun briefly explains the structure of Qigong and addresses its recent rise in popularity.  He advises his students that there are subtle pitfalls to the art including charlatans and he even alluded to “Qigong sickness,” a type of psychosis that became relatively common in Chinese mental hospitals after the massive movement towards TCM in the early 1990s.

This should not be interpreted to mean that Ip Chun thought that students should ignore the more subtle aspects of the art.  Instead, what he found most useful was the meditative elements of Chi Sau (sticking hands) and how this exercise encouraged students to develop not just their reflexes, but their mind.  Chi Sao requires absolute focus.  Ip Chun argued that it was this meditative focus and the light aerobic workout of Chi Sao that was the key to Wing Chun’s health benefits, not Qigong per se.

These subtle warnings do not seem to have had much of an impact on the growth of Qigong in western Wing Chun circles.  As the 1990s slipped into the 2000s, (and the psychological stresses of late capitalism mounted) there has been growing interest in the “healing” aspect of the art.  While this healing-discourse is usually understood as applying to chronic conditions in mainland China, in the West there seems to be a strong tendency to psychologize or spiritualize the rejuvenation that is expected.

Of course this is not universal.  While traditional herbalism has mostly disappeared from the Wing Chun community, there are still a number of lineages within the Ip Man family that teach the Bone Setting techniques.  These were initially understood as offering immediate physical relief from muscular or skeletal problems.  However, when combined with Qi cultivation and the idea of a “master’s healing touch” this starts to resemble the sort of thing that Nancy Chen described in detail during the 1990s (Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry and Healing in China.  Columbia University Press: 2003).

Samuel Kwok typifies some of the possibilities and dilemmas that the medicalization of the Chinese martial arts presents.  A student of both Ip Chun and Ip Ching, Kwok has promoted himself as a representative and guardian of the “orthodox” approach to Ip Man’s Kung Fu.  His personal webpage never mentions Qi or Qigong.  Likewise, his major publication never discusses Qigong (Kwok and Massengill.  Mastering Wing Chun. Los Angeles: Empire Books. 2007).

However, Samuel Kwok has gone out of his way to cultivate a following based on his skills in the medical arts, including both Qi transfer and Bone Setting.  His skills in this area are promoted through special seminars advertised by his martial arts students, separate webpages, word of mouth and worshipful testimonials.

Much of this material seems quite alien to the traditional Wing Chun discourse that developed from the 1950s-1970s.  However, Kwok’s image in the medical realm follows the pattern for other “Daishi” established by Chen in her study of the spread of medical Qigong.

It is my general impression that the presence of Qigong in the Wing Chun community is increasing.  It seems that western students are ever more interested in “original” or “authentic” forms of Wing Chun.  This obsession with identity formation is in many respects symptomatic of the subtle social and economic dislocations of globalization.  As traditional markers of identity slip away, individuals rationally seek something else as an anchor in an increasingly hostile world.  The same forces that create the demand for “historical authenticity” in the Wing Chun community also open it to the healing discourse of modern medical Qigong.

These trends can also be seen outside of the Ip Man lineage.  Eddy Chong learned a form of Qigong from Pan Nam during his visits to Foshan in the early 1990s (the highpoint of the Qi bubble).  He now teaches these in his own school.  Likewise the Yuen Kay San clan is justly proud of their older breathing exercises, each with its own unique form, which may predate the current Qigong trend.


Saturday, January 08, 2022

LEO and Martial Arts Training

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Invictus Leo Jiu Jitsu Collective. The topic is "Why Cops Don't Train Jiu Jitsu - A Study." The full post may be read here.

 Disclaimer: This study was conducted over an 11-month period (2019) that included 3 surveys (1120 officers) and interaction/discussion (430 officers) that were “non-training” (total of 1550 police officers). For the purpose of this study, a non-training officer was one that was not participating in Jiu Jitsu or combatives outside their regularly mandated incremental training required by their department.

This study is by no means exhaustive and certainly open to interpretation. We are neither scientists nor professional statisticians, and therefore acknowledge the inherent flaws in this article. We also note that we may have left things out which are glaringly obvious. We conclude that this is just the second of many refined research papers we will tackle.

We also tried to keep this paper “short” and concede it’s not scholastic in nature and may contain errors. We wanted to give the bare bones in order to get the message across in normal everyday language and presentation.

Lastly, it’s very important that we state that we are pro police (obviously). The complexities of the job are vast and the struggles officers deal with in an ever- changing environment are real. We are NOT looking to cast a shadow over officers that aren’t training. We aren’t trying to guilt trip cops in to hitting the mats. We are trying to show the multitude of reasons police are not training.  Our research has identified an interesting discovery that we call the “primary-secondary phenomenon.”

The Author and Collaborator are both active police officers, black belts in Jiu Jitsu and use of force teachers.

Goal: The goal of this study was to uncover the reasons police officers are not training and use that information to reverse this trend and get more law enforcement learning this valuable skill.

Why Train: If you are reading this you probably know the Invictus Leo Jiu Jitsu Collective's main objective is to get police officers to train in Jiu Jitsu. The hashtag movement #BJJMAKEITMANDATORY has spread tremendously since our inception. There are a thousand reasons to train but sadly it only takes one excuse not too. This study and article does not focus on the benefits of Jiu Jitsu (which there are many).

The Discussion: Among trained officers, the discussion on why the majority of police are not training in Jiu Jitsu as their primary use of force art is common place. We wanted to see how these were reflected in an actual study from non- training officers.

Before we continue, we need to state that officers are trained at a variety of different levels. Every academy, agency and department will have their own standards. Some are better than others.

The Primary-Secondary Phenomenon:

We don’t have a catchy name for this so we simply are calling it what it is. What we uncovered during our study was that officers that do not train jiu jitsu have their “main reason(s) for not training” (primary) but almost always acknowledge a secondary aspect that kept them off the mats. This secondary phenomenon is what we found most interesting during this study.

Demographics of Responding Officers
Years of Experience:
Less than 1 Year: 4%
1-5 years: 10%
6-10 years: 21%
11-15 years: 33%
16-20 years: 15%
21 + Years: 17%

Our statistics show that there seems to be a trend that officers who have been on the job longer than 6 years are less likely to train.


We will tackle the Primary Reasons first. We will add some statistics but have opted to refrain from throwing out numbers and percentages en mass in order to make for an easier read. Note that these were the TOP and most frequent reasons officers listed for not training jiu jitsu or combatives. Many officers also combined 2 or 3 other reasons for avoiding “extra curricular training”. Percentage statistics do not equal 100% in many cases because officers selected multiple areas of reasons and excuses.


Lack of time appeared to be the most common primary reason cited for officers not training (71%) Non Training Officers identified several sub reasons on why time was a factor in not training.

a)    Family: 78% of officers identified that spending time with their family trumped all other considerations. Because of the hectic and long hours that policing requires, especially at the patrol level, officers did not prioritize training as something they wanted to do. Given the choice between training and their family, family almost always “won”.

b)    Hobbies: 45% of officers identified secondly (after family), that their down time was important to them. This included and sometimes overlapped family time. These hobbies included but were not limited to: sports (gym, running, biking), media relaxation (movies, Netflix, video games), reading, and social outings with friends.
c)    Schedule: 15% of officers cited that their work schedule prevented them from training (shift work, nights) but also admitted that they had not sought out other officers within their departments to conduct “mat training” on their own.


Officers cited cost of Jiu Jitsu classes a barrier to training. Cost ended up linking to family commitments often (45% of the time) but interestingly; officers also cited that they believed their departments should flip the bill for their training (38% of the time). Officers however were aware of that their departments are under budgetary constraints are can’t always provide for this.


This was cited as another reason officer did not pursue training. They acknowledged that their departments would consider injuries outside of work time not to be covered by workers compensation. Officer’s noted that they did not want to engage in what they perceived as a high risk actively where they could get injured (48%)
65% of respondents said that they have pre existing injuries and did not want to risk re-injuring themselves in high risk martial arts training.


Another high percentage response (usually coupled with one of the other primary reasons, on why cops weren’t training). 86% of non training officers noted that they didn’t know the benefits of jiu jitsu or combatives training. Of that number, 50% believed that it would take “too long to become proficient” to make training worth while. Also, 44% identified Jiu Jitsu as “Mixed Martial Arts or UFC fighting” and really did not know what the art could offer.


These two categories came in almost identical at around 18% each. Many officers noted that they relied on their physical condition (strength, speed, endurance) to win their use of force encounters. Further to that, 50% cited that the gym and lifting weights were more important than ‘technique training.” Officers tend to spend more time lifting weights and shooting than practicing arrest and combatives skills.

Almost identically (17%), officers listed that weapon usage (baton, taser, OC spray and firearm) equalized or prevented physical encounters. About 50% of all the officers polled in this study stated that they "worked out".


We understood that simply asking if “ego” was a factor would prevent many from selecting “ego as the factor”. Therefore, we masked how we asked this question which lead to our secondary reason below. Ego is a broadly defined (in our context) as: consciously believing that one does not need something based on experience, feeling or justification.

Wednesday, January 05, 2022

The Last Sword Maiden of China

Below is an excerpt from an article that appeared at Kung Fu Tea, regarding the life and times of Qui Jin, the last sword maiden of China. The full post may be read here.

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.