Thread: CMA History
4/19/2011 6:39pm, #1
I think I should kick things off by saying I’m not a CMA practitioner, nor even a casual observer. I wouldn’t recognise Xingyi if it fell out of a tree and hit me and my best guess of what do with Chi Sao is to put it on some crispy duck. However, I am a history student with an interest and some limited expertise in Chinese history. I was initially drawn to this topic by a post many months ago about how Chinese martial artists supported themselves and from there it developed into a wider look at the history of Chinese martial arts.
As such this is presented more to create discussion points and prompt others to bring their own expertise and conduct their own research. This is not intended as a lecture expounding a definitive history of Chinese martial arts.
Martial arts don’t get much attention from mainstream historians and as a result there is a very real scarcity of proper historical research on the subject. Falling in between the cracks of various disciplines not considered significant by military historians and viewed as somewhat of an oddity and irrelevance by social and cultural historians. Even when eminent and world leading scholars, like Needham, engage with the subject of martial arts they are prone to the same casual public misconceptions, half truths and pseudo history that clouds so much genuine study of martial arts history. As such much of this information is drawn from far fewer sources than would normally be acceptable historical practice, however, those few sources draw on a vast array of primary and secondary sources from Chinese historians and original Chinese documents.
I’m going to split this up into 4 categories:
CMA and religion
The Shaolin monastery
This is to avoid a lengthy narrative and allow people to pick out key points of interest.
The earliest formal classification of martial arts come from the Former Han Biblographies, published in AD 90. This classification was done in one section, of four, under the chapter heading ‘Military Writings’. The martial arts listed are described as skills or techniques ‘to practice use of the hands and feet, and to facilitate the use of weapons to gain victory through offense or defence’ The four martial arts listed are archery, fencing, cuju (a form of football) and boxing – shoubo, boxing is differentiated from wrestling, which is classified as a military sport rather than a combat skill. The term boxing for shoubo is somewhat misleading, because it really refers to a system of no holds barred unarmed combat which involved strikes and throws, but it seems no ground grappling. It is best to think in terms of MMA or ancient Greek Pankration than what we would consider Boxing or Kung Fu of today.
Shoubo was the MCMAP of ancient China and was considered distinct from the military sport of wrestling – jueli. It was considered a core military skill - bing jiqiao – as a method ‘to practice hand and foot movements, facilitate use of weapons, and organize for victory in offense or defence.’ Shoubo, renamed Quan in the Southern Song dynasty, was considered a form of basic combat training to prepare troops for weapons training, but on its own was only a combat system of last resort once weapons were lost or broken beyond use.
Shoubo/Quan was not confined merely to the ranks of the military and was widely practiced throughout the civilian population. However, in an ironic foreshadowing of the passage of Krav Maga into the civilian population, embellishing Shoubo/Quan with less practical techniques was common. This lead Mid- Ming general Qi Jiguang to condemn these new huafa or “flowery methods” these ‘flowery methods’ became a prevalent part of what is now called Kung Fu and practiced globally.
Shoubo/Quan continued to be considered a military training skill over several centuries and has retained a distinction from sports ever since the Emperor Qin Shi Huang, of Terracotta Army fame, decreed wrestling to be the mainstay of military ceremonies. ‘Boxing’ was able to remain a mainstay of military training as it was incorporated into the examination for recruiting and promoting military bureaucrats in the The Tang Dynasty (618-906 A.D.). ‘Boxing’ alongside archery, both on horseback and on foot, feats of strength and essays on military classics was to remain central to the training of military personal until the 19th century.
An illustration of military wrestling practice in 1884
[What leapt out at me, is that if you look closely you can see the artist has made a distinction between those wearing white belts and those wearing dark coloured belts. Indicative of a ‘dan’ grade system? Or just a way of differentiating practitioners? There also appears to be some groundwork with one figure playing half guard(?)]
Much of the key evidence and detailed information comes from the Ming dynasty 1368-1644 as the Ming was a time of astounding prosperity and cultural flowering, built on the back of a highly export driven economy geared around producing high quality manufactured items for Western consumers, sound familiar? However, critical for the investigation of the history of martial arts was explosion of writing and manuals under the Ming. The Chinese have long been keen on manuals, as can be seen by the 10th and 11th century manuals providing DIY instructions for how to build your own family shrine. However, it was during the Ming and in particular the mid to late Ming that saw proliferation of manuals detailing martial arts techniques.
This was in part due to increased military commitments under the Ming, but also due to an increase in scholarship and dedication to research and cataloguing. One of the key figures who wrote manuals about ‘boxing’ in this period is our old friend General Qi, of ‘flowery methods’ fame. Qi produced a key text New Book of Effective Discipline (1561) in which he documented weapons techniques, but also devotes a chapter to ‘boxing’, which he argues is not favourable to large scale armed conflict but serves as useful training to prepare troops for weapons training. He studied 16 forms of ‘boxing’ to produce his manual and developed a 32 form set as a training tool for new recruits. Henning notes ‘Interestingly, about half of the 32 forms illustrated in his manual have the same or similar names as forms found in present day taijiquan, and virtually all the forms shown can be found in either the old Chen style or more popular Yang style taijiquan, both of which are practiced in China today.’
An example from General Qi’s training manual:
Other contemporary manuals such as Zheng Ruozeng’s ‘Strategic Situation in Jiangnan’ (1568) and the Complete Book of Miscellany (1612), by a different author. Also catalogue ‘boxing’ techniques and emphasise ‘escaping and seizing’ techniques as well as techniques we would recognise as Jujutsu style techniques as part of the systems of ‘boxing’.
Thus we can see that up until the 17th century unarmed CMA styles possessed a very varied collection of techniques that in their military application had more in common with the no holds barred styles of today than they did to the ‘flowery’ styles of Kung Fu that are popularly practiced and passed on as authentic CMA today.
Please note that I’m not a practitioner on CMA so can only go based upon the various kata and demo I have seen and my views are not deeply informed when it comes to present state of CMA.
It is at this point that I turn to the relationship between CMA and religion as a lead in to the main meat of my research – the Shaolin monastery.
CMA and religion
A common trope amongst people talking about the past is to assume a primitivism of thought about our forebears. Whereby they were all slavish followers of whatever religious dogma ruled in their day and devoid of the faculty of critical thought. However, this is not true and people in the past were just as capable and incapable of critical thought as we are today.
As such it is easier for people to build upon this trope and make lazy assertions about links between religion and almost any activity in life.
A lot of the linking between Chinese martial arts and religion stems from two sources, the Shaolin monastery and heterodox religions and secret societies of the 19th century. Additional confusion is caused by Orientalist historians writing about ‘eastern’ practices without an appreciation for the differing systems of thought of those regions. Just as we in the West express ourselves through the cultural knowledge of our system of thought with expression such as ‘oh my god’ and exultations to ‘Jesus Christ’ during moments of pain and climax... Without necessarily being religious or faithful, so too did Chinese of yesteryear express themselves using the cultural currency of their time.
As such the religious bent to descriptive language used to describe concepts in the Chinese martial arts should be ascribed more to the Chinese system of knowledge rather than as expressions of devotion. As Henning argues ‘Just because they use Buddhist or Daoist terminology, which is common in their culture regardless of their belief, does not necessarily mean they are all “believers.”’
Much of the relationship between CMA and native Chinese religion extends from the adoption of martial arts by heterodox religious movements during the 19th century. Seeking to root their ideas and practices in a uniquely Chinese heritage in an effort to define themselves as Chinese in opposition to the encroachment of western powers and breakdown of the old certainties instilled through the Qing system of knowledge. Heterodox religious groups such as the Heaven and Earth society sought to root themselves in Chinese tradition by asserting, falsely, a link to the Shaolin monastery. However as Henning and Esherick succinctly put it;
“Members of heterodox sects might practice martial arts, but martial arts were not inextricably linked to spiritual practices”
“The two elements, martial arts and heterodox beliefs, are clearly alternatives, not linked elements of a single tradition.”
I intend to follow this up with a lengthy piece on the Shaolin monastery and Myth busting.
Again I would remind experienced CMA practitioners that I hold no qualifications in CMA or experience and merely present this as student of Chinese history who is also a martial artist. This is intended to provoke discussion rather than to act as any sort of definitive article on CMA history.
 Henning CMA in Historical perspective p. 174.
 Henning Academia encounters the CMA p. 319.
 Gu Shi, Annotated Han History Bibliographies, p. 205
 Henning, Academia encounters the CMA p. 320.
 Henning, CMA in Historical perspective p. 174.
 Brook, The Confusions of Pleasure and Clunas, Superfluous Things
 Bray, Technics and Civilization in Late Imperial China, p. 22.
 Henning, CMA in Historical perspective, p. 175.
 Henning, Academia encounters the CMA p. 322.
 Henning, Review of Sahar’s Shaolin Monastery, p. 428.
 Henning, Academia encounters the CMA p. 327.
 Esherick, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, p. 357
4/19/2011 9:08pm, #2
I really enjoyed reading this, and dare I say, think I learned something in the process.
Fantastic bibliography, there is some really good reading there.
Looking forward to reading your Shaolin Mythbusters post.
4/19/2011 10:05pm, #3
you have offended my family, and you have offended the shaolin temple...
nice work. carry on, then."Face punches are an essential character building part of a martial art. You don't truly love your children unless you allow them to get punched in the face." - chi-conspiricy
"When I was a little boy, I had a sailor suit, but it didn't mean I was in the Navy." - Mtripp on the subject of a 5 year old karate black belt
"Without actual qualifications to be a Zen teacher, your instructor is just another roundeye raping Asian culture for a buck." - Errant108
"Seriously, who gives a **** what you or Errant think? You're Asian males, everyone just ignores you, unless you're in a krotty movie." - new2bjj
4/19/2011 10:38pm, #4
- Join Date
- Dec 2004
I have CMA background AND I went to GWU to get a masters in Chinese history. There isn't easily accessible history of CMA, but there is tons of history which leads into it, for example histories of the boxer and Taiping rebellions, histories of the secret society and brotherhood movements, etc. What there really is NONE OF is CMA people actually reading this stuff and correcting the crap they pass off as history and "tradition" (/rant)
4/20/2011 12:02am, #5
4/20/2011 3:15am, #6
4/20/2011 3:47am, #7
What may be of note is this etching that I used in my post which shows a military wrestling match in 1884 and looks, from the uniforms and techniques to be something similar to Shuai Jiao.
Is this evidence of teh secret Gong Fu grappling or just two guys having fallen over whilst doing stand up grappling.
I'll try and finish off and post the rest later, but I'm off to scotland over the easter weekend and the scots aren't allowed the internet so won't be posting for a bit.
4/20/2011 10:55am, #8
- Join Date
- Dec 2004
4/21/2011 3:37pm, #9
- Join Date
- Nov 2008
Haven't read something this good since the thread "Disputing Zhang San Feng, and other Myths of "Internal Martial Arts"
Keep up the good work
4/23/2011 4:55am, #10
Nice work. Re: The groundwork question.
I have done two different styles of CMA (Wing Chun and Tai Chi) neither of which practice the groundwork.
When I studied Wing Chun it was under a Chinese man from Hong Kong, and he told me that chinese martial arts didn't have groundwork because 'rolling around on the floor' was seen as 'dirty fighting', a bit like the way pulling hair or kicking people in the balls was seen by many in the west.!!RENT SPACE HERE FOR 10 VBUCKS PER LINE PER MONTH!!
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