A Brief History of the Chinese Martial Arts

This post is to clarify a few aspects about the history of Chinese martial arts. One of the biggest issues that Chinese martial arts students face in their studies is finding factual information about the history, not only of their style but also, of Chinese martial arts in general. Much of what is beleived to be Chinese martial arts history is nothing more than legends, folklore and embellished novel writings. Here are a few facts about Chinese martial arts in a historical contaxt.

The earliest evidence of usage of weapons for hunting and self-defense appears in China during the Paleolithic (3,000,000 to 10,000 BCE) and Mesolithic Eras (10,000 to 7,000 BCE). Written descriptions of Chinese martial arts can be traced as far back to the Xia Dynasty (夏朝 ca 2700 – 1600 BCE).  The origins of the Chinese martial arts can be attributed to the self-defense, hunting, and military needs of the ancient Chinese people.

According to legend, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi - 黃帝 - ca. 2700 BCE) introduced the earliest forms of martial arts to China. The Yellow Emperor allegedly developed the practice of Jiao Di (角抵)or “Horn-Butting”, which later developed into what is now known as Shuai Jiao (摔角 - Shuai Chiao) and utilized it in war.

During the Shang Dynasty (1766–1066 BCE), appears the first descriptions of a form of organized hand-to-hand combat practice that includes strikes with hands and feet as well as throwing techniques known as Shoubo (手搏).

In the Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BCE), King Chen (周成王) promotes the study of both literary and martial arts known as Wen () and Wu () respectively.

A combat theory, including the integration of notions of "hard" and "soft" techniques, is expounded in the story of the “Maiden of Yue” in the “Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue” (5th c. BCE).

In the Former Han Dynasty (206 BCE – 8 CE), there was a distinction made between, Shoubo (hand-to-hand combat), for which manuals had been written, and sport wrestling, then known as Jiaoli (角力).

During the Song (960-1279 CE) and Yuan (1271-1368 CE) Dynasties, Xiangpu (相扑 – a form of wrestling) contests were sponsored by the imperial courts. The modern concepts of martial arts were fully developed by the Ming (1368-1644 CE) and Qing (1644-1911) Dynasties.

The Chinese fighting styles and systems taught and practiced today have developed over the centuries into what is now known in the west as “Kung Fu”. Some of these include Baguazhang, Eagle Claw, Choy Li Fut, Xingyiquan, Hung Gar, Taijiquan, Northern Praying Mantis, Shuai Chiao, Fujian White Crane, Northern Shaolin, Wing Chun and Jook Lum South Mantis.

The present view of Chinese martial arts is strongly influenced by the events that occurred between 1928 and 1937 known as the “Golden Age of Kuoshu”. In 1927 General Zhang Zhijiang (張之江) created the Center for Kuoshu Research, proposing that Chinese martial arts should be called “Kuoshu” (國術), explaining that “In our nation martial techniques have developed since antiquity and have been passed from generation to generation maintaining its original characteristics. For this reason the name should be standardized to “Kuoshu” (Techniques of the Nation). Later, in 1928, the Central Kuoshu Academy (中央國術館)  was founded by the Nationalist government to promote the practice of Chinese martial arts by the general public, many martial artists were encouraged to openly teach their art at this time, with the slogan “To promote the exchange of knowledge and tear down the curtain of prejudice between the styles”, with this many Kuoshu academies were built in the then Republic of China (1912-1949). The central idea of the Kuoshu academies was to promote Chinese martial arts as a matter of national pride and build a strong nation. National examinations and tournaments were organized as well as demonstration teams that travelled overseas and numerous martial arts associations were formed throughout China and in various expatriate Chinese communities. The Central Kuoshu Academy promoted a systematic approach for training in Chinese martial arts. A series of provincial and national competitions were organized by the Republican government starting in 1932 to promote Chinese martial arts. In 1936, at the 11th Olympic Games in Berlin, a group of Chinese martial artists, sponsored by the Central Kuoshu Academy, demonstrated their art to an international audience for the first time.

Chinese martial arts started to spread internationally with the end of the Chinese Civil War (1945-1949) and the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949. Many well known martial art practitioners chose to escape from the PRC's rule and migrate to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Macau, Singapore and other parts of the world. Those masters started to teach within the overseas Chinese communities but eventually they expanded their teachings to include people from other cultures. During this time begins the division between traditional Chinese martial arts, as taught by Chinese expatriates, and contemporary Chinese martial arts or “Wushu”, as created by the Chinese government committees of the time.

In 1954 the Physical Culture and Sports Commission of China instituted a policy to reevaluate and concentrate Chinese martial arts. Prof. Kang Gewu (康戈武) points out that “this negatively affected the traditional Chinese martial arts”. In 1957 a meeting was held to define “Wushu” (). After several debates it was decided that “Wushu” would be categorized as physical education since it was different from purely military techniques and also different from martial dance and gymnastics.

During the turbulent years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) the Chinese people, motivated by the communist government, began to get rid of “old culture, old costumes and old habits”, during this time many Chinese martial arts manuals were burned, weapons were destroyed and teachers were persecuted. The PRC promoted the committee-regulated sport of Wushu as a replacement to independent schools of martial arts. This new competitive sport was disassociated from what was seen as the potentially subversive self-defense aspects and family lineages of Chinese martial arts. During this same time in places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, Singapore, and overseas communities throughout the world traditional Chinese martial arts groups were being formed and tournaments being organized, such as the First International Chinese Kuoshu Championship in 1975, on the island of Taiwan.

The suppression of traditional martial arts teaching in China was eventually relaxed during the Era of Reconstruction (1976–1989), as Communist ideology became more accommodating to alternative viewpoints.

From the beginning, Chinese martial arts incorporated different concepts, theories and ideas into its practice throughout the ages. These arts expanded their purpose from purely self-defense and military usage to, more recently, health maintenance and a method of self-cultivation. Each system and style developing in different ways showing a diversity of concepts, ideas and cultures not found elsewhere in the world. The influence of martial arts concepts in Chinese society can be found in poetry, fiction, paintings, opera and even films, Chinese martial arts are an intrinsic part of Chinese culture.

The term for “martial arts” in Chinese has changed several times throughout Chinese history, examples are:

Quányǒng - 拳勇 - Zhou Dynasty (ca. 1100-221 BCE)
Jìjī - - Warring States Era (403-221 BCE)
Jìjiǎo - 技角- Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)
Shǒubó - 手搏 - Han Dynasty (206 BCE - 220 CE)
Jìyǒng - 技勇 - Ming Dynasty (1368 - 1644 CE)
Pāishǒu - 拍手 - Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE)
Quánfǎ - 拳法 - Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE)
Wǔyì - 武藝 - Qing Dynasty (1644 - 1911 CE)
Guóshù (Kuoshu) - 國術 - Chinese Republic (1911 - )
Guójī - - Chinese Republic (1911 - )
Wǔshù - 武術 - Chinese Republic (1911 - )

The Chinese term for “martial arts” is best approximated by these terms “Wushu”, “Wuyi” and “Jiji”. The term “Kuoshu” has a connotation of “Chinese martial arts” or “traditional Chinese martial arts”.

To understand the arts we study we must first understand where they came from. Folklore, legends and myths all have their place in the world of Chinese martial arts, they can be great ways to explain certain aspects of morality and how to study with a correct attitude, however we must understand the true root of these arts to fully appreciate its usefullness, complexity and beauty as we practice them.

If you are interested in further reading on this subject please look into the following books and articles:

Articles written by Stan Henning in the following publications - Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Classical Fighting Arts Magazine and Journal of Chinese Martial Studies

Articles written by Ma Mingda in the Journal of Chinese Martial Studies

Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey - by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo

Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sports and Physical Culture in Republican China - by Andrew Morris

Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts: 5000 Years - by Kang Gewu

Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the 21st Century - by Peter Lorge

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