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A Brief History of Chinese Kung-Fu: Part 1

By David A. Ross

An aerobatic Chinese Wu Shu technique

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part series on the history of Chinese Kung-Fu. It was brought to’s attention by Tom Ross (no relation to the author), a martial arts historian and frequent contributor to this site. He noted that it might ruffle a lot of feathers, but based on his research this article was one of the most factually accurate pieces he had read.


Chinese style martial artists in the United States have long tried to make sense out of the many pieces of contradictory information circulated regarding the origins and purposes of their arts. How can one reconcile the inherent contradiction of supposedly educated, cultured and peaceful men (i.e. Buddhist monks, Taoist hermits and Confucian scholars) practicing and perfecting techniques designed to maim and kill? What exactly is the relationship between spiritual enlightenment, ethical training, physical fitness and no holds barred street fighting? Why do some other well-known traditions, such as the open challenge or dueling, seem so starkly out of place?

The picture painted by many is clearly both illogical and inconsistent. Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, in perhaps one of the most significant attempts to document the true history of martial arts, noted that where China was concerned the literature was "uneven, full of gaps and smothered in places by ambiguities." Many so-called histories contradict the well established and documented realities of Chinese culture. Others are historically impossible. Then there are those which border on pure mythology. Finally, there are those which are purely ridiculous. In short, none would stand up under the scrutiny that true historical works are subjected to.

As Chinese martial arts become increasingly popular in the United States and there is a movement toward the creation of an international structure, instructors and students alike seek to find their proper identity and resolve these contradictions. It is essential to understand the past before we begin to plan for our future. Now is the time to develop a correct history for Chinese martial arts. We must confront the sources of these contradictions.

The simple fact is that, despite the claims of many of today's instructors, martial arts were not primarily the pursuit of Buddhist monks, Taoist hermits or Confucian scholars. In ancient China, martial arts were primarily practiced and developed by the military, members of brotherhoods and secret societies, and those involved in marginally accepted professions such armed escorts and body guards. As such, martial arts were in fact the product of those classes which most Chinese considered undesirable. This affected both the development of martial arts and the general society's attitudes toward them.

It must be remembered that imperial China was governed by traditional Confucian ideology. Within this context, education was the key to success in China's complex bureaucracy, and physical pursuits were viewed as morally inferior. Under these conditions, significant portions of the population, particularly the illiterate commoner, were marginalized or simply ignored. Thus, those who were neither privileged nor protected by society developed martial arts as the only defense against an often cruel and savage world. For these men, martial arts were neither a sport nor a hobby, but rather a matter of life or death.

The association of martial arts with undesirable elements resulted in a social stigma which is the origin of the contradictions discussed here. All societies, but particularly China's, attempt to control and appropriate what they deem to be socially unacceptable behaviors. In the case of martial artists, the need to do so was made more important by the fact that these individuals were also strongly associated with those groups which traditionally challenged central authority (i.e. regional military units, secret societies, and brotherhoods). The social stigma also prompted many of those who practiced martial arts to attempt to legitimize their practice.

The simultaneous efforts by both those practicing martial arts and the society in general to legitimize and assimilate martial arts (and thus render them harmless) resulted in a gradual but concentrated effort to obscure the true origins of these arts and the creation of a "political correctness." For example, many instructors began (and continue) to focus upon stories of martial arts being practiced within Buddhist monasteries, stressing the use of the arts for promoting health and spiritual tranquillity. Unfortunately, these instructors are simply ignoring two well-substantiated facts.

First, the various stories of martial arts being practiced within Buddhist monasteries, particularly the Shaolin monastery, actually originated with the secret societies. These stories were used to recruit new members but are of questionable authenticity.

Second, Buddhist monasteries were often the sanctuary of undesirables, social outcasts and escaped criminals. If martial arts were indeed practiced within monasteries and (there is significant evidence that they were), they were most probably brought to the monasteries by these refugees seeking sanctuary. These individuals would have practiced martial arts for both protection and, in many cases, as a tool of their marginally legal or outright illegal trades. Thus, martial arts that supposedly originated in monasteries no longer have such a pretty image.

The origins of martial artists as "undesirables"

While the military was perhaps the best possible profession for a trained martial artist, it was by no means an easy path or an ideal life. Traditional Chinese society's disdain for non-intellectual activity and its need to control possibly violent elements had a direct impact upon the management of the military. The military was treated with suspicion, as demonstrated by the saying "one does not make a prostitute out of an honest girl, a nail with good iron, or a soldier out of an honorable man." Great efforts were made to subordinate it to the needs of the society.

During imperial times, the central government administered military examinations, similar to the scholarly civil service exams, at the local, provincial and national levels. Through the use of this system, civilian officials were in complete control of both the selection and promotion of all military officers. In addition, members of the military were institutionally forbidden from rising to a level where they could influence government policy. Thus, while the military provided some opportunities, it never provided complete legitimacy.

Of course, the greater challenge to the social order was that group of martial artists who were unable to advance through the military examination system. First and foremost, the examination system required a degree of literacy that many martial artists simply did not posses. Second, because the examination system restricted the number of military officers, even literate martial artists never passed. While these men could have joined the army without passing the exams, in reality they had no reason to do so. Regular military men were treated brutally by officers and there was no future in it.

These men formed a disgruntled and highly dangerous group. They became part of China's extensive underground society and engaged in marginally legitimate or illegal activities to survive. Regardless of their chosen professions, these men had no loyalty to either the society or the state.

Legal and illegal professions for the martial artist

A martial artist who did not join the military and who chose not to engage in illegal activities had very few options left. Trained fighters might find work as armed escorts but the life was by its very nature extremely dangerous and establishing a successful escort business could take years. They could certainly find work as a body guard but such men had no dignity. They were always subject to their employer's whim, not far removed from being a virtual slave. These two professions were both legal but they brought neither legitimacy nor public acceptance.

Many martial artists simply wandered, making their living as either traveling medicine men or as street performers. These men were little better off than the common vagabond, having no permanent address and depending upon the mercy of contributors. They also had to deal with constant challenges by other wandering martial artists and local criminals who would try to extort money. Some martial artists joined traveling opera troops. These opera troops provided friendship, regular employment and some protection but were just as socially undesirable as the martial artists themselves.

Martial artists who had no objection to engaging in illegal activity found themselves in high demand. While traditional Confucian society despised the use of violence, the lower segment of society celebrated its use. For example, in the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong clan wars were a well-established tradition. Martial artists found frequent employment either as clan instructors or outright mercenaries. These clan wars also contributed to the development of martial arts outside of China as martial artists were hired to fight in clan wars which continued in the overseas communities. Many martial artists of exceptional skill were brought to the United States to train fighters for the Tongs and associations in American Chinatowns.

Many martial artists also involved themselves in the activities of brotherhoods and secret societies. These groups, often indistinguishable from each other, have a long history in China and arose as refuges for non-elite members of the society. They provided friendship, assistance and protection to those who would generally have none. These benefits were naturally attractive to most martial artists. In addition, brotherhoods and secret societies actively sought to recruit martial artists in order to maintain an armed force.

By the end of the 19th century, brotherhoods and secret societies had become a major focal point for the practice and development of martial arts. Martial artists were known as "red poles" and, in addition to acting as enforcers, served as instructors. Many peasants and commoners, who had never had access to sophisticated fighting skills, joined these groups in order to learn martial arts. A particular group might become famous and attract more members with its instructor and method.

Fighting art or performance art?

In the United States, many traditional stylists are highly critical of contemporary Wu-Shu, arguing that it has been significantly altered for performance purposes and is no longer practical for self-defense. While we will discuss contemporary Wu-Shu in greater detail later in Part 2 of this series, a few brief comments are in order. Contemporary Wu-Shu is most definitely not traditional martial arts. Many techniques have been removed and it has nowhere near the technical diversity of traditional martial arts, particularly the southern systems. Furthermore, for most of its history the study of application and the practice of sparring have been actively discouraged by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

Unfortunately, those who criticize its performance elements do not fully understand the history of their own arts. Postures and techniques were indeed altered to make them more pleasing to the eye and acrobatic moves such as the butterfly twist were created (it is not a traditional movement). However, while contemporary Wu-Shu is the most drastic example of technical modification it is not unique. There is a long history of the use of martial arts for performance and the modification of techniques for performance purposes.

For example, the Qing Imperial Court's official performers utilized a wide variety of skills which were derived from traditional martial art practice. Strong men would wield heavy halberds (Gwan Do) and there were demonstrations of the flying fork (Fei Cha) . In addition, strictly military arts such as archery and wrestling (Shuai-Jiao) were both popular court entertainment.

Traditional Chinese opera also made extensive use of martial arts skills for entertainment. The opera recreated great battles, and its performers had to be able to use traditional weapons and engage in elaborate staged fights. For this reason, those raised in the opera received training very similar to that a martial artist received. In addition, as discussed previously, many martial artists also joined traveling opera troops. These men often taught members of the troop martial arts for protection. Thus, in the opera the line between fighting art and performance art was often blurred.

Today, traditional martial arts are still influenced by these performance traditions. The so-called "hard" Chi-Kung tricks such as brick breaking, wire bursting, nail beds, and the bending of spears and swords are all products of the street performance tradition. They require both conditioning and discipline to perform but have virtually nothing to do with real fighting. Many of the tumbling techniques, leaping kicks and balancing moves found in traditional forms are similarly inspired. Some assume that the Chinese public was more familiar with the martial arts and thus more discriminating than western audiences, but in reality the common peasant or laborer was just as impressed by these tricks.

Part 2

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About The Author:

David A. Ross is the Director and founder of New York San Da Gym. He has been involved in the martial arts for most of his life. He began training in Western boxing at the age of 8. A few years later, he began his study of Korean Taekwondo and Hapkido, achieving a second degree black belt in both arts. David was also two time AAU New York State full contact champion. David has also studied many martial arts including Judo, Karate, Jiujitsu, Sambo and various forms of Chinese martial arts. He has dedicated himself to the late Master Chan Tai San and San Da.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Chinese martial arts, Kung Fu, Wushu, Chinese martial arts history, martial arts of China

Read more articles by David A. Ross

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