A Brief History of Chinese Kung-Fu: Part 2
By David A. Ross
Editor’s Note: This is the second
of a two part series on the history of Chinese Kung-Fu. In Part
the difficulty in trying to make sense of all the conflicting, inaccurate
and misleading information about the origins and purposes of Chinese
martial arts. He went on to discuss the origins of the arts, various
societal groups involved, and the role these arts played within society – precursers
to the development of modern Wushu. In Part 2, Ross follows the evolution
of Chinese arts within China and the growing government efforts to control
The attempt to legitimize the practice of martial arts
Over a period (18th- early 20th Century) limited employment opportunities
and the lack of social acceptance resulted in a movement by some to legitimize
the practice of martial arts. Following the example set by herbalists
and bone setters, martial artists attempted to establish themselves as
members of the "Kung" or artisan class. They began to open
schools ("Mo Gwoon" in Cantonese dialect).
One of the first steps was to change the terminology used. Martial arts
were no longer referred to as simply "Kyuhn Faat" (or the more
familiar "Chuan Fa" in Mandarin dialect). This term meant simply
fighting techniques (or literally "fist techniques"). Instructors
now used the term "Kyuhn Seut", literally "fist art".
These instructors, who were no longer simply vagabonds or commoners,
also adopted the term "Sifu" to indicate that they were skilled
in a socially accepted art form.
The next step was either to adopt or create practices, ceremonies and
rituals and to establish a tradition. Most frequently instructors looked
toward traditional Confucian practices and modified them to suit their
purposes. For example, they erected altars to pay respect to their "ancestors" (i.e.
those teachers who had come before them). In some cases an instructor
didn't really know where his style came from or who founded it, so a "Sijo" (founder)
and "Jong-Si" (the great teachers within the tradition) were
Instructors also began to adopt their disciples in an elaborate "Baai
Si" ceremony. In this way the teacher could demand the same loyalty
and respect from his disciples that a father could demand from his son.
Finally, martial artists began to develop a concept of "Martial
Virtue" ("Mo Duk" in Cantonese dialect ), following the
Confucian scholar's example of cultivating virtue.
The establishment of martial arts as an art form, placing instructors
within the "Kung" class, and the adoption of Confucian-like
practices and terminology resulted in the gain of some social status
and respect but not complete assimilation. Most instructors still clung
to feudal values and remained sectarian, secretive and deeply divided.
Some also maintained their connections with the underworld, resulting
in a general suspicion of anyone involved in the martial arts that exists
The best example of the martial artist's refusal to assimilate and conform
with society's standards is the open challenge. Even though a would-be
instructor was seeking to legitimize himself and gain general acceptance,
he simultaneously desired to maintain the respect of his peers. The quickest
and by far the most popular method of doing this was to issue an open
challenge and defeat several local fighters before opening one's school.
Until it was declared illegal by the Nationalist government in 1928,
it was relatively common in southern China to see an instructor fight
all challengers in public duels with no rules and no restrictions. These
duels often resulted in serious injury or even death but they were viewed
as necessary to demonstrate that an instructor was worthy of opening
Another popular method of making a name for oneself was to challenge
an already established instructor in hopes of defeating him and taking
over his school. It was an extremely risky decision, and some of the
largest and most popular schools were the ones where such challengers
were frequently beaten senseless and left on the front stairs for everyone
to see. Indeed, an instructor who routinely beat such challengers was
sought out by all segments of society, the brotherhoods and secret societies,
the military, local commoners and rich elite who viewed martial arts
as an esoteric hobby (not unlike today's "new age" crowd).
Thus, even a well established instructor still had to prove himself
and the effectiveness of his method on a regular basis. As Donn F. Draeger
and Robert W. Smith noted, "challenges were a central part of a
master's existence and could not be refused". These challenges also
had a very direct impact upon the way martial arts were taught. Because
instructors relied on their skills for survival, they were not willing
to give them away to possible challengers. Students had to demonstrate
their complete dedication and the true fighting skills were often taught
in secrecy. The end result was that only a select few ever learned the
true skills and applications and the complete system. This was especially
the case with instructors who maintained their contacts with the underworld,
using their schools to recruit new members and train enforcers.
State attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts:
Phase One: Republican China
The virtual collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911 and the establishment
of the Chinese Republic did little to change the state of martial arts.
While some individual martial artists had gained status and social acceptance,
as a group they continued to present a problem to central authority.
Martial arts schools produced trained fighters who remained loyal only
to their own teachers and traditions. Many still supported groups which
openly challenged the newly established government, particularly secret
societies. Doak Barnett, a well known historian who described conditions
in Szechuan province during the Republican period, observed:
"There was nothing secret about [secret societies].... The fact
that it is outlawed by the central government does not seem to bother
anyone concerned, or, it might be added, deter anyone from becoming a
member if he is invited."
The Nationalist Party (Guomindang) was aware of the role of martial
artists in popular rebellion. In fact, Dr.Sun Yat-Sen, the founder of
the party, had himself maintained numerous secret society associations
and had extensively used "Red Pole" enforcers. Thus, once Chiang
Kai-Shek had solidified his position, he turned his attention towards
attempts to control and appropriate the practice of martial arts.
In 1928, a year after Chiang Kai-Shek's "White Massacre" in
Shanghai had left him the undisputed leader of the Nationalist Party,
several steps were taken to exert control over martial artists. First,
the government adopted the term "Kuo Shu". This term means
literally "national arts" and was an attempt not only to reduce
the factionalism among martial artists but also to promote nationalism
(and thus loyalty to the state).
Second, the government established the Central Kuo Shu Institute in
Nanjing. Martial artists who participated in the institute but remained
in China after the communist victory in 1949 have consistently denied
any direct government involvement, for obvious political reasons, but
in reality its establishment put martial artists under direct government
regulation. Teachers in Taiwan are far more forthright, openly acknowledging
that the government was involved in "an active program" to
reorganize the martial arts. The stated goal of the institute was to "consolidate
Kung-Fu by bringing together many great masters." Thus, while the
Nationalist Party was less successful, it was involved in a strikingly
similar program to the one that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) under
took with the creation of contemporary Wu-Shu.
Finally, open challenges, duels or any kind of public fighting match
was declared illegal. The government replaced these duels with state
run national competitions. The first national competition was held in
Nanjing in 1928.
Attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts, like most Nationalist
social programs, was largely unsuccessful. The government lacked a well-developed
structure at the grass roots level and corruption was rampant. In addition,
many of the most powerful members of the Nationalist Party were themselves
martial artists. According to Draeger and Smith, the martial artists
in Taiwan, many of whom were Nationalist Party members and military officers, "were
a truly diverse lot: many were illiterate, some took opium regularly,
a few were scoundrels."
State attempts to control and appropriate the martial arts:
Phase Two: The Communist Party
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has had a unique relationship with
those who practice the martial arts. Ideologically, the CCP has strongly
identified itself with those class elements from which the martial arts
community originated. For example, during the party's formative years
brotherhoods and secret societies (which were heavily composed of martial
artists) were valuable allies in their attempts to overthrow the central
government. The party maintained contact with and utilized members of
these groups as part of their ongoing revolutionary activities and studied
their organizational structure, their methods of maintaining loyalty,
and their role in popular rebellions.
In addition, the leadership also saw unique benefits associated with
the practice of martial arts. Mao Zedong, like many revolutionaries of
the period, firmly believed that China had become the "sick man
of Asia" because the traditional Confucian society had produced
only weak, ineffectual scholars. In 1917, Mao Zedong wrote his first
article for the revolutionary paper New Youth. The paper was entitled "A
Study in Physical Culture" and would become the official party line
on the role of martial arts in society. It observed that the nation was "wanting
in strength" and that military spirit had not been encouraged. Mao
outlined a program of physical culture, in which martial arts played
an important role, for the purposes of making "savage the body" and
promoting "military heroism".
However, this cooperative relationship between the party and the martial
arts community did not last. In order to consolidate their position in
the countryside, the CCP attempted to remove local power bases and to
prohibit those practices which had traditionally fostered regionalism
and personal loyalties. This inevitably affected the martial arts community
and brought them into conflict with the CCP.
C.K. Yang's examination of a Chinese village during the Communist transition
provides an excellent example of the party's attempts to bring the martial
arts under state control. Yang describes an "athletic club" in
the village which was known as "the Lion's club". According
to Yang, the club provided "lessons in the old military arts of
shadow boxing, using swords, knives, spears and other ancient weapons." Clearly,
this club was a martial arts school.
While the author saw these techniques as having "no place in modern
combat", the CCP saw the situation quite differently. The Communist
cadres ordered the club closed, calling it a "military organization" and
noting that "their leaders, many of whom were associated with rebellious
secret societies, were potential reactionary agents". Thus, the
Lion's club was clearly viewed as a political danger to communist power.
State administered programs to appropriate and control the practice
of martial arts were expanded following the Communist victory in 1949.
That same year the All China Sports Federation was created and extensive
discussions began concerning how physical culture could best serve the
state. By 1951, all private martial arts schools were labeled "feudalistic" and
ordered closed. The next year the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission
was created and a number of new regulations regarding the practice of
martial arts were introduced. Instructors could no longer refer to themselves
as "Sifu" and the Baai Si ceremony was declared illegal. Instructors
were now referred to as "coaches".
In 1959 it was announced that a state controlled martial arts program
had been created that no longer recognized styles or systems. Instead,
all martial arts were divided into five basic categories: "Long
Fist" (referring to all empty hand techniques), broadsword, straight
sword, staff and spear. After some protests, a category referred to as "South
Fist" was also introduced to represent the martial arts of Southern
China (based primarily upon Choy Lay Fut, Hung Kyuhn and its derivatives.
Of these systems, it features only the most basic and obvious techniques
and has none of the techniques found in shorter range systems such as
southern praying mantis, white eyebrow, etc.) This state controlled martial
arts program is the basis for what is today referred to as "contemporary
Ideologically, this new program met both basic requirements. First,
it eliminated the elitism traditionally associated with the martial arts
and made them accessible to the masses. Second, it provided a program
of physical culture for the purposes of promoting "military heroism" as
Mao Zedong had called for in 1917. At the same time, it put the practice
of martial arts under direct government supervision and eliminated those
values which had fostered personal loyalties and divisiveness. Private
schools no longer produced men loyal only to their instructors and with
deep seated suspicions of outsiders.
On the surface, these developments were a welcome change from the secrecy,
inflated egos, constant challenges and random violence that characterized
the traditional martial arts community. However, despite government claims
to the contrary, contemporary Wushu is not simply martial arts with a
new image. While contemporary Wushu is based upon traditional martial
arts, it is first and foremost a program designed as physical culture
(i.e. to promote health, discipline, etc.) and for performance. Even
with its current program of A, B, and C level forms, many techniques
have been removed and it does not have the technical diversity of traditional
martial arts, particularly where the southern systems are concerned.
In addition, in the name of athletics, performance postures and techniques
were altered to make them more pleasing to the eye and acrobatic moves
such as the butterfly twist were created.
More importantly, the Chinese Communist Party's political agenda had
a direct impact upon how the martial arts were taught and practiced.
For most of contemporary Wushu's history, the party actively discouraged
the study of application and the practice of sparring, claiming that
self-defense skills were no longer necessary in the new society and stressing
that "comrades should not fight comrades". Thus, those practicing
contemporary Wushu frequently did not know which techniques had practical
application and which were for athletic or performance purposes. They
also lacked the necessary skills to apply those techniques which actually
had practical applications.
Recently, there have been some changes in the practice of contemporary
Wushu. The new compulsory forms have eliminated the excessive acrobatics
that once plagued contemporary Wushu and focus more upon the fundamentals
of stance, footwork, kicking, striking, etc. Perhaps more significantly,
the practice of free sparring has returned and the International Wushu
Federation (IWUF) has begun promoting a new form of competitive fighting
known as "San Shou".
San Shou is a type of full contact fighting that strongly resembles
both the state run national competitions administered by the Guomindang
and the open challenges of the feudal past. San Shou is fought on a platform
known as the "Lei Tai", named after the wooden stages that
many fighters used to erect upon issuing an open challenge. San Shou
competitions are an important development because they allow kicks, punches
and full body throws and are perhaps the best way of promoting realistic
fighting skills. In fact, in recent interviews with instructors and officials
in Beijing they stressed the importance of demonstrating which skills
and techniques were practical.
These recent developments have been a direct result of political changes
which have been taking place in China since the early eighties. After
the terrible damage done by the Cultural Revolution and under the new
leadership of Deng Xiaoping, the CCP has abandoned efforts to exert control
over the everyday life of the masses and has dismantled much of its local
social apparatus. The new emphasis on modernization and economic expansion
has also led to a decreased interest in programs such as physical culture.
Instructors are experiencing a freedom that they have never had before
and in some cases this has resulted in a return to feudalistic values.
During the recent interviews mentioned above, some instructors expressed
a desire to essentially return to the days of open challenges, calling
for the removal of protective gear and restrictions on dangerous techniques
such as elbows and knees. Thus, contemporary Wushu is in some respects
returning to its traditional roots.
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.