The Newsletter 86 Summer 2020

A History of Chinese Martial Arts

Henning Wittwer

Fuhua Huang and Fan Hong (trans and eds). 2018.
A History of Chinese Martial Arts
Abingdon and New York: Routledge
ISBN 9781138645585

In 1997 a long awaited in-depth historical overview of martial arts in China was published with the support of the Ministry of Sport of China. Since it was written in Chinese the English speaking world had to wait for a scholarly chronical of Chinese martial arts until 2012, when Peter Lorge published his book Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century (Cambridge University Press, 2012). Because of the later publication date and the importance of the 1997 work it is not surprising to find it in the bibliography of Lorge’s work. Still, another six years had to pass until Fuhua Huang and Fan Hong finally present us their easy to read English translation of A History of Chinese Martial Arts. Both editors have to be congratulated on their decision to translate such a work with its many technical terms, which require specialist knowledge as well as patience. The list of contributors is impressive and contains some well-known names in the field of Chinese martial arts history like Ma Mingda (editorial committee), Kuang Wennan (author) or Kang Gewu (author) to name just a few.

From the time of the Sinanthropus right into the 1990s the subject matter is presented chronological over 10 chapters. Different authors are responsible for different chapters. While the chronological arrangement is similar – but not identical – to Lorge’s work, Lorge is providing a discussion on defining the term ‘martial arts’ in his introduction (Chinese Martial Arts, p. 3). This is certainly a good starting point for readers without any idea of martial arts; yet, the lack of such an extended definition in A History of Chinese Martial Arts is not really a drawback. Because by reading the book under review the term ‘martial art’ is filled with varied meanings so that a distinguished picture of ‘martial arts’ in China is created. However, as this short comparison shows Lorge’s work may be regarded as complementary to A History of Chinese Martial Arts.

A real forte of the work is the many facts which follow sometimes in furious succession, among them biographical and hagiographical entries from classic texts and archaeological findings. Bibliographic references are given at the end of each chapter, so that further research is possible. I wish to highlight this point because the history of martial arts in China is intermingled with many legends. The authors and editors approach many of these legends, which muddle the more factual history, in a critical way. To give one popular example, fabricated tales concerning the Indian monk Bodhidharma describe him as the inventor of ‘Shaolin martial arts’. In his section on the ‘Origin of Shaolin martial arts’ Kuang Wennan clearly refutes such accounts (p. 75). Still, a few legends slip through the overall scholarly rigour of the text, like in the case of Chen Yuanyun. Said Chen is treated as the legendary Chinese forefather of Japanese judo (p. 151). More recent research has shown that Chen was probably not involved in martial arts (Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth (eds), Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2010, p. 122).

By following the historical survey it becomes obvious that martial arts cannot be regarded as a mere footnote in the history and cultural history of China. In fact they played a central role from the beginning when weapons and their use were not restricted to hunting and fighting, but were present in ritual martial dances or early paintings, too. This eye-opening relationship between martial arts and other, more civil cultural pursuits is also apparent in the chapters on later periods. In modern China one aspect of this liaison has been labelled ‘martial arts diplomacy’, and it means that martial arts performances, competitions or training camps are purposeful used for political goals (p. 208). Other types of martial arts exchange between China and adjacent nations took place in the centuries before. For example, when the so-called Japanese pirates (wokou) invaded China, their Japanese sabres became a threat so that Chinese martial artists seemed to be eager to learn Japanese sabre techniques and to acquire Japanese sabres (p. 151). On the other hand, Chinese fighting techniques exerted some influence on the development of martial arts in the Ryukyu Kingdom, the subsequent Japanese Prefecture of Okinawa (p. 152). In the latter case the exact details given in the book are slightly outdated; however, the basic idea of a certain Chinese influence remains a fact. So these examples demonstrate clearly that martial knowledge crossed borders of nations, be it for reasons of survival or less cogent motives. Therefore the subject of Chinese martial arts concerns not only China itself but many other Asian countries, and nowadays it has become a rather international phenomenon.

Worth mentioning is a discussion of early Chinese schools of thought and their association with martial arts (p. 30). Among them the most obvious and convincing ones are the teachings of Chinese military classics like Sunzi. Insightful comments are given on Confucianism, Mohism, and Taoism with regard to possible influences on martial arts ideologies. Later in the book Kang Gewu in his survey of martial arts in the Qing dynasty (1644–1911) underlines that it was in this period that literate martial artists tried to ‘enrich the content of their martial arts’ by integrating them into traditional Chinese culture (p. 160). These considerations are definitely provoking further interest and research into the topic. At the same time they demonstrate that martial arts cannot be generally reduced to only a brutal and mindless physical activity.

Two of the more recent developments presented in the last chapter include a centralisation of sportive martial arts in China and a large scale operation in order to classify martial arts legacies. This second campaign obviously resulted in a huge amount of collected source materials, and raises my hope that other publications on this worthwhile and captivating subject may follow in the future.

In short A History of Chinese Martial Arts is a most welcome and interesting book, providing the combined insights of several specialists. Students of Sinology as well as practitioners, teachers or researchers of China’s martial arts will find it to be a helpful overview and may refer to it time and again. Furthermore it will be insightful to students of Asian Studies in general in order to understand the importance of martial arts as cultural knowledge that flowed and flows back and forth between China and its neighbours.

Henning Wittwer, Independent scholar, Germany