Traditional Chinese Medicine and Qigong in the Wing Chun Community

Green bamboo among the fall leaves. Tenryuji Momiji, Japan.  Source: Wikimedia,


Martial Arts and Globalization in late 19th and early 20th century China.

In my previous post I proposed a framework for using globalization and the liberalization of China’s economy in the 1980s and 1990s to understand the progressive “medicalization” of the martial arts.  Traditionally fighting styles were viewed as a job skill for those who were interested in a military career, or possibly as a physical culture regime to strengthen and improve the health of the nation’s high school students.  Hand combat instructors were not held in high esteem and society was, in general, quite suspicious of those who espoused and promoted “martial virtue.”  This may have had something to do with their frequent association with youth delinquency and organized crime.  The Cultural Revolution did not help matters.

All of this changed after the rise of Bruce Lee in Hong Kong, and the release of the movie “The Shaolin Temple” in mainland China during the early 1980s.  These positive portrayals of the traditional martial arts on the silver screen (and the general retreat of the state after 1980) opened a space where the martial arts could once again flourish.

Nevertheless, it was not until the 1990s and Qigong’s explosion in popularity that we saw a general movement to “medicalize” the Chinese martial arts.  During the period of rapid economic modernization in the 1960s and 1970s hospitals had been built and a record numbers of people got access to at least some modern, western style, health care.  These treatments were expensive, and when the government decided to switch to a “fee-for-service” healthcare model as part of their economic reforms in the early 1990s the vast majority of the Chinese population found itself without healthcare for the first time in decades.

This combination of loosening rules on entrepreneurship and the denial of medical care to the working class (or anyone who suffered from a chronic condition) led to an explosion of interest in Qigong, a system of health promotion that focused on slightly hypnotic breathing and visualization exercises.  Modern Qigong is mostly the product of a brief period of state support and experimentation in the early 1950s, though it does draw on China’s ancient Taoist and shamanistic practices.

In the current post I would like to extend and enlarge this basic framework by looking at the evolving relationship between Wing Chun and traditional Chinese medicine.  It is well worth remembering that “globalization” is not a recent phenomenon.  It happens any time that there is a rapid increase in trade and social exchange between societies.  In fact, the first great era of globalization actually happened in the late 19th century, exactly the same time that Wing Chun was first coming together as a martial art.

While we often think of China as being isolated and exotic, the truth is that by the middle of the 19th century it was a major player in the increasingly complex trade network that sustained the economies of all of the world’s major economies.  Globalization had just as much of an impact on China in the late 19th and early 20th century as it is having today.  By looking at the evolution of civil society and voluntary associations (such as martial arts groups) social scientists and historians hope to gain a better understanding of how these fundamental economic forces have affected Chinese society in the past, and what they are likely to do in the future.

Why Wing Chun?  Southern China was more quickly integrated into the global economy than the remote northern or western areas of the country.  The commercial and cosmopolitan nature of cities like Shanghai and Guangdong make them a good test bed for theories on globalization.  Further, Wing Chun was deeply enmeshed in economic and social conflicts that accompanied the modernization of Guangdong province.  If we can see the effects of shifting economic fortunes anywhere in the martial arts, it should be here.

Sign for a Chinese Traditional Medicine clinic in the New Territories, Hong Kong.  Source: Russell Judkins.

A Typology of Traditional Chinese Medical Practices

In my previous post on this subject I concentrated almost exclusively on Qigong in the 1990s.  Further, when discussing Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) I treated the category monolithically and defined it in opposition to the western biology based model of medicine.  For the purposes of the current post it is necessary to provide a little additional nuance to our discussion.

There are a number of conventional ways to classify the various branches of TCM and what I am about to propose fits none of them.  Since I am proposing an economic model of TCM’s relationship with the martial arts I found it necessary to develop a typology of various treatments that focused primarily on their mode of social organization and cost to the patient.  This particular typology should help to illuminate a subtle shift in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with TCM which might otherwise evade our detection.  Readers should note that while the association between TCM and Wing Chun starts strong, fades, and then returns, different treatments are favored in both the first and last periods of the following case study.  Why Wing Chun practitioners favor different types of TCM in the first and third time periods is the critical question that we are seeking to answer.

Briefly we can start by classifying different TCM strategies into two categories.  There are “external” treatments (cures that focus on an agent or remedy that is external to the patient) and “internal” practices (treatments that attempt to regulate some aspect of the patient’s health only through means that are embedded directly in the body or psyche.)

Figure 1: Traditional Chinese Medicine

“External” Treatments

“Internal” Treatments

Herbal Medicine Bone Setting Acupuncture Therapeutic Exercise Qigong (Breathing Exercises)         Neijia Martial Arts (Taijiquan)  Meditation and Visualization

Typical “external” treatments usually involve a visit to a doctor who prescribes an herbal or animal based medicine from China’s vast traditional cornucopia.  Often herbal remedies are prescribed preventatively in an attempt to maintain a favorable homeostasis within the patient’s body.

While probably the most commonly acknowledged branch of TCM, herbalism does have some significant drawbacks from a patient’s point of view.  Many of the ingredients used are very expensive.  Further, there is the general belief that the longer one continues treatment the higher the dose that must be prescribed to maintain the drug’s efficacy.  This is a problem for those with chronic conditions such as arthritis or cancer.  Additionally, there is a growing awareness that some traditional and popular herbal remedies can actually be harmful.

Anyone taking traditional herbal medicines should make sure that they know exactly what is in the preparations they ingest.  Multiple studies in America and Europe have shown that not all of the ingredients in Chinese herbal medicines are always listed or even legal.

The most common herbal preparation used in Wing Chun circles today is Dit Da Jow.  Applied as a topical anti-inflammatory to relieve bruising and swelling, Dit Da Jow can be quite helpful.  However, many traditional practitioners maintain “secret” recipes and the additional ingredients added to these brews are not always effective or even safe.  It is ultimately the patients responsibility verify the ingredients of any traditional medication that they use.

TCM doctors may also prescribe a number of different “external” treatments. Acupuncture uses the insertion of small needles along meridian lines to aid or restore the flow of Qi (the body’s natural energy in TCM).  Alternatively, “cupping” involves vacuum sealing a bowl or cup to different areas of a patient’s body.  Both of these practices are fairly commonly encountered.  While they do not use exotic ingredients they are performed by trained professionals in specialized clinics.  Once again this tends to increase the costs of “external” medical interventions.

More popular in recent years have been “internal” (neijia) treatments.  These practices attempt to heal by focusing on elements embodied within the patient or her psyche.  Breathing exercises (Qigong) are probably the most commonly encountered internal practice.  By focusing intently on their own breath, practitioners hope to gain control over their emotional or physical state.  Breathing exercises have a long history in Chinese medicine.  When accompanied by certain landscape-based visualization exercises they form an important part of Taoist religious ritual and immortality exercises.

The mainland communist government briefly promoted Taiji Quan and other internal practices in the 1950s as they seemed to present an inexpensive and uniquely Chinese alternative to western medicine.  In fact, the term “Qigong” does not appear in the classical Chinese literature at all.  What is so often observed in public parks in China today is a neologism dating to no earlier than the middle of the 20th century.

While there was a brief period of florescence in the 1950s these practices quickly faded as western medical treatments became more widely available.  It wasn’t until the end of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1970s, followed by the privatization of medicine in the late 1980s and early 1990s pricing most consumers out of the market, that Qigong reemerged as a viable healthcare strategy.

This reemergence was aided by the creation of new institutions and traditions that helped these practices to thrive in a modern free-market economy.  In the past spiritual teachers or martial artists who taught Qi manipulation were referred to as “Laoshi” or “Shifu.”  In the public marketplace of the 1990s these figures tended to lose their spiritual and martial orientation and were usually referred to by the term “Daishi” (great teacher).

While some individuals spend a great deal of money on seminar tickets and books, Qigong training is fairly inexpensive.  Almost all approaches to the art emphasize “self-healing.”  Further, the study groups that form around the art can become important social networking and support structures.

Exotic medical ingredients at a market stall for herbalists in Xian. Source: Wikimedia.

Wing Chun and Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1900-1949.

For all of the popular mythology surrounding Ng Moy and the revolutionary opera singers of the Red Boats, it is critical to understand that the first three or four generations of verifiable Wing Chun practitioners were resolutely bourgeois.  Leung Jan was a successful medical practitioner and merchant.  This, much more than his martial arts, was what he was remembered for by the local community.  Likewise Chan Wah Shun took up a medical practice and managed to make a comfortable living between that and his occasional martial arts instruction.

The so called “three Heroes of Wing Chun” (Ip Man, Yuen Kay San and Yiu Choi) were all from wealthy families and did not personally feel the need to work for much of their early adult lives.  Lai Hip Chi fits into the same mold as well.  Other important early Wing Chun students, such as Jiu Chow and Jiu Wan, had coveted jobs with the local branch of the Nationalist Party (GMD) which afforded them time to research and teach the martial arts.

Through the 1930s Wing Chun was overwhelmingly aligned with the landlords of the “new gentry” class and the GMD.  It actively opposed the Hung Sing Association in its efforts to support the Communist party in the Hong Kong strike of the mid-1920s.  While a few working class individuals, such as Pan Nam, did take up the art, such individuals appear to be the exception rather than the rule.  They were also more common late in this period.

In fact, one of the things that makes the history of Wing Chun so interesting is that while most martial arts were popular only among the working poor during the early 20th century, here we have an institution that is consciously aligned with the most wealthy, conservative and even “reactionary” elements of Guangdong society.  Just look at the number of early Wing Chun practitioners who end up working for the police or military.  It is little wonder that the Communists took a dim view of the practice after 1949.

During this period western medicine was still being introduced and it was not yet widely available.  Most Wing Chun students had to rely on TCM.  Luckily Wing Chun was often taught in tandem with a sophisticated school of traditional medicine up through the outbreak of WWII.  After all, two of the art’s founding figures, Leung Jan and Chan Wah Shun, were respected medical professionals.

Given the relative wealth of the Wing Chun community in this period, we would expect them to be able to afford the best healthcare.  At the time the gold standard was herbalism.  This is exactly what Leung Jan, Chan Wah Shun, and later his son Chan Yiu Min, specialized in.  The medical practices of these men focused on the mixing and prescribing of drugs to prevent illness and re-balance the body’s natural homeostasis.  Only wealthy patients would be able to afford this sort of treatment, but that was not generally an issue as that was the social circle that these early Wing Chun masters moved in.  Likewise it was mostly wealthy individuals who could afford Wing Chun instruction between 1900 and 1939.

Clearly these early teachers were knowledgeable about other areas of TCM as well.  Wing Chun has an important Bone Setting tradition (a form of therapeutic massage or chiropractic healing) that dates to this period.  Given the prevalence of sports injuries in martial arts training, this skill has certainly served the Wing Chun clan well.  Further, there is some evidence of older breathing exercises going back to this time period.  The Yuen Kay San lineage has a number of Qi cultivation forms (kidney breathing) that may predate more recent trends in Qigong (more research is needed to confirm this).  Still, it is clear that the major medical emphasis within the Wing Chun clan during this early, and relatively privileged, period was the complex system of traditional herbal medicines.

Ip Man and an early group of students in the 1950s.

Wing Chun and the Fading of the Traditional Chinese Medicine, 1950-1990.

World War Two and the subsequent Japanese occupation did little to promote the fortunes of Wing Chun.  The art did recover somewhat between 1945 and 1949.  Unfortunately, this brief flowering was crushed by the ultimate Communist victory in China’s long running civil war.  The Communists had a lot of reasons to dislike Wing Chun.  This was a violent reactionary art closely tied to the reactionary land owners and rich merchants of Guangdong, their sworn enemies.  Further, a number of individuals in the Wing Chun community (including Ip Man) had served as police officers and detectives at the same time that the GMD was using law enforcement to investigate, interrogate, and even execute suspected Communists.  Not all Wing Chun teachers fled in 1949 (for instance Lai Hip Chi and Sum Num stayed), but Wing Chun was effectively crippled on the mainland.  It would not begin the process of recovery and rebuilding until the 1980s and 1990s.

The situation was different in other places like Hong Kong and Vietnam.  Ip Man managed to start a vibrant Wing Chun community after he fled into exile in 1949.  It is often said that he was the first individual to publically teach Wing Chun.  This commonly repeated assertion is mostly nonsense.  Many individuals had taught very publically before him, but the events of 1949 erased or helped to obscure their legacy.  Nor did they ever achieve the fantastic levels of recognition that Ip Man earned.  From Hong Kong he was in an ideal position to send students abroad at a time when the Chinese martial arts were just starting to trend in the global market.  While Ip Man was not Wing Chun’s first public teacher, he was certainly its most successful.  But what did he teach his students about medicine?

For the most part he seems to have ignored the subject.  The image of Wing Chun that emerged in the 1950s was that of angry young men fighting on rooftops and settling scores in secret challenges matches.  A less charitable reading of this period might instead characterize it as one in Wing Chun was closely linked to street violence and youth delinquency.  That is certainly how the Hong Kong police perceived the situation.

The sorts of students that came to Ip Man in the 1950s were, by in large, not very interested in traditional medicine.  Young people rarely are.  Further, Hong Kong had a relative abundance of high quality modern western medical care.  Certainly some students like Moy Yat and Ip Man’s children (to name just two examples, there were also others) expressed an interest in TCM and learned the old man’s art.  Most, however, did not.

It is remarkable how important health practices were to practitioners in the 1930s and how much they faded in the 1950s and 1960s.  Wing Chun was quickly and efficiently rebranded as a street fighting and self-defense art divorced from the world of traditional Chinese philosophy and cosmology.  It is often said that in Hong Kong Ip Man simplified the teaching system, removing the “five elements” and the “eight directions” as these were no longer helpful metaphors when coaching his modern, urbane, western educated students.  Yet without these metaphors it is impossible to master the complex world of Qi cultivation and traditional herbalism.

Nevertheless, there is one interesting development in this period.  Ip Man’s students and children report seeing him perform Siu Lim Tao very slowly (emphasizing the ‘Three Prayers to Buddha’ chapter) as a form of breathing exercise dedicated to building and (and presumably moving) his Qi.  This may have happened in his lineage in Foshan as well, but I have yet to find any direct reference to it.  It is suggestive to note that breathing exercises are observed in the Ip Man clan for the first time at about the same period that they are being promoted as a form of healthcare for the masses on the mainland.

Still, Qigong did not enter most Wing Chun schools.  To the extent that these practices were acknowledged they were generally treated as being esoteric (or private).  The primary emphasis of the art remained its fighting acumen and not techniques for self-cultivation.

The major exception to this trend was William Cheung’s 1986 book How to Develop Chi Power (Ohara).  The text starts with a basic introduction to Qi and the ideas behind Qigong.  Through a creative historical narrative Cheung managed to attribute the exercises in his book to both the ancient Chinese sages and Bodhidharma (an Indian Buddhist monk revered by some martial artists because of his legendary association with the Shaolin temple).  He then provides a set of simple exercises for building Qi with Wing Chun drills and the Siu Lim Tao form, much as Ip Man is reported to have done.

Cheung’s efforts on this front appear to have been slightly ahead of their time.  However, he was clearly responding to a perceived demand within the broader western Chinese martial arts community for a beginner’s introduction to Qigong training.  I think the most remarkable aspect of this work was how little engagement it received from the broader Wing Chun community.

A Falun Dafa group practicing standing meditation (second exercise) in a public space.

Wing Chun’s Careful Embrace of Qigong, 1990-Present.

The silence with which most Wing Chun instructors treated Qi started to crumble in the early 1990s.  This was just a decade after “Qigong fever” had gripped the newly liberalized mainland and seekers in the west were starting to be reintroduced to the possibilities of TCM through various “New Age” sources.  A survey of works from this period shows that some Wing Chun instructors enthusiastically embraced these trends and the general medicalization of the Chinese martial arts.  Other teachers comment on these events with some reservations.  Lastly, a large faction of Sifus rejected these practices altogether.

One of the more influential Wing Chun books to come out in the 1990s was Wing Chun Kung Fu: Traditional Chinese Kung Fu for Self Defense and Healing by Ip Chun and Michael Tse (New York: St. Martin’s Griffin, 1998).  This short work ends with a chapter on Qigong practice in Wing Chun, advising students of the health benefits of regular and dedicated breathing practice.  They are instructed that this is best achieved by slowly working through Siu Lim Tao.

This opinion, however, does not seem to be shared equally by both authors.  Michael Tse, who wrote the English text of the book, is much more enamored with Qigong than his teacher and coauthor.  In fact, Tse founded a successful magazine in 1990 that ran for 20 years and actively promoted the mixing of a variety of martial arts (including Wing Chun) with the latest medical trends emerging out of China. The back issues of Qi Magazine (available for free online) are a wonderful resource for those interested in the growth of the market for TCM within the western martial arts community.

Ip Chun’s thoughts on these trends seem to be more faithfully flushed out in another work co-authored with Danny Connor, Wing Chun Martial Arts: Principles & Techniques (San Francisco: Weiser Books, 1993).  In an interview published in this text Ip Chun briefly explains the structure of Qigong and addresses its recent rise in popularity.  He advises his students that there are subtle pitfalls to the art including charlatans and he even alluded to “Qigong sickness,” a type of psychosis that became relatively common in Chinese mental hospitals after the massive movement towards TCM in the early 1990s.

This should not be interpreted to mean that Ip Chun thought that students should ignore the more subtle aspects of the art.  Instead, what he found most useful was the meditative elements of Chi Sau (sticking hands) and how this exercise encouraged students to develop not just their reflexes, but their mind.  Chi Sao requires absolute focus.  Ip Chun argued that it was this meditative focus and the light aerobic workout of Chi Sao that was the key to Wing Chun’s health benefits, not Qigong per se.

These subtle warnings do not seem to have had much of an impact on the growth of Qigong in western Wing Chun circles.  As the 1990s slipped into the 2000s, (and the psychological stresses of late capitalism mounted) there has been growing interest in the “healing” aspect of the art.  While this healing-discourse is usually understood as applying to chronic conditions in mainland China, in the West there seems to be a strong tendency to psychologize or spiritualize the rejuvenation that is expected.

Of course this is not universal.  While traditional herbalism has mostly disappeared from the Wing Chun community, there are still a number of lineages within the Ip Man family that teach the Bone Setting techniques.  These were initially understood as offering immediate physical relief from muscular or skeletal problems.  However, when combined with Qi cultivation and the idea of a “master’s healing touch” this starts to resemble the sort of thing that Nancy Chen described in detail during the 1990s (Breathing Spaces: Qigong, Psychiatry and Healing in China.  Columbia University Press: 2003).

Samuel Kwok typifies some of the possibilities and dilemmas that the medicalization of the Chinese martial arts presents.  A student of both Ip Chun and Ip Ching, Kwok has promoted himself as a representative and guardian of the “orthodox” approach to Ip Man’s Kung Fu.  His personal webpage never mentions Qi or Qigong.  Likewise, his major publication never discusses Qigong (Kwok and Massengill.  Mastering Wing Chun. Los Angeles: Empire Books. 2007).

However, Samuel Kwok has gone out of his way to cultivate a following based on his skills in the medical arts, including both Qi transfer and Bone Setting.  His skills in this area are promoted through special seminars advertised by his martial arts students, separate webpages, word of mouth and worshipful testimonials.

Much of this material seems quite alien to the traditional Wing Chun discourse that developed from the 1950s-1970s.  However, Kwok’s image in the medical realm follows the pattern for other “Daishi” established by Chen in her study of the spread of medical Qigong.

It is my general impression that the presence of Qigong in the Wing Chun community is increasing.  It seems that western students are ever more interested in “original” or “authentic” forms of Wing Chun.  This obsession with identity formation is in many respects symptomatic of the subtle social and economic dislocations of globalization.  As traditional markers of identity slip away, individuals rationally seek something else as an anchor in an increasingly hostile world.  The same forces that create the demand for “historical authenticity” in the Wing Chun community also open it to the healing discourse of modern medical Qigong.

These trends can also be seen outside of the Ip Man lineage.  Eddy Chong learned a form of Qigong from Pan Nam during his visits to Foshan in the early 1990s (the highpoint of the Qi bubble).  He now teaches these in his own school.  Likewise the Yuen Kay San clan is justly proud of their older breathing exercises, each with its own unique form, which may predate the current Qigong trend.

Tall buildings in the fog, New Territories, Hong Kong. Source: Russell Judkins.

Conclusion: Wing Chun, Qigong and the Global Economy.

The theory presented above and in my previous post does a good job of explaining the trends seen in Wing Chun’s evolving relationship with Traditional Chinese Medicine.  In its earliest incarnation between 1900 and 1940, Wing Chun was an overwhelming bourgeois pursuit.  TCM was important to the community as there were few, if any, alternatives in Foshan.  These treatments usually took the form of expensive herbal treatments.

Later from 1950-1990 Wing Chun moved in a modernist and reformist direction.  Much of the traditional Chinese philosophy that had been in Wing Chun was stripped out, especially within the Ip Man lineage.  This made the transmission of TCM difficult.  The availability of Western medicine and the youth of the student body made Wing Chun’s medical heritage a much less valuable commodity.  While a few students took up the study, most appear to have had little interest in the subject.

Finally, from 1990 to the present there has been a steady increase in TCM and Qigong in the Wing Chun community.  Spurred on by the explosion of Qigong practices in China, and fueled by promises of physical and spiritual healing, western Wing Chun students have started to demand Qigong training of their own.  This desire has been met with caution by some teachers, but others have embraced the trends seen in China with greater enthusiasm.  While TCM once again plays an important role in the Wing Chun community, it now takes a different form than it did between 1900 and 1940.

None of these changes were primarily driven by variables within the Wing Chun community.  Instead this case is a good example of how martial arts movements evolve and react to economic and global pressures.  It is impossible to understand any fighting or medical tradition without looking at the social and economic systems it is embedded in.

Roaring Dragons and Vanishing Rhinos: The Longsword Sword in Ancient China

The rhinoceros-hide armor was of seven folds or links, one over another; the wild-buffalo’s-hide armor was of six folds or links; and the armor, made of two hides together was of five folds or links. The rhinoceros-hide armor would endure 100 years; the wild-buffalo-hide armor 200 years; and the armor of double hide 300 years.

                                                                        The Rites of Zhou

This post offers my review of LK Chen’s reproduction of a Warring States era longsword, similar to the types of weapons used by special troops in the Kingdom of Chu. Yet before we can delve into that topic, we must know something about the fate of China’s rhinoceroses. It is actually impossible to tell the story of these swords, attested in a handful of literary references and archeological finds, without first coming to terms with China’s shifting environmental fortunes.

The only place that one is likely to see a rhino in China today is in the zoo. The last isolated pockets of the Indian, Sumatran and Javanese subspecies all seem to have vanished during the Republic period, yet in truth even these were mostly forgotten stragglers of a once great herd. During the Shang Dynasty rhinos had been common in both the north and south and we know from oracle bone texts that they were frequently hunted. 


Western Han wine vessel in the shape of a rhinoceros. Source: Wikimedia.


The most sought-after part of the rhino at this point in time does not seem to have been the horns (which were often melted down to make glue), but rather their hides which were a source of exceptionally tough leather. Some of the earliest armor in China was fashioned from sculpted sheets of rhino leather which was then lacquered. This material was both incredibly tough and (relatively) light compared to stone, shell and later bronze armor.  By the Zhou dynasty the use of rhino hide had expanded thanks to the development of laminar armor technology which could allow for better fitting and more flexible types of protection.  Still, the nature of chariot-based warfare ensured that early conflicts remained a relatively elite affair.  This limited the overall environmental impact of the fighting.  

All of that changed as China entered the Warring States period. The scale of warfare escalated, often with catastrophic results for local populations.  As ever greater numbers of common soldiers were pressed into service the demand for armor skyrocketed. Leather laminar armor was a favorite as it could be produced relatively cheaply and in large quantities.  And given the fairly weak crossbows that were used in this period (at least in comparison to the bows that would be developed during the Han dynasty) this sort of armor provided decent protection.  However, rhino hide, which could deflect even the sharpest bronze weapons, continued to be prized for its added strength and durability, despite the fact that by this time the animals had disappeared from the north.  


Rhinoceros leather armor, Chu Kingdom.


Procuring rhino hides for use in armor even became a matter of state policy.  Earlier in the Spring and Autumn period Guan Zhou had advised the Duke of Qi to begin to institute fines that could be paid through the provision of armor and weapons to strengthen his military:

Ordain that serious cries are to be redeemed with a suit of rhinoceros armor and one halberd, and minor crimes with a plaited leather shield and one halberd.  Misdemeanors are to be punished with a quote of metal, and doubtful cases are to be pardoned.  A case should be delayed for investigation for three days without allowing arguments or judgements; by the time the case is judged the subject will have produced one bundle of arrows.  Good metal should be cast into swords and halberds and tested on dogs and horses, while poorer metal should be cast into agricultural implements and tested on earth. 

When viewed from an environmental perspective it is not a coincidence that the longsword should have been adopted in the State of Chu at a relatively early date, or that it would again become a rarity by the Han dynasty. Between the Warring States and the Han most swords (with the exception of those given to the calvary) were meant to be used with a shield. Shields were a necessity both because archery was a common aspect of the battlefield, and most soldier wore very little armor (or none at all).  Indeed, armor was expensive enough that it was often reserved for more specialized troops or officers.

Double handed swords can be wielded effectively against both polearms (which dominated the period’s infantry formations) and lightly armed individuals with smaller swords and bucklers. Yet the precondition for being able to use the such a weapon is the development of some sort of armor that frees the warrior from the necessity of carrying a shield.  We have already seen how Chu (and regions such as the former kingdoms of Wu and Yue) had an advantage when it came to the production of early steel weapons. Obviously, that made the development of the longsword technologically possible. But it was an entirely different set of natural resources that made such an innovation advisable. Specifically, multiple species of wild rhinoceros could still be found in the warmer and wetter south long after they had gone extinct in China’s northern and central regions. 

Two suits of excavated rhino armor from the Chu Kingdom. Source:


It was actually the greater access to rhino hides that allowed Chu to deploy the longsword as something more than a novelty or a prestige weapon for the elite. Of course, all of this had a devastating effect of China’s remaining rhinoceros populations. Climate change in the guise of the cooling and drying during this period had already stressed these populations. As the demand for armor increased, the remainder were quickly hunted to extinction becoming yet another casualty of the Warring States period.   

By the Han dynasty the few surviving populations of China’s rhinos were forced into isolated pockets of the deep south.  Most individuals would never see a rhinoceros and the species quickly entered China rich bestiary of mythic creatures. Nor would there be much of a demand for the remaining suits of rhino armor. With the development of much more powerful crossbows during the Han dynasty, leather plates were eventually replaced with metal (often iron or decarbonized steel). Relatively few soldiers could be equipped with enough armor to provide anything like full coverage and militaries again turned to shields and long pole arms as a primary mode of defense.

It is thus interesting to compare the steel longswords of the late Warring States period to their Han counterparts.  In truth, the blades of even ordinary Han jian tended to be quite long. You can see this for yourself if you just put LK Chen’s White Arc (a direct reproduction of a surviving Han jian) next to the Roaring Dragon (his Chu longsword).  The two blades are roughly comparable in length, with the long sword only being an inch or two greater. The actual difference in these swords is to be found in their hilt construction. Whereas the Roaring Dragon is a specialized two-hander, Han jian generally assumed that soldiers would need to wield a blade in one hand and a shield in the other. Even a Han “two handed” sword, something like the Soaring Sky or Flying Phoenix, is still designed to be used primarily with one hand, while a second hand may be called upon at times for extra support or special techniques.  While some longswords have been recovered from the Han, in general an elite warrior in this later period was much more likely favor a slighter shorter blade with a more versatile hilt. 

The term intersectionality is used to describe the ways that complex social and environmental factors interact with each other.  Certain types of technological change gave rise to the development of the longsword in southern China.  Yet by putting greater pressure on fragile populations of wild rhinos, these same technological changes ensured their own obsolesces.  Once again, it is impossible to really understand how ancient weapons were used in a decontextualized sense.  But when we combine what we know about the development of new technologies (stronger crossbows) and environmental change (the over hunting of wild rhinos), it becomes possible to understand why the Kingdom of Chu’s longswords occupied such a fleeting (if glorious) moment in history.



Roaring Dragon

The description of the Roaring Dragon on LK Chen’s webpage begins by announcing that this sword is “the enhanced version of the Magnificent Chu jian.” While the resemblance between the two swords is obvious on a visual level, in more mechanical respects these are actually profoundly different blades. The family resemblance is most evident in the scabbards and other furniture.

Like the Magnificent Chu, the Roaring Dragon is a composite creation approximating the type of sword that archeologists have discovered, rather than a one-to-one recreation of an existing weapon (such as the White Arc or the Soaring Sky). It signals the shared cultural heritage  with the Magnificent Chu by decorating its scabbard with the same red and black lacquerware pattern (itself a copy of surviving of Chu funerary pieces), and cast chape and belt hook. The sword’s disk pommel also shares the same pattern of concentric rings.



Still, there are subtle differences. I find the scabbard on the Roaring Dragon to be much more elegant than its shorter companion as the greater length allows the craftsmen to really accentuate the two different profiles seen in the top and bottom halves of pieces from the Warring States period. I have always wondered whether the flattening of the scabbard as it descends was meant to invoke the same sorts of shapes seen on the spokes of war chariots during the period.  More research on the question is needed.

While the woodwork on my test sword’s scabbard was excellent, the lacquer was marred in a few places.  There was small chip near the mouth of the scabbard (which was an excellent fit) and there was some roughness near the chape that I haven’t seen on any of LK Chen’s other swords. The red and yellow phoenix motif was crisp and excellently executed. 

After taking a close look at this sword’s fittings, I decided that the handguard, chape, belt hook and disk pommel are probably cast bronze.  While bronze was used in the initial run of the “LK Chen Five” more recently produced models have switched to cast brass. Apparently they had trouble getting the desired degree of detail and quality control in their bronze casts. While bronze is still used on some fittings (notably the hilt rings of sabers like the Dragon-Sparrow and the Double Dragon) all new jian furniture is being cast in brass. Generally speaking, I like the look of bronze (seen on the first run swords) better, but there is no denying that the newer and more detailed fittings on the Flying Phoenix and Soaring Sky are beautiful. 


The original artifact that served as the model for the Roaring Dragon’s hand guard. Source:

The hilt of the Roaring Dragon before wrapping. Note that the disk pommel is pinned through the tang and wood scales. Source:


Perhaps the most unique feature of the Roaring Dragon is its relatively wide handguard.  Like the Magnificent Chu it proudly displays the taotie animal mask motif.  LK Chen provided the Roading Dragon with a direct copy of a warring states guard that is similar to, but ultimately different from, the one used on the Magnificent Chu.  While I suspect fans of the Western longsword will be more comfortable with the Roaring Dragon because it has something that begins to approximate a European cross-guard, it is clear that this piece is still meant primarily to protect the fingers from sliding up unto the blade rather than leveraging an opponent’s weapon.

More differences are evident when we turn our attention to the blade itself.  Like the Magnificent Chu, the Roaring Dragon features a high layer-count Damascus pattern made of alternating layers of 1065 and T8 tool steel.  A medial ridge is created by engraving both side of the blade with wide double fullers, revealing a beautiful pattern in the metal. The metallurgy in LK Chen’s swords is entirely modern, but the intended effect is to echo the complex weld structures that are seen when jian from the period are polished by private collectors.

Upon handling the Roaring Dragon one will immediate note that the blade is relatively narrow with a subtle, mostly strait taper. It is a full 5 mm narrower at the base than the Magnificent Chu (30 mm vs 35 mm) though both come to about 20 mm just before the tip.  Both swords have the same distal taper (7mm at the base to 3mm at the tip), but when you double the length of a narrower blade, the distribution of mass becomes very different.

My test sword had a total weight of 1074 grams, which is remarkable when you remember that its blade is 100 cm (39.5”) and its total length is an impressive 139.5 cm (mine was slightly longer than advertised).  The fullering in the blade keeps the weight down and the result is a very quick and lively longsword.

The quality of the Roaring Dragon’s blade is excellent.  There are no bends or warps in the blade and the cutting edge is nicely formed.  When examining the flats of the blade under a bright light it is clear what there is a fair amount of waviness but given how difficult it is to make the bottoms of a fuller perfect smooth that is to be expected in a handmade blade. The medial ridge is absolutely straight on both sides of the blade, and its serves to reinforce the tip for extra support in the thrust.

That last point is important as anyone who picks up this blade will immediately notice that it can be somewhat wobbly.  This is typically the case with long, narrow, slender blades.  I suspect that LK Chen could have ameliorated this tendency somewhat if he actually had scaled up the notably wider Magnificent Chu jian.  Of course, that added rigidity would also have resulted in extra weight, and he decided instead to reproduce the range of weights actually observed in archeological specimens.  That meant sticking with a relatively narrow blade that is profiled very differently from a medieval European longsword.

The end result is that the Roaring Dragon is a bit tricky to cut with. While the edge is very good, the blade is very light and it will flex on you if the geometry of the cut is not perfect. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to cut well with this sword, but it can be a bit of a challenge.  Still, given the length of the weapon, the layout of the hilt and the reinforced tip, I found myself wondering whether these sorts of blades might not have favored the thrust and been used almost like a short polearm at times. 

One suspects that it would have been fairly uncommon for two heavily armored longsword wielders to meet on the battlefield. Instead I assume that a sword like this would most likely have been used against relatively poorly armored troops carrying either swords and shields or longer pole weapons. Even a relatively light and narrow blade would have been devastatingly effective against these sorts of “soft” targets. When facing a more heavily armored foe one suspects that the thrust would have become the weapon’s primary attack.


The Roaring Dragon’s hilt, 38 cm (15 inches). Source:


I found the Roaring Dragon’s hilt to be very comfortable.  After weeks of daily use the cord wrapping is still tight and in perfect condition. The slightly slick feel of the cord was advantageous as I switched back and forth between different types of grips, something that is important with a blade of this length. The oval cross section of the hilt also made edge control intuitive.

The sword itself moves effortlessly through the air, and it is a joy to train with something that is simultaneously so long yet so fast.  My test sword’s point of balance was 13.3 cm (or 5.25 inches) away from the hilt.  Its forward and rear points of rotation were 18 cm and 58 cm from the tip respectively.  Its forward vibrational node was 29.2 cm from the tip.  I didn’t experience much hand-shock when cutting with this sword, but I never subjected it to any destructive testing either.

There is a lot of interest in larger double handed Chinese swords at the moment.  Most of this focuses on the historically better attested traditions of the Ming dynasty.  The Roaring Dragon reminds us that similar technologies can arise and decline at various points in history.  More lightly built than later weapons, these jian were a response to the strategic situation and environmental resources that defined life in the Warring States period.  In that sense they are an important reminder that the martial arts can never be separated from the environment that gave rise to them.  While we typically take this as social truism, this unique sword testified that the traditional fighting arts have also been in conversation with, and a reflection of, the natural environment. It may not be possible to appreciate the rise of the China’s first longswords without also remembering the animals who made these swords practical battlefield weapons.



If you enjoyed this review you might also want to read: The Maiden of Yue and the Magnificent Chu


Alex Gillis Discusses Tae Kwon Do and “A Killing Art” with Kung Fu Tea

Alex Gillis, author of A Killing Art.

***Alex Gillis was the very first special guest ever interviewed on Kung Fu Tea.  His book, A Killing Art, remains one of the most readable and engaging histories of an Asian martial art ever written. Be sure to check it out as soon as you are done with this interview!***

Welcome of the Halloween 2012 edition of Kung Fu Tea!  A few weeks ago I had the chance to review Alex Gillis’ groundbreaking work on the origins and development of Tae Kwon Do, A Killing Art.  Click on the links to see that post or the book.  This detailed study is a wonderful example of martial arts history and the sort of thing that I think we need to see more of in the field of martial studies.

I also had the opportunity to exchange emails with Alex and found him to be friendly and open.  He clearly has a passion for his subject and is immensely knowledgeable.  He agreed to drop by Kung Fu Tea and answer some questions about the process of writing this sort of history and the reception that the book has received.


Kung Fu Tea (KFT): How have Tae Kwon Do practitioners, both in Korea and the rest of the world, received your book?  Has it received a generally positive reception?  Has it affected your relationships with other individuals in Tae Kwon Do community?

Alex Gillis (AG): Hundreds of people have sent me notes over the past four years, all of them positive about the English, Spanish and German books. I haven’t counted, but I estimate I received nearly 1,000 emails. Also, during book signings in the US, UK, Canada and Germany, I’ve spoken to thousands of people, and almost all the feedback has been positive — overwhelmingly so.

There have been negative comments, I’ve heard, on blogs, but most of them have been anonymous. I haven’t looked up the chat groups, listservs and blogs where I’m getting anonymously slagged, but I’m sure they’re out there somewhere. What I find incredible is that the major international Tae Kwon Do organizations, especially in South Korea, have ignored my book, but their instructors and masters (and some grandmasters) have contacted me individually, almost as if they were doing something wrong in talking to me.

The support has been over-the-top positive, because people have been gossiping for decades, so many people knew parts of the true history, but A Killing Art brings together different strands of the history, which, I now realize, readers appreciate. I put seven years of work into the book, ensuring that I got facts right, and I footnoted heavily, because I knew readers would say, “What the hell?! How does he know that?”

A fallen monument in the Goodleberg Town Cemetery, Wales NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: What was the most challenging aspect of researching a project like this? Was it difficult to get your sources to agree to give “on the record” interviews about such challenging topics?

AG: The most challenging part of the research was finding solid proof that secret-service agents (those who worked for or with the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and North Korean secret service) were helping to run Tae Kwon Do federations, and that the agents/instructors collaborated with the South and North Korean dictatorships during different decades. Also challenging was figuring out what the founders added to the art as opposed to simply stole from Karate or Taekkyeon (an old Korean martial art).

It was difficult to get on-the-record interviews on these topic and others, but many masters and instructors participated when they realized that I knew a lot about the history. Interviews rise to a different level when interviewees know that one-liners or the “party line” won’t work. So, for example, telling a journalist that Tae Kwon Do is 2,000 years old might fly with a local newspaper reporter who doesn’t have time to check facts, but it didn’t work on me, as I knew the truth from background research. Tae Kwon Do is only 50 or 60 years old, and it developed mainly from Japanese Karate. However, if you type “Taekwondo” in Wikipedia or Google, you’ll find sites that state or imply that it’s hundreds or thousands of years old and that contain all sorts of drivel about ancient dynasties and hwarang warriors. I’m empowered by the fact that well known war heroes and super-athletes developed my martial art, not flowery unnamed warriors.

KFT: You have a background both as an investigative journalist and as a university instructor.  Do you think that this book would have looked substantially different if you had been a pure historian?  What skills did journalism allow you to bring to table that might be missing in more “academic” writing on the martial arts?

AG: Perhaps the book would have been different if a historian had tackled the topic — perhaps a historian would have made it more abstract and less concrete and dramatic. Depends on the historian! I’ve read dramatic, concrete histories. My skills as an investigative journalist allowed me to ask the right questions and to delve into topics that were deeper than those asked by news journalists. Also, with all my research and interviews, I pushed myself to find engaging ways to present the facts and tell people’s stories — with storytelling that would go beyond lists of facts. Basically, I added heart and emotions where I could.

Presenting General Choi Hong-Hi’s life is an example. He was a complex person (as most of us are), and I wanted to show why people thought he was a genius and a dictator, a generous man and a selfish one, too — all at the same time. He seemed to be a megalomaniac and an extremely aggressive leader, but he had to seem that way when facing down homicidal dictators and rogue secret-service agents who wanted to kidnap him and his pioneers. I have a lot of respect for him (but not for all of his actions). While presenting people like that in my book, I felt I had to stick to the facts while adding complex emotions and context.

Barbed wire hanging from an oak tree. Conewango Valley, NY. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins, September 2012.

KFT: When I was reading Chapter 19 of your book (“Reprieve”) I could not help but be struck by the contrast between what you had written about, and what you and your daughter actually experienced in your neighborhood Tae Kwon Do school.  Has there always been this disconnect between what was happening at the top of the sport and at the bottom?  It seems hard to imagine that the chaos you describe in the 1980s and 1990s didn’t deeply affect the lives and careers of many aspiring martial artists.

AG: Yes, there has always been a disconnect between what happens at the top of a sport or martial art and what happens among instructors and students. From what I know, this occurs in many sports. Look at soccer and FIFA for instance! Tae Kwon Do practitioners typically had and have no idea how much corruption and cheating occurred in the Olympics for instance. When coaches and athletes did discover the levels of cheating, many had to keep quiet in order to compete, hoping that they wouldn’t be the next victims of “branch trimming,” which was the sophisticated cheating-system that ensured the strongest fighters got eliminated in opening rounds at the Olympics. Careers and lives were deeply affected.

KFT: It has been about four years since your book first came out.  How are things looking in the Tae Kwon Do world today? Have the governing bodies of the sport in Korea and abroad managed to clean up their act and live up to their promises for reform? Is the sport growing and healthy?

AG: There has been a lot of promise about cleaning up their acts — being transparent and fair — but I’m not certain that the governing bodies have lived up to their promises. I keep hoping.

KFT: What are the biggest trends you are seeing in the Korean martial arts today outside of the world of Tae Kwon Do?

AG: The unacknowledged Tae Kwon Do backgrounds of fighters in the MMA, UFC and other popular sports.

KFT: Yes, I can see how that might be frustrating to a lot of individuals within the Tae Kwon Do community.  Thanks so much for taking the time to stop by!

Pumpkin Still Life. Photo Credit: Benjamin Judkins

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part I.

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Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the later Jingwu Association, another liberal group seeking to use the martial arts to reform and “save” chinese society.


***Greetings!  This was my first entry in the long running “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series. Rather than just profiling the most famous martial artists I attempted to look at the actual life experiences of a wide range of individuals.  I took as my first subject the revolutionary poet Qiu Jin.  If you are unfamiliar with her legacy be sure to read on.  Also, click the link at the end for the second part of this essay.***


Anachronism and Misunderstanding in the Chinese Martial Arts


This is the first post in a new occasional series here at “Kung Fu Tea.”  These entries will provide brief biographies, and pose some thoughtful questions, about the lives of China’s martial artists.  Given my research interests a lot of these individuals will be from the South, but as the series goes on I hope to expand the scope of my expertise.


One of the basic problems when it comes to writing about Chinese martial culture is the very phrase “martial arts.”  These words are saddled with a lot of baggage in modern western society, much of which is uniquely unhelpful when it comes to understanding the vast range of past (or even current) practices.  Casual readers assume as a matter of course that they know what the “martial arts” are.  After all, they watch Kung Fu movies, they did some Judo in college or they drop their daughter off for her Tae Kwon Do “Little Tigers” class every Wednesday.  This erroneous assumption of expertise then leads to misunderstanding once they begin to seriously delve into questions of martial history or culture.


Much of what we do today has vanishingly little in common with what the east Asian martial arts actually were in most times and places.  This is especially true when one starts to think about the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Many of the outward trappings of modern commercial martial practice in America (crisp white uniforms, colored belts, discipline, militarism that “build character,” and franchised distribution) are actually artifacts of the Japanese post-Meiji Restoration renaissance in hand combat training.  These practices were exported to America after WWII, especially with the growing popularity of Judo, Aikido and later Karate.


American consumers have accepted this commercial ethos on such a deep level that it has almost become subconscious.  All martial arts must have colored belts and complex advancement tests…because that is what martial arts do, right?  Needless to say the traditional Chinese arts were usually taught quite differently.  Yet increasingly we are seeing Kung Fu schools (even within the style of Wing Chun-which ostensibly rejects such conventions) handing out colored sashes and on-line Sifu’s bragging as to what rank they have achieved in a grading system that was invented in California in the late 1990s.


In the world of commercial martial arts practice I find these trends to be merely irritating.  But when discussing history they are genuinely dangerous.  All of which brings us back to the essential purpose of this series of biographical posts.  We often have an artificially narrow view of what the traditional Chinese martial arts were and how they were expressed.  If it wouldn’t fit in a strip-mall storefront we don’t recognize it as part of the martial realm, even when wonderful examples of it are right in front of our eyes.


For instance, when was the last time that you saw a discussion of horsemanship as a critical skill in the traditional Chinese martial arts?  Or archery?  How about an ability to master the subaltern dialects and coded speech patterns of bandits and secret society members so that either negotiations or interrogations could be carried out?  Yet in the mind of most Ming and Qing era soldiers and martial artists these were the skills that basically defined the profession.  Clearly there is a need to broaden our view of who the Chinese martial artists were and the sorts of varied life experience they possessed.


My overriding goal in this series of posts is to demonstrate that the “Chinese martial arts” were never just one thing.  We need to better appreciate the richness of the lived experience of the “martial artists” that we find in the historical record.  Indeed, this may even necessitate abandoning the concept that there is any such thing as the “Chinese martial arts” as a singular, easily understood, category.  Instead what we actually see are a wide variety of martial practices adapted by different sorts of people for their own reasons at various times and place.  Rather than discussing “Chinese martial culture” in the singular it should be discussed in the plural.


Portrait of Qiu Jin, dressed in male Chinese attire.

Qiu Jin and the State of the Literature


Qiu Jin (November 8, 1875- July 15, 1907) is perhaps the most interesting martial hero to emerge from Southern China in the early 20th century that almost no-one in the west has ever heard of.  Even in martial arts and political circles I get mostly blank stares when I mention her name.  She is better known among the small circle of scholars that study gender or revolution in modern China.


The situation is all the more puzzling as she is far from forgotten in either China or Japan.  The Chinese consider her to have died a martyr to the 1911 revolution and a substantial body of folklore and legends have grown up around her life.  The government has even built a memorial and small museum in her honor.  Her life has also been the subject of a number of scholarly treatments in Japan.  These focus both on her revolutionary exploits and her poetry, some of which was quite accomplished.


Most of the best scholarship on Qiu Jin is actually published in Japanese.  I spent a semester going through it with a Japanese graduate student and the exercise was interesting.  However, its probably not necessary if one’s main interest in Qiu Jin is the martial arts aspect of her career.  Yamazaki Atsuko’s 2007 volume Shu Kin Kaen No Hito contained a brief but helpful discussion of her childhood exposure to, and training in, martial arts.


Perhaps the most reliable discussion of Qiu Jin’s life and revolutionary career in the English language literature can be found in the writing of Mary Backus Rankin.  In 1975 she published a conference paper and book chapter titled “The Emergence of Women at the End of the Ch’ing: the Case of Ch’iu Chin.”  The piece appeared in Women in Chinese Society (Stanford UP, 1975) edited by Margery Wolf and Roxane Witke.  Also valuable is the discussion of Qiu Jin provided on pages 85-93 of Jonathan D. Spence’s The Gates of Heavenly Peace: The Chinese and their Revolutionaries 1895-1980. Penguin. 1982.


Qiu Jin is an important figure to understanding both emerging Chinese nationalism and feminism in the late Qing period.  Her literary output needs to be better researched.  Also interesting is how her background in Chinese Wuxia novels and martial culture conditioned her behavior as a revolutionary.  Clearly we need a comprehensive English language biography on this figure.  While that is beyond the scope of any blog-post, it is possible to summarize what we know of her life and military career and to ask some thoughtful questions that might stimulate future research.


The Life of Qiu Jin: Feminist, Revolutionary, Poet, Terrorist, Martial Artist


Qiu Jin was born in Xiamen, Fujian Province, in 1875.  She was born to a mid-level gentry family that might have enjoyed a very comfortable existence, except of course for the decline of the Confucian trained bureaucracy that accompanied the end of the Qing regime.  Her family was relatively rich with degree holders, though not all of them got the best postings.  Her great-grandfather, grandfather, father and brother all held various positions within the government, but her father never rose much above the level of local secretary even though he was probably a Juren degree holder.  As a girl she grew up at the family estate in Shaoxing in Zhejiang.  While she lived in number of places including Beijing and Japan, Qiu Jin repeatedly returned to northern Zhejiang and seemed to have considered the area home throughout her far ranging career.


Rankin points out that the family’s educational background was probably critical to Qiu Jin’s later development and unorthodox outlook on life.  Far from being stifling or overly conservative, the family seems to have been part of a minority Confucian school of thought that saw women as being capable of moral development, ethical behavior and excellence in education.  While by no means universally held, gentry families from this school tended to educate their daughters and even encourage their artistic pursuits in the areas of writing, literature, poetry and painting.  This certainly appears to have been the case with Qiu Jin who proved throughout her revolutionary career that, while she was perfectly happy to even engage in violent struggle, her pen was the sharpest weapon of all.


Qiu Jin seems to have been indulged by both her parents and other male family members.  Her feet were bound as a child, but not very tightly.  She is remembered as having an uncommonly active and athletic childhood.  She learned to ride a horse, to shoot a bow and at least some sword play.  She is also said to have developed the ability to drink prodigious amounts of alcohol. (see Rankin 46 also Yamazaki).


Swords would play a reoccurring role, both in her life and literary work.  As an adult student in Japan, Qiu Jin is said to have carried a short sword and was even photographed with a long knife.  Other individuals remember her training with, or talking about, swords as an adult after her return to China.  How much of this was learned in her youth is open to interpretation, and there is not a lot of really detailed information on her early martial curriculum.


So, was Qiu Jin studying the “martial arts?”  From the point of view of a modern American reader the answer would probably be no.  There is not much here that we recognize.  She had no “style,” no “school” and no official and much beloved teacher.  There is no evidence that she ever studied unarmed combat of any kind, and the thing that seemed to illicit the most comment from her contemporaries were her skills on a horse.


Yet from the point of view of those around her Qiu Jin certainly was certainly studying the martial arts.  A family such as hers lived and died by producing young men who could pass the civil service exam and maintain the family’s place in the gentry-class.  Yet such clans rarely placed all of their eggs in a single basket.  While the civil-service exam was much more prestigious, the state also ran a military-service exam.  This system provided much of the nation’s officer corp.  These were also important jobs that paid a steady income and provided some social status.


The military service exams expected their students to have mastered the basic Confucian library but to also be familiar with a number of military texts including Sun Tzu.  Practical aspects of the exam included archery, horsemanship, strength and the ability to perform sword routines, often with blades of different weights.


Qiu Jin’s extended family was attempting to prepare some of their male children to take the military service exam and so they were teaching these skills.  Indeed, her cousin Xu Xilin (later a fellow revolutionary) spent most of his career at the margins of military and law enforcement circles.  Qiu Jin was indulged and allowed to study these more active subjects with her male peers even though these things traditionally lay outside the realm of propriety for female members of the gentry-class.


It is not really clear how seriously Qiu Jin took this training or what sorts of skills she actually achieved (though by all accounts she was an accomplished rider).  What was most interesting to the local community was that she was doing these things at all.  It is also known that as a literarily talented child Qiu Jin immersed herself in the tales, stories and novels of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  She was enchanted with stories about bandits and heroes who sacrificed themselves for the nation.


I suspect that from her point of view these novels were, in fact, the true heart of the matter.  To her the martial arts were not simply a style or a set of techniques.  Rather they were a set of philosophical commitments and a way of life.  To be a martial artist was to be a person who exhibited the qualities of martial valor.  These norms were very much at odds with the Confucian worldview that surrounded her, and they helped to shape much of her revolutionary career.  For Qiu Jin to be a “martial artist” was to live the life of a wandering swordsman.  She called herself a “revolutionary” because that was the terminology of the time and indeed, a revolution was brewing.  Yet what she really seemed to seek was justice on a personal scale.


For her, to be a martial artist was to be a “revolutionary.” Yet her definition of the later term has always seemed to her critics to be oddly primitive and apolitical.  She had no specific agenda or set long term goals for the state.  It seems that in Qiu Jin’s mind a “revolutionary” was simply a western gloss on the beloved knights-errant of her childhood reading.


Scholars have not fully grasped the degree to which Qiu Jin’s “revolution” was a sort of political-theater in which the military values of the heroic side of Chinese culture were scrupulously observed and performed.  Many of the more paradoxical elements of her life, such as her penchant for cross-dressing or her near suicidal death (in which she allowed herself to be captured knowing that she would be tortured and executed) can be better understood within the context of late 19th century martial novels and plays than most historians to date have realized.  Early 20th century feminist thought or western politically radical literature actually provides little guidance in these areas.


Qiu Jin repeatedly discussed her fascination with the story of Hua Mulan, another Chinese woman who cross-dressed, took up arms, and fought to save the nation.

Her educational background is important for another reason as well.  While certain styles of martial arts with names and well defined social boundaries did exist in China from at least the Ming onward, these things appear to have been the exception rather than the rule.  Most members of the gentry who studied martial matters did so in a private setting with certain concrete career goals in mind.  These schools had no names because they had no public function.  Their sole function was to advance the reputation and economic fortunes of a single local clan.  However, they very often employed talented scholars, retired military trainers and civilian martial artists.


Likewise when most peasants in the countryside studied martial arts it was to be part of a village militia.  Some of the Big Sword societies had a unique style that they taught.  For instance we know from Qing court records that Plum Blossom Boxing was popular throughout northern China early in the 19th century.  Yet most people studied what the local drill instructor taught and probably didn’t associate any special name or “style” with what they were doing.  Our insistent attempts to discover modern schools and lineage structures in the past (when they very likely did not exist) causes a lot of needless confusion and frustration.


The career of Qiu Jin illustrates this nicely.  It is precisely those questions about her background (what was the name of her style?) that demonstrates the shortcomings of our modern understanding of the Chinese martial arts in the 19th century.  While this is the time period from which the “modern” approach to the Chinese martial emerged, not everyone was part of these trends.  Rural peasants and gentry members, who were deeply steeped in the martial arts, tended to view of this material in ways that seems odd to modern sensibilities.


We will look more closely at Qiu Jin’s adult interests in the martial arts and her short-lived career as a political terrorist and revolutionary in the next post.


[Click Here To Continue To Part II]

On Reading Old Books

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The idea of reading old books tends to conjure romantic images of dusty tomes and arcane libraries. As martial artists we imagine ourselves clustered around forgotten Ming dynasty manuals, decoding the secrets of the ancient. Sadly, those are not the books that we will be discussing in this post. Instead we will be examining something much less fashionable, the study of works that are merely dated, rather than ancient.
How and when something becomes dated is a fascinating question. In the social scientific realm this occurs when a new theory is advanced that can explain everything that the older ones could, and some additional puzzle as well, in the same number of steps or fewer. This is a fairly straightforward model of intellectual progress, at least so far as one is interested in generating theories that explain why things happen (simple causality), rather than what they mean.
Still, even this barebones model of the scientific method generates an interesting corollary. It suggests that we do not discard our old theories because we have discovered that they are wrong, or that there are certain cases that they can’t explain. That would be pointless as every explanatory model ever advanced has some sort of blind spot from the moment of its inception. Simply put, there are no perfect theories. Rather, we discard our theories only when they stop being “useful.”
In literatures where the growth of knowledge has hit a plateau, certain works can have surprising longevity. In some fields it is not uncommon to encounter a 70-year-old work that is still considered a “classic” and mandatory ready in any intro classes. Yet when breakthroughs happen quickly, a theory’s lifespan is fleeting.  A book published 10 or 15 years ago suddenly becomes an embarrassment.
This is the position that martial arts studies, as an interdisciplinary academic field, currently finds itself in.  Our project has seen remarkable growth in both size and sophistication over the last decade.  Where we once had to search for relevant discussions in historical or anthropological studies of other subjects, the last ten years has witnessed an explosion of monographs and edited volumes dedicated exclusively to the study of these fighting systems.  While it was once vitually impossible to publish scholarly articles on martial arts, authors now have a variety of journals to choose from. This is all very exciting and a good thing. Yet the inevitable corollary is that much of what came before this burst of activity (and even some things that appeared in its earliest stages), now look rather dated. Either they address questions which no longer seem as relevant, or they don’t bring the same sort of explanatory power to the table as later approaches.
The fact that we have achieved this sort of generational turnover was driven home by a recent conversation. I had reposted an early essay from 2012 on the blog in which I asked readers to suggest five sources to quickly get someone up to speed on Chinese martial studies. Two of the suggestions could be books, and the other three pieces had to be articles or chapters.
Needless to say, not everyone in 2020 was thrilled with my picks from 2012. That is entirely reasonable as so much has happened in the study of the Chinese martial arts over the last decade.  This is a field that has moved very quickly, and that has left some of the “classics” of the previous era looking limited and a bit shabby. My own book, articles and blog posts on that subject have all appeared in the last decade.
Underscoring this disjoint between past and present was the entire point of exercise.  Lists like this need to be continually updated and reevaluated, especially in fields like ours. It is important to maintain a certain level of self-awareness as to what is put on these lists and what is being excluded (and why).
Yet rather than having that conversation, questions arose as to whether any of this “old” literature should even be read at all. Would it be better to just chuck it out and study only state of the art descriptions of Chinese martial arts? Afterall, if we have determined that another approach is more useful, if it does a better job of making sense of the world, why should we invest scarce time reading dated material? Isn’t that what intellectual progress looks like?
If one is only interest in Martial Arts Studies as an avenue for exploring, and finding meaning in, personal embodied practice, that may be a fair point. A number of amateur scholars who are primarily interested in teaching and practicing their individual systems have made some important contributions to our field, and they remain free to approach their engagement with the field in any way that they personally see fit. Afterall, no one can force you to read a dated, unfashionable and probably boring book.
Unless you go to graduate school. In that case you may very well be expected to read five hundred to a thousand pages a week of such material. This is the stuff that field surveys courses are made of. It is the intensive interaction with this literature that molds young scholars into members of a discipline. I still recall taking one such class in graduate school where the instructor would assign, and then publicly demolish, 3-4 books per class, week after week. A few of my classmates were under the mistaken impression that the point of her class was to receive the correct answers, to teach them how the world really worked. When would we get to the “good stuff,” the stuff they my professor actually liked? The look of surprise on her face was evident when they finally asked that question. She proceeded to explain that most of the works we read as professionals are flawed. Much of it will be objectively bad. In fact, she didn’t actually like any of the books on her syllabus. None of these books contained the one true way to understand global politics. But that was never the point of the exercise.
We become intelligent and independent scholars not from reading the best, most cutting-edge, works. Everyone must certainly be conversant in those works, but if that is all you are familiar with you will only parrot other people’s ideas. Instead, we improve our own work by first learning to take apart other people’s arguments. Criticism is the first step on the path towards creativity.
There are several other reasons that scholars immerse themselves in dated works. Brilliant pieces of research in top journals do not just appear as acts of isolated genius.  Rather, these works emerge out of (and respond to) ongoing conversation within in a literature. One can’t really understand this process unless you have read these prior works, most of which have been superseded by the next set of publications. And yet the actual foundations of the discussion remain key to understanding how we have arrived at our current location, and where we might go in the future.
Even the most dated work is typically full of useful facts and clever ideas. These might not have been fully developed when they were first written down, but recent events may make them more relevant, or suggest new ways that older theories could be reframed to meet our current challenges.  Last but not least, we read older works because academic literatures are based on real-life social communities. Most of these communities are not that larger, and if you actively go to conferences and give papers you will eventually have a chance to deal with all of these authors (or their students) in a live setting. That will generally go much more smoothly if you are actually familiar with their ideas before you arrive.
Martial Arts Studies, as it is currently constituted, is first and foremost a scholarly project. Interdisciplinary in nature, individuals from many academic backgrounds have come together to ask how a better understanding these fighting systems contributes to larger questions such as the development of modern Chinese identity, the process of globalization or even the nature of the human condition. While closely studying a variety of viewpoints (including ones that are now dated) may not be essential to improving one’s personal practice, it is absolutely a prerequisite to participate in any truly scholarly project. This is the basic homework that enables future understanding, both of our subject and the community that is producing these discussions.
Sadly, this also seems to be one of the elements that is missing from current discussions. The launching of a new field is no easy task, and many of us have been consumed by the effort to take Martial Arts Studies from the realm of aspiration to institutional reality. Understandably, we have been mostly concerned with our own projects and contributions. Yet we can never lose sight of the fact that this same aspirational force has existed at multiple points in the past. Whether we care to admit it or not, much of our current literature is built on foundations first laid down by individuals like Stanley Henning, Charles Holombe, Joseph Esherick, Donn F. Draeger and R. W. Smith.
Paul Bowman as attempted to engage some of Henning’s work, and Jared Miracle has tackled certain aspects of Smith and Draeger’s legacy. Yet the field has shown little enthusiasm for critically engaging the empirical observations or theoretical world view of the scholars and movements that came before us.  This failure to come to terms with the complex legacy of hoplology, or related works in military history, is a missed opportunity. First, by neglecting these texts we lose access to an important database of potential observations and puzzles that could enrich our own work. Second, by ignoring the troubled trajectory of prior scholarship we have less insight into what is driving the current moment, or what obstacles we might face.
It is not difficult to explain our failure to fully engage with hoplology, or a reluctance to read old books generally. All of this takes time, and that is the one resource that none of us have. Still, understanding how our current discussions emerged, and what insights past works may have held, is the basic prerequisite for engaging in any type of academic project. The quality of the latest generation of martial arts studies publications is higher than ever, but it is critical that we keep reading those old, unfashionable, and even bad, books.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Salvage as Method in Martial Arts Studies

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Why Religion Needs to Play a Greater Role in Chinese Martial Studies than it does in the Chinese Martial Arts.

Koi in a Hong Kong park (HT Dad).

***Greetings! Here is one of my earlier attempts to talk about the topic of theory within martial arts studies (from back in 2012, when there was a lot less of it).  It is one area where my thinking has certainly evolved over the years.  Still, I continue to find the literature on comparative religion very helpful, and I love the photo that my father took of the koi in Hong Kong above.  Enjoy!***


Lately I have been thinking about the role of religion in the Chinese martial arts and the different (though related) question of its place in Chinese martial studies.  I blame Stanley Henning.

I should preface this post by saying how much I actually appreciate the scholarship of Stanley Henning and how much I have gained from him over the years.  If it seems like I keep coming back to criticize him it is not personal, far from it.  There are not that many prominent voices in the field of Chinese martial studies at any one time, and given how many topics he has written on, his is an easy one to engage with.

One of Henning’s many contributions over the last few years has been to shape the academic discussions of the Chinese martial arts and religion.  In the popular view all forms of Kung Fu are inherently mystical and every Sifu is expected to be a spiritual guru.  This is a dangerous attitude for martial arts students.  Great care and discretion needs to be taken in the selection of a guru, and I can tell you right now that there is nothing in the average martial arts education—even at the expert level—that actually qualifies one for the post.  If your Sifu expects you to defer to him or her as a spiritual guru that is not “traditional,” it is creepy and you should seriously consider leaving.

Such an attitude is also harmful in academic discussions.  It leads us to fundamentally misunderstand the economic, social and political nature of the martial arts and the role that they played in Chinese history.  As Henning, Kennedy and Guo, Lorge and many others have now pointed out, the vast majority of people who studied martial arts in China did so on a professional basis.  They were soldiers, caravan guards, criminals, mercenaries or opera performers.

A hand full of individuals probably studied the martial arts for health reasons.  There may well have been some cross-over between the martial arts and Daoist longevity exercises, but this association developed rather late and prior to 1911 was never really all that common.  Likewise, when one ran into the rare monk or a priest who studied the martial arts, it was usually that the temple needed to protect its wealth, rather than there being any sense of deep mystical connection between Buddhism and Daoism on the one hand and hand combat training on the other.

All of which is good and true and I won’t argue with one bit of it.  Generally speaking, religion is not really all that helpful when it comes to understanding the traditional Chinese martial arts.  So why do we in Chinese martial studies spend so much time talking about it?  Why do my posts on the martial arts and religion always command the biggest readership?  It’s a complex subject and it can be hard to take an unambiguous position on this.

Boats in Foshan’s Zhongshan Park

Stanley Henning on “Asia in Review”

While doing some research I recently discovered an interview with Stanley Henning that had been recorded in 2011.  Somehow I missed it at the time and with everything going on I haven’t had time to watch it until quite recently.  You can find it here.

Unfortunately the interview turned out to be pretty disappointing.  It was recorded for a program called “Asia in Review” that is somehow associated with the University of Hawaii.  The topic of the interview (how the martial arts effect Chinese thought) sounded interesting, and the entire thing ran close to an hour long, but there were problems.  The production was distractingly low budget, the interviewer knew nothing about the Chinese martial arts and he cared even less.  Needless to say the questions were not very interesting or informative.  They really only spent about ten minutes at the end of the program addressing the ostensible subject of the interview.

In short, it was just a distressing waste of time.  It was all the more upsetting as I would love to have an hour to sit down with Henning and pick his brain about the relationship between Chinese thought and the martial arts, or even just Chinese martial studies in general.  I morn for all of the interesting and insightful questions that never got asked, and the great discussion that never happened.

The silver lining was that Henning got ample opportunity to discuss his life story and military career (this seemed to be the only subject that generated actual interest on the part of the interviewer) and I got to learn all sorts of interesting personal information about this author I have been reading for years.  Some of it, like his exposure to the martial arts while deployed to Taiwan with the military during the Cold War, was interesting and potentially helpful in understanding where his scholarship and interests come from.  Henning himself came off as a very nice guy and was patient and good-natured to a fault.

The other slightly annoying thing about the interview was that Henning kept dropping these really interesting hints or nuggets of information that the interviewer, for the most part, didn’t pick-up on.  One of the most interesting of these (at least to me) happens at around 6:34.  Addressing the philosophical background of the martial arts Henning says that basically they are influenced by Daoism and folk Daoism, and that this shaped their view of strategy and the world.  Why?  Well because they [the creators of the Chinese martial arts] all read the ancient military classic by Sun Tzu.  He was in turn influenced by Daoism and so, by the transitive property, are the modern Chinese martial arts.  The interview came back to Sun Tzu a number of times, so he was definitely in the air.

This really surprised me.  It surprised me enough that I rewound the interview twice to make sure I actually understood what he was saying.  Why?  Because of this:

Stanley, E. Henning.  “Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts.” China Review International. Vol. 6 Num. 2, Fall 1999, pp. 319-332.

Henning’s 1999 article, part literature review, part call to arms, was a watershed moment for the field of Chinese martial studies.  I don’t think it would be too strong to call this article the Constitution of the modern field.  Or perhaps it would be more fitting to call it our “Declaration of Independence.”

Henning’s writing career had started a few years before “Academia” was published, but many of his initial efforts were published in Taiji or martial arts journals with limited circulation.  This was the first of his articles that was published in a widely respected mainstream academic journal.  Further, this was the very first article to deal with Chinese martial studies as a separate and valuable sub-field which transcended normal disciplinary lines.  Throughout its pages Henning argued that the study of Chinese history, popular culture and literature often made grievous mistakes when they ignored the role of the martial arts in culture, language and thought.  A specialized body of knowledge was needed to counteract these systematic misconceptions of the past.

The article was well timed and it caught the crest of a wave of academic thought that was just beginning to swell.  Setting aside for a moment the older English language literature on the martial arts, championed by individuals like R. W. Smith and Donn F. Draeger, a new and distinct conversation was starting to emerge in the late 1980s and early 1990s.  This growing scholarly interest in martial things was part of a broader shift in the way that popular culture was valued and understood.  The first English language monograph dedicated solely to Chinese martial studies in its most recent incarnation was the Lost T’ai-chi Classics from the Late Ch’ing Dynasty by Douglas Wiles published in 1996 by the State University of New York (SUNY) University Press.

This fine volume notwithstanding, I prefer to date the start of the current discussion a bit earlier.  Joseph W. Esherick’s landmark study, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (California UP, 1987), while not dedicated solely to the martial arts, devotes substantial resources to the topic.  It also demonstrates all of the research and methodological innovations, from extensive archival research, to expert interviews, to attempting to place the martial arts in a broader social context, which would eventually come to define accepted practice in the current literature.

As impressive as the efforts of Esherick in the late 1980s and Wiles in the mid 1990s were, Henning took things one step farther.  He explicitly made the argument that Chinese martial studies was a field of expertise in and of itself, with its own vocabulary and concepts, and that other scholars in literature, history and area studies ignored it at their own peril.

In making his argument Henning focused on his linguistic skills and translation issues in the works of better known writers on Chinese culture.  Time and again he demonstrated that a lack of familiarity with the language of Chinese martial culture led these scholars to make incorrect translations or draw faulty conclusions.  Occasionally even specialists showed an embarrassing lack of familiarity with the most basic and ancient martial texts and references, including titles from the Former Han Bibliographies.

Henning reserved his sharpest criticism for Joseph Needham.  The highly respected author of Science in Traditional China (Harvard UP, 1981) did not claim martial pursuits as a special area of expertise, but that did not stop him from making the occasional pronouncement about the martial arts and their origins in his writings.  Henning quite correctly faults Needham for ignoring the original Chinese language resources and relying much too heavily on a single, highly unreliable, article (Herbert A. Giles. “The Home of Jujitsu” Adversaria Sinica. 1906).

The basic argument that Needham advanced, and Henning later savaged, was that the Chinese martial arts were descended from a branch of Daoist gymnastic exercises.  Henning dismisses this connection out of hand.  I think that Meir Shahar’s careful parsing of the issue probably comes the closest to the truth.  In the Shaolin Monastery (2008, pp. 137-182) he demonstrates that in fact there may be a connection, but that it is much later (late Ming) and more tenuous than either scholars or practitioners generally accept.

So one can imagine my surprise when I heard Henning in 2011 stating in an off-hand way that the culture of the martial arts was shaped by Daoism or, better yet, folk Daoism.  The connection to SunTzu is an interesting one.  On the one hand we know that Sun Tzu was very widely read.  Most educated people probably had a passing familiarity with him.  But most educated people did not do martial arts.  Sun Tzu was a standard text for the military service exam, though how much familiarity and critical analysis of the text was necessary varied, usually in a declining direction, over time.

Still, this is an intriguing notion.  Critics widely accept that Sun Tzu was influenced by then current philosophical ideas that were shaped by Daoism.  And the officers who were responsible for training the troops in the military arts were steeped in Sun Tzu.  Given that a disproportionate number of civilian martial arts instructors were retired military men, or individuals who had studied for the military service exam, might Sun Tzu really be the thread that runs through all of the Chinese martial arts?  And by extension, is modern Chinese martial culture “Daoist” in any meaningful way?

To be totally honest I have a hard time accepting either proposition.  The role of Sun Tzu is interesting.  I am going to dust off my copy of the military classics and give them another read through to see if I can get my head around the point he was trying to make.  But very few of the Chinese martial artists I know are at all familiar with any sort of classic literature.  I suspect that this is might be a generational thing.

Or maybe it is not.  As you go further back in time, the state of affairs appears to become bleaker.  In the 1930s the majority of martial artists were not even literate.  The situation in the late 19th century was even worse.  Sure the average peasant had an impressive familiarity with the Confucian Classics, but that was because those books were regularly read in public for the edification of the masses.  No one was hosting public readings of Sun Tzu’s thoughts on military leadership, or best practices for setting fire to an enemy camp, for public edification.

This right here is the problem.  Most of the martial arts that we have now emerged during the later 19th century, or early 20th century, and were created by people from working class backgrounds who would not have been overly familiar with these texts.  I am going to keep reading and thinking about it, but my gut tells me that it is a stretch.

That doesn’t mean that I think we should give up on studying the role of religion in the martial arts; yet ironically Henning does, or at least he appears to.

If Henning had focused on folk Daoism I think he would have much better support.  As near as I can tell every 10th building in some neighborhoods in Taiwan in a small traditional temple, everyone one of which has a military procession and lion dance team associated with it.  Occasionally these performances are put on by local kids from the neighborhood.  Yet as often as not it is actually a martial arts group that performs these functions, and very often this group is of a decidedly shady (dare I say “Rivers and Lakes”) nature.  These sorts of quasi-military processions are so common that Bortez has written an entire book about their relationship to martial arts, criminal sub-cultures and masculinity (Gods, Ghosts and Gangsters. University of Hawaii Press. 2011).  It is well worth the read if you have not looked at it yet.

Examples of these sorts of relationships are not hard to multiply.  I would venture a guess that a solid majority of anthropologists who have done ethnography on martial arts group in the Chinese community have also been interested in the cross-over between hand combat, group ritual and spiritual experience.  Adam D. Frank (2006) paints a picture of the Yang style Taiji community in Shanghai that, while not religious, is pretty explicitly spiritual.  Discussions of chi abound and everyone seems interested in plumbing the esoteric secrets of the art.  In fact, these Shanghai Taiji players are every bit as much a part of the “New Age” health and spirituality movement as their American students.  As far as Taiji is concerned both sets of students are part of the same movement, with the same books, products and gurus on both sides of the Pacific.

My sense is that this “New Age” stuff bothers Henning, and being part of the Taiji community he probably has to put up with more than his share of it.  He is absolutely correct that this sort of mysticism was not originally part of the vast majority of the Chinese martial arts.  And yet as the anthropologists are so fond of pointing out, it is part of them now, and understanding hand combat communities—as they actually exist in the here and now—necessitates addressing these questions.

Given that the ethnographers and “participant observers” have no choice but to wrestle with these issues, is it then safe for the historians to ignore them?  I suspect that this is another area where Henning and I might disagree.

Turtles in HK Garden (HT Dad).

Esherick, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts  

I think the nature of our disagreement is best illustrated by a divergence in our reading of Esherick.  In “Academia” Henning critiqued the propensity of historians to obsess unduly about the 19th century rebellions (White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, Taiping and Boxer) and the relationship of the radical religious groups that initiated these events to the martial arts.

Briefly, throughout the first half of his book (1987) Esherick notes a pattern whereby radical religious groups (which the average peasant wants nothing to do with) create martial arts schools as front organizations which allow them to operate in the community.  These martial groups are also sometimes used to funnel recruits, either disillusioned with their lot in life or perhaps entrapped in a web of favors and face, into the main body of the religious cult proper.

So the question now becomes, how closely aligned are these two halves (religious and military) of the organization?  Are the martial arts simply an extension of the group’s core religious ideology?  When you teach someone Plum Blossom Boxing in Shandong in 1897 are you actually indoctrinating them into the White Lotus millennial theology?

After examining the question Esherick concludes that the answer is a pretty resounding “no.”  Far from the martial arts being some sort of gateway drug to hard-core Daoist or Buddhist mysticism there was actually very little relationship between the two, even when joined in a single revolutionary organization.  Rather than being an extension of the religion, Esherick found that membership in a martial arts school was basically an enticement or a side-payment.

Martial arts lessons were a private good offered to members who valued the entertainment, sense of community, martial skills and health benefits they reaped for their own sake.  The whole thing was sort of like 19th century American fraternal orders offering life insurance policies to encourage membership.  Would it really make sense to say that a “term life policy” somehow reflected the esoteric world view of the Odd Fellows, or that that death benefits granted to the families of Masons were an artifact of 17th century European thought?  Probably not.  These things were fringe benefits to boost membership, clear and simple.

In fact, there is even the danger that once you have created these quasi-monetary rewards people might be less interested in the more ethereal bonds of friendship and social capital that the actual fraternal order is offering.  We know that this actually happened in a few cases.  More than one fraternal order ceased to operate as such and actually turned into a commercial life insurance company.  Amazingly some of these firms are still selling policies today.

This seems to have been the case in 19th century China as well.  These martial arts societies do not appear to have been terribly successful recruitment devices for the religious groups that sponsored them.  One must wonder whether in the minds of the students (or potential converts) they didn’t come to replace the religious community that backed them.

Thinking along similar lines Esherick notes, “The two elements, martial arts and heterodox beliefs, are clearly alternatives, not linked elements of a single tradition.” (note 25, p. 357).  Henning quotes this insight on page 327 of his article and then add “Members of heterodox sects might practice martial arts, but martial arts were not inextricably linked to spiritual practice.”  Throughout this article he seems to say that the job of Chinese martial studies is to correct the misconception that religion is critical to the Chinese martial arts, and then to move on, to get to what is really important, to the history of the arts themselves.

In practice it is not so simple.   Consider again the Lost T’ai-Chi Classic by Douglas Wiles (1996).  This was one of the few works that Henning gave a passing grade in his review.  Still, it did not escape unscathed.  While he notes that Wiles’ literary skills are excellent, unless you are deeply versed in the intricacies of Yang style Taiji, the book is of limited value, even to other martial artists.  Its scope is so narrow that its utility to the field is limited.

I believe this problem will emerge whenever we insist that the Chinese martial arts are our sole focus, or the “dependent variable” of our study.  Studies that attempt to explain a given martial art are always, by their very nature, going to have a narrow appeal.  Instead we need to look for ways in to use the martial arts as “independent variables,” the parts of the equation that do the explaining.  Chinese martial studies will only gain acceptance by the wider academic world through repeated demonstration that we can improve theories on a wide variety of topics such as identity formation, the emergence of nationalism, the evolution of civil society, the nature of epistemic communities or the interplay between local cultural values and the broader pressures of globalization (just to name a few possible examples).

It was Esherick back in 1987 who really demonstrated the direction that Chinese martial studies as a field should go.  Yes it is fun to know about bandits, militias and martial arts masters in Shandong in the late 19th century, if you are into that sort of thing.  Most scholars are not.  Yet it is vital to master this same information if you wish to discuss critical events surrounding the end of the Qing dynasty in an intelligent way.  What he gives us is a wonderful example of how we can structure our research using the martial arts as an independent variable in ways that will appeal to the broadest possible cross-section of readers and reviewers.

Deviant Behavior, Socio-Economic Analysis and Chinese Martial Studies

In that spirit, let’s briefly revisit Esherick’s essential insight about the nature of heterodox religion and martial arts in 19th century China.  He concludes that these activities were “substitutes.”  Take a moment to really think about what that means.  Two goods are substitutes precisely because they can both play the same basic functions in a person’s consumption decisions or life.  Well, no wonder the sorts of anthropologists who are interested in religious communities are also so interested in martial arts classes.  They note quite correctly that these structures seem to share a similar function in people’s lives.  That means you can actually learn something about how religious communities might function in unexpected ways by looking at a martial arts class.

And you know who else noticed this?  The imperial Chinese government.  Martial arts groups were dangerous and subject to periodic suppression for precisely the same reasons that religious groups were.  They were both avenues by which individuals in civil society might build strong associations and independent bases of power that the government could not control.  This sort of independent social organization was a danger, both socially and politically, and would not be tolerated.

So what else did traditional Chinese society and government see as being an “alternative” (or in my terminology a “substitute”) for martial arts training?  Criminality would have to be right at the top of this list.  The martial arts are very strongly linked to organized crime throughout China and its cultural diaspora.  These links were stronger prior to the 1990s, but they have by no means disappeared.  Triads have quite commonly used martial arts schools as front companies and recruiting stations, just as 19th century heterodox cults did.  The practice has been so common that throughout China and South East Asia that Kung Fu schools are often subject to police harassment as local government attempts to combat the growth of street gangs and youth delinquency.

And of course there is entertainment, usually the gritty, unappealing types of entertainment that involves a lot of “eating bitter.”  These modes of entertainment are typically characterized by a lot of strenuous physical training, like opera, military parades and Lion dancing.  Interestingly enough these are also all modes of performance that flirt quite explicitly with the idea that the dancer or the performer is subject to spirit possession.   Spirit possession practices are the most openly discussed with regard to temple military processions and ascetic demonstrations, but there is also a substantial literature on the role of “ghosts” in theater.

Let’s put all of our “alternative” deviant behaviors together.  We have heterodox religious practice–>martial arts–>criminality–>low class forms of public entertainment–>heterodox spiritual practices and the danger of rebellion.   Right here we have a pretty good snapshot of the margins of Chinese society, the so called land of “Rivers and Lakes.”  And from the perspective of Chinese martial studies this is great, because culturally “alternate” behaviors are also strongly linked to questions of socio-economic status, ethnic identity and gender.  So if you are an expert in Chinese martial studies you have a lot to bring to the table when it comes to studying anything related to popular culture, a hot topic.  It is precisely because these behaviors and traits are “substitutes” with each other, in the sense that Esherick identified, that we matter.

In a narrow sense religion is not particularly helpful to understanding the martial arts.  One can learn Five Ancestors Boxing, Hung Gar or Xingyi Quan and never wrestle with a single thorny theological issue.  But that does not mean that the field of Chinese martial studies can or should ignore these topics, as Henning seems to suggest.

On a methodological level the fact that martial arts and religious communities often seem to act as substitutes means that we can probably borrow or adapt a number of theories that have already been developed to deal with these more common questions.  Second, the fact that these activities are alternatives means that the boundaries between them may not be as hard and fast in the minds of actual practitioners as western trained historians might expect.  They may all be parts of a given lifestyle or identity.  Third, we need to continue to examine the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and (often heterodox) spirituality as this is important to the broader academic community.  Again we will only attract readers and get published if we address issues that are of actual relevance to readers today.  Helping to explore the popular dimension of the 19th century rebellions that brought down imperial China would be a great way to start.

Upon reviewing “Academia” it seems to me that Henning has not quite grasped the critical importance of this last point.  His historical approach doesn’t allow martial studies to provide the independent, rather than the dependent, variable.  He criticizes Wiles for writing a book that is impossible for the non-specialist to follow.  For spending his time producing something that is of no value to the vast majority of readers, and therefore not making an argument about why Chinese studies matters.

So what is Henning’s argument?  Unfortunately there doesn’t seem to be one.  His article “Academia” is overly obsessed with questions of translation and sourcing.  On a technical level these are important, but if no one cares about martial texts it doesn’t really matter if you mistranslate some minor detail in them.  Likewise Joseph Needham may not have had a great grasp on the relationship between Daoism and boxing, but in the final analysis that wasn’t really what his book was about.  Hennings criticisms do nothing to decrease his stature as a scholar.  Instead they end up looking petty precisely because nowhere in this article does he actually articulate a vision of what Chinese martial studies could be.  Ironically to answer that question we need to shift our focus away from the martial arts and deepen our engagement with the rest of the field.

“Wing Chun: A Documentary” directed by Jon Braeley

***Greeting readers, and thank you for your continued patience.  Today we are going to revisit a review of a Wing Chun documentary that I wrote back in the Fall of 2012. This turned out to be one of two break out posts that really put Kung Fu Tea on the map, so its fun to go back and revisit it now.  This is still a great documentary, check it out if you have not done so. Enjoy!***

Empty Mind Films has produced some of the highest quality and most engaging martial arts documentaries seen anywhere in the last few years.  They are a small organization, and as a result they are selective about the projects they take on.  Luckily we seem to be on the same wave length.

They have also devoted substantial time and effort to documenting the Chinese martial arts.  It has been my personal experience (from traveling in Asia) that it is relatively easy to find interesting martial arts in Japan and they have shot some good stuff there.  China presents an entirely different set of challenges, and this is where they really shine.  Their film on the Chen village and Chen style taiji is a classic.  It is mandatory viewing for anyone interested in Chinese martial studies or the state of Taiji today.  I would not hesitate to use that film in a university level classroom.

I think they may have come close to the same level of excellence with their most recent martial arts themed release Wing Chun: A Documentary.  While filmed exclusively in Hong Kong and Foshan this study of the modern hand combat system sought to explore the diversity of thought and practice arising from the teachings of Ip Man.  He was an active instructor in Hong Kong from the early 1950s until his death in 1972.  All of the individuals who were interviewed for this film were associated with the Ip Man Wing Chun clan, either as direct descendants, students or grand-students.

Many individuals in the broader Wing Chun world will find this editorial direction limiting, and possibly offensive.  There was no discussion of non-Ip Man lineages, let alone non-Leung Jan lineages of Wing Chun.  The story of the art’s origin was told in a simple and direct way that supports the supremacy of the Ip Man Wing Chun clan.  Viewers are told that the art resided with Leung Jan who had only one student, Chan Wah Shun.  While many people taught Wing Chun in Foshan in the 1930s, what they did was different from the art that Ip Man spread to the world from his schools in Hong Kong.  Wing Chun as the world knows it today is a result of Ip Man’s innovations in the 1950s.

One can only assume that the makers of this film must have known they were bound to upset the Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun clan, among many others.  Nevertheless, I suspect that this editorial slant is largely correct.  While there are certainly lineages of Wing Chun being taught today that do not want to associate themselves with Ip Man, the truth is that he single handedly created the entire global demand for the art that we recognize today.  He did this by training hundreds of students, including Bruce Lee.

In a very real way Ip Man set the terms for the global discussion of Wing Chun that is still unfolding.  He codified the values, set the standards and decided which aspects of China’s complex martial heritage were best adapted to a modern, urban, middle class market.  Ip Man single handedly trained an entire generation of exceptionally talented martial artist that would bring his art to North America, Europe and even back to mainland China.  Without his innovations in Hong Kong in the 1950s, and the rise of Bruce Lee to superstardom in the 1970s, it is exceedingly unlikely that anyone would be interested in seeking out any of the non-Ip Man lineages that seem to be so valuable today.  In a very real sense they exist only because he existed first, and they define themselves in reference to the model he established.  So yes, the story of Wing Chun after 1949 really is the story of the social community that Ip Man gathered around himself in Hong Kong and its subsequent explosion on the world stage.

Overall the production values of the documentary are sound and the videography was always good, and occasionally great.  A few minor criticisms can be made.  I found the pacing to be a little slow in places.  The extra features were also quite brief and could have used more depth and development.  They appeared to be mostly an afterthought and contributed little to the overall presentation of the story.  I had hoped for more here.

On the other-hand, I quite liked how the documentary progressed and presented itself to the audience.  The director was not afraid to let the individual masters he interviewed tell their own stories on their own terms.  A majority of the screen time was dedicated to simply watching class room mechanics and instructions in a number of different schools throughout Hong Kong.  I am sure that this material will surprise a lot of martial artists used to more regimented and formal decorum of Korean or Japanese schools.

The exploration of modern Wing Chun starts off with a visit to the VTAA headquarters in Kowloon and includes interviews with both Ip Ching (the younger son of Ip Man) and James Jar (current Chair of the VTAA).  All of this information is very interesting.  Next they visited the school of Donald Mak (a student of Chow Tze Chuen) who discusses his own understanding of why Wing Chun is a principal based art.

Ip Ching, the younger son of Ip Man, discussing Chi Sao techniques with a teenage student at the VTAA headquarters in Hong Kong.

The narrative then turns to a branch of the Leung Sheung clan who have just opened a school in Mongkok.  Leung Sheung was one of Ip Man’s most skilled students.  He in turn taught Ng Wah Sum, who recently died.  Some of Ng’s senior students have opened a school in his honor and Sifu Leung Ngor Yin and Sifu Jason Fung put on a spirited Chi Sau and Chi Girk demonstration.

After that the film heads back across the ferry to the Central District where it drops in on a Wing Chun class being taught in an upscale health club run by Australian expatriates, Sifu Nima and co-owner Heather Hogan.  Nima is a student of Chu Shong Tin (the eldest remaining Hong Kong era student of Ip Man), and shares his master concern for the role of the mind and intentionality in Wing Chun.  While the class was mostly dedicated to beginners there was quite a bit of enthusiasm and even a classic “the time I got in a fight” story.  I have often thought about the role of this sort of personal narrative (one is tempted to compare it to religious witnessing or testimony) in creating identity and attachment with the art.

The next Sifu interviewed was Kong Chi Keung in the Wanchai neighborhood.  Kong’s teaching style included a lot of discussion and lecture.  His personal philosophy was somewhat eclectic and embraced borrowing and innovation, topics that were a matter of some concern to a number of other teachers (more on that later).  As if to reinforce this impression, his school displayed a number of Lion Dance heads.  While alive, Ip Man explicitly discouraged his students from becoming involved in Lion Dancing because of its association with criminality and the extortion of local shop keepers.  I know for a fact that Ip Ching still has the same attitude about Wing Chun schools and Lion Dancing today.

Perhaps the most interesting segment of the show was the visit to Master Sam Lau’s Wing Chun school and hostel on Nathan Road at the tip of Kowloon.  I was pretty impressed with what I saw here.  Most of the students were visitors, only staying for a month or so to take Master Lau’s “intensive” course.  That fact not withstanding he had them engaged in serious Chi Sao and everyone the camera turned to looked pretty solid.  Clearly they weren’t all experts, but they were working hard, their energy was good and you could just feel the intensity in the room.  I am definitely putting his school on my list of places to visit.  Of all of the classes that the show profiled his seemed to be closest to my own experience in Wing Chun.

Lastly the documentary heads back up the Pearl River to Foshan, the ancestral home of Wing Chun, Ip Man and Bruce Lee.  In fact, Wing Chun barely scratches the surface of this small city’s martial heritage.  A lot of my own recent research focuses on the economic and social development of Foshan as a handicraft center in the Qing dynasty in an attempt to better understand what made some market towns, but not others, incubators for the martial arts.

Rather than answer that question the film focused on the Ip Man Museum built on the grounds of the Foshan ancestral temple.  The segment was well shot and gave the feeling of actually being there.

This was followed by an interview with Lun Kai at the Sim Wing Martial Club in downtown Foshan.  Lun Kai was among Ip Man’s first students when he made his initial foray into teaching the martial arts at a friend’s cotton factory in 1941.  I thought that some of Lun Kai’s comments were quite interesting.  He seemed to indicate that already in 1941 Ip Man’s Wing Chun was different from what was being taught elsewhere in Foshan.  This really makes one wonder how early Ip Man began his reform process and what inspired him to do so.

It also gives one pause for thought as almost nothing being taught in that school was actually identifiable as “Wing Chun” to me, given my “modern” post-Ip Man vantage point.  The angles and pressures looked tortured.  It wasn’t clear what the intentionality behind the movements were.  If this was a reflection of Ip Man’s Wing Chun from the 1940s, which had already diverged from what was generally taught in the 1930s, it makes one really wonder what “traditional” Wing Chun would have looked like?  Once again, the modern understanding of the Wing Chun really begins with the thinking and innovation of one individual.  Even earlier stages of his own teaching seem oddly distant.

The director and editor of the film went to some lengths not to impose too much narrative direction on all of this material.  Even the film’s narration shows a light touch, keeping explanation of what is seen on screen to the bare minimum.  Still, some themes did emerge.  As I stated earlier, it is clear that they see the story of the Wing Chun and the story of the community of practitioners built by Ip Man as one and the same.

They also seemed to be impressed with the variety of different approaches to the teaching of the same art.  This diversity was most obvious at the philosophical level, with some teachers embracing globalization and change, and others hanging back.  But it also came up at the commercial level.  It was clear that not everyone had the same business plan.  Teachers operated out of larger associations, collective partnerships, health clubs and small, hole in the wall, schools.  Master Sam Lau even seems to make as much money from running a hostel dedicated to Wing Chun pilgrims as he does actually teaching.

Even more interesting were the strains of thought and argument that seemed to arise, almost spontaneously, from the many interviews they conducted.  By the end of the documentary there was a real sense of dialogue within the Ip Man clan.  Much of this dialogue was concerned with thorny questions of authenticity, identity and change in the face of a rapidly growing global movement.

Only one of the Sifus interviewed in the movie was of western origin, but it did not seem lost on any of the masters that the vast majority of teachers and students today live outside Hong Kong and are not Chinese.  Most of them are in Europe and North America where being in the third generation of local instruction is now pretty common.  While most of these individuals have no primary connection to Hong Kong or the Chinese ethnicity, they remain very dedicated to Wing Chun.  Increasingly it is their buying power and tourism dollars that are driving the development of the global Wing Chun movement.

Truth be told, many of these western practitioners are extremely good at what they do.  It was certainly neat to see all of the different schools in Hong Kong.  But I wasn’t really awed by anything I saw.  I have seen instruction, understanding and chi Sao that was just as good, if not better, right here in the United States.

Nor is the US even the epicenter for Wing Chun in the west.  There is clearly a lot more interest in Wing Chun in the UK and some parts of Europe than there is anywhere else in the world.  If the beating heart of Wing Chun is anywhere, it is certainly not located in Foshan or even Hong Kong.  Instead it’s metaphorical soul can probably best be found in the cold industrial cities of the UK, or maybe Germany.

This is both a blessing and a problem.  On the one hand it means that Wing Chun is unlikely to ever be threatened with extinction again the way it was during the dark years of the Boxer Rebellion (when all Chinese martial arts became deeply unfashionable) and then again after 1949 (when the Chinese Communist Party noticed the unique relationship that existed between Wing Chun and membership in the “new gentry” class).  The survival of the art finally seems assured.

On the other hand this is quite a problem.  So many martial arts have left their traditional homeland and entered the global market place only to be changed beyond the point of recognition.  How does Wing Chun spread itself around the world without losing its soul?

Specifically, how do we insure that this will remain Ip Man’s community, built on and promoting his insights and understanding of the Chinese martial arts?  Almost every speaker addressed this question, and some did so at length.

For Sifu Donald Mak, Wing Chun must always remain a Chinese art because it was built on a conceptual foundation that westerners simply cannot easily understand or accept.  If they wish to really understand the art it is necessary was for them to “come to china” in their thought, adapting themselves to Wing Chun’s mother culture.   His comments seemed to anchor the conservative side of the spectrum.

Sifu Nima and Sifu Kong Chi Keung were the least bound to tradition.  Both have a firm grounding in traditional Ip Man Wing Chun, yet both feel that the art must be open to adaptation to survive.  For Sifu Nima that means going further even that Chu Shong Tin in conceptualizing and teaching Wing Chun as an “internal” martial art (something I have argued against here).  Whatever the historical and philosophical problems with this move, it certainly seems to be popular among a certain group of western students.

Kong Chi Keung goes in exactly the opposite direction.  He has thought deeply about Jeet Kune Do, Thai Kick Boxing and Brazilian Jujitsu, all arts that are popular in the west.  He notes quite correctly that the martial arts landscape is changing quite rapidly right now and believes that Wing Chun must learn from these other arts and adapt in order to survive.

But how do you set the boundaries?  When have you adapted yourself out of your art and your community?  This is not an easy question to answer.  Ip Ching and Sam Lau address this paradox the most explicitly.   Both argue that Ip Man’s Kung Fu was genuine, and adherence to his principals remains the litmus test for “authentic” Wing Chun.  And yet both freely admit that what he did was also original.  It bore little resemblance to what was taught in Foshan and was a product of his life, experience and thought.  Authenticity is a difficult concept for all of these masters.  They all want to talk about it, to wrestle with it.  Still, there is a universal acknowledgement that it is not enough of a foundation to justify any given approach to the art.

“Adaptation” itself is not a problem.  Learning from your own experience and adapting your fighting style accordingly is not only a good idea, it’s a foundation concept for all of Wing Chun.  In a real sense it is where Wing Chun came from.  But clearly not all change is desirable or positive.

For Ip Ching the red-line appears to be intentionally lying about, or misrepresenting what Ip Man taught. This was a real problem in the early stages of Wing Chun’s globalization. During this phase the main body of students in Hong Kong were unaware of the claims that some of their brothers were making in the west.  Lack of English skills and no universally read publications allowed Leung Ting to claim to be the heir to Ip Man when clearly he was not.  More damaging to the reputation and growth of the art were individuals like Duncan Leung and William Cheung who made exaggerated and highly dubious claims about their “special status” and the “secret teachings” that only they were given, in an attempt to undercut the legitimacy of other Ip Man students.

Ip Ching and others roundly and forcefully rebutted this entire category of claims at multiple points in the documentary.  They pointed out that those who made such claims are not only wrong, but they totally misrepresent the most basic and fundamental aspects of Ip Man’s life, personality and teaching philosophy.  So clearly attempts to re-write Ip Man’s story in one’s own image are beyond the pale of what the community will accept.

Yet as Sam Lau reminds us, most of the problems that emerge in a global martial arts movement are more subtle.  They are expressed in slipping standards, eccentric personal philosophies or creeping adoption of outside material to meet the demands of a local market.  His solution to all of this is as simple as it is sweeping.  In his view there should be an international regulatory body that can determine what Wing Chun is, and should set clear standards for practice, advancement and licensing.

It is an interesting idea.  Lots of Japanese and Korean arts do exactly this.  Interestingly Chinese ones tend not to.  Why?  I suspect it has something to do with the social structure of the traditional Chinese arts.  They don’t facilitate a lot of trust or mutual reliance across party lines.

Every Wing Chun school already operates as a cell and is basically self-sufficient.  Given that the art has never been more popular, I doubt many individuals will be all that keen to pay the immense start-up costs, and surrender the personal freedom to run their own schools, that such a solution would entail.  And then there is the small issue of trust.  No one would ever trust someone from outside their own lineage and clan to run such an organization.  Regulatory bodies like this just make too convenient a club to beat your enemies with.  His proposed body is just never going to happen, even though other arts do quite well in this sort of institutional setting.

By the end of this documentary I was proud of the community that Ip Man had created.  He started a conversation about the nature of the Chinese martial arts in the modern world that is still going on today.  But the future seems cloudy.  While something called “Wing Chun” will continue to exist, I was less clear as to what it will look like.

Still, I do not foresee any immediate crisis.  Ip Man was successful because he asked his students a compelling question.  When we dedicate our minds and bodies to the practice of Wing Chun we are formulating our own answer, becoming part of the conversation that he started.  It doesn’t look like we are in any danger of running out of things to say just yet.  I suspect that Wing Chun will survive as a unified social community for as long people find Ip Man’s innovations relevant and his conversation gripping.

Wing Chun is one of the most popular martial arts to emerge from China.  It is surpassed only by Taiji in terms of total students in the global community.  Given the size of this potential market I have always been shocked that there is so little good media for Wing Chun practitioners.  I highly recommend this film.  It is topical and makes a valuable contribution to the conversation about Ip Man’s stature and place in the art today.  Wing Chun: A Documentary should be on your viewing list.  This film was directed by Jon Braeley and Betty Yuan.  It is 75 minutes in length and is distributed by Empty Mind Films.  You can order your copy here.

“Wing Chun: A Documentary” is produced and distributed by Empty Mind Films. It was directed by Jon Braeley and runs 75 minutes.

Through a Lens Darkly (3): Chinese Martial Artists in a Local Marketplace

***Many traditional Chinese martial artists today actively distance their practice from its more “theatrical” aspects which may have been displayed in theaters propers or marketplace demonstrations. Still, these were the activities that supported countless martial artists over the centuries.  Here is an early discussion of the topic from 2012.***

Our image for this week (two of them actually) come from J. A. Hammerton’s encyclopedic People of All Nations (volume 5, circa 1920).  I don’t normally condone cutting up of old books.  I had actually attempted to buy just the bottom picture in an on-line auction, thinking I was getting an original postcard or photo.  Alas it was not the case.

When thinking about the emergence of modern Chinese martial culture I often speak about the “martial arts marketplace.”  I use the phrase as a metaphor for the subaltern space within Chinese society where hand combat ideas and philosophies competed for an audience, legitimacy and paying students in China in the 1920s and 1930s.  Still, it is worth remembering that there is a much older, and more concrete, association between martial artists and marketplaces.

Market days and temple festivals were times when large numbers of potential consumers came together in a single place.  More importantly, the peasants had just sold their produce and were walking around with money.  That made these gatherings a good venue for popular entertainment.  Common forms included storytellers, puppet shows, opera performances, acrobats, traveling patent medicine sales demonstrations and martial artists.

The martial arts were much more popular in the country side than in urban areas (with a couple of notable exceptions), and martial culture could easily suffuse all of these forms of entertainment.  Story tellers might recite the exploits of the great heroes from Water Margin, puppet shows would portray “Monkey” fighting various monsters with his magical staff, and I recently saw an estimate that up to 1/3 of all of the plays in the traditional repertoire of Cantonese Opera troupes were probably stories of adventure and daring do that focused on the exploits of famous martial artists.  These often features extended fight scenes.  In fact, opera troupes quite literally competed with one another to offer the most impressive martial displays and showcase the most exotic styles.

And then there were the straight up martial artists.  These seem to have come in three varieties.  There were local martial arts masters who put on displays, organized classes and recruited students at these events.  This sort of market organization was a major force in the growth of Plum Blossom and other styles in Shandong and northern China.  Secondly there were traveling bands of performers who attracted a crowd with their displays of strength, dexterity and hard Qi.  The resulting crowd was then plied with patent medicines, charms or cheap martial arts manuals.  At the end of the day the performers pulled up stakes and moved on to the next town.

Lastly there were the “lei tai” fighters.  A lei tai was a raised platform that would be erected so that a large audience could (for a small fee) watch a fight.  Professional fighters would come into town and set up the stage.  They would usually begin by issuing an open challenge to local fighters, and they would continue to perform for as long as they kept winning.  And the longer they performed the larger and more animated the crowd became.  Needless to say, big crowds were good for business.

There is a lot of loose talk and gossip about the “good old days” of lei tai fighting that still circulates in martial arts circles today.  Having a great grand-master who killed a man in a lei tai fight is seen (for some inexplicable reason) as the ultimate proof of the superiority of ones style.  I do not mean to disrespect anyone’s style or creation mythology, but such stories need to be approached with extreme caution.

Martial arts demonstrations could exist only when they were not seen as a threat to law and order by the government.  In practice that meant they were a lot more common in the countryside where there were fewer officials and it was easier for a snake-oil salesman to ply his wares.  Yet some of this stuff was seen everywhere and you always had to be careful not to let it go to far.  Why?  Because if the local government decided that you were a trouble causer or were “disturbing the peace” the typical punishment was to literally stake the offender to the ground, strip them naked and them beat them with switches until they bled.  If you killed someone in a fight, justified or not, the typical response was a short trial and a public beheading, also conducted in the market place.

Public execution photographed for a Qing era postcard, hand-tinted. Postcards such as this one are relatively common and reflect the raciest bias of western consumers in the early 20th century who saw the Chinese as implacably violent, subversive and threatening. Unfortunately they also accurately reflect the swift and brutal nature of justice in late imperial China. Public executions were often used to deal with market thieves.

As brutal as this sounds, the truth is, the government had its reasons for taking a very dim of highly publicized violence.  If a leit tai fighter from one village were to kill a fighter from a neighboring village who was a member of a different clan, the result could be a spiral of revenge attacks and and score-settling that would escalate into a mini-civil war.  No one wanted to see an outbreak of organized community violence, and stuff like this did happen.

You also have to think about the lei tai fighters (and later western boxers and wrestlers) who became involved in this sort of thing.  These people made a living doing this, and if they didn’t fight, their ability to continue to eat was jeopardized.  They had no health or disability insurance.  They had to travel far from home and their support network to ply their trade.  And lets just say that turn of the century health care in the Chinese countryside left something to be desired.  People wanted to attract a crowd, and they wanted to fight, but no one wanted to get hurt.  It should not then be a shock to discover that not all of these fights were “on the level.”  The higher the profile of the fighters, the greater the chance that the matches were fixed.  Add a healthy dose of illegal gambling to all of this…and it should all sound very familiar.

Before long Russian and European fighters were traveling to China and getting in on the game.  These guys traveled internationally as part of their profession, so what really happened was that China was added as one more stop on the pro circuit.  This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the popular martial arts mythology.  It seems that half of all of the Kung Fu movies made today tell one side of this story.

A foreign boxer comes to town, insults the fighting ability of the local peasants, whips the population into such a frenzy that everyone is willing to pay two bits to see him get his comeuppance.  Next a mysterious stranger shows up.  It turns out that he is a martial arts master who has heard of the problem and he then proceeds to clean the mat with the a fore mentioned foreigner. The town celebrates, local honor is restored and the managers of the two fighters split the revenue 50/50, usually after paying the local officials to look the other way.  Everyone agrees to do this again in six months when they get together again in Shanghai or Malaysia or Hong Kong.

In truth this sort of activity had a lot more in common with professional wrestling than professional boxing.  On the odd chance that someone showed up to fight who didn’t get the memo the professionals would just move on to the next town in the middle of the night and try it again.  Again, this was first and foremost a type of entertainment.  It was wildly popular and lucrative.  It stirred up a lot of local passion, but it was entertainment, not private war.

Now this is not to say that all challenge matches were faked.  At the local level you actually did have something that looked more like professional boxing.  Certainly legitimate lei tai matches did happen, and fighters were injured, but a fair amount of discernment is needed when dealing with much later retellings of these stories.  Whenever stories of multiple dead fighters start to be thrown around (especially if one of them happens to be a once famous European whose name has been lost to history) its time to become very suspicious.

Back to our two pictures.  The picture on the bottom is the more interesting so I will start there.  Here we have a pre-1912 revolution marketplace and three martial artists (probably a teacher and two students) carrying swords and spears.  The central figure is displaying an ox-tail dao, a type of sword that was never used by the Chinese military (at least no officially) but was favored by civilian martial artists.  Both of his swords have a nice elegant sweep to them.  The two assistants are carrying spears, and you get a great detailed shot of one of them in the fore ground.  This is a heavily shafted weapon that tappers as you approach the tip.  The spearhead itself looks small and sharp.

It makes a nice contrast with the picture above.  The spear being used by the central figures in their display of hard-chi is obviously very supple and skinny compared to the weapons being carried by the martial artists bellow them.  There is a stack of other weapons in the background including a spear, a flail and a couple of long handled choppers (its hard to tell from the pictures exactly what sort they are).

The publication does not list exact dates or places for either picture, which is unfortunate.  I notice that in the top picture about half of the crowd is wearing ques and the other half isn’t.  Take that for what you will.  Judging by the style of cloths and dress I would guess that this photon was taken closer to 1910 than 1920.

Given that the vast majority of individuals in China never studied hand combat, marketplace displays like this (or opera performances) would have been the closest that most people ever came to them.  Its also worth reminding ourselves that these performers were not held in great esteem.  They were quite literally the social equivalents of vagrants or prostitutes.  In fact, opera singers and their children, like prostitutes, were even prohibited by law from taking the civil service exam, the one great avenue for social advancement that the state offered.  Even if they managed not to hurt anyone in their demonstrations or challenge matches, getting hassled by the authorities (and being scorned by the better parts of Chinese society) was their daily lot in life.

And that brings me to this (you knew I had to mention Wing Chun).

When I was little, I used to see people doing martial art demonstrations in the streets. When they were finished, they would sell Chinese medicine to you. These people would travel from province to province and in this way, they would make their living. I never imagined, that when I got older, that I would be doing a similar thing.  Instead of showing my martial art skill in the street, I teach seminars on Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Ip Chun, 2000

In an interview titled “Fifteen Years – Traveling the World to Sell My Skills” (Qi Magazine, March/April 2000, issue 48 pp. 26-28) Ip Chun candidly discussed the fact that while he is a famous martial arts teacher he doesn’t really like the martial arts.  As a matter of fact, he actively dislikes them.  He would much rather be doing something socially respectable with his time, and as he has got older the rigors of constant travel were starting to take a toll on him.  He continues in the profession out of a sense of respect and obligation to his father, the much more famous Ip Man. Its all very Confucian.

To better illustrate the deep irony of his situation he mentioned his distaste as a child when he and his upper-class father came across martial artists selling their skills in the market place.  Now, all these years later, he finds himself in an oddly similar situation.  Sure he is paid better and the police don’t hassle him.  But its still not respectable or fun.  This just goes to show that you cannot be too careful of the judgements that you place on others.  Their fate may be your own!

Attack of the Wooden Dummies!

Porcine style boxing has traditionally favored the use of really big stone dummies.

***This was one of the more popular posts I wrote during the first year of KFT (2012).  I still love talking about, and training with, wooden dummies. What better training companion can you have in the middle of cold weather and COVID-19?  Also, the above image of pigs at the Ming Tombs remains one of my favorite photos ever posted on the blog.***

One of the most iconic images in the annals of Kung Fu training is that of the lone student, lost in the zen-like practice of his wooden dummy routine.  Dummies of various sorts and sizes have a long history in Chinese boxing.  Kang, in his timeline of the development of the Chinese martial arts, notes that legends and references to their use in military training date back to the 12th century BCE (Spring and Autumn of the Chinese Martial Arts, 1995. pp. 22).

In their simplest form a dummy might consist of a single living tree or planted pole which a practitioner can walk around (practicing entry), kick and strike.  If one accepts trees or simple posts as dummies then they are ubiquitous throughout the Chinese martial landscape.

However, legend also speaks of more sophisticated, or even diabolical, wooden combat machines.  A common story (dating to the second half of the 19h century) states that the southern Shaolin temple had a hall of ingeniously designed wooden fighting machines.  Rather than being totally reactive these machines could also take the offensive.  One could not graduate (and leave) the temple’s training program without being able to make it across the training hall.  This image of a training hall full of automated and dangerous wooden dummies lives on in modern folklore as anyone who has seen the recent children’s film Kung Fu Panda is aware.

A modern adaptation of the legendary Shaolin “Hall of the Wooden Dummy Men.”

In modern times (from the middle of the 19th century on) the wooden dummy has been markedly more popular in southern, and to a lesser extent coastal eastern, China.  Nor will we be surprised to learn that this is also where the legend of the Shaolin hall of the wooden dummy men first emerged (before being popularized throughout the Chinese cultural sphere—See Hamm (2005), Paper Swordsmen, chapter 1).  Most of this post will focus on those areas where the greatest number and variety of dummies are found.

Before going on it might be useful to develop a typology of dummies.  For the most part training dummies break down into two categories.  There are those that focus on stepping and balance, and those that emphasize striking (either to improve technique or conditioning.)

Watch Your Step: Plum Blossom Poles

Stepping dummies are more wide spread than their striking cousins.  While not all styles use them, “plum blossom poles” are currently seen in all regions of China.  They are often employed by Plum Blossom Boxers (Meihua quan) in Shandong, Henan and in the north. Additionally, they are also an absolute fixture in a number of styles in Fujian and Taiwan, as well as commonly encountered in Guangdong and Hong Kong.  The wide spread adoption of this technology probably says something about its relatively ancient origins and the ease with which such training devices can be constructed.

Traditionally a field of plum blossom poles (I am using the approximate English translation to avoid confusion as the Chinese name varies between dialects, regions and styles) was comprised of a group of two meter long posts, approximately 10-14 cm in width, that were set firmly halfway into the ground.  The number and pattern in which these are laid out can vary quite a bit.  Often in modern southern martial arts only five poles will be used, replicating the five blossom of a plum flower, but more elaborate fields of a dozen poles or more are fairly common.  Additionally the height of the poles is sometimes kept even and sometimes staggered depending on the requirements of a given school.  If the posts are made high enough it is not uncommon to see students also using them as a striking target (for both hands and feet) while they are standing on the ground.  In fact, I have often wondered if this wasn’t the actual origin of the three posted kicking dummy seen in some Wing Chun schools today.

A martial artists using a field of plum blossom poles.

Different sorts of “portable poles” have been constructed over the years.  Esherick (Origins of the Boxer Uprising, 1985) reports that in the late 19th century Plum Blossom Boxing instructors would travel between temple festivals and marketplaces in Northern China after the wheat harvest to demonstrate their skills, meet old friends and recruit students (pp. 148-149).  Small benches, pots and other mundane objects were occasionally employed in these demonstrations of martial and acrobatic prowess.

Training on the plum blossom poles is still common today in a variety of schools.  It has a number of benefits but the most obvious are better balance and greater precision in stepping and turning.  Working on the poles can also build leg and core strength.

The Invincible Training Partner: Striking Dummies

Striking dummies are also seen in the north, but probably less frequently than the plum blossom poles.  Certain Bagua schools for instance will walk circles around a tree that might occasionally be struck.  Others have been seen using a single planted pole for similar purposes.  Some of these practices even resemble the Japanese use of the makiwara.  This simple but effective training device was used in Okinawan Karate and may be of Chinese origin.

Gichin Funakoshi, one of the founders of modern Karate, using the makiwara. Simple striking dummies such as this one are fairly common throughout the martial arts.

More rarely Bagua schools might employ a pole with four arms radiating out from the top in the form of a cross.  These objects are struck in a free flowing way, and in that sense they are fairly different from the more rigorous set dummy forms that are practiced by folk styles further to the south.  The emphasis here appears to be on both conditioning and the initial approach of the target.

A simple striking dummy employed in some Bagua schools.

Not only do striking dummies become more common as one travels further south but, in the modern era at least, they also seem to become markedly more complex.  R. W. Smith, who studied various forms of Chinese boxing in Taiwan during his tenure there as a CIA officer in the 1960s, noted the use of dummies among some of his informants and provided helpful photographs.

His first photograph is of Tung Chin-tsan  (aka, the “Golden Dragon”) whom Smith first met on his tour of Southern Taiwan (Chiayi) in 1961.  Tung was a somewhat unreliable source.  He claimed a great martial heritage, having studied at Wudang, the Shaolin Temple in Henan (where he learned Plum Blossom Boxing) and the southern Shaolin Temple in Fujian.  Given that scholars are now agreed that this last school never actually existed one must also doubt his other credentials.

What Smith did know through his law enforcement contacts was that Tung had a number of followers in the Black Dragon organized crime society.  He had also been imprisoned because of his own membership in the group.  While Smith found his Judo and boxing average at best, Tung Chin-tsan truly excelled in the realm of dummy work and Smith came away quite impressed.  So much so that he commissioned a replica of Tung’s dummy to be built at his own residence.

A few days later in Tainan, Smith was introduced to someone who actually was trained in Fujian.  Wu Ku-Ts’ai studied in Yong Chun County (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  Smith states that his style was simply “Shaolin.”  Evidently Wu was a believer in the importance of physical conditioning.  His students (all family members) would practice strikes on the post pictured here.  He also used iron balls (for hand strength) and contact sparing to condition his students.  It does not appear that Wu had a dedicated dummy form, at least not that he shared with Smith.

As we travel further South we hit Guangdong Province.  Many of the schools here have adopted various sorts of dummies into their practice.  Further, the actual use of the dummy is more likely to be systematized into a complex, even theoretical form, rather than a simple conditioning exercise.

Some of the first references that we have to dummies in southern China actually date back to the Cantonese Opera tradition.  We know for instance that members of the various opera groups used wooden dummies in training their younger members in the martial arts.  The Foshan Opera museum has a planted dummy (bottom half buried in the ground) that they claim is representative of what was often used.  However, this dummy is so similar in both size and shape to the sort favored by modern Wing Chun and Hung Gar players that it is hard to tell how authentic it actually is.  Period photographs of opera singers in training appear to show a much larger dummy and greater variability in the types of dummies used.

Late 19th century performers with a large wooden dummy, apparently on the deck of a boat.

Throughout the late 19th and early 20th century Choy Li Fut was the numerically and socially dominant martial art throughout the Pearl River delta marketplace.  Like Tung they seemed to favor more “mechanical” dummies.  There is also a lot of diversity in the sorts of training equipment that is seen in Choy Li Fut schools and this applied to their dummies as well.  Very often dummies from this style will have one upper arm that is either weighted, or attached to a spring (a more recent addition) that can be manipulated by the student.

Master Ho Ngau working on a type of dummy still seen in Choy Li Fut schools.

Traditionally striking dummies in Guangdong were planted in the ground.  However, unlike the plum blossom poles, which were supposed to be firm and unmoving, a dummy that is intended to be hit should have a little movement and spring.  As such dummies were placed in a hole and then secured with gravel, reeds or small shoots of bamboo so that it would have some natural springiness when struck.

Other regional styles also employed dummies.  Mok Gar seems to have favored a relatively simple striking pole, similar to what we already saw in Northern China.  Hung Gar and Wing Chun seemed to take a middle position.  Their dummies were more complex than the simple striking pole, possessing arms (usually three) and often a leg (one or none), but they lacked the more complex mechanics and moving parts favored by other regional practitioners.  Rather than being strength training and conditioning devices, the dummies favored by these schools were meant to correct a student’s angles of attack and entry.  They were always more concerned with geometry, posture and proper technique than strength.

Traditional Mok Gar dummy training from Guangdong.  Note the emphasis on conditioning.

The Advent of the Modern “Wing Chun” Style Dummy.

In the 1950s, a number of martial artists fled the communists on the mainland and settled in Hong Kong.  Ip Man (a prominent Wing Chun instructor) was one of these.  In 1952 he wished to resume teaching the styles  wooden dummy form in his school.  Unfortunately he lived in a multistory apartment building and it was impossible to install a standard planted dummy.  After thinking the matter over he asked a friend, Fung Shek, who was a talented carpenter to create a system whereby a dummy could be mounted on a wall.  Fung devised a system whereby the dummy is held in place by thin wood slats that act as natural springs giving the dummy more life and movement when struck than was ever achieved with traditional “planted” dummies.
Unfortunately Fung was not able to supply the Wing Chun clan with many dummies.  After making less than a dozen dummies his son was killed in a tragic car accident.  Most respectable citizens of Hong Kong took a rather dim view of the martial arts in the 1950s.  These pursuits tended to be associated with criminal and youth delinquency.  Evidently Fung felt conflicted about his association with Ip Man and concluded that the death of his son was divine retribution for creating devices that would train unreliable young men to better hurt one another, and other members of the community.  While Fung stuck with his vow and never made another dummy, his basic design was adopted by others and is now produced on a massive scale (Ip Ching and Ron Heimberger.  Mook Yan Jong Sum Fat. Springville, Utah: King Dragon Press. pp. 47-50).  I mention this story not only as an interesting footnote in the modern history of the wooden dummy, but also because it nicely illustrates the ambiguous place that the martial arts occupy in modern Chinese society.  Even after all of the work of the reformers in the Jingwu and Guoshu movements, the martial arts still engender a level of suspicion that students in the west have a hard time fully comprehending.

Ip Man working on his dummy. Note the thin slats that dummy hangs on. This mounting system was perfected by Fung.

Fung’s new mounting system has succeeded because it is ideal for urban environments.  It was portable and could be easily installed in apartment buildings. Students responded enthusiastically to then new training tool and for the chance to work with dummies in an urban environment.  As a result the standard Wing Chun dummy, modeled on the one commissioned by Ip Man and produced by Fung, has become the most common wooden dummy seen throughout southern China.  This is the type of striking dummy that most martial artists will picture in their minds unless you specifically specify a different variant.

Further, the rising visibility of Wing Chun (due to the media presence of Bruce Lee and his teacher Ip Man) has led students in all sorts of styles to begin to experiment with different sorts of dummy exercises.  I think we can safely say that there are vastly more wooden dummies in use in the Chinese martial arts now than there ever were in the 19th century.  Further, they are more standardized in their size, shape and function than ever before.

In an era increasingly dominated by modern, scientific, equipment and training regimes it is interesting to watch the rediscovery, and even the spread, of wooden dummies to new areas of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  No doubt this reflects the growing affluence and media exposure of modern martial artists in China (and the west).  Yet it also speaks of a need to reconnect with the past, even if it is the imaginary past of the southern Shaolin Temple and its room of diabolical dummies.  I think for a lot of Chinese practitioners there is an odd, almost self-orientalizing, aspect in this rush to rediscover the dummy.  Of course it goes without saying that to beginning students in the west, the wooden dummy is always the most exotic and intriguing piece of equipment in the training hall.  It appears to be the absolute acme of Chinese martial mysticism.  This is why the humble wooden dummy is elevated to such heights in martial arts entertainment, including films like “Ip Man” and “Kung Fu Panda.”

These tendencies make me slightly uncomfortable.  I would prefer for practitioners to remember the past as it was, as opposed to how they hoped it would have been.  Still, as a student of the martial arts myself I can attest that a good dummy is a very useful bit of equipment with a lot to offer.  Maybe their wider adoption will ultimately end up improving the quality of practice in a variety of styles.  While not a complete history of wooden dummies (a project of that scope would require a book) I am always interested to hear more about traditional practice methods.  Feel free to share any photos or stories that you might have below.

The White Arc and Military Jian of the Han Dynasty

An Invaluable Inventory

In 1993 local residents in Yinwan (Donghai county, Jiangsu Province) made a remarkable discovery. They uncovered a group of relatively well-preserved flooded tombs dating back to the Han dynasty. Only two of these tombs have been excavated (2 and 6), and both yielded important finds. Yinwan Tomb 6, as it has come to be called in the literature, must be counted as among the more important archeological finds in recent decades. This is not because of the luxury of the tomb goods. The individuals interned within were a low-level government clerk and his wife.  Rather, the tomb yielded a rich cache of documents written on both bamboo strips and thin wooden boards that touched on everything from government administration, poetry, divination and even recreational gaming.  Dozens of articles have been published in English about these texts, and the output in Chinese academic journals has been much higher.  

One of the newly discovered texts provided a complete inventory of the Donghai arsenal in the first decade of the Western Han. This is the earliest statistical evidence that we have regarding the armaments and organization of the Chinese military during this transitional period. In that sense the document is priceless. Yet I have never been able to locate an English language scholarly treatment of this text, despite the fact that the actual contents of the inventory have been widely translated and can now even be found on the Han dynasty’s Wikipedia page.

For a group of martial arts scholars, this is a strange and painful oversight. Perhaps it can be best understood as a witness to how important the other texts in this same cache have been. Yet what do we know about the official who collected this inventory, and what does it suggest about the size and composition of the Han military?

Three relics of the Han Dynasty. The jian on the far left is the original model of the White Arc. Source:

Tomb Number 6 is believed to be final resting place of a low-level government official named Shi Rao and his wife.  According to official records, Shi Rao would have earned a relatively modest salary of 100 bushels of grain a year. Still, Tomb 6 contained two coffins and a separate chest for burial goods, suggests a family with some wealth and status. 

Shi Rao was part of the Bureau of Merit and would have been responsible for compiling reports, carrying out inspections and collecting tax information for the government. While formally a low level official, such officers served as the governor’s confidents and often controlled access to valuable information that other officials needed for career advancement.

As such, it is not a surprise that Shi Rao was buried with a number of grave goods including important jade pieces, bonze and ceramic vessels, talismanic objects and two long steel swords in addition to a large collection of documents. Since the tomb remained flooded, these texts were initially recovered in excellent condition. Unfortunately, several were damaged when a subsequent squabble over payments to be made to local work crews prevented them from being preserved as quickly as was necessary. Nor have I have been able to locate any photos of Shi Rao’s swords in the secondary literature on the tomb. That likely reflects how common such weapons are in period sites, and the fact that the archeology community is much more interested in texts, bronzes and ceramics than blades. Yet it is important to note that a low-level civil official in the Han dynasty might be buried with not one, but two, swords.  

Arsenal Record from Tomb 6. Source:

Of all of the grave goods in Tomb 6, we are most interest in a text titled “The Arsenal of Yongshi’s 4th year Equipment Account Book.” Composed about 13 BCE, the archeological report suggests that this text, written on a thin wooden board, was interned with Shi Rao in about 10 CE.  The text itself took up both sides of a single board and was a record of the 240 kinds of weapons, armor and vehicles collected in a county level arsenal in an area that had once been part of the Kingdom of Chu. The arsenal was likely to have been well stocked as the region had a history of rebellion in which the arms of opposing forces might have been captured, and additional weapons seem to have been sent from the capital. The total inventory of this single county level facility was enormous.

Martial arts studies and military history, while sometimes overlapping, are not the same field.  As such I have taken the liberty of only including the parts of the translation that deal with small arms. But even this is enough to give readers a sense of the size and depth of the facility that Shi Rao may have visited two decades before his death.

Crossbow: 537,707 (imperial owned: 11,181)
Bows: 77,521

Subtotal: 615,228

Arrows and Bolts
Crossbow bolts: 11,458,424 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Imperial owned arrows: 1,199,316 (imperial owned: 511)

Subtotal: 12,657,740

Jia Armor: 142,701 (imperial owned: 34,265)
Iron thigh clothing: 255, 1 pair of unique ones
Kai armor: 63,324
Iron Thigh Armor: 10,563
Sets of Iron lamellar armor: 587,299 
Leather armor is 14 jin [7.5 lbs]

Helmets: 98,226
Horse armor: 5,330

Shields: 102,551 (and one “rang,” which was probably a Gou-rang)

Bronze dagger-aw: 632 (imperial owned: 563)
Spear: 52,555 (imperial owned: 2377) 
Imperial owned sheng: 943
Pi sword-staff: 451,222 (imperial owned: 1421)
Halberd (Ji): 6,634
Yofang (halberd/polearm of unknown make): 78,393

Subtotal: 614,546

Sword: 99,905 (imperial owned: 4)
Daggers: 24,804 
Sawing Sabre: 30,098
Sabre (Dao): 156,135
Great Sabre (Dao): 127 (232)

Subtotal: 311,069

Iron axe: 1132 (136)

This list provides us with as many questions as answers.  For instance, when we note that the arsenal had 614,546 polearms, one might very wonder whether it was actually attempting to supply the entire Han army? 

If we want to understand the actual force that this inventory was intended to serve, I suspect that we should instead ask about some of the more limited categories. During the Western Han helmets and shields were among the most commonly issued pieces of equipment for troops, and in both cases, we see that the arsenal stocked about 100,000 pieces of equipment. That is far short of what would be necessary to arm a million-man force, and it is more in line with what one might expect to see in a county level arsenal.  Likewise, by the Western Han the military’s transition away from the jian towards the dao was well under way. It is thus significant that we find 156,135 dao in the inventory.  These would have been weapons similar to the LK Chen infantry and calvary dao.

Even more interesting, however, was the fact that nearly 100,000 Jian were still held within the arsenal’s stores. Some of these weapons may have been inherited from previous conflicts and uprisings in the area. Yet I suspect that this figure is close enough to the total number of helmets and shields that it reflects a degree of planning rather than happenstance. In any case, the jian remained a military weapon in the early decades for the Western Han, typically used either with a shield or from horseback.  Thus, Shi Rao’s report provides us with a fascinating look into a pivotal moment of technological change when the jian and dao still overlapped.

Reviewing the White Arc

What would these military jian have looked like and how would they have been used?  For that matter, what about the two swords in Shi Rao’s coffin?  The site report includes only a basic drawing of the excavated tomb and describes the swords as being “long.” What does that mean in practical terms?

To answer these questions, we turn to LK Chen’s reproduction of a standard Han jian, the White Arc. This blade is a one-to-one reproduction of a period artifact that is currently in LK Chen’s private collection. It was selected precisely because it was typical of the sorts of jian that were forged during first half of the Han dynasty.  In general, these swords have fairly long blades (90-110 cm) with relatively sort handles (15-20 cm) that are finished either in a disk pommel (like the Soaring Sky) or, more commonly, with a simple cap of bonze or brass. Their oval hilts were made of wood scales wrapped in cord.  While organic material such as wood and fiber are far less likely to survive, enough artifacts have been preserved in oxygen starved submerged tombs that we now have a fairly decent sense as to how these hilts were contoured and wrapped.

The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).
The White Arc (bottom) with the previously reviewed Soaring Sky (top).

This brings us back to the White Arc. Of LK Chen’s three Han jian, it is the most representative of a typical sword from the period, as carried by either soldiers or civilians. Whereas the Flying Phoenix is a composite creation, and the Soaring Sky is an exact replica a relatively early and elite type of jian, the White Arc captures the essence of the period’s arsenal swords. Unlike the Soaring Sky or earlier pieces from the Waring States period, it features a simple four sided diamond cross-section that has been optimized for cutting. And unlikely its longer, “hand-a-half” cousins, its narrow blade could only be wielded with a single hand as the other was expected to be occupied with either a hooked buckler (mostly used for civilian fencing) or a larger infantry shield. In evaluating this sword, we must remember that it was only one half of the intended weapon system.

Two Han Dynasty scabbards (recovered from submerged tombs) decorated in the same manner as the White Arc. Source:

When approaching the White Arc the first thing that anyone will notice is the scabbard. While the artifact that LK Chen reproduced no longer has its original furniture (aside from the handguard), the White Arc’s scabbard is a more or less direct copy of several period finds. Its simple diamond profile and red and black color scheme are perhaps the most common features found on scabbards from this period. In keeping with the utilitarian identity of this sword, the belt loop is made from carved wood (as was common at the time) and the chape is cast brass. 

The woodwork on my sample piece is nicely done and the paint is crisp and without runs.  However, my scabbard seems to be a just a hair too big for the sword at the mouth (which is loose) and the chape, where the wood overshoots the brass by about 1 mm. When the sword was being assembled the belt loop fell a bit to one side rather than sitting perfectly straight and here is also some excess glue around the top of the chape that has run up onto the scabbard. However, any early production issues with the epoxy that was being used seems to have been resolved and everything is firm and tight. 

Next we come to the blade itself. Once again, LK Chen has attempted to replicate the look of period pattern welded steel by using a high layer count Damascus combining 1065 and T8. The blade has received a light acid etch revealing an interesting pattern. The forging of this piece is absolutely top quality.  There are no bends or warps in the blade and edges are perfectly straight with the primary bevel leading straight to the cutting edge.  The medial ridge on both sides of the blade is perfectly straight with no distortions, and the tip is symmetrical.  One side of my blade shows very little waviness in the steel and that is mostly towards the tip, as you would expect with a hand made blade.  The other side has more pronounced waves and seems to have received a bit more attention either in straightening the blade or the polishing. The bottom quarter of the blade was left relatively dull, but the rest has been brought to a high degree of sharpness. In bright light you can see a few places where the “mirror polish” is cloudy, but overall the quality of the blade is exceptional, especially given its price point.  

Replicating the guard of the original White Arc. Source:

In terms of basic statistics, my sword’s blade (measured from the top of the guard) was 94 cm long (or just over 37 inches).  The total length of the sword was 113 cm (44.5 inches), making is almost exactly average for a late Eastern Han dynasty jian.  The blade’s width at the base was 30 mm, which tapered evenly to 17 mm at the tip.  The distal taper was also relatively even, declining from 7mm at the base to about 3 mm right before the start of the tip.  

Interestingly, my test sword weighed 764 grams, less than the advertised wight of 810 grams. 50 grams may not sound a like a lot in the abstract, but on a sword this light I suspect that it would be notable.  Lastly, in terms of the weapon’s dynamic characteristics, the point of balance was relatively far out at 21 cm from the guard (8 inches). The blade’s upper vibrational node and point of rotation were both located about 22-23 cm back from the tip, giving the blade a well-defined and intuitive “sweet spot.”

Late Warring States or Early Han sword fitting. Note the resemblance of the top set to the fittings used on the Striking Eagle. Source:
The raw cast fittings (brass) of the White Arc, along with the wooden belt loop. Source:

The White Arc’s hilt is constructed somewhat different from LK Chen’s other Han Jian.  It has a pommel cap rather than a terminal disc.  That is important as a disc pommel isn’t just decorative. It is a structural element allowing the pommel, tang and scales to be held in place with a single shared pin.  However, pommel caps are also common in the archeological record.  These could be quite thick, sometimes with only enough space for the tang of the sword, or more generous, fitting over the hilt’s wooden scales and holding everything together. They were typically glued or set with a friction fit. The subsequent wrapping of the hilt with cord closed the gap between the wooden scales and the elevated edge of the cast bronze or brass cap.  This traditional method of construction has been used on both the White Arc and the much larger Striking Eagle.

The hilt scales of the White Arc are also pinned through the tang just beneath the hand guard and everything has been epoxied. If one carefully examines the bottom of the handguard you can see that it is not straight.  Rather, it is notched on both sides allowing the scales to be custom fit and recessed into the guard itself, further preventing them from rotating. The brass handguard is an exact replica of the original and is extremely comfortable. Indeed, it is probably the most comfortable guard on any of LK Chen’s swords. Finally, the relatively wide oval scales have been wrapped in a grippy white cord made from some sort of natural fiber.

The hilt is widest at the top and and narrows slightly as it moves towards the pommel cap.  I am not entirely sure whether this reflects the way the scales were carved, or its its artifact of the way that they were wrapped. In any case, the hilt feels secure and firm when thrusting but has a tendency to feel as though its pulling away from the user when executing broad cuts. This small detail may be a hint as to how some Han jian were originally intended to be used. The cord itself is comfortable and showed no signs of loosening or wear even after several weeks of daily with this blade.

Details of the White Arc hilt construction. Source:

I found the handling characteristics of the White Arc to be notably different from not only modern Jian, but also LK Chen’s Soaring Sky and Flying Phoenix. This is not to say that the sword was unpleasant to use.  It is very light and responsive. When training both basic movements and cutting I always had an intuitive sense of where the tip was, and because of the hilt construction the blade was easy to index. In those respects this is an easy sword to use and it really puts to rest the notion that narrow blades are only good for thrusting.

That said, I did feel a bit more hand shock in the White Arc than some of LK Chen’s other jian. I suspect this is because the sword’s lower vibration node was actually somewhere in the blade’s forte rather than the upper hilt (which would have provided a natural dampening effect). This is probably an unavoidable mathematical result of the very short hilt compared to long overall length of the blade and the lack of a robust pommel adding weight to the end of tang.  Given that the White Arc is a one-to-one recreation of a very standard period blade, there is not much that one can do about this. Still, it is interesting to note the way that Chinese hilt designs subsequently evolved, generally becoming longer and heavier, in the coming centuries. One wonders whether that correlates to a corresponding shift from thrusting to cutting? This is also evident if you compare the construction and proportion of Han dao hilts, which could be quite diminutive, to later sabers from the Sui/Tang or Song dynasties.

As one would expect, this is a blade that excels in the thrust. It wants to thrust and make tight parries. In improvised training those are always the movements that come the quickest and easiest. I would say that all of the standard guards and cuts from modern jian systems are possible with the White Arc, but they aren’t all equally comfortable or quick due to the swords length. I found the recovery from broad cuts to be a bit slow because of the long point of balance. For instance, if the sword was too far extended, I felt that my back tip cuts wouldn’t have generated enough force to actually be effective. While this blade is light and quick, it clearly was not designed with the wheels and sword flowers of the Qing and Republic era jian systems. Weapons are, by their very nature, inflexible and we must adapt ourselves to the possibilities that they allow. In that sense the White Arc is an invitation to explore new aspects of Chinese swordsmanship. It will be less rewarding to resist nature and use it exactly as you might a more modern cutting jian. Instead the blade must be understood as an invitation for experimentation.

Han dynasty Sword and Gou-Rang. Source:
Two modern reproductions of Han jian with Gou-Rang. Source:

This brings us to the elephant in the room.  While I have quite enjoyed training with the White Arc, I don’t feel like I have fully plumbed its depths. Aside from some pieces of art, we don’t have any detailed texts describing how these blades were used. Further, this was a sword that was almost certainly designed to be used with either a shield or a Gou-Rang. That is one thing that we do see very clearly in most surviving period art. 

To really grasp what this blade is capable of I need to take another look at it in that specific context.  I am still working on securing a couple of Gou-Rang for experimentation, and at some point I need to dust off my neglected woodworking skills and make an infantry shield.  Clearly that is the next step in studying the White Arc, and probably a precondition for really understanding how any Han jian was intended to be used.

The White Arc is a remarkable artifact. It reminds us of a time when county level arsenals might have had 100,000 similar blades in their inventories, ready to equip an army on a moments notice.  And their presence in so many civilian tombs, including that of Shi Rao, speaks to the importance of both swords and fencing in Han culture.  Recreating the White Arc bring us one step closer to understanding this lost chapter in the development of the China’s ancient martial arts.