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: LKChenswords.com

 

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: LKChensword.com

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

 

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: LKChenswords.com.

 

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.

 

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

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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!***

Introduction

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.

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: lkchensword.com

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: http://www.lygmuseum.cn

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.

Bows
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

Armor
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
Helmets: 98,226
Horse armor: 5,330

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

Polearms
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

Blades
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

Axes
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: LKchenswords.com.

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: LKChenswords.com

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: LKChenswords.com
The raw cast fittings (brass) of the White Arc, along with the wooden belt loop. Source: LKChenswords.com

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: LKChenswords.com

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: LKChensword.com
Two modern reproductions of Han jian with Gou-Rang. Source: LKChenswords.com

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. 

From the Archives: A Really Short Reading List on Chinese Martial Studies

Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo
Patrons of a market stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels in 1948. Source: Vintage AP Press Photo

Introduction

Ok, here is a fun post that I originally wrote in 2012 that really needs to be updated.  So many new articles and books have come out in the last eight years (including ones written by myself) that I am not sure where to start. So I am leaving it up to you dear readers.  In the year 2020 what are the five essential resources necessary to get up to speed on Chinese martial studies?  Remember, only two books per list.  Feel free to leave your thoughts in the comments below.

A Really Short Reading List on the Chinese Martial Arts (Originally Posted July 27th, 2012).

Suppose you had a friend or a colleague who was interested in Chinese Martial Studies, was willing to invest some time and effort in learning what it was about, but had substantial professional commitments.  What sort of a reading list would you put together to show the possibilities of the field without overwhelming them?  Your list must not include more than five entries and no more than two books.  What would you choose and why?  And keep it brief, she is a busy woman!

  1. Peter Lorge.  Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty First Century. Cambridge University Press. 2012.

I wish this book had been out when I was first trying to get my hands around the field!  If you are new to the area Lorge provides a very workable single volume introduction to practically everything you want to know about the Chinese martial arts in under 250 pages.  Sure I have a couple of issues with this book, but creating a single volume introduction with that much information in so few pages is just a remarkable achievement.  Strong work.

2. Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo. “Chapter 4: Chinese Martial Arts Historians.” In Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals.  Blue Snake Books. 2005.

Again, very minor quibbles aside the entire first half of this book is a great introduction to the field of Chinese Martial Studies that should be accessible to anyone.  I can’t begin to count the number of times I have photocopied this material for students and research assistants.  I choose chapter 4 because it provides a great introduction to the early (pre WWII) Chinese language academic literature on the martial arts which is basically inaccessible to most students in the west, but is still very important to know about.

3. Andrew D. Morris. “Chapter 7: From Martial Arts to National Skills: The Construction of a Modern Indigenous Physical Culture, 1912-1937.” in The Marrow of the Nation. University of California Press. 2004.

This chapter is a great place to go next after reading Kennedy and Guo.  Morris has done the field a huge service by excavating the 1930s dialogue about the fate of the traditional martial arts out of old newspapers, magazines and journals, all of which are basically inaccessible without spending some serious time in rare book collections in China.  It also seems that Morris’ work ends up in a lot of secondary sources (like magazine articles) without proper credit being given.  More people should read the original.  He has perhaps the best brief overviews of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) and Guoshu (National Arts) movements available in the literature.

4. Stanley Henning. “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965.” In Green and Svinth (eds) Martial Arts in the Modern World.  Praeger. 2003.

Henning offers a very solid overview of the evolution of modern Chinese martial arts.  His approach is similar to Lorge and it is easy to see the influence between the two.  I like this piece because you can achieve a certain level of focus in a well-crafted essay that is just not possible in a volume.  Also, the edited volume where this essay was published is a wonderful example of the possibilities available to creative researchers in the modern field of martial studies as a whole.

5. Meir Shahar. The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts. University of Hawai’i Press.  2008.

Looking back over my list I saw a lot of discussion of the modern era.  So for my final selection I am going old school.  As a matter of fact, you just can’t get any more “old school” than the Shaolin Temple.  This highly readable volume documents the martial traditions of what is probably China’s most venerated Kung Fu institution.  It also looks at the evolution of the Shaolin mythology and the reality of their fighting arts in the Ming and Qing dynasties.  I have read it multiple times and for my money this is the best book out there in the field of Chinese martial studies right now.  I can’t wait to see Shahar’s upcoming research of the myth of the southern Shaolin temple (spoiler alert: no, it never existed.)

Ok, so that is my starter list of books, chapters and articles to introduce someone to the field of Chinese martial studies.  How did I do?  To historical perhaps?  Maybe I need some ethnography, or critical theory?  What would be on your list?

So what do you read? Photo Credit Alex Judkins. Scene on the Street (SOS) Photography. Thanks Alex!