martial arts

martial arts
The history of martial arts since the Cultural Revolution is intrinsically tied to policies initiated in 1949. Until about 1979, the overall objective was to convert the martial arts into a performance art and a national sport (hereafter referred to as ‘modern wushu’) in the hopes of attaining international recognition. Since 1979, there has been a concerted effort to rescue elements of traditional culture, and from 1990 to the present, the critical issue for the PRC has been to establish its cultural legitimacy in the eyes of the international community.
During the ten years of the Cultural Revolution, the practice of martial arts was strictly forbidden, and those who were caught were severely punished. The practice of martial arts, even in the countryside and small villages, stopped completely, while many historical records of traditional martial arts were destroyed. In 1979, in an effort to save the tradition, the Physical Culture and Sports Commission issued a document entitled ‘Circular for Unearthing and Establishing Our Wushu Heritage’. Some of the first traditional martial arts that benefited were bagua zhang, xing yi quan and taiji quan. However, private schools were still not free to operate.
It was not until the mid 1980s, however, that a collection of extant pieces of traditional martial art forms were put together. In June of 1984, a ‘Report on the Meeting for the Discovery of the National Wushu Heritage’ was issued in Chengde. The material collected was substantially incomplete because so much had been lost in the previous thirty years, and because of the reluctance on the part of remaining old masters to contribute. This first report included written records and videotapes of demonstrations. A second report was issued in Beijing in March of 1986. The material collected was also insufficient for much the same reason—so much (including entire arts) had been lost or was being withheld. During the mid 1980s, Chinese masters living abroad were solicited to ‘come home’ so as to document their systems. Few did, and those that did were reluctant to be involved in the process of extensive documentation. Many were, in fact, discretely teaching their arts abroad. In the 1990s, therefore, officials were sent abroad in search of the ‘old shifu’ (teachers) who left China before the active destruction of tradition within the PRC.
In 1982 a traditional curriculum was adopted at the Shaolin Monastery. This was a result of the changes in policy towards tradition, and a growing international interest in traditional Chinese martial arts, fuelled largely by the entertainment industry. In the 1920s Liu Ting had been appointed to teach martial arts to the Shaolin monks. Sixty years later, in the early 1980s, his grandson Liu Baoshan was now employed to resurrect the traditional martial arts at Shaolin. His students were newly recruited ‘monks’ with previous ‘modern wushu’ expertise. This has resulted in a martial arts that is composed of some traditional forms augmented with standardized basics influenced by ‘modern wushu’.
By the late 1980s and early 1990s it was finally acknowledged that combat effectiveness is very much part of, if not entirely, the essence of Chinese martial arts. In 1994 Wang Xin, director of the Propaganda Department of the Zhengzhou Municipal Committee of CCP, said so much in an inscription commemorating a textbook on Shaolin wushu, as did the Abbot of Shaolin, Shi Yongxin, in a foreword for the same series of textbooks in 1996. Excessive gymnastics have been removed from the compulsory forms in wushu sports competitions, while the International Wushu Federation has begun featuring competitive full-contact free fighting called Sanshou. Traditional terms such as leitai for the fighting platform are back in use. All this signals a growing interest in both tradition and combat effectiveness, but if the intent has been to restore authenticity, the result has been a spectator combat sport. It is clear that what is being promoted is something other than the old traditions.
Throughout the 1990s and today, the government has orchestrated touring shows by PRC Shaolin monks. Monks have been sent abroad to open schools in both Europe and North America. A major public relations effort with a deluge of articles featuring Shaolin monks and their martial arts has been launched in the media. Today, it is obvious that the PRC still maintains its control over what is (and is not) incorporated into Chinese martial arts, making their practice more reflective of mid-twentieth-century politics and twenty-first-century public relations than tradition. In the period of reform, the PRC has continued to discourage independent traditional martial art organizations, while desperately trying to undo the self-inflicted damage and reconstruct ‘tradition’. In March 2002, after international criticism of opportunistic commercialization, the State Administration of Religions ‘explained’ that what the delegation sent by the Shaolin Temple of Mt Songshan was offering was purely a ‘cultural performance’. In order to further its political objectives, however, the state feels it is critical to appear as the legitimate and sole representative of Chinese traditional culture in the eyes of the rest of the world.
As part of the dramatic initiative to restore the martial arts traditions that began in January 1979, Baguazhang was the first such tradition to be investigated in detail. In 1980, Kang Gewu began working on a doctoral dissertation on the origins of Baguazhang, and in 1981, the Baguazhang Research Institute was established under the auspices of the Beijing Municipality Martial Arts Association, becoming the first research institute devoted to the study a single martial arts tradition. That same year, in a public demonstration of the change in official policy, the PRC allowed Bagua practitioners to move the remains of their famed nineteenth-century founder, Dong Haichuan (the site of his tomb had been turned into farmland during the Cultural Revolution), to a public cemetery in Beijing. The original headstone was now placed over a new grave, and a shrine detailing the Baguazhang lineage was built.
It is generally believed by researchers in the PRC that the founder of Baguazhang is Dong Haichuan (1813–82). The thesis is that Dong’s martial arts training and skills were based on Shaolin lohan quan, which he apparently taught to his closest and longest student, Yin Fu. At one point Dong became a member of a Daoist sect, incorporated aspects of the sect’s exercises into his Shaolin martial arts, and created what later became known as Bagua quan. Dong had many students, most of whom had previous training in other martial arts, a fact that is used to explain the great technical diversity among the many lineages that exists today. However there are dissenting opinions. Some traditional practitioners in Taiwan believed that Bagua quan evolved out of Shaolin lohan quan and Daoist practices and were integrated into a system over a number of generations prior to Dong’s time. In either case, it appears that Bagua quan is a much more extensive system than what is currently practised in the PRC, and like other such systems, its lineages are no longer intact in the PRC.
The art derived from Yin Fu’s lineage has many similarities with older Shaolin lohan martial arts, especially in the use of bare hand techniques and weapons. Some of these weapons include: the staff (gun), single and double straight swords (jian), spear, the long-handled crescent-shaped knife (yanyue dao), the three-section staff (sanjie gun), double ‘tiger hooks’ (hutou shuanggou), the horse knife (madao), dagger, iron fan (tie shanzi), and a ‘bolo-like’ weapon called liuxing chui. Among the most striking features of Baguazhang are the practices of walking in circles and of evasive body turning. Despite the lingering questions about the survival of Baguazhang as a complete system in the PRC, it is currently being transmitted by Ma Chuanxu of the Beijing Baguazhang Research Association and by other teachers at various sports universities.
Shaolin wushu
Despite claims by the PRC that ‘real’ traditional Shaolin martial arts are still flourishing at Shaolin Monastery, what is presently practised there is but a small sampling of the original, combined with modern wushu and elements of surviving lay traditions. Systems that, like Shaolin, comprised a large body of forms suffered the most damage from thirty years of government suppression, the previous war with Japan, and the sorry state of affairs at the collapse of the last dynasty.
For well over a thousand years martial arts have been researched, systematized, developed and taught at Shaolin Monastery. Shaolin training was a complex combination of para-religious health practices, exercises, lethal combat-oriented military methods and non-lethal self-defence methods. Because of its fame, Shaolin Monastery attracted some of the most accomplished warriors and martial artists in China’s history. There are records that indicate that Shaolin Monastery in Henan province had been given the legal right to maintain a defensive force since the Tang dynasty. The early years of the Yuan dynasty were the most influential period for the development of wushu at Shaolin, and are linked to Abbot Fu Yu (1203–75.) Fu Yu established the precedent of inviting accomplished martial art experts as teachers for the monks in charge of defending the monastery.
Shaolin martial arts were noted for their pragmatic effectiveness, variety and extensiveness. Tradition holds that during the Yuan dynasty, the Shaolin martial art curriculum included 273 forms. Its barehanded martial methods include: (1) long-armed techniques, exemplified by the two hallmark forms, Da/Xiao Hong Changquan (Greater and Lesser Hong Long Fist); and (2) advanced close-combat methods, exemplified by the Shenlong shi’erbu wuxing quan, the twelve famous forms of the ‘Five Shaped Fist’ style. Internal energy development known as neigong is practised (‘Yi Jinjing’ and ‘108 Qigong’). Literally dozens of weapons are trained with, and several staff weapons are central to the curriculum: the Meimao gun (eyebrow staff), Fangbisn chan (convenient shovel alarm staff), Yueya cha (crescent-moon tooth-fork alarm staff) and the Lujing dang, which is an alarm staff with a spade at both ends.
Taijiquan is a martial art that is characterized by forms executed in a slow, continuous manner. The art is composed of single- and two-person routines, as well as a signature two-person training method called ‘pushing hands’—an exercise which develops a sensitivity in detecting weaknesses in an opponent and instantly attacking. The art has developed into five principal branches. The mother style, called Chen (after Chen Wangting (1600–80), a military official, and alleged founder of the art) emphasizes ‘silk-reeling energy’ and uses fast powerful movements in addition to the more characteristic slow flowing movements. Although there has been a tradition of crediting the art solely to Daoist sources, research strongly points to the martial arts associated with the Shaolin Monastery and/or military training methods of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as being the more likely principal source of its techniques. Taijiquan has a number of striking similarities with Shaolin forms like ‘Greater and Lesser Hongchangquan’. Taijiquan training, moreover, once included the use of a number of military weapons: single and double broadsword (dao), spear (qiang), single and double straight sword (jian), long staff (gun), halberd (ji), iron fan (tei shanzi) long-handled crescent-shaped knife (yanyue dao) and the two-section staff (saozi gun). Due to years of neglect and suppression, forms employing some of these weapons no longer exist. During the 1950s, the basics of Taijiquan in the PRC were standardized, and a new, simplified ‘twenty-four-sections’ routine was added. In the 1970s, a more advanced form made up of forty-eight sections was also developed. In 1992, as part of the effort to recover traditional martial arts, a history of Chen Taijiqaun was compiled by the Culture and History Committee of Wen County, and was published by the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. However, Tang Hao (1897–1959), a wushu historian and member of the Physical Culture and Sports Commission of the PRC, was one of the first researchers to look carefully into its history.
Xingyiquan is an aggressive Chinese martial art that is believed to have had its origins in Shanxi province in the early 1600s. Its early development is credited to Ji Jike (a.k.a.Ji Longfeng), but the art as it is practised today appears to have been most significantly developed by Li Laoneng. Despite the general suppression of traditional martial arts in the PRC, the art has survived in Shanxi relatively intact. As a result of the PRC policy change of ‘unearthing martial arts’ in 1979, the restoration of Xingyiquan traditions began in 1982–3. Since then it has been taught at various sports universities, including the Beijing Sports University. The basic strategy used by Xingyi boxers involves aggressively forcing the opponent backwards while delivering powerful attacks from the centre. Xingyi boxers generally move linearly, stepping forward or at an angle towards the opponent in straight lines. The feet, the head and the lead hand are usually held on the same vertical plane, so the practitioner moves directly into the opponent, striking with power generated through use of the entire body, not just the arms. The heart of Xingyi is ‘five fist forms’ called wuxing. These are short forms, each designed to generate a different kind of energy, or attacking power, depicted by the Chinese five elements of metal, wood, water, fire and earth. Advanced training methods also include ‘twelve animal forms’ based on the wuxing.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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