Development of Martial Arts
Martial Arts was formed in China during the period of the slave society. Qi changed the throne abdication system used by the tribal alliance to democratically elect a leader in the primitive society, and established the first hereditary state of slave society in China, the Xia Dynasty (approx.2070 B.C.-1600 B.C.), which ignited revolts from the Dongyi tribes. The Dongyi tribes were good at the skills of bows and arrows and had many legendary archers. In the legend of Chinese mythology, Houyi, the hero who shot the redundant suns, was once their leader. In order to suppress the Dongyi resistance, the Xia Dynasty attached great importance to military exercises and focused on the practice of striking attacks in the army. Through an endless series of wars, martial arts was thus developed further into more practical and standardized applications.
During the Shang and Zhou Dynasties (1600 B.C.-256 B.C.), frequent and intense military conflicts not only promoted the development of weapons from simplistic devices to complex and diversified designs, but also facilitated the improvement and development of fighting techniques in offense and defense. The main form of combat in the war was chariot combat, where the chariot carried skillful charioteers, archers and spear fighters. Chariot soldiers were the main force in battles. At that time, soldiers’ martial arts training was mainly reflected in their physical performances and their skills in using simple weapons.
During the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, archery was the major part of military training on martial arts. With emperors and nobles at the top and civilians and peasants at the bottom, archery was practiced almost by everyone. Various types of archery events were held. When rituals, banquets and other activities were hosted by the emperor, an archery event called Li She (ritual shot) was held. Civilians, on the other hand, regularly organized an archery event called Xiang She (rural shot). In schools that trained children of the nobility, archery was listed as one of the six arts.
During the Shang and Zhou periods, the military made use of martial dances (a type of drill that utilized weapons) to train soldiers and boost morale. Soldiers were armed with weapons in neatly lined-up formations while dancing in wild and rough movements, giving out a dominating power.
During the feudal conflicting for hegemony in the Spring and Autumn Period and the Warring States Period (770 B.C.-221 B.C.), each state paid great attention to the physical fitness training of their soldiers and consequently extended the teaching and learning of relevant martial arts. In the State of Qi, for example, Jue Shi (a form of martial arts contest) was held every spring and autumn in order to single out heroic figures to join and enrich the military. In the State of Wei, the selection of warriors was very strict. The selected ones had to undergo relevant martial arts training.
Trainings on military martial arts were also stressed among literati. Even Confucius’ disciples, Zilu and Ranyou, were winged with impressive martial styles. There was a time when Confucius was going on a walk in the mountains with a few disciples and he asked them about their ambitions. Zilu replied that his ambition was to use his halberd to fight along with other soldiers in the battlefield to eliminate the enemy when the country was in danger. Confucius’ other disciple, Ranyou, with the talent of being a general, once led the army of the State of Lu in the war against the Qi State and defeated the Qi army. On the battlefield, he carried a long spear, took the lead in the charge and demonstrated his unrivaled bravery.
This period also saw the beginning of the prevalent fashion of sword carrying and sword discussions. Sword manufacturing and swordsmanship also acquired unprecedented development. Wandering swordsmen (known as You Xia, the unrestrained and open-minded individuals who enjoyed making friends, attached more importance to propriety than life itself and were ready to help others) also appeared around this time. The social function of martial arts began to diversify.
When the First Emperor of Qin (259 B.C.-210 B.C.) unified all the seven states and created the Qin Dynasty, all weapons across the country were demanded to be gathered in Xianyang, capital of the Qin Dynasty. It was actually a move to ban martial arts in the civil society. Although martial arts were banned in the civil society at that time, they continued to flourish within the army. The vaults of the terracotta warriors and horses unearthed from the mausoleum of the First Qin Emperor in Xi’an of northwest China’s Shaanxi Province are like a large underground military museum, which exposed the great achievements of the Qin Dynasty to the world.
During the Qin Dynasty (221 B.C.-206 B.C.), wrestling matches became popular in the civil society. It was a martial art activity based on wrestling and fist fighting in the form of entertainment accompanied by a storyline and music. It greatly promoted the development of performances of martial arts as well as its athletics and entertaining functions.
Since the Qin and Han Dynasties, the custom of “banquet dance” had been formed on banquet occasions, together with the prevalent dancing drills of wrestling, sword-fighting and handheld weapons. A typical example of that was reflected in the famous story of Hongmen Feast in Chinese history, in which Xiang Zhuang performed the sword dance in order to conceal his attempt to take Pei’s life. Beyond that, there was also the “blade dance”, “power dance” and the like, which might have the function of entertainment, but were technically much closer to the routine exercises of today.
The Han Dynasty (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) was a glorious era of the Chinese feudal society. In the century-long war against the Huns, the Han Dynasty’s dependence on the military directly contributed to the emphasis on martial arts both in the military and in civilian society. Archery continued to play an important role in wars and a large number of marksmen in archery were produced. Among the legendary stories of master archers that have been handed down, one of the most famous is the story of Li Guang Shooting the Tiger. Li Guang (?-119 B.C.) was a general under Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty. He was tall, mighty, well-trained in martial arts, and versed in shooting on horseback. One night, Li Guang was patrolling when he suddenly spied a dark figure crouched in the grass. Assuming it was a tiger, he quickly shot an arrow at it. After dawn, he dispatched some soldiers to check out on the tiger, but they discovered that what he shot was but a boulder. They also found that the arrow had deeply penetrated the stone, though. It was thus proved what an astonishing power Li Guang had.
With the arrival of the Three Kingdom Period (220-280), such practical skills as bare-hand combat, sword fighting, archery and others became ever prospering. Dao (blades or broadswords) gradually replaced swords in the military arena, while swords gradually shifted to use for non-military purposes and continued to develop. Meanwhile, sword techniques, sumo, wrestling and others began to spread eastward to Japan.
During the period of both the Eastern and Western Jin Dynasties (265-420) and the Southern and Northern Dynasties (420-589), China had seen an era of intense turbulences in history and a period of the great ethnic integration in China. The national integration injected new blood into the Chinese culture and enabled Chinese martial arts to undergo considerable development. Within 30 years of the establishment, the Eastern and Western Jin Dynasties fell to the outbreak of the Upheaval of Eight Princes, where the eight princes in the ruling class fought each other for the right to rule. Northwestern tribes such as the Huns, Xianbei, Jie, Di, and Qiang successively invaded the Central Plains, aroused confusion and warfare and created more than a dozen political powers in succession, known as the Sixteen States. During this period, wars promoted the development of the military and martial arts, and inter-tribal wars, in particular, enabled the development and exchange of martial arts among various ethnic groups. The political power held by the ethnic Han, residing in the Yangtze River basin, was inclined for enjoyment and temporary ease and indulged in various joys of life. To some extent, however, this helped promote the development of martial arts in their function as an entertainment. However, not everyone was leading a befuddled life of pleasure-seeking. People like Zu Ti and Liu Kun, who “rose to exercise with the sword upon hearing the crows of roosters”, were determined to train themselves in martial arts and revive the power of the martial arts. During the Southern and Northern Dynasties, the rapid development of religion like Buddhism, Taoism and others allowed for a connection between martial arts and religious activities. The Shaolin Temple, which played a profound role in the development of Chinese martial arts, was established at this time. During this period, martial arts was developing into a multi-functional practice that involved not only the learning of martial arts, but also the functions of fitness and performances.
The Sui Dynasty (581-618) concluded the century-long period of chaotic division in China, and established a much-accomplished national entity. After that, the Tang Dynasty inherited all the systems of the Sui Dynasty and made them more perfect. The culture of the Tang Dynasty (618-907) was an open one in which Sino-foreign cultural exchanges were quite common. The culture of martial arts in this period also achieved great development. The enrichment that the foreign culture brought to the contents of the traditional culture was not limited in such activities as martial dances, archery and wrestling, but could be traced in the overall emphasis that the Tang Dynasty had placed upon martial arts practice. The Tang Dynasty also initiated the martial art examination system, which served to single out individuals talented with the feat of martial arts by means of tests. The creation of the martial arts examination system was the most important event in the history of martial arts, and played a prominent part in promoting the development of martial arts. The examination system gave people the possibility to obtain official positions through the practice of martial arts, which greatly inspired people’s enthusiasm for martial arts. The martial art of weapons in the Sui and Tang Dynasties also achieved rapid development, as techniques in blades, spears, swords, staffs, bows and crossbows came in various styles. Wrestling, sword dancing and spear dancing were also flourished in rich varieties.
During the reign of the Song Dynasty (960-1279), the long-term confrontation with minority regimes such as the Liao (907-1125), the Jin (1115-1234) and the Western Xia (1038-1227) had created sharp ethnic conflicts as well as class contradictions. Due to the frequent wars in this period, rulers of the Song Dynasty attached great importance to military preparations. An enlisting system was implemented in the military, and martial art talents were selected through both the enlistment and the martial arts examination system. Military trainings had a unified method of teaching as well as unified standards for evaluation. The standardized and systematized military training further promoted the enhancement of martial arts. The variety of weapons in this period also increased greatly, and martial arts techniques based upon these weapons spurred in competition against each other. Martial arts activities in the civil sector thrived as well. There were individuals who wandered about all corners of the country in search for worthy foes, as well as street performers, called Lu Qi (wandering) people, who performed martial arts to make a living. As for the drill forms for martial arts, there were not only single person drills, but also pair-up drills. In the civilian society, people organized various martial arts groups by themselves, such as the “wrestling society”, the “Xiang Pu (sumo) society”, the “archery society”, and the like. The emergence of martial arts groups in the civil sector provided further impetus for the development of martial arts in the civilian society. As commercial businesses thrived, entertainment venues such as the Gou Lan (hooked columns) and Wa She (tiled house) also appeared in cities, and were dedicated to a variety of martial arts performances. Martial arts performances were categorized in these places as one of their program items, collectively known as the Bai Xi (acrobatics). Basically, the system of martial arts had been established in the Song Dynasty. In addition to the confrontational wrestling and bare-hand grappling, formula martial arts, called Tao Zi Wu Yi (a type of martial arts routine utilized mainly as a performance style), was also developed greatly. It laid a basic pattern for Chinese ancient martial arts. Since then, martial arts gradually broke away from its attachment to military training and grounded its growth in the soil of the vast civil sector. It has thus developed in accordance with its own law of evolution.
In the early 13th century,the Mongolian tribe in northern China rose under the leadership of Genghis Khan and established the Mongol Empire. By the time of the reign of Khubilai Khan, the Southern Song had been destroyed and replaced by the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), which unified the north and south of China. The establishment of the Yuan Dynasty pushed forward the national integration and cultural exchange. Some of the distinctive martial arts skills introduced by the ethnic minorities made special contributions to the development of martial arts.
The martial arts in the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) were no longer classified in the categories of blades, spears and staffs. Instead, there were many schools of martial arts with disparate styles emerging all over the country. The term of Eighteen Techniques of Chinese Martial Arts was thereupon established with its formal usage and concrete contents during the Ming Dynasty. There were not only numerous Quan Fa (fist techniques) in the Ming Dynasty, but also rich varieties in weapon techniques and drill patterns. Different trends and rules emerged in martial arts and various Quan Pu (manuals of fist technique training) and Ge Jue (formulas in verses) were composed as well. This signified that the martial arts taken away from its original military context had gradually materialized at this time in a form of sports focused essentially on Tao Lu (form, or drill patterns)— a development well beyond the form of mere confrontational sports.
The tremendous development of martial arts in the Ming Dynasty could not have been achieved without the concept of full literary and martial capacity upheld by Zhu Yuanzhang, the founding emperor of Taizu of the Ming Dynasty. He advocated the idea that “military officers should learn etiquette, while scholars should learn riding and shooting.” There were waves of personages who not only served as military commanding generals but also made outstanding contributions to the development of martial arts. A large quantity of writings and masterpieces about martial arts and military affairs appeared at this time, such as Tang Shunzhi ’ s Wu Bian (Martial Arts Compilation), Yu Dayou’s Zheng Qi Tang Ji (Collection at the Zhengqi Hall), Qi Jiguang’s Ji Xiao Xin Shu (New Book Recording Effective Techniques) and Lian Bing Shi Ji (Records of Military Training), He Liangchen’s Zhen Ji (Array Records), Zheng Ruoceng’s Jiang Nan Jing Lüe (Jiangnan Management and Plans), and Mao Yuanyi’s Wu Bei Zhi (Treatise on Military Preparations). These resulted from the examination and summarization of military trainings and practices of warfare provided an important basis for later studies of martial arts. Since the Ming Dynasty had frequent and extensive cultural exchanges with Japan, the Japanese blade styles caught the attention of Chinese martial artists. On the other hand, Chinese martial arts during this time exerted profound effects on the creation of judo and karate in Japan.
During the reign of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911), in order to maintain their ruling power, the noble class had once put a ban on martial arts practice. That’s why the martial arts activities in the Qing Dynasty were not as active as they were in the Ming Dynasty. However, due to the mass base for martial arts rooted in the civil sector as well as the existence of some organizations committed to overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and reinstating the Ming Dynasty by resorting to the practice of martial arts, different styles and schools of martial arts were spawned in the country. In terms of geographic division, there were the southern school and the northern school. According to the mountains and rivers where they were based, there were the Shaolin style, Wudang style, Emei style, Laoshan style and so on. Pertaining to the schools, they were classified as Tai Chi, Xing Yi, Ba Gua, Chang Quan (longrange fist technique) and Duan Da (shortrange fight), among others. The multitude of different martial arts styles and schools signified the prosperity and growth of the martial arts industry.