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  • Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts
  • Stanley E. Henning (bio)

The Chinese martial arts are among the oldest elements of Chinese culture, tracing their origins to China's earliest recorded dynasty and still performed today in forms modified over the centuries. Originally practiced in a rough-and-tumble environment where strength and bravery were highly valued, these skills were used in hand-to-hand combat among the large infantry forces pitted against each other during the Warring States period. "How-to" manuals for some of these skills are listed in the Former Han Bibliographies, among them one for boxing, which was considered the foundation for training in the martial arts, and even one for a form of football thought ideal for developing agility on the battlefield. Many of these skills were widespread throughout society during China's early imperial age through the tenth century; they were the core military skills into the Qing period; and they have been reflected in various aspects of the popular culture throughout Chinese history to the present. Widespread as they were, outside the military these skills were nonetheless transmitted in a relatively secretive atmosphere, dominated by narrow loyalties, and their true nature and origins eventually became shrouded in a mist of myth and mystery that even now clouds both Chinese and non-Chinese perceptions of their place in history, continuing to confound laymen, practitioners, and scholars alike.

In academia, the Chinese martial arts have been conspicuous by their relative absence from scholarly discussion, but when they have made an appearance it has usually been fleeting and in a muddle not much beyond what one sees in the bulk of martial-arts literature on the popular market. This can be seen in scattered writings at every step up the scholarly staircase to the pinnacle of sinology in Joseph Needham's Science and Civilisation in China. The possible reasons for this phenomenon are many, but hardly excusable in the halls of academe, where thorough research should be the norm. Whether these arts are misperceived by viewing them uncritically through popular legends, Japanese and other modern practices, Chinese chivalric novels, fabricated secret-society "history," the practices of late Qing-period heterodox religious sects, or the Boxers of 1900, they appear to be taken too seriously in their mantle of myth and treated with a strange, reverential awe and, at the same time, not seriously enough to expend the extra effort necessary to find out their true story.

Of the Chinese martial arts, boxing, the most basic, is also the least understood. A form of no-holds-barred weaponless fighting, variously combining strikes with the hands, kicks, holds, grappling, and throws, boxing was originally called bo, known as shoubo in the Former Han (206-224 B.C.), and only much later, in the Southern Song (A.D. 1138), by its present name, quan. The Han History Bibliographies [End Page 319] contain an entry on boxing or shoubo (distinguished from the military sport of wrestling, jueli, in the commentaries), categorizing it as one of several military skills, bing jiqiao, "to practice hand and foot movements, facilitate use of weapons, and organize for victory in offense or defense."1 In other words, boxing was viewed as a military hand-to-hand combat skill that served as a form of basic training to prepare troops to use weapons, but that alone was only a weapon of last resort; however, these same skills spread throughout the population and were often embellished with less practical performance-oriented techniques, disparagingly described by Ming general Qi Jiguang (1507-1587) as "flowery methods" or huafa.2 It is generally in this latter form that Chinese boxing, under the guise of the none-too-descriptive term kung fu or gong fu (meaning "effort" or "skill"), has become known worldwide in recent years.

The Qing scholar Jin Bang (who received his jinshi degree in 1776) said that "if you don't know the Han History Bibliographies then you won't be able to read [understand] any of the books in this world [Chinese books]. The Han History Bibliographies are the clue to all learning, the door to all discourse."3 This statement, while appearing somewhat exaggerated, certainly holds true...