A Brief History of Chinese Kung-Fu: Part 1
By David A. Ross
An aerobatic Chinese Wu Shu technique
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two part
series on the history of Chinese Kung-Fu. It was brought to FightingArts.com’s
attention by Tom Ross (no relation to the author), a martial arts historian
and frequent contributor to this site. He noted that it might ruffle
a lot of feathers, but based on his research this article was one of
the most factually accurate pieces he had read.
Chinese style martial artists in the United States have long tried to
make sense out of the many pieces of contradictory information circulated
regarding the origins and purposes of their arts. How can one reconcile
the inherent contradiction of supposedly educated, cultured and peaceful
men (i.e. Buddhist monks, Taoist hermits and Confucian scholars) practicing
and perfecting techniques designed to maim and kill? What exactly is
the relationship between spiritual enlightenment, ethical training, physical
fitness and no holds barred street fighting? Why do some other well-known
traditions, such as the open challenge or dueling, seem so starkly out
The picture painted by many is clearly both illogical and inconsistent.
Donn F. Draeger and Robert W. Smith, in perhaps one of the most significant
attempts to document the true history of martial arts, noted that where
China was concerned the literature was "uneven, full of gaps and
smothered in places by ambiguities." Many so-called histories contradict
the well established and documented realities of Chinese culture. Others
are historically impossible. Then there are those which border on pure
mythology. Finally, there are those which are purely ridiculous. In short,
none would stand up under the scrutiny that true historical works are
As Chinese martial arts become increasingly popular in the United States
and there is a movement toward the creation of an international structure,
instructors and students alike seek to find their proper identity and
resolve these contradictions. It is essential to understand the past
before we begin to plan for our future. Now is the time to develop a
correct history for Chinese martial arts. We must confront the sources
of these contradictions.
The simple fact is that, despite the claims of many of today's instructors,
martial arts were not primarily the pursuit of Buddhist monks, Taoist
hermits or Confucian scholars. In ancient China, martial arts were primarily
practiced and developed by the military, members of brotherhoods and
secret societies, and those involved in marginally accepted professions
such armed escorts and body guards. As such, martial arts were in fact
the product of those classes which most Chinese considered undesirable.
This affected both the development of martial arts and the general society's
attitudes toward them.
It must be remembered that imperial China was governed by traditional
Confucian ideology. Within this context, education was the key to success
in China's complex bureaucracy, and physical pursuits were viewed as
morally inferior. Under these conditions, significant portions of the
population, particularly the illiterate commoner, were marginalized or
simply ignored. Thus, those who were neither privileged nor protected
by society developed martial arts as the only defense against an often
cruel and savage world. For these men, martial arts were neither a sport
nor a hobby, but rather a matter of life or death.
The association of martial arts with undesirable elements resulted in
a social stigma which is the origin of the contradictions discussed here.
All societies, but particularly China's, attempt to control and appropriate
what they deem to be socially unacceptable behaviors. In the case of
martial artists, the need to do so was made more important by the fact
that these individuals were also strongly associated with those groups
which traditionally challenged central authority (i.e. regional military
units, secret societies, and brotherhoods). The social stigma also prompted
many of those who practiced martial arts to attempt to legitimize their
The simultaneous efforts by both those practicing martial arts and the
society in general to legitimize and assimilate martial arts (and thus
render them harmless) resulted in a gradual but concentrated effort to
obscure the true origins of these arts and the creation of a "political
correctness." For example, many instructors began (and continue)
to focus upon stories of martial arts being practiced within Buddhist
monasteries, stressing the use of the arts for promoting health and spiritual
tranquillity. Unfortunately, these instructors are simply ignoring two
First, the various stories of martial arts being practiced within Buddhist
monasteries, particularly the Shaolin monastery, actually originated
with the secret societies. These stories were used to recruit new members
but are of questionable authenticity.
Second, Buddhist monasteries were often the sanctuary of undesirables,
social outcasts and escaped criminals. If martial arts were indeed practiced
within monasteries and (there is significant evidence that they were),
they were most probably brought to the monasteries by these refugees
seeking sanctuary. These individuals would have practiced martial arts
for both protection and, in many cases, as a tool of their marginally
legal or outright illegal trades. Thus, martial arts that supposedly
originated in monasteries no longer have such a pretty image.
The origins of martial artists as "undesirables"
While the military was perhaps the best possible profession for a trained
martial artist, it was by no means an easy path or an ideal life. Traditional
Chinese society's disdain for non-intellectual activity and its need
to control possibly violent elements had a direct impact upon the management
of the military. The military was treated with suspicion, as demonstrated
by the saying "one does not make a prostitute out of an honest girl,
a nail with good iron, or a soldier out of an honorable man." Great
efforts were made to subordinate it to the needs of the society.
During imperial times, the central government administered military
examinations, similar to the scholarly civil service exams, at the local,
provincial and national levels. Through the use of this system, civilian
officials were in complete control of both the selection and promotion
of all military officers. In addition, members of the military were institutionally
forbidden from rising to a level where they could influence government
policy. Thus, while the military provided some opportunities, it never
provided complete legitimacy.
Of course, the greater challenge to the social order was that group
of martial artists who were unable to advance through the military examination
system. First and foremost, the examination system required a degree
of literacy that many martial artists simply did not posses. Second,
because the examination system restricted the number of military officers,
even literate martial artists never passed. While these men could have
joined the army without passing the exams, in reality they had no reason
to do so. Regular military men were treated brutally by officers and
there was no future in it.
These men formed a disgruntled and highly dangerous group. They became
part of China's extensive underground society and engaged in marginally
legitimate or illegal activities to survive. Regardless of their chosen
professions, these men had no loyalty to either the society or the state.
Legal and illegal professions for the martial artist
A martial artist who did not join the military and who chose not to
engage in illegal activities had very few options left. Trained fighters
might find work as armed escorts but the life was by its very nature
extremely dangerous and establishing a successful escort business could
take years. They could certainly find work as a body guard but such men
had no dignity. They were always subject to their employer's whim, not
far removed from being a virtual slave. These two professions were both
legal but they brought neither legitimacy nor public acceptance.
Many martial artists simply wandered, making their living as either
traveling medicine men or as street performers. These men were little
better off than the common vagabond, having no permanent address and
depending upon the mercy of contributors. They also had to deal with
constant challenges by other wandering martial artists and local criminals
who would try to extort money. Some martial artists joined traveling
opera troops. These opera troops provided friendship, regular employment
and some protection but were just as socially undesirable as the martial
Martial artists who had no objection to engaging in illegal activity
found themselves in high demand. While traditional Confucian society
despised the use of violence, the lower segment of society celebrated
its use. For example, in the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong
clan wars were a well-established tradition. Martial artists found frequent
employment either as clan instructors or outright mercenaries. These
clan wars also contributed to the development of martial arts outside
of China as martial artists were hired to fight in clan wars which continued
in the overseas communities. Many martial artists of exceptional skill
were brought to the United States to train fighters for the Tongs and
associations in American Chinatowns.
Many martial artists also involved themselves in the activities of brotherhoods
and secret societies. These groups, often indistinguishable from each
other, have a long history in China and arose as refuges for non-elite
members of the society. They provided friendship, assistance and protection
to those who would generally have none. These benefits were naturally
attractive to most martial artists. In addition, brotherhoods and secret
societies actively sought to recruit martial artists in order to maintain
an armed force.
By the end of the 19th century, brotherhoods and secret societies had
become a major focal point for the practice and development of martial
arts. Martial artists were known as "red poles" and, in addition
to acting as enforcers, served as instructors. Many peasants and commoners,
who had never had access to sophisticated fighting skills, joined these
groups in order to learn martial arts. A particular group might become
famous and attract more members with its instructor and method.
Fighting art or performance art?
In the United States, many traditional stylists are highly critical
of contemporary Wu-Shu, arguing that it has been significantly altered
for performance purposes and is no longer practical for self-defense.
While we will discuss contemporary Wu-Shu in greater detail later in
Part 2 of this series, a few brief comments are in order. Contemporary
Wu-Shu is most definitely not traditional martial arts. Many techniques
have been removed and it has nowhere near the technical diversity of
traditional martial arts, particularly the southern systems. Furthermore,
for most of its history the study of application and the practice of
sparring have been actively discouraged by the Chinese Communist Party
Unfortunately, those who criticize its performance elements do not fully
understand the history of their own arts. Postures and techniques were
indeed altered to make them more pleasing to the eye and acrobatic moves
such as the butterfly twist were created (it is not a traditional movement).
However, while contemporary Wu-Shu is the most drastic example of technical
modification it is not unique. There is a long history of the use of
martial arts for performance and the modification of techniques for performance
For example, the Qing Imperial Court's official performers utilized
a wide variety of skills which were derived from traditional martial
art practice. Strong men would wield heavy halberds (Gwan Do) and there
were demonstrations of the flying fork (Fei Cha) . In addition, strictly
military arts such as archery and wrestling (Shuai-Jiao) were both popular
Traditional Chinese opera also made extensive use of martial arts skills
for entertainment. The opera recreated great battles, and its performers
had to be able to use traditional weapons and engage in elaborate staged
fights. For this reason, those raised in the opera received training
very similar to that a martial artist received. In addition, as discussed
previously, many martial artists also joined traveling opera troops.
These men often taught members of the troop martial arts for protection.
Thus, in the opera the line between fighting art and performance art
was often blurred.
Today, traditional martial arts are still influenced by these performance
traditions. The so-called "hard" Chi-Kung tricks such as brick
breaking, wire bursting, nail beds, and the bending of spears and swords
are all products of the street performance tradition. They require both
conditioning and discipline to perform but have virtually nothing to
do with real fighting. Many of the tumbling techniques, leaping kicks
and balancing moves found in traditional forms are similarly inspired.
Some assume that the Chinese public was more familiar with the martial
arts and thus more discriminating than western audiences, but in reality
the common peasant or laborer was just as impressed by these tricks.
About The Author:
David A. Ross is the Director and founder of New York San Da Gym. He
has been involved in the martial arts for most of his life. He began
training in Western boxing at the age of 8. A few years later, he began
his study of Korean Taekwondo and Hapkido, achieving a second degree
black belt in both arts. David was also two time AAU New York State full
contact champion. David has also studied many martial arts including
Judo, Karate, Jiujitsu, Sambo and various forms of Chinese martial arts.
He has dedicated himself to the late Master Chan Tai San and San Da.