From ancient history to Hollywood: A brief history of Chinese martial arts

As the reimagined fable of Mulan comes to Disney+, a look at the journey of the 'fist canon' – from its mystical beginnings to a global phenomenon.

By Dominic Bliss
Published 28 Aug 2020, 08:30 BST

Liu Yifei as Hua Mulan in the new Disney release of Mulan. ‘War dances’ were observed in China as long as 2,500 years ago – but their origin remains shadowy.

Photograph by The Walt Disney Company

Qi Jiguang certainly knew his way around a battlefield. A military leader in the 16thCentury, during the Ming dynasty, he spent many years defending eastern China from attacks by Japanese raiders and pirates, and later oversaw a massive reinforcement of the Great Wall of China. He is also credited with being the first person to document Chinese martial arts – in his military manual New Treatise on Military Efficiency (or Jixiao Xinshu).

According to Jonathan Clements, author of A Brief History of the Martial Arts, this is “the earliest, verifiable source that actually explains martial arts as a practical set of moves or ideas”. In its 14thchapter, translated as ‘The Fist Canon and the Essentials of Nimbleness’, Qi explains the importance of unarmed combat as a vital tool to train soldiers. 

Of course, martial arts had existed for centuries before Qi defined them. One legendary exponent of the practice – Hua Mulan, the 5th-century Chinese warrior of folklore, and the hero of Disney's Mulan – is today honoured with an eponymous style of tai chi. (The Walt Disney Company is majority owner of National Geographic.)

And while this hints at the venerability of the activity, it's literally not even the half of it. “There are mentions stretching back more than two thousand years,” Clements tells National Geographic. “[The philosopher] Confucius himself mentions the ‘war dances’ of the Bronze Age, which are liable to be the ancient term for some kind of weapons-based calisthenics. But we don’t know what these war dances actually comprised.” 

Shadowy beginnings

In their broadest definition, martial arts – systems of combat, essentially – have existed for as long as humans have been killing each other. Depressingly, that’s the entire history of our species.

According to the International Wushu Federation, the governing body for wushu (or Chinese kung fu) in all its forms worldwide, “the origins of wushu may be traced back to early man and his struggle for survival in the harsh environment during [the] Bronze Age, or even earlier, a struggle that led to the development of techniques to defend against both wild animals and other human beings”. 

Throughout ancient Chinese historical writings there are numerous references to different codes of unarmed combat. Crucially, though (like the aforementioned Hua Mulan herself) none can be historically verified. For that reason it might be wrong to accept them as more than myth or folklore.

Hua Mulan, the legendary warrior of Chinese folk-tales, depicted in a 19th century silk illustration. The story typically portrays her as taking the guise as a man to enter the imperial army, and train in martial arts. She becomes a venerated warrior – but rejects all reward to return humbly to her village. Historians are unclear if the story is based upon a real person.

Photograph by Lebrecht Music & Arts, Alamy

As Clements stresses: “It’s very frustrating for the historian, because we go overnight, in the 16th century, from having no evidence at all to having claims that martial arts have been around for at least 500 years or even longer. But there’s no intermediate stage that allows us to verify that information.”

In any history of Chinese martial arts, there is one early pioneer who crops up again and again – that’s Sun Tzu, author of the 5thCentury BCE treatise, The Art of War. Clements is not so sure, however.

“There are plenty of martial arts teachers who will quote from The Art of War and say it’s a manual of martial arts, but Sun Tzu makes no mention of unarmed combat – and really doesn’t have a whole lot to say about armed combat either. So some of his aphorisms can be applied to unarmed combat, but were never intended for that purpose.” (In 2012 Clements published a new translation of Sun Tzu’s book). 

Around the same time as The Art of War, stories arose of the Maiden of Yue – a female martial arts instructor who famously counselled her king, Goujian, on fighting methods. Clements points out that there’s no proof the story is based on real events, but that “it’s fascinating to see the matter-of-fact way in which one of the earliest martial arts teachers in the records is a woman”.

“There’s this chauvinist assumption that war is a man’s job and a man’s calling, but Goujian doesn’t seem to care,” he adds. “He knows she’s the best and so she’s the one he wants to hire.” 

This story itself has echoes with that of Hua Mulan, who as the fable recounts, disguised herself as a man in order to take the place of her ailing father in the imperial army. Her subsequent mastery of the skills of combat and rise as a warrior was the subject of The Ode of Mulan, an anonymous folk poem believed to have been written in the Northern Wei Dynasty (386-534 AD).     

A statue of Buddhabhadra, holding a spear, at the Shaolin Temple. Believed to have travelled to China from India to the region around the Songshan mountains, he was revered by the emperor Xiao Wen, who facilitated the building of a temple there. It is thought that he may have been instrumental in the introduction of martial arts there – though this is also credited to a later incumbent of the temple, Bodhidharma

Photograph by Kettik Images, Alamy

“Providing the common man with the means to defend himself created the first true materials from which many martial arts are likely to have sprung.”

Jonathan Clements

Perhaps the most famous Chinese symbol of martial arts is the Shaolin Temple. Dating to around the 5thCentury AD, this Buddhist monastery in Henan Province was home to Bodhidharma, a monk hailing from “the western regions” (possibly Persia or India) who some believe introduced martial arts to this part of China. Again, historians aren't so sure.

An earlier Indian traveller, a translator seeking enlightenment named Buddhabhadra, is said to have first established the temple and may have introduced the underpinnings of the martial arts there.  

“Back in what we would call the Dark Ages, the Shaolin Temple was famous for the knowledge it brought from India,” Clements continues. “Not just Buddhist scriptures, but also yogic meditation that may have evolved into martial arts forms. But again, we have to wait until very late in the day before we have any verifiable materials.”

And that’s the problem with any history of Chinese martial arts: a distinct lack of written sources from the period. So it’s not until the Middle Ages that we have any solid evidence to refer to. The proliferation of culture along the Silk Road during the Tang Dynasty (618 to 907 AD) spread combat styles throughout much of East Asia.

The entrance to the Shaolin temple, in Henan Province, eastern China. Reputedly dating from the 5th century, it is thought to be the birthplace of kung fu and is the centre of faith for the Shaolin warrior monks.   

Photograph by Robert Harding, Alamy

Later, during the Ming dynasty, the authorities found themselves recruiting new soldiers in the battle against invading bandits and pirates. (This is where Qi Jiguang and his New Treatise on Military Efficiency come in.) As Clements writes in his book: “The requirements for sourcing and training soldiers, and for providing the common man with the means to defend himself in a time of increasing outlawry, created the first true materials from which so many martial arts are likely to have sprung.”

But even as martial arts moved into the modern age, its history was still being obscured by myth and legend. Clements explains how, during the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), government censorship and oppression was so invasive that it’s difficult to distinguish historical fact from fiction. “Add to that the damage done to the record by the hundred years of upheavals after the Opium Wars, and then the damage done again in the Cultural Revolution, and there are vast swathes of Chinese martial arts history that were only really curated and maintained by, say, the Hong Kong movie industry,” he adds.

Breaking through

In its journey towards global significance, martial arts’ greatest move was at the beginning of the 20thCentury when it arrived, punching and kicking, in the West – and not, initially, from China. 

Illustrations from an article demonstrating the practice of 'Bartitsu' – the martial art developed by British engineer Edward Barton-Wright, after spending time in Japan – show how to disarm a group of assailants with a walking stick, c. 1901. Barton-Wright studied jujutsu and judo in Japan, and was fascinated by the use of leverage and balance dynamics in the practices.

Photograph by Chronicle, Alamy

The first importer was a British engineer called Edward Barton-Wright, whose experience of jujutsu and judo, while living in Japan, led him to establish the Bartitsu Academy of Arms and Physical Culture in London in 1898. America, too, found itself seduced by the dynamism of Japanese unarmed combat, particularly after President Theodore Roosevelt took judo lessons in 1904 from Yamashita Yoshiaki, leading to the training of US military personnel in judo and then jujutsu.

While these early forays into the West were dominated by Japanese styles, by the 1940s the pendulum had swung back in favour of Chinese styles. Following a ban on martial arts movies by the Kuomintang government during the 1930s – as part of its anti-imperialist and anti-foreign policies – many Shanghai film companies relocated to the then British colony of Hong Kong, spawning a golden age in the genre.

Particularly important was a 1948 film called The True Story of Wong Fei-hung, starring Kwan Tak-hing, who would go on to portray Wong on the screen well over 70 times. 

Bruce Lee in his final, posthumously-released film, Game of Death. Lee's charisma and physicality onscreen earned kung fu fame – and a following that established the martial art internationally. By the time of his death in 1973, Lee was a global icon. 

Photograph by Album, Alamy

“Even as martial arts moved into the modern age, its history was still being obscured by myth and legend.”

Going international

Appetite for the genre grew enormously, both among Chinese diaspora and Western audiences, helped first by two major Hong Kong studios – the Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest.

It was the latter, thanks to the global star (and arguably Chinese martial arts’ greatest hero) Bruce Lee, that brought movies such as Fist of Fury (1972) and Enter the Dragon (1973) to a worldwide audience.

“The role of Bruce Lee has been crucial,” says Clements. “In movies and on video, he has been a one-man poster-boy for martial arts, and particularly for wing chun [kung fu], which only 120 years ago was so obscure that it only had two dozen practitioners.”

The power of martial arts in promoting Chinese culture abroad was soon recognised by the Communist Party of the People’s Republic which, in the early 1980s, allowed the movie Shaolin Temple to be shot on location in China. Massively popular, and starring Jet Li in his debut role, this boosted tourism to China and paved the way for wushu, in all its forms, to be united under the International Wushu Federation – established in Beijing in 1990. The federation now splits competition between taolu (set routines) and sanda (unarmed combat).

There are myriad Chinese fighting styles, however. China almost certainly lays claim to more styles of martial arts than any other nation – although Japan and Korea might dispute this.

There is a bewildering range on offer, some based on the flamboyant mimicry of animal movements, or the harnessing of the vital force known as qi, and others inspired by Chinese mythologies and philosophies.

Riven by competing factions and conflicting ideologies, and occasionally shrouded in secrecy, the styles are further confused by being classified in many different ways.

Northern styles, for example (stemming from north of the Yangste River) include the likes of Baguazhang, Bajiquan, Chaquan, Chuojiao, Eagle Claw, Northern Praying Mantis and Taijiquan. Southern Styles (from south of the Yangste) include Choy Gar, Hung Ga, Mok Gar, Choy Li Fut, Wing Chun and Southern Praying Mantis. There is also a distinction between hard (or external) styles, and soft (internal) styles.

The future of the 'fist canon'

And what about the prospects of all this combat? For Clements, the major issue that all modern martial arts face is what he calls “sportification”.

Students train in kung fu at the Songshan Shaolin Temple Wuseng Tuan Training Centre in Henan Province, China, 2014. 

Photograph by Tom Salyer, Alamy

“Some are very enthusiastic about adopting ranks, and belts and points systems, and tournament scoring, but others regard such innovations as a betrayal of their philosophical origins, or mere money-making scams and schemes.”

He is also wary of the standardisation of wushu. “It turns the whole diverse tradition of dozens of different systems into a series of score-able achievements and acrobatic displays. It’s supposed to be an exercise in cultural preservation, but it often rides roughshod over the true nature of these disciplines, removing their religious and philosophical underpinnings and – truth be told – much of their practical value.”

Evolving from a form of combat and a philosophy into a sport may have diluted the original purpose of Chinese martial arts. But at the same time, its ever-growing proliferation in literature, film and sport has conveyed a cornerstone of Chinese culture to every part of the world.

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