Perennial Question: Martial Arts in Chinese Militaries?

I got a query from a reader which echoes a question I’ve gotten in class1 many times:

With China’s long history of martial arts, how prominent can it be said such arts were (if at all) in actual military affairs outside the realm of legends?

My immediate thought is that there’s almost no connection whatsoever: what little I have read of pre-modern Chinese military theory places most of the emphasis on strategy (e.g. Sunzi) and unit organization (e.g. Huang, 1597). In massed combat, individual fighting skills mostly take a backseat to numbers, tactics, technology and discipline. There are times when smaller numbers of skilled warriors can overcome a disadvantage of numbers — the Mongols come to mind — but their combat style isn’t really part of any conventional martial art tradition. Chinese culture being largely Confucian, there isn’t as much of a warrior literature, either2 in which individual soldiers might be valorized for bravery, strength and skill. There is some of that which comes out of the operatic/dramatic tradition, and Ming literature like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but it’s a late development with almost no connection to actual military practices.

In fact, about the only place I’ve run across a connection between martial arts and combat is in histories of the Boxer Uprising like Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys, in which he actually argues that most of the “fighting style” of the Fists United in Righteousness, etc., was based on imitation of stage fighting. Anyone know of other examples, or major sources that I’ve missed?

  1. Actually, the question is usually much less carefully phrased, and I hear it at least as often in Japanese history  

  2. Again, I’m think of Japanese examples like the Heike monogatari, etc.  


  1. Martial Art training in Chinese military are usually carried out at the very small unit level in the ancient times. It is part of their physical training regime as well as skill training. The unit leader is the one responsible for that, and it is up to the unit leader to decide what kind and what weapon to train. That’s why you won’t find much text on this.

    Many soldiers in old time China came from the rural area. It is very common for rural villages to have their own voluntary security forces. These are usually lead by a professional martial art master of some sort, with the main responsibility of training the security forces in martial art. So, by the time these rural security people join up, they have some rudimentary skills already.

  2. Jonathan,

    I’m afraid I can’t give you a terribly clear answer to that. As Cohen points out (and Pete above as well) in his Boxer book there was a clear connection between boxing and peasant militias, which no doubt began long before the Boxers and continued well after. Cohen mentions (p.101) that the anti-Communist Big Swords who were active in Zhejiang in the 1930’s used “double-edged swords and red-tassled spears.” So bits and pieces of the martial arts tradition do have a connection to actual warfare, although probably more the styles that involved weapons rather than the movie-style unarmed stuff.
    Once modern military methods start to get imported in the Late Qing traditional martial arts tends to get left behind. I remember that the Nationalist general 张之江 claimed that martial arts could be useful training for modern troops and recommended using “big sword” charges against the Japanese. He went on to found some of the early martial arts associations, but as a recall he was mostly ridiculed by the rest of the military.

  3. Thanks, everyone.

    Pete: I’m a little dubious about the history; I get nervous when people start citing “ancient times” and I just haven’t seen a lot of evidence that these kinds of local militias were at all common or particularly martial.

    The whole point of the question is that there’s a lot of mythology and assumption and over-generalization in the martial arts tradition, and I’d like to know more about what specific historical sources say.

  4. In addition to the Big Swords, there were the Red Spears – who also fought the Japanese and, at times, the Nationalist Government. However, its hard to see them as a ‘military’ – my understanding is that they were loosely associated networks of village defense organizations.

    North Atlantic published a book on the history of martial arts training manuals, Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo that makes your point. Pre-modern military manuals that teach fighting focus on armed techniques, not unarmed fighting.

    There was an article by Douglas Ware in the November 2007 edition of the Journal of the Asian Martial Arts where he makes the same observation as you – that martial artists were not widely used in the military, but it isn’t immediately clear what he’s basing it on.

    I don’t have my copy of Marrow of the Nation handy, but my understanding is that the Nanjing Central Guoshu academy was used to train soldiers for the anti-Japanese resistance. I learned some xingyi from a student of William BP Chan – who was a prominent teacher in New York in the 1970s – who learned Xingyi in the 1930s training to fight the Japanese.

  5. While reading Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys for my Contemporary China class I came across a few references in Chapter Four:

    On Susan Naquin’s research: “Thus, we not only learn about the idiosyncratic occupations of White Lotus sect members (many of whom earned their livings as healers and martial arts instructors), the loose chains of teachers and pupils that comprised the building blocks of the sects in normal times, and the step-by-step process by which an assembly of faithful was transformed ‘from a religious sect into its alter ego, a vehicle for millenarian rebellion.’ We also find out where the rebels-to-be procured their weapons (including how many knives they could commission from a blacksmith without arousing suspicion),…” (p. 178)

    Later: “Philip Kuhn’s study of the growing militarization of Chinese society in the nineteenth century deals at length with village-level and multi-village level organization for defense. Kuhn’s main preoccupation, however, is not with rank-and-file militiamen but with the leadership role played in the militarization processs by elites (normally, though not invariably, degree-holding gentry) and the enhanced power that accrued to local elites in particular as a result of their exercise of this leadership.” (p. 179)

    So there’s clearly some English-language scholarship with useful material though, from the sound of it, not a definitive answer.

  6. How about martial arts from the monastic corner, for example as described in Meir Shahar’s book about the Shaolin monastery?

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