Martial Arts in Ancient China
Kung-Fu is the most ancient of all martial arts and it is possible to trace its roots back more than 4,000 years. The earliest form of Chinese martial arts were those practised by soldiers for direct use in battlefield combat. Ancient legend states that weapons and hand-to-hand martial arts’ techniques were propagated by China’s Yellow Emperor. Before he rose to the imperial throne in 2698 BC, the Yellow Emperor had been a notable general and had already written at length on elevated subjects such as astrology, Chinese medicine and the Martial Arts. He developed a form of wrestling called Horn Butting (Jiao Di) where contestants wore horned helmets and attacked each other with their headgear. It is said that this same martial technique was employed on the battlefield, leading to victorious results.
Whatever the truth of such legends, Jiao Di horn-butting developed into a system of wrestling known as Jiao Li during the Zhou Dynasty, 1122 BC – 256 AD. Jiao Li is one of the most ancient systems of Martial Arts in the world and was first put down on paper in the ancient Chinese tome, The Classic of Rites. Jiao Li extended its wrestling repertoire to include sophisticated techniques such as joint-locks, pressure-point attacks plus systemised strikes and blocks. The art was taught to military personnel who also learned archery, war strategy and weapons techniques. Later on Jiao Li became a sport accessible to anyone in the Qui Dynasty around 221 BC. Competitions were held on raised platforms called leitai for popular amusement and military recruitment purposes. A Jiao Li champion could hope to win a post as a military trainer or bodyguard to the court. A form of Jiao Li, called Hui Jiao is still taught today to Chinese police and military personnel. Shui Jiao is also popular in Mongol festivals, although they call it bohke.
During the Zhou Dynasty, martial arts began to develop concurrent with the philosophical trends of society at the time, namely Confucianism and Taoism. In Taoism the universal opposites, Ying and Yang, were transposed to fighting systems, resulting in the hard and soft techniques that are existent in Kung-Fu today. The Taoist system of divination, the I-Ching contributed many mystical elements to Kung-Fu philosophy. Meanwhile Tao itself is a cosmic energy, likened to the Chi power that martial artists sought to harness to boost their powers. Confucianism meanwhile included the practice of martial arts as part of its six arts that should be practised in ideal worldly living alongside calligraphy, mathematics and music.
The most famous part of Kung-Fu’s history dates from sometime in the sixth century AD with the arrival of an Indian Buddhist monk, Bodhidarma, at the newly formed Shaolin Temple. Buddhism had been brought to China a few hundred years before but Bodhidarma brought the new religion to the martial arts. Whether or not the monks at Shaolin were already versed in the martial arts and what exactly Bodhidarma taught them, is much disputed. The result, however, is not. Shaolin monks dedicated themselves to Kung-Fu and became a warrior elite whose fame spread throughout China. They were engaged in countless military campaigns and are credited as bringing peace to their own bandit-ridden province. By the 17th Century Kung-Fu experts travelled from far and wide to learn their secrets. Shaolin Kung-Fu is extremely demanding on the body. Only by dedicating themselves to hours of rigorous daily training could the Shaolin rise above the feats of ordinary men. Around the same time, rival Taoist monasteries, such as the one on Wudang Mountain, taught different styles of Kung-Fu, classified as internal.
Kung-Fu in the 20th Century
Up until the early 20th century, Kung-Fu continued to be something practised by the elite, be they military elite, learned men, warrior monks or the members of a particular family. The negative effects of European interference in China had brought Chinese national self esteem to an all time low. First of all, China had been brought to its knees by a mass drugs trade in opium, perpetrated mainly by Britain and France in the two Opium Wars, 1839 – 1842 and 1856 – 1860. The Boxer Rebellion of 1899 was an attempt by the Righteous Harmony Society, previously known as the Righteous Fist Society, to expel foreign elements and reclaim China for the Chinese. The Boxers believed that their Chi Gung expertise would allow them to repel bullets, as it did swords and clubs. The limitations of internal Chi power were quickly discovered as many died among hails of enemy gunfire. The failed rebellion only saw more concessions given to the occupying powers, as the Chinese government were unable to protect their thousand year old traditions against the humiliation of European colonisation. In an attempt to recapture cultural aspects that were essentially Chinese and boost national pride (and health), the government encouraged martial artists to open up their doors to the (Chinese) general public. Much of the mythology surrounding the Chinese martial arts was also created around this time, serialised in popular novels. At this point, many Kung-Fu organisations were established that are still in existence today. The Chin Woo Athletic Association was founded in 1910 and a central governing body for Kung-Fu was established in 1928. By 1932 National Kung-Fu competitions were being held throughout China and in 1936 Kung-Fu was put on the world stage at the Berlin Olympic Games.
The Cultural Revolution and the persecution of Kung-Fu
In 1966 Mao Zedong, the creator of China’s unique brand of Communism, launched the Cultural Revolution. His aim was to rid China of all remnants of traditional thought so that it could radically modernise into a fully functioning Communist State. 80 million speakers communicated Mao’s revolutionary doctrine to some 400,000 Chinese through the Central Peoples Broadcasting Station. In a kind of nationwide hysteria, millions of revolutionary youngsters, entitled Red Guards, marauded through the provinces, destroying ancient buildings and artefacts, and torturing and killing people as they saw fit. Persecution of Chinese traditions hit Kung-Fu hard and no one was safe. Even the venerated Shaolin Temple was subject to revolutionary purges and the abbots were made to parade in public with paint slashed on their robes. Books and ancient martial arts manuscripts were looted from the monastery and burnt. The extent of the damage wreaked in the turbulent years of the Chinese Cultural Revolution was on a scale never seen by the world before and the physical losses can never be repaired.
Those Kung-Fu masters that could, fled overseas, whilst the remainder went into hiding or suffered harsh reprisals. Kung-Fu continued to flourish in its overseas setting and many famous masters set up Kung-Fu schools in Hong-Kong and Taiwan. A lesser number moved to the United States and Europe. Chinese cultural traditions became stronger in expat Chinese communities than back home in mainland China. After the tumult caused by the Red Guards had settled down, China began to rethink its policy toward Chinese martial arts as a sport.
Wushu: The Modernisation of Kung-Fu
After the Communist Party of China (CPC) took leadership of China in 1949, Kung-Fu had to be brought into line with Communist party doctrine. The old Confucian traditions of family and ancestor worship needed to be replaced with loyalty to the CPC above all else. Buddhist and Taoist lore also had to go, as Communist thought does not tolerate religious beliefs. Traditional Kung-Fu was standardised into a sportive version called Wushu and centrally regulated by the All China Wushu Association, founded in 1958. Wushu was introduced as a national sport at High School and University levels across China. Standardised forms were created to represent many of the most popular styles of Traditional Kung-Fu such as monkey pole, Tai Chi Chuan and both Northern and Southern Kung-Fu styles. Finally in 1998, the CPC decided to decentralise the regulation of Wushu and by this point had severely relaxed its attitude towards traditional Kung-Fu. The new market-driven form of Communism saw the government promoting traditional forms of Chinese Martial Arts as well as Wushu. The Beijing 2008 Olympics will feature Wushu but not as an official medal event nor as a display event. Instead it has a special classification of its own in a separate Tournament.