The Truth about the Chinese Martial Arts

Traditional Chinese martial arts have been practiced continually in mainland China for at least three thousand years. I began training in the martial arts at the age of ten in 1977 and over the last 43 years I have seen many changes and developments in the martial arts world. These changes have accelerated recently so that now like a rifle that is off in its aim by and inch it misses its target by a mile.

Chinese Martial Arts are Not Wushu
Wushu was created by the communist party of China in 1949. They set up committees to create routines based on the principles of gymnastics and dancing that had stylistic qualities that where similar to Chinese Martial Arts. The routines were awarded points according to how closely they conformed to gymnastic and stylistic performance criteria dictated by the communist party. In wushu judges award points for good choreography and smooth continuous movement and points are deducted if a tassels or other decoration falls of the costume or if a button is undone during a performance.

Yes, the practitioners of wushu are strong and flexible but they are not practicing traditional Chinese Martial Arts. Their way of moving is the same as that used by gymnasts and dancers. This is not the same as the way of moving and the practical skills that real martial artists train to develop. Traditional Chinese Martial Arts have moves designed to seriously harm, knock out or kill the opponent. Modern wushu has moves designed to score points awarded by a panel of judges. In old traditional Chinese martial arts there are no uniforms. The moves are practical applications such as punch the face, kick the groin and break the arm. The movement is explosive and short, no points are awarded and no one else judges you, either you know it and it works or you don’t and it doesn’t.

(A relevant personal story – When I was in China in 2005 at The Emei Mountain Martial Arts School the head of the school, Mr Shen, demonstrated many traditional Emei Mountain Martial Arts Forms and Skills such as Five Animals, Seven Stars and Iron Shirt. Mr Shen was quite old and unfortunately the communist party had placed a very young wushu teacher in his school. This wushu teacher taught modern wushu routines. When Mr Shen passes away the wushu teacher will take over the school. Then when new students arrive at the school which is famous for its ancient Emei Mountain Martial Arts they will instead be taught modern wushu. Many of them may not understand that they are being taught wushu routines and might mistakenly believe they are learning traditional martial arts. I have heard that this situation is very common across the whole of mainland China. There may come a point when all the old masters have died and mainland China only has people doing wushu)

Chinese Martial Arts are Not Chi Kung
Chi Kung is an ancient Chinese exercise system to promote good health. It uses still standing postures, some moving sequences, special breathing methods and meditations. Many martial arts systems have incorporated chi kung into their training. Of course, it is good to be healthy so that illness and disease do not defeat you whilst you are training to defeat human opponents. However, there is an unfortunate consequence to this situation. Many people have become confused and think that principles that are very important in chi kung training are also very important in traditional martial arts.

In chi kung to enable the blood and chi to flow without any unnecessary restriction around the body it is very important to have the correct posture and to release any unnecessary tension in the body. Yes, these ideas are also important in Chinese Martial Arts but they are quite low down on the list of priorities. Much more important is knowing how to strike the opponent with massive explosive force to his most vulnerable anatomical weak points. How to have fast correct footwork to enable you to not be where the attacker is aiming and to be able to position yourself so you can get him but he cannot get you. Having the correct timing for one’s counterstrikes and knowing the correct angles of attack are also immensely important. Much further down on the list of priorities is correct posture and to release any unnecessary tension. But unfortunately, there are now many Martial Arts schools elevating these two chi kung ideas to the point that they believe them to be the priority. It has even become so confused that now the idea that a person could somehow use their healing chi energy to defeat an aggressive determined opponent is now seriously considered by some people. Yes, it is good to have a lot of healing chi energy flowing around one’s body. But this is a chi kung idea for promoting good health. To defeat an aggressive determined opponent, you have to punch them in the face.

Chinese Martial Arts are Not Magical Thinking
If we study the history, archaeology and anthropology of China we have a very good perspective to view the Chinese martial arts. In ancient China martial arts were a practical trade practiced at a particular time in Chinese history. The results of our reality-based research will produce the truth about the Chinese Martial Arts.

If we study Chinese poetry, philosophy, folk tales, myth, legends, romantic novels and kung fu movies, then try and apply this world view to Chinese martial arts we will end up with an entertaining and amazing set of ideas. All very interesting and thought provoking but imaginary and ultimately unrealistic. Something that I call magical thinking.

Unfortunately, there are many instructors who are viewing the martial arts from the perspective of magical thinking and teach their students unrealistic training methods and applications. Consequently, if the student has to defend themselves when their life is under threat, they find out what they have been shown does not work. They have no way of defending themselves against real violence and they get injured or killed.

A person who has been practicing martial arts from the perspective of magical thinking will always loose when in a conflict with a person who actually knows how to fight. Then it is said that Chinese martial arts do not work, this unfairly taints the Chinese martial arts that are based on reality and not magical thinking.

People who use magical thinking take a symbolic or metaphorical reference and give it a literal interpretation. For example, there is a common hand shape that is used to strike the opponent. It is called the spear hand or spear fingers. In reality this is a reference to its shape and application. The hand is open and flat and it is used for a very quick stabbing attack to the eyes which are soft and easily damaged. However, people who use magical thinking and give literal interpretations say that it is possible to actually stab an opponent and puncture through their skin with your hand as if it was a metal spear. This is not physically possible and anyone who promotes this idea is just going to lower the credibility of martial arts in the eyes of the general public.

Another example of this aspect of magical thinking can be seen with the Chinese martial art of Pa Kua Chang (Baguazhang). This style has eight main hand shapes, eight animal style forms and a combination form with eight sections. So, the system is structured around the number eight. This is partly because it is referencing a book of divination called the I Ching (Book of Changes) which is also based around the number eight. This book is important in Chinese history, philosophy and culture. However, people who use magical thinking take this symbolic reference and try and give it a literal interpretation. They think that somehow the symbols and archaic references in the book will provide an explanation for the use of the martial arts movements. Or that only through studying the book can one get to the higher levels of the martial arts. This is magical thinking, it is not true. The I Ching is a book about divination, it is not a martial arts manuscript.

The final example of magical thinking that I will mention is the stories that say that the founder of a style watched a creature and then miraculously created a martial arts style from that observation. Sometimes it is a snake sometimes a bird or another type of animal or an insect. Sometimes a fight is observed, bird fighting snake or a mantis fighting another insect. Another variation on this idea is that they had a dream of animals fighting and then were able to create a complete martial arts system! This type of story is the result of magical thinking not reality. In reality martial arts where created by generations of people fighting with other people and recording what worked.

Chinese Martial Arts were Not created by one person
Some students believe that their style of martial arts was created by one person:
Wing Chun was created Ng Mui
Xing Yi was created by Yue Fei
Eagle Claw was created by Yue Fei
Wu Tang was created by Chang San Fen
Tai Chi was created by Chang San Fen
Shaolin was created by Bodhidharma
This is not true, martial arts were created over generations by vast numbers of people who added to and refined the training methods and principles and often combined a collection of earlier styles together. So, where did the idea of one person creating a whole style originate? Maybe they thought if they could claim a prestigious lineage going back to an esteemed historical character then their style would be more impressive and they could get more students?

We have discussed what martial arts are not, now let’s have a look at what they really are:

Chinese Martial Arts are a professional trade skill
To get closer to the truth we must look to history to see the real origin of the Chinese martial arts. In ancient china learning martial arts was a trade like carpentry or pottery. People with martial arts skills would guard merchants and their goods as the caravans of camels and horses traversed the silk roads across Eurasia. Martial artists where professionals with a trade skill and would be paid for their services. (A modern parallel would be how the Americans use Private Military Companies to guard convoys when they are at war in the middle east). In ancient times when a caravan was attacked the bandits would be armed with spears, swords, daggers and bows and arrows. The martial artists bodyguards defending the caravan would also be armed in a similar fashion. In close quarter fighting if weapons were lost then skill in unarmed combat was also essential. Bandits would try and kill everyone in the caravan so that there would be no witnesses to the theft. In addition, the Martial artists who had been hired to protect the caravan would be expected to kill all the bandits not only to protect the merchants and their goods but to avoid the possibility of the bandits regrouping and re-attacking at a later date. So, these types of encounters were a fight to the death. This was not a romantic occupation, it was about brutal practical martial arts skill.

Another component of the true historical origins of the Chinese martial arts was training in the army. There were three main types of trained fighters. The ruling warrior class elite who had gained power to rule through war and cultivated their skills to maintain power. Conscripts into the army who had no choice. And local militia who could be called upon by the ruling elite to suppress local rebellion or banditry. All three groups would receive realistic practical martial arts training. When all these varied groups who had received military martial arts training returned to their villages and towns, they would pass on their martial arts practical skills to their family and clan. So, the origin of Chinese martial arts is that they are a professional practical trade skill, soldier, bodyguard or local militia.

In the same way that ancient China had written manuscripts for the practice of other practical trades like agriculture and medicine. It also had written manuscripts explaining how to practice and apply martial arts.

A few quotes from the manuscript of General Qi Chi Kuang (1528 -1587)
Kick to deceive
Then strike with fist
With a single blow take the opponent’s life
Deliver repeated kicks
Beat the opponent
He is stunned and terrified
Aim for the crotch
Kick to his knee
Then deliver a red fist at close range
Show no mercy to your opponent

A few quotes from from manuscript of Chang Nai Chou (1728-1783)
Attack the opponent’s points
Strike with sudden impact
Seven Star posture strike privates and throat
Monkey offers cup strike the face
Penetration punch to strike crotch
Hurricane kick is followed by single whip
Single whip strike the throat
Wage war with first one hand then the other
When you attack head on, pound the opponent’s head
Stamp on their sternum

A few quotes from the manuscript of Chen Chang Hsing (1771-1853)
Attack where he is not prepared
Strike the enemy like rapid thunder
use hand to strike, on short distance use elbow
on long distance kick, on short distance use knee
If one wants to get upper hand in fighting
defeat enemy like smashing a weed
Strike their throat and strike their groin

A few quotes from the Yang Family Tai Chi Manuscripts
Be like a speeding horse destroying all in its path
Applications for fingers are seek and stab the acupuncture points,
applications for fist is to punch
Use elbow to take his life strike without mercy
Leave your opponent no room to escape
The hand like a swift sword slicing across the throat
send the opponent straight to hell

A quote from the Pa Kua Chang Classics
If you want to hurt the opponent
You can hurt them
One palm strike
Opponent spit blood

In these manuscripts there is never any mention of uprooting or unbalancing the opponent or of pushing or pulling to cause the opponent to be pushed away or be made to fall over. These practical trade training manuals do not say that you can make the opponent be flung away a great distance by using your chi energy. Instead the texts are full of endless references to striking the opponent with one’s knees and elbows and punching and kicking them with one’s fists and feet to inflict major traumatic injury or to kill them.

The idea of a ‘non-violent’ martial art in which you can defeat the opponent without hurting them is a modern invention. An attempt to re-interpret the Chinese Martial Arts through the perspective of magical thinking, not reality. I am not advocating illegal or unnecessary violence, I am making a point about authenticity and truth.

To train the Chinese Martial Arts with integrity means to be honest about what they are.

You would not teach the movements of western boxing and say that the moves are to push the opponent so that they fall over. The true application of western boxing is to punch the opponent in the face. The same honesty and truthfulness should be applied to the Chinese Martial Arts.

Paul has written many Chinese Martial and Healing Arts Books.