Chinese martial arts, also known as “wushu,” are arguably some of China’s most popular and successful cultural exports. Despite their widespread and enduring recognition over time, most people’s fundamental understanding of these practices in the West is limited.
The development in America and Europe of the various Chinese martial arts has generally been limited to understanding them as a competitive sporting practice, a defense system, or a simple recreational activity.
Furious fisticuffs, vengeful kicks, and noisy competitions with funny presenters have been spread with the vigorous boom of Hong Kong martial arts movies of the ’70s and ’80s, showing scenes of bloody fights between heroes and gangsters running through endless tunnels, forests or meadows, fascinating the West.
Since then, martial arts have spread widely in every corner of the world. But few of those who adopted them considered the gulf between those images and the true essence and depth of wushu culture.
Along with dance, self-cultivation, and traditional medicine, martial arts have existed in China for five thousand years. Even when fighting, superior wushu practitioners seek to manifest perfection and beauty, just as dancers do when performing a play on stage.
While dance was used to praise the gods and ancestors, martial arts were used to stop evil; but they were never meant to inflict harm, but to protect good people and oneself from evil.
The banal interpretation of martial arts is not accidental. Instead, it is the way the Chinese communist regime chose to export this kind of expression. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP), after setting out to destroy traditional culture, made the martial arts popularized today take only the shell and omit the essence of what is a profound compendium of sciences to safeguard peace and spiritual wisdom.
Wushu and its divine roots
Logically, there is no foundational date for martial arts since the concept encompasses a set of millenary combat techniques. Although they have points in common, each has its particularities, origins, and diverse forms of evolution.
In their most primitive form, it is said that martial arts arose from man’s need to defend himself against wild animals and enemy tribes, especially when the development of weapons was growing and confrontations were usually physical.
According to traditional history, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi), almost 3000 B.C., introduced the first forms of martial arts in China by standardizing and perfecting specific primitive techniques of attack and self-defense.
The Yellow Emperor is described as a famous general who wrote extensive treatises on medicine, astrology, and martial arts before becoming China’s leader. According to ancient accounts, he even had his army learn various strike systems, which were applied in warfare.
Wushu itself ended up being formed along with the origins of Taoism and Buddhism and in close relationship with these philosophies, so it is directly associated with spiritual cultivation, deriving in a much more complex issue than a simple method of blows.
Its basic pillars were to cultivate virtue, perfect artistic technique, nurture health and longevity, improve physical conditions, defend oneself and prevent violence.
This distinctive character of the martial arts is marked by their divine origin, associated with the belief in gods and man’s need to cultivate his spirit to transcend the material world and ascend to a higher state.
The different forms of Wushu
In the long history of Chinese civilization, countless martial arts styles have emerged. The various forms are usually classified into two broad general styles; internal and external.
The external styles focus on developing agility and physical strength, while the internal styles focus on manipulating qi (vital energy) and cultivating the mind and spirit.
There are also other ways to classify Chinese martial arts. Some of these classification categories overlap so that a single style may belong to more than one category. Other popular classification styles sometimes used are based on religion, history, and the geographical areas of South and North China.
The earliest recorded martial art form was the “Jiao-di” fighting style, which became popular during the Yellow Emperor’s battle against Chi-you (2852 – 2205 BC).
After this, many schools of sword techniques appeared during the Warring States period. From the Han Dynasty (206 BC-220 AD) to the Tang Dynasty (618-907), the art of sword fighting encompassed increasingly rich and complex artistic contents.
After the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, Taoist monks established Tai Chi Quan, also called Taiji, during their spiritual path to enlightenment. Over the centuries, they became the most popular internal style of Tai Chi Quan, also called Taiji.
Meanwhile, external martial arts styles were created and spread among the general public. They are known for their elegance, flexibility, and agility. For example, the Long Boxing System includes Cha Quan, Hua Quan, Pao Quan, Hong Quan, Hua Quan, and other styles such as Ba Chi Quan, Tong Bei, and Fan Zi Quan. The most recognized type associated with the external style is Shaolin Kung Fu (Shàolín Gōngfū).
Internal styles emphasize a person’s inner development and internal cultivation. In contrast, external styles train from the exterior to the internal emphasizing physical forms and training the mind, body, and spirit together. Whether internal or external styles, both practice with weapons, such as sword, spear, stick, ax, Yue (long-handled ax), and the Gou (a kind of hook).
Despite the significant differences between them, traditional Chinese martial arts are based on the cultivation of virtue, self-healing, physical fitness, self-defense, and defense of others.
At the same time, Chinese martial arts have a profound theory of techniques and an essential artistic connotation. Therefore, it is claimed that martial arts are an integral part of Chinese culture.
Kung Fu and the Shaolin Temple
The term kung-fu means “skill” or “mastery.” It is a Chinese colloquialism to designate the ability acquired with time, constancy, discipline, and effort. In the Chinese language, it highlights an individual’s skill or impeccable action in the performance of an art or activity.
As a martial art, Shaolin Kung Fu is about 1500 years old. Its prescribed postures and actions are based on keen observations of human skeletal and muscular anatomy and physiology, employing excellent muscular coordination. The various movements of kung fu, most of which are imitations of animal fighting styles, are initiated from one of the five basic foot positions: the normal upright stance and the four stances called dragon, frog, horseback, and snake.
This type of art had its leading exponents in the famous Shaolin Buddhist temple in Henan province, in the northern part of central China.
In the year 519 A.D., a Buddhist Master named Bodhidharma (Damo, “Tamo” in Chinese) arrived from the state of Liang and taught the priests the art of self-defense. The training in the temple was tough, and they adopted rules to make sure that the practitioners did not misuse it. They then created twelve rules for the practitioners.
According to the established rules, disobedience was punishable by dismissal from the temple, life was hard, strengthening the body and spirit, and graduates had to constantly show their generosity to others and could not transgress the law, among other strict rules.
There are numerous styles of Kung Fu, but the most important in terms of organization, training methods, and morality was developed in the Buddhist monastery of Shaolin. These characteristics made learning at the Shaolin Temple a symbol of respect and dignity.
The Shaolin Temple
According to historical records, Shaolin Monastery was built on the north side of Shaoshi, the western peak of Mount Song, one of China’s sacred mountains, in 495 AD by Emperor Xiaowen of the Northern Wei Dynasty.
The Shaolin temple was glorified and shrouded in mystery for centuries in China, and even today, it is a legendary center known throughout the world, thanks to film and television. Since its foundation, the emperors of each dynasty have considered the Shaolin Temple as their Imperial Temple. There, the emperors meditated and prayed to the gods for the welfare of the people. It was also the birthplace of Zen Buddhism (Chan) and the cradle of martial arts since it was the place from where they developed and spread deeply, especially those related to kung fu.
Shaolin became an important center of study and translation of the original Buddhist scriptures. It also developed as a meeting place for esteemed Buddhist masters.
For centuries, the thousands of monks who lived in this temple combined their religious practices, traditional Chinese medicine, and complex martial art training.
According to legend, the monk Damo meditated in solitude for nine years in front of a cave wall in the mountains above the monastery. He developed a series of exercises using choreographed movements and deep breathing to maintain physical strength.
When he returned to the monastery, he observed that the monks lacked the physical and mental stamina necessary to perform Buddhist meditation. He instructed them in the exercises he had developed, giving rise to what we know today as kung fu.
The main objective of Shaolin’s martial arts training was to promote health, strength, and mental concentration; it was forbidden to take up arms except to fight against evil.
Tai Chi, an abbreviation of T’ai chi ch’üan or Tàijíquán, is the highest expression of internal martial arts of Chinese origin. As such, it seeks the development of the inner energy and works on five main elements:
First, qigong, through which the cultivator of this art seeks to maintain calm and serenity and focus on internal energy using meditation as a fundamental tool.
Secondly, taulou or soft hand movements are practiced, followed by tuishou, where hand pushing exercises are developed. And lastly, the so-called sanshou, which are striking techniques.
Unlike kung fu, which has its origins more linked to Buddhism, Tai Chi is based on Taoism principles and seeks the connection between the spiritual and the physical world from the understanding of Ying and Yang.
To understand the essence of Tai Chi, it is necessary to know the basic precepts of Taoism, which considers the human body as a mini-universe that has many similarities with the world around us; our blood flows like rivers, and our hair grows like trees. Therefore, like the universe, our bodies require opposing forces to work in harmony to maintain balance.
As for tai chi as an art of self-defense, its principles indicate that it will surely leave both sides injured when brute force meets brute force. Instead, meeting brute force gently allows the incoming force to be exhausted so that it can be redirected more easily, so its movements always seek to be smooth, rounded, and looking for the right moment for the right blow.
Although several legends indicate how it originated and who the founder of Tai Chi is, there is no consensus. However, they all conclude that the person who initially taught the techniques was deeply rooted in Taoist philosophy.
Unfortunately, during the Communist Cultural Revolution, the Red Guards destroyed countless original documents through which one could continue to study the early teachings today, which would have allowed a more accurate knowledge of its origins and purposes.
The relationship between traditional Chinese medicine and martial arts
Whether internal or external, traditional Chinese martial arts are wholly linked to traditional medicine. The great medical scholars were also renowned practitioners of various martial arts.
Many recognize Hua Tuo, probably the most popular physician in China during the Eastern Han dynasty between 25 and 220 A.D., as the creator of the “five animal exercise,” which is made up of a set of movements that seek to imitate the behavior of certain animals, which was later used in numerous martial arts.
In ancient China, the practice of martial arts and the cultivation of the spirit required a healthy body. This is how the need to involve medicine as a tool for personal improvement also arose.
This is how most martial artists who cultivated in the temples were also educated in traditional Chinese medicine, orthopedic medicine, and acupuncture. Many of them suffered some physical injuries due to training and physical combat, which were often healed with natural tools and medicines provided by traditional medicine.
Acupuncture and massage helped to calm the meridians, activate the blood, relieve fatigue and eliminate inflammation. In this way, martial artists were able to recover quickly, increasing their energy to be able to continue.
Even renowned acupuncture doctors of ancient China, such as Dr. Huang Shiping, say that it is necessary to be a great martial artist to perform acupuncture techniques effectively. This allows transporting the whole body’s essence, qi, and spirit in two fingers.
Martial arts and dance
Martial arts and classical Chinese dance have many points in common. Both have overlapping positions and postures, and their techniques require maximum flexibility, coordination, and agility. Traditional weapons such as sticks, spears, swords, and other similar objects commonly used in martial arts can also be seen in the dances.
The answer is simple: the two art forms have their roots in the same ancient culture.
When martial arts began to spread throughout China, their flips and techniques dazzled anyone and quickly influenced traditional dance and opera.
Choreographies that had hitherto been used only for defense and battle were adapted into folk dances, performed at various celebrations ranging from informal festivities to protocol performances at imperial banquets.
Over time, both arts were merged and remained always twinned by their movements, although both always maintained a different purpose. In martial arts, movements are not casual but must be thought out and executed with great attention because their goal is to attack or block a blow. A mistake in the actions can be paid with one’s own life.
As a means of expression and body language, dance seeks to anticipate their movements and enlarge them to make them very elegant and striking. In addition, it needs to show the aesthetic process of each movement. Usually, to express an emotion, it needs a long and slow movement that ends in a kind of pause in the air before continuing in the opposite direction.
How the martial arts have been distorted since 1949
The martial arts continue today, but they bear no resemblance to their true origin, which is linked to spirituality, connection with the inner self, and defense against evil.
As the masters of traditional Wushu teach, the major difference between modern Wushu and other types of combat techniques is that the inner content of traditional Wushu carries a vast and high cultural richness.
To assimilate Wushu, one must live the philosophy behind the teaching, understand the content, value the beauty in the movements, experience the degree of difficulty when learning, embody the achievement of excellence, know the science of training, and assume the absolute requirement regarding the cultivation of the inner self.
The Chinese Communist regime considered religion and spirituality to be blasphemy. Since the Cultural Revolution carried out by dictator Mao Tse Tung in 1966, it became difficult to practice the traditional martial arts because of their strong links to Taoism and Buddhism. Masters of the art were attacked, and many had to flee the country or continue their practices clandestinely and out of sight of CCP agents.
Today’s China has taken up certain martial arts, and many, such as tai chi, have the explicit support of the regime. But it is simply presented as a series of techniques to reduce stress, improve health, and, at best, a good method of self-defense. All the spiritual charge, the connection to the divine, meditation, and the supernatural have been intentionally left out.