A lot of things have happened in the past few weeks: a meeting with the Sichuan Wushu Association Party Secretary, a car ride with a flamboyantly dressed Liu Sui Bin and his wife, and messages with a female bare-knuckle kungfu warrior living in the hills of Chongqing are the highlights. I will go through them one by one. But first a response to a friend’s request:
A good friend recently asked me to classify wushu into a clear and easily digested system for the layman. Each time I tried to explain how difficult that was, he launched into another monologue on how such a system would help to promote Chinese martial arts and attract students. Eventually, I ended up nodding my head and promising to provide an essay on the classification of Chinese martial arts.
It has been tried by many a more knowledgable scholar than I and not one of them can claim to have succeeded. When I put the question to Professor Ben Judkins, author of Kungfutea, he replied:
“I am not sure that I would be brave enough to answer the question.”
I wrote a little bit about the wide scope of wushu in a separate post, “Globalizing KungFu Part 2: Wushu and the Olympics,” describing how wushu and kungfu mean so much more than just physical exercise, and actually incorporate all facets of traditional Chinese culture. So for anyone to come out and say, “I have the system,” is brave indeed.
But Prof. Judkins still has a method, and he describes it below:
“In my work and writing I generally use a three part classification system. First, I use time period (Bronze Age – Han; Han – Yuan; Ming – early Ching; 1850-1938; 1945-present). Then I use region (N, S, E, W – or sometimes province) then I use intent (professional guard/soldier, medicine, theater etc). Lastly, if necessary, I specify if this is an art practiced by an ethnic minority.”
Most classifications I came across in my readings take into account region and intent, but few use epoch. And that is an interesting distinction I will get into later below.
But first let’s take a look at some basic ways to distinguish one style from another:
Modern Wushu Classifications
Since wushu became guoshu or “national art” in the Republican period, some modern practitioners have moved away from the esoteric classifications involving yin and yang. Instead of involving philosophy, religion and The Force, modern wushu – the sport that one day may be included in the Olympics – tries to classify itself as:
1) Physical Exercise – basically stripped down martial arts training. Think “hot yoga” or yoga-influenced aerobics.
2) Self-Defense – combat-based training such as Sanda or Sanshou.
3) Olympic Wushu – an as yet poorly defined sport involving acrobatics, swordsmanship, some combat, and some form of combat influenced-dance
I can not accept the above at all. It just has no relation at all to the wushu I have seen, practiced, and heard about. But. My inability to accept this as real does by no means discredit the above method of classification.
In fact, physical exercise is how many Taiqi practitioners refer to their art. The phrase 养生 – cultivate health – is common in taiqi circles not just because it is true (taiqi is credited with improving one’s health), but also because 养生 appeals to the thousands of modern day taiqi practitioners. It is a form of branding, in a way.
Self-defense is a very apt term for external-heavy martial arts used in sport (Sanda) or for protection. The many bodyguard schools popping up across China employ martial arts instructors, who teach a simplified form of their art (devoid of internal practices, for example).
And there are many in China and abroad who would love to see Olympic Wushu accepted as a sport. So this method of classification, although not nearly as romantic as external and internal, is still very useful.
External and Internal
I have never met a master that trained in only external or only internal styles. Several masters I have met went from external to internal, and never really went back, but every single Chinese practitioner I have spoken to says you cannot have one without the other.
External styles, simply put, are combat-based and involve physical movements and exercises that were once used in combat and still could be.
Every school that practices wushu practices some form of external kungfu. Kicks, punches, stretches, standing in the horse stance for hours – these are all parts of external wushu.
Internal wushu, on the other hand, revolves around principles in Traditional Chinese Medicine theory, specifically, the idea of “Qi” and the ability to manipulate and cultivate qi energy. Taiqi Quan, Bagua and Xingyi movements and qigong are the major forms of internal kungfu. Slow, methodical movements, breathing exercises, meditation – all are methods through which cultivates qi energy. According to theory, Qi stems from the abdomen and flows through the entire body. A person with well-cultivated qi can harness that energy to amplify strikes or solidify stances to point of “superhuman” capabilities.
Immediately, we see this simple classification come up against complexities. Every major style has both – in fact, any style of martial arts in China that does not incorporate both external and internal martial arts can barely be considered a style – and the combination of external and internal martial arts leads down a road that includes feats of strength and prowess that belong as much in the movies as in real life.
A man I met in Emei told me that his master could use his qi energy to raise up the waters in a deep well in order to snatch a coin up from the bottom. He believed it.
Taoism is steeped in qi energy, which leads even deeper down the philosophical road toward the concepts of Yin and Yang. Where does one stop?
Most practitioners I have met and spoken to in China use region as the main classifier. This makes sense because Chinese are in general very closely tied to their hometowns. People who have lived in one city for generations will still refer to the “hometown” of their ancestors, even if that hometown is a century removed.
Chinese break down a host of categories by region: cuisine, dialect, looks, habits … and definitely kungfu. An interesting article in Kung Fu Magazine, “Who’s Got the Real Shaolin Kungfu,” touches on a lot of interesting topics, but the one relevant to this discussion is the tale of Ku Yu Cheong, one of the top ten martial artists to compete in the seminal national examination held by the Central Guoshu Insititute In October of 1928.
Ku was trained in Shaolin – Northern Style – Kungfu, but fled to Guangdong in southern China during the turbulent post-war persecutions of martial artists by the victorious Communists. The styles he taught in the south were known as Northern Style kungfu, but still used the Cantonese dialect, and undoubtedly influenced existing Southern Style Kungfu.
Similar complications arise in Sichuan. Ren Gang, the Party Secretary of the Sichuan Wushu Association – itself a regional offshoot of the Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing and a product of political simplification of Chinese wushu – said that few if any of the styles currently practiced in Sichuan actually originated here.
Emei Kungfu, for example, has been through so much turmoil and chaos that few are sure what Emei Shaolin Kungfu truly is and who is practicing it. There are permutations of Shaolin Kungfu and Taiqi Quan in every region, province, city, and county. Yet the distinctions “We are from Shanxi; our kungfu is from Shanxi” still hold power among practitioners here.
The problem with regional classifications is that, although widespread, the history behind most regional schools is fragmented at best and outright fallacious at worst. Trying to make sense of a thousands or more tiny schools and styles and organizing them according to regional origin – or even the region in which they are currently being practiced in – is a task for a team of scholars working over years.
Yet if you ask any martial artist in China, he will be sure to mention his region in the same breath as his style ie Sichuan Southern Fist.
And that brings us to Prof. Judkins primary classification: time period. And this is really one of the most interesting classifications because the more one learns about the “true” history of martial arts in China, the more one realizes how misleading the narrative of an unbroken line of martial artists reaching back to the legendary Yellow Emperor really is.
Chinese history has been hijacked by the current government (which is also not new) and there are many narratives in modern China’s view of history that are politically motivated. Narratives meant to instill patriotism, hatred, claim control over territory, encourage feelings of anger, resentment, pride. Narratives that call up a vision of a glorious past broken by menacing foreigners. Almost all of it has to be questioned.
Were martial artists an integral part of military forces during the Bronze Age? What styles did they practice? Do those styles have anything in common with what we see and practice today?
When did the 养生 aspect of internal martial arts come to prominence and what were those old masters practicing? Have Taoists been doing Taiqi forms for centuries, or is it a new phenomenon?
For my project, ostensibly an account of Chinese kungfu masters in the modern era, history plays a huge role. At first I thought that I could follow masters around and talk to them about their experiences in today’s and that would be enough to tell the tale.
But every single master speaks of historical context, legitimacy, and lineage. History has been shattered for many masters and the corruption of historical research by the Communist Party is just as detrimental to martial arts as the simplification of forms or the menace of a modern society un-interested in difficult kungfu training.
By breaking down styles into eras, and how each style has changed and developed over time, we re-build the DNA of Chinese martial arts and learn that times like these are not new under the sun. Ming Dynasty mystics promoted internal martial arts to the affluent class and brutal gladitorial cage matches like the UFC took place during the Han and Qin Dynasties as well. Temples have been burned down, re-built, and destroyed again countless times over. Martial Arts were “lost” and “found” many times in the centuries since the first grappler came up with a system of moves.
I suppose my answer to my friend‘s question, “Is there a system?” would be: “Yes, there are many and all of them are valid and useful tools for understanding wushu.”