Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my tenth column in Han Wei Wushu, it is about the Emergence of Chinese Martial Arts, looking at its most ancient miliary arts.

Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
(April 1996 issues #23)
Article #10

The Emergence of the Chinese Martial Arts - Ancient Times to 300s BC)

By Salvatore Canzonieri, New Jersey

The question is how did it all start? It's obvious that martial arts developed out of fighting tactics. And, it is also obvious that martial arts contains within itself other elements. These other elements include physical conditioning, boxing, weaponry, traditional Chinese medicine, qigong, neigong, meditation, spiritual enlightment, religion, politics, and so on. But, how did these things become part of martial arts?

No matter what people might partend, martial arts is first and foremost about fighting. In China's thousands of years of existence, war (and thus fighting) has been such a constant that it became bound up into daily life and finally emerged as an art form. But, soldiers fighting on a battlefield do not make for a martial art. Fighting merged with health and spirituality to become a holistic system that managed to transform its practioner into something more than just a "fighter", but a warrior who was just as much an artist as a painter, musician, or poet was with his/her boxing and weaponry abilities.

China's Ancient Battlefields (Military Fighting Arts development)

The human race has occupied China for 600,000 years. As happened all over the world, bands of prehistoric people migrated throughout the countryside and spread all over the land. Over time, these bands of people formed loosely organized groups and eventually settled into tribes. These tribes survived as best they could, overcoming the land, the elements, wild animals, and other people. To survive, people were forced to fight, as did the animals. The winner was able to secure a piece of land and its spoils. Whatever techniques allowed one to be the victor made it possible for tribes to cease being as nomadic and make more permanent settlements in areas that were lush. Once these tribes grew and developed into villages and there was the natural emerging of the division of labor, then fighting became more necessary, because now fighting was needed not only for protecting one's possessions but the whole tribe itself.

Approximately four thousand years ago, in the Neolithic period (which started in pre-history and ended about 1522 BC), various tribes fought amongst themselves as they did all over the world for survival and supremacy. And, as happened all over the world, certain techniques developed that boosted one's survival rate. This original prehistoric fighting could well be imagined to be of the crudest variety, consisting of striking, biting, gouging, kicking, and wrestling. People fought one on one and in groups against other groups. In this way, people were able to secure larger areas of land, and as long as they could continue to hold on to this land, they might be able to prosper. Over time, leaders, artisans, guards, farmers, sages, shamans, and so on emerged. Many inventions came into being to make life's work go easier. Soon better means of communication became necessary and such things as writing developed. Again, this occured worldwide.

During the past two thousand years, tribal warfare became advanced enough to have armed forces that were capable of fighting in an organized way. Battles were fought with hand held weapons and with fists. About half way through the third millionium BC, legends already speak of hand to hand combat methods that resemble wrestling. The legendary Yellow Emperor, Huang Di, was said to have defeated his enemy, Chi Yuo, by using such wrestling methods during this early time period.

By 1523 BC, the forerunners of the Chinese people had developed into a large kingdom, in the region of Honan province, which was known as the Shang Dynasty and lasted until 1028 BC. By this time, slavery was an institution and slaves were recruited from prisoners of war (although slavery was not large scale). This was the period of the Bronze Age and archeological evidence shows the existence of war chariots with horses in harness, spears, arrows, knives, swords, and needles made from bronze, indicating the advancement of fighting. Movements mimicking the fighitng of bulls was developed duing this time into a type of folk dance. It was performed by people wearing horned headresses and consisted of them butting into each other, then grabbing and throwing each other to the ground.

During the Shang dynasty, some important ideas and developments were made that have been a major influence on all later Chinese thought. One was the creation of the I Ching or Book of Changes (said to be from 1122 BC). It introduced the concept of Yin and Yang (the duality and unity of nature). It also introduced the concept of the three energies or "powers": heaven, earth, and man, which have natural rules or cycles. If one understood the natural cycles or changes, one could understand the three powers. Prediction of events could then be made possible with this knowledge in hand. Based on these principles, it was possible to figure out the changes of this natural energy, which was called "Qi" (or Chi). This calculation was called the eight trigrams or "Ba Gua". Also, during this time period, stone probes called "Bian Shih" were used to treat a variety of disorders in the body organs, being the forerunner to accupuncture. The probes were thought to manipulate the chi circulating in the body.

To the west of the Shang kingdom, existed the Chou tribe, who paid tribute to the Shang. Around 1523 BC, the Chou rose in rebellion, killed the Shang king, and took over an extensive area. The Chou or Zhou Dynasty lasted 1028 to 256 BC. The Chou organized China as a feudal system, with the country divided into fiefdoms, with local rulers related to the king, known as the nobility. These vassals had the duty of raising forces for the king when the need arose. The nobles practiced the use of weaponry and hand combat. The bronze sword, spear, halberd, dagger, axe, and armor and shield became important weapons. Ancient books such as the Book of Rites and the Book of Odes or Songs mentioned the use of fist fighting.

Also, during this time, books mentioned the development of internal and external treatments for four disorders, including injuries (such as cuts, muscular swelling, and broken bones). During the next few hundred years, accupunture points were mapped out and experimented with for their possible effects on chi circulation. The idea of energy blockages arose, and the means of opening these blockages explored. The use of massage for opening blockages was also explored and cataloged to a great extent, along with the idea that chi can be manipulated to increase one's health. The idea that excercise increases energy was also discovered. It was noticed that in the winter months when people did not work hard, people were more prone to becoming sick. But, when they had much work to do and strenuous activity, they remained healthy and strong. King Wu put the fighting techniques practiced at the time together into a series of dances put to music and decreeded that all had to practice these "forms" to stay healthy and active. These fighting excercises were called Xian Wu (as chronicled in the Book of Odes or Songs). Xian Wu became the core of military training and education. Both scholars and nobility practiced it. Thus, by this time the idea that energy levels can be increased and health supported by the use of choreographed fighting methods developed. This meant that chi circulation and fighting methods were viewed as mutually beneficial to each other.

China's Golden Age of Military Arts - Chou Dynasty to Warring States time periods

In 841 BC (the first year of Gong He), a great rebellion occurred because of the heavy taxation the Chou dynasty imposed. Junior officals and officers, citizens, craftsmen, and merchants from the city and surrounding areas attacked the palace while armed with weapons. This means that the uses of weapons was generally known by the populace by this time.

In 773 BC, the Grand Scribe of Chou articulated the idea of the Wu Xing Sheng Ke, which is that the five elements (metal, water, wood, fire, and earth) formed all things and they existed in mutual promotion and restraint. Also, during this time period, drilling patterns were developed for empty handed fighting. They were called Bo Zhi, striking and grabbing. Out of these drills, hand-to-hand fighting (Shou Bo) and boxing techniques (Quan Shu) were later established.

By 722 BC, a barbarian invasion overwhlemed the Chou capital and the king had to flee to the east. The period of the Spring and Autumn Period (722 to 481 BC) saw the Chou kings losing much power, and the various nobles gaining more. Warfare became a prerogative of the nobility. Also, various thinkers came to prominance by the sixth century BC and their ideas spread throughout the learned. One of these was Confusicanism, which emphasized order, ritual, virtue, and scholarly pursuits.

All life was based on a heirarchical foundation, under the Emperor's rule, which reflected the mandate of heaven. Loyality and good conduct were important parts of daily life. These ideas were soon accepted by scholars and the nobility, who learned: conduct, music, archery, chariot-driving, writing, and arithmatic.

Up until the fifth century BC, Confucian chivalry shaped the warfare of the time. Rank was deferred to in battle, chariots were used instead of footsoldiers, arrows were released in turn, and grain was sent to a besieged enemy. Wars were highly ritualistic, prohibited during certain seasons and under certain circumstances. Omens and oracles were consulted before a strike could bemade.

But, slowly things changed for the worse. The noble land holders grew more powerful and independent, ignoring the Chou king. They absorbed pockets of barbarians, hill, and marsh folk. Some began to try to annex by force the many small kingdoms that were embedded within the larger ones. The ancient political system began to unraval as the nobility became more militant and ruthless in their quest for more land.

By 659 BC, Xiang Bo, striking each other via organized hand-to-hand combat matches was common among the nobility. Xiang Bo was similar to today's San Da (free sparring) and consisted of striking, grabbing, and wrestling. By 521 BC, the sword, which was only half a meter in length, was being used for close range battlefield fighting. It became necessary to develop much technique for it to be as effective as a long weapon. In 512 BC, Sun Wu (Sun Tzu) was appointed the General of Qi by the Wu King. Sun wrote his ideas about fighting strategies and these were later followed by people as offensive and defensive principles for winning in the art of war. His book was called Sun Zi Military Strategy and Tactics (Sunzi Bing-fa) or popularly known as The Art of War. He recommended working with nature by dexterity and balance rather than brute force, outwitting the enemy, winning by bluff, and using passive strategies as needed. He also developed his own military weaponry and hand-to-hand fighting methods.

This was the time of the Iron Age, with iron weapons now being made in numbers, replacing bronze. By 500 BC, crude steel was invented and longer swords were now made possible. Soon this low grade steel was used for the mass production of swords. Chinese Sword techniques became very popular and soon these techniques began to be highly developed. Swordplay became a highly skilled art and was much more developed than boxing before this time. Fighting had been something of the battlefield and preparation for it was mostly a matter of hard conditioning via constant repetition of techniques. Hard blows were repeated thousands of times, with little boxing skill or art to it, just brute force, however effective.

By 496 BC, this was all to change, because of a great woman sword fighter, Yue Nu, who was considered the best in the land. She even taught the King of Yue's soldiers her sword fighting techniques. The Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue states that she was the first to develop the basic principles of sword and empty hand fighting as a holistic art form. She outlined the combination of position, breathing and consciousness, harmony of the internal and the external, offense and defense, and static and moving states necessary for developing fighting into an art form that was effective and efficient. By uniting these concepts, she was able to finally develop battlefield warfare tactics and fighting techniques into a martial art, rather than just military fighting.

Another great sword fighter of this time, Wu Ji-Zhe, collected various hand/sword fighting techniques he learned from various people and formed the Long Fong Quan (Dragon/Phoenix style). He also incorporated into the style breathing techniques derived from the five elements theory and used these to increase qi circulation. These technques are still used to today and form the basis for many martial art styles now in existence. They include joint locking, grappling, pulling, striking, punching, pushing, circling, slapping, elbowing, and other short range fighting techniques. He also introduced the idea of having a deep rooted stance that is used for sinking qi down into the root of the body, which meant using the waist for powerful initiation of movement. His style used fast circling blocks and strikes done in combination with low kicks. Wu Ji-Zhe's sword fighiting techniques were of a similar nature and were composed of powerful, short, and close range movements, with very quick attack and defense techniques. He learned these from a general who had defected from the Zhu kingdom.

The period from 480 to 220 BC became known as the age of the Warring States, beginning shortly after the death of Confuscous in 480 BC. War amongst the royalty became more vicious with infantry replacing chariots on the battlefield and defeated enemies slain on the spot. In order to cover so much ground, the footsoldier became more important in a battle. More recruits were sought after and the peasantry began to be used as soldiers. In a domain that once belonged only to the nobility, commoners achieved great successes on the battlefield. These commoners wore armor, carried spears, swords, crossbows, arrows, and provisions.

By 302 BC, the cavalry replaced the chariot and was the main instrument of war. Small armies of peasants were led by local warlords against other fiefdoms. Opponents were showered with flaming arrows, as their lords drove in chariots. Each fiefdom became a seperate kingdom and ruled indepentently. Small ones were swallowed up by large ones, with much bloodshed. Large cities began to be established throughout the kingdoms.

As fighting became part of the common people, simple boxing styles were developed by them for hand to hand combat. The people of Qi or Ch'i were known for their single combat skill, called Chi-Chi or Adroit Striking. By this time period, sword fighting and empty hand fighting (Shou Bo) had become highly developed. A major innovation was developed, out of necessity for the warring times, that greatly changed martial arts forever. The idea of using ingenuity (Qiao or trickery) when fighting came about. This meant using sophisticated methods and technques for striking the accupunture points of the body and other vital spots, joint locking and such painful tactics, combinations of strikes that completely subdued the opponent, creating an imbalance in the opponent to upset their equilibrium, using fake techniques to lure the opponent into a trap, and mixing offense and defense together. This development made the martial arts become truly sophisticated.

Many of the best of these fighting techniques were collected together and mixed with wrestling and used in contest matches. This style was called Jiao Di Play and these techniques are now collected together in the style of Shuai Jiao (or Shuai Chiao) . Also, during this time, the style began to unite various techniques of striking, throwing, falling, grappling, and joint-locking (chin na) and use them together in one system of fighting. It alsoincorporated ideas of Yin and Yang balance and the changes of the I Ching into its fighting methods. It combined fighting techniques with these ideas to form a hard/soft style that was based on yielding and redirecting an oncoming force and upsetting its balance to achieve victory. It became the style of choice among many of the upper levels of the military, professional fighters, and some of the nobility. Contests were regularly held among the practioners of this wrestling-like style and it enjoyed widespread popularity as a national passtime everywhere in China.

Also, as matters worsened, many poor peasants, unemployed artisans, and merchants became professional fighters. They emerged as a distinctinve fighting class that became known everywhere as the Chinese knight-errants. They roamed the countryside offering their services to be leaguered lords and also helped ordinary people who were in distress. These knights were highly skilled in swordsmanship and fighting, as recorded in the Records of the Grand Historian (compiled by Ssu-ma Ch'ien). Later, these people became body guards for those that needed one, becoming the first professional fighters.

This same period (400s - 300s BC), saw the emergence of another type of philospophy that was to profoundly change the era. This was the development of Taoism. During this time, the Tao Te Ching ("The Way and Its Power") was written, which is attributed to Lao Tze (but was actually by an unknown writer and done as a polemic against Confucianism). This philosophy was very different from Confucianism.

Taoism saw man as part of nature and as such should see change as the way of everything in the universe. So, he should not cling to the insistence of human order and hierarchy or to anything material. Only balance should be sought to unite man with nature and his true being, which was both an earthly and an immortal soul. An emphasis was placed on balanced health, balanced living, and spiritual persuits within an accepted cycle of birth, growth, decay, and death. In the book, special breathing techniques were mentioned and it was stressed that the way to obtain health was to concentrate on Qi and achieve softness. These breathing techniques were based on animal movements such as the tree climbing of bears and the streching of cranes. Breathing and sexual excercises were developed by Taoists with the intent of lightening the soul so that it could be more easily dissolved into the universe.

The idea of Wu Wei was central to Taoism and it meant doing nothing out of harmony with the flow of things. Thus, circular movements were seen as putting man in tune with the movements of the stars and of the natural cycle of water as it rises in clouds and falls in rain. In their pursuit becoming one with the cosmos or the way things are, Taoist became involved with alchemy and magic, seeking the unity and balance of all things. Taoism merged with the ancient Chinese idea of yin and yang: a self correcting mechamism that will constantly adjust and restore an even balance.

(Continued in next issue)


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Sal Canzonieri -

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