Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my sixteenth column in Han Wei Wushu, it is about the The Roots of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts - Empty Hand Boxing (Part 1) .

Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
(June-July 1997 issues #30)
Article #16

The Roots of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts - Empty Hand Boxing

Part 1: From Primitive Times to the end of the Shang Dynasty

By Salvatore Canzonieri, New Jersey

Prehistoric Times

The Han people, an Asian Mongol race, originated in Central Asia and eventually migrated to the Gansu province area. Over time, they spread further east (during the reign of Yao Di, ancestor of King Yu), moving along the Kunlun Mountains to Weiyuan (near the Wei River) from Lanzhou and then further downstream to eventually reach the Shanxi province. Here they settled after learning farming from whatever aboriginal peoples were there (who were originally from the area north of Beijing and may be related to the Japanese) and prospered.

Like the rest of the world, the prehistoric peoples of China hunted, gathered, herded, farmed, and so on while developing many hand held tools and implements, during what became known as the Stone Age (starting about 700,000 years ago). Eventually, the peoples of this era splintered into various tribes (village based clans) as their populations increased and soon competed with one another for food and possession of land. As people from other areas of the world migrated here as well, people began to fight for survival or be forced to move to other locations; out of necessity, tools formerly used only for hunting and farming were now used against other people. Archeological and Paleoanthological evidence has shown that many hand held weapons were developed and used during the Stone Age. More weapons continued to be developed as villages fought with one another (the earliest weapons were bone and antler pick ax types and soon after animal horns were used as daggers). About 300,000 years ago, people discovered the use of coal to make charcoal and later it was used to make iron out of meteoric matter.

Pre-historic people celebrated their war victories and good harvests with dances that imitated their warring activities. From these ancient times, artifacts have been found that show people wearing horned head gear and grappling with one another for sport. Some showed these people competing against other people holding weapons. This `horned wrestling` (called Jiao Di Xi) can be considered the earliest organized Chinese fighting method. As people migrated, the sport spread to other tribes: Han tribes (living in Western and Central China); Turkish, Hun, and Mongolian tribes (living North of China), and Tangu tribes (living in South Eastern China) and developing over time to become a type of competitive wrestling sport. Warriors sometimes wore head gear and skins made from animals to protect their bodies, beginning the idea of protective body armor. As tribes became bigger, being a warrior became a full time occupaion. The military class formed as combat training became a necessity. Eventually, the use of horns were dropped and the wrestling art was called Jiao Li and Xiang Pu. Later still, striking contests that resembled boxing developed out of the war dances and were called Shou Bo.

Xia and Shang Eras

During the Xia Dynasty (21st to 16th century BC), war dancing and military arts became one, called `Wu Wu`. Both professional warriors and civilians were required to practice it, both for protection and health reasons (it was discovered that people tended not to get sick in the winter months when outside activities were low when they did physical exercises). Martial arts became a part of the educational curriculum. By this time the Bronze age began, many bronze arrowheads and long and short weapons were used. During the Shang Dynasty (16th to 11th century BC), bronze weapons further increased and broadswords came into use. The chariot was developed and became a main stay in warfare. So many people began to be captured, that slavery and human sacrifice were widely practiced.

During these times, fighting techniques, whether for sport or war, developed into four main categories: Extending the arm to strike with the hands (Da), Extending the leg to attack with the feet (Ti), Siezing and controlling another`s joints, cavities, bones, etc. (Na), and Grappling & Throwing (Shuai). The combination of all these techniques is called Shuai Jiao today. Legends depict its use as far back as 2697 BC, when the legendary Yellow Emperor Huang Ti used it against a political opponent. Since Shuai Jiao was popular as a sport as well as a warrior activity, it was equally practiced and popularized among the civilian population as well as the military. Techniques were perfected and become more complex over time and had a different style depending if they were for civilian sport, self defense, or military fighting. People passed on their best techniques from generation to generation amongst their relatives. Only those techniques that were effective and effecient survived the test of time, as those that were not were quickly discarded (since their failure could cause life threatening situations). It became clear that falling to the ground and grappling too long with an opponent was to be avoided. Sophisticated uses of power, speed, technique, and adaptablity to changing sitations became imperitive as combat skills, rather than sheer primitive muscular strength, became a necessity. People realized that winning a fight situation or contest also involved such things as timing, environment, skills, experience, energy, situation, and attitude or spirit.

The basic principle of traditional marital arts came into being: taking advantage of the opponent`s body posture via applying the right technique at the right time so as to cause the downfall of the opponent. The best countering, striking, grappling, and controlling techniques were mixed together to baffle opponents and evasive techniques were used to lure them in so that they can be thrown at the first opportunity. Without proper timing, an opportunity could be lost and one might wind up in a dangerous position. Also, sensing and taking advantage of an opponent`s direction of force (Jin Lu) became important for perdicting intention and responding to an attack swiftly. Developing battle strategy became another necessity, thus making one`s mental state as important as one`s physical status. The coordination of internal aspects such as energy (Qi), spirit (Shen), essense (Jing), strength (Li), and effort (Gong) and external aspects such as hands (Shou), eyes (Yan), body (Shou), stepping (Bu), and technique (Fa) became another requirement over time, as fighting became more sophisticated. What became known as `Wu Shu` developed the idea that it was better to use these techniques to stop a fight, rather than prolong it. Thus, Shuai Jiao became a very old and a very complete martial art, where, via the combination of internal and external means, one kept one`s own balance while causing the opponent to lose his as soon as possible.

(Next installment: Part 2: From the Western Zhou (Chou) Era to the End of the Warring States Era)


That's it for this issue! Click here to read article #17

Sal Canzonieri -

(c) 1997 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri