Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri

This was my eighteenth column in Han Wei Wushu, it is about the Roots of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (Part 3).

Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
(October-December 1997 issues #32)
Article #18

The Roots of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts - Empty Hand Boxing

Part 3: Qin, Han, and Three Kingdoms Periods (221 BC to 280 AD)

By Salvatore Canzonieri, New Jersey

The constant state of war that occurred between the Zhou Dynasty and the Warring States period did much to promote wu shu and reinforce its applicability to the conditions of the times. With the heavy use of infantry and weapons fighting, wu shu matured quickly and many ideas for offensive and defensive action came and went. Only the most practical moves survived the test of time, as the leaders of losing armies were often wiped out, as was the memory of their military tactics. Because so many non-nobility people served in the military, military martial art techniques began to be disseminated into the general population. People were able to perfect fighting techniques and become wu shu masters, exchanging ideas with each other as they defended themselves in these turbulent times against all manner of robbers and assailants. By 221 BC, warring became so intense that not only did the emperors and their ministers keep wu shu masters but also the dukes and marquises of the different states did the same.

Legends say that a noted ancient military advisor by the name of Gui Gu Zi (who wrote his own military tactics book along the lines of Sun Tzu), which translates as Master (zi) Ghost Valley. Gui was not his surname, it was the epithet given him. He was supposed to have been the founder of the Zongheng jia (diplomatic school), one of the "hundred schools" philosophies of the Warring States era.  He was said to have taught wu shu techniques to such luminaries as Sun Bin and Bai Yuan, among others. His techniques were based on simultaneous offense and defense using evasive tactics to overcome the opponent. The moves of the Tong Bei style are said to have emerged from his teachings, although the term was not used it, it was often called Bian or whip style instead. Whether Tong Bei came from Gui's teachings or it came from another source, oral transmissions claim Tong Bei's methods and techniques to reach far back to Warring States time period, since they exhibit all the concepts that martial arts developed during this time (see Part 2).

Tong Bei means "through the back". Tong Bei teaches that the source of internal strength is the ground, and this ground jing is maneuvered or manipulated via the waist, and is connected to the whole body. The ground jing is moved by the waist from the ground through the back, through the shoulders, through the arms, and out the hands. When the whole body is connected, sudden power release comes from the waist, the Dan Tien area, with primary storage being from the back's contraction. Tong Bei is based on using the previously mentioned Core Principles and Core Techniques with a whipping arm action to either takedown or strike the opponent. It is a collection of loose techniques rather than forms. Efficient and Effective body mechanics are very important to the system, which was used heavily by the military in China for some centuries. Tong Bei itself is a style and, at the same time, a principle - one of the chief principles of traditional Chinese Martial Arts. Tong Bei stresses that all movements should unify and compound the power of the limbs through integration. It has its own qigong mehtods and also conditioning methods that are similar to those of Shaui Jiao. It has many takedown techniques that it shares with Shuai Jiao as well. The techniques of Tong Bei were called different things at different times,  just like Shuai Jiao techniques were called different things at different times. Both terms "Tong Bei" and "Shuai Jiao" are relatively new compared to how old the techniques are "considered" to be according to oral transmissions. Tong Bei has the idea of touch and go; hands attack like a whip; many very fast combinations of arms and leg movements, mostly based on large circles and snapping strikes. Engage the opponent and enter an open door before laying down a strike with open palm, while using the concepts of Yin and Yang in its hand movements: the idea of "one hand clear and one hidden" with both hands changing one after the other and straight mixed with round. All these methods and techniques, which are now called "Tong Bei" for the style that exists today, are consistant with the martial art concepts developed by the Warring States time period.

The fighting arts began to split into Military Wu Shu, which was highly selective and developed for killing on contact, and Civil Wu Shu , which was more merciful and evasive as it developed among the common people. Civil Wu Shu kept some of the powerful aspects of Military Wu Shu but also was used for fitness, competition, and entertaining performance. Over the centuries, people added their own ideas to the existing wu shu techniques to develop their own brand or styles. Thus, the ancient family styles of martial arts came into being and soon were passed down from generation to generation in a secret manner. Only a very few such ancient styles have survived into modern times (such as the Wu Jia Quan Shu - Wu family Dragon/Phoenix style) and most of the techniques from such ancient times have been absorbed into the various wu shu styles that developed between the Tang and Sung dynasties (as did the Chang Shou Men style of Kuo I). Other ancient styles were lost due to the many millions of deaths that occurred during the many wars and resultant migrations of people that China endured. Thus, over the centuries, Civil Wu Shu styles would appear and disappear and reappear again, even Military Wu Shu would disappear occasionally for a number of years before people would reintroduce it, always different than the previous version. Such social dynamics made wu shu techniques and styles develop rapidly over the ages and evolve to be ever more efficient and effective. By the end of the second century BC, equal attention began to be paid to the practice and theory of wu shu and not just isolated skills and techniques, as more and more people wrote books on wu shu and incorporated the different tenets of various Chinese philosophies. Many philosophy books of the times (Zhuang Zi - Book of Master Zhuang being one of the earliest) featured chapters of Sword play and examined how wu shu theory fit into other philosophical ideas.

Qin Dynasty (221 BC to 206 BC)

During the end of the Warring States Period (see Part 2 of this series), the northern and western areas of China began to be settled by various nomadic tribes, with the Hui (a Uighur Islamic peoples) settling in the western regions. They introduced horseback riding and a type of iron sword making method.

At the same time (around 316 BC), the Qin (Ch`in) finally conquered the Shu and Pa (in modern day Szechuan), which gave them a strong advantage over the Ch`u. In 264 BC, the Qin completed a canal (chengkuo) that connected the Qing and Lo rivers. With this, they were able to create a key agricultural and economic area in western Szechuan. That same year, the last Zhou (chou) rulers were deposed.

By 221 BC, the Qin emerged as the most powerful of the Warring States and became the ruling victors. Prince Zheng (cheng) proclaimed himself to be the first Qin Emperor and began to unify China under a central bureaucracy (which lasted only 14 years).

Under the Qin, land reform and enforcement of the letter of the law was strict. The Qin carried out a policy of enhancing its wealth and military strength. In this way, they were able to defeat the strong countries in the east and unify all of China into one empire. Emperor Zheng standardized Chinese written characters, coinage, and weights and measures. China became a vast administrative system with a strong central rule, over a system of provinces, governed by administrators appointed by the center (this type of system has lasted more than 2000 years in China).

Also, the Qin became the biggest iron producers in the world, especially weapons. To enforce his rule, in 213 BC, the Emperor decried that all books were to be burned, outlawing all philosophies that competed with his Legalism. All weapons (bronze) were to be collected from all the provinces, brought to the capital in Xianyang, and melted down. The Qin`s iron weapons were to be the only weapons around; they were characterized by their longer length than was traditionaly used in the past.

Because weapons and military fighting was outlawed in the provinces, the art of Shuai Jiao became highly popular. During the Qin Dynasty, the art was promoted for its entertainment spectator sport value and was called Jiao Ti by the people. The art was also adopted officially by the Qin government as a fighting and training method for the imperial army. Other names it was called in other provinces was Hsian Pu, Kwang Jiao, Liao Jiao, among others (Even Japenese envoys came to see the Jiao Ti matches, the characters for `Hsian Pu` are the same as those in Japenese for `Sumo`). Jiao Ti became widely demonstrated at banquets, festivals, and public gatherings. Similarly, the sport of boxing, called Shou Bo, became popular as well. The Qin imperial court promoted both all over the Empire and helped spread their popularity and use. Many folk people learned the techniques of Jiao Ti and Shou Bo and perfected their own methods.

Even though the Qin dynasty (via its despotic emperor Qin Shi Huang) brought upon the unification and expansion of China, it was not able to last very long itself. The many expansionist battles the empire fought, the building up of huge earth mounds to form the foundation to the Great Wall of China, and many elaborate public works, cost an enormous amount of wealth and human life. The populace became heavily burdened with taxation, military service, and forced labor, which soon made the common people deeply resent the Emperor`s repressive rule. Also, the literate class resented the banning of competitive philosophies and the burning of books. When the Emperor died from an illness in 210 BC, many people schemed to take the Empire away from his successor (his son Liu). Emperor Liu became influenced by the advice of an unpopular palace eunuch. Soon a power struggle ensued between different factions within the literary and noble classes that crippled the central administration of the government. Soon the local populace began to openly rebel against the government, with continuous insurrections throughout the next few years.

Han Dynasty (206 BC to 220 AD)

A revolution was started by a soldier who was facing sure execution because he was late delivering a group of new draftees (the heavy rains and muddy roads delayed him), named Liu Pang. He convinced his conscripts to help him since they were also to be executed. Even though these men were duly caught and executed, the common people sided with Liu Pang, who had managed to escape and build up another army. Soon he was able to stave off all other contenders and he used his army to declare himself Emperor Han Kao Tzu in 206 BC.

Thus, the Han Dynasty was established, which lasted about 400 years. The Han (from which the predominant Chinese ethnic group is given its name) worked to perfect the administrative model developed by the Qin and modified the harsh Qin policies by repealing burdensome laws, sharply reducing taxes, and adopting a laissez-faire policy to promote economic recovery. Confucianism was adopted as the official ideology, although other points of view were incorporated as needed, including the popular superstitions of the people. Written examinations were adopted in order to reward by merit of being most qualified. During the Han era, China became an efficient bureaucracy.

Because so many men had been conscripted into the military during the Qin Dynasty, many people had a familiarity with the skills of Jiao Ti (shuai jiao), since it was the official military fighting style. The Han also adopted its use for the military and Jiao Ti exhibitions continued to interest the populace during festivals and official functions. The Han Dynasty`s most celebrated Emperor, Wu Ti, who reigned from 140 to 87 BC, was obsessed with the art and proclaimed it the permanent royal recreation. All palace bodyguards were required to be highly skilled in Jiao Ti. Emperor Wu Ti promoted many Jiao Ti performances; records in the `Book of the Han Dynasty` show that in 108 and 105 BC large-scale Jiao Ti shows were well attended. Visiting envoys from Japan brought back with them Chinese dao and jian, as well as the practice of Shou Bo (boxing) and Xiang Pu (grappling).

Besides these martial arts, the Taoists continued to develop Daoyin chi gung exercises. Ancient tombs recently, excavated contained paintings dating from the Han Dynasty. These paintings depict people of both sexes and all ages performing more than 40 postures and movements. Some are done standing, some sitting, some with weapons, and some without. The movements imitate such animals as dragons, cranes, geese, small birds, monkeys, apes, and bears, with inscriptions identifying them as health promoting and curative. Many of these exercises shown are almost identical to those later attributed as being Damo`s muscle/tendon changing exercises (from the much later Wei dynasty period). By the end of the Han Dynasty, Taoists and medical doctors widely adopted Daoyin exercises and continued to develop them. These ideas later led to such things as: wu qin xi (five animal play), tai xi fa (art of internal breathing), yin jin jing (muscle/tendon limbering), and the ba duan jin (8 forms of brocade exercises).

Emperor Wu Ti continued to expand China`s borders until it reached nearly the size that it is today. All territories and principalities were now totally under imperial rule. Under Wu Ti, the Han fought many battles in the west against a equestrian people called the Hsiung-nu (the Huns). The Emperor enlarged the cavalry and improved methods of battle strategies in order to deal with this enemy. Large-scale battles became a necessity, with the cavalry becoming the main combat force. Broadswords (dao) with ringheads for long range hacking replaced the sword in the cavalry forces, as did long iron spears and swords (mao and jian).

During the later years of Emperor Wu Ti`s reign, wu shu was separated from official learning, which soon encouraged people who were experienced warriors and folk martial artists to specialize into professional practitioners. Boxing became more emphasized, with Shou Bo one of the courses for testing warriors. Palace guards were chosen by Shou Bo by standardized Shou Bo tests. By 6 BC, the records such as the Book of the Han Dynasty show that Shou Bo and Jiao Ti became totally separate events, with many people including the Han Emperors enjoying their sport exhibitions. Bare handed fighting was also called Chi Ch`iao, which meant `ability and talent`. Exhibitions of such skills became very popular.

Unfortunately, the expansionist policies of the Han Dynasty eventually consumed any surpluses it had created after the first few centuries. Legalist policies were reinstated to restore state treasuries. Taxes were increased, currency devalued, and economic government monopolies were revived. Such hardships aggravated the peasants, who were experiencing a growth in population, thus reducing the size of landholdings. Uprisings and banditry increased sharply. Large land holding families refused to pay taxes and the government began to disintegrate.

Hsin Dynasty (8 AD to 23 AD)

Many of the Han Dynasty were infant emperors. Wang Mang, a court official, took advantage of the disordered times and deposed such an infant, establishing the Hsin Dynasty after he was appointed Emperor during a power struggle in the Han house. Not being of any royal bloodlines, Wang tried to alleviate the peasants` hardships by nationalizing all land and redistributing it among the actual cultivators. Slavery was abolished. Also, he tried to revitalize the imperial government by strengthening imperial monopolies on salt, iron, and coinage. He fixed state prices to protect the peasants from price gouging and provided low interest loans to these trying to start productive businesses. But, the powerful property holding classes provided such a strong resistance that he was forced to repeal his land legislation. Peasants again grew disruptive with large-scale rebellions breaking out in northern China under the instigation of a group called the `Red Eyebrows`. The large land holding families joined the rebels and killed Wang Mang.

Han Dynasty (25 to 220 AD)

The seat of power returned to the Han house, but again early deaths led to infant emperors. The central government soon enough again became unstable under the rule of incompetent maternal relatives of the infant emperors. Court eunuchs were able to get rid of these incompetents, but at the cost of having a strong say in government affairs. Other court bureaucrats became offended by the power the eunuchs had and factionalism erupted. In 126 AD, Yu Ji preached Taoism to Emperor Shun. Many Taoists felt that the troubles that the Han Empire was undergoing was due to the Han government having accepted Confucianism and Legalism as official philosophies. Finally, from 168 to 170 AD, open warfare broke out between the Eunuchs and the court officials. The folk populace, who mostly followed Taoism, felt that the factionalism was causing the governing of the empire to be sorely neglected. By 184 AD, two great Taoists rebellions occurred that were led by various religious groups. For over 20 years, the Yellow Turbans, led by Zhang Jiao, rioted throughout the Shantung peninsula area. In Sichuan province, the Five Pecks of Rice Society rebelled, who were finally pacified in 215 AD by Han General Tsao Tsao. Only after severe military repression against the rebels and many deaths was the empire pacified and some order restored.

During these rebellions, the imperial government grew very weak and warlords from different regions arose and battled both each other and the imperial government. Martial Arts became a valued skill in these troubled times and with so many people having had served in the military, there were plenty of people around with wu shu experience. In fact, many artifacts (such as stone paintings, murals, carvings, etc.) found today date from this Han period. They depict many varied scenes of wu shu skills, including long weapons, bare hands, weapons versus bare hands, multiple opponents, and man versus animals. Mei Ching of the Han Dynasty records a man barehandedly fighting a tiger and bull simultaneously. Many mentions are made of the great fighting skills that people had at the time and of the popularity that the wu shu arts enjoyed among both the common folk and those of military experience. Unfortunately, the exact styles of military training, strategy, and fighting that the various armies of this time period used are hard to infer, since losing armies were wiped out by the victor and all their belongings burned.

During the Han times, Wu Yi was used as the term for skilled fighting bare handed or with weapons. Around 84 AD, the historian Pan Kuo (Ban Gu) (32 -92 AD) completed the very important Book of the Han Dynasty. In it, he showed how important Wu Yi was during the Han Dynasty, both hand to hand and weapons. He called the local form of martial arts Chi Chi Hsiu or Ji Ji Shou (`Skillful Striking with Hands`). He categorized the art of war into tactics, features, Yin and Yang, and techniques. Also, the book contained 38 treatises on sword practice, 6 on Shou Bo, and some on cross-bow shooting. He describes the various methods used and even shows outline drawings of them. Thus, by the first century AD, books on the theory and practice of wu shu were already in existence.

During the first century AD, merchants opened roads between China and India in order to sell silk. Many foreign people started to enter China and vice versa as they traveled along this silk route. Body guards and security personnel were needed to protect the merchants from murdering highway robbers. This made wu shu skills further develop into a profession. Eventually, Buddhist monks from India traveled along the silk route and introduced the religious philosophy into China. Significant numbers of Chinese uprooted by warring became attracted to Buddhism`s message of escaping from suffering and karmic debt and converted. Soon monks and nuns traveled to and from the silk route and they also needed protection. Some of these Indian Buddhist monks had knowledge of self defense methods, called Vajramukti, and taught this to the Chinese monks. The Chinese called the methods Shih Yu Hsu Hsiu Hsing (`Lion`s Skillful Practice`). Later it was called Tung Shih Yu Hsu Chuan (`Eastern Lion`s Art of Closed Hand Fighting`) to differentiate the skill from skills of Chinese origin. Another technique introduced into China was called Po Fu or Po Hu (`Tiger Striking`) and involved striking the vital points of the body to cause physical changes in the opponent.

Chang Shou Style Of Martial Arts

Around the same time that Buddhism was introduced to China from India, during the first century, one of the earliest non-military Chinese marital arts styles was developed that was said to be similar to Po Fu. A famous commoner fighting master named Kuo I (or Kuao Chi Yee) lived during the Hou Han Dynasty period (25 to 220 AD). Over time, his ideas and techniques were collected and incorporated into a style that was called `Chang Shou` (long or extended hands) or `Chang Shou Men`. The term `extended hands` referred to Kuo I`s ability to defend himself from opponents while standing a long distance away; up to this time most hand fighting was done under very close quarters fighting conditions. Using his techniques, enemies could be disarmed long before they could close in on him.

Chang Shou was practiced mostly in the Shantung region and was popular to many. The style is considered, based on its descriptions, as the root to the Long Fist styles seen today in northern China, especially in the Shaolin Temple based styles. Many of the techniques that are seen today in Northern long fist styles (such as Tai Tzu Chang Quan, Hong Quan (flood fist)), exhibit the same techniques as those that were developed almost 1,800 years ago in Chang Shou. In the tenth century, the famous Song Dynasty Emperor, Tai Tzu, was said to have mastered Kuo Chi Yi`s Chang Shou and recommended that the Imperial Army learn it as well. He was said to have learned the art to help defend his people against the invading tribes from the north. (Thus, Kuo Chi Yi`s Chang Shou influenced Song Tai Tzu`s Chang Quan, which influenced Shaolin Chang Quan, which influenced Chen Tai Chi`s Chang Quan, Lao Jia Yi Lu, and Pao Chui Er Lu forms. Shantung province General Qi Ji Juang`s famous martial arts book, published during the Ming dyansty, illustrates a 32 Move Long Fist form. This form may give a clue as to what the Chang Shou style may have been like. This same form in the book is said to be the source of the Chen tai chi quan style`s long fist form.

Three Kingdoms Period (220 to 265 AD)

During the early part of the second century AD, a physician named Hua To developed the Five Animals Play chi gung exercises, basing his health enhancing movements on those of animals such as the deer, tiger, bear, monkey, and bird. He developed these exercises in order to prevent or curtail illnesses. The physical movements were designed to strengthen the muscles, increase a cleansing perspiration, lighten the body, and promote the appetite.

The Han Empire by 220 AD began to weaken in power due to nonsupport of the general populace, with the Empire blaming the quick rise of Buddhism and calling for the burning of many temples. Buddhism was swiftly eclipsing Confucianism and open rivalry even erupted between Taoist and Buddhist supporting factions. Eventually, Chinese Buddhism incorporated many of the ideas of Taoism to create a distinctly Chinese brand of Buddhism and tensions lessened between the two.

Barbarian tribes began raiding the northern Yellow River lands of China to such a degree that most of the original Chinese population left the area to them and made large-scale migrations to the southern Yangzi River, causing the Han treasury to become dissolute. Large land holding families took advantage of this situation and established their own private armies in the provinces, decentralizing the Empire. The Han Emperor soon abdicated. General Tsao Tsao helped his son to overcome the Han and seize the throne, establishing the Wei Dynasty (220 to 265 AD). In other areas, people saw this and used their armies to establish rival kingdoms. Southwestern China had the Shu Han Dynasty (221 to 263 AD) and the Southeast of China had the Wu Dynasty (222 to 280 AD). These three kingdoms kept China separate and in a constant state of war against each other. This situation would remain so for the next 350 years.

During the turbulent Three Kingdoms era, Chinese society went deep into feudalism. The social conditions of the times demanded strong wu shu skills and much study went into the further development of martial arts and a means to teach it a better way. Until this time, most martial arts masters perfected one technique by refining all they knew into one representative, efficient, and effective move. Ancient Martial Art styles consisted of chains of loose techniques. But, after much study was made of offensive and defensive techniques during the Three Kingdoms period, prearranged forms for fitness and practice came into existence. Practicing such forms became a pastime, to keep oneself fit and ready. Boxing and sword fighting forms reached a high level for many. Technical books exclusively devoted to practicing these martial arts began to be published. One well known book, the `Han Shu: Yi Nu Zhi` discussed 13 types of martial arts, mentioning at least 100 different fighting techniques.

Since all three kingdoms placed much importance on preparing for war, their leaders equally promoted wu shu among the common people and their military troops. Forms were developed that featured bare hands against the spear, broad sword, and other weapons. Many sword fighters were famous to the people, such as Wang Shue and Shi A. Emperor Wen (Cao Pi) of the Wei Dynasty was so good at sword fighting that he could overcome a long sword with a short one. In the Wu kingdom, imperial court attendants were required to learn boxing forms, called Xiang Pu, as recorded in the Jiang Biao Zhuan of Yu Pu. Many different types of long weapons were developed during these times as well. Great use was made of many types of staffs.

(Next: Part 4: Jin to Tang Dynasties)

That's it for this issue! Click here to read article #19

Sal Canzonieri -

(c) 1997 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri