Natural Traditional Chinese Martial Arts articles by Sal Canzonieri
This was my nineteenth column in Han Wei Wushu, it is about the Roots of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts (Part 4).
|Han Wei Wushu Newsletter
(February-March 1998 issues #33)
Roots of Traditional Chinese Martial Arts - Empty Hand Boxing
Part 4: Jin Dynasty to the Period of Disunity
By Salvatore Canzonieri, New Jersey
Unity for the Chinese Empire was restored briefly in the early years of the Jin dynasty (A.D. 265-420), but the Jin could not long contain the constant invasions of the various nomadic peoples. In A.D. 317, the Jin court was forced to flee from Luoyang and reestablished itself at Nanjing to the south. The transfer of the capital coincided with China`s political fragmentation into a succession of dynasties that was to last from A.D. 304 to 589. During this period the process of sinicization accelerated among the non-Chinese arrivals in the north and among the aboriginal tribesmen in the south. This process was also accompanied by the increasing popularity of Buddhism (introduced into China in the first century A.D.) in both north and south China. Despite the political disunity of the times, there were notable technological advances. The invention of gunpowder (at that time for use only in fireworks) and the wheelbarrow is believed to date from the sixth or seventh century. Advances in medicine, astronomy, and cartography are also noted by historians.
Before the Jin Dynasty, warlords from the different regions took advantage of the turbulent times and used their military might to grab as much power as they could. Martial Arts became a very important survival tool and many ideas were well developed by this time. Unfortunately, the victors often destroyed their opponents without a trace and many military martial arts methods were lost for good. For the next four hundred years, various ancient martial arts were lost and rediscovered many, many times. Many hundreds of thousands of people lost their lives in warfare. Ancient styles became popular in certain regions and then were lost as people were killed or people moved out of a vanquished area. Often, only a few people remained that passed on what they knew to their closest family members or friends. Thus, family styles began to separate themselves from the main body of wu shu (civil and martial) and became more secretive. Ideas developed in isolation and refined or elaborated the military martial arts methods and techniques that had served as their foundation.
Every thirty to fifty years there was a turnover in knowledge of wu shu methods. Even the military troops of the various competing emperors went through periods when wu shu was not taught to them and the troops were expected to attack and defend with rudimentary knowledge of weapons. Eventually some people would be found who had been maintaining a body of martial arts knowledge and they were pressed to pass on their knowledge to teach an emperor`s, nobleman`s, or warlord`s troops. One such martial arts expert of the times was the great General Kuan Yu or Kuan Kung, who developed a long handled hooked blade weapon called the Kuan Dao that was to be used to cleave the legs of horses when fighting on horseback. He became so famous and legendary that over time he has become deified as a god of war, protection, and commerce and many temples were build in his honor all over China.
The few wu shu records and accounts that survived these times speak mostly of professional martial artists. These professional martial artists fell under three categories:
By these times, the art of imperial Shuai Jiao had developed many important wu shu ideas. One was a clamp-like hand grip that was best used for grabbing a fast moving opponent. Another was the strong concentration on the dan tien, which was good for keeping the body`s center of gravity low and which also made much use of the waist area to initiate very strong movements that had great leverage and required little use of one`s own energy or power. Shaui Jiao experts used transitional moving stances (now called horse stance, bow and arrow or front stance, 60/40 or L stance, etc.) when moving against an opponent in such a way that the act of stepping into the stance locked an opponent`s leg and knee joints and caused them to be immobilized or to fall. Some transitional stances were also used for stomping an opponent`s feet. What looked like kicks were really extensions of the leg that resulted in trips and throws. Often, the legs were used to hook around the opponents and uproot them, causing them to lose their balance and fall, further aided by a push to the chest. What looked like hand strikes were really extensions of the arms to connect to an incoming strike and redirect the force and unbalance the opponent again. What looked like joint locks were really hand immobilizing methods that stuck to the moving force of the opponents incoming attack and accelerate this moving inertial force to cause their downfall. Retreats were never done. Shuai Jiao practitioners went beyond an incoming attack at an angle, avoiding the attack evasively without being backed up into a wall. There are no double weighted stance, all stepping is done so as to be always single weighted.
Also, by this time, most martial artists had discovered the technique of dropping the elbow to escape a joint lock and using the great leverage this technique provided to overcome another`s force. Other important wu shu ideas (vitally necessary to modern martial arts) such as evasive actions, the centerline theory, circular fighting, redirecting incoming attacks, and simultaneous offense and defense were long known already to the wu shu practitioners of this period for hundreds of years already, without of which traditional Chinese martial arts would be impossible to do efficiently and effectively.
The use of iron and steel battle armor began to grow more popular during this time period and it changed many things in wu shu. The Ji (halberd) began to go into disuse and the long weapons began to change into the spear, to better pierce the armor. Also, fighting methods began to be adjusted for use with and against armor. Many previous battle techniques did little good against it. The spear became a very important weapon, as it was very good for piercing armor. Spearing used much the same movements as a farmer used in handling a pitch fork or shovel. It was easier to teach soldiers, who now mostly came from among the peasantry - instead of the nobility, with movements that they were already familiar with and which were already known to be efficient and effective. During this time period, the spear was used as a straight thrusting weapon. Soldiers needed to march in a specific way that made spear thrusting more efficient and effective. By holding the spear straight out and from the centerline of the body, with the lower end at the belly region and the pointed end angled up, as the soldiers stepped left and right in half steps, the spear could parry an attacking weapon with little excess movement needed. When the time came to pierce, the soldier would make a quick half step followed quickly by a half step shuffle, putting more thrust behind the spearing action. The continuous, single-weighted, half step shuffle became an important part of martial arts (as seen later in Xing Yi and other similar arts). Also, soldiers would step with their front foot pointed in to protect their lower body and to help in parrying (as seen later in Ba Gua's Kuo Bu). The long spear was also used to fight against cavalry attacks. Soldiers would dig the end of their spear into the ground at a 45 degree angle, hold its middle, and the spear tip would then impale the horses of the fast charging opponents.
Western Jin Dynasty (265- 317 AD)
The three kingdoms of Wu, Wei, and Shu waged incessant war on each other and eventually all weakened at great cost of people and resources. In the year 265 AD, a powerful Wei general named Ssu Ma Yen usurped the Wei throne in Luoyang and with his troops established the Western Jin (or Chin) Dynasty in North China. By 280 AD, he was able to reunite his areas with the other kingdoms in the south and under one rule. Stability was short, for soon after his death in 290 AD, the empire again weakened and started to break apart. Once again, principle land holding families held much power and were able to appoint and rank government officials , under a nine-grade controller system that was instituted. Thus, the wishes of the leading families in the area were more apt to be reflected.
One of the most accurate records of the times is the Book of the Jin Dynasty, in it is described all the historical events and interesting affairs of the time. Many references are made concerning the martial arts. The book mentions that in the cities of Ying Chuan and Xiang Cheng, contests of Xiang Pu (a type of San Shou boxing) were regularly held and the cities were rivals with each other. The Book of the Jin Dynasty also tells how the intellectuals of the Jin court began to disfavor the carrying of real swords as being uncouth and so instead began carrying symbolic wooden swords as part of their official dress. Overtime, the wearing sword lost its defense value among the scholarly members of the government. Also dating from the Jin period, stone relics from tombs have been found that depict fighters engaging in Shou Bo (Grappling). Some Xiang Pu and Shou Bo fights were held against Hu nationals from the non-Chinese northern tribes.
Eastern Jin Dynasty (317 - 420 AD)
Non-Chinese tribes from the north again began to invade the bordering regions, after being long held back by the previous Han Dynasty forces, around 304 AD. They were searching pastoral lands in the fertile northern regions and their invasions and raids made much of the Chinese people from the northern lands migrate to the south. By 317 AD, the tribes had managed to wrest the area away from the Jin Empire. The Jin Dynasty lost its seat in Luoyang and had to reestablish the capitol in the south at Nanjing (Nanking). It did little to regain the northern lands and was able to successfully keep the northern tribes from invading the south.
Sixteen Kingdoms or the Era of Disunity (317 - 589 AD)
After the capital was moved, the empire fragmented politically into many separate kingdoms with the north being overrun by various non-Chinese tribes and governed by a succession of non-Chinese dynasties and the south by a sequence of four major Chinese dynasties, all of which used Nanjing as their capitol. Each of these southern dynasties was overthrown by their own generals. The Northern Dynasties included the Northern Wei, the Eastern Wei, the Western Wei, and the Northern Zhou. These were set up as semi-Chinese states, containing the nucleus of their armed forces run by non-Chinese military aristocracies. The Southern Dynasties included the Song, Qi, Liang, and Chen dynasties. These all occupied the former territory of Wu, but they were rather weak politically and militarily as they were plagued by internal feuds and revolts. For 350 years, the previous Han Empire remained divided.
Northern Wei Dynasty (386 - 534 AD)
By the year 420 AD, the Toba tribe was able to unite all of North China under the Northern Wei Dynasty, but factionalism caused it to last only fifty years. As the northern invaders mixed with the Chinese and the fleeing Chinese mixed with the southern aborigines, these two groups, with the official push of the Wei government, slowly began to accept the Han Chinese ways over their own and soon adopted Han names, customs, dress, language, etc.
The northern tribes took greatly to Chinese wu shu and they eagerly learned them and developed great martial artists among them. Chinese martial arts became very popular amongst their rulers as well. The Book of the Jin Dynasty tells of many tribal leaders who were expert in the Chinese ways of horseback riding, bow and arrow shooting, broadsword, Shou Bu, Xiang Pu, etc. In turn, the weapons of these northern peoples were introduced to the Chinese peoples, such as the whip, mace, various cudgel, iron hammer, and others.
The training of wu shu became better systematized to allow for many new types of peoples to learn it more efficiently and effectively. This was done by the use of concise rhyming formulas (martial arts `songs`) to aid in the learning of weapons and bare hand fighting. Thus, true standardized `forms` or routines (Da Lu) came into use for the various styles of wu shu. Forms were made (and still are) so that the first move was the most versatile and most useful against the average opponent. Each additional move was a variation of the first and was used to counter a more experienced opponent. By the end of a form, the moves were for dealing with only the most experienced opponent. This is the reason the beginning moves are the most emphasized when learning a form. Since the first move is done the most in learning a form, it is expected that this move is the most ingrained in memory and is thus chosen to be the move that can best deal with the most situations. The book Bao Pu Zi, written by the Taoist Ge Hung (283 - 363 AD), described how he learned how to master long weapons via these formulas or forms. Many Taoists of these times were interested in the use of the rattan shield straight and broad swords, the cudgel, and the Ji, and were renowned as experts in their use. The use of double weapons came into vogue during this time period as well.
Throughout this whole period, Buddhism grew much in popularity, although Taoism maintained itself. Confucianism became marginalized and soon degraded to ritual keeping. Many intellectuals became seriously interested in Buddhism and explored its possible connections to religious Taoism. Amongst the common people, Buddhism grew to the point that it almost eclipsed all the other Chinese religions and philosophies. Previous Chinese philosophies subtly blended with Indian Buddhism to form a unique brand of Chinese Buddhism that shared some ideas with Taoism.
In 452 AD, Northern Wei emperor Wen Cheng also converted to Buddhism. The records of Xu Gao Seng Zhuan state that in the palace, the monks were prepared vegetarian meals. The Emperor and Empress did the same and after the meals, they would practice Wu Yi. Thus, they practiced wu shu as a health enhancing exercise (before the existence of Shaolin). The first Buddhist temple was the White Horse Temple at Luoyang in Henan province (this place developed their own style of martial arts, called White Horse Boxing or Bai Ma Quan). In 495 AD, Emperor Xiao Wen built a Buddhist temple in the Song Shan Mountains for Buddhist monk Ba Tuo. Records from Shaolin state that Ba Tuo had two disciples that were martial arts experts (30 years before the legendary arrival of Buddhidharma), named Hui Chang and Seng Chou. The book Tai Ping Guang Ji, from the time period, states that the young monks there liked to exercise, especially with Shou Bu and Jiao Li (an early name for Shuai Jiao): `Many monks in their spare time like to do Jiao Li as entertainment`. (These records prove that wu shu, especially San Shou and Shuai Jiao, were already known and practiced at Shaolin for many years before the arrival of the legendary Damo/Buddhidharma here in 520 AD.)
Damo was said to have lived at Shaolin until his death in 528 AD, although there are no records that conclusively can prove this. He is considered the founder of the Chan or Zen Buddhist sect there. Chan Buddhism has had an enormous influence on the further development of traditional Chinese martial arts (and of Japanese Karate). Its nonviolent philosophical ideas and tenets have become incorporated into those of Wu Shu, making it less aligned to military warfare and more aligned to self enrichment and balance via the integration of the body, mind, and spirit. From him, also are attributed the three health enhancing methods that Shaolin became famous for: the Muscle Tendon Changing (I Chin Ching) chi gung exercises, the Brain/Bone Marrow Cleansing (Hsi Sui Ching) chi gung exercises, and the 18 Luohan Quan (fist) technique exercises. The purpose of these exercises was to invigorate the body by uniting physical movements with deep breathing methods, generating more energy.
The earliest recorded complete martial arts system that is known to have been developed at Shaolin is Rou Quan or Soft Boxing (a very soft and slow type of martial arts with sudden explosive movements that are like Taijiquan and Ba Gua but steps like Xin Yi or Xing Yi Quan), and from that the slow/fast Luo Han Quan was later created that also emphasized combining qigong with marital movements. Shaolin Rou Quan was said by some to be passed down by the Monk Chou Chen-shi, one of the earliest martial monks from the Songshan Shaolin Temple. Others says that it was supposedly developed by Master Hui Ke, the second Patriarch of Songshan Shaolin Temple. It consists of 3 Sets, which were considered "Closed Doors" Forms, taught only to Senior Monks. The form is done slowly like in Taijiquan, one suppposed "to punch as though a monk is lighting incence mindfully, kick as though a cat is steping over a hump gingerly, and move as though a woman is walking onto a floating bridge steadily." These were supposed to have been restricted to higher level monks for their health, self-cultivation and personal transformation. They are used to practice working the qi and internal power of the breath combined with external movement. Like qi gong this is achieved through control by the mind. Rou quan is similar to chen taiji in that it combines slow soft movements with occasional 'explosive' ones. Rou quan is executed on a straight line, at varying speeds. When practicing Rou Quan one learns how to control the direction of the opponent's internal power. The practice of the movements also helps to keep the body healthy as the pressure from the qi and inner power are increased. This improves circulation and removes toxins and waste though the breath and perspiration. Rou Quan was originally composed of 13 Luohan qigong postures and movements, later these were expanded into various martial movements. The postures and techniques seen in Rou Quan can also be seen in these later Shaolin forms: Xiao Hong Quan, Tai Tzu Chang Quan, and 18 Luohan Quan.
While the existence of Damo has yet to be satisfactorily proven, it is known that some time during the sixth century AD, the monks at Shaolin developed their own style of martial arts that was wedded to chi gung movements. The origin of these chi gung exercises is also unclear. When compared, the I Chin Ching and the Hsi Sui Ching turn out to be very similar to the Doyan chi gung exercises that the Taoists had been practicing since before the Han Dynasty period. Books have been found in ancient Taoist temple libraries that describe and explain the I Chi Ching exercises to great length. Also, artifacts found in excavations that date from the Han Dynasty show exercises that are very similar to those of the I Chin Ching. The chi gung exercises at Shaolin follow the Taoist Jing Lou theory of traditional Chinese medicine (which led to accupuncture), which sees the human body as being covered by a network of internal passages that travel throughout the body, known as the main and collateral channels, through which `vital` energy circulates. But, by far, the coupling of these two chi gung exercises with martial movements was one of the most important developments in martial arts. Whether the Shaolin Buddhists originated it (Indian Buddhists had similar exercises of their own and their own martial arts) or they adapted it from Taoist ideas, people came to associate them with Shaolin and traveled there to specifically learn about this method, because of their great invigorating effects and promise of longevity and good health.
As far as the fist art goes, retired military officials, rebels, and malcontents sometimes deemed to spend their last days in the peaceful surroundings of Shaolin. The Chan sect espoused tolerance, and thus many people from all walks of life were allowed to stay there. These people may have taught the monks various self defense techniques to pass the time and to maintain the physique. Any martial arts they may have learned were especially necessary to help guard the temple from raiding thieves and also to protect the monks from highway robbers when they traveled on the long pilgrimage road to and from India and elsewhere. Plus, so many wars had been fought for so long all over China, that the average male at some time in his life had been conscripted, making at least rudimentary self defense techniques common knowledge amongst a broad cross section of the population. Few people entering the monasteries would have been ignorant of at least some fighting methods during this time period.
Since records have shown that Shou Bu and Jiao Li had been practiced at Shaolin since its earliest days (495 AD), it follows that in the seclusion of the temple, the people at Shaolin had the time to develop their own style of martial arts. The monks at Shaolin also created a method of defending themselves against the attacks of wild animals, called Xin Yi Ba ("heart and mind" or intention grasps), which mimicked the actions of animals and human labor. The techniques of Xin Yi Ba come from the movements of farming that the monks did daily in their chores, such as pitching hay, shoveling, hoeing, stepping on a spade, etc. These moves served as the base for variations and combinations of these movements that they described in terms of animals, such as dragon, cat, tiger, horse, lizard, birds, etc. But, Xin Yi Ba at this time was a rudimentary practice that was not yet a complete system of boxing/self defense routines. Xin Yi Ba is part of a series of 144 different lines of exercise routines for generating health and self defense. Shaolin's Xin Yi Ba movements and postures share much of those later seen in the Xin Yi Ba routine of the Lue Ho Xin Yi Quan style seen in Luoyang and other parts of Henan province.
By combining and consolidating the best techniques from the various martial arts known at the time, the monks eventually developed the Eighteen Luohan Quan out of the Shou Bu and Jiao Li they practiced for fun and exercise. This early Luohan Quan is considered both the nucleus and the origin of all the various boxing routines that have come from Shaolin. The original version of Luohan Quan was composed of 18 main techniques that combined grappling, throwing, joint locks, hand strikes, as well as kicks, knee and elbow strikes. Its self defense methods emphasized unpredictable, circular, hard and soft actions with simultaneous defense and offense, all done with continuous, connected movements. These movements are simple, practical, and very powerful, while requiring little room to execute them. Strikes are done at an angle to the opponent and the body maintains itself in a springy, flexible state, even while striking. While moving, one was to be as swift as the wind; when striking, stop with the impact of a rock. Also, one was to have loose agility, like the relaxed state of a drunk. Stepping movements proceed in a straight line direction, even while the body moves up or down, forward or backward, withdrawing or advancing, and sidestepping. The extended hand, the eye, the body, and the foot are all kept in alignment.
Furthermore, Luohan techniques were combined with chi gung breathing techniques, which the monks incorporated from the Taoist Jingluo theory of Chinese medicine (where the human body is seen as being covered by a network of internal passages through which vital energy circulates). Postures and movements from the muscle/tendon stretching exercises (I Chin Ching) were also embedded into the framework of the Luohan Quan techniques as well. The muscles, tendons, and joints, especially those of the waist (Kua), are compressed and expanded during various types of powerful movements (jings), generating much energy. Also, most importantly, because the monks were Buddhists, they developed a martial art that was more sophisticated than mere kicking and punching. Instead, borrowing from Jiao Li, it was centered on takedowns. The idea was to evade, redirect, overcome, and takedown the opponent with swiftness and vigor, without struggling or fighting. It was meant to be a non-confrontational martial art that could be used both for exercise and self defense.
The combating skills and techniques of the `18 Luohan Quan Hands` collected the best wu shu techniques of the times (and based on the Luohan statue poses found at Shaolin). Furthermore, routine moves contained all the movements of the Five Elements (as seen later in Xing Yi Quan). At high level execution, Luohan Quan techniques can be specifically compared and correlated to the free-flowing, internal/external takedown techniques that are done in the art of Shuai Jiao (or Jiao Li as it was called in ancient days). The combination of many of these Luohan techniques can be combined and executed in quick succession to form a throw or takedown. During the Northern Wei time period, Shuai Jiao was said to contain 72 individual postures, and endless combinations of these, to form many takedown techniques.
Luohan shares the same evasive tactics of Shaui Jiao, emphasizing circular and redirective actions, emanating from the center of the body, while moving the body so as a coherent unit. Likewise, Luohan Quan contains the waist directed movements, low dan tien emphasis, takedowns, the leg locking transitional stances (shifting from stances as leg locks), backwards cross stepping, trips, hooks, and other characteristics of Shuai Jiao.
At low level execution, to a lesser extent, Luohan Quan compares to the ancient boxing art of San Shou (or Shou Bu as it was once called), sharing its feinting actions, joint locks (an eagle claw handed grab), body strikes, and kneeing/elbowing. Over time, the 18 Luohan form expanded to a 27, a 54, and an 108 postures form. Essentially, the higher level Shaolin takedowns became secret `closed door` teachings.
On the surface, at its crudest level, Luohan Quan seemed to a set of striking movements. But, at its highest levels, Luohan Quan, at this time in history, was very much both an internal and external martial art, with elements of wu shu (joint locks, pressure point strikes, takedowns, etc.) much like those later seen in Tai Chi Quan, Xing Yi/ Xin Yi, and Ba Gua. Over time, centuries later, as low level practitioners increased and the higher skills died out, Luohan Quan degenerated into Shaolin Quan, a general name for a very external type of hard training and long range boxing. Never the less, over the coming centuries, Luohan Quan`s original 18 techniques went on to influence most of the martial arts styles seen today, including the Okinawan, Korean, and Japanese ones. By the Ming and Ching Dynasty, Shaolin's Luohan routines changed many times and were influenced by other long fist styles as well, with new routines being created (such as Xiao Luohan, Da Luohan, Lao Luohan, and others). Some say that Fanzi Quan was one such influence by those later time periods. Others instead say that Luohan Quan was an early influence on Fanzi Quan.
Unfortunately, the wars between north and south that ensued as the Wei Dynasty lost ground caused much turmoil in the Henan region. The result was that the monastery at Shaolin accidentally burned down around 535 AD, either from looters or enemy soldiers, and caused the monks to scatter in the area. Attempts were made to rebuild and repopulate the area. But, the Northern Zhou Dynasty attacked the area and under Emperor Wu (who reigned from 561 to 566 AD), Shaolin was totally ransacked and emptied out. After the Zhou Emperor died, people returned to rebuild Shaolin again. Also, more attention was paid to protecting the grounds from attack and efforts were made to fortify the temple and emphasis was given to making the monks physically strong and powerful.
By the end of the next two centuries, the high level (takedowns) version of the form was forgotten, except among those few that had passed it down amongst their family after leaving Shaolin, and the form degenerated into the hard, external San Shou version of the form. This was the reason why people later sought to develop the `soft` arts from Shaolin (such as Tai Chi Quan), because they were attempting to rectify the low level crude `hard` execution of the forms. Since the high level version was mostly forgotten, people worked on their own to develop a softer, internal, version of wushu that again made excellent use of chin na and takedowns instead of just punching and kicking.
As a result, over the next 1,000 years, internal and semi-internal martial arts such as Sung Tai Tzu Long Fist, Wu Tang Long Fist, Hsing I, Northern Praying Mantis, Da & Xiao Hung Quan, Five Animals Shaolin, Chen & Yang Tai Chi, and Ba Gua Zhang, among others, exhibit many techniques that can be traced to the original Luohan Shaolin form. Also, each of these styles continued to maintain the Muscle Tendon Changing (I Chin Ching) and the Brain/Bone Marrow Cleansing (Hsi Sui Ching) chi gung exercises at their core. Luohan was the style that the founders of these internal-type of styles used as a foundation to develop their more sophisticated ideas from.
Liang Dynasty (502 - 557 AD)
In the south, in the area of Anhui Province, under Emperor Wu, Buddhism thrived here as well, as did literature, art, and philosophy. The Book of Sui recorded that books called Ma Shou Pu compiled teaching materials about Wu Yi, one being written by Emperor Wen of Liang. Around 520 AD, the dhyana sect Buddhist Monk Damo or Buddhidharma was said to have arrived in Liang from Persia or India and spoken to the Emperor. Damo was displeased how Buddhism was now being followed as a ritualistic religion rather than for its spiritual intent and he left for the Shaolin monestary in the Wei kingdom, as described previously. Liang Emperor Ni Wan Ti (535 - 551 AD) was recorded as being able to defend himself against any attacker while empty handed.
The Western Wei defeated the Eastern Wei in battle in 577 AD. Soon after, in 581 AD, one of its generals took over the seat of power and established the Sui Dynasty. Soon it was able to reunite all of China under one empire again.
(Continued in next issue - Sui to Tang Dynasty)
(c) 1998 / 2007 BGT ENT / Sal Canzonieri