Martial Arts in Popular Film
Martial arts and martial arts fiction have been a part of Chinese culture for centuries and no other part of traditional Chinese culture has impacted modern popular culture as much as the martial arts. From the fourteenth century novel, Romance of the Three Kingdoms to the early martial arts films of the 1960s, to recent years films featuring martial arts film such as “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” the genre has continuously captured the imagination of audiences world-wide and particularly in developed western nations. Audiences and critics are understandably impressed by the physical feats performed in martial arts films, yet the origins and authenticity of the martial arts portrayed in these films are often (if not completely) ignored in discussion on martial arts films.
In this essay I will examine how the Chinese government’s varying support of, and changing attitudes towards, the national martial arts movement during the twentieth century has shaped the way in which martial arts are portrayed in film. In addition, I will examine the changing attitudes towards martial arts at key moments in twentieth century China and how these events shaped the consciousness of film genre. It is my assertion that martial arts as portrayed in films are often portrayed as “traditional” and yet, have their origins in the Guoshuguan (National Martial Arts Schools) movement of the 1920s and 30s. Furthermore, evidence will show that the martial arts in films are greatly exaggerated in an attempt to overcome past western attitudes which characterized China as the “Sick Man of the East.”
The term martial arts was first used to describe the numerous fighting arts of China by foreign observers in the late nineteenth century. In China, martial arts are known by many names, the most common are gungfu, guoshu or wushu. In pre-modern China, martial arts were primarily practiced as a form of self-defense, meditation, and spiritual development. Over the centuries different “styles” developed as villages or clans would develop into a particular system over generations. It is from these early clan and family origins that Chinese martial arts schools inherited their structure. The Chinese state would often recruit the best martial artists from around the country to be their personal guards, but even within the Imperial Guard, styles retained their hierarchical structure. As the popularity of a style grew practitioners often formed public schools on their own to teach their art. As noted earlier, these schools were influenced by Confucian family structure. Students referred to their teachers as shifu, which translates in English to “father teacher,” and their classmates become their “school brothers.”
During the late Qing dynasty there were countless martial art schools in China that often competed against each other (usually on a local level) for entertainment as well as bragging rights. During this time China was in the early stages of contact with European nations who had interest in colonizing China. The Chinese resisted the European push during the Opium Wars in the middle of the 1800s, but were unsuccessful in driving out the foreign powers. The result of China’s loss in the Opium Wars was the establishment of areas in China that were under the direct control of the British Empire. These “Treaty Ports” were increasingly resented by certain elements within Chinese society including Triad societies, martial arts clans and the Empress Dowager Cixi.
The Boxer Rebellion
In late 1899 and early 1900, Cixi organized a “Rebellion” with the intent of driving out the eight nation coalition of “Foreign Devils.” In addition to the Imperial Army there was an additional force that was made up of martial arts societies. According to which account one reads, first-hand views on the Boxer Rebellion vary drastically. Accounts by Westerners and pro-Western / pro-Christian Chinese, portraed the rebellion as a brutal act by barbaric lunatics (the Boxers) who slaughtered innocent people. Martial arts folklore on the other hand traditionally view the Rebellion as the last heroic attempt of the Boxers to keep foreign powers out of China.
The Boxers often held banners with strong political slogans, at first these were directed at the failing Qing dynasty. However, their focus shifted from anti-Qing to anti-foreign in attempt to build national support and national awareness. The Boxers were armed only with traditional Chinese weapons and the belief that their martial arts skills would protect them from bullets. These weapons were not enough to repel the western forces.
In 1905, British Naval Lieutenant C.C. Dix, recounted his time in China during the Boxer uprising. He describes the Boxer forces as “immature youths” and “senile old men” armed only with “swords and spears” who were only capable of murdering a few “helpless missionaries.” The Rebellion was a personal and political disaster for the Boxers. In addition to many being killed their credibility and position is society was deeply scarred. The Empress Dowager Cixi was only able to escape because of her chief body-guard Yin Fu, himself a very accomplished martial artist.
In the decade after the Rebellion, as foreign influence increased and China became more involved with internal struggles, poverty and political chaos drove many rural people including martial artists into cities. In addition to joining the military, (the largest employer of martial artists), martial artists were often able to gain employment as private bodyguards or as (martial arts) teachers in public schools. In 1904, the Qing government, in attempt to modernize, decreed that martial arts should be replaced by military drills as the physical education taught in schools.
The shift from martial arts to military drills and western calisthenics left many martial arts teachers out of work. Many martial artists had to take “day jobs” or teach martial arts in their spare time. Others restricted their teaching to family members and gave up on teaching martial arts in order to work fulltime. There were a few martial artists who were unwilling to give up teaching martial arts and founded public martial arts schools of their own. One such martial artist was a Huo Yuanjia. Huo gained a reputation for himself by defeating Japanese, Russian and British “strongmen” and fighters. European strongmen often went to Asia to demonstrate their power on the “Sick Men of Asia.” In one such incident in 1909 a Russian (or English) strongman claimed he could defeat any “Sick Man of Asia.” After hearing this Huo Yuanjia sent one of his top disciples to meet the challenge. According to one account, the Russian witnessed his opponents pre-fight training and fled.
Jingwu Association – The Proto-type for Guoshuguan
Capitalizing on this fame, Huo Yuanjia founded the Shanghai Pure Martial Calisthenics School (Jingwu ticao xuexiao; hereafter referred to as Jingwu Association) in 1910. The goal of Jingwu Association was to bring China’s best martial artists together to preserve China’s indigenous martial arts and improve China’s image at home and in the eyes of foreigners. The success of the Jingwu Association would inspire others to open their own schools following their example.
These pioneering martial artists worked hard to distance themselves from the “religious cults” of the past that had participated in the rebellion. Their goal was to expand and promote the idea of martial arts as a form of “physical culture.” The glory of the Jingwu’s early days would be short-lived. Less then a year after the founding the Qing dynasty fell to Nationalist Kuomintang forces and China was thrown into chaos. Over the next decade Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist Army brought China back under the control of a single party.
The Kuomintang and May Fourth Movement
The Kuomintang government took control of China’s central government in 1912 and set about rebuilding China’s national identity. There were two main schools of thought on how China should proceed. The “traditionalists” believed that China should retreat within and isolate itself from foreign influence as much as possible. Traditionalists were often from the established upper class neo-Confucian, Qing loyalists who were satisfied with the way things were and were satisfied with traditional explanations for why things were the status-quo.
Sun Yat-Sen and other western educated Chinese intellectuals wanted to bring some of what they had seen in the west, back with them to their homeland. These pro-Western Chinese would be the nucleus of what would later become the alternative school of thought. Formed out of the student movements in May of 1919, the “May Fourth Movement” began in the universities and spread to writers, intellectuals and middle class working people. The doctrine of the May Fourth Movement was to promote western style education and to embrace rational thought based on science, not tradition or superstition. One of the leaders of the May Fourth Movement and one of its greatest writers, Lu Xun, was praised by many of China’s leaders including Mao Zedong for his progressive thinking and he is often called “the father” of modern Chinese fiction.
Lu Xun and the leaders of the May Fourth Movement saw martial arts as a prime example of the failed beliefs of the past. Lu Xun was one the harshest critics of martial arts. In an 1918 New Youth article, he pointed to the failure of the boxer rebellion as the evidence that martial arts had no place in the modern world. Lu Xun’s views were countered by one of the pupils of the Jingwu Academy, Chen Tiesheng. Chen (who was very well educated) argued that Lu Xun had “no knowledge of the past” and that he was confusing “bandits” with martial artists. He also pointed out that Lu Xun’s beloved western nations also had “Boxing” as a form of sport.
The debate over the use of martial arts as physical education continued throughout the early republic. During this time many martial artists from different schools had moved into cities like Shanghai, Nanjing, and Beijing where they came into contact with people from other schools. Some masters formed friendships and often send each other students or assist a friend who had been challenged to a fight. This increasing brotherhood among groups of high level martial artists began to be noticed my members of the KMT government who recognized the potential for using the martial art schools as a tool for building brotherhood and national pride among young people. In 1916, Sun Yat-sen attended a Jingwu exhibition after which he stated that martial arts were China’s “national essence” and that he hoped “ young students, soldiers, and compatriots from all walks of life will all pay close attention to this.”
Many did pay attention, during the next decade many martial arts manuals were published by some of the era’s top martial artists. In 1928, Chang Kai-Shek (Sun Yat-sen’s successor) established the Guoshu Research Academy. Initially, the academy was split into two schools the Wudang and the Shaolin. The Wudang side included what are commonly known as “internal” or “soft” martial arts like Bagua Zhang (Pakua Chang) or Taijiquan (Tai Chi Chuan) while the Shaolin side focused on “external” arts such as Long Fist (Taiju Changchuan) or White Crane. While the structure was meant to increase the “openness” between different martial art schools, it resulted in numerous fights between rival instructors. There was even one instance when two rival instructors attacked each other with spears.
Different Types of Martial Arts
A question which often arises in any discussion of martial arts, concerns the difference between internal (a.k.a.Wudang or Neijia literally “inner-family”) and external (a.k.a Shaolin or Weijia literally “external-family”) styles. There are hundreds of styles of martial arts in China and thousands of stylistic variations. However, most styles fall into one of these two categories. Styles are also classified as being “soft” or “hard.” Sometimes “soft” is mistakenly used to describe all internal styles. Confusion often arises because the majority of external styles are “hard,” yet there are both “hard” and “soft” internal styles. “Hard” and “soft” refer to the quality of energy expressed and condition of mind, not the condition of the physical body.
All Chinese martial arts use a variety of punches, kicks, elbow and knee strikes, as well as throws, joint locks, and leg sweeps. The distinction between internal and external martial arts is not in what the moves are, but in how the moves are done. The fundamental issue in the difference between internal and external is how power is generated and expressed. There are styles that fall somewhere in the middle between internal and external, however to avoid complication they will be left out of this discussion.
In external styles such as Northern Shaolin Long Fist (Taiju Changchuan), power is primarily generated by muscle tension, inertia, force and application of physical and centrifugal force. In essence, external martial arts focus on training the external superstructure of the body (muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones) to become as strong as possible through exercises like push-ups, sit-ups, weight-lifting and the form practices. External forms tend to be more linear than internal forms with strikes that usually end in a snapping or exploding type motion. Internal styles often use more subtle circular movements.
Internal styles like Taijiquan or Bagua Zhang, use all of the same physical mechanics as external martial arts however, rather than using muscle tension and physical strength to generate power they rely on relaxation of the physical body, sensitivity, and the intention of the mind to control an opponent. Internal martial arts training is characterized by use of “Nei-gong” (inner-work) to develop a body that is alive and flexible. A great deal of control of breath, spine, joints, internal organs and the movement of energy (known as Qi) through specific meridians (similar to the meridians in acupuncture) are characteristic of the “Nei-gong” used in internal martial arts. Correct body alignment is an important part of both schools, however, internal schools generally have a more sophisticated understanding (and control) of the body’s “micro-alignments” and emphasize these alignments more then external styles.
Both internal and external martial arts contain solo and two-person practices which train sensitivity, various stepping pattern, different types footwork and various hand and foot strikes which can be performed at a variety of speeds, heights, and lengths. In combat both internal and external arts are extremely effective, it is the person doing the fighting that determines the winner - not the style. One major difference in the styles is the longevity of the practitioners, while most external martial artists begin to decline when they reach middle age, there are numerous accounts of Bagua Zhang and Taijiquan masters in China in their 70s and 80s defeating challengers in their 20s and 30s.
External and internal martial arts are often a continuum, many people start with external forms when they are young and turn to internal arts as they grow older and become unable to meet the physical demands of external styles or when they feel that there is something missing from their current art.
Longevity is a major goal of internal martial arts. Many of the same techniques used by martial artists have also been used as form of self-healing long before they were applied to martial arts. The earliest records of internal arts date to around the 17th century. “Nei-gong” first appeared some time in the Third or Fourth century BCE. Another element that is common to but not exclusive-to internal arts is the connection with Taoist spiritual practices known as “internal alchemy.” Many of the practitioners of internal martial arts incorporate Taoist spiritual practices into their arts. At this level martial arts become more than a system of self-defense they become a form of physical maintenance and spiritual fulfillment. This phenomenon is unique to the internal arts, while many external artists are also very spiritual, they generally do not practice their spiritual practices within their martial arts. For example, many practitioners of Shaolin martial arts also practice Chan (known as Zen in Japan) sitting meditation to supplement their martial arts.
The “internal/external” debate has been going on almost as long as there have been martial arts in China. The division of the Guoshu Research Academy did little to quiet this debate. Within a few months of the founding of the Academy, the directors of the school abolished the split-school model and renamed the school the Nanjing Central Guoshu Academy (Zhongyang Guoshuguan). Under the direction of Zhang Zhijiang the emphasis of the guoshuguan (national martial art schools) was on the transformation of martial arts into “national arts.”
Martial Arts “Golden Age”
Andrew Morris in his book “Marrow of a Nation” points out that the guoshuguan were established primarily as a way for the “urban bourgeoisie” to experience the “dangerous and mysterious, Chinese martial tradition.” While there is some truth to Morris’ argument, I would argue that the Guoshuguan gave Chinese youths exposure to the martial arts on much larger scale then previously available and provided a central point around which a Chinese National identity could be built.
[Many of the young men and women that joined the Guoshu Academies (there were more then thirty schools by 1933) would keep the arts alive during the Cultural Revolution when martial arts became the target of Communist reform.]
The period from 1928-1936 was “the golden age” of martial arts in China, more than (Guoshuguan) schools flourished throughout China. As a result of this popularity and in 1928 China held its first national martial arts competition. This event has become a “legendary” event in contemporary martial arts circles. Many schools trace their lineage to competitors in the competition. Bruce Frantzis recounts his teacher Liu Hung Chieh’s experience in the competition in his book Power of Internal Martial Arts: Combat Secrets of Tai Chi, Hsing-I, and Bagua. According to Liu, the competition ended early due to excessive injury of the competitiors. At the end of the competition, seventeen winners were awarded the title “guoshi” or national warrior.
It is important to note that there was a martial art world outside of the national academies that continues to this day. This smaller group of martial artists have never been concerned with fame or public recognition. They are committed to preserving the martial arts in the more traditional form of the pre-modern era with emphasis on training fighting skills, energy cultivation and spirituality. In these schools knowledge is often passed directly from teacher to disciple, usually from father to son (non-family members must traditionally undergo an adoption ceremony to gain access to the inner teaching) often in private, over many years.
In recent years, teachers both in China and the West, have begun to open their teachings to non-family members without the requirement of adoption, elaborate ceremony, or special oaths. This is due in large part to the demands of modern living, which are not conducive to spending eight to ten hours a day training martial arts. Also, in China and elsewhere, young people generally have more interest in business and science, or Western sports than they do in traditional martial arts.
National Arts and National Pride
The initial reception to the guoshuguan movement was not all positive. By the mid-1930s critics began to speak out against the Guoshuguan community. These critics echoed the criticisms of the May Fourth writers and like the earlier critics recalled the mistakes of the Boxer Rebellion. These critics feared that if the schools were allowed to continue they might again try to encourage political uprising. Members of the Guoshu community were also chided as “illiterate” and “unscientific.” In 1931, Wu Zhiqing answered the critics in his work A Scientized Guoshu, in which he attempted to explain martial arts in physiological and psychological terms and show that the martial arts were applicable to life in modern China. When one examines the curriculum of Guoshuguans it becomes clear that the education provided was quite well rounded for a school dedicated to martial arts. Students not only learned various forms of martial arts (both empty hand and weapons) the curriculum also included music, science, mathematics, physiology, history and politics.
The martial arts community was not insulated from the larger political trends taking place in China. During the 1930s, China was in the midst of modernization and there was a growing movement to develop a mass physical education (tiyu) program to promote physical health and national pride. The Guoshuguans fit very well into that model, the same model would later be applied to medical and trade schools. In 1935 the Central Guoshu Academy joined with senior Kuomintang officials and the Central Guoshu and Physical Education Research Association was founded. Much of the terminology for the Guoshuguan movement was adopted from the larger tiyu (physical education) movement. As part of this movement there were attempts to “simplify” traditional martial arts to make them more accessible to the masses.
The martial art most commonly publicized was Taijiquan and the most publicized book on Taijiquan was Chu Minyi’s Taiji Calisthenics Instructions and Commands in which Chu removed many of the traditional aspects of Taijiquan such as martial applications and replaced them with western style exercises which retained the healing aspects of Taijiquan.
In large part due to the popularity of his book, Chu was chosen to demonstrate Taijiquan at the 1936 Olympics is Berlin. China sent a delegation that included a nine-member Guoshu team. The head-coach of the team was Chen Pan-ling who would later play a major role in the preservation of Guoshu during the Cultural Revolution. By the mid 1930s many martial artists in China began to envision a “new age” where martial arts would become a symbol for Chinese nationalism and a source of pride for Chinese people. But this new age would have to wait.
The War Years and Taiwan
By 1937, China had entered into an “all-out” war with Japan. With the onset of the war many of the Guoshu schools were closed. The Central Guoshu Academy was moved from Nanjing at the onset of the war and would not find a stable home until after the war. During the war many martial artists joined the Kuomintang army or the People’s Army to fight against the Japanese. Others fled to Taiwan or the United States.
In 1946, the Central Guoshu Academy was reestablished but this move was largely symbolic because the school had little money and no support from the state. Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949 and banned martial arts practice completely. The Central Guoshu Academy and the smaller schools around the country were closed. When the Kuomintang government fled to Taiwan, some of the nations top martial artists went with them. In an attempt to preserve the integrity of Chinese martial arts for future generations a Guoshu Academy was established in Taiwan under the leadership of Chen Pan Ling. Chen had been an instructor at the Guoshu Academy in Henan Province before the war and he the head coach of the 1936 Olympic Guoshu team. Robert W. Smith, an American writer and martial artist called Chen “the most knowledgeable person on Chinese martial arts in the world.”
Chen headed the Chinese Martial Arts Association in Taiwan from 1959 until his death in 1967. This association and its members would be largely responsible for the preservation of traditional martial arts during the 1950s and 60s. Like the earlier Guoshuguans in China this new incarnation also sought to use martial arts to promote nationalism and unity.
The Individual body and the National Body
The connection between the individual and the nation was not a new idea in the 1950s. In China as well as in other countries like the USA and the USSR there were government programs to encourage exercise and hygiene. The assumption was that if people strengthened their physical bodies they would be better suited for participation in the defense and maintenance of the nation.
The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wanted to adopt a Soviet style physical education program. The government launched propaganda campaigns that were meant to encourage exercise and physical health and to overcome the stigma of the “Sick Man of Asia” that had plagued China since the 1890s.
Propaganda posters would often include images of young people competing in western style games or working hard in factories. The titles of these posters often invoked traditional images with a modern twist. In the 1976 poster “Dragons Rising, Tigers Leaping” young athletes are seen jumping hurtles while enthusiastic crowds cheer them on.
Swimming became a popular exercise under the communists because it was a favorite sport of Mao Zedong. In 1967, Mao swam across the Yangzi river to show his strength and vitality and be an example to the nation. “The Swim” became a popular annual event until Mao’s death in 1976. At the right is a
poster commemorating the twentieth anniversary of Mao’s swim celebrated only weeks before Mao’s death.
Martial Arts Under the Communist Party – Beginnings of Modern Wushu
The communist government eventually relaxed its attitude towards martial arts in the 1950s. In 1952, the first martial arts competition was held since the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949. The winner of the competition was a nineteen year-old named Ma Xianda. Ma is still alive (and teaching today). His students include Jet Li, as well as members of the cast of the recent hit movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.”
One of the ways martial arts survived in China during periods when the government’s support was low was through street performances and mainstream “Chinese Opera.” Chinese Opera is very different from European Opera. The performers sing and dance and perform amazing acrobatics and choreographed martial art routines. [It is hard to image a large Italian Opera singer doing a spinning back kick and leaping into the air and landing in a full splits.]
Many of today’s most famous martial artists film stars got their start in the Chinese Opera most notably Jackie Chan and Samo Hung. Traditional Chinese Opera is pretty far removed from traditional martial arts but they do share many of the same physical movements.
Jackie Chan later gained notoriety as a stunt man for Bruce Lee in the 1960s (Lee’s father had been involved with the Chinese Opera). In these early films Chinese martial artists were often pitted against Western or Japanese fighters. In “Fist of Fury” Lee portrays a student of Huo Yuanjia, the founder of the Jingwu Association, Zheng Shen, who stands up to defeats many challengers from Westerners and Japanese. Jet Li and Jackie Chan would both resurrect the role in later films.
Many of the early films had anti-foreign / anti-western themes and emphasized taking pride in one’s heritage. Lee’s movies were the first time that large scale audiences outside of China were able to view Chinese martial arts. Ironically, Lee’s movies did more to popularize Japanese martial arts, than Chinese because Japanese martial arts like Karate and Judo were more accessible to westerners. In China, these early martial arts films performed a similar function to the Guoshuguan movement, in that, they introduced many young people to martial arts for the first time and they built pride in the national identity.
By the late 1960s and early 1970s, interest in Chinese martial arts began to develop among a handful of westerners, a few begun to research Chinese martial arts in Hong Kong, Taiwan and other parts of Asia. Robert W. Smith was among the first to publish a book on Chinese martial arts specifically. In 1974, Smith published Masters and Methods, in which he profiled many of Taiwan’s top martial artists. Included in his book were Cheng Man-Ching, who would later establish the first large Taiji school in the US, Chen Pan Ling, and Wang Shu Jin. Wang was well known for his ability to take blows to any part of his body, including his groin.
As the Cultural Revolution came to a close in the mid-1970s martial arts slowly began to re-emerge in Mainland China. But these new martial arts, known as Wushu were different from the martial arts of the past. Training was increasingly geared towards entertainment and physical conditioning. Modern Wushu is a mix of performance arts (Chinese Opera), acrobatics, gymnastics, martial arts and theater.
By the early 1980s, Wushu had become a popular form of entertainment in China and was gaining a reputation throughout the world. Wushu international appeal began in 1972 when the Chinese National Wushu team performed for American President Richard Nixon on his historic visit to China. This team included a young Jet Li who would continuously further the reputation of Wushu in the west. Li is in many ways exemplary of the use of martial arts by the Chinese government as a mean to improving China’s international image. He was groomed from a very young age to be a representative of Chinese Wushu and throughout his career has been a spokesman for the value of martial arts beyond fighting. Li’s worldwide success is a great example of the appeal of martial arts to people who would not otherwise have been interested in martial arts.
Like the Guoshu schools before them, the Wushu schools of modern China have strong notions of nationalism embedded within them. There are international Wushu federations that hold massive competitions and attract huge crowds. Many traditional martial artists criticize the Wushu tradition as being more about form than function; some go as far as to say they have lost all connection to traditional arts and are detrimental to the reputation and preservation of the traditional arts. One such person was Wang Shu-Jin who in his 80s repeatedly defeated top fighters from China, Japan, and America. Wang was fond of saying that modern Wushu “avails nothing when confronted with real technique.”
James Wing Woo a Taiji master and actor in Los Angeles, sees the growth of Wushu as a positive thing but is critical of the commercialization of martial arts. In a recent interview he sited the example of the Shaolin Temple as an example of the Chinese government’s “cashing in” on martial arts.
A standard theme in martial arts films is that the hero must seek out some ancient internal style or secret to reach his full potential (often to defeat the person who murdered his teacher). Inevitably the techniques used are modern forms of Wushu or extremely exaggerated forms of traditional arts that mimic the styling of Wushu. For example when compared to instructional video on Taiji fighting applications, the movements of Jet Li’s character in the 1993 movie “The Tai Chi Master” appear greatly over exaggerated.
The reason for the inaccuracies is relatively simple. It comes down to aesthetics. Traditional internal martial arts movements are very subtle and they don’t translate well to the stage or screen. Internal martial arts by design are not meant to be “seen,” they are meant to be “felt.” The concept of putting them on film so people can view them for entertainment is counter to their nature. Yet it is exactly this intangible or “mystical” quality that attracts many viewers. The mystical nature (based on personal experience) of the internal martial arts demands that any alteration of the art into something for visual entertainment is a contradiction to the essence of the art itself. Alternatively, since the external martial arts are primarily a physical activity they (in general) have no such issues when it comes to adaptation to performance.
Chinese martial arts (and martial arts films) have captured the imagination of the west because of their mysterious nature. Chinese film-makers have capitalized on this popularity and have like the Kuomintang and People’s Republic before them, have used films to promote a positive image of Chinese culture. In the 2006 film Fearless, Jet Li portrays the legendary Huo Yuanjia, founder of the Jingwu Association. Li made the film (which he claimed would be his last martial arts film) because he wanted Chinese young people to be proud of their Chinese heritage. In the film, Li’s character defeats many foreign fighters and dies after being poisoned by a Japanese diplomat: the image portrayed is of a man who gave everything to defend his honor and the honor of his nation.
Li’s statement and the film’s message are evidence that the nationalist elements that were essential to the success of Guoshu movement continue to play a role in contemporary Chinese culture and national martial arts (albeit in a new form) have once again become an acceptable part of Chinese culture.
The future of national martial arts in China is uncertain. China has moved into the modern age with astounding speed and its growth is nothing short of miraculous. However, this growth has come at a cost. In addition to environmental and human cost many of China’s traditional art-forms are becoming commodities to be marketed and sold to a mass market. Martial arts are no different then other art forms. These too are changing to become more palatable to larger commercial audiences. As they become more performance-oriented many “purists” fear that spiritual essence of the arts will be replaced by theatrics and religious elements replaced by nationalism.
On the other hand, the commercialization of the image of the traditional Chinese martial arts has spread martial arts far beyond what would have been had the arts only been spread by actual practitioners. It is my hope that the exposure from popular films will awaken the desire for a deeper understanding of Chinese martial arts beyond entertainment and folklore and that people will begin to look past the flashy clothes and dramatic movements in order to experience the wonder and beauty of martial arts for themselves.
1. This term and variations of it such as “Sick Man of Asia” or “Weak Man of Asia,” were popular among western Journalists from the 1880s onwards, and has since been used to characterize various Asian nations. For example, it was used during WWII as a derogatory term for Japan.
2. For the purposes of this essay guoshu will refer to nationally sponsored martial arts before 1980 and wushu will refer to state sponsored performance arts that developed in the late 70s and early 80s. Gungfu is a generic term that translates to “skill level” and can be applied to any art, but it is generally understood that it is usually referring to martial arts.
3. The term “grand-master” is often used to describe a person of great skill, but it actually refers to the “teacher of a teacher”, similar to “grand-father” not the skill level of the individual. One simply has to have a student who has a student to be a “grandmaster.”
4. Triads were groups which are often compared with “organized crime” syndicates like the Italian Mafia or Colombian Cartels.
5. The eight nations were Britain, Japan, U.S., Italy, German, France, Austro-Hungarian Empire and Russia.
6. Fei Ch'i-hao
7. Pa Kua Journal Vol. 3 #2 Jan/Feb 1993 8
8. Hwuang & Jarvie 10
9. Some gungfu masters claim that there were men able to use “Iron Body” training to stop a single bullet when they were able to “focus their qi” but when distracted by the chaos of the battlefield they were unable to gather sufficient focus to stop bullets coming from all directions. These claims are largely unreliable but they illustrate the mind-set of the Boxers.
10. Dix 271
11. Miller Vol.4-1 p. 6
12. Writing martial arts manuals was also a form of employment for some martial artists in Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals, Brian Kennedy discusses employment opportunities of martial artists in the late Qing and early republic on pages 133-147.
13. Morris – 4 mil. 878
14. Physical superiority was often a moral justification for colonization.
15. Morris - Marrow of a Nation 187 – This incident was re-enacted in Jet Li’s Fearless but was re-written to be a fight between Huo and a westerner with the fight ending with Huo being victorious.
17. Hwuang & Jarvie 13
18. http://www.chinwoo.org.cn/lxwzc.asp?id=1 & http://www.shtong.gov.cn/node2/node4/node2249/node4418/node20192/index.html
19. Literally “Eight Changing Palms” in English.
20. Literally “Supreme Ultimate Fist” in English.
21. Morris 208
22. For more on the differences in martial arts styles see: Frantzis 21-57
23. This term is often substituted by the term “chi-gung” or energy work. There are subtle difference between the two but in general they are inter-changeable.
24. “micro-alignments” are very small internal adjustments which greatly increase the amount force the absorb or transmit. See: Frantzis 47
25. Wang Shu Jin, a famous Taijji and Bagua master from China was famous for defeating China and Japan’s top fighters well into his 80s. Wang was fond of letting people hit him and using his “chi” to break their hand when they made contact with his ample frame.
26. The connection between meditation and martial arts is an important one. Meditation is often seen as the key to unlocking the mind and overcoming the inner demons which arise when faced with real violence.
27. Morris - Marrow of a Nation 206
28. Frantzis 243
29. Morris - Marrow of a Nation 208
30. Wu was a student of Yang Cheng Fu, the grandson of Yang Lu Chan founder of the Yang style of Taiji. The Yang is the most popular for of Taiji in the world. The other styles are the Chen, Wu, Hao, and Sun.
31. For an outline of the curriculum over several years see Morris Marrow of a Nation. 208
The simplification or westernization of traditional martial arts has been a source of much debate between martial artists for decades. Some believe that in order for martial arts to survive in the modern world that they must adapt and change with the times. Others believe that any change in the art will result in a loss of the “true spirit” of the art. Most schools have compromised by keeping the traditional form for advanced students while creating “short forms” which retain all of the traditional material but removed some or all of the repetition of movements and can be practiced in five to ten minutes rather then forty-five minutes to an hour.
32. Smith 68
35. Kennedy 145
36. American GIs had brought Judo and Karate back from Japan after WWII.
Mainland China was closed to westerners until the mid 1970s. Among the first Americans to go to Communist China and study martial arts was the author’s teacher Bruce ‘Kumar’ Frantzis who in 1981, became the first non-Chinese to be certified by the PRC to teach the full system of Simplified Yang Style Taiji.
38. Smith 74
39. According to Woo, the original Temple was destroyed in the 1660s and was only rebuilt to attract investment and tourist dollars.
40 O’brien 247
41. The movements in the film were compared with a number of instructional videos on Taiji Quan and the assumptions are based on my own person experience in over 15 years of martial arts training.
42. http://www.fearlessthemovie.com/ & http://movies.about.com/od/fearless/a/fearless092106_2.htm
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