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Column: The history, politics and identity of Chinese martial arts

Maynooth University lecturer Dr Lu Zhouxiang explains how martial arts have been a bridge from China to other countries around the world.

IN IRELAND, BRUCE Lee and Jackie Chan are probably two of the Chinese people with the most name recognition thanks to their kung fu movies.

The Chinese martial art, also known as wushu, has long been recognised as an integral part of Chinese culture. The fighting styles and weapon skills, and the combination of martial arts and Chinese philosophy and religion, make it unique and noteworthy. 

Today, wushu is widely seen as one of the best-known aspects of Chinese culture. It attracts a worldwide audience, with a growing number of Irish people practising Chinese martial arts for health and self-cultivation.  

But it’s more than that too: Chinese martial arts help to promote cross-cultural exchanges and understanding between China and the world. 

spchina-hebei-julu-campus-sports-martial-arts-cn Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The history of Chinese martial arts can be traced back to the Shang dynasty (1600-1046 BC), when the practice of combat skills using various weapons became part of military training.

In the 19th century, Chinese martial arts came to be associated with politics, nationalism and national identity, as the country was dragged into political unrest and economic hardship caused by domestic rebellion and Western incursion.

With the accumulation of anti-foreign sentiment as a result of imperialist expansion, Chinese martial arts came to be practised by farmers in northern China for the purposes of self-defence and resistance to foreign powers.

Aided by folk religion, grass-roots martial arts clubs functioned as a basis for social bonding and gave birth to the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), which occasioned an eruption of anti-foreign nationalism. After the failure of the rebellion, Chinese martial arts was again used by Han nationalists to train revolutionary forces to overthrow the Qing government.

It played its role in the formation of a national consciousness among the Chinese, and contributed to the transformation of China from a “Celestial Empire” into a modern nation state.

After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, fuelled by a modern Chinese nationalism that focused on anti-imperialism, national unity and national revival, practising martial arts became widely recognised as a basic approach to build up people’s physiques, strengthen the nation and, in the views of some, achieve national salvation.

From the late 1920s, the nationalist government officially promoted Chinese martial arts Academies and societies were set up in major cities across the country, and manuals, textbooks and monographs were published in great numbers.

spchina-guangzhou-2017-brics-games-wushu Wushu competitor Jiang Zhicheng of China Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

The Republic of China era also saw the rise of wuxia novels (about martial artists) and kung fu movies. Living in a time of rapid social transformation and influenced by the prevailing nationalism generated by revolutions, foreign aggression, imperialist occupation and war, Chinese novelists and movie producers consciously or unconsciously used Chinese martial arts to invent a cultural identity, and aided the construction of a collective modern national identity among the Chinese during the infancy of the Republic.

These wuxia novels and movies in turn helped Chinese martial arts lay a rhetorical claim to national identity. A wuxia culture mixed with nationalism took shape.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, guided by the Communist sports policy, which was coloured by nationalism and self-strengthening objectives, a nationwide campaign was launched by the government to promote Chinese martial arts, now called wushu, and to integrate it into the newly established state-run sport system. The goals were to train strong, healthy citizens for national defence and the construction of the “New China”.

However, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), wushu came to be regarded as representing elitism and feudal culture and suffered a major setback. Wushu competitions ceased to take place and wushu teams at all levels stopped training. Wushu societies and clubs were closed down.

Kung fu manuals and weapons were confiscated and destroyed by rebels, and practitioners had to train in secret. Despite this, not all wushu activities ceased. Various politicised wushu exercises were created to interpret and promote the Maoist road and cultivate revolutionary activism. When the Cultural Revolution faded in the early 1970s, wushu began to be revived and was used to serve the diplomatic exchanges between China and foreign countries.

Modern times

From the late 1970s, in the context of the reform and opening up of China, wushu began to be promoted as both a competitive sport and a sport for all, to serve the goal of modernisation. Wushu academies, societies and schools flourished.

Regional and national competitions and traditional wushu exhibition shows were organised by the Sports Ministry and the Chinese Wushu Association to promote wushu. By the 1990s, wushu had experienced pronounced development and become a popular sports and pastimes among the general public. The revival of wushu during the past three decades demonstrates how it was valued and preserved by its people.

The second half of the 20th century also saw the rapid development of kung fu films, serving two purposes: retrieving traditional Chinese culture and constructing a modern Chinese national identity.

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From the early 1970s, reflecting an anti-imperialist and defensive nationalism, kung fu movies produced in Hong Kong began to form a new cultural imagination which focused on revitalising China and relied on the image of a muscular and masculine body “accoutred” in the regalia of Chinese martial arts.

The essential spirit of these films is to inherit and preserve the core values of Chinese tradition and to stress a sense of national identity. They functioned as an important vehicle for the maintenance and reinvention of nationhood.

This unique form of nationalist discourse was adopted by kung fu movies produced in Hong Kong and mainland China in subsequent years. Many of these movies are set in the late 19th and the early 20th centuries, with plots based around major historical events; they express a strong sense of anti-imperialism, anti-feudalism, nationalism and patriotism.

The essential spirit of these films is that the core values of Chinese tradition should be inherited and preserved, and they stress a sense of national identity. Inspired by nationalism, kung fu movies have not only facilitated the revival of Chinese martial arts, but also built it into a symbol of indigenous virtue and strength.

The past decades have seen it spread across China and around the world. Chinese martial arts academies, clubs and societies were set up by overseas Chinese martial artists and kung fu practitioners in Asia, the Americas, Africa, Europe and Oceania.

In the United States, Chinese wushu master John Leong opened the Seattle Kung Fu Club in 1963. In the same year, Bruce Lee opened his Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute in Seattle.

Chinese martial arts was introduced to Ireland around the late 1980s and early 1990s and a number of kung fu academies and schools have been set up in the country in subsequent years. These include the Irish Wing Tsun Organisation and White Crane Kung Fu & Tai Chi based in Dublin, Chen Tai Chi Ireland based in Galway, Shaolin Ireland based in Cork, and the Shaolin Temple in Slane.

To sum up, as a unique cultural legacy, Chinese martial arts is now making great contributions to the promotion of cross-cultural exchanges and understanding between China and the world.

In the words of kung fu movie star Jet Li: “Wushu is now a global sport, which brings all of us together – from different countries, different cultures, different religions – we all become one family in wushu, seeking a better balance in life, work and friendship”.

Lu Zhouxiang is a Lecturer in the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Maynooth University. He is the author of A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity (2019) and Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts (2018), from which some of this piece is taken.

About the author:

Dr Lu Zhouxiang  / Lecturer and author

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