Chinese martial arts: an investigation into how they developed from hard to soft and into their current status

Human culture has arisen for the purpose of resolving problems in order to satisfy needs. This article takes this as a premise and investigates the development of Chinese martial arts.  What martial arts (as well as every culture) aims to resolve is the problem of existence and what they aim to satisfy are the needs of life. The methods employed are positive as well as negative. The positive methods produce aggressive, offensive behaviour; the negative methods are employed by the victims of aggression as defensive behaviour. There are some who reckon that migratory herdsmen tribes are more aggressive and that settled farming tribes tend to be more conservative. This is also a basic difference between western and eastern cultures. The Chinese people have had agriculture as the foundation of the nation for over 3,000 years. On this background has been created the development of government, economy, army, national defence, philosophy, ethics, art etc. They probably all have conservative traits.

The strategic scenario of Chinese martial arts Under this premise the ‘strategic scenario’ of Chinese martial arts is that they are defensive in nature with the objective of resisting aggression and protecting the territory and the way of life handed down from generation to generation.

The problem facing the defender is that the initiative is in the hands of the attacker. Given the premise that the defender has no way of anticipating the time and place of battle, the best method is to make preparation for war part of daily life. Consequently China historically has had the practice of  ‘soldiers turned farmers’ and the system of stationing troops in frontier regions and not the policy of endlessly raising armies for war

In contrast to a defensive strategy the attacker can choose the time, place and method of attack. His strategy consequently can set objectives in advance and then according to the requirements of the objectives undertake effective and directed training and preparations.

For example a present day woman is worried about being assaulted and takes training in female self-defence skills. In a state of crisis awareness she makes an effort to train for three months or a year. Walking home at night she is full of confidence but as time passes the imagined crisis does not happen. One day when the self-defence skills she has learned have been forgotten - one, two, three or even seven years later- a mugger suddenly appears and she has no way to protect herself.  So if she really had crisis awareness about self-defence she should change her training into an interest, into part of her life, so that when the occasion arose she could apply her skills since short term concentrated training will never be suitable for her needs.

Chinese people through the ages have faced an identical problem. Generation after generation, day after day, going out to work at sunrise and going back home at sunset, they have known that apparently peaceful days might all turn into a crisis at any time. In that era of inadequate fighting resources in the villages, of tensions among clans,ofWill-o'-the-Whisp bandits and highwaymen and marauding bands of troops, of jungle rule and the absence of law, they knew that the individual had to rely on himself. Martial arts became the choice, became an activity of everyday life

The martial artist himself had to resolve the problem of the defender having to be prepared for war at all times and not knowing when, where or how the aggressor would attack.

When he was young and strong he could meet the emergency but when he was old and infirm would he be still effective? What is more the attacker would always appear at the time that the defenders were weakest

Soft tactics developed from defensive strategy There is a saying by Lao Zi  ‘A violent wind does not last for a whole morning; a sudden rain does not last for the whole day’. Most attackers use the method of ‘violent wind and sudden rain’. This method needs to be backed up by enormous energy. For example a present day athlete who preparing for a competition can according to the date of the contest calculate the amount of training and training methods needed, and tune himself up to reach his peak exactly at the time of the contest.

The defender is not so lucky. He cannot always keep himself at his peak. He can only live a normal life if maintains a steady level. However the energy in these ‘steady level’ preparations will certainly not match the ‘peak level’ preparations of the attacker.

What can be done?

The Art of War by Sun Zi says:

‘All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must seem inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near. If the enemy is greedy, use baits to lure him. If the enemy is in disarray, attacked him. If the enemy is strong and have no weaknesses, be well prepared for him. If he is in superior strength, avoid engaging him. If the enemy is easily angered, arouse his anger. Pretend to be weak, that he may grow arrogant. If he is taking his ease, give him no rest. If his forces are united, separate them. Attack him where he is unprepared, appear where you are least expected. These strategies, leading to victory, must not be divulged beforehand.

In all fighting, the direct method may be used for joining battle, but indirect methods will be needed in order to secure victory.

In battle, there are not more than two methods of attack--the direct and the indirect; yet these two in combination give rise to an endless series of manoeuvres. The direct and the indirect lead on to each other in turn. It is like moving in a circle - you never come to an end. Who can exhaust the possibilities of their combination?

Military tactics are like water; for water in its natural course runs away from high places and hastens downwards. So in war, the way is to avoid what is strong and to strike at what is weak. Therefore, the adept at warfare avoids engaging the enemy when the spirits are high. Only attacks them when their spirits are sluggish and the soldiers are homesick. This is control of morale factor.

Disciplined and calm, to await the appearance of disorder and hubbub amongst the enemy: - this is the art of retaining self-possession. To be near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, to wait at ease while the enemy is toiling and struggling, to be well-fed while the enemy is famished: - this is the art of husbanding one's strength.

To refrain from intercepting an enemy whose banners are in perfect order, to refrain from attacking an army drawn up in calm and confident array: - this is the art of studying circumstances.’

Since the defender can meet with conditions in battle when a weak force is fighting a strong enemy and a small force is opposed to a large one, he must abandon the methods of frontal assault and matching strength with strength and instead adopt the strategy of resourcefulness, deviousness, overcoming action by inaction, being near the goal while the enemy is still far from it, waiting until the enemy is exhausted and avoiding what is strong while striking at what is weak.

This is the origin of the principle of Chinese martial arts of ‘achieving softness from hardness, achieving wisdom from strength’. From this Chinese martial arts created its own distinguishing characteristics.

Sun Zi knew that if people became enemies through war whoever gained victory would pay a greater price in the future. He therefore advocated: 

‘In war, to capture the whole nation intact is the best strategy; to ruin or shatter the nation is a weaker option. To capture the whole division intact is the best strategy; to destroy it is a weaker option. To capture the whole battalion intact is the best strategy; to destroy it is a weaker option. To capture the whole company intact is the best strategy; to destroy it is a weaker option. To capture the whole section intact is the best strategy; to destroy it is a weaker option. Thus to fight a hundred battles and win a hundred battles is not a reflection of the most supreme strategy. The ability to subdue the enemy without battle is a reflection of the ultimate supreme strategy’.

The great masters in Chinese martial arts also understood this principle so they considered martial arts to be for self-defence and resisting attack. They emphasised that ‘It is easy to kill but hard to wound someone; it is easy to wound but hard to capture someone, it is easy to capture but hard to make someone submit’. Because of this they developed many ‘peaceful’ attacking and defending skills. These are the most advanced and difficult part of Chinese martial arts and also their distinguishing characteristic.

Soft combat skills developed from soft tactics Because of the above needs martial artists had several problems to resolve:

1.  Will not strength weaken with age rather than increase?

A powerful young body as strong as an ox is of course good to have but past middle age people develop flabbiness and loss of strength that is impossible to remedy. Take a look at the photos of Arnold Schwarzenegger or Sylvester Stallone after middle age and you will see this.

Martial artists discovered that strength in fact came from the elasticity of the tendons so they found a means of shifting the energy of the muscles to the tendons.  However localised tendons are too short and their strength is limited so they found a way of joining the interrelated tendons of the whole body into a single system ( tendon connection system) to produce sufficient strength. From this were derived the concepts and training methods of ‘Yijin’ (tendon-bone strengthening exercises) and whole body power (zheng jin)

2.  How can the tendons be exercised?

It is only by relaxing and stretching the muscles to a sufficient degree that limb movement will relate to the tendons. In other words when the muscles contract the tendons will relax and when the muscles stretch the tendons will be able to tense.  This is the rationale for the requirement in Chinese martial arts to ‘relax’

3.  How should the tendons be maintained?

Growing flesh is easy, growing tendons is hard. Strengthening muscles can be effective in the short term but strengthening the tendons deeply layered in the muscles requires ‘simmering over a slow fire’. This fire is the blood. The tendons will rely on the temperature of the blood to soften them and also provide nutrition, otherwise they will be both difficult to exercise and easy to injure. If muscle movements provide too much blood supply, the blood allocated to the tendons will be reduced and the temperature of the tendons will be insufficient so that they will easily become stiff.  The stimulation of the blood depends on Qi and the stimulation of Qi depends on breathing in and out. So the majority of Chinese martial arts place great emphasis on training in breathing and even greater emphasis on the cultivation and application of Qi.

4.   Where does power come from?

What is called the ‘Tendon connection system’ is a dynamic system composed of ligaments, tendons and muscular mantle. Through their differing directions of movement these tissue combine in different ways but, in simple terms, the Tendon connection system is a system that links together each of the joints. For these tissues to be connected together, in addition to relaxing the muscles the joints must also be relaxed and stretched. This exercise of ‘pulling joints to stretch tendons’ is also a special feature of Chinese martial arts. Other cultures of course have soft body exercise methods which involve pulling tendons but almost all put emphasis on increasing softness whereas the main point of the exercise of ‘pulling joints to stretch tendons’ lies in the flexibility produced by opening and closing the joints. Flexibility of the tendons is the prerequisite for producing power. However the intensity of power is determined by how long and how harmoniously the tendons can be unified and linked together. For this we must examine the question of  ‘integration’.

5.  Where does integration come from?

The objective of ‘integration’ is to ‘concentrate a small force into a major force’ and allow the practitioner to use the smallest effort to produce the greatest strength. The object of integration in terms of limbs are the three arm joints (shoulder, elbow and wrist), the three leg joints (hip, knee and ankle) and the three trunk joints (neck, waist and coccyx). In terms of movement it produces the  ‘six harmonies’. These are the ‘internal three harmonies’ (harmony of mind and intent, harmony of intent and Qi and harmony of Qi and force) and the ‘external three harmonies’ (harmony of hands and feet, harmony of elbows and knees and harmony of shoulders and hips).

The demands of the ‘external three harmonies’ allowed the great martial arts masters to develop a rich template of postures (moves, postures and forms) to train his students’ ability in the static and dynamic coordination

The demands of the ‘internal three harmonies’ led the great martial arts masters to derive nourishment from Chinese philosophy, medical science and Daoism and through this precipitate the transformation of the innate character of Chinese martial arts.

The demands of the ‘six harmonies’ increased the depth and level of difficulty of Chinese martial arts in order to attain the unity and harmonisation of the internal with the external and the body with the mind, in order that the smallest effort could be used to achieve the greatest effect and in order that an opponent could be repulsed in the shortest time. 

Many martial arts schools individually developed unique methods to train tendons, Qi, mind and intent.  Chinese martial arts by not confining themselves to the single function of ‘fighting’ acquired an extensive and profound set of attributes and entered upon a phase of ‘exquisiteness and refinement’.

After Chinese martial arts becomes refined ---  The process of becoming ‘exquisite and refined’ is a matter of culture or, in a martial arts school, a matter of the long-term development of skills. So it goes without saying that its achievement represents the crystallisation of human culture. In any long-standing civilisation we can see examples of refinement from utensils used in daily life down to artistic objects. However refinement always comes up against popularisation, that is to say refinement is a state which can only be achieved through long study and practice whereas most people want to achieve gratification with only limited effort. The situation with Chinese martial arts is that for many people today the reason that they hold them in deep respect is because they have heard stories about the exploits of martial arts masters of the past -  who could fly over eaves and walk on walls, were invulnerable to sword and gun, who could beat cattle on the other side of the mountain [1], who always defeated the enemy no matter the odds, who could land blows on much younger opponents, who overcame hardness with softness, who were matchless in every battle and so forth. However when these people have stood in the horse stance for a few days or looking for facts by visiting teachers and friends , they discover that ‘noviciate monks are more numerous than hairs on a cow but those who achieve enlightenment are as rare as hen’s teeth’. Disappointed they totally reject Chinese martial arts or take their skills off in search of another teacher, not realising that these special abilities of masters in the past belonged only to a small minority of martial artists and were not something that anyone could put their hand to.

When Chinese martial arts enter the stage of the internal three harmonies, acquisition of skills is slow but sure on the basis of ‘methodical work yields fine products’.  Each of the four aspects of force/power, Qi, intent and mind is cultivated, practiced and applied in a lengthy and finely detailed process. Their final ‘integration’ is the great project of ‘unifying body and mind’. No one can hope for success without great determination, willpower and sacrifice.

However the attributes and attitudes of Chinese martial arts appear to be incompatible to those of other martial arts in today’s world, especially to those of competitive martial arts. This is because almost all other global martial arts are aggressive. The scenario of their strategy, tactics and fighting techniques and their requirements for body and mind are all different; their requirements on the internal three harmonies either do not exist or are very perfunctory. Consequently they do not require and have no time for ‘simmering over a slow fire’.  They are still ‘unifunctional’ martial arts. They do not understand and do not accept the multifunctional nature of Chinese martial arts.

What should devotees of Chinese martial arts do?  

Option 1:  integrate into the world and fight for position

This represents the official practice of the People’s Republic of China. With the aim of promoting Chinese martial arts to the world’s stage they have changed Chinese martial arts to accord with Asian Games rules. They have excluded all non-competitive content, strengthened or increased moves conducive to competition and formulated an official ‘competition martial arts’.

Advantages:  this makes Chinese martial arts an official international sport (although despite many years of effort it has still not been accepted by the Olympic Committee) and enhances the athletic status of Chinese martial arts.

Disadvantages: this strips Chinese martial arts of their essence. It is a ‘Chinese martial arts’ with no Chinese connotation or characteristics which has lost its special value in the world

Option 2:  increase competitiveness and prove existence

This is almost the same as option 1 except that what is participated in are combative contests to prove that Chinese martial arts and competitors have in themselves the ability to confront other global martial arts.

Advantages: emphasis on displaying the fighting ability of Chinese martial arts, concentration on the study of fighting techniques

Disadvantages: in order to train quickly it would not be possible to undertake the ‘three internal harmonies’ and many of the fine points of limb training. Ultimately it would result in a muscular slugging match with the loss of the refinement and unique qualities of Chinese martial arts.

Option 3:  position themselves for a new beginning

Recognise the history and special achievements of Chinese martial arts described above and with self-assertion progressively develop the set of attributes and values of Chinese martial arts.

Advantages:  maintains the ‘exquisite and refined nature’ of Chinese martial arts, safeguards this crystallisation of human culture.

Disadvantages: it will be necessary to seek a new classification and orientation for Chinese martial arts, making sure to steer a true course. It will be necessary to establish Chinese martial arts own values within the flow of mainstream values. Those willing must take on the dual role of passing on the heritage of Chinese martial arts and opening it up in new ways.

Every devotee of Chinese martial arts understands the predicament of Chinese martial arts in the present age but no one has the knowledge or ability to find a method to resolve the impasse. In every method there are aspects that complement each other and incompatible aspects that oppose each other. In any event they are all valuable to one other as a reference.

The aim of this article is not to discuss ways of transformation but only to explain the unique characteristics of Chinese martial arts and to provide a reference for devotees of Chinese martial arts. I hope that it helps towards the understanding of and perpetuation of Chinese martial arts.

[1]  a legendary martial arts skill showing that you could strike your opponent from far away




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