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Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese Martial Arts

1. Origin of Martial Arts

Chinese Martial Arts is a large system of theory and practice. It combines techniques of self-defense and health-keeping.

It is estimated that Chinese martial arts can be dated back to primeval society. At that time people use cudgels to fight against wild beasts. Gradually they accumulated experience of self defense. When Shang Dynasty began, hunting was considered as an important measure of martial arts training.

During Shang and Zhou Dynasties, martial arts evolved to be a kind of dancing. Usually the dancing of martial arts is utilized to train soldiers and inspire their morale. During Zhou Dynasty, martial-arts dancing was designated as a component of education. The application of wrestling techniques at the battlefield received much attention from various states during the period of Spring and Autumn. The then emperor held twice wrestling contests every year respectively in spring and autumn so as to select excellent people of martial arts. At the same time, the skill and technology of sword forging as well as sword ceremony achieved rapid development. In Qin and Han Dynasties, wrestling, swordplay, and martial arts dancing were very popular. A well known instance was Xiang Zhuang’s Sword Dancing in Hongmen Banquet at the same period. His performance was very close to today’s martial arts. The application of spear play in Han Dynasty reached its summit along with the appearance of many other techniques of spear usage. It is said the Five-animal-style exercise was another innovation by Hua Tuo on the development of Chinese martial arts.

Starting from Tang Dynasty, martial arts examination was proposed and implemented. Excellent candidates would receive titles and awards through the examination, largely propelling the development of martial arts. By then martial arts had evolved to be an artistic form and an independent genre. It was gradually introduced to many countries in Southeast Asia. Today marital arts were honored as the ancestor of kickboxing, karate, aikido, and judo.

Song and Yuan Dynasties witnessed the climax of martial arts development. Practice of martial arts by civil organizations became more and more popular. Some organizations or clubs centered on the use of spear play and cudgel, and they were called Yinglue Organization; while others majored in the practice of arching and therefore called Arching Origination. Besides, there appeared another genre called Luqi People. They made a living as performer of martial arts all over the country. Usually their performance was carried out by a single person or two persons as a pair. 

Martial arts achieved larger development in Ming and Qing Dynasties. In Ming Dynasty, a lot of genres came into being and numerous books on martial arts were published. In Qing Dynasty, the ruling empire banned the practice of martial arts, and the folk had to set up various clubs or societies to pass down feat secretly. Therefore tens of schools of martial arts came into being, such as taiji, xingyi shadowboxing, eight–diagram shadowboxing, etc. Qing Dynasty is the times of integration among different martial arts genres. Wrestling techniques were introduced into martial arts, facilitating the improvement and mature of martial arts. This period is the shed between genres for appreciation and those for actual combat.

In 1927, Central National Martial Arts Society was established. In August, 1936, Chinese Martial Arts Team went to Berlin to participate Olympics. In 1956, Chinese Martial Arts Association set up Martial Arts Teams. In 1985, International Marital Arts Invitational Tournament was held in Xi’an with the establishment of International Martial Arts League. In 1987, the first Asian Martial Arts Tournament was held in Hengbin. In 1990, martial arts were for the first time listed as a competition event in the 11th Asian Games. In 1999, International Martial Arts League was invited as a member of International Individual Events Federation by International Olympic Committee. That was the sign of Chinese Martial Arts walking global.

2. Major Schools of Martial Arts

Major schools of Chinese martial arts are originated from local cultures. They were called schools of shadowboxing, and each school comprises of many sub-categories.

Chinese marital arts are constituted of seven schools of shadowboxing, namely, Shaolin, Wudang, Emei, nanquan, taiji, xingyi, and eight-diagram shadowboxing. Some ethnic minorities also have their unique style of martial arts, but they cannot be compassed in the seven major schools. Besides, Chinese martial arts include wrestling which is favored by Han, Hui, Mongol, and Manchu ethnic groups. Wrestling is most popular among Mongol People. The basic principle of wrestling is that the two candidates should catch each other, different from that of the shadowboxing. Therefore wrestling cannot be categorized into the school of shadowboxing.

Among the seven schools, Shaolin, Wudang, and Emei are three most representative shadowboxing schools. As long as martial arts are mentioned, people talk about first the cudgel play of Shaolin School, sword play of Wudang School, and Emei plum blossom boxing. It is believed that the cudgel use of Shaolin School is characterized by ruthlessness; the sword play of Wudang School features the exquisiteness; and Emei plum blossom boxing is well known for flexible unarm fighting. The three schools together present the tripartite conformation of extraordinary braveness and outstanding valiant.

(1) Shaolin School  

Shaolin shadowboxing is one of the most influential schools of martial arts in China. Shaolin Temple is also famous for that.

Shaolin Temple is located at the foot of Yufeng Peak at Dengfeng County of Henan Province in South China. It was built up in the 19th ruling year of Emperor Xiao Wen in North Wei Dynasty. According to record, Shaolin Temple was originally constructed in the period of Southern and Northern Dynasties. Shaolin shadowboxing became popular in Sui and Tang Dynasties, and soon grew stronger by absorbing the advantages of many other schools. It finally became the largest school of martial arts in China with branches all over the country.

Shaolin martial arts are well known at home and abroad. The original purpose of Shaolin shadowboxing is health keeping, treating illness, protecting famous mountains, safeguarding ancient temples, self-defense, and repulsing enemies. It boasts of diversified patterns, plain forms, and rich internal and external work. The general style of Shaolin shadowboxing can be summarized as high value for actual combat with exquisite techniques. It emphasizes both quiet course and feat of strength. It can conserve strength instantly and let it out several times stronger than the original conservation. With such unique features, Shaolin shadowboxing is well known at home and abroad.

Shaolin martial arts comprise of shadowboxing, armed combat, free combat, hitting vital point, and grappling.

(2) Wudang School

Wudang martial arts, also known as Taoist martial arts or Neijia shadowboxing, are invented by Zhang Sanfeng. Wudang School is a famous branch of Chinese martial arts. It has a long history and endowed with the extract of health preserve and techniques of combating and self-defense. It is a unique school of shadowboxing with a complete system of theories. 

The martial arts of Wudang are indispensable parts of Taoism. The school is deeply rooted in the fertile land of Chinese civilization boasting thousands of years. With the rich connotation of Chinese traditional philosophy, Wudang School combines a series of physiological theories, such as taiji, yin-yang, the Eight-diagrams, and Five Elements, with principles, techniques, and strategies of shadowboxing and combat. In fact, it seeks the rules of activities in life. Wudang martial arts are the extract and rime of Taoism in the exploration of life.

Wudang martial arts are composed of taiji, wuji, and yin-yang. It is represented by taiji shadowboxing, Wudang sword, xingyi shadowboxing, and eight-diagram shadowboxing. Therefore it is a traditional and unique school of martial arts. It takes Taoist philosophy and theories as guidance, and combines the scientific rules common to disciplines of medicine, Book of Changes, and internal nourishing exercises. Wudang School integrates martial arts combat with health keeping, and thus promotes studies on vital points in human body. It emphasizes the cultivation of internal work, through which the external work can be largely strengthened. It suggests that one should make full use of external force of the opponent and fight against him by his own strength. In other words, Wudang School advocates the control on active course through quiet course, and force through vital energy. The major characteristics of this school are the harmony between force and vital energy as well as flexible applications of different courses.

Wudang Martial arts have given birth to many categories and sub-schools through continuous development and enrichment. For instance, there are wuji exercise, taiji internal nourishing exercise, taiji shadowboxing, taiji sword play, taiyi five elements shadowboxing, taiyi xuanmen sword play, horsetail whisk, etc. The Eight Fairies School involves the use of baxian sword, baxian cudgel, and baxian shadowboxing, etc. the north Wudang School features longhua shadowboxing, longhua sword, xuangong shadowboxing, xuanzhen shadowboxing, and 36 patterns of springy legs, etc. Besides, there are many other courses, such as internal nourishing exercises, internal work, feat of strength, youth exercise, various stunts, and qigong for health keeping, etc.

Wudang martial arts are characterized by steadiness and naturalness, gentle external work and strong internal work, as well as stretching and elegant patterns like drifting clouds and running rivers. It is reputed as one of the major schools of Chinese martial arts.


The ancestor of internal work of Wudang School is Zhang Sanfeng. Once he saw a fight between a magpie and a snake when he was cultivating the heart. The fighting patterns of the two animals impressed him very much and later inspired him to invent the unique style of Wudang martial arts. Through continuous enrichment and improvement by masters of several generations, Wudang shadowboxing gave birth to many sub-schools or categories with rich content. For example, there are taiji, xingyi, and Eight Diagrams, etc representing patterns of shadowboxing; taiji spear and taiji sword representing armed combat; qinggong, stunts, feat of strength, and qigong of health-keeping, etc.

(3) Emei School

Emei plum blossom boxing is good at grappling and combat. Its combating theories and internal and external work are unique and unprecedented. No matter it is for single practice or clash, Emei School emphasizes one principle—exercise for real combat and as what it is in real combat. It especially focuses on the practicability of fighting patterns, which have skills of kicking, hitting, grappling, and tussling combined in one. By making good use of the five salient parts and six elbows on our body, Emei martial arts seem loose in form but compact inside. Patterns change irregularly, but they can take advantage of a little strength through arm or feet and bring into full play the usage of fighting stools. The performer of Wudang Martial arts looks springy in legs and arms, walks with the force and at the speed of thunder, and moves as flexile and agile as monkeys, as light as cats, and as rapid as snakes. Fists, palms, and fingers would be fully utilized in Emei martial arts. Emei School Shadowboxing written by Tang Sunzhi, a famous general in Ming Dynasty, vividly depicts the unique features of Emei martial arts. Youshen Huanying, which means the flexible body movements, are a series of characteristic patterns of Emei School. It is simple in form but rich in connotation. Each posture has its deep meaning of philosophy. The whole series is composed of 14 postures, which vary form the simple to the difficult. They are exquisite and practical techniques for fighting against opponents, and appropriate for the exercise of free combat. Postures in the series should be practiced one by one. They emphasize rapidness and agility very much. Therefore people made such a comparison that the hands of Emei martial arts players are like the agile heads of vipers, the legs like those of apes, and the body like soft and gentle willow branch in March. But each posture of the school is ruthless and hard to predict.  

Emei martial arts are mentioned a lot in historical books. Unfortunately, only few of their patterns, courses, and theories are inherited or passed down. Most of the retained materials on Emei martial arts offer only a very restricted view of this artistic form.

3 .Anctums of Martial Arts

(1) Wudang Mountain

Wudang Mountain is located in Northwest Hubei Province. It is one of the tourist attractions designated by the nation. Accounting for over 30 square kilometers, Wudang Mountain has 72 towering peaks and various rugged valleys, displaying fantastic natural scenery. The main peak—Tianzhu Peak is 1612 meters above the sea. The tourist line of the mountain extends 60 kilometers.  

Wudang Mountain, known as Taihe Mountain, is a divine place. Legend has it that a person called Xuan Wu realized the essence of Taoism and turned into an immortal flying into the heaven. Therefore Wudang Mountain became a resort of Taoism, and received many Taoist disciples and followers cultivating heart here. According to records, in the ruling period of Emperor Tai Zong in Tang Dynasty, Wulong Ancestral Temple was built up in Lingying Peak of Wudang Mountain. It was expanded and rebuilt in Song and Yuan Dynasties. In the tenth ruling year of Emperor Tai Zu in Ming Dynasty, a large scale project on Wudang Mountain was carried out involving over 300,000 labor force. Most of the retained 36 palaces and temples were constructed in Ming Dynasty. They are the most integrate, grand, and gorgeous Taoist construction complexes ever retained in china by now. Sculptures of saints, scriptures, and wares of mysterious power in the palace are all cultural relics of high artistic value.

(2) Qingcheng Mountain

Qingcheng Mountain is one of the most famous scenic spots declared for the first time all over the country. It is 16 kilometers off Dujiang Weir District. Qingcheng Mountain neighbors to Minshan Mountain Ranges and faces to Chuanxi Plain. Cuddled by numerous peaks, it looks like a castle. Qingcheng Mountain is covered by deep and emerald green forests, thousands of stone stairs and zigzag paths. In 143 BC, Master Zhang Ling came to Qingcheng Mountain. Attracted by the deep and crystal clear water pools, he decided to reside here and spread Taoism. Therefore Qingcheng Mountain is reputed as “The Fifth Sanctum of Taoism”. Today there are about ten well-retained Taoist palaces and temples, as well as numerous cultural relics and scriptures of great figures in recent periods. From this sense, Qingcheng Mountain is a live museum of Taoism as a witness of thousands of years’ history. Scenery in the back of Qingcheng Mountain is represented by mysterious caves, relics of the emperor of Shu State, rushing waterfalls and deep pools, as well as bending bridges and plank roads. All the scenic spots on the mountain are full of primeval features. The cultural relics and natural landscapes add radiance to each other, for which people acclaim that “the scenery of deep and remote Qingcheng Mountain is the best under heaven”.

Major Scenic Spots:  

Jianfu Palace, Tianshi Cave, Zhibi Trough, Fangning Bridge, Ancestor Palace, Shangju Palace, Laojun Pavilion, Yuqing Palace, Yuecheng Lake, Jinbian Rock, Deep Crystal Cave, Tai’an Temple, Three Deep Pools and Fist Spring, Longyin Gorge Plank Road, Another Village, Baiyun Wanfo Cave, Tongtian, Cave, Baiyun Ancient Temple, Baiyun Ancient Stockade Village, Double Spring Water Curtain, Cuiying Lake, and Baizhang Long Bridge, etc.

(3) Kongdong Mountain

Kongdong Mountain is a sanctum of Taoism. It is one of the most famous mountains in history and was once reputed as the best mountain in west China. Kongdong Mountain, also known as Kongtong Mountain, is located 15 kilometers to the west of Pingliang City in Gansu Province. Kongdong Mountain is 100 kilometers long and 15 kilometers wide, with an altitude of 1870-2100 meters. The highest peak of Kongdong Mountain is very steep and precipitous. The lush forest covering the peak looks like a natural, green screen extending form the north to the west. Therefore Kongdong Mountain is also called Green Screen Mountain and the average altitude is 2123 meters.

Kongdong Mountain boasts of diversified cultural relics and places of interests. On the mountain there is Guangchengzi Cave, and on the mountain range lie Wendao Palace and Guangcheng Spring. There are also Wangjia Mountain and Sabao Rock. It is said Emperor Qin once visited Sabao Rock, for which it became well known. In the east of the mountain, you can find Crane Cave and Blue Dragon Cave (also called Guiyun Cave) which are honored the key tourist attractions on Kongdong Mountain. In 1980, Kongdong Gorge Reservoir in the southern part of the mountain was put into operation. With the production capacity of 1890 kilowatt, it brings much economic returns through electricity production, fish breeding, irrigation, and sightseeing, etc. There is mountaineering highway available.

(4)  Emei Mountain

Emei Mountain is located 36 kilometers to the west of Leshan City, and 160 kilometers away from the city of Chengdu.

Emei Mountain in Sichuan Province, Wutain Mountain in Shanxi Province, Putuo Mountain in Zhejiang Province, and Jiuhua Mountain in Anhui Province are honored “Four Most Sacred Buddhist Mountains” in China. Emei Mountain is the highest and grandest Buddhist Mountain among the four. With the major peak of 3099 meters above the sea, tourists on Emei Mountain might have high-mountain response. You may ask how Emei Mountain becomes a famous Buddhist Mountain. In fact, according to Emei Mountain Records, the mountain is endowed with mysterious power form heaven. Legends have it that in the six ruling year of Emperor Ming Di in East Han Dynasty, an old man called Pu Gong once spot a miraculous deer and followed it to the top of the mountain. But the deer disappeared suddenly, and the old man inquired Bao Shang, a monk who was cultivating heart on the mountain, of what happened just now. He was told that it was Puxian Bodhisattva. From then one, Pu Gong became a monk and prayed to Puxian Bodhisattva every day. Emei Mountain then developed to be the site of introducing Chan Sect by Puxian Bodhisattva. However, Emei Mountain was a religious site of Taoism and was honored “The Seventh Sanctum of Taoism”. After Jin Dynasty, Buddhism gradually took the place of Taoism, making Emei Mountain a famous Buddhist Mountain in China. During Ming and Qing Dynasties, there were about 170 Buddhist temples and thousands of monks on the mountain. By now about 20 such temples retained.

Emei Mountain boasts of loftiness, elegance, antiquity, and divines. It is well known for exquisite natural scenery, ancient Buddhist culture, rich animal and plant resources, and unique geological landforms. It is reputed by tourists as Sacred Mountain of Buddhism, Kingdom of Plants, Paradise of Animals, and Museum of Geology, etc. Emei Mountain is honored “The most Elegant Mountain under Heaven”.

(5)  Chenjiagou VillageHometown of taiji Shadowboxing

Taiji shadowboxing is the extract of Chinese martial arts. Since 1980, taiji shadowboxing has been widely admired and is designated as a special tourist project by National Administration of Tourism. Now it is the fist product of tourism development in Henan Province. From 1992 till now, Chenjiagou Village has successfully held many sections of taiji shadowboxing annual conferences. Taiji shadowboxing is therefore well known all over the world and widely favored at home and abroad.   There are over 1000 organizations on taiji shadowboxing nation widely, and the total number of people practicing taiji has reached 80 million. In Chenjiagou Village over 80% are good at taiji shadowboxing, and even children like to use patterns and postures of taiji in their games. Therefore Chenjiagou Village has a saying which goes “Even a green hand of taiji can practice some basic postures when he or she has drunk the water of the village”.

Tourists are warmly welcomed to Chenjiagou Village to experience the broad connotation of taiji, appreciate the unique glamour of taiji culture, and enjoy the hospitality of local people.

(6)  Hometown of Martial ArtsCangZhou

Cangzhou is located in southeast Hebei Province. It adjoins to Bohai River in the east, neighbors on Beijing and Tianjin in the north, and faces to Shandong Peninsula and Liaodong Peninsula across sea. Cangzhou is a cradle of Chinese martial arts and has brought up numerous masters well known all over the world. Now martial arts with local characteristics of Cangzhou have been introduced to many countries and regions such as Asia, Europe, America, and Africa, and Cangzhou, therefore, is reputed as the “Hometown of Martial Arts”.

From ancient times till now people in Cangzhou are respected and admired for their plain, upright, industrious, and brave character. Boasting of the long history of martial arts and outstanding figures, Cangzhou has become the signification of valor and prowess in the mind of Chinese. According to historical records, civil martial arts in Cangzhou became popular in Ming Dynasty and entered boom in Qing Dynasty. In the ruling period of Emperor Qian Long, Cangzhou was honored “Hometown of Chinese Martial Arts” for the first time, and soon widely known at abroad in late Qing Dynasty.

Today’s Cangzhou administers several cities of county level and many counties. One of the major reasons why civil martial arts were so popular here in history is that Cangzhou people were determined to fight against the exploitation and compression of the ruling regime. Since the founding of People’s Republic of China, Cangzhou martial arts have revived and achieved further development.

(7)  Shaolin Temple

Shaolin Temple is reputed as the most famous temple under heaven. It is the ancestral temple of Chan Sect and the origin of Shaolin shadowboxing. It is located at the hinterland of Songshan Mount in Dengfeng City, Henan province. Since the whole temple is cuddled by a dense forest, it is called Shaolin Temple and “lin” in Chinese means forest.

In the 19th year of Northern Wei Dynasty (495 BC), Emperor Xiao Wen ordered the built of Shaolin Temple in order to provide accommodation for a senior Indian monk and invited him to introduce Buddhism there. Da mo, the 28th generation disciple of Moke Jiaye, the first follower of Sakyamuni Buddha, once went to Guangzhou by sea, passed through Nanjing, and finally arrived at Shaolin Temple at Songshan Mount. He called upon Buddhist disciples and believers, and introduced to them Chan Sect. therefore he is honored the “Ancestor of Chinese Chan Sect” and Shaolin Temple, the “Ancestral Temple of Chan Sect”. Shaolin Temple is well known for Chan Sect and its martial arts. During Sui and Tang Dynasty, Shaolin Temple had been very famous; in Song Dynasty, Shaolin martial arts had developed its own system with unique style. It is known as Shaolin School, the leading school among Chinese martial arts. In Yuan and Ming Dynasties, Shaolin Temple boasted of over 2000 Buddhist disciples and monks, and grew well known at home and abroad as the number one temple in China. After mid Qing Dynast, Shaolin Temple gradually declined.

Shaolin Temple experienced both prosperity and stagnancy in history. It leaves to later generations a lot of invaluable cultural relics, such as the 400 pieces of stone inscriptions of different generations after Qi Dynasty; over 250 mausoleums and pagodas from Tang Dynasty to Qing Dynasty; Chuzu Nunnery Palace in Northern Song Dynasty; the grand color frescos of 500 Arhat in Ming Dynasty; Shaolin Shadowboxing Book and color fresco of 13 monks saving Emperor Qin, etc. All of them are of high historical, artistic, and scientific value.

(8)   Cradle of Martial arts MastersFoshan City

Foshan is the birthplace of the great master of martial artsHuang Feihong, the hometown of Yong Chun, a famous ancestor of Chinese martial arts, and the mother town of Li Xiaolong, the world super-master of martial arts.

Foshan is located in the southeast of Guangdong Province and the hinterland of Pearl River Delta. Adjacent to Hang Kong and Macao, it enjoys convenient transportation of air and sea. Foshan is endowed with broad land, rich traditions and customs, and outstanding historical figures.

Since ancient times, Foshan has been a land flowing with honey and milk and an important port for foreign trade. The city was set up in Jin Dynasty and became well known in Tang Dynasty. With developed handicraft industry and commerce, it is reputed as one of the four famous towns of China (the other three are respectively Hankou Town in Hubei Province, Jingde Town in Jiangxi Province, and Zhuxian County in Henan Province). On November 1st, 1992, Li Peng, the former premier of China, wrote epigraph for Foshan: Famous Town in History and Herald of Reform. 

In recent history, Foshan was the base area of Red Turban Uprising against Yuan rule and anti-Britain Group during Opium War. Moreover, it was a revolutionary base area of anti-Japanese Guerilla in Pearl River Delta. The tradition of strengthening one’s health for self-defense has cultivated several generations of outstanding figures of marital arts. Many of them are memorized through the image of eminent heroes in novel or movie. Now in Foshan you can still find martial arts organizations or societies where excellent talents coming forth in great number. There are Foshan Union, the branch of Jingwu Martial Arts Union set up by great master Huo Yuanjia, Hongsheng Martial Arts Union, and the residence of Zhi Shan, a famous master of Chan Sect in Shaolin Temple on Songshan Mount and the teacher who cultivated and guided Li Xiaolong, the renowned super-master of martial arts all over the world. These organizations and unions have played an important role in promoting martial arts, driving out invaders, and safeguarding Chinese nation.

Generally speaking, there were five major schools of martial arts exercise in history in Foshan. They were ode-to-spring shadowboxing represented by Liang Zan (known as Master Zan in Foshan), Cai Lifo School represented by Zhang Hongsheng of Hongsheng Martial Arts Union, Shaolin shadowboxing represented by Liang Rong in Yue’an Union and Chen An in Yue’an Society, Hong Shadowboxing represented by Zhao Xi and Yang Sancai in Xingyi Union, and shadowboxing southern style of Shaolin represented by Ling Shisu. Later Li Peixian set up Foshan Jingwu Sports Union and invited masters from North China to teach martial arts there. After that, patterns of northern style martial arts were gradually introduced to Foshan, such as springy leg, eagle style shadowboxing, mantis style shadowboxing, and taiji, etc. Besides, disciples of boxer Lin Yaogui, a member of another martial arts union known as “The Ten Tigers of Guangdong”, went to Foshan and Sanshui of Guangdong to introduce their feat. They were Zeng Gen, Ma Qi, Ye Kesheng, etc. Today Foshan is still well known at home and abroad for the shadowboxing southern style and kick northern style. Representative figures and their schools include Luo Qiang of dragon style shadowboxing, Liu Shaoliang of Baimei style shadowboxing, taiji, Zeng Kun, Liang Zhensheng, and Qu Rongju of eagle style shadowboxing, Cen Neng and Peng Nan of ode-to-spring shadowboxing, and Li Mingqing of plum blossom Stake Course. 

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