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  • Writer's pictureChris Toepker

Book Review: "Chinese Martial Arts"

"Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-first Century" by Peter Lorge is a great book for folks just starting out in learning the history of Asian martial arts. It provides an excellent overview of the available evidence and tracks the various cultural threads across the wide tapestry of Chinese history. Where it lacks some substance is the level of detail to back up the observations, however the work is meant to be a gloss and makes up for the shortfall with a good bibliography. Perhaps more importantly, there seems to be a missed differentiation between "military" and "martial" practice.

Since the work covers stone age to the present (published in 2012), it necessarily pulls at the brightest and clearest or most controversial threads in the tapestry. Interestingly, it starts off asserting that martial arts is just as much a woman's pursuit as a mans by citing Fu Hao's tomb (婦好墓), asserting that she was one of the first martial artists in China. While it is certain that many weapons were found in her tomb, and equally that this is unusual, how can anyone be certain about their use rather than their symbolism?

I raise this question not to dispute the findings or the assertion. Instead, it is a case-in-point of the dodged question for the book: military vs. martial. While there is certainly a lot of overlap in the Venn diagram of these two terms, and that overlap ebbed and flowed in various periods, there are distinct practices and realms that give them separate centers of gravity.

Military (兵法,軍事), according to Webster: "of or relating to soldiers, arms, or war; of or relating to armed forces; of or relating to the army." Armies and armed forces and war imply large scale, well organized efforts - more about operations and standards than individual talent and skill. Indeed, a key quote from Sun Tzu's military classic, "The Art of War" (孫子,兵法): "The armed host forms a single united body, is it impossible either for the brave to advance alone, or for the cowardly to retreat alone. This is the art of handling large masses of men." Success in this realm implies a large scale, ordering many to a singular aim.

Other key words in modern Chinese: 戰爭 (warfare),軍隊 (military units),國防 (national defense), weaponry (兵器).

Martial (武), according to to Webster: "of, relating to, or suited for war or a warrior; relating to an army or to military life; experienced in or inclined to war." All these imply individuals and their singular experience and talent.

Other key words in modern Chinese: 武術 (martial arts),拳法 (fighting; "fist arts"), 武蹈 (martial dance), 武器 (weaponry, yet implies individual things like spear methods (槍法), staff methods (棍法), the way of the sword (劍道)).

As for the example of Fu Hao, many weapons were discovered in her tomb, which was unusual. These symbols have led to the conclusion that she was a military general, which is a leap, however small. The leap to martial artist though, is larger - how can we know she practiced and used those weapons? Isn't that the implication of calling her a martial artist?

This question comes forward time and again in a variety of illustrations, muddying the waters, especially for beginners.

Having said that, the threads pulled out to follow prove useful and interesting, no matter the words used.

For example, when Mr. Lorge traces the ebb and flow of archery across most of Chinese history, highlighting when it was respected as an army weapon and the overall reaction to expertise in it and contrasting that with when it was seen as a more individual achievement. Specifically the when and who needed to penetrate a target vs. who needed to simply hit that target vs. who needed to perform the ritual of shooting only. Its a very useful illustration of Han and neighbor cultural norms, reflection of militarization of the populace. Likewise horsemanship as an example.

Another valuable thread pulled out for examination is the long history martial "dance." When we think of modern Chinese martial arts, we very often think of the proscribed sets performed. The history of this, both from a martial and military perspective, stretches back farther than beginners understand or even imagine. The book does a very good job tracing it's development and the words used to describe it, deftly surveying the complex terrain of military needs (e.g. personal standing in an army, whether social or squad leadership), martial needs (e.g. a way to practice and demonstrate for small-scale uses like body guarding) and cultural displays (e.g. the link to street and temple performances, medicine sellers, and opera).

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