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Chinese Martial Arts – History, Politics and National Identity (Review)

Reviewed item: 

Lu Zhouxiang. 2018.
Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts
Abingdon and New York: Routledge
ISBN 9781138090804

Some readers may raise an eyebrow reading the term ‘Chinese martial arts’ as it is often entailing stereotypes of an infantile hobby, screaming actors in kung fu films or orientalist fantasies. However, for centuries Chinese martial arts, in the broadest sense of the word, were an important part of the culture of China and played roles in its politics and identity building. In spite of this English language scholarly treatments of their historical, cultural or political dimensions are still rare, which underscores the high relevance of any new publication in this particular field. Lu Zhouxiang’s mission in writing the book under review was to highlight and to prove exactly these aspects. Using a historical approach, he starts the first half of his project with developments during the Shang dynasty in the Bronze Age and follows the dynastic chronology until the Qing dynasty. Subsequently the second half of the work covers the 20th Century until the most recent time. Lu’s enthusiasm for the subject matter shines through his easy to read, thoroughly referenced text. Each chapter is equipped with its own bibliography. A small drawback is the lack of Chinese characters in many cases, which may render more difficult the identification of some names and sources.

Real fortes of Lu’s text are the numerous quotations of various historical sources like poems, songs, chronicles, etc. often translated by the author himself. They make reading the anyway interesting monograph enjoyable and even more entertaining. Right from the beginning Lu manages successfully to demonstrate the importance of martial arts as ritualistic and pragmatic facets in the reality of life of China’s early aristocratic respectively political circles. It becomes evident that the nobility’s circumstances of living and surviving demanded the appreciation of martial practises. Among other things they assisted in the “construction of the feudal pyramid of power” (p.7) or in diplomatic exchanges (p.20). His investigation of the roles martial arts played in those social mechanisms evinces the importance of academic engagement with Chinese martial arts.

Folkloristic martial entertainment and pragmatic combat skills intermingled and mutually influenced each other under certain circumstances at times. Hence, Lu’s well-presented overviews of martial arts related novels and theatre shows through the history may be of special interest to readers with an interest in Chinese literature and drama. Not only were they significant factors in the creation of what Lu labels ‘martial arts culture’ (p.48), they were also used as means for identity building and political messages (p.119). When politics are involved, the possibility of censorship has to be considered sometimes, which in turn leads to different consequences for martial arts writings and their authors (p.152).

For me one of the most impressive information delineated by Lu is the great extent of governmental support of and involvement into martial arts in the 20th century until today. Besides the obvious and not so obvious effects for China itself, it raises questions about the situations in China’s neighbouring nations with their own martial traditions. To give one example, in 1959 and 1975 China’s State Post Bureau issued stamps with martial sports motives (pp. 140 and 150). Similarly in 1964/65 stamps were issued depicting the martial traditions of the Ryukyu Islands which were under US administration at that time (baxleystamps.com/rymartialarts.htm, accessed 10 March 2019). In both cases native martial arts were officially legitimised and upheld as cultural legacies by these stamps.

In two or three cases the reviewer feels that a little more extended source criticism could have been fruitful. For example on pages 63 and 64 Lu is presenting his rendering of a 17th century epitaph that was and is well known among martial arts literati because of its content. Therein a categorisation of Chinese martial arts into the so-called ‘internal family’ and ‘external family’ (Lu’s translation) is proposed. A certain Zhang Sanfeng is named as the founder of the ‘internal family’ of martial arts and said to have acquired his skills while dreaming. Of course, the last statement reveals a legendary character of this story. Rightly, therefore, Lu points out the fact that the Zhang Sanfeng legend was dismissed with scholarly criticism in the 1920s and 1930s (p.115). According to Sinologist Stanley Henning the epitaph in question appears to have been meant as a more or less camouflaged political statement. He argues that it contains several verbal attacks of a Ming loyalist against the then still young Qing dynasty. The latter was established by ‘foreign’ Manchu invaders, symbolized as ‘external family’ in said source, while the ingenious Ming are disguised as ‘internal family’ (Stanley Henning, Chinese boxing: The internal versus external schools in the light of history and theory, Journal of Asian Martial Arts 6(3), 1997: 10–19). For this reason we may probably better read it as a political declaration of a person who seeks identity in a bygone period. And because this interpretation would perfectly be in line with Lu’s overall discussion, the reviewer somehow sensed a missed opportunity. Lu does not refer to it. Yet, my sentiment with regard to this point is not meant as criticism, but it was merely a brainwave that hit me while reading the book.

Noteworthy – at least in my opinion – are Lu’s conclusions regarding the possible future of Chinese martial arts. In tandem with the “increasingly industrialised, urbanised, and globalised world” China is facing, Lu proposes that its native martial arts probably should better follow a path of “reform and modernisation” in the direction of a unified sportive tournament system (p.222). While this suggestion may be helpful in creating a more global identity and stronger diplomatic relations it appears to potentially wipe away all the cultural and technically diversity and depth outlined meticulously in the same work before. Therefore the main argument that Chinese martial arts have “always been evolving” (p.223) appears to me as a sweeping statement. His view is balanced by an earlier presentation of more critical voices of these modernisation and sportification trends, and it is part of his discussion of these disapproving statements. So in the end the reader is provided with reasonable material in order to draw his own conclusions regarding this problem and further engagement with the topic is elicited.

In short, Lu’s work offers a real contribution to the understanding of Chinese traditional culture in the form of martial arts, politics, and identity. Sinologists and students of sinology will find it useful in better comprehending the diverse roles martial arts played in Chinese culture. Students of Asian studies in general may be provided with insights and inspiration for future research. Furthermore, it is worthwhile for teachers and practitioners of Chinese martial arts who want to learn more about the history and culture of their passion.

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