A Brief History of Chinese Martial Arts

Chinese martial arts originated from traditional Chinese culture. Like many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, it has great depth. (Image:  Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via  flickr  CC BY 2.0 )
Chinese martial arts originated from traditional Chinese culture. Like many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, it has great depth. (Image: Jean-Pierre Dalbéra via flickr CC BY 2.0 )

Chinese martial arts originated from traditional Chinese culture. Like many aspects of traditional Chinese culture, it has great depth. Most of the many styles of Chinese martial arts were derived from Daoism, and like Daoism, are closely related to cultivation of character and moral discipline.

The foundational components of martial arts include cultivating virtue, physical technique, longevity, improving health, defending oneself, and preventing violence. Hence, the first character in the word martial arts is Wu (武), which is formed by combining the characters for “stop” (止) and “spear” (戈).

In the long history of Chinese civilization, the first martial art to appear was “Jiao-di” style wrestling, which emerged during the Yellow Emperor’s battle against Chi-you (around 2852-2205 B.C.).

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Tai Chi Quan is one of the few internal martial arts styles. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Following that, many schools of sword technique appeared during the Warring States Period. From the Han Dynasty (206 B.C.-A.D. 220) to the Tang Dynasty (A.D. 618-907), the art of sword fighting encompassed increasingly rich technical skills. For example, the “Three Summits” of the Tang Dynasty are: Li Bai’s poems, Pei Min’s sword technique, and Zhang Xu’s calligraphy. Looking back, one can see that sword technique reached its peak during the Tang Dynasty, just as Chinese poetry did.

After the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1271-1368) dynasties, the Daoist Zhang Sanfeng established Tai Chi Quan during his spiritual path toward enlightenment. In the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1912) dynasties, the spiritual community began teaching Ba Gua and Xingyi Quan. Today, we recognize them as internal martial arts styles.

Meanwhile, external martial arts styles were being created and spread to the general public. They are known for their elegance, wide movement, and swiftness. For example, the Long Fist system includes the styles of Cha Quan, Plum-Flower Fist, Cannon Punch, Flooding Fist, China Fist, as well as other styles, such as Open Gate Eight Extremities Fist, Spreading Power from the Back Boxing, Tumbling Long Fist, and Praying Mantis. The famous fighting styles of Shaolin Kung Fu were also divided into Southern and Northern styles.

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Shaolin Kung Fu was divided into Southern and Northern styles. (Image: Xiangyang Liu via wikimedia CC BY-SA 3.0)

The internal styles place emphasis on a person’s inner power development and energy cultivation, while external styles work from the outside to the inside, first placing emphasis on physical form, and then training the mind, body, and spirit to work as one. Internal and external styles both use many types of weapons. Some examples are the sword, spear, staff, ax, long handle ax, halberd, and trident.

Chinese martial arts have profound philosophical and spiritual backgrounds that influence their content and the connotations of their techniques and principles. Martial arts form an important part of traditional Chinese culture and civilization, and traditional Chinese culture is known as a culture imparted from Heaven.

Please watch this video of Shaolin kung fu basic moves:

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