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Ancient Chinese Martial Arts: Styles & Techniques

Instructor: Christopher Muscato

Chris has a master's degree in history and teaches at the University of Northern Colorado.

Martial arts are amongst the most famous elements of Chinese culture. In this lesson, we'll explore the history of these art forms and see how they define traditional Chinese attitudes.

Kung Fu

Over the millennia, many things have come out of China. Amongst these many things are several forms of art, including music, dance, and of course, Kung Fu. But, what does this term mean? Technically, Kung Fu refers to a level of mastery in any skill, but for people outside of China it is often synonymous with the martial arts. In China, martial arts are more properly referred to as wushu, which literally translates to ''martial methods''. The tradition of wushu is millennia old and has become one of China's most recognizable cultural arts in the world today. There are over 300 distinct styles of wushu, each with dozens of variations. So, this is a varied tradition, but one that is increasingly coming to represent Chinese culture and heritage on the world stage. In fact, perhaps the best indicator of its importance to Chinese society today comes from a recent decision by the Chinese government to formally rename this art form Guoshu, or the national method.

Martial arts play a major role in Chinese history
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History of Chinese Martial Arts

So, where does it all begin? The wushu tradition as it exists today is a compilation of literally thousands of years of practice and reinvention. We don't know when the first forms of Chinese martial arts appeared, and we probably never will; it's pretty clear that their origins pre-date written history. According to tradition, however, the Chinese devotion to martial arts was introduced by the Yellow Emperor. The Yellow Emperor is a legendary figure said to be the progenitor of all Chinese culture, who developed things like medicine and astrology, as well as martial arts.

The Yellow Emperor
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Whatever their exact origins, Chinese martial arts appear in recorded history as early as the first recorded Chinese dynasty, the Shang (ca. 1760-1122 BCE). Chinese martial arts and Chinese dance, two art forms both focused on perfection of form and movement, seem to have been developed roughly in tandem. The martial arts really started to take off, however, in the Spring and Autumn Period (ca. 771-476 BCE). It was in this era that the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius outlined the structure of ideal Chinese society, and was also recorded advising people to study the martial arts alongside poetry and philosophy. He believed that the body and mind should each be honed and perfected together. It's not surprising that it's within this era that some of the first treatises on martial arts theory emerged and training became more standardized.

From there, martial arts took off in Chinese history. Imperial China was filled with warring societies, so martial arts emerged as a practical form of self defense, as well as part of greater philosophical agendas. In the Warring States period (475-221 BCE), rulers hosted swordsmanship competitions for skilled fighters. According to tradition, the largest of these was won by a woman named Yuh Niuy, who passed her knowledge into modern martial arts. In the Qin dynasty (221-206 BCE), the wrestling style of Jiao Di became a recognized sport, with competitions being a major part of Chinese life. The elevation of martial arts as a competitive sport was important, creating a way for the art form to exist without the presence of warfare. By the Han dynasty (206 BCE-220 CE), training manuals and treatises on theory were available in dozens of fighting styles.

Wushu Styles

The hundreds of styles of wushu that are practiced today were developed over time, most of them becoming basically their modern forms by the 19th century. However, they all draw their roots from a shared culture and heritage of physical and spiritual dedication. While we can't talk about every kind of Chinese martial art, we can look at some of the major groupings, those which can tell us something about the history of the art form.

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