Western Perceptions of Chinese Martial Arts

by William A.

“If one has to fight, let civilization defeat barbarism (…) if they [the Chinese] could have the qualities of any of the western countries, it would be enough to stop such enterprise. Moreover, one would have to think what the Chinese could do to us in such case… However, right at this moment we are seeing that to keep the colossus at bay it is not require an effort proportional to its size but to its strength. The latter is scarce… A couple hundred marines and European soldiers are enough to hold off millions of rebels… many things would have had to change in previous wars, even the Sino Japanese War, for this not have been the case (Garcia, Gutierrez, Acevedo, & Cheung, 2010)”

Unlike Japanese martial arts the introduction of Chinese combat systems to western audiences had a rough, uneven and more often than not biased process which can be seen in many publications even today. The Japanese fighting systems were covered in western articles and books as early as the 1890s, in Japan the first Jiu Jitsu book published for the general public appeared in 1887 (Jūjutsu ken bō zukai hiketsu, Display of Jujutsu, Sword and Staff Secrets by Iguchi Matsunosuke). Similarly the oldest Judo text we located was published in 1905 in Japan titled Traditional Judo Illustrated, Tsūzoku jūdō zukai by Arima Sumitomo. It is also interesting to note articles attempting to describe the beginings and evolution of Jiu Jutsu already mention the Chinese influence of at least one of these schools as early as 1888.

“The origin of the art of Ken is stated thus: – There came to Japan from China a man named Chingempin, who left that country after the fall of the Min dynasty, and lived in Kokushoji (a Budhist temple) in Azabu in Yedo, as Tokyo was then was called. There also in the same temple lived three ronins, Fukuno, Isogai and Miura. One day Chingempin told them that in China there was an art of seizing a man, which he had seen himself practiced but had not learned its principles. On hearing this, these three men made investigations and afterward became very skillful”

Kyto Ryu Tablet in Tokyo Honoring Chingempin

The article describes other potential Chinese contributions to the art to a physician named Akiyama who travel to China to study medicine where he also learnt a system of kicking and striking. The article questions the validity of the Chinese origins given that the Chinese system learn by Akiyama included striking. The authors failed to recognize that most if not all of the Chinese systems included the skills of striking (Da), kicking (Ti), wrestling (Shuai) and sizing (Na) as well as the use of weapons. The Japanese systems on the other hand started to lean towards specializing on one or two of the above skills. The English article was written with Jigoro Kano’s input, given that Kano was working on popularizing his art it can explain the need to present it as a made in Japan product. Dozens of articles and books covering not only the history and evolution of Jiu Jutsu, but also teaching the skills to the reader were published in the latter part of the 19th century onwards. Japanese instructors travelled overseas to spread the art as well as foreigners visited Japan to learn fighting skills. The concept of defeating strength/size by yielding, the stories describing Japanese men and women learning Jiu Jutsu for health and self defense purposes resonated in western audiences and contributed to its acceptance.

In contrast Chinese martial arts were scarcely covered in the west’s printed media let alone arouse the interest to learn these skills outside China. We will review early attempts to describe them from those foreigners who witness them, only a handful of the sources we have been able to locate will be presented here.

Terms that are nowadays commonly used to described Chinese martial arts such as “Kung Fu” appeared in 1779  in “The Cong-Fou of the Tao-Tse” by Pierre-Martial Cibot; even though this work covered health/breathing exercise rather than martial arts . Other westerners had less than pleasant experiences with other levels of Chinese society, piracy was a common theme to those looking to make a living trading with the Chinese. John Turner a Chief mate in the ship Tay was held captive by Chinese pirates to whom Tuner calls “Ladrones” (Spanish word for Thieves); in his 1809 memoirs Turner describes the type of vessels and weapons used by the pirates. The latter include guns, pikes with bamboo shafts up to 18 feet long, other similar weapons are shorter and use as throwing javelins, short swords up to 18 inches used for close quarter fighting. A similar experienced was shared by British officer Richard Glasspoole, however the sources we found did not include any mention of the pirates combat skills as detailed in an article published in 1996 by infamous David Bannon (Bannon, 1996).

A typical western view of foreign combat skills when compared to their own was that of western superiority and even contempt as illustrated in a 1820 passage depicting a bout that took place between a Chinese man and his European foe:

“In our endeavours to get them without the gates, one of them struck Mr. B., and then gave him a fair chaliange to box ; but for his temerity he soon got so sound a drubbing as to convince him how far inferior a Hainanese is to a European in the noble art of self-defence. Although this man was thought a professor in that branch of the fine arts, yet, I fancy, this was the first, and will, probably, be the last, time he will venture upon a similiar experiment. The poor fellow, however, fought toughly for about 20 minutes before he asked for quarter, and the surrounding multitude never once interfered in the contest, although they evinced great interest as to the result.” (Couch, 2009)

Another interesting account, shines light on a practice common in the day when government presence was lacking or close enough to dissuade the criminal element from plundering. Village protection was in many cases provided by the inhabitants of the area, clans usually sought martial artists to train the villagers for combat and help protect their livelihood. These skills were not relegated to men only, but women also took an active role in such endeavour. These men and women fought in many cases to the bitter end as illustrated in the following memoir published in 1831:

“The inhabitants remained within the intrenchments, and dared not come forward. The pirates then divided their force according to the various passes, and made an attack. The inhabitants prepared themselves to make a strong resistance near the entrance from the sea on the east side of the fence but the pirates stormed the fence, planted their flag on the shore, and then the whole squadron followed. The inhabitants fought bravely, and made a dreadful slaughter when the pirates crossed the entrance at Lin tow.

The boxing-master, Wei tang chow, made a vigorous resistance, and killed about ten pirates. The pirates then began to withdraw, but Chang paou himself headed the battle, which lasted very long. The inhabitants were not strong enough. Wei tang was surrounded by the pirates nevertheless that his wife fought valiantly by his side. On seeing that they were surrounded and exhausted, the father of the lady* rushed (*It is not stated in the Chinese text, whose father rushed forward, whether it was the father of the lady, or of Wei tang chow.) forward and killed  some pirates. The pirates then retired in opposite directions, in order to surround their  opponents in such a manner that they might not escape, and could be killed without being able   to make any resistance and thus it happened, the wife of Wei tang being slain with the others. The pirates now pursued the inhabitants of the place, who cut the bridge and retired to the neighbouring hills. The pirates swam through the water and attacked the inhabitants, who were unable to escape. The whole force of the pirates being now on shore, the inhabitants suffered a severe loss, it is supposed about a hundred of them were killed the loss of the pirates also was  considerable.”

Capture of J. Turner by Chinese Pirates in 1806

Chang Paou was a famous pirate in Hong Kong, who was kidnapped by the pirates Cheng I and his wife Ching Shih when he was 15. He was adopted by the kidnappers as their son. Chang later took over the pirating business from his adoptive parents (Wikipedia).

The Qing government’s attitude towards the ethnic Han’s martial arts practice was that of disdain and considered useless in the battlefield (Gewu, 1995); these observations echoes those by Ming general Qi Jiguang who referred to certain styles as “flowery”. The Qing’s assessment could be both a combination of a sense of  Manchu superiority towards the Han as well as the resurgence of practices that were also common during the Ming were combat prowess was not the aim of some martially inspired exercises whose purpose was rather showmanship (as is the case of modern competition Wu Shu). Westerner’s reports on the Chinese government’s attitude towards these practices appeared in some outlets such as this one published in 1841:

“Amongst the degenerate practices of the age was pugilism, against which the emperor very gravely inveighs, -and   exhorts his people to introduce more manly sports, superior to the amusements of loitering vagabonds.” (Couch, 2009)

Training manuals/methods included in many cases cryptic oral formulas (kojoue) and secret methods (mifa) of the moves taught, a standard practice as early as the Jin Dynasty (265-420) and used to keep the application of these techniques secret from unwelcome eyes (Henning, Ge Hong Famous Daoist Thinker & Practical Martial Artist, 2007). Chinese plays also draw inspiration from existing practices  as illustrated in a translated Chinese farce performed at the Tung Hing Theatre before H. R. H. the Duke of Edinburgh and published in 1868. One of the characters in the play is A-lan who is a gambler, after losing money his wife rough him up and sends him off to sale a pig and recoup the loss, however he meets First G to whom A-lan owns money and wants to collect his debt by taking the pig and threatens A-lan with a knife when A-lan is reluctant to lose his pig. A-lan asks to be taught some boxing tricks which have names that only make sense to the initiated.

“A-lan. Oh no, no, no! I don’t want any money, I don’t indeed. But just put me up to a little boxing, do now.

First G. Very well. Stand like this.

(They spar, A-lan is knocked down.)

A-lan. What do you call that posture?

First G. Its name is ‘ Speedy promotion.’ Now try this.

(Teaches him a new attitude, and again knocks him down.)

A-lan. What is that called?

First G. It is called Kwan Ping presenting the seal.’

A-lan. Are there any more?

First G. Oh yes,’

The three hands,’ or this,’ The bright arrow.’

(Teaches him various postures, then makes an attack upon him as he supposes his wife will, and allows A-lan to knock him down several times.)

Good, good!

Well those are quite enough for you to beat your wife. (Exit)”

Needless to say A-lan is unable to stop the beating once he returns home empty handed. (Couch, 2009). Publication of martial arts manuals were common during the Qing period and were easily available, one of such manuals was translated and published in the China Review’s 1874 – 1875 articles compilation titled the Noble Art of Self Defense. The earliest reference to Chinese martial arts manuals appeared in the Former Han  Bibliographies (Henning, Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts, 1999); the peak of such publications occurred during the Ming Dynasty and much later in the Republican period. The translator voices his bias in the following terms:

” The Chinese have very little idea of fighting with the fists. It takes a good deal of provocation to induce them to fight at all. The amount of bad language which will be bandied between two strapping coolies and end in nothing more decisive than had language would serve to provoke a dozen fights in the British forecastle, where “Now Bill, call him an adjective substantive, or he’ll call you one,” seldom fails to initiate the assault and battery which all present are longing to see. When Chinamen do fight, bamboos, or half-bricks are much more in request than nature’s unassisted weapons, or if they are driven to an empty-handed encounter they will seize each other by the head and scuffle about in a way which would go to the heart of any member of the sporting interest. Anything more exquisitely ludicrous than a couple of Chinese induced to put on the gloves (after an example of their use from Englishmen) I have never seen.”

Chinese novels also have mentions of martial arts practices, one of which was partially translated in 1878 by some Mr. Meyer titled Words of Yok Fei (Yue Fei) (1103 – 1142) a famous Southern Song Dynasty general to whom many styles of Chinese martial arts claim as their founder/creator e.g. Xingyi Quan, Ying Zhao Pai among others.

“When Yok Fei is seven and Kwei six, a teacher is called in, but master Wang with two other young friends care for nothing but boxing and cudgel-playing, and will have none of the master, pulling his beard when he attempts remonstrance.”

One of the earliest reports of a Chinese martial arts exhibition in North America took place in 1890 and was reported in several newspapers (Miller, 2014). The source we used does not include the illustrations found in Miller’s outstanding article; it was announced on February 27 in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle in its list of upcoming events:

“Boxing and wrestling to-night at Robertson’s Gymnasium, Fulton and Orange streets, by Ah Giang and Foo Jung. Chinese bantam weights. American boxers and wrestlers will also appear.”

The day after the same newspaper described in a very condescending way what took place during the match which based on the account it appeared for the most part it was not a full contact bout and more of a “point match”. It is unsurprising that the audience was less than impressed with the performance given than it took place in between regular western boxing matches considered more exiting.


“The defensive tactics of the men were visible from the outset. Foo Jung was smaller than his adversary and had a deep olive skin, large and glittering brown eyes, a long nose and a curling under lip that betrayed his emotions. Ah Giang was taller, broader across the shoulders’ and longer armed and his face was square cut, paler and more on! the bull dog type. His eyes were wide apart and had a mild, pleading expression.

The little fighter was lithe, supple as a cat, quick as a flash, furious as a demon, bold as a lion and could jump like a grasshopper and kick like a mule. The other one was also quick and strong and supple, and full of courage and expedients. When time was called instead of capering  toward each other the “two Chinamen began to slowly circle the ring, with arms crossed at the wrists and palms extended. Only when greatly excited did they clinch their fists and strike blows. They gradually approached each other and then, suddenly, they came together; and locked arms and began a scientific system of fencing with their arms. They wrestled with open palms and the little one, seeing his opportunity, inserted his embroidered toe in the folds of  his adversary’s Jacket and deftly kicked him backward, head over heels. The other fellow jumped up growling and they went at it hammer and tongs, slapping and punching each other and kicking and wrestling, fencing with their arms and jumping around like bewitched automatons.”

As foreign presence and influence in China started to grow it incited challenge by members of Chinese society that felt threaten, reports of  attacks on priests, missionaries and Chinese converts started to appeared in the late 1800s. The climax of such discontent came with the Boxer Rebellion (1899 – 1901). These events would mark the perceptions held on both local and international observers regarding Chinese martial arts. This is illustrated in a report published in 1899 (a sample of many that were common during this chaotic period of Chinese history). The actions of the Boxers would remain in the nation’s conscience years after such events took place and were used as arguments to discard martial practices as unscientific, backwards and unfit for a Nation in the process of modernizing itself   by the supporters of the New Culture movement of the 1910s (Acevedo & Cheung, 2014).


(from our own correspondent)

The Boxers

Some accounts has been given in your columns of a society known as the Boxers, who have been operating in the region near P’angchuang. The society has been steadily pushing its work in this direction, but it is known to us  here by the name of the Big Knife Society. This is practically a crusade against the Christian Church at present. Formerly we heard of raids being made by them upon wealthy Chinese families, apparently only for plunder, but more recently these cases are very rare, and probably due to their mistaking them for Christians. There seems to be no distinction made between Protestant and R.C. all share a common fate at their hands. The society is composed of branches, made up of men from the occupations common to this part of the country, with a dominance of farmers.

They have the reputation of hating anything that is foreign, their motto being “exterminate the foreigner”. or the last two or three months they have acted with almost free hand in this province. When the Governor had his attention called to their lawless proceedings in the region of Chiningche, in September, he gave the society to understand that they might loot, plunder and burn but must not take life.”

Some writers did a better job in trying to understand the origin of Chinese martial arts; in 1906 Giles published an article titled The Home of Jiu Jutsu, in it the author presented earlier sources that describe references to boxing and wrestling. Unfortunately Giles also paraphrased the division of Chinese martial arts into external/exoteric (Shaolin) and external/esoteric Chinese boxing schools. Despite some oversights Giles did pick up on the use of the characters for Jiu Jutsu and pointed out that these were originated in China.

” The use here of the word jou “gentleness” is peculiarly noticeable, the Japanese term jiu jitsu being the equivalent of the Chinese jou shu “gentle art.” Altogether, we may fairly come to a conclusion, reinforced as it is by the two accompanying illustrations from the Art of Boxing, that the Japanese learnt the art in China from the Chinese, carried it away home with them, added to it from their own resources of ingenuity, and now come forward to teach the improved art, not only to the East, but to the West.”

Chinese Boxing in 1936

The Hong Kong’s press published a short article in 1922 describing the evolution of Chinese martial arts shortly after a public demonstration in the city aiming to explain to the uninitiated what Chinese boxing was all about:

“The art of Kei Kik includes dexterity in wielding a sword, spear and knife [Dao] as well as skill in the use of fists and feet. This peculiarly Chinese form of what we may call Chinese boxing and fencing has a history dating back to the period of the “Warring Sates” some three centuries before the Christian Era. It was developed in the succeeding dynasties of Ts’un and Hon. A certain Ts’ai Man is commemorated in the history of the Hon Dynasty as being a famous exponent of the art and the men of the Ts’ai State are said to have greatly esteemed such skill. In the province of Ho Nam is an ancient temple called Shin Lam Tsz whose priests and acolytes in days gone by were continually engaged in exercises of this nature. Thirteen of them won fame as “boxers and fencers” when they helped the Emperor Tai Tsung of the Tang dynasty to subdue the rebellious Wong Shai-chung in the early part of the 7th Century and established a traditional school of the art known as the “Shin Lam L’ai”.

It is clear that in those days a real military value was attached to skill in Kei Kik but later with the development of firearms the art became neglected as a practical field of martial endeavour. Transplanted to Japan however it doubtless became the historical parent of Judo or Jujutsu.

But although the Chinese expert may have lost his military importance the practice of the art has persisted partly perhaps as a form of self-culture and partly  pastime for boys and men. In very recent Republican days indeed there are not wanting signs that the practice has been deliberately recognized as tending to stimulate a militaristic spirit, but this is not the place to touch on certain modern aspects of Chinese social life.

The writer has pleasant recollections of many a spirited exhibition of “boxing” given by village boys in the New Territories.”

In spite of the titanic effort to promote the practice and understanding of Chinese martial arts trough competitions, demonstrations, publication of training manuals and journals by the Jinwu (Chin Woo), the Central Guoshu Academy and other smaller organizations; very little of this material was ever translated into English let alone arising the interest of westerners as it was the case with Japanese systems. The usual misconceptions regarding Chinese combat arts would still be prevalent in the late 1930s as illustrated in an article by J. Eigner and published in 1938 (Henning, Martial Arts in the Modern World, 2003).

“Chinese boxing originally developed out of the practices of the Indian Yogi, at least this is generally the thesis upheld by scholars, although there is not much to substantiate it except a rather vague affinity…

Scholars of today assert that this temple [Shaolin] became the cradle of Chinese boxing…

Practices of this kind, known scientifically as the transfer of the center of gravity, point directly to the Indian origin of Chinese boxing exercise…

Western boxing is an expression of the active, restless, fighting and searching of life of the Occidental, whereas Chinese boxing just as exactly reflects the contemplative, passive knowing and restful soul of Asia….

Because Chinese boxing has so decidedly this Oriental touch which seems to defy all clear cut definitions and explanations it seems to be an impossible task for an outsider to unlock its mysteries.”

None of the research of scholars like Tang Hao who disproved many of the above arguments, was distributed outside China; in all fairness the Chinese also had a degree of responsibility for such misconceptions. There were a few  martial artist who were quiet competent and had a more cautious view of the history of their native martial arts and were not easily tempted to continue spreading unproven stories, unfortunately these people were/are not the majority. It will take decades before serious scholarship will start to appear in English putting together the pieces of the puzzle and uncovering hidden sources. The recent interest in martial studies worldwide has fostered a better understanding of the martial arts, this will continue to bring much needed perspective about the subject to the general public in the years to come.



Acevedo, W., & Cheung, M. (2014). Republican Period Guoshu Periodicals. Classical Fighting Arts , 56-68.

Bannon, D. (1996, Aug/Sep). Kung Fu on the High Seas. Wushu Qigong Kung Fu .

Couch, J. (2009, November). Chinese Martial Arts in 19th century China. Retrieved from Martial History Magazine: http://martialhistory.com

Garcia, C. G., Gutierrez, M. P., Acevedo, W., & Cheung, M. (2010). Los luchadores japoneses tienen mas destreza y arte que los luchadores chinos, o cuando el contexto importa mas que el texto. Revista de Artes Marciales Asiaticas , 42-52.

Gewu, K. (1995). The Spring and Autum of Chinese Martial Arts. Plum Publishing.

Henning, S. (1999). Academia Encounters the Chinese Martial Arts. China Review International , 6 (2), 319-332.

Henning, S. (2007). Ge Hong Famous Daoist Thinker & Practical Martial Artist. Journal of Asian Martial Arts , 22-25.

Henning, S. (2003). Martial Arts in the Modern World. Westport: Praeger Publishers.

Miller, B. (2014, October). The First Exhibition of Kung Fu and Chinese Martial Arts in America: Brooklyn, 1890. Retrieved from Martial Arts New York: https://martialartsnewyork.org/2014/10/16/the-first-exhibition-of-kung-fu-and-chinese-martial-arts-in-america-brooklyn-1890/

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