Defining Chinese Martial Arts in the Republican Era

By William A. & Mei C.

During the Republican period (1912 to 1949) the proponents of the National Essence Movement  sought not only to promote native martial practices but also its technical and theoretical study by applying modern western methodologies. Chinese martial arts have been described in different ways over the centuries, however it would not be until the beginning of the XXth century when there was a movement to unify them through a single term, in this case Guoshu (National Arts). Prior to the creation of the Central National Arts Academy (Zhongyang Guoshu Guan), different denominations were used as described below. A discussion of our original article was done a while back in the always excellent Kung Fu Tea blog.

Pre-Guoshu Experiment

One of the first training programs for use at national level was published in 1911 by Ma Liang (1878-1947) also known as Ma Zizhen, a commander/warlord (military leaders who fought for control of the nation in the period 1916-1928). Ma organized a curriculum consisting of four volumes, namely: Chinese Boxing Studies (Quan Jiao Ke, 拳腳科), Chinese Wrestling Studies (Shuai Jiao Ke, 率角科), Double Edge Sword Studies (Jian Shu Ke, 劍术科) and Long Staff Studies (Gun Shu Ke, 棍术科). This training program was call New Martial Arts of China (Zhong hua xin wu shu, 中華新武術) an all encompassing term to identify these skills preceding later efforts. This program would disappear from national view in a very short time. In 1919 and to commemorate the anniversary of the Martial Essence (Jing Wu), a special edition of its activities, was published including an article in English entitled “History of Chinese Kung Fu “, using a nomenclature that still today popularly describes Chinese martial arts. In 1921 the periodical Martial Arts (Wu Shu) was published by the Martial Knights Organization  (Zhonghua Wuxia Hui), using the same term as Ma’s training curriculum.

A year later, the Shanghai’s Athletic Association of the Martial Essence (Shanghai Jingwu Tiyu Zong Hui) began publishing the newspaper Central (Zhongyang), when describing the elements that formed its curriculum it did not use wushu; Instead a different terminology to describe the martial skills taught at the association was used. The department of attacking skills (ji ji)  was divided in the sections of Chinese boxing (quan shu), weapons (bing qi), practice with a partner (dui shou) and internal work (neigong). Other branches of the Association followed a similar structure. Another publication that also used the term of “attacking skills” was the periodical Improvement of the Attacking Skills (Ji Ji Gai Jing). This periodical was called in its beginnings  as Quarterly Publication for the Search of the Truth (Qiu Shi Ji Kan) in 1934, changing its name to Monthly Publication for the Search of the Truth (Qiu Shi Yue Kan) in 1935 and was later baptized on September 1936 as Heroic Spirit (Xia Hun) to finally changing its name to Improvement of the Attacking Skills. The latter publication shows that some of these outlets changed throughout their existence. In the Journal of the Central National Arts Academy (Zhongyang Guoshu Guan Hui Kan), published in 1928, it described the elements that were included in the National Arts, as follows:

            “The elements that comprise the National Arts (guoshu) include courage (quanyong), attacking skills(ji ji)  and the different military skills (wu yi) of our nation. The military skills of the nation have been developed from ancient times and transmitted through many generations of disciples; lately it has declined but there are still good martial artists that use different methods to promote these practices, it is with the help of the national studies (guo xue) will aid in their development”

As seen in the above examples, different terms were still in use to refer to Chinese martial arts despite the influence of the Central National Arts Academy; However, the Academy promoted the use of National Arts (guoshu) for very specific reasons which we will discuss in the next section.

(L_R) Wang Ziping, Zhang Zhijiang and Wang Lin at The 6th National Games 1935
(Left to Right) Wang Ziping, Zhang Zhijiang and Wang Lin at the 6th National Games, 1935. Author’s personal collection

The Guoshu concept

The Republican period witnessed a nationalistic wave which sought the preservation of indigenous cultural elements, among them martial arts included as part of  the national arts (guoshu). This term has been considered in some works as a simplified way to refer to Chinese martial arts (Zhongguo Wu Shu) (Morris, 2004; An, 2010;  Duang & Zheng 2006). However, the concept of guoshu is broader, as evidenced by the introduction of the Martial Essence magazine (Jing Wu), published in 1934 by the Xiamen’s Academic Sports Department of the Martial Essence (Xiamen Jing Wu Ti Yu Hui Xue Shu Bu), which was a branch of the Shanghai’s Central Association of the Martial Essence (Shanghai Zhong Yang Jing Wu Hui). In this introduction the editor of the magazine, Zhuang Nai Gang, explained:

            “[…] the word sport, comes from the West. Therefore foreigners believe that Chinese don’t care about sports and many of us are like “sick men of Asia “. This could be one of the reasons why we have become the “sick man” in the eyes of the West. Many of us do not understand the benefits of sports training, which has caused that we cannot defend ourselves against foreign invaders; our bodies show the lack of physical practice, all of the above is true, we cannot deny it. However, it is not true that “sports” is not important to the Chinese. We have guoshu, which is not only a  sport, but covers many other areas of physical training, which is broader that “sport”.  “Sport” only cover physical conditioning, but guoshu includes maintain physical fitness, health, the defense of the nation and increase the power of the nation for future generations” (Acevedo, Cheung, 2011)

In the First National Examination Special Edition (Di Yi Ci Guo Kao Te Kan), published after the national examination that took place on October 15, 1928 by the Nanjing’s Central National Arts Academy, the events that were included in the examination were empty hand matches, Chinese wrestling, long and short weapons fighting. Candidates who participate in these tests went through a pre-selection process in which they had to demonstrate their skills in routines with and without weapons. In the national exam, empty hand and weapons routines were not considered as important and merely a requirement to demonstrate a level of skill. The events included in the National Examinations demonstrate the emphasis towards practical application and the modernization attempts by means of open competition in the hopes to popularize these practices. In the Second National Arts  Examination Special Edition (Zhong Yang Di Er Jie Guo Shu Guo Kao Zhuan Kan) the preliminary tests of empty hand and weapons routines were eliminated. The “National Arts” also included other native physical activities such as archery (she jian), pellet shooting (dan gong), shuttlecock game (jian zi), flying fork (fei cha), dragon boat racing (long zhou) (Ma, 2009) etc; these practices were also included in the subsequent national games.

5th National Games, Jianzi cometition 1933
5th National Games, shuttlecock (jianzi) competition, 1933. Author’s personal collection

Modern wushu and sport does not include all the elements that tried to embrace the guoshu concept. In addition, proponents of the National Arts sought the union of the different schools of martial arts in their original form, as evidenced by the introduction of National Arts: Zhejiang Province Monthly Magazine  (Guoshu: Zhe Jiang Sheng Guoshu Guan Yue Kan), published in 1929, placing under the same flag all existing styles and where the only worthy membership was that of the nation and thus the nationalist party in a way to maintain control of those martial organizations.

            “In addition, transmission of ancestral techniques has been limited by the secret and the proliferation of different schools (pai). This is a shame, because of all these reasons; they have broken the guoshu body. To be able to disseminate guoshu in society, guoshu should be studied using scientific methods, open to the public in general, researching different systems and organizing them in a systematic way. This strategy has been agreed by all martial artists”

This somewhat dramatic and overly optimistic statement shows  how far reaching the goals of those involved in this project were, as well as the open attitude towards the inclusion of new methods in many cases foreign ones, that would help achieve the proposed objectives of  these revolutionaries. However, the assertion that all Chinese martial artists adhered to this project is exaggerated, since only the provinces under the control of the Chinese nationalist party and its allies were involved to a certain degree (Morris, 2004). Other private organizations not associated with the Central National Arts Academy also expressed similar ideas, as evidenced in the introduction of the Martial Essence Association Special Edition  (Jingwu Te Kan) magazine published by the Shanghai’s Athletic Association of the Martial Essence (the most influential private martial arts organization before the emergence of the Central National Arts Academy). In the first volume of the same, written in 1923, it reads:

            “Western sports allow open discussion and share experiences. However our nation has remained closed, we envy the advances of others and hide our disadvantages. Who do we blame that our sports are declining? Our Martial Essence has become the reason for the advance of our boxing, combining Northern and Southern schools. There is no preference for any. Why don’t we try to expose the features of each school in an open manner to understand and correct their disadvantages? And in this way improve our traditional sports in a scientific and systematic way”


Guoshu Magazine Issue with Chinese Bayonet Techniques 1930s
Chinese bayonet techniques in a Guoshu publication, 1930s. Author’s personal collection

The guoshu concept was an all inclusive one, it tried to preserve the different physical activities that were unique to the Chinese nation while at the same time using modern western approaches to physical training. From skills taught to the military, native past times to the promotion of Chinese martial arts elements aimed to strengthen people’s bodies and minds. The elements extracted from the martial arts were promoted in different ways according to the target population e.g. techniques of rifle- bayonet and big knife fighting were taught to the army and militias, armed and unarmed routines were published in hundreds of training manuals for the civilian population as a way of native calisthenics (of the dozens of manuals we have examined less than a handful include any practical applications) to the development of free fighting events that were the predecessors of modern Sanda/Sanshou/Leitai competitions. Even though several native physical activities were covered under the guoshu umbrella, it was martial arts the one with the most emphasis and attention placed by the Chinese reformers with fighting ability at its core in the case of the military.

Our ancestors focused on learning and teaching the six arts, Li Yue She Yu Shu (Rites, Music, Archery, Charioteering, Calligraphy and Mathematics). The Rites and Music representing humanity, Archery and Charioteering representing courage, Calligraphy and Mathematics representing knowledge and intelligence. Therefore, we also need to follow the above mentioned requirements while practicing Guo Shu. I hope every officer and soldier will promote Guoshu by training and practicing it diligently among themselves in their homes and from their homes to the whole nation. To strengthen our race and Nation, to save our Nation and eliminate the ambition of imperialism [referring to Japan]” Chairman Zhang Zhijiang’ speech at a Military Academy in 1934 (Acevedo, Cheung, 2014)


The Chinese Republican period publications show the Nationalist fervor and desire to protect the nation through the martial practice and how broader the concept of guoshu was when compared with modern wushu and the western concept of sport. The practice of Chinese martial arts in the republican period was taught to serve in the strengthening of the civilian population and the military to defend the nation through initiatives such as the establishment of guoshu examinations, bayonet fighting demonstrations and the publication of hundreds of manuals and periodicals the latter as a native style of Chinese calisthenics in opposition to western models. The Guoshu experiment was a state sponsored project, a continuation to Ma Liang’s and the privately sponsored Jinwu Association’s attempts with many of the people involved in the Guoshu activities later becoming key figures in the development of the New China’s Wu Shu movement.


 Acevedo, W.  & Cheung, M. (2014). Republican Period Guoshu Periodicals. Clasical Fighting Arts Magazine

Acevedo, W.  & Cheung, M. (2011). Analisis de las publicaciones periodicas marciales chinas       durante el periodo republicano. Revista de Artes Marciales Asiaticas

An, T. (s.f.). Wushu Needs Name Rectification. Kung Fu Available in    [accesed  22/12/2010].

Chong, Y. (1996). Zhongyang Guoshu Guan. Hefei, Anhui: Huangshan Press.

Duan Ping & Zheng Shouzhi (2006), Chinese-English and English Chinese Wushu Dictionary,      China People’s Sports Publishing House

Hui, J. T. (1919, reed. 2008). Jingwu Benji. Taiwan: Lion Books.

Kennedy, B., & Guo, E. (2010). Jingwu The School that Transformed Kung Fu. California: Blue Snake Books.

Ma, M. (2009). Reconstructing China’s Indigenous Physical Culture. Journal of Chinese Martial   Studies, 1, 8-31.

Morris, A. D. (2004). Marrow of the Nation. California: University of California Press.



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