As the saying goes “The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step” it’s been thirty three years since I started my martial arts practice and over a decade when I discovered a paper that triggered my interest on the historical evolution of Chinese martial arts. The article in question was “The Chinese Martial Arts in Historical Perspective” published in the Journal of Military History in 1981. This paper broke the mold of what the norm was regarding Chinese martial arts articles in the English language at the time. I quickly contacted its author, who was more than eager to share his knowledge and insights in the years that follow. Since then I have considered Mr. Stanley Henning as my most influential mentor and an inspiration to the work we have published in this particular area. Many times I asked Mr. Henning about collecting his research in a book; at times he was hesitant or had too much on his plate to carryon collecting his life’s work in a book form. Hence, I was pleasantly surprise when this long awaited project finally came to fruition in 2017 (I was made aware about it just recently when looking at Mr. Henning’s web page). The book in question is published by the Ethnic Publishing House, I was able to secure a copy through family members in China, readers interested in a copy might have a hard time connecting with the publisher as their Facebook page does not appear to be active and no website in English is up to date. Amazon China does list the book in their site with ordering options, there are some companies specialized in supplying readers outside China with such books. Anyone interested can do a Google search for these options if wanting to secure a copy of Mr. Henning’s publication.
The book is divided in four main sections:
- Chinese Martial Arts Timeline
For those of us who have been following very closely Mr. Henning’s writings some of the information contained in the book is well known as they appeared in publications such as the now defunct Journal of Asian Martial Arts; this does not mean the reader will not find interesting facts about the evolution and development of Chinese martial arts covering their formative years from c. 1766 to 206 BCE , following with the coverage of martial practice found in extant records in Dynastic order until the People’s Republic of China. Mr. Henning not only connects the information nicely, but also includes helpful footnotes with explanations and sources for further study. Unlike other authors who relay in the best of cases on secondary sources, Mr. Henning puts extra effort in consulting primary sources to ensure the material he uses to draw off his conclusions are correct. The author’s mastery of the Chinese language is second to none a necessary skill when referencing ancient texts. As a side note, I find disappointing that Mr. Henning has not been included, willingly or unwillingly, in the growing field of martial studies. It is therefore that Mr. Henning’s book is a breeze of fresh air to remind all of us what scholarship should look like.
Throughout his coverage of the different sources with mentions of martial arts practice the author points out that pre Ming material does so in very general terms as skills either with or with weapons are lumped together without enough detail of the way they were practiced; it is during Ming times and later that styles/schools of martial arts appear with specific nomenclature. Chinese martial arts during Ming times in particular give us the most detailed descriptions of such practices. The author attributes this to factors such as the dominant ethnic group (Han) where martial arts flourished also ruled, expansion of popular literature and publishing activities, foreign incursion into Chinese territory combined with a weak military requiring the use of regular citizen who had to be trained from the bottom up.Thanks to the many pages of examples listed it becomes clear that the practice of martial arts was a basic element of Chinese culture practiced by peasants, scholars, military men and women, religious orders and rulers. These practices continued to be important in peace, war and during times of censorship and persecution. Without giving too much away there are many more interesting facts in every page of this little gem.
In this section Mr. Henning covers on a high level the main characteristic of Chinese boxing as practiced during the Ming Dynasty and then draws a comparison on the theoretical similarities/foundation of Chinese martial arts from different texts from the Spring and Autumn to the Chinese Republican periods.
Chinese Martial Arts Time Line
This is a short twelve page section covering important events related to Chinese martial arts with accompanying dates
Martial Arts Bibliography
There are forty four pages listing Chinese, French, German, Japanese and English sources used throughout Mr. Henning’s career that it upon itself is extremely valuable and will help anyone with a scholarly inclination to further their research into the topics covered in the book in more detail. The section also includes a list of the libraries consulted for the sources used throughout the book. Even though a short volume its content does bring most needed perspective on the history of Chinese martial arts and as the author brief introduction states:
“This book will focus on Chinese martial arts historical highlights and emphasis on their role in society as found in Chinese martial arts writings over the centuries”
As I eagerly read this work I felt some nostalgia as this is clearly Mr. Henning’s way to conclude a life time effort (as hinted in our last conversation) and to help those of us who hopefully can continue advancing this field of research with the same zeal for accuracy and honesty as the author has demonstrated throughout his entire career.