A Brief History of Chinese Martial Arts

A Brief History of Chinese Martial Arts

Having recently had Chinese New Year pass by on February 19th, we thought it would be interesting to take a look at the history behind China’s important contributions to the world of martial arts. Some of the most well known Chinese disciplines, such as Kung Fu, Tai Chi and Wushu are practiced by many around the world today for fitness, self defence or self discipline reasons. In traditional Chinese society, however, it was a way of life; it was a part of their spiritual, military and social culture. And unlike many other cultures, martial arts weren’t reserved for the social elites. They were practiced by everyone: men, women, peasants, nobility, merchants, soldiers, monks and scholars.

Even though martial arts spread to all levels of traditional Chinese society, they began in the rural countryside as a way for people to defend themselves against robbers, foreign raiders and rebels. This started in the 11th century. By the 15th century, people from the rural villages were renowned for their fighting abilities and many became mercenaries who were recruited for the military during the famous Ming Dynasty.

Despite being used in large organizations like the military, martial arts were taught and practiced by clans and families who passed on techniques from generation to generation. This resulted in the evolution of hundreds of martial arts styles, many of which have fallen out of practice today.

The 18th and 19th centuries are where martial arts became popular among society’s elite. Many organizations that were touted as being exclusive or as “secret societies” began to emerge. They promised to protect their members by using martial arts which was attractive during a time of political and economic decline. They also did martial arts performances to attract new members. The Heaven and Earth Society and the Big Sword Society are some famous examples of these organizations.

By the late 19th and early 20th century, Western powers had forced China’s imperial government to open up to trade which subjected the country to colonial conditions. During this time, people from the countryside flooded the cities looking for work. Many of these people were martial artists who found that they could fill needs for self defence, sports, entertainment and healthcare through martial arts.

Chinese martial arts finally took on the form we are familiar with today during the 20th century. As they became popular as forms of sport, tournaments and competitions began to arise and with them, rules and regulations to help judge them. Because of this, only a few of the many hundreds of Chinese martial arts became widely popular, while the others fell away.

Filipiak, Kai. “From Warriors To Sportsmen: How Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Adapted To Modernity.” Journal Of Asian Martial Arts 19.1 (2010): 30-53. SPORTDiscus with Full Text. Web. 25 Feb. 2015.

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