Martial Arts Practice and Popular Religion in Late Imperial North China: The Evidence of a Recently Discovered Manuscript

This paper includes an analysis and annotated translation of a hitherto unstudied martial-arts manuscript from north China. Dating from the late-Qing period (清, 1644-1912), the manuscript originated in one of the villages that surround the renowned martial-arts center, the Shaolin 少林 Monastery. The manuscript was obtained by the Buddhist historian Ye Derong 叶德荣 (A’de 阿德), who handed a photocopy of it to Meir Shahar. To date, the manuscript has not been published (either in China or in the West). It has neither been transcribed nor studied, nor translated, nor mentioned in any publication. The study of the manuscript might be of great importance for our understanding of two related topics:

  1. The history of the late-imperial martial arts.
  2. The village religion of north China.

The whole body of the manuscript is divided (conditionally) into two major parts or sections which will be further referred to as “religious” and “martial”. The religious part presents a collection of records received in spirit-writing séances; it contains, also, detailed descriptions of exorcising rituals, lists of ceremonial objects, incantations and charms. The martial section is a fragment of a martial art manual, presumably non-extant; it consists of a table of contents, prefaces and a small compilation of excerpts, didactic in character, taken from various sources. The manuscript provides rich material for historical research of the traditional martial styles which have been practiced in the rural area of Northern China at the end of the Qing dynasty. Preliminary study of the text reveals lists of various hand combat techniques which are still popular in the north of China today, such as “Spreading [Power] Through the Back Fist” (Tongbei Quan 通背拳), “Six-Harmonies Fist” (Liuhe Quan 六合拳), “Mind-and-Intent Fist” (Xinyi Quan 心意拳), “Explosive Fist” (Pao Quan 炮拳), “Big Vast Fist” (Dahong Quan 大洪拳) and many others. Traditional weapon techniques mentioned in the manuscript include “Yaksha’s staff” (Yecha gun 夜叉棍), “Crazy staff” (Fengmo gun 瘋魔棍), “Six Harmonies Spear” (Liuhe qiang 六合槍), “Six-Harmonies Broadsword” (Liuhe dao 六合刀), “Spring-and-Autumn Halberd” (Chunqiu dadao 春秋大刀) as well as archery and slingshot methods. Most of the hand combat and weapon techniques were practiced in the Shaolin monastery; it is noteworthy, however, that the name of the renowned abode of fighting monks is mentioned in the text only once and as a passing reference. Another important feature of the manuscript is a large amount of borrowings taken from various manuals and treatises. The Sword classic (Jian jing 劍經), the Sinews Transformation Classic (Yijin jing 易筋經), and the military writings of the scholar and martial artist Chang Naizhou 萇乃周 (fl. 1740) are mentioned in that part of the manuscript which corresponds to the table of contents of the lost manual. Citations from Confucian and Daoist works, such as Mengzi 孟子, Zhuangzi 莊子, and the Classic of Changes (Yi jing 易經), which abound in the text, and in particular their interpretations in the context of the martial arts deserve special interest as an evidence of the educational background of the village-literati engaged in martial art writings.       Even more significantly, this manuscript reveals the intimate relation between martial training and religious practice in late-imperial north China. The martial arts have evolved there within a unique cultural frame and in constant counteraction with folk religion. Cursory examination of the structure of the manuscript gives a good indication to this: it is striking, for example, that the principal martial-arts teacher mentioned in the text (Li Jingchuan 李景川) also functions as an active participant of spirit-writing séances, possibly, as a spirit medium. Violent religious ceremonies as well as protective magic charms, similar to those employed by the Boxers in invulnerability rituals during the late nineteenth-century uprising (Yihe tuan 義和團), demonstrate another type of links between popular beliefs and traditional martial arts.

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