The history, politics and identity of Chinese martial arts


IN IRELAND, BRUCE Lee and Jackie Chan are probably two of the most famous Chinese for their kung fu films.

Chinese martial art, also known as wushu, has long been recognized as an integral part of Chinese culture. The fighting styles and weapon skills, as well as the combination of Chinese martial arts, philosophy and religion, make it unique and remarkable.

Today, wushu is widely regarded as one of the most well-known aspects of Chinese culture. It attracts a global audience, with an increasing number of Irish practicing Chinese martial arts for health and self-cultivation.

But it’s also more than that: Chinese martial arts help promote intercultural exchange and understanding between China and the world.

Source: Xinhua News Agency / PA Images

The history of Chinese martial arts dates back to the Shang Dynasty (1600-1046 BC).

In the 19th century, Chinese martial arts were associated with politics, nationalism, and national identity as the country was embroiled in political turmoil and economic hardship caused by the national rebellion and Western incursion.

With the build-up of anti-foreign sentiments as a result of imperialist expansion, Chinese martial arts have become practiced by farmers in northern China for the purpose of self-defense and resistance to foreign powers.

Aided by popular religion, local martial arts clubs served as a basis for social bonding and spawned the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901), which sparked an eruption of anti-foreign nationalism. After the rebellion failed, Chinese martial arts were again used by Han nationalists to train revolutionary forces to overthrow the Qing government.

He played his part in forming national consciousness among the Chinese and helped transform China from a “Heavenly Empire” into a modern nation state.

After the establishment of the Republic of China in 1912, fueled by a modern Chinese nationalism focused on anti-imperialism, national unity and national renewal, the practice of martial arts became widely recognized as a basic approach for to develop the physique of the people, to strengthen the nation and, in the opinion of some, to achieve national salvation.

Beginning in the late 1920s, the Nationalist government officially promoted Chinese martial arts academies and societies in major cities across the country, and textbooks, textbooks, and monographs were published in large numbers.


Wushu competitor Jiang Zhicheng from China

Source: Xinhua News Agency / PA Images

The ROC era also saw the rise of wuxia novels (about martial artists) and kung fu movies. Living in an era of rapid social transformation and influenced by the dominant nationalism generated by revolutions, foreign aggression, imperialist occupation and war, Chinese novelists and film producers have consciously or unconsciously used Chinese martial arts to invent a cultural identity and helped build a collective modern national identity among the Chinese during the infancy of the Republic.

These wuxia novels and films in turn helped Chinese martial arts rhetorically claim national identity. A Wuxia culture mixed with nationalism is taking shape.

After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, guided by communist sports policy, tinged with nationalism and self-reinforcing goals, a national campaign was launched by the government to promote Chinese martial arts today. hui called wushu, and to integrate it into the new state sports system. The objectives were to train strong and healthy citizens for national defense and the construction of the “new China”.

However, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), wushu came to be seen as representing elitism and feudal culture and suffered a major setback. Wushu competitions ceased to take place and Wushu teams at all levels ceased to train. Wushu societies and clubs have been closed.

Kung fu textbooks and weapons were confiscated and destroyed by the rebels, and the practitioners had to practice in secret. Despite this, all wushu activities have not ceased. Various politicized wushu exercises have been created to interpret and promote the Maoist path and cultivate revolutionary activism. When the Cultural Revolution faded in the early 1970s, wushu began to be revived and was used to serve diplomatic exchanges between China and foreign countries.

Modern times

From the late 1970s, in the context of China’s reform and opening-up, wushu began to be promoted as both a competitive sport and a sport for all, serving the goal of modernization. Wushu academies, societies, and schools flourished.

Regional and national competitions and traditional wushu exhibitions have been organized by the Ministry of Sports and the Chinese Wushu Association to promote wushu. By the 1990s, wushu had experienced a marked development and had become a popular sport and hobby with the general public. The revival of wushu over the past three decades shows how much it was valued and preserved by its people.

The second half of the 20th century also saw the rapid development of kung fu films, serving two purposes: to reclaim traditional Chinese culture and to build a modern Chinese national identity.

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From the early 1970s, reflecting an anti-imperialist and defensive nationalism, the kung fu films produced in Hong Kong began to form a new cultural imaginary focused on the revitalization of China and based on the image of China. ‘a muscular and masculine body “accouté” in the badges. Chinese martial arts.

The essential spirit of these films is to inherit and preserve the core values ​​of Chinese tradition and to emphasize a sense of national identity. They have functioned as an important vehicle for the maintenance and reinvention of the nation.

This unique form of nationalist discourse was adopted by kung fu films produced in Hong Kong and mainland China in the following years. Many of these films are set in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with storylines based on major historical events; they express a strong sense of anti-imperialism, anti-feudalism, nationalism and patriotism.

The essential spirit of these films is that the core values ​​of Chinese tradition are to be inherited and preserved, and they emphasize a sense of national identity. Inspired by nationalism, kung fu films not only facilitated the revival of Chinese martial arts, but also made it a symbol of indigenous virtue and strength.

In recent decades, it has spread to China and around the world. Chinese martial arts academies, clubs and societies have been established by overseas Chinese martial artists and kung fu practitioners in Asia, America, Africa, Europe and Oceania.

In the United States, Chinese wushu master John Leong opened the Seattle Kung Fu Club in 1963. In the same year, Bruce Lee opened his Jun Fan Gung Fu Institute in Seattle.

Chinese martial arts were introduced to Ireland in the late 1980s and early 1990s and a number of academies and kung fu schools were established in the country in the following years. These include the Irish Wing Tsun Organization and White Crane Kung Fu & Tai Chi based in Dublin, Chen Tai Chi Ireland based in Galway, Shaolin Ireland based in Cork and the Shaolin Temple in Slane.

To sum up, as a unique cultural heritage, Chinese martial arts now greatly contribute to the promotion of intercultural exchange and understanding between China and the world.

In the words of kung fu movie star Jet Li: “Wushu is now a global sport, which brings us all together – from different countries, different cultures, different religions – we all become one family in wushu, seeking a better balance in life. , work and friendship ”.

Lu Zhouxiang is a lecturer at the School of Modern Languages, Literatures and Cultures at Maynooth University. He is the author of A History of Shaolin: Buddhism, Kung Fu and Identity (2019) and Politics and Identity in Chinese Martial Arts (2018), part of this piece from.

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