Final essay for HIST190 - Foundations of East Asian Civilizations.
By Joe McCallum
Over the last decade, American audiences have been enthralled with what has come to be called “Mixed Martial Arts.” Broadcasting these bouts has become big business, and sparked a resurgence of interest in practice and study of various “martial arts.” But what is behind this apparent blood sport? Is there something of redeeming social value that is the product of such practices?
Distinguished historian and professor David Thelan once said, “The challenge of history is to recover the past and introduce it to the present”. This paper is an attempt to do just that. The goal of this paper is to argue that the development of martial arts in China can be linked to influences from ancient India. Specifically these links can be found from evidence suggesting a common understanding of the human body, the pilgrimage of Bodhidharma, and similarities between yogic techniques and practices in marital arts.
When placed in a historical context, one can see the potential power and appeal of the martial arts. While it may not be evident from a MMA bout, where brutish men pummel each other into unconsciousness, the martial arts, especially in China, carries with it an underlying spiritual and wellness focus and agenda. While this may seem contradictory (how can an inherently violent set of practices lead to peace and contentment?) it nevertheless is important to note as we examine and try to understand the most recent manifestations of the “fighting arts.”
The earliest accepted evidence of a martial art exists in two small Babylonian works of art dating back to between 3000 and 2000 B.C.E., each showing two men in postures of combat (Nerlich, p.1). Whilst there is almost no other evidence to support the hypothesis that martial arts in the east originated in Babylonia and Mesopotamia, there is evidence that trade took place between the Harappa culture of Northern India and the Mesopotamians as early as 2500 B.C.E. (Nerlich, p.1). While the case for the origin of martial arts in Mesopotamia is speculative, there is no doubt that martial arts appeared in the East in a primitive form, and it was in India and China that their development into the intricate and sophisticated systems was fostered. (Nerlich, p.1).
Around 2600 B.C.E., mention is made of a form of ritualized wrestling in China named Jiao-di, in which two men wore horns on their heads and attempted to gore each other. Techniques of Jiao-di were used in primitive hand to hand combat and warfare (, p.1) (Nerlich, p.1). Jiao-di also served as a sport, and was passed through many generations. Between 255-206 B.C.E., Jiao-di was mixed with techniques used to entangle an opponent, and the sport began to be referred to as Shuai Jiao. The word “shuai” means to “throw on the ground”, and “jiao” means to “wrestle or trip with the legs” (, p.1). Shuai Jiao is looked at as one of the oldest standing martial styles to still exist today.
The development of martial arts in China is inextricably linked with the development of Chinese medicine, and of the major religious and philosophical systems which underpin all aspects of life in historical China (Nerlich, p.1). In western society, medicine tends to be based upon the study of body structures, scientific observation, and the analysis of quantifiable phenomena. This has led to a systemic concept in which the body is made up of various major systems (Tedeschi, p.8). Traditional Eastern medicine, however, is deeply rooted in ancient philosophical systems and views the body in an entirely different manner. The human body is seen as a complex of life-sustaining processes, preserved and nourished by the circulation of essential fluids and vital energy (Tedeschi, p.8). The medical traditions of China, Korea, and Japan all view the human body this way, as a complex network of meridians, which distribute “vital energy” to specific areas of the body (Tedeschi, p.8).
The word Chi, Ki, or Qi, refers to this “vital energy” which is collected from breathing the oxygen and nitrogen of the air. Qi also refers to the subtle vital energy of Earth, nature, and the universe (Chia, p.6). At various places on the structure of the body, meridians which carry Qi run close to the surface. Located along these paths are small external points called acupoints, which can be used to regulate the flow of Qi (Tedeschi, p.8). In Eastern medicine, acupoints are manipulated by healing procedures, in order to maintain or restore health. In martial arts, these same points are targeted to increase the effectiveness of an attack (Tedeschi, p.8).
Most historians agree that the most of the world’s great healing traditions emerged gradually together during the same period of time, predominately in the East and the Mediterranean. Indian medical traditions migrated with Buddhism into China. Later, this combined knowledge spread into neighboring regions such as Korea and Japan. (Tedeschi, p.10)
The medical and philosophical traditions of India purport a similar energetic concept of the human body. This is seen in yoga, where the human body is thought to be comprised by seven major energy centers, called chakras. These chakras interact with one another to regulate “vital energy”, known as prana (Tedeschi, p.8). Although varying slightly from each other, eastern systems of health all revolve around harnessing this life-force energy.
Mentions of “vital energy” in China date back to the Zhou dynasty (1122-934 B.C.E.). In the Dao De Jing, by Daoist philosopher Laozi, he makes reference to breathing techniques (, p.1). He stressed that the way to obtain health was to “concentrate on Qi and achieve softness” (, p.1). Another Daoist philosopher, Zhuangzi, also describes the relationship between health and breath in his book Nan Hua Jing, written centuries later (300 B.C.E.). It states: “The men of old breathed clear down to their heels…” This was not merely a figure of speech, and confirms that a breathing method for Qi circulation was being used by Daoists at that time (, p.1). The act of concentrating and cultivating Qi became known as Qigong. In Chinese, gong, or kung, means “discipline”. Qigong can roughly be defined as the practice of breathing exercises to increase Qi pressure in the body (Chia, p.6). The internal pressure created by Qi can be compared to the cushioning provided by an inflated tire. The more our tire is inflated, the better our vehicle will function (Chia, p.7). In this way, ones organs, body systems, and energy can be revitalized with the practice of Qigong.
In the time of the Eastern Han dynasty, beginning around 200 B.C.E., Buddhism was imported to China from India. Many Buddhist meditation and Qigong practices, which had been practiced in India for thousands of years, were absorbed into the Chinese culture as well (, p.2). Much of the deeper Qigong theory and Indian beliefs were also brought over (, p.2). While the scholarly and medical Qigong of China had been concerned with maintaining and improving health, the Qigong of India was focused on spiritual purposes (, p.2). The practitioners of this type of Qigong strove to obtain control of their bodies, minds, and spirits with the goal of escaping from the cycle of reincarnation and attaining enlightenment (, p.2).
Zen Buddhism and the Shaolin Monastery
Roughly between 400 and 500 C.E., the third son of an Indian Brahmin king was invited by the emperor of China to preach Buddhism (, p.2). He traveled a long journey through treacherous terrain on foot, and perhaps over sea, ultimately arriving in China (Leporati, p.1). This man, known as Bodhidharma (“Da mo” in Chinese, “Daruma” in Japanese), disagreed with the idea that nirvana can be attained through intellectual learning and earned merit, and instead advocated the use of meditative practices to find enlightenment through direct experience (Powell, p.1) (Nerlich, p.3). This unique spiritual way is referred to today as Zen Buddhism (“Zen” is Japanese, in Chinese it is “Chan”) (Powell, p.2).
Once in China, Bodhidharma traveled to the Shaolin monastery in the Hunan Province. The Shaolin Temple had been built by Emperor Xiao Wen, for the purpose of housing Buddhist monks who were charged with the task of translating Buddhist scriptures from Indian Sanskrit into Chinese (Nerlich, p.3). As legend has it, Bodhidharma was not permitted entry to the temple, and took up residence in a nearby cave, where he sat facing a wall for nine years (Nerlich, p.3).
Impressed with Bodhidharma’s discipline and commitment, he was welcomed into the Shaolin Temple (Nerlich, p.3). Although the monks at the temple were very knowledgeable, they were unaccustomed with Bodhidharma’s style of sedentary meditation, and often fell asleep during long sessions of being seated (Leporati, p.1). To fix this, Bodhidharma sought to teach the monks to “join their spirit and flesh as one” (Funakoshi, p.18). He taught them to strengthen their mind and bodies in harmony, according to two sutras. The first, “I Chin Ching” (Classic on Muscle/Tendon Changing), was used to “wash away the dust of the mind and uncover its true light” (Funakoshi, p.18). Second, the “Hsien Sui Ching” (Classic on Brain/Marrow Washing), was used to strengthen the body (literally to “change muscle”). The exercises of the sutras focused on correct breathing, and flexibility (Nerlich, p.3). It is said that these two sutras together allow one to harness their Qi, and summon incredible physical strength (Funakoshi, p.18). Along with these exercises, an additional fighting method was developed known as the “Shih Pa Lohan Shu” (Eighteen Hands of the Lohan), and is referred to in english as “Shaolin Temple Boxing” (Perez, p.1). The monks of the Shaolin monastery found that the practice of Bodhidharma’s sutras greatly enhanced their physical strength along with their health, and went hand in hand with their temple boxing practice (, p.3).
The Eighteen Hands of the Lohan was expanded over time into the “Wu Hsing Ch’uan” (“Five Formed Fist” or “Five Animal System”), based on the movements of the tiger, crane, leopard, snake, and dragon (Perez, p.1). The Five Animal System required progressive mastery of tens of hundreds of long, intricate forms, which took decades to master (Nerlich, p.4). Shaolin grandmasters recognized that this method of martial arts training was not suitable for a fighting force, as the temple would often come under siege (Nerlich, p.4). By the 1600’s, a new system of fighting was synthesized, based on human biomechanics, rather than the movement of animals. This system trimmed the techniques of all five systems into an effective core of techniques (Nerlich, p.4). This system was known as Ch’uan Fa or Kung Fu (meaning “discipline of man”, or “human achievement”), and today there are hundreds of varying styles descending from it (Perez, p.1).
As time went on, the Shaolin Temple became notorious for being the birthplace of Zen and Ch’uan Fa, which were further disseminated throughout China, South East Asia, Korea, Malaysia, and Japan (Perez, p.2). It’s clear that martial arts through the ages were specifically practiced for well-being and longevity, and indeed the Shaolin arts were based on movements originally designed for health reasons (Nerlich, p.1). Less discussed, however, is Bodhidharma’s importation and propagation of certain principles and ideas that appear to have been influenced by yoga sutras of ancient India (Leporati, p.1).
Similar to Bodhidharma, Sri Patanjali Maharaj is a figure whose life is shrouded in mystery and legend. Patanjali was a Hindu Vedantist in the Samkhya tradition, who is looked at by many as the “Father of Yoga” (Leporati, p.1). Patanjali compiled oral transmissions and passed down yogic knowledge into a document called the Yoga Sutras (also known as the “Yoga Sutras of Patanjali)sometime between 200 B.C.E. and 200 C.E (Leporati, p.1). The Yoga Sutras consist of one-hundred and ninety-five aphorisms, forming the basis of Raja Yoga, which lays out a spiritual path to conquering the mind and gaining enlightenment. (Leporati, p.1).
The word yoga means “union”, and has the connotation in Sanskrit of “yoking together” or “joining”. A “sutra” is literally a thread. Therefore, the “Yoga Sutras” are the sayings which lead to union of the individual with the transcendental consciousness (Leporati, p.2).
The sutras introduced by Bodhidharma are essentially Qigong exercises. The Muscle/Tendon Changing sutra specializes in circulating Qi across the primary Qi channels and vessels (, p.2). This training will strengthen your physical body, and maintain smooth circulation of Qi across primary channels and internal organs. This is important in order to change the body from weak to strong, or from sick to healthy. (, p.2).
The Brain/Marrow Washing sutra goes deeper, and teaches the practitioner to fill reservoirs of Qi in the body, which works to rejuvenate the body’s systems and restore itself. More importantly, the Qi is directed to the head, which nourishes the brain and raises ones spirit. The goal of the Brain/Marrow Washing sutra is to ultimately lead to enlightenment (, p.2). Bodhidharma’s introduction of these two sutras to the monks of the Shaolin Temple can be looked at as the “threads” he used to connect their body and minds.
Patanjali looked to connect the body and mind together this way, where Hatha Yoga and Raja Yoga were practiced as complementary disciplines (Leporati, p.2). Unlike Raja Yoga, Hatha Yoga focuses on physical strengthening and flexibility. The practice of Hatha Yoga was necessary to allow one to not be bothered by sitting with correct posture for long periods of time. The goal was to strengthen and rid the body of toxins, so that it would not create a distraction during meditation (Leporati, p.2). Whether in yoga, or martial arts, it is clear that connecting the mind, and body is crucial in order to follow a path of self discovery.
Our World Today
Recovering the history of martial arts in China shows us how the world has truly changed over thousands of years. No longer do we live in a world which encourages devotion to cultivating the human mind and spirit. To not use ancient Indian and Chinese understandings of how the human body works and can be developed is a loss for us, and future generations. Western society unfortunately does not even accept the concept of Qi, and eastern systems are commonly looked at with skepticism.
The big question, however, is what has happened to these traditions? MMA does not do justice to traditional martial spirit. Traditional martial arts carry with it an underlying private journey of self mastery, which is not reached through the sport arena. When is the last time you Shaolin monks fighting each other in a tournament setting?
Ancient masters realized that although it is difficult to overcome an opponent, it is much tougher to overcome your own ego and discover your true self. While it may be hard to see how the practice of fighting techniques leads to harmony and contentment, if practiced as our ancestors did, it is possible. There is something everyone can take from the study of these ancient martial arts. Developing our bodies is only half of the journey. We can use martial arts for violence, yes, but the true underlying spirit of martial arts will forever be lost when used for sport and entertainment.
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Funakoshi, Gichin. Karate-do Nyumon. Kodansha, 1943.
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Powell, Goran. “The Original Shaolin Monk.” Yang’s Martial Arts Association. 2010.
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