Scientific Principles of Tai Chi

Chen Style Tai Chi - Scientific Methods and Principles

By Hong Jun-sheng (1906-1996)

All that pertains to real life and that conforms to objective laws of reality will necessarily conform to scientific principles. There are many variations of method, but principles are invariable. Method may change due to people, events, or terrain, but it still conforms to principle, you could also say it conforms to necessity.

Although Chenstyle Taijiquan has been handed down a long time from generation to generation, it was not until Chen Xin (1849-1929) of the 16th generation that the scientific principles and methods of this boxing style were summarized and put forth in writing. Chen Xin wrote that “Taijiquan is the twining method….” and added emphasis to this by saying: “if you don’t understand this, you don’t understand boxing”. The twining method (chan fa) that Chen Xin refers to is a spiraling style of movement; through spiraling, the entire body gradually attains through practice a “silk-twining energy” (chan si jin). This type of energy is a blend of both hard and soft and is the “Yin inseparable from Yang, Yang inseparable from Yin, a blend of Yin and Yang” energy spoken of in Wang Zong-Yue’s Treatise on Taijiquan (Taijiquan Lun). This energy is the product of training by utilizing scientific methods. In terms of physiology, this kind of energy can bring about the movement of the joints, muscles, and each cell of the entire body, so that when there is movement, everything is set into motion, even to the point where there occurs a self-massaging function of the internal organs as the spine rotates left and right. As the years go by, because there is the unimpeded circulation of internal energy (qi) and blood, good health is naturally obtained.

From the point of view of combat, because rotation can be easily changed, no matter which part of my body the attacker’s energy comes close to, I can turn slightly in the same direction of the attacking force – making it easy to neutralize the attack away from me. This is the “leading the attacker off harmlessly” (yin jin luo kong) required by Taijiquan. When you turn, because you are moving in a circle, although this half of the circle is for neutralizing, the other half circle comes around as the rotation continues – naturally forming a circle that is half soft neutralization and half hard issuing power. Suppose the [attacker’s] movement is slow, you could turn a quarter of the circle and easily accomplish the result [of neutralizing the attack]. When your skill is greater and the speed of movement is faster, you can make a very slight rotation and achieve the effect of neutralizing and striking at the same time. Taijiquan therefore requires one to go from big circles to small circles and from small circles to no [apparent] circles at all. Large circles and small circles are the rotation of your vertical axis [spine] coordinated with the rotation [of your limbs] left and right, front and back [so-called “gong zhuan” or common rotation]; no circles at all makes use of the rotation of your vertical axis [so-called “zi zhuan” or self-rotation].

According to the principles of mechanics, the lower the center of gravity the more stable something is. Taijiquan, therefore, has always emphasized “sinking internal energy to the lower abdomen” (qi chen dantian) – sinking qi is not intentionally sticking out your lower abdomen, however, it utilizes a scientific method [instead]. The method in Chenstyle Taijiquan is to slightly turn the tail bone (wei gu) and Changqiang acupuncture point in a backwards direction. This posture naturally results in the lower abdomen drawing inward on an oblique line thereby causing the internal energy to sink down naturally and the body’s center of gravity to also drop lower naturally. This is one of the basic requirements of Chenstyle Taijiquan and is also a fundamental difference between Chenstyle and other styles of Taijiquan.
When Master Chen Fu-Sheng (Chen Fa-Ke) taught Taijiquan, he would frequently say that there are three stages: The first stage is learning the basic movements correctly according to the rules; the second stage is becoming proficient in practicing the routine or set of movements according to the rules; the third stage starts from thorough familiarity with the rules and requires one to meticulously seek out and to understand clearly why there are these rules, what their use is, and which rules apply to the eyes, the body, footwork and stances, and the hands – in order to coordinate together with [the energies of] peng, lu, ji, an, cai, lie, zhou, kao, and the changing stances of jin (advance), tui (retreat), gu (shift left), pan (shift right) and ding (fixed stance) – and moreover, to try out putting them in use together. Master Chen said: Those who study Taijiquan should not only understand the theories (li) in their minds; they still have to train the methods (fa) into their entire bodies. They should not only understand how, they should understand why – then they won’t just be wasting their time and then they will accomplish something. He also said: How much you accomplish entirely depends on how much effort you expend. Gongfu in martial arts is not obtained without hard work. If you put out a little effort then you will get a little result; if you put forth as much effort as I do, then your gongfu will equal mine. Suppose the effort you put forth surpasses my effort, then your accomplishment can surpass mine. Chen Xin has a verse that goes: “All that idle talk does is create a tide of black ink, actually putting it into practice is the real thing.” From this verse you can see that the previous generation of masters, when they taught some kind of artistry, all insisted that actually putting it into practice was the only way to go about it.

In teaching us, although Master Chen said [learning Taijiquan] was divided into three stages, every sentence had the words “according to the rules” (an zhe guiju) which caused us students to attach importance to the rules. When Master Chen taught someone, he started with the posture for each movement and then progressed to pay attention to [the orientation of] each hand to the other hand and each foot to the other foot, and even the hand to the foot and the rules of the whole body’s coordination during the changing movements. He always said, by way of analogy, that beginners should practice slowly, like learning to write Chinese characters – they must first learn to make a single dot brushstroke correctly and then go on to combine brushstrokes into a single character; only after that can they go on to string the characters together to form sentences and paragraphs.

Master Chen also frequently said: “So long as someone comes to me to learn, I hate not being able to just drill a hole into their belly and plant a seed that would allow them to learn and learn well; but, this cannot be, because in teaching you can only show people the way, you cannot travel the road for them.” Therefore, the offspring of famous artists only take precedence in the conditions to carry on the tradition but they don’t have an absolute right of inheritance. In art, the form is to learn to produce a likeness; in gongfu, the accomplishment is in learning to produce pure skill. It is not like material money that you can give to someone as you please and to which descendants have a natural right of inheritance.

I studied Taijiquan with Master Chen Fa-Ke from 1930 until 1944 when I moved to the city of Jinan, in Shandong Province. In 1956, I arrived back in Beijing and sought out master Chen’s instruction. He told me that there was not one “empty” movement in the Taijiquan routine, that they all have practical applications. Every day, he would take one of the movements from the routine, explaining them one by one, with both of us trying out the movements on each other. He not only discussed the application (yang fa), moreover, he also discussed the counter-move (jie fa). It is only from this that I was able to grasp a little of Chenstyle Taijiquan. It went on like this from March to June, until I had to leave Beijing. Before I left, I asked Master Chen for his permission to teach Taijiquan according to its practical applications; because of this, I changed the beginning-level movements after I returned to Jinan and tried them out together with my compatriots. All of them that were in accord with the basic rules were sure-fire winners.

Summarizing my over 50 years of experience in learning Chenstyle Taijiquan, I have come to realize the following points:

(1) The principles and the methods of Chenstyle Taijiquan can be opposite yet united. Those aspects with form are: movement and stillness, open and closed, big and small, and advance and withdraw. From the aspect of energy: there are empty and substantial, hard and soft, and neutralize and hit. When each of these are motionless they are opposite; in movement, they are opposite yet united. For example, in the first movement of the first “Jingang Dao Dui” form in the set, the eyes look forward, the body turns a little toward the left, and the two hands rotate forward, out toward the front from beside the ribcage. One hand is high and one hand is low, and one hand is forward of the other. The directions of the eyes, body, feet and hands are all opposite; [yet] in motion they are united. The object of the application is to meet and ward off the arm of the opponent attacking from the front, this is also a united aspect. The uniting of internal energy and the practical application is: your right hand twines inward (shun chan) as it meets and wards off the attacker’s wrist, your left hand twines outward (ni chan) as it moves into contact over the top of the attacker’s elbow. The twining of your left and right hands is opposite yet they are united in warding off and working together at the same time. All of the movements of the entire set are accomplished within the spiraling movements of the twining method (chan fa). Within the spiraling movement, however, the direction of movement is opposite at different points [along the spiral]. The combative use requires that I draw the opponent off balance (wo shun, ren bei) and both neutralize and strike at the same time. The four “Jingang Daodui” forms in the First Routine are each performed differently and the practical applications are all different, although they bear the same name. This is opposite yet united.

(2) Using the twining method is the principal law in Chenstyle Taijiquan, it is necessary to strictly master it within each movement. In learning it, you must be precise down to every detail, [yet] in using it you must be lively. Coordinating the angle and speed must be according to the attacker and not a millimeter off. Chen Xin said: “Keep the rules but don’t get bogged down in them.”

(3) On the foundation of practicing correctly according to the rules, practice until you are thoroughly proficient. You should do so however, according to the relative strength or weakness of your body and your age, and differentiate the number of sets and degree of athletic difficulty of the practice appropriately. Let being natural be the overall guiding principle, you can’t force it. The appearance of internal energy comes about naturally from regular practice sustained over time.

In his teaching, Master Chen only stressed relaxed and circular, requiring that circularity be sought from relaxing the entire body. The circularity of Chenstyle Taijiquan is not only circular arcs like the outer line of the Taiji Diagram; when changing the direction of rotating movements it is circular like the “S” shape [in the middle of the Taiji Diagram]. This is because the circular arc is made up of [both] point and line. The point is hard and the curved line is soft. The so-called “circle within the square” (fang yuan xiang sheng) is actually the point within the line, in action it facilitates the blending of hard and soft. Therefore, Master Chen always said relaxed and circular (song yuan), and he didn’t say relaxed and soft (song rou). Even more so, he didn’t stress “spring shaking” (tan dou). The reason for this being that when a flywheel picks up speed, it can’t start “spring shaking”. In discussing those rules having to do with [external] form, they were those rules that are known to all who practice Taijiquan, such as: ”The top of the head is pulled upward as if suspended by a string” (xu ling ding jin); “Sink internal energy [or “breath”] to the lower abdomen” (qi chen dantian); Neither inclined or leaning” (bu pian bu yi); “Suddenly hidden, suddenly manifest” (hu yin hu xian); and, “When the left [foot] is weighted the left [hand] is empty, when the right [foot] is weighted the right [hand] fades” (zuo zhong ze zuo xu, you zhong ze you yao) in Taijiquan terminology. One should also correctly understand the methods of coordinating these with the movements. While Taijiquan terminology shares on the surface a commonality, in actual practice it also has specific characteristics. For example – we believe that the “energy of the crown” (ding jin) in the terminology “the top of the head is pulled upward as if suspended by a string” (xu ling ding jin) indicates that the energy of the Baihui acupuncture point on top of the head should be “empty” (xu) and lead upward. The “Song of the Thirteen Postures” (Shisan Shi Zong Ge) [possibly authored by Yao Han-Chen, a student of Yang Lu-Chan] says: “The whole body will be light and agile when the crown is suspended from above” [Douglas Wile’s translation]. Chen Xin’s explanation likewise uses [the image of] a string pulling the Baihui acupuncture point upward; Yang Cheng-Fu changed the character for “lead” or “draw upward” (ling – which could also mean neck) to another character meaning “ethereal” (ling – as in the neck naturally empty of force and not stiff, the head upright, and the spirit raised); Gu Liu-Xing said it was as if the top of the head was something very light in weight. There are also some people who say that “empty” (xu), “light” or “agile” (ling), and “crown” (ding) are three distinct internal energies (jin). [With the possible exception of the three distinct energies explanation – all of the above explanations of “xu ling ding jin” or “ding jin ling qi” (a term used in contemporary Chenstyle sources) amount to nearly the same thing; whether the head is as if suspended or raised upward by an ethereal energy – the resulting posture of the head and its capability to turn freely is the same. Master Chen Zheng-Lei suggested this to me in a letter dated 4/1/94.]

In Chenstyle Taijiquan, because the coccyx and the Changqiang turn slightly out to the rear, the internal energy or breath (qi) of “sink internal energy to the lower abdomen” (qi chen dantian), sinks downward naturally. [Sinking internal energy or breath to the lower abdomen can also be expressed as “accumulate breath (or internal energy) in the lower abdomen”. This is an early Daoist concept that can be traced back to at least the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-220 AD) work Shen Jian (Stating History’s Lesson) by Xun Yue and which appears to be present in prototypic form in an inscription on a twelve-sided jade belt pendant from c. 380 BC see Xi Yun-Tai, Zhongguo Wushu Shi pp. 48-49.]

Wang Jiao-Yu is quoted as saying: “the posture for practicing crotch energy (dang jin) is like when you squat to go to the bathroom”. There are many people who say that you should use conscious intention (yi) to sink the internal energy; or, they say: “coordinate the movements with the breathing, when you inhale, Dantian qi rises to the stomach and the stomach protrudes; when you exhale, the stomach qi drops down again to the Dantian and the lower abdomen protrudes.” They also introduce the so-called “reverse abdominal exhaling method” (fu shi ni hu fa). Master Chen, however, always emphasized natural breathing, mindful or regulated breathing (tiao qi) [as is done in meditation practice] but he didn’t emphasize moving qi around within the body (yun qi). Someone once wrote to me to ask me about whether or not the Dantian “qi” and the stomach “qi” were interlinked. I asked some older experienced doctors of both Chinese and Western medicine about this, they all answered that it wasn’t possible for there to be a communication of “qi” between the Dantian and the stomach. I don’t understand physiology so this question was unfathomable to me; and, because of this, there was no way I could answer the letter. [In the above discussion of “qi” communicating between Dantian and stomach it is unclear if the “qi” referred to signifies energy or breath in the literal sense. Master Hong’s intention, however, seems to be to emphasize that Master Chen Fa-Ke didn’t go into such details in his teaching.]

While relaxing your shoulders and sinking your elbows is the general rule [in Chenstyle Taijiquan], it is actually a rule of physical labor. I believe that all of the rules in Chenstyle Taijiquan are consistent with [practical] life. At present, however, there is a portion of those who practice Chenstyle Taijiquan who emphasize the so-called “movement of intention and internal energy” (yi qi yundong) of abdominal breathing (fu shi hu xi), intention (yi), and internal energy (qi). They emphasize “sinking the shoulders and dropping the elbows” (chen jian zhui zhou) in the movements. Since the shoulder is rooted to the upper torso how can it sink downward? Master Chen stressed that “the elbows don’t leave the ribs” (zhou bu li lei), that is, when the hands stretch outward the elbows drop downward, about five or six inches below the shoulders, in order to protect the vital points of the ribcage. There are people who maintain however, “the elbows don’t stick to the ribs” (zhou bu tie lei); I also can’t fathom whether or not this is emphasized in Chenstyle Taijiquan. The phrase “when the left is weighted the left is empty, when the right sinks the right fades” (zuo zhong ze zuo xu, you chen ze you yao) originally described not allowing both the hand and the foot on the same side of the body to be weighted or substantial, as a method to remedy [the defect of] double weighting. Many writings about Taijiquan only say that this phrase is the method for avoiding head-on resistance (ding) in push hands, or that the horse stance is double weighting. Some works even go so far as to take the phrase that Master Chen frequently said, “drop down and roll outward” (xia ta wai nian), which originally described hand technique, and use it to describe footwork, although it also makes sense in that context too. [Drop down and roll outward refers to dropping the base of your palm after making contact and sending the force down to destroy the attacker’s root like a stone roller husking rice. See Ma Hong’s correspondence course bulletin, “Chenshi Taijiquan” March 1996 (no.5) pp.3-4]. Other phrases that Master Chen always emphasized, such as:” meet the attacker’s incoming left hand with your left hand, his incoming right hand with your right hand” (zuo shou lai, zuo shou ying; you shou lai, you shou ying); “[when you] issue to the front, drop downward at the back” (qian fa hou ta); “push aside an attack coming straight at you” (zhi lai heng bo) and “control with both hands an attack from the side” (heng lai peng ye) are seldom introduced by anyone.

Out of my love for Master Chen and his lineage descendants, and even more love for the priceless cultural heritage of Chenstyle Taijiquan, I have written the above article describing the details of what Master Chen taught concerning the rules of Chenstyle for reference, not to criticize anyone.

Translator's Notes

An early source for some of the above phrases is the collection of boxing aphorisms “Yong Wu Yao Yan” (Essential Points of Martial Application) as edited by Chen Xin – probably based on a chapter from Xinyi Liuhe Quan Pu (Mind Intent Six Harmonies Boxing Manual) which is considered the earliest known written work on Xingyiquan (c.1733).

Chen Xin probably added some material and shaped it to fit the Chen family art. It seems likely that it was included in San San Liu Pu, which was his revision of Xinyi Liuhe Quan Pu. These works were reportedly lost during WW II but two sections are still extant, namely “Taijiquan Shi Da Yao Lun” (Ten Major Points on Taijiquan) and “Yong Wu Yao Yan” (Martial Application Maxims).

The latter contains the lines:

“Raise your knee to meet an oncoming foot, ward off an incoming fist with your elbow” (zu lai ti xi, quan lai zhou ba);

“Strike from the side when you are attacked from the front, control with both hands an attack from your side” (shun lai heng ji, heng lai peng ya);

“Meet a left side attack with your right side, meet a right side attack with your left side” (zuo lai you jie, you lai zuo jie);

“Best to use your hand to strike from a distance, close up use your elbow,” (yuan bian shang shou, jin bian yong zhou);

“Best to use your foot to kick from afar, close in apply your knee” (yuan bian zu ti, jin bian jia xi).

Some of these points are more clearly understood by comparing them with versions from other extant manuals of the Xingyiquan lineage such as the above line “meet a left side attack with your right side, …. .”

In a piece from the Xingyiquan lineage (by Li Luo-Neng b.1796) titled “Zhan Shou Yao Fa” (Essential Methods of Hand-to-hand Combat) there is the line “Press close to beside the opponent’s body, forming a triangular shape; if he attacks your left then advance your right side, if he attacks your right then advance your left side,” (tie jin di ren shen pang, cheng san jiao xing, zhan zuo shang you, shang you jin zuo). See Xinqyiquan Lilun Yanjiu by Cao Zhi-Qing, Beijing 1993, p.319. Putting it another way, if the attacker advances his right foot toward my left side, I advance my right foot toward his left side. See the below illustrations for some of the Xingyiquan techniques described, [from “Shanxi Xingyiquan Duilian Sanshou Liu Fa” (Six Sparring Methods of Shanxi Xingyiquan) “Boji” magazine 4/89 #34.]

Blocking methods in Xingyi

Among blocking methods in Xingyi is a sideward push to the outside of an attacker’s elbow, which deflects the strike. Attacker then withdraws and rotates his forearm outward as he sits back.

Scientific Principles of Tai Chi

Neutralizing methods utilizing the elbow (1) ding zhou – direct opposition with elbow (2) ban zhou – turning with elbow (3) tiao zhou – poking upward with elbow (4) gua zhou – hanging up with elbow.

A Survey of China's Martial Arts Publications

by Greg Bissell

Mass-Circulation Periodicals

While there had previously been a few dedicated sports periodicals, such as “Xin Tiyu” (New Sports) since July 1950 (although “Xin Tiyu” had stopped publication during the height of the Cultural Revolution, from 11/66 to 9/72), the 1980’s saw an explosion of new periodicals. Among the first to appear in the field of Wushu (martial arts) in 1981 were:

(1) “Wushu Jianshen” (Martial Arts for Health) started publication with its inaugural issue in June 1981. The second through fourth issues, published in May, August, and November of 1982 respectively, had 64 pages per issue and sold for 36 Chinese cents. After starting with no fixed frequency, “Wushu Jianshen” was a quarterly during the period 1984-85 and then switched to a bi-monthly format with the first issue of 1986 (issue no.16). This magazine was put together by the editorial offices of “Xin Tiyu” (New Sports) in Beijing and was therefore organizationally directly under the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission (SPCSC). Reaching a circulation of 1,120,000 in 1983, by about 1986 the circulation declined to 350,000. “Wushu Jianshen” ceased publication altogether in 1994 [Kang Ge-Wu, et al. Zhongguo Wushu Shi, Beijing, 1997, p.453].

(2) “Wulin” (Martial Arts World) another mass-circulation publication, appeared in July 1981. The cover of the first issue depicted a female wushu player in a changquan posture and carried the following legend:

  • “Joy Upon Seeing the Present-day Revival in the Martial Arts Community” (xi jian wulin jin you lu)
  • “A Brilliant Pearl of the Great Chinese Dragon” (Shenzhou long zhi ming zhu)
  • “The All Conquering Martial Arts of Famous Champions” (ming guan tian xia de wushu)
  • “Information on the Shaolin Temple of Mount Song” (Songshan Shaolinsi jian wen lu)
  • “The People’s Generals Come From [out of the] Shaolin [Tradition] (renmin jiangjun chu Shaolin) [This is a re-working of the phrase “tian xia gongfu chu Shaolin”.]
  • “Bruce Lee “King of Chinese Gongfu”” (gongfu zhi wang Li Xiao-Long)

“Wulin” was the circulation leader among the mass-circulation martial arts periodicals, reaching a circulation of 3,400,000 in 1983, and declining to a circulation of 800,000 by about 1986 as the initial “martial arts craze” (wushu re) waned.

Wulin Cover
Wulin Cover

“Wulin” started out at 48 pages per issue and a newsstand price of 35 Chinese cents (1 cent lower than “Wushu Jianshen”). With the first issue of 1983 (issue no.16) it raised the number of pages to 64 and its price to 42 cents. The price was again raised in 1985 to 49 cents though the number of pages remained the same. The price was raised to 68 cents in 1986 and stayed at that price through the December, 1988 issue (issue no.87), with the page count going down to 56 in 1988. By 1989, the price had gone up to 95 cents and the page count down to 48. In the early 90’s the price would break the Chinese Yuan (dollar) barrier and go on to two Yuan by 1994. “Wushu Jianshen” underwent a similar evolution in price, going up to 42 cents by 1984, up again to 56 cents in 1986, 64 cents in 1987, 70 cents in 1988, and breaking the Yuan barrier in 1989 (1.20 Yuan) although it continued in a 64 page format up through 1989.

“Wulin” was put together by the editorial offices of “Wulin” in Guangzhou under the sponsorship of the Guangdong Physical Culture and Sports Commission and the Popular Science Press, Guangzhou Branch (according to the masthead) and additionally was sponsored by the Wushu Association of Guangzhou and was under the charge of the Science and Technology Association of Guangzhou (Guangdong Sheng Ke Xie) as well as the Guangzhou Physical Culture and Sports Commission [see Zhongguo Dangdai Qikan Zonglan, Heilongjiang People’s Publishing House, 1987.11, p.73].

The second issue of “Wulin” was first published in September 1981 and was reprinted in March 1982 (most likely due to the demand created by the popularity of martial arts at the time, the film “Shaolin Temple” had just been released in China in 1981). The cover depicted a healthy looking 96 year old white bearded master holding a Yanyue Dao (long-handled broadsword) correcting the broadsword form of a young boy. [The old master was Liu Zhi-Qing (1885-1988). Born in Guan County, Hebei, he had joined the Youth Brigade of the Boxers in 1900 and seen action at Tianjin. He began his study of Baguazhang in 1905 and was especially good at “Lianhuan Dao” (Linking Broadsword of Xingyiquan). He is known as the “Father of the Dragon Sabre and Dragon Sword”.]

Among the main contents of this issue were:

  • A two page report on the 1981 National Wushu Exhibition and Exchange held in Shenyang City, Liaoning Province. At that meet the Beijing and Shanghai wushu teams demonstrated Taiji Push-Hands as a demonstration only event. A Sparring with protective gear contest was held as a regular event as was a short weapons sparring in a circular 18 foot ring with 3 three-minute rounds.
  • A two page report on various traditional boxing routines that had been demonstrated at the 1981 National Exhibition.
  • A table listing award winners at the 1981 Exhibition divided into Youth and Adult classes.
  • A one page article encouraging the development of combative sports, which had been outlawed in China since 1953. It referred to the 1979 “Circular on Discovering and Systematizing the Martial Arts Heritage of China” that had warned of the extinction of fighting techniques through disuse. [The First National Wushu Exhibition and Exchange held in Nanning, Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region in 1979 had introduced a sparring event as a demonstration only event. Sparring became a regular event at the 1981 National Exhibition and Exchange, although out of 27 teams attending, only the Beijing and Wuhan Physical Culture and Sports Institutes participated.]
  • Two more articles appeared covering sparring and the sparring event at the 1981 National Exhibition.

The targeted readership of “Wulin,” according to Zhongguo Dangdai Qikan Zonglan (Contemporary China Periodical Guide) [see above] was the mass of young students (middle school, high school, college), adults and mature adults, professional and spare time martial arts enthusiasts, soldiers of the PLA, members of the PAP (People’s Armed Police), and Public Security officers. [Part of the reason for its large circulation may be due to distribution in the PLA and other organs.]

“Wushu Jianshen”, by comparison, was listed as being targeted to the broad mass of teenagers, adults and mature adults, as well as those in weak physical condition who would like to rid themselves of illnesses through the practice of martial arts.

The mission statement for “Wushu Jianshen” was given as: “To popularize and promote the martial arts (Wushu) movement, to introduce martial arts knowledge, guide the broad mass of people to correctly carry out martial arts training, to arrive at the goals of good health and self defense ability, to establish socialist spiritual civilization, to make a contribution to the “Four Modernizations”” (a shift in the emphasis of the Chinese Communist Party’s work to advancement in industry, agriculture, science and technology, and defense away from ideological campaigns stressing class struggle, etc.).

The mission statement for “Wulin” was given as: “To actively uncover and systematize the outstanding martial arts of China’s martial arts heritage, to promote and popularize “the martial arts for health” movement, and to promote Chinese martial arts internationally.”

Wushu is just one aspect of Chinese culture, yet, in the People’s Republic of China, virtually all aspects of culture are controlled by the state. Mass circulation periodicals such as “Wushu Jianshen” and “Wulin” were launched as part of overall state policy. [cf. the “Chinese Cultural Renaissance Movement” (for the purpose of developing Chinese traditional virtues, which made use of Chinese national heroes of antiquity – especially martial heroes) in Taiwan c.1978.]

In addition to the two mass-circulation periodicals mentioned above, there may have also been the first issue of “Wushu Zhuanji”(Martial Arts Special Issue), published by the editorial staff of the “Journal of the Wuhan Physical Education Institute” and the “Martial Arts Teaching and Research Section” of the Wuhan Physical Education Institute. Circulation figures for this publication are not listed in the periodical guides. The 1981 date of the first issue given in Zhonghua Wushu Cidian (Chinese Martial Arts Dictionary) Anhui 1987, Fang Jin-Hui, et al. p.265-266, is suspect, due to the first publication date of the “Journal of the Wuhan Physical Education Institute” is given as 1984 in Quan Guo Zhongwen Qikan Biaozhun Zhulu Shouce (Handbook of All-China Chinese Language Periodicals in Card Catalogue Format) Dalian 1993. A copy of the first issue of this publication should be obtained in order to settle this point.

There was a pair of popular posters titled “Wushu” that was published in sufficiently large numbers to warrant attention here. Published by the Renmin Meishu Chubanshe (People’s Fine Art Publishing House) in Beijing, the second printing in July 1981 was for just under two million (after a first edition of 500,000). Each poster in the set of two depicted a collage of six color photos of Wushu team members performing barehanded and with weapons in front of various cultural landmarks in Beijing and Guangzhou.

“Qigong” (Breath Exercise) magazine was launched in December 1980 as a quarterly in a small (5″ x 7.25″) format. In 1983 it changed to a bi-monthly and the cover began to be printed in color. Sponsored by the Zhejiang Chinese Medicine Research Institute and under the charge of the Public Health Department of Zhejiang Province, it was published by the Science and Technology Press of Zhejiang (with the magazine’s editorial office in Hangzhou). The circulation reached 500,000 in 1983 and was still at that level in 1986. At 48 pages, the price in 1983 was 15 cents for the low-grade paper edition or 38 cents for the offset-grade paper edition. A unique feature of “Qigong” was a second table of contents page translated into English “Breath Exercise (An Exercise for Health and Longevity).”

One final work of note to appear in 1981 was Qigonq Jing Xuan (The Best of Qigong) by Jin Guan, et al. Published by “Renmin Tiyu Chubanshe” (People’s Physical Education Press) in June 1981, there were 5 printings by 1988 (for a total of 659,000 copies). Due to the popularity of this text, a continuation titled Qiqonq Jing Xuan Xu Pian (Further Chapters) was published in 1985. There was a blurb on the back of the 5th printing of the original title that stated that a third continuation volume would be published shortly. Further discussion on the subject of Qigong will have to await a separate study. Readers who are interested may consult Benjamin Penny’s excellent study “Qigong, Daoism and Science: Some Contexts for the Qigong Boom” in Modernization of the Chinese Past University of Sydney, School of Asian Studies no.1, 1993, pp.l66-179 (distributed by Univ. of Hawaii Press).

What is the explanation for the appearance of these publications in 1981, followed by “Zhonghua Wushu” (Beijing) and “Bianliang Wushu” (Kaifeng, Henan province) in 1982, “Wuhun” (Beijing), “Jingwu” (Harbin, Heilongjiang province), “Wudang” (Danjiangkou, Hubei province), and “Roudao yu Shuaijiao” (Taiyuan, Shanxi province) in 1983?

To a certain extent these were intended to provide practical information for coaches, athletes and sports workers at all levels or, were intended to serve as sources of information for amateur enthusiasts and fans. Another aspect of these mass-circulation periodicals was their value as a political tool in conveying ideological content deemed important by the Communist Party of China. The role of sports in this process is important, due to the popularity of sports among large segments of society and especially the role of sports in the educational system. Sport in China (Champaign IL, 1990) states: “China stresses that sports should help build socialist material and cultural civilization. Athletes, coaches, and referees as well as other sports workers are always educated to be socialist new people with lofty ideals, high moral standards, cultural knowledge, and discipline.” [p.40] Another writer, Jonathan Kolatch, in the introduction to his 1970 Columbia University doctoral dissertation “The Development of Modern Sports and Physical Culture in China” [later re-titled Sports Politics and Ideology in China, self-published as a book in 1972] emphasizes the political element of sports in China by saying that: “Another [strong indication of the importance the Mainland Chinese regime now attaches to athletics] is the place they make for physical culture in their ideology.” [p.2]

In a speech “Report on the work of the government” that Zhao Ziyang delivered to the 4th session of the 5th National People’s Congress (“China Daily” Vol 1/No 143, 12/16/81, p.5) the concept of linking material development and cultural development was presented in the following terms: “In the work of socialist modernization, we must strive for a high level of both material and cultural development. The two are inseparable. Only by so doing can we ensure the sustained growth of the national economy and the socialist orientation of material development.” The directions for implementing this concept were given as: “Through effective publicity and education, political and ideological work, and work in other fields, and through promoting socialist democracy and perfecting the socialist legal system, we must enable more and more members of society to cherish the socialist and communist ideology, morality and attitude towards labor, to cultivate noble thoughts and feelings, a fine lifestyle and aesthetic standard, a conscious law-abiding spirit and a high sense of organization and discipline. Persisting in the principle of subordinating personal and partial interests to those of the whole and subordinating immediate to long-term interests, of doing everything for socialist modernization and the socialist motherland, and to develop the lofty spirit of patriotism and internationalism.” [ibid. p.5]

It is precisely this political orientation and these sentiments that one would expect to be driven home to the readers of mass-circulation periodicals. The editorial departments would be expected to keep the prevailing ideological focus. Wushu periodicals were no different from any others in this regard.


In 1978, the year of the Third Plenary Session of the Eleventh Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, the Physical Education Institutes in Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, and Wuhan enrolled their first groups of Masters degree students specializing in Wushu [see The Spring and Autumn of Chinese Martial Arts: 5,000 Years by Kang Ge-Wu, Santa Cruz 1995, p.100]. The next year, the State Physical Culture and Sports Commission (the highest level sports administrative body in China directly under the State Council) issued the circular “Guanyu Fajue, Zhengli Wushu Yichan de Tongzhi” (Regarding Discovering and Systematizing Martial Arts Heritage). These two events signaled that the stage had been set for an officially sanctioned revival of martial arts activity within an overall CPC policy of strengthening its ties with the Chinese masses and polishing its image which had been badly tarnished during the Cultural Revolution [see Resolution on CPC History (1949-81) Beijing, Foreign Languages Press, 1981, p.101 Hu Yao-Bang’s 7/1/81 “Speech at the Meeting in Celebration of the 60th Anniversary of the Founding of the Communist Party of China”].

Sports in New China, besides being viewed as “a national effort to improve the people’s physique”, was also viewed as a way to “cultivate the young generation’s collectivism and patriotism” [see “Beijing Review” 12/7/81, no.49, p.6 “Sports, Patriotism, and Jingoism”]. In the aftermath of the disastrous ten-year period (1966-1976) moral education was seen as a pressing need. It was the ethical aspect of traditional martial arts (known as “wu de” or martial virtue) as well as its broad popular appeal that may have attracted the interest of conservative elements within the government. “Compared to other sports, martial arts has deeper roots among the populace, so they can participate more broadly” [Marshall He Long, as quoted in the inaugural issue of “Zhonghua Wushu” 1982.11, no.1, pp.5-6].

The modern development of the “Wushu” system may thus be viewed as an alternative value system that had the virtue of being an indigenous value system. To a certain extent, the fortunes of the Wushu movement were linked to the fortunes of certain elements in the leadership. Given the huge popularity of the film “Shaolin Temple” when it was released in late 1981 or early 1982, however, wushu quickly became a fad of major proportions and took on a life of its own for a time, within the limitations of a tightly controlled society.

[For further discussion on the themes of nationalism, civilizing campaigns, and cultural change during the period of China’s “Open Policy” initiated in 1978, see “Flies and Fresh Air: Culture and Consumerism in Contemporary China” by Richard J. Smith in “Problems of Post-Communism” vol.44 / no.2 (March-April 1997) pp.3-13. See also the conference paper by the same author, “Chinese Ritual and Rhetoric, Past and Present,” delivered at the Conference on Traditional Institutions & Values in Contemporary China, East-West Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, May 20-22,1993 (this paper is now titled “The State and the Chinese Social Order: Reflections on the Role of Ritual and the “Rectification of Customs,” Past and Present,” in Yen-p’ing Hao, Stephen Mackinnon and Kai-wing Chow, eds. Between Tradition and Change: Studies in Modern Chinese History, Academia Sinica, forthcoming, 1998).]

[Many thanks to Graham Noble whose pioneering work in the analysis of “The First Karate Books” (Part One in “Fighting Arts International” no.90, 1995, pp.19-23; and Part Two “The West Learns About The “Empty Hand”” in “Fighting Arts International” no.93, 1997, pp.42-48) and in cataloging martial arts periodicals was the inspiration for this work.]

Magazine Tai Chi image

Q. “Whatever style of boxing is that?” A. ” “Feeling the mood of the leadership” boxing”

(from Chinese Satire and Humour: Selected Cartoons (1955-1982) of Hua Junwu, New World Press, Beijing, 1984, p.207) In April, 1980, the Constitution of 1978 was revised to eliminate Article 45 covering the “four bigs” [the Cultural Revolution’s “Four Bigs” – the right to “speak out freely, air views fully, hold great debates, and write big character posters], which the government felt had been abused in the Cultural Revolution and the Democracy Wall movement. [see Changing China by James Etheridge, New World Press, Beijing, 1988, p. 317.]

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