Were the Chinese Strong in the Old Days?

I recently received this comment from Steven Smith in the comments section of this post:
Internal artists of lore could disregard muscle development and muscular force. They lived lives that used their bodies; they worked. These days, much of the supposed “work” fails to utilize our bodies in integrated ways, so we must strengthen ourselves so we can experience weakness.

The comment sounds reasonable, but is it true?

There is little doubt that people in the various forms of the Chinese military were required to be strong, they trained to develop that strength.  However, Chinese culture has always had people who did not work at all and people who did not work doing hard labor.  Martial arts were sometimes practiced by scholars and wealthy women.

Farmers and artisans certainly needed some strength to do their work well.  Generally they developed that strength early, in their teens, and kept it until they were too weak to work.  There is no reason to believe they had any more strength than they used on a regular basis.  A black smith, for instance, had five different sizes of hammers.  Once he could wield them he had no need for strength development.

Was there an historical China where people were as obsessed with exercise as Americans are today?  I don't know.  From my visits to China it appears that most older people do go to a park to exercise daily, but the same is not true for younger people.  Most working aged Chinese are not getting as much exercises as Americans.

I would like to think that in the past there was another era in which all of China did some kind of proto-gongfu-dance-devotion-thing.  I would like to think that every Chinese village, every "Big Family," had a style of gongfu that at least some of its members practiced.  I suspect that the percentage of people in each "Big Family" learning gongfu has risen and fallen from era to era.    I would like to think this, but I haven't seen good historical evidence and as far as I know archeology on the subject is sparse.  (Archeology could settle this issue definitively because one can tell very acurately what kind of training someone was doing by looking at their bones.)

But all of this is a side issue to the central question:  Did Internal Martial Artists of the past intend to say we should reject muscular force and muscular training even if we already have sedentary lifestyles?

Daodejing Daodejing

I think they did indeed intent to dissuade us from cultivating strength.   The Daodejing is rather unequivocal about this.  It posits that when people are afraid for their survival they will try to accumulate a type of power which is both strong and insensitive.  When people are possessed of desire, they will seek to sharpen their skills and hone their abilities.  Such an approach is qi expensive.  Such an approach wastes qi and jing, leaving us less able to adapt to the situation as it is.  Leaving us rigid, full and hard--at death's door.

In that sense, it is not a rejection of strength itself, it is a rejection of the idea that we will need strength at some point in the future.

Chinese heroic archetypes include the strong, the smart and the skillful.  All three are regarded by Daoist Orthodoxy as shortcuts to death.  All three invite possession by demonic forces.  All three are forms of power that if left unchecked, may some day require an exorcism.

The Daoist idea that someone might cultivate a body which is neither strong, not smart, nor skillful is among the likely roots of the Internal Martial Arts.  I guess I could have called my blog "Dumbness with a Twist."