Dichotomies of Chinese History

There are a number of dichotomies which must be taken into account anytime we say anything about Chinese history.  Without an understanding of these dichotomies our understanding of martial arts history is simply floundering in the dark:

  1. What is legal vs. what is illegal.

  2. What was written or talked about vs. what was not written or talked about.  (Either secret, implicit, too obvious, or too embarrassing. )

  3. Official religion vs. Unofficial religion.

  4. Performance vs. religion.

  5. Martial arts vs. martial cult.

  6. Bandit vs. villager.

  7. Training vs. Organization (spread, hierarchy, transmission).

  8. Charismatic hierarchies vs. Circles of competing power alliances.

When I studied Budo (sword focused aikido) in Japan at Oomoto, the martial arts training was simply presented as religion.  We chanted scripture at the beginning and end of class, we bowed to the spirits in the garden.  Oomoto beliefs could be described as traditional animist, post-millennialist, and universalist, but this religion was something we did, not something we believed.  Likewise, Religion in China was never something you believed, never.  It was always something you did.  Often religion could be defined as a group of people you practiced with.

Plum Flower Fist (Quan) for instance, gets its name from the seasonal gatherings in early spring to celebrate the plum blossoms.  At these gatherings people would share food, perform their martial arts, have friendly matches, watch musical theater and practice story telling.  Here is a quote from The Origins of the Boxer Uprising, by Joseph W. Esherick:
As the conflict escalated in 1897-98, and the pendulum swung from boxer to Christian ascendancy, important changes were occurring in the Plum Flower Boxers.  For one thing, Zhao Sanduo was joined by a certain Yao Wenqi, a native of Guangping in Zhili and something of a drifter.  He had worked as a potter in a village just west of Linqing, and had taught boxing in the town of Liushangu, southwest of Liyuantun on the Shandong-Zhili border, before moving to Shaliushai where he lived for about a year.  Though Yao was apparently senior to Zhao in the Plum Flower school, and thus officially Zhao's "teacher," his influence could not match that of his "student."  Yao did, however, serve to radicalize the struggle, and even introduce some new recruits with a reputation for anti-Manchu-ism.  This began to bother some of the leaders of the Plum Flower Boxers: "Other teachers often came to urge Zhao not to listen to Yao:  'He is ambitious. Don't make trouble.  Since our patriarch began teaching in the late Ming and early Qing there have been sixteen or seventeen generations.  The civil adherents read [sacred] books and cure illness, the martial artists practice boxing and strengthening their bodies.  None has spoken of causing disturbances.'" For a long time, Zhao seemed inclined to listen to such advice, but as the conflict intensified, he found that he could not extricate himself.  In the end the other Plum Flower leaders agreed to let Zhao go his own way--but not in the name of the society.  He was, accordingly, forced to adopt a new name for the anti-Christian boxers, the Yihequan [United Righteous Fist, know to history as "The Boxers"].

The Plum Flower School of Boxing (Meihuaquan) always had a civil (wen --as opposed to the wu, martial) component, a wing of the school which read scripture and cured illness using religious means like exorcism and talisman. The concern of the person being quoted in bold lettering above is that the whole organization was rolling down the slope toward illegal, heterodox cult.

The purpose of an organization could be multiple; banditry, rebellion, training, health, crop guarding, military prep-school, village defence, religion, fundraising, alliance building, inter-village conflict, and/or entertainment.