Tribute & Vassalage was a major part of state craft around the world in centuries past. In attempting to address the origins of Chinese martial arts and its relationship to the arts of other North Asian societies, as well as India, the Philippines, Indonesia, Thailand and even Africa, we really can't get very far if we think of martial arts as purely about fighting. Great individual fighters are found everywhere and yet great armies do not require them. We can perhaps imagine martial arts spreading around border regions, where inter-cultural-marriage happens, or where a talented individual might take refuge. We can also imagine the casual trading of martial skills amongst well armed merchants and in secret pirate lairs.
I will not dismiss these possibilities, they seem likely to have happened. But these kinds of border interactions don't explain the intensive and wide spread nature of martial arts very well. That is one of the reasons I started thinking about the role of theater and dance in the spread of martial arts.
Unlike the marginal agency of border crossing cultures, the performing entourages that were sent as tribute and vassalage went from the seats of high culture in one society to the seats of high culture in another. They were often quasi-slaves, or perhaps servants but usually of very low social status. Imagine you are an emperor and a king, in far away India, sends you 20 fantastic performers as a gift. What do you do? If you can find them, you send him back a gift of 25 even better performers. Frankly, it was cheap and effective diplomacy. It was the creation of long distance conviviality.
But conviviality was also immediate. Performers speak the languages of music and dance. Put great performers from disparate traditions in the same castle and they are likely to start working and playing together, they may even exchange children as disciples. Physical storytelling is a potent way to transcend language barriers.
I've never seen a study focussed on the extent of performing entourages being sent back and forth across the world but I would bet it was extensive. I've come across accounts of African performers being sent to Beijing in the 1400's at the time of Admiral Zhenghe and similar entourages being sent from Indonesia, and Tibet. One can still challenge the notion that these dancers, musicians and actors were also adept at fighting skills. But I've dealt with the integration of fighting skills and performing skills in countless other blog posts so I'll put that one aside for the moment.
This came up at the Daoist conference because after demonstrating some North Indian Classical Dance (Kathak) and showing how it uses mime and abstract storytelling in ways that are remarkably similar to Chen Style Taijiquan, I was asked about the theories that Chinese martial arts have some origins in India. But this is only half of the answer I gave.