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Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture
Karate Changes - Tai Chi Changes

As someone whose martial education has been primarily of Japanese origins, I’m very familiar with the “jutsu to do” shift in the 1900s. Recently I’ve been looking at similar shifts in “marital emphasis” in other cultures. The superb “Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals” by Brian Kennedy and Elizabeth Guo (a book you everyone should own) has lots of interesting information in this regard.

When discussing Sun Lu Tang (1860-1933) the book says the following:

“If one wants to fight, they aught to use a gun”, so said Sun Lu Tang, according to his daughter Sun Jian Yun in Tim Cartmell’s translation of A Study of Taijiquan. Sun’s emphasis to his students and in his books was on practising martial arts for health reasons. This was a revolutionary idea at the time. Contrary to kung fu movies and the ideas of “New Age” Taiji students, Chinese martial arts had one purpose in the past: to fight … Martial artists did not practise for their health, and in fact many traditional martial arts practises were detrimental to health. Many forms of “iron body” training, for example, effectively cut short the practitioners’ lives short by decades. It was not until the founding of the Chinese Republic [1912] that the idea of using martial arts as a form of physical exercise became widespread”.

It strikes me that there is some commonality there with karate. It’s also interesting that similar changes to the way the martial arts were being practised were occurring at roughly the same time.

Just as Itosu changed the way karate was approached through teaching it in the Okinawan school system, Sun Lu Tang (and others) taught T'ai Chi to the public at the Beijing Physical Education Research Institute from 1914 -1928 and it is said that this period was instrumental in the development of modern Wu, Yang and Sun style T'ai Chi. It seems there was also a fundamental shift in the way “internal arts” were viewed at that time. Kennedy and Guo continue:

“Qi gong exercises, as well as the more mundane but equally important physical exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups, had long been the foundation of Chinese martial arts excellence. But Sun’s writing linked – in the public mind at least – qi gong exercises and internal martial arts … The end result, which is still with us today, is the idea that “internal arts” are only “internal” because of qi gong exercises and the reliance on qi. This view is false, but it is a widespread view and it is the legacy of Sun Lu Lang … Most of the attitudes of modern-day practitioners of Chinese internal arts – regardless of where they study and whether they know the name Sun Lu Tang – were moulded by his written work. He was and remains the most influential author in Chinese martial arts history.”

This shift from combat to health, the modifications that result, what is less that 100 years old being viewed as “traditional” or “ancient”, and the inevitable fundamental shift to the way an art is viewed and practised is something I find very interesting.

I’m sure I’m not alone in that and that many here will also be interested to learn more about how this shift unfolded within Chinese martial arts, and the martial arts of other cultures and nationalities too. I thought this would therefore make for a good forum discussion.

Is anyone aware of any other good sources that address these areas specifically? Does anyone have some interesting information that they would like to share on these issues?

All the best,


michael rosenbaum
michael rosenbaum's picture


Donn Drager addressed this change in his three volume series on the Japanese Martial Arts and Ways: Classical Budo-Classsical Bujutsu and Modern Budo and Bujutsu. Others have also addressed it one (whose name I forget) did so in a book called Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts. wink

With innovations in new technology and weapons changes almost always occur in the fighting arts. This is not something new, but a process that has been around for thousands of years. For instance when the ancient Greeks began to employ the Pahalanx formation along with  the round hoplon shield, spear and bronze helmet their culture went from one of having a s small social-elite class of citizens who ruled everything to one of a more democratic nature. Why? Because now eveyone fought in the phalanx and noone was more special than anyone else since it was eveyones duty to keep the formation intact. Hence a change in fighting styles, going from champions to mass-formations (see the Iliad) brought forth changes in society.

With the growing use of firearms on the battlefield and more importantly their increased effectiveness which gave warriors the ability to kill from afar, the role of traditional/classical styles of fighting underwent a change which often resulted in them being more suited for exercise, meditation, or a form of cultural study. A prime example being the koryu-bujutsu of Japan. This change in focus brought forth by gunpowder- which Sir Richard Burton bemomaned in his Book of The Sword-also filtered down to civil styles of fighting and influenced them. Hence the reason why we often practice Karate for sport, Tai Chi for meditation and Aikido for spiritual development. However the influence of gunpowder probably had more impact on the European fighting arts (initally) than the Asian styles simply because of geography. Asia is a vast region seperated by oceans where as Europe can be travelled by train, wagon or horse, ala the the Huns and Mongols. This in turn made Europeans more proactive where their fighting arts were concerned and more likely to embrace the gun and cast out the traditional styles so as to stay abreast of current developments in warfare. So, long story short is gunpowder not only effected the way we practice the fighting arts, but also our reasons for practicing them.


Michael Hough
Michael Hough's picture

While it's not the primary focus of his book, in "Martial Arts America," Bob Orlando gives a pretty clear (if simplified) explanation of the shift from combat system to fighting art. I can't find my copy at the moment, or I'd quote. Roughly:

Battlefield tactics get codified into a system. The system gets studied not only in war, but peacetime, when things get refined. People who will never set foot on a battlefield start to study, refined further into an art or sport.

Wish I could find the book. Bob said it much better. But this is roughly the progression all traditional systems (Asian MA, Western Boxing, pretty much all forms of wrestling) seem to have taken.

Iain Abernethy
Iain Abernethy's picture

michael rosenbaum wrote:
Others have also addressed it one (whose name I forget) did so in a book called Kata and the Transmission of Knowledge in Traditional Martial Arts.

I'm pretty sure I have that one of the shelves :-)

All the best,


Finlay's picture

yeah the Taiji of years ago wasn't like the taiji of today. through all the styles of today only very few schools and systems keep the traditonal methods of training. All the internal martial arts included very hard exerisises in their basic forms, whether it was a hard form of the final form such as Xing yi or a external marital art supplment as in the cases or Taiji or Bagua, a good solid foundation in strength training was seen as very important. It is safe to say that the Taiji fighters of years gone did more that slowly move around the park in an attempt to create some fighting skill

Even if you look at the older forms of Taiji, Chen and Zhaobao, they have kept much of the explosive movements. whereas if you look at the Yang form practised today, it is all soft and flowing, ths form was acutally developed by a gentleman called Yang Cheng Fu, who didn't like the old Yang form becasue he thought it was too hard to practice, damaging for the body  and so changed the morm, to remove the explovsive movements (fali/fajing) and much of the very low postures.

Sun Lu tang is an interesting person during this time, he studied the three main internal arts and it was he that actually created the term  'nei jia quan/internal" to refer to to this family of arts. these days people like his bagua and xing yi (the picture for this thread is a Xing Yi starting posture) but many of the people that enjoy fighting side of Taiji (not nesseserily practical side) don;t like Sun Taiji.for the reason it follows too much the health practice.

Taiji went through another change a few decades ago, when the Short forms were created, these were mainly created for sporting competiton, so instead of a form that takes 40mins to complete people from Taiji associsations created forms that would took 3 mins to complete. these were of course much better for competiton. nowadays similar to other marital arts Taiji competitons have broken away from standard forms and are now free form, with only a list of movements that must performed during the set..

As for the fighting style, most styles still compete in push hands but don;t bring it on enough to make it applicable in any other setting. Starting from a few years ago, the Chinese goverment decided to push the fighting application of these arts once again, and are setting up compettions where points are awarded for correctly demonstratng the style as well as beating an opponent.  these right now are still in the early stages and have some way to go.