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Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century Hardcover – December 5, 2011
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In the global world of the twenty-first century, martial arts are practiced for self-defense and sporting purposes only. However, for thousands of years, they were a central feature of military practice in China and essential for the smooth functioning of society. This book charts the history of combat and fighting techniques in China from the Bronze Age to the present. This broad panorama affords fascinating glimpses into the transformation of martial skills, techniques, and weaponry against the background of Chinese history, the rise and fall of empires, their governments, and their armies. Quotations from literature and poetry, and the stories of individual warriors, infuse the narrative, offering personal reflections on prowess in the battlefield and techniques of engagement.
About the Author
Peter A. Lorge is a Senior Lecturer of History at Vanderbilt University, Tennessee. He is the author of War, Politics and Society in Early Modern China, 900-1795 (2005) and The Asian Military Revolution: From Gunpowder to the Bomb (Cambridge, 2008).
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Top Customer Reviews
This book differs markedly from other more popular texts in that Professor Lorge, from beginning seeks to ground his arguments in solid textual and archaeological evidence and aims to deflate some of the myths regarding Chinese martial arts. And in the early centuries from the Shang Dynasty up to the Han, this approach is highly effective as he is able to put together a convincing case for the development of CMA which parallels the development of weapons on the battlefield, such as the evolution of the sword and longsword, and the replacement of the halberd by the spear on the battlefield.
From an archaeological perspective, he traces how there is a period of great variety and innovation when a new weapon type is introduced, as the military and martial artists come to grips with the strength and weaknesses of the weapon, followed by a period of mass standardization, and finally by a period of personalized customization where the weapons are again tailored to the attributes of the user, spawning many variants. And in the early centuries, despite the association of arts such as archery with personal cultivation, it is the military and wars that drive the development of the martial arts.
From the Tang Dynasty onwards his main argument is while the military remained an important part in the development of Chinese martial arts, the needs of the military are necessarily constrained by needs of standardization and the ability to act effectively in formation. Instead it is through the medium of performance and dance that martial arts evolved into the myriad schools that we see today. His argument being there is a fixed universe of techniques that are effective martially and the choice of which techniques to emphasize and to drop were originally driven by aesthetic concerns, in order to present something that remained interesting to the viewer and these sets developed into given schools.
Besides being a military historian, Lorge is also a social historian and from this perspective he also delves into many themes that broaden our understanding of CMA, such as the role of women, the difference between steppe warfare and southern warfare, the need for the government to balance a need to maintain a monopoly over violence and the need to have an effective pool of skilled soldiers to draw upon and the need of local elites to ensure security in a violent world.
In the final part of the book, Lorge deals with the decisive confrontation between the Chinese martial arts and western power. And what is interesting is that he convincingly shows us that unlike in Japan, the use of gunpowder and guns had remained widespread through the Ming and Qing dynasties but could not match European technology. Although Lorge is a martial artist, his background is not in the Chinese arts so he is able to view CMA with a degree of emotional detachment, which is necessary for slaughtering sacred cows. For instance he plays down the importance of the Shaolin Temple, and cites political reasons for the rise of internal martial arts, such as Taiji, Bagua and Xingyi. But even when he goes against the grain, he does in a most polite manner and leaves room for alternative explanations.
It took me some time to work my way slowly through the book as there were many fascinating ideas and anecdotes that I needed to take time to ponder and digest. The style begins in quite dry logical manner in the early chapters (along the lines of thesis - support - implications - conclusion - new idea) but begins to pick up the pace in the later chapters, but this could also be a constraint of the source material at hand. Lorge also shows an interesting choice in his use of vocabulary, with some less common words used repeatedly such as "ecumene" and his choice of sword for '"Dao" and longsword for "Jian"'. Another choice that he made was the use of knightly class, which then changed to literati in the later chapters for '"Shi". This sometimes made for a little bit of confusion, but it is not fatal to the enjoyment of the book.
But all in all this was an impressive addition to the field of research on the development of Chinese Martial Arts and is one of those that should be on the bookshelf of anyone with a serious interest in martial arts.
However, as a whole, I still find it very scholarly, and very persuasive. It truly is groundbreaking, especially for one with an interest in the historical background of the Chinese martial arts, and their rooted connections to the military.
One thing that seems to distinguish Chinese martial arts is their role as entertainment. It seemed to go well beyond anything similar in Europe, and though this is not the focus of the book it certainly could be the subject of a book itself. Even though weapons training for stage and cinema have always existed in the West, it doesn't seem to be as systematized and named as in China ( at least until recently ). Another difference is that even though gun powder weapons were used in China even before Europe, they didn't completely displace mechanical weapons as quickly as in the West. Thus there is more of a living tradition of weapons training to draw off in Chinese and other asian martial arts than in Europe.
As in the West, the most popular form of unarmed martial arts for most of Chinese history was wrestling. There isn't much detail about wrestling styles, but there is more about the origins of specific schools and styles of striking techniques, most of which seemed to be secondary to weapons training until modern times. Yes the Shaolin temple was at times associated with martial arts, much in the same way large medieval estates owned by the Catholic church would have had men at arms of some sort to police and defend them.
In short this book will mainly appeal to those interested in weapons training martial arts. Those interested mainly in unarmed styles will find the last 60 or so pages of the book the most relevant. This book will be well worth reading for anyone interested in Chinese military history.