Chinese martial arts has a written history and is part of the society in which it developed. One of the greatest myths about Chinese martial arts as a whole is that it has no written record. Many people assume or assert that the only source of knowledge about its origins and development is the tradition orally transmitted from martial arts teachers. Adding to the misunderstanding of the past, this imagined oral tradition seldom places the martial arts in the broader context of Chinese history or, when it does, uses a simplistic, static, and inaccurate description of that past. In fact, the amount of available written material on martial arts in Chinese history is enormous. As a first step in confronting such a vast body of information, this book will describe the origins and development of the Chinese martial arts across Chinese history. I will argue that these arts are the developed physical practices of armed and unarmed combat, which must be understood primarily as military skills, not methods of self-cultivation or religious activity.
That said, although the martial arts stemmed from military requirements and related activities like hunting, these skills took on added meaning as markers of status and of certain mental or spiritual qualities. Warfare and hunting were important in the identity of early Chinese aristocrats, for example, and their class was closely associated with chariot-borne archery. Aristocrats not only fought with certain weapons but they also fought under specific rules of combat that reinforced their shared sense of class. As time went on, changes in society and technology undermined the military, economic, and political basis for these chariot-riding aristocrats. Armies grew in size and improved in armament, thus spreading the skills of warfare further out among the common people. Government officials were expected to lead in wartime, and farmers were expected to become soldiers when needed. In unstable and war-ridden times the martial arts were thus widely practiced throughout Chinese society.