Many Kung Fu practitioners are aware that there are official records of weapon fighting methods used by the Ming and Qing Dynasty imperial army. These styles have no living teachers, but are reconstructed and taught by experienced martial arts teachers who have backgrounds in their own Kung Fu styles. Including me myself, many people learning from a teacher in a lineage are researching these official records to discover links between what we are practicing and the actual martial arts practiced in the imperial army hundreds of years ago.
The Ming Dynasty faced a serious problem of the military system losing substantial knowledge to train soldiers to use weapons and fight battles; hence many military doctrines and martial arts manual were produced during the mid to late Ming Dynasty. The authors of these manuals were considered widely travelled at that time and their works served as solid references for the styles that originated from the regions they visited.
However, China being so large and diverse had many localized ways of doing battle. It was very common for military men stationed in provinces further away from the capital to have frequent exchanges with the pugilists in those regions. The soldiers stationed in say Sichuan or Guangxi will have very different ways of combat from those in Hebei despite being under the same central government.
At the same time the traditions on passing down martial arts knowledge were broadly maintained by individual families and in towns and villages. Many of them had family members who participated in the military, or had their own fair share of combat experience in the civilian sector.
Especially in Southeast China, clan feuding was common and widespread. Martial arts experts were hired from the outside to train the ordinary clan fighters. There were even hitman agencies. Some of these thugs were reputed to be serious martial artists with highly refined techniques. Some of us would’ve heard from our parents or grandparents stories of villages battling another village in the same province because of disagreements and dislike of one another. Clan feuding was even extended to Southeast Asia, free from the interference of the Beijing based imperial government. Yes, the Northern Chinese governments were always poor with marine travel, unlike the British and Spanish colonial powers. These Clan battles were frequently of a large scale involving 5 or even 6 digit numbers on both sides, mostly at times when the central government enjoyed relative peace when the country was not invaded by any foreign military. So it can’t be said that the official military always had more combat experience and relevance than the civilian organizations, for in most part of history it was the other way round.
Looking earlier than the Ming Dynasty will be the 武经总要 Wujingzongyao written and illustrated in the Song Dynasty. It recorded the designs of weapons used in the Song, but didn’t show the martial applications of these weapons. It was of little help to martial artists who were trying to deduce the methods of combat from reading the Wujingzongyao. However we can refer to the types of weapons in the Song Dynasty and their characteristics.
Laymen could not learn sword or spear fighting from the Ming and Qing dynasty manuals, as it only shows non-moving stances and the text contains many ‘insider terms’ in the format of poetry. Language experts and martial art teachers have been releasing their interpretations of the text and the actual applications of the manuals. It was hard work as the lack of illustrations of movements make the Chinese manuals very abstract. It seemed quite rare to hire artists to illustrate more detailed visual manuals in the Ming and Qing. And despite the emphasis on being well versed in both the martial and civil arts, few military officials who were also well educated men made drawings of their fighting methods.
Compared to Chinese Martial Arts, Historical European fencing does not have any living lineages in the present day, though many enthusiastic researchers have reconstructed the arts from preserved manuals. It seems that the drawings in these manuals are more descriptive and understandable to even people who are untrained.
We can feel that the ancient rulers of China were ruthless in destroying evidence of the previous dynasty and of teachings of knowledge they do not approve of. It is also known as ‘book burning’. This is especially true for the Tang Dynasty which was the apex of Chinese civilization, which was severely disrupted by the events of 安史之乱 Uprising of An Lushan. It could also be that the warriors were not serious in archiving knowledge, though many were also learnt men who could draw and write. The civil war after the 1911 revolution, World War Two and the Cultural Revolution made preservation of manuals and martial arts teachers even more difficult.
Civilian lineages are often plagued by ‘conmen’ and the distrust they caused, making it even harder to obtain accurate traces to its origins in the Ming Dynasty. If Chinese people love their 3000 – 5000 years of knowledge, they should abandon the practices of distrust and secrecy, and study Kung Fu with ‘open books’.