Five Fists of the Middle Kingdom
Martial Arts of Ancient China
The history of martial arts in China (let alone anywhere else in the world) is very difficult to pin down. There are a variety of legendary and mythical sources for how the practice of martial arts began. The earliest and most common Chinese martial arts (kung fu, jǐao dǐ) are said to have originated from the Yellow Emperor, Huangdi, during the Xia Dynasty. Since both figures are semi-mystical, it’s safe to say that no one will ever know how martial arts originated.
Martial arts were, however, codified in the early Chinese dynasties and differentiated between “hard” (or striking) styles and “soft” (or yielding) styles. Hard styles emphasized quick punches and kicks to subdue an opponent with one’s strength or speed, whereas soft styles focused on methods of defense and protection. Like most aspects of Chinese society, the styles are both complimentary and contrasting to one another.
Beyond martial arts’ focus on combat and attacks, to study martial arts was to study a specific philosophical path. No one was trained to use martial arts specifically so they could fight or kill someone else. Martial arts styles were used to align the body with certain philosophies or beliefs. This is most evident to an outsider’s view in tai ji quan.