Posted by: B Gourley | August 26, 2011

The Chinese Connection: To What Degree Did Japanese Martial Arts Come From China?


I just began reading Jigoro Kano‘s Mind Over Muscle, and, in it, he briefly discusses the various theorized origins of jujutsu. One theory, which Kano-Sensei dismissed, was that a Chinese man named Chen Yuan Ping introduced jujutsu techniques to Japan in the 17th century. On the face of it, Kano’s dismissal seems reasonable given the fact that Chinese martial arts not only look different, but appear to have a completely different foci. Grappling, at which jujutsu excels, seems to play a secondary role in the Chinese martial arts we commonly see. It is also true that, in earlier times, China was seen as the nexus of culture, and, therefore, to attribute something to China was to lend it virtue. 

However, there is so much that is unclear. First of all, martial arts evolve, and can evolve quite rapidly, to adjust to the nature of the opposition, the state of weapons technology, geography, cultural proclivities, and myriad other factors. So even martial arts with a common ancestor will look radically different when a few centuries have intervened. Secondly, China in particular has undergone some severe persecutions of martial artists, most recently (that I know of) during the Cultural Revolution. Therefore, the chance that the martial art that was this common ancestor either died out or is only practiced in secret is not implausible. Most of what we see today of Chinese martial arts fall into one of two categories: 1.) those evolved for entertainment value [sporting or acrobatic], 2.) those adapted primarily to benefiting health. Do we have a good picture of what combative Chinese martial arts looked like?  

It is also true that Chinese and Japanese martial arts, while tending to look quite different do share a number of common core concepts. However, this only raises the question of whether they evolved from a common ancestral martial art or whether there are some biomechanical and cognitive principles that are so fundamental to combat that they are universal among humans?

It should be noted that Kano-sensei‘s reference to a theory of Chinese origins of jujutsu is not the first suggestion that Japanese martial arts originated in China that I’ve heard. In particular, it’s been said that exiles came to Japan during China’s Tang Dynasty (AD 618 – 907). Given the apparent connection between Buddhism and Asian martial arts from Shaolin to Mt Hiei, this narrative has some appeal. Afterall, as the Tang era progressed, there began a large-scale persecution of Buddhists.

I don’t know what the correct answer is.  Clearly there is always a borrowing from what worked in the past, and so, in this way, there must be some inherent truth to the mythical progression of martial arts that runs from India through China and into Korea, Japan, as well as Southeast Asia. However, whether there is a common ancestor martial art, a Sino-Nippon missing link if you will, or whether this is a falsehood that developed out of a tendency to elevate all things Chinese to high-culture, I do not know. I suspect, at the risk of offending some with the notion that all martial arts are mutts, that there were indigenous Japanese combat systems that were evolving since the dawn of war and which borrowed the most useful tactics and techniques from Chinese visitors. I also suspect the history is lost as these were inherently secretive in the past, but am curious to learn different.


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