Very few historical records about Chinese martial arts were found until the Qing period (1644 – 1912) when hand-to-hand combat and weapons practice were important in training ancient Chinese soldiers.
More detailed knowledge about the development of Chinese martial arts become available from the Nanjing decade period (1928 – 1937), as the Central Guoshu Institute started to compile an encyclopaedia of martial arts schools in China.
However, according to legend, Chinese martial arts originated during the Xia Dynasty more than 4,000 years ago. It is said, the Yellow Emperor, Huang Di introduced the earliest fighting systems called “Horn Butting” (Jiao Di), where contestants wore horned helmets and attacked each other with their headgear and believed to have been used successfully in the battlefield.
During the Zhou Dynasty, martial arts began to develop in line with the philosophical trends of society at that time, namely Taoism and Confucianism. Both philosophies and their approach to health and fitness have influenced the development of Chinese martial arts to a certain extent: direct reference to Taoist philosophy could be found in such styles as the “Eight Immortals” which uses fighting techniques that are attributed to the characteristics of each immortal. In Taoism, the universal “opposites” of Ying and Yang were adopted to fighting systems, resulting in “hard” and “soft” techniques that we see in most Chinese martial arts today. Confucianism meanwhile, included the practice of martial arts as part of its Six Arts that should be practised alongside calligraphy, mathematics and music.
The Shaolin Style/System is regarded as amongst the first established schools of martial arts. There are many historical sources from the 16th –17th centuries, providing evidence that martial arts practice by the Shaolin monks formed an integral part of their daily monastic life. It is recognised by many practitioners that the Shaolin monastery is the origin of Buddhism and Wu Shu and the monks became a warrior elite whose fame spread throughout China. Around the same period, rival Taoist monasteries such as the one on Wudang Mountain, taught different styles of Kung Fu.
When the Communist Party of China (CPC) under Chairman Mao took leadership of China in 1949, Chinese martial arts had to “tow” the line with communist party’s doctrine. The old Confucianism teachings of family and ancestor worship were replaced with loyalty to the CPC above everything else. Buddhist and Taoist lore also had to go, as communist’s thought did not tolerate religious practices and beliefs. Traditional styles of martial arts were “standardised” into a sporting version called “Wushu” in 1958 by the All China Wushu Association: creating standardised “Forms” to replicate and represent many of the popular “traditional” styles of martial arts, such as, Northern and Southern styles, Tai Chi, etc. Wushu became a national sport at High Schools and Universities across China. However, in 1998, the CPC changed its political stance and started to promote both, traditional martial arts and Wushu to the world.