I got a query from a reader which echoes a question I’ve gotten in class1 many times:
With China’s long history of martial arts, how prominent can it be said such arts were (if at all) in actual military affairs outside the realm of legends?
My immediate thought is that there’s almost no connection whatsoever: what little I have read of pre-modern Chinese military theory places most of the emphasis on strategy (e.g. Sunzi) and unit organization (e.g. Huang, 1597). In massed combat, individual fighting skills mostly take a backseat to numbers, tactics, technology and discipline. There are times when smaller numbers of skilled warriors can overcome a disadvantage of numbers — the Mongols come to mind — but their combat style isn’t really part of any conventional martial art tradition. Chinese culture being largely Confucian, there isn’t as much of a warrior literature, either2 in which individual soldiers might be valorized for bravery, strength and skill. There is some of that which comes out of the operatic/dramatic tradition, and Ming literature like the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, but it’s a late development with almost no connection to actual military practices.
In fact, about the only place I’ve run across a connection between martial arts and combat is in histories of the Boxer Uprising like Paul Cohen’s History in Three Keys, in which he actually argues that most of the “fighting style” of the Fists United in Righteousness, etc., was based on imitation of stage fighting. Anyone know of other examples, or major sources that I’ve missed?