Taijiquan and Daoism: from religion to martial artand martial art to religion

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Author: Douglas Wile
Date: Winter 2007
From: Journal of Asian Martial Arts(Vol. 16, Issue 4)
Publisher: Via Media Publishing Co.
Document Type: Report
Length: 19,705 words

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This study explores the ways in which the construction and deconstruction of a martial arts-Daoism connection has figured in political ideology, national identity, and commercial interest during the past 400 years of Chinese history. Focusing on the taijiquan-Daoism-Zhang Sanfeng nexus, it traces the wrapping of a martial art in indigenous religious garb during the periods of Manchu rule, Japanese occupation, and post-Mao 21st century. It concludes by reporting on a contemporary movement in China to revive the cult of Zhang Sanfeng and to cast taijiquan as a form of religious practice. In this light, taijiquan emerges as an important site of constructing "Chineseness" in the face of state appropriation and Western cultural imperialism.


The question of taijiquan's origins--and specifically whether they are Daoist or not--is no mere academic exercise but a major theater in China's culture wars for nearly a century. A recent mass-market book Five Hundred Unsolved Mysteries in China's Cultural History lists the origins of taijiquan as one of Chinese history's most contentious cases. In the 1930s, Tang Hao (1897-1959), China's first modern martial arts historian, was the target of an assassination plot for daring to unmask the myth of taiji's Daoist origins, and in 1999 a prominent martial arts journal, Jingwu, after ten years of extensive coverage, declared a moratorium on the topic. Why all the fuss?

From the middle of the 19th century to the beginning of the 21st, taijiquan has played a very public role in China's cultural life. Exponents of taijiquan were active in the self-strengthening campaigns of the late Qing Reform Movement and Nationalist Revolution; taijiquan played a leading role in the national and provincial martial arts academies of the Republican period; it was standardized and popularized for the masses during the Mao era (1949-1976); and today, taijiquan is still the site of hostile clashes between modernizers and traditionalists, even as it increasingly becomes a leading cultural export and tourist attraction. What began in the 17th century with Huang Zongxi's (1610-1695) wrapping a martial art in religion has come down in the 21st century to Neo-Zhang Sanfeng cultists wrapping religion in a martial art. This paper will explore the ways in which the construction and deconstruction of a martial arts-Daoist connection has figured in political ideology, cultural identity, and commercial interest during the past century of Chinese history.

Defining taijiquan is at least as controversial as defining Daoism itself. If there are three Daoisms--philosophical, religious, and macrobiotic--there are also three taijis-martial, meditative, and medical. Similarly, there are three stereotypes of taiji-masters: recluses who perfect their art with the help of nature or supernatural forces, secret masters living in the world who reveal their art only when pressed or for righteous causes, and public masters who defend the honor of their lineage and accept all challenges. We can trace taijiquan as a philosophy or a lineage, a generic or a brand. All styles claim Daoist philosopical content, and most claim to be successors to a transmission originating with a famous Daoist immortal....

Source Citation

Source Citation
Wile, Douglas. "Taijiquan and Daoism: from religion to martial artand martial art to religion." Journal of Asian Martial Arts, vol. 16, no. 4, 2007, p. 8+. Accessed 9 Mar. 2021.

Gale Document Number: GALE|A187624181