• Jason Tsang

The long road to be a warrior in pre-modern China


There is idea the a lot of people entertain where it must of been a pretty straight forward way to be a warrior. one can be a Shaolin monk or an armed courier. However, the life of a Buddhist monk is not easy and requires a great deal of commitment and hard work (hence gong fu). The life of armed courier is dirty, difficult and not to mention dangerous. There were many armed bandits lurking on the roads and mountains (which is one of the reasons why monastics trained in martial arts).

Another path to being a warrior is to join the army. In ancient China, not everybody was

able to get a job, join a trade or is financially well off. One of the ways to get regular pay, food in your stomach and a shirt on your back, was to join the army. China was the first country in Asia to have a standing professional army. They had amongst their ranks, various trades and often had supply their granaries by farming. A lowly soldier could raise his standing by serving well and earning their place in ranks. But being a good in a fight is not enough. After all, what could somebody who enjoyed fighting do in peacetime? A warrior needs more than just be good at fighting. They also need to be educated or good at something else.

The roots that binds the safety of Chinese society is education. The scholars and the mandarins are what keeps the civil side of government running. You might wonder how they got there? China used to have a system of examinations that operate at a county, provincial and national level. At national level, you have to travel to the capital to take the exams. Educating the next generation costs money and it is often assumed that only the rich can afford to educate their children. This is partly true, but it does not mean that those less privileged could not enter these exams. China (despite what picture the press paints) was more of a meritocracy. For that matter, a good number of gifted candidates from less privileged backgrounds made it to the top. For that to happen, you need educated parents or clansman. China used to practice a form of socialism where clansman pooled together resources to support the next generation. They built school houses and employed tutors.

Sons of these villages and towns bring back a lot of pride, prestige and honour when they graduate and become government officials. A few of these school houses still exists in my native Hong Kong. Some clans have produced a number of government officials.

For these communities to support schools, they must have a strong local economy. It so happens that a lot of these communities are in the coastal regions of China.

Whilst it is assumed that everybody who enters county, provincial and state exams are young men, it is not always the case. Some are much older. If they didn't have family to support them, then they would have got positions in local governments. China had a very sophisticated civil service it worked well, before governments fall into deep decay. Just because they are men of books, it does not mean they are not well versed in martial arts. Scholars can also be warriors and historically have lead on the field. Neo-Confucian scholar Wang Yang Ming was also well versed in the arts of war.

Army officers are also a people with varied talents. They had to be, in order to protect the nation. Boys who have a talent for martial arts were trained to prepare them for the examinations, which mirror those of the civil service. Candidates had to train to be able to fight hand to hand and with a number of different weapons. such as swords, pole arms and archery. You would also be expected to ride a horse and be competent in fighting on horseback. There are various regional styles, but the standards are set by the state. During examinations, you're expected to spar with other candidates, lift heavy weights and demonstrate fitness. Amongst of of these were to twirl a large and heavy halberd. These might not be practical in actual fighting, but it shows the prowess of a candidate. The average man would not be able to lift one on their own. Besides, martial prowess, candidates will be expected to be as well versed in the Confucian classics as their civil counterparts. Warriors had to also be thinkers and they had to manage armies. Even after a battle, generals need to be able to maintain order. Not everything can be settled with arms and force is always the last resort.

The virtues of the civil and

martial go hand in hand.

They complement and balance each other. Whilst it was men who had formal education, it was not to say women can't be educated and train in martial arts. some families don't allow it, some do. China has a tradition of women warriors and even today Chinese armed forces women play a prominent role.

So are the kung fu legends of the silver screen really warriors? That's something for you to entertain. Of martial arts stars, Jet Li, Donnie Yen, Vincent Zhao, Wu Jing and Max Zhang came from Wushu academies in China. These are the lucky ones, because each year Chinese wushu academies train thousands of hopeful Wushu athletes. Only a few will become champions, coaches or be movie stars. Whether one feels they qualify as martial artists is the invidual to consider. It would be an insult to call somebody who spent the best part of their youth training and be considered anything else. Donnie Yen, in his early days in the Hong Kong movie industry once put eight guys in hospital. They thought it was funny to tease him and his girlfriend in a Soho bar. All eight guys woke up together. The late Bruce Lee and Lau Gar Leung were certainly very gifted. Nobody can be a master of everything. Not everything is settled with a fight. I prefer to settle the argument with reason over a loud brawl.

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