July 10, 2017 Martial Arts Studies

Fighting Words: Four New Document Finds Reignite Old Debates in Taijiquan Historiography


Martial arts historiography has been at the center of China’s culture wars and a cause célèbre between traditionalists and modernizers for the better part of a century. Nowhere are the stakes higher than with the iconic art of taijiquan, where, based on a handful of documents in the Chen, Wu, and Yang lineages, traditionalists have mythologized the origins of taijiquan, claiming the Daoist immortal Zhang Sanfeng as progenitor, while modernizers won official government approval by tracing the origins to historical figures in the Chen family.
Four new document finds, consisting of manuals, genealogies, and stele rubbings, have recently emerged that disrupt the narratives of both camps, and, if authentic, would be the urtexts of the taijiquan ‘classics’, and force radical revision of our understanding of the art. This article introduces the new documents, the circumstances of their discovery, their contents, and the controversies surrounding their authenticity and significance, as well as implications for understanding broader trends in Chinese culture and politics.


DOI 10.18573/j.2017.10184


Wile, Douglas. 2016. ‘Fighting Words: Four New Document Finds Reignite Old Debates in Taijiquan Historiography’, Martial Arts Studies 4, 17-35.


Douglas Wile is professor emeritus of Chinese Language and Literature from Brooklyn College-City University of New York. He holds a PhD in East Asian Languages from the University of Wisconsin, with additional training at Stanford University. He has numerous publications in the field of Chinese intellectual history, with specializations in martial arts studies and sexology. He was the first to publish a scholarly monograph on Asian martial arts with a university press and the first to offer credit-bearing college courses on taijiquan and Asian movement arts. Professor Wile has trained in various styles of five martial arts, as well as yoga and qigong, and has maintained a fifty-year practice of Yang style taijiquan.

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