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In the year 2016, the International Guoshu Association and the City University of Hong Kong paid tribute to the Martial Arts of the Hakka. They collaborated together to digitally record and preserve data related to the Hakka Martial Arts history in Hong Kong. Their efforts were bundled into a media project which they named, “300 Years of Hakka Kung Fu”. The presentation of that project was first physically housed in the Hong Kong Heritage Museum in September of 2016, and exhibited in the City University for a number of months thereafter. The aim of the project was to preserve the intangible cultural heritage of Hakka Kuen; using innovative technology and creativity to accentuate the value of the Hakka Martial Arts and to bring them into a historical context.

This is an important project as well as a timely one because these living traditional martial arts are in danger of dying out. “Today the last remaining bastions of Hakka martial arts can be found in rural villages across the New Territories. Only a few generations ago, it was common for all villagers to learn some kung fu. However, since the second half of the twentieth century, Hakka martial arts have been in serious decline, and many styles have been lost. Many people have left the villages, emigrating to the inner city or abroad in search of better economic opportunities. In addition, Hong Kong’s younger generation seems uninterested in learning Kung Fu, instead preferring trendy, contemporary styles such as Muay Thai and Mixed Martial Arts (MMA).” – [Sally Gao] The research teams of this momentus project looked to the “Old Grandmasters” of the Hakka Martial Arts communities in Hong Kong to supply them with the transfer of their physical knowledge into the university’s data banks. These “Old Men” are the guardians of traditions reaching further back than the 300 years mentioned in the title of the project. These traditions were brought by the families before them to the New Territories of Hong Kong. Beginning on mainland China, evolving over hundreds of years, as the Hakka clans migrated south of their original northern homelands; leaving their histories to be traced through mountains, along rivers, and at the shores of the China Seas.

Hakka migrants crossed the waters to Hong Kong in waves; arriving and settling during different periods and under different circumstances. They maintained their dialect and cultural traditions throughout these moves and were continually distinct from the cultures of the native Southern China communities which they moved into. Their histories in Hong Kong reflect the Hakka ingenuity, character and difficulties; they tell the reader that old grievances met them when they settled on the island of the New Territories. “During the late Ming and Qing dynasties, Hong Kong was in the imperial district of Xin-An (now Shenzhen) County. The 1819 gazetteer lists 570 Punti and 270 Hakka contemporary settlements in the whole district. However, the area covered by Xin-An County is greater than what was to become the British imperial enclave of Hong Kong by 1899. Although there had been settlers originating from the mainland proper even before the Tang dynasty, historical records of those people are non-extant, only evidence of settlement from archaeological sources can be found. The New Territories lowland areas had been settled originally by several clan lineages in Kam Tin, Sheung Shui, Fanling, Yuen Long, Lin Ma Hang and Tai Po, and hence termed the Punti before the arrival of the Hakka, and fishing families of the Tanka amd Hoklo groups to the area. Since the prime farming land had already been farmed, the Hakka land dwellers settled in the less accessible and more hilly areas. Hakka settlements can be found widely distributed around the Punti areas, but in smaller communities. Many are found on coastal areas, inlets and bays surrounded by hills. Hakka-speaking communities are thought to have arrived in the Hong Kong area after the rescinding of the coastal evacuation order in 1688, such as the Hakka-speaking Lee Clan lineage of Wo Hang, one of whose ancestors is recorded as arriving in the area in 1688.”-[Wikipedia]

Man with glasses

As the above quote points out, the New Territories were dominated by the strong Punti lineages. The Punti did not welcome the arrival of the Hakka to their domain, and, armed conflicts between the Punti and the Hakka would define their historical relationship. The Hakka turned to the other ethnic minority groups on the island to form an alliance. The alliance was not exclusively aimed against the Punti. The Hakka “Alliance of Ten” was a cooperative between the Hakka, Sha Tau Kok, and Shap Yeuk. Together they reclaimed farmland from marshes, built dykes and levees as protection against flooding, and created a central market in the area where the Hakka were dominant in the early 19th century. “The last great migration of the Hakka people towards Hong Kong took place at the time of the “Tai Ping” revolution (1850-1864). Hakka dissenters featured in the anti-government rebellion and subsequently were persecuted following the failure of the Tai Ping revolution. One notable feature of the Hakka culture was their marked embrace of the Christian faith which at the time of anti-Western sentiment in the Qing dynasty added more cultural impetus for their persecution.”-[Wikipedia]

In the 2353 issue of the Ming Pao Weekly, Hing Chao wrote, “A large proportion of the original inhabitants of Hong Kong were Hakka people, one of the 5 large clans of the New Territories was the Tang Clan, who were one of the Hakka immigrant groups into Hong Kong during the Song Dynasty. Most of the Hakka clans who had come to Hong Kong during the early Qing Dynasty were from Eastern Guangdong.” So, there were Hakka clans which were well-settled on the island and Hakka clans who were recent arrivals during the Qing Dynasty. These clans had all clung to their cultural heritages; but, their martial arts had different developmental histories. What they all had in common, besides customs and dialect, was a “martial character”. Hing Chao describes, for his readers, a few things “Hakka” and in particular “Tang”. The villages of the Tang were walled and ready for defense against the violent confrontations of the inter-village conflicts occurring between families. Violence was not limited to the noted aggression between clans. At the end of the Opium Wars, the British gained control of the New Territories from the Qing Dynasty. The Tang Clan organised villagers to resist the British. And the Lung Yeuk Tau, before them, had rebelled against the Qing in Hong Kong. These clans all had very serious martial histories which had made martial arts a very important part of their culture; instilling a martial spirit which would last well into the 20th century.

The Hakka in Hong Kong had all brought their family styles of Hakka martial arts with them when they migrated to the island. Once there, they continued to develop and teach their styles. At any particular point in time, some styles were newer than others. The changing through time can be told by the stories of conflict which are particular to the eras and the regions. Over time, the nature of the Hakka martial arts would, themselves, begin to change in response to the emergence of a modern world. Hing Chao explains the eventual transformations of many Hakka styles in Hong Kong, “I believe the rise of these new styles reflected the turbulent times at the end of the Qing Dynasty, and also reflected a change in the pace of life in society, forcing the martial arts to divorce themselves from the armed group conflicts of the past, deemphasizing the weapons, and leading to the flourishing of the empty handed styles. However sadly, this led to many important parts of traditional martial culture to disappear in the twentieth century, such as the double handed sword that had originated in the Ming Dynasty, or the southern staff that was famous at home and abroad. This movement from the focus on the minutiae towards simplification also reflected change in society, and the desire for practitioners to seek quick results.”

Bald man, hands toward camera

It is time for us to take a step back in order to consider what exactly is understood to be “Hakka Martial Arts”. Taking the reference point of Hong Kong is an easy way to gain a global idea of how these arts are identified and categorized. The Hong Kong Martial Arts are first and foremost divided between two categories: 1.) Northern Chinese and 2.) Southern Chinese. The Northern Martial Arts are from Hebei, Henan, and Shandong; arriving in the 1920s with the Guoshu movement. The Northern martial arts are basically: Taijiquan, Baguazhang, and Shaolin. The Southern martial arts are styles with boxing techniques from Guangdong and Fujian. They were indigenous to this part of China and were practiced in Hong Kong by Hakka communities in the New Territories long before the arrival of the Northern Martial Arts.

The category “Hakka Martial Arts” is known as “Hakka Kuen”; meaning “Hakka Fist”. There are six visible characteristics which distinguish Hakka Kuen from other Southern Chinese Martial Arts.

  1. Narrow Stance
  2. Rounded Back
  3. Elbows Close To The Body
  4. Complex Hand Movements
  5. Triangular Footwork
  6. Short Steps

Distinguishing the relatedness between the different martial arts systems in Southern China is not as clear-cut and straight forward as distinguishing between other martial arts around the world. The lines of development and cross pollination between clans and military martial arts are very difficult to identify and to trace with any real certainty. Yet, martial arts scholars continue their efforts to do just that. They look first to the most obvious differences and similarities between styles. Then they observe the martial applications taught within the systems. These observations are combined with the researchers’ knowledge of the historical socio-economic data concerning particular martial arts groups and the world they inhabited. These pieces of the puzzle are then tentatively put together in conceptual structures to see what makes sense with the information available. In the case of Southern Chinese martial arts, it becomes a bit risky to make hard and fast statements about the development of the martial arts because of the almost continual migration of populations and marital conflicts which brought many different styles of martial arts into contact with one another. In general, researchers look to regionality for grouping styles, but, certain styles do not fit well with the other styles of their given region. Researchers are required, then, to look further and deeper into their subject matter, considering many different possible influences. “Objectively speaking, Minnan, East Guangdong, and a few styles that have developed into the Pearl River Delta, like Wing Chun, Yong Chun, Bak Mei, Dragon Style comprise one martial framework. Whether one talks about style, power emission, and application, these are very different from the Cantonese arts (especially those originally of the Pearl River Delta) such as Hung, Li, Choy, Mok style which have a comparatively wider area of movement and use a bow stance (side stance) and have the [wide] horse stance, which have a strong “Long Fist” flavor.” -[Hing Chao]

Man and sword

As with anything Chinese, the naming of things, is both an investigative tool and an investigative hindrance at the same time. Identifying the roots of a style by name requires some basic information about Traditional Hakka Martial Arts. The Hakka did not originally give their styles descriptive names. Styles were merely called “teachings” and the name of the family transmitting the martial art was coupled with the word “teachings”. For example, what is today widely known as “Southern Mantis”, is actually the “Zhou Family Teachings”. Also, Hakka living in the countryside had, at one time, no strong concept of Martial Arts Schools. Most local martial artists just used the surname of their teacher to identify their art. This does not necessarily give an accurate portrayal of the developmental line of the style in question. However, when we read, “Zhou (Chow) Family Teaching”, we are presented with a stronger Hakka identity than when we read, “Southern Mantis”.

Researchers do assure us, though, that there are valuable statements to be made about the Hakka Martial Arts and that these statements can bring us step by step closer to an understanding of the development of their arts; as well as supplying a more nuanced level of distinguishing between the Hakka Martial Arts and other ethnic martial arts of Southern China. “The development of Hakka and East Guangdong martial arts has a direct relationship with Fujian martial arts, and can be said to share of the same history, society and cultural background. The armed conflicts in Fujian and Guangdong often took place between the local and Hakka peoples. Under the condition where population increase had put pressure on land and resources, the original misunderstandings between different groups was bound to rapidly escalate, and the wounds caused by armed conflict would further develop into traditional vendettas between family groups and villagers.”- [Hing Chao] These circumstances contributed to the “Tribal Identity” of the Hakka; an identity well-imbibed with heavy doses of martial prowess, conservatism, and xenophobia. The martial arts created by the Hakka were very practical applications for fighting scenarios. The constant need for using their martial arts eventually led to the development of a heightened degree of secrecy within the family teachings. The result of that secrecy is that there are few, if any, extant historical manuals which recorded their martial arts. Modern oral accounts of techniques exist, but, there are no relics. In this manner, a feeling of taking two steps forward is always followed by a step backward in the investigation of the Hakka Martial Arts. To gain insight into the Hakka Martial Arts, it becomes necessary to take an actual leap backward through history to be able to move forward in understanding. That leap is to the time of the Ming Dynasty, where it is said that the Hakka began to define their distinctive, collective martial arts systems. We step back into an era in time when the Ming were engaged in many military conflicts in Fujian and Guangdong. “In the midst of this chaos, the Hakka began to develop their own systems of martial arts beginning in the late Ming dynasty (1368-1644).” – [Sally Gao]

Man with belt

In the late Ming, Hakka lived in groups made up of the same clan. These groups tended to create their own villages and these bore the surname of their clan. Within these clan-villages, everyone learned the same martial art and that martial art also bore the name of their clan. Examples are: Lam Gar Gua (Lam Family Teaching) and Wong Gar Gua (Wong Family Teaching). The Hakka adapted farming and hunting tools into the weapons used in their Family Styles. There was a ban on personal weapons at that time, so, they created martial applications for things like rakes and whips, which were categorized as “tools” rather than weapons. These were developments which were a reflection of the Hakka lifestyle of that moment. They were “settled” into an agrarian life, but, also had contact with other martial arts. That contact was through violence; violence received and violence given. Not only did the Hakka defend their Clan settlements, they also had many men with careers in the military. Because their soil was always poor, there were always men who needed to find a livelihood outside of the village. So, what we see is that the Hakka had first migrated for over a thousand years; adding and subtracting elements from their Family Style martial arts systems as they came into contact with different groups at different geographical areas. Once into the Ming era, they also came into contact with the Ming Dynasty military martial arts because they were living in areas where the Ming were fighting.

“We are unable to assess the actual contents of martial arts in the Southern Chinese region during this time, but according to available sources, there is a direct connection between the martial arts of the Ming era garrison troops of the south and the people. First, the development of Ming martial arts was greatly influenced by southern martial arts, the famous General Qi Jiguang who fought the Japanese pirates, introduced the content of Jiangxi and Fujian bare handed and weapon arts into his training and military formations. For example, in his book “Ji Ciao Shin Shu” [there is] a detailed record of the Mandarin Duck Formation, besides the large spear, most of the martial arts in the formation come from the local martial arts, including the famous Rattan Shield Knife from the mountainous people of the Jiangxi and Fujian regions and the large [spade] used by all the farmers of the time. At the same time General Qi once spent a great deal of time researching empty hand techniques and selected what he thought to be the most useful 32 attacking forms and compiled it into the Boxing Manual of the 32 forms.”- [Hing Chao]

During the Ming Dynasty, there had been a huge population explosion in Southern China. To illustrate this, consider that in 1393, the population of Fujian was 3.9 million; whereas in the reign of the Qing emperor Qianlong (1711-1799) the population of Fujian was recorded as being 10 million. Considering the many natural disasters and losses of life through violence which occurred during the Ming Dynasty, this is an incredible increase of population. Throughout the Ming and Qing dynasties there were too few resources for the numbers to be fed. Violent conflicts occurred in the competition for those very resources. Conflicts of both a civilian and a military nature led to the development of a general militarized society. Family groups fought for control of their land. The agrarian economy collapsed and this heralded the proliferation of “non-traditional societies”. The traditional family guarded martial arts were no longer the only martial arts systems practiced by the Hakka. New, secret organizations became a different kind of family group for many martial artists. The members shared oaths of “brotherhood” and the well-guarded traditions of the “Old Men of Hakka Martial Arts” were now shared with the new “martial arts brothers” within the secrecy of their organizations. People of different regions, cultures and bloodlines suddenly found themselves together in knowledge and in practice of their martial arts. The crisis of overpopulation and the creation of these new secret societies are the two main points of consideration which are seen to define and redefine the martial arts in Southern China; creating what is known as the “Southern Boxing” systems.

Man with crossed fists

“The first battles using weapons were between family groups who had organized and armed themselves, and could be described as the militarization of traditional society. During the beginning of the Qing period, the flames of war and the Emperor Kangxi’s (1661-1722) policy of banning maritime travel and forced relocation of people from the coast, had to a certain extent delayed the effects of problems that had originated during the Ming period. But during the reign of Yongzheng (1722-1735), the southern economy and population had recovered, the problem of armed conflict arose once again, became very severe during the middle of his reign and by the Year of Qianjia became one of the most serious problems in his rule. In addition, the decline of the military capability of the Qing and the militarization of the people had a direct relationship. During the Year of Qianjia, the people rose in rebellion in many regions, and the Taiping Kingdom, Xiaodao Association and Shandi Association caused chaos, forcing the traditional Bannermen and foot-soldiers (who had already started to show the signs of incipient decline) to fend for themselves and rendering them unable to venture out to other areas, and thus were unable to maintain the structure of society in the countryside. Under these conditions, the Qing government loosened its grip and allowed the rural gentry to form self defense associations, greatly expanding the “rule by elders” in the countryside. They unconsciously stimulated the development of a local militarized society, and once started, there was no turning back.” -[Hing Chao]

Already mentioned is that the Hakka were hardly the only ethnic group in Southern China developing their martials arts. And, the Hakka were not even the only group developing their art in the Guangdong and Fujian regions; of which they are mostly associated. For instance, the Minnan Martial Arts in Eastern Guangdong is known to be a development of Qi Jiguang’s Boxing Manual; yet, their most famous style, the White Crane, contains its own principles and methods which are not set down in Qi Jiguang’s manual. The founder of the Minnan White Crane had migrated to Fujian in 1644 to fight against the Qing. In discussing the development of the White Crane style, Hing Chao writes, “According to my research, the framework of principles and system of applications were already at a very mature stage during the middle of the Qing period – the empty hand techniques had the “Three Attacks” as their foundation, and the weapons were mainly the cudgel staff and double knife. Furthermore, the Boxing Manual is a form of “Long Fist”, whereas White Crane emphasizes close distance fighting, so the Fujianese martial arts do not all derive from the boxing manual and have their local constituents.” What Hing tells us about the White Crane becomes relevant when Hing compares the Hakka “Three Step Arrow” to the White Crane’s “Three Attacks”. We are told that the “Three Step Arrow” is a beginner’s set found in many traditional Hakka styles. “The Three Attacks is the core of Southern Close Distance Boxing, especially in Fujian province, all old styles have the “Three Attacks” as a basic form and training method and view the “Three Attacks” as the most central and introductory method.” The Hakka “Three Step Arrow” is considered to be closer to the “Three Attacks” than any other Southern Chinese martial arts system; however, it is entirely regional. “When the Hakka people inherited and developed the Fujianese culture, they took an “emphasis on Hardness” developmental path and became one of the hardest and fiercest of the close fighting styles. Although Southern Mantis’ internal principles are the same as Fujian’s Taizu, White Crane, and Five Ancestor styles, but Southern Mantis maintains a stronger emphasis on Gongfa, and to a certain extent has discarded the detailed applications with multiple variations.”- [Hing Chao]

Man with 2 weapons

The most well-known Southern Chinese martial arts all arose in the time period between the 1700s – 1900s. The vast majority were created to fight against the Qing. Of these, the names: Wing Chun, Dragon Style, Bak Mei, Five Families, are but a few to mention. The earlier creations of Yongchun White Crane and Southern Mantis were founded in the 1600s. Ben Judkins separates the Southern Chinese martial arts along the lines of being either “Hung Mun” or “Hakka”. Hung Mun are identified as having been the Cantonese speaking population in Southern China. The popular Hung Mun styles of today include Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar. Martial Arts historians and martial arts practitioners are still debating the rightful category in which to place Wing Chun. Many assert that Wing Chun belongs with the Hung Mun. Others put forth that Wing Chun belongs to the Hakka. The first group basically lays claim to Wing Chun on the basis of creation myths, legends and lexicon. The second group points out the physical similarities between Wing Chun and the Hakka Martial Arts: triangular footwork, high stances, complex hand movements, and Chi Sao. “Chi Sao, the unique sensitivity exercise that is practised in Wing Chun even bears more than a passing resemblance to similar exercises used in these other arts [Hakka]. It also shares features with “pushing hands” in Taiji, an art that first appears in southern China in the 1920s.”- [Ben Judkins]

Let us now return to Hong Kong and the New Territories to consider what has been said. In Hong Kong, four major regional styles of Martial Arts arrived at different points on the island’s timeline, categorized as:

  1. Pearl River Delta
  2. Hakka
  3. Southern Fujian
  4. Northern China

We have seen that these terms are much less defining than what they may have once seemed. When the different martial arts groups arrived to Hong Kong, they tended to keep to themselves. They spoke different dialects / languages and their cultural traditions formed high barriers which discouraged extensive interaction. Mistrust of other ethnic groups and the violent conflicts which resulted from that mistrust, caused groups to keep their distance and to keep the martial knowledge which they brought with them across the waters selectively secluded. With the coming of modern times, many archaic styles from the Hakka Martial Arts would cease to exist. Some died out because there were no young men willing and able to devote themselves to the martial arts. Others ceased to exist because they became “Fusion Styles”, losing their original content through over abundant cross pollination. Much of the curricula of the martial arts styles became increasingly abbreviated to accommodate the demands of students. The applications taught became more simplified and focused less and less on combat.

Man with bare chest

In recent years, Hong Kong has begun to experience a deeper heritage through its acknowledgement of the martial arts which its ethnic minorities have brought to the island. The martial arts of which the Hakka have taught and developed in the New Territories are now in danger of being lost. The applaudable efforts of the International Guoshu Association and the City University of Hong Kong have gathered the “Old Men of Hakka Martial Arts” together to save the last remnants of their dying arts. The research project has digitalized the movements of these old masters, collected stories, and made the history of the Hakka come alive through the telling of their martial arts. Through this project, millions will now recognise the word “Hakka”, where they had not before. Millions will remember the Hakka migrations, where they had no knowledge of them before. Millions will come to realise the unique value of martial arts as intangible cultural heritage, not only for the world of China, but for the world of man as well.

Twelve men

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