Manufacturing Martial Spirit: Ethos, Ideology and Identity in the Chinese Martial Arts
City University of New York, US
Douglas Wile gained his doctorate in East Asian Languages from the University of Wisconsin. He is currently professor emeritus from the City University of New York. His research interests include revolution in the late-imperial, Republican and Communist periods, martial arts historiography, the translation of premodern taijiquan literature and embodied practices in the humanities curriculum.
‘Martial spirit’ (shangwu jingshen) emerged as a discursive trope during the late nineteenth century as China faced the existential threat of internal rebellion, Western and Japanese imperialism and a moribund Manchu dynasty. China’s self-image as the ‘Central Kingdom’ gave way to the international reputation as the ‘Sick Man of Asia’. Within the space of a generation, China was forced to transition from empire to nation-state, feudalism to industrialism, and bows and arrows to rifles and bayonets. This article examines the historical and cross-cultural discourse of ‘martial spirit’ in relation to China. It sets out the terms of the debate as they have been constructed and debated over time, until the present conjuncture in which we see expansionist policies on the one hand and separatist movements on the other, and a former ideological belligerence replaced by trade wars and arms race. It argues that, seeing the West as a declining civilization, while learning the lessons of the dissolution of the Soviet Union, China flexes its martial muscle, even amidst persistent fears about going soft.