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The Construction of Chinese Martial Arts in the Writings of John Dudgeon, Herbert Giles and Joseph Needham


Tommaso Gianni

The University of Suwon, KR
About Tommaso

Tommaso Gianni is a graduate of East Asian Languages from the State University of Venice and postgraduate of Chinese Studies from SOAS, University of London. He has trained in martial arts since childhood, including Wing Tsun kung fu with the IWTA in Western Europe and South Korea. His research focuses on the linguistic and cultural aspect of martial arts including its comparative pedagogy. His publications include translations, conference reports and history articles. He has lectured and carried out ethnographic fieldwork in comparative cultural activities by the University of Suwon in South Korea and has given lectures on Chinese martial arts history for the Confucius Institute in both the UK and Italy.

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In the 16th century, China and its civilization was no longer merely an image – a fantastical country encountered only by travelling merchants such as Marco Polo. It was becoming a reality for increasing numbers of travellers. Some of these were scholars interested in researching Chinese medical and physical culture. Thanks to this scholarly interest, numerous Chinese practices came to be studied by European scholars, including those that would eventually come to be known by such names as kung-fu, or cong-fu. Consequently, it was during this period that both knowledge and misconceptions about ‘Chinese boxing’ as a physical practice spread, initially to Britain and subsequently to other European countries. This essay focuses on these early stages in the establishment of both knowledge and misconceptions about Chinese martial arts in English language writings. It uses both primary texts and critical literature. Specifically, works of the surgeon John Dudgeon will be discussed in the first section; works by the scholar Professor Herbert A. Giles will be considered in the second section; and subsequent work by Joseph Needham will be examined in the third section (although, for reasons of space, to a lesser extent). In focusing on these authors, I explore the ways in which their different backgrounds and differing purposes produced different images of their object of attention. At the same time, however, I argue that the three primary images drawn by Dudgeon, Giles, and Needham share overarching cultural conceptions that are rooted in Greek assumptions about the ‘complete human being’. In the context of this discussion, it will also be useful to discuss some relevant secondary historical and anthropological approaches in order to see the ways that the first wave of critiques approached the same subject.
How to Cite: Gianni, T., 2020. The Construction of Chinese Martial Arts in the Writings of John Dudgeon, Herbert Giles and Joseph Needham. Martial Arts Studies, 10, pp.51–65. DOI:
Published on 17 Nov 2020.
Peer Reviewed


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