Villages Meihuaquan Traditions- Old martial art brings new spirit to rural China 乡村传统- 古老武术令中国农村焕发生机
Note: This article was commissioned by the Goethe-Institut and first appeared on http://www.goethe.de/china in November 2013. It appeared on the Goethe-Institut website in German, Chinese and English and can be found at http://www.goethe.de/ins/cn/en/lp/kul/mag/vtr/swl/11980640.html. Chinese and German translations are also provided. I have republished it here in conformance with the copyright contract I signed with Goethe-Institut but have added several additional photos and captions.
Chinese version of the article follows the English version.
Old martial art brings new spirit to rural China
Note: The names of places and people have been changed to protect privacy.
Despite the prolific rural outmigration caused by China’s rapid urbanization, Minghe village in Heibei province is experiencing a renewal of community development and social cohesion that is attributable to the revival of a once-outlawed folk martial art and sectarian religious group, Meihuaquan (Plum Flower Boxing). The social function of meihuaquan activities– increased communal cooperation and an enhanced sense of social responsibility – is helping remedy the critical deficit in social trust and community cohesion that characterizes contemporary Chinese society.
Martial arts and folk religion
Though principally known as a martial art, Meihuaquan is nonetheless also a sectarian religion with distinct initiation rituals and a complex cosmology localized in thousands of villages in over 100 counties throughout North China. Meihuaquan consists of two aspects – a wǔchǎng martial field concerned with martial arts that serves as the “public face” of the sect, and the largely-underground wénchǎng ritual field involved in the worship of deities. However, there is a great deal of diversity in Meihuaquan’s structure and beliefs. In some regions, it is primarily a martial art with little religious influence. In other regions, it has a strong religious focus and the majority of sect members may not practice martial arts at all.
The re-emergence of an underground martial art
Outlawed by Ming imperial edicts that continued until the fall of the Qing, grassroots martial arts and folk religious associations, including Meihuaquan, were nonetheless perpetuated by adherents who concealed their activities for centuries. While culturally important in this region, historical accounts of Meihuaquan are rare because authorities held folk culture in disdain and practitioners remained underground not daring to document their activities.
After 1950, regions where Meihuaquan was primarily a martial art were largely ignored by the state and relatively free to practice their fighting tradition. However, regions where Meihuaquan involved religious practice often experienced severe repression. By the late 1980s, the state relaxed prohibitions against Meihuaquan in most regions with the noticeable exception of the Handan city administrative area in Hebei. Owing to historical events in this district, local government engaged in concerted efforts to extinguish Meihuaquan right up until 2006 when the National State Council designated Meihuaquan martial arts as a national-level Intangible Cultural Heritage. Because the state had granted “heritage status” only to wǔchǎng martial arts and had turned a blind eye to underground wénchǎng religious practices, Meihuaquan became a semi-legal entity.
Recognizing the new-found legality of martial arts as an opportunity to reinvigorate Meihuaquan and prevent its extinction, a group of determined organizers in Minghe village quickly rallied the support of members. Within months, they had raised funds and secured government permission to build a Meihuaquan Teaching Center where they began providing free martial arts instruction to rural youth. Because folk religions are forbidden by the state to build temples, the Centre covertly served as a temple for Meihuaquan religious practice.
Building community through Meihuaquan activities
The swift construction of the Centre in 2007– the first in Hebei– signified that Meihuaquan was on the cusp of rapid revival in spite of having been suppressed to the brink of cultural extinction. To observe this process firsthand, I began long-term fieldwork in Minghe village where half of the families are “disciples” or followers of Meihuaquan and only a small number of disciples actually practice martial arts. The construction of the Teaching Centre rallied support of disciples in the village and vicinity and was instrumental in rejuvenating wénchǎng religious traditions, and wǔchǎng martial arts training and performances that form family, group, and inter-village linkages. The Meihuaquan community is led by wénchǎng ritual specialists who follow sect conventions that explicitly prevent the concentration of decision-making power and emphasize consensual decision-making– traits that quickly garnered community respect and support.
Immediately upon opening, Teaching Centre leaders voted to offer free martial arts classes. Within days, hundreds of youth began training and within months the village martial arts team was performing free demonstrations in villages throughout the region. Each night the Centre became a hub of wǔchǎng martial arts and wénchǎng religious activities involving young and old. The temple courtyard is the site of wǔchǎng martial arts activities- the “public face” of Meihuaquan. Over one hundred students practice in the courtyard while parents and grandparents gather to watch. Their coach, well-known for his martial arts and teaching skills, commutes daily to teach free of charge in accordance with Meihuaquan codes that forbid monetary or gift exchange and thus prevent the commodification of sect traditions.
Meanwhile, a range of Wénchǎng activities are enacted inside the Centre. Meihuaquan believers kneel at the shrine to thank deities and appeal for divine intervention for concerns ranging from family stability and happiness and recovery from sickness, to safe travel and stable employment for sons and daughters working as migrant labourers in far-off urban centres. Another group of believers consults with divination experts, while others gather around the TV to discuss Meihuaquan’s development and watched videos espousing Buddhist and Confucian moral education. These activities pause for an hour while a large group gathers to chant scriptures. This predominantly female group was established by several women who sought out elders able to teach traditional scriptures and melodies shortly after the temple was built. Melodic chants praising folk deities and asking for protection drift into the courtyard and instill a sense of the sacred to martial arts training. For the first time, there is a central site where disciples can gather as a community and provide communal leisure activity for youth, women and men. The range of activities engage believers, attract new adherents and rejuvenate interest among families that had previously adhered to the Meihuaquan faith but had abandoned it during the decades of repression.
Many village children learn Meihuaquan beliefs through practicing martial arts. Before each practice, students kneel to Meihuaquan deities and recite the sect’s moral codes. While the students are trained under one main teacher, in accordance with Meihuaquan traditions that encourage studying from several masters, they also learn from other practitioners and elders. Within months of its establishment, the village’s martial arts team began performing throughout the county at festivals ranging in size from small local celebrations, to intra-village exhibitions attended by thousands of spectators. The performances delivered an implicit message that Meihuaquan was no longer suppressed, and that a Teaching Centre had been approved by the government. These events also provided network building opportunities where young martial artists met counterparts from other villages and expanded their social world far beyond what would be possible had they not practiced martial arts. Sect leaders also renewed historical relationships and made new alliances with hundreds of other disciples in villages, towns and cities distributed over several provinces.
A force for communal change
Corrupt, untrustworthy and ineffectual village government, exacerbated by the lack of alternative forms of civil society leadership in the community, resulted in serious degradation of public infrastructure. After the third year of the Center’s operation, the broad social respect it had garnered by virtue of efforts to re-popularize Meihuaquan empowered leaders to undertake projects to enhance community welfare. They began with smaller efforts such as digging water wells and sending martial arts students to clear snow from village roads and check on elderly shut-ins after winter storms. Lauded by the community, they began larger projects to improve the village’s education system and built a library with NGO support. A year later, they completed construction of a not-for-profit elementary school. Long aware that the village’s notoriously poor roads were a hazard to the elderly and an impediment to local industry, they led efforts that paved the majority of village roads– the first material improvement in public infrastructure in over a decade.
Decades of repression prevented Meihuaquan from serving as a community group active in public life. This began to change when the Centre was established as a hub for activities that united disciples in cooperative labour and a sense of mutual purpose. Martial arts performances in the district connected the village to distant settlements, enhancing the villager’s sense of belonging to a larger community defined by shared aspirations to improve society. Once the Centre had accumulated sufficient social trust among disciples and the community at large, it assumed characteristics of civil society and Meihuaquan disciples began the shared work of implementing projects that benefited the entire community.
The resurgence of Meihuaquan’s religious beliefs and martial arts jointly play a crucial role in rejuvenating the aspects of leisure, social integration, cooperation, community spirit and social trust that were fractured by centuries of government policy outlawing grassroots organizations and denying people access to the traditional institutions through which they could participate in public life and achieve a sense of belonging and dignity. By embracing community-minded projects that work towards building a sense of social responsibility rather than the pursuit of capitalistic profit, Meihuaquan in Minghe village has assumed an important leadership role in both the generation and sustenance of social trust and the expansion of the public sphere.
Author: Raymond Ambrosi .
After working in government and at research institutions in Canada, Raymond Ambrosi attained his PhD in Anthropology from Peking University. Phd research on folk religions, civil society and community development included living in Minghe village for two years. His Geography Master’s thesis on cultural tourism examined the role of folk martial arts in sustainable rural development. Later work in Japan focused on religious festivals, folk martial arts and community cohesion. He is currently a researcher, consultant and writer based in Beijing. Hobbies include, naturally, martial arts, photography, videography, yoga and various exercise modalities.