The term history has become an ubiquitous word conceptualized differently by various scholars. Traditional conception viewed history as any written narrative of events. This definition today is inadequate and unacceptable. First, the definition did not acknowledge the development of history overtime. Second, it did not recognize the division of the discipline into such fields as political, social, economic, military, intellectual, constitutional and educational history and their sub brunches. Third, the conception of history as mere narration of events is now archaic because history has metamorphosed from mere description of events into critical and analytical interpretation of events .
Arthur Marwick defined history as “the entire human past as it actually happened”, second, as “man’s attempt to describe and interpret the past” and third, as “a systematic study of the past” .
History on the other hand, as a field of knowledge encompasses not only past events but also their consequences. In addition, not all events of the past capture the interest of the historian, rather important historical events with consequences are usually preferred.
Barraclough states that “the history we read, though based on facts, is strictly speaking not factual at all, but a series of accepted judgements”
Evidence is the pillar of historical research. This is because without evidence there will be no historical interpretation. The submission of the historian is not a product of speculation or imagination. History is not fabricated and thus cannot be manufactured. Instead, evidence is the rubric upon which history stands.
Finally, history is an outcome of diligent research. History is critical in the selection, interpretation and analysis of available data. It is these features of history that have made it look science. These aspects of history imply that what is presented as history is a product of honest inquiry and not that of the historian’s sensibilities or imagination.
Researching history of martial arts is incredibly hard. There are several major problems that obstruct and make almost impossible to conduct any meaningful historical research of martial arts, especially Chinese martial arts.
In Chinese academic circles anything connected to martial arts is considered as a sort of forbidden area. There is no scientist who would engage in any kind of research of martial arts because that would be the end his academic carrier. Academic society outside China has pretty much the same attitude about the subject. All martial history researches come from other areas of life, almost all of them are martial arts practitioners and unfortunately without high education in any discipline or science. Even those with high education have degrees in areas that have no connection to history what so ever.
All this not only mean that researchers have no necessary qualification to do any historical research but also means that they have no support of any kind from academic institutions which conducts such researchers , which leads to the situation that any finds cannot be validated and even more, cannot be considered even remotely acceptable on any level. Simply, martial “historians” because of total lack of professional qualifications, complete lack of professional research resources such as various laboratories for validation of physical findings, access to experts of other disciplines necessary for processing the data and complete lack of any connection to academic circles simply cannot provide any valid result out of their research.
Another big problem is strict government control of data in China. During cultural revolution chairman Mao declared that “working people of China is master of its history”. This says enough. Disregarding any scientific standards and being aware of cultural influence of martial arts in China and especially on the West and of course the economic potential , history of martial arts is simply written to fulfil current socio-political and economical demands. Probably the best example is Shaolin monastery which was purged from monks and left in ruins for decades only to be rebuild and established as one of the most successful multinational companies in China today with enormous social, cultural and economical influence all over the world although historically martial arts were never practiced in Shaolin. Same thing is currently happening with so called Southern Shaolin which historically never existed and was a part of legends ,but because of ever growing interest for that particular place ,especially from the West ,Chinese government went a lengthily road to prove its existence and today we have not one but three Southern Shaolin monasteries , each claiming and offering evidence it is true one. Another example is “suggestion” to Fujian practitioners of various White Crane styles to publicly support Japanese theory that Okinawan karate originated from Fujian White Crane in order to increase not only grater influx of Okinawan tourists and “researchers” but to establish stronger cultural influence to Karate practitioners all over the world . These are just few most obvious examples how politics and economics influence “history” research in China.
Close to this problem is objectivity of the researches in general. Like it was said before, majority of martial arts “historians” are martial arts practitioners them selfs, involved in one or more particular styles. Desire to find and prove historical significance of the particular style on one side and lack of proper historical research training on the other often leads to completely wrong interpretation of the findings, selective gathering of the evidence and sometimes to deliberate distortion of the findings and outright forgeries.
Next big problem is lack of historical sources on the topic of martial arts of any kind. The quality of a historical study is determined largely by the manner in which sources are collected and used. Sources are basic in historical research and they are many and varied. The absence of written sources upon which conventional history rests presents problem for any field of historical research, even more for martial arts history because written evidence is the only source of information for this field of research. For centuries martial arts were restricted only to army personal, common people didn’t and more than often couldn’t practice martial arts. Not only that, martial arts were almost completely military oriented. Like toady, complete military and martial education was reserved for officer core, common soldiers were trained only to certain extent and specialized for specific tactical tasks. What we know today about martial arts came from work of just a few military leaders of the past but they didn’t feel necessary to give any details to actual martial arts training system. We have just a few rare manuals that present some basic fighting techniques with infantry weapons of the era but nothing else. Majority of martial practitioners through the history were illiterate and what was passed down to next generations in the form of oral histories soon got lost in myths and legends. Those who were literate and did practice martial arts didn’t recognize the danger of not making records of their practice. Lack of written evidence leads to other sources of information such as oral tradition, mainly in the form of myth, legend, song, and popular history. However, the use of oral sources in historical reconstruction is replete with difficulties of which the problem of chronology is outstanding. Accurate chronology was hardly taken seriously as emphasis was on specific events. Even when there are specific references to years, generations and periods, they may relate to ‘structural’ and not chronological time. Frailty of human memory makes it difficult to chronicle events in specific detail for more than four generations. Distortion is yet another limitation of oral tradition. Distortion in oral tradition occurs either due to alteration of traditions or adaptation to provide the basis for the elevation of a particular society above another and this is more than obvious in Chinese martial arts. Another problem with Chinese martial arts oral tradition is that it is extremely hard to make a distinction between reality and phantasy. In the core of Chinese culture is to give ‘face’ to the ancestors and objective truth has nothing to do with that. Not only that distorting the truth and sometimes outright lies are socially acceptable in martial oral tradition they are even desirable. It is almost a rule to invent completely false stories which will elevate ‘ancestor’s” skills, morality and ethics on highest possible level completely disregarding the real person behind the story. Each generation feels obligated to give a little (or a lot) more ‘face to the ancestor and each generation will add more and more fiction in their oral tradition until the real person and real events are totally lost.