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Embarrassing Martial Arts: Masters Passing on the “Real Things” and Local Valuation in Shanxi

Laurent Chircop-Reyes
p. 19-28


Chinese martial arts are traditionally transmitted through the private master-disciple relationship. In recent years, some masters have been expressing their concern about the desuetude of their art, which calls into question the confidential modes of transmission and what is held to be orthodox in it. Concurrently, intangible cultural heritage (ICH) taken by a wide range of social actors, including the masters, attempts to valuate practices and perpetuate lineages. Fieldwork observations, however, enable the analysis of complex lineage functioning and a certain embarrassment linked to historicity and martiality when it comes to promoting traditional martial arts outside the private sphere. This article draws on masters’ narratives (oral testimonies and written sources), taking xingyiquan (“form and intention boxing”) as the main case study, conducted in Shanxi Province in 2017 and 2018. It aims at questioning the constraints balance arising from efforts to preserve cultural integrity, on the one hand, and engaging in valuation and standardisation processes, on the other.

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Editor’s notes

Manuscript received on 22 August 2022. Accepted on 11 February 2023.


Full text document will be published online on March 2024.


Local diffusion of a virtuous martiality
The embarrassing question of combat
The recognition of orthodox lineages and genealogies
“The main concern is [how] to pass on,” while keeping the “true heritage” private
Making a cultural trademark and a pedagogical instrument

First lines


An old martial art master from Shanxi Province whom I have known since the 2000s is worried about the future of his art; as he says: “There are just a few left to pass on the real things; after [we] die, it’s over” (conversation with Master G, January 2017, Datong). Master G is a representative of intention boxing (yiquan 意拳 also known as dachengquan 大成拳, great accomplishment boxing), which is an evolutionary style elaborated on the basis of Shanxi’s and Hebei’s form and intention boxing (xingyiquan 形意拳, hereafter xingyi). During my fieldwork with three other xingyi masters presented below, I noticed different ways of expressing the same concern: “I’m afraid we’re the last ones” (conversation with Master Z, June 2018, Yuci). Oral narratives may also be corroborated by written sources. Probably one of the most detailed xingyi master’s narratives published to date is Li Zhongxuan’s 李仲軒 (1915-2004) testimony, which is part of the analysis in this work. Concern over martial...

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Bibliographical reference

Laurent Chircop-Reyes, “Embarrassing Martial Arts: Masters Passing on the “Real Things” and Local Valuation in Shanxi”China Perspectives, 132 | 2023, 19-28.

Electronic reference

Laurent Chircop-Reyes, “Embarrassing Martial Arts: Masters Passing on the “Real Things” and Local Valuation in Shanxi”China Perspectives [Online], 132 | 2023, Online since 01 March 2024, connection on 10 June 2023. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Laurent Chircop-Reyes

Laurent Chircop-Reyes is Research Fellow and Deputy Chief Editor of China Perspectives at CEFC in Hong Kong. Rm. 3029, Academic Building, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, Clear Water Bay, Hong Kong (

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