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Strength From Within: the Chinese Internal Martial Arts as Discourse, Aesthetics, and Cultural Trope (1850-1940)

  • Author(s): Ng, Pei-San
  • Advisor(s): Jones, Andrew F.
  • et al.
Abstract

My dissertation explores a cultural history of the body as reflected in meditative and therapeutic forms of the Chinese martial arts in nineteenth and early twentieth-century China. Precursors of the more familiar present-day taijiquan 太極拳 and qigong 氣功, these forms of martial arts techniques focus on the inward cultivation of qi 氣 and other apparently ineffable energies of the body. They revolve around the harnessing of “internal strength” or neigong 內功. These notions of a strength derived from an invisible, intangible, yet embodied qi came to represent a significant counterweight to sports, exercise science, the Physical Culture movement, physiology, and other Western ideas of muscularity and the body that were being imported into China at the time.

What role would such competing discourses of the body play in shaping contemporary ideas of embodiment? How would it raise the stakes in an era already ideologically charged with the intertwined issues of nationalism and imperialism, and so-called scientific modernity and indigenous tradition? This study is an inquiry into the epistemological and ontological ramifications of the idea of neigong internal strength, tracing the popular spread of the idea and its impact in late Qing and Republican China vernacular discourse. I pay particular attention to how the notion of “internal strength” might shed light on thinking about the body in the period. Using the notion of neigong as a lens, this project examines the claims of the internal forms of Chinese martial arts, and the cultural work that these claims perform in the context of late Qing and Republican China. I locate the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as the key formative period when the idea first found popular conceptual purchase, and explore how the notion of neigong internal strength became increasingly steeped in the cultural politics of the time.

Considering the Chinese internal martial arts not only as a form of bodily practice but also as a mode of cultural production, in which a particular way of regarding 'the body' came to be established in Chinese vernacular culture, may additionally yield rich theoretical fodder. How might such claims about a different kind of “internal strength” revisit or disrupt modernist assumptions about the body? The project highlights the neglected significance of the internal martial arts as a narrative of the Chinese body. More broadly, it suggests fresh avenues for scholarship on the body, in showing how these other-bodily "ways of knowing" took on meaning in the period and beyond.

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