A Brief History of Chinese Wrestling

Chinese wrestling has a long history within Chinese culture and has spread far beyond its borders to influence many of the fighting systems popular today. It is the most influential combat system within China that was an established and sophisticated art long before most other Asian martial arts had begun. Its origins can be traced back to 3000 BC when warriors of the tribal kingdom of Chi You battled with animal horns fastened to their heads. This early form of wrestling was called Jiaoli which translates as `horn resistance’ and it is said that they used this method to gorge their opponents. 


Chinese wrestling has taken on many different names over the years as it developed into an art form. Shijiao, Zhengjiao, Xiangpu and Jiao Di are all names from ancient records that are used to describe various forms of Chinese wrestling. Some would allow locks, holds and grappling whilst for others it was simply to put your opponent on the floor. The modern name given is Shuai Jiao, but this too can be divided into separate sub-categories such as Beijing, Tian Jin, Mongol and Bao Ding. Each has their own particular rules and dress code.


The three ancient martial practices in China were wrestling, pugilism and archery. Wrestling was a relatively safe form of combat due to the removal of striking. Although wrestling and pugilism are clearly defined as separate sports there is reference to them being combined and the names sometimes interchanged. In the ancient text Xin Tang Shu, it is stated “when in audience with the Emperor I witnessed Jiao Di competitions in three of the palaces. There were men with their heads split open, broken arms and blood flowing in the centre of the hall”. Wrestling became a popular spectator sport in China and played an important role within the palaces. It is reported that spectators would come from hundreds of miles away to watch a competition.


More than simply a sport, wrestling played a huge role within the military systems of China. Soldiers would be taught the technical skills to overcome an opponent without the need for brute force. The practice of wrestling was designed to strengthen the body, improve agility and to develop endurance and perseverance within the soldier. Thus it was a tool to not only condition the body but to train the mind and spirit also. It is said that in battle, after spears, swords, staffs, bullets and cannons have all been used; in the final five minutes it is Chinese wrestling that will decide the victory.


Records from the Period of Warring States (475-221 BC) depict wrestlers wearing short shirts and loose fitting pants similar to those worn by Mongolian wrestlers today. By the 18th century wrestlers were trained in special camps called Buku. They would wear a white shirt, strengthened with seven or eight layers of fabric, a belt and long trousers tucked into boots.   


Today Chinese wrestling is a popular sport with worldwide appeal. Although many cultures celebrate a long history of wrestling, it is important to note how many systems of combat owe a great deal to the development of Chinese wrestling. It is from its migration over to Japan that we see the development of Ju Jutsu, Judo and Sumo. Remains from The Qin Dynasty (221-206 BC) depict wrestlers wearing costumes very similar to modern Sumo. It was the base on which China’s rich martial heritage grew and spread to influence the entire world. It is easy to view ‘modern’ styles as being new through unaccustomed eyes, but by looking at the history of the martial arts it can be seen how most systems owe a great debt to the evolution of Chinese wrestling. This is a fact that should be celebrated and not ignored.