Organize Training and Examinations for Martial Arts


Prior to the sixteenth century, kings appointed their military officers on the basis of their contributions, good records, or lineage rather than by examinations. As a result, most high-ranking military officers were members of the royal family. In 1253, the Tran Dynasty established the Giang vo duong, a martial arts training school for royal relatives serving as military officers. About this time, Tran Quoc Tuan, a famous general of the Tran Dynasty, compiled the first book on the art of warfare, using standards of that time.

As a result of teaching Vietnamese martial arts, the Tran Dynasty had many famous generals. These include Tran Quoc Tuan, Tran Quang Khai, Tran Khanh Du, and Pham Ngu Lao. Historians have recorded their contributions to Vietnamese victories over the Mongols.

In 1721 King Le Du Tong established Vo Hoc so, the first martial arts training school for the general public in the capital of Thang Long – Hanoi. He appointed a mandarin to teach the art of warfare. Lord Trinh Cuong attached great importance to the formal training of military officers. He also revised regulations for martial arts examinations. Examinations were held every three years. The regional level organized examinations (so cu) in the Years of the Rat, the Horse, the Cat, and the Rooster, while the Thang Long Court examination (bac cu) took place in the Years of the Dragon, the Dog, the Buffalo, and the Goat.

Each exam consisted of three parts. The first tested the students’ understanding of the classic art of combat; the second, their martial arts skills (horse riding, archery, and sword or stick fighting): and the third, their knowledge of military strategy and tactics. In 1731, Lord Trinh Giang further revised the exam regulations after he realized that many good martial arts students had failed in their essays on warfare strategy. Under the new rules, martial arts skills received greater emphasis than knowledge of military strategy.

The Le Dynasty opened martial arts training schools, organized martial arts exams, and built the Temple of Martial Arts (Vo Mieu) in 1740 to honor outstanding Vietnamese and Chinese military strategists, including Wu Chengwang, Sun Zi, Guan Zi, and Tran Quoc Tuan. The Le Kings and Trinh Lords held nineteen court examinations on martial arts between 1428 and 1788. Two hundred students passed. Examinations stopped after Nguyen Hue (later King Quang Trung) – a brilliant strategist and national hero – led his troops to the north, put an end to the Trinh Court, and restored the Le Dynasty. Later, the examinations resumed.

Often the successful candidates in martial arts exams were quite young. However, there were exceptional cases. For example, Nguyen Thoi Ly and Nguyen Dinh Thach passed court examinations at the age of eighty-five and seventy-eight respectively. Several clans were successful in martial arts exams, including thirteen members of the Vu Ta lineage in Hoang Ha Commune (Ha Tinh Province) during the Le -Trinh period.

The Nguyen Kings (1802-1945) tried to expand their territory southward: to do so, they concentrated on selecting and training military mandarins. In 1836, King Minh Mang issued an edict, stating: To govern a country, it is crucial to pay attention to both civil and military affairs. At present, there are many courageous people who are masters of military strategy and martial arts. They will be selected for appointment to the court.

The King set up regulations for two-stage martial arts examinations: the regional exam (Huong) and the court exam (Hoi). Under the regulations, they held Huong exams in the Years of the Tiger, the Snake, the Monkey, and the Pig and Hoi exams in the Years of the Rat, the Cat, the Horse, and the Cock. They held the first Huong exam under the Nguyen Dynasty in 1837.

The martial arts examinations in Hue (the capital of the Nguyen) were usually held in the seventh lunar month. On the twelfth day of the seven lunar months, candidates gathered at the Examination School. From the fifteenth to seventeenth days of the same month, they participated in the first part of the examination: carrying two pieces of lead in two hands while covering the farthest distance possible. Those who covered over 18 truong (one truong is 1, 70 meters) received the grade of excellent: 14 truong, good: 10 truong, average; and under 8 truong, weak.

The second part of the exam took place from the 19th to 21st days of the seventh lunar month, during which the candidates showed their skills in bare-handed combat and in using weapons, such as sticks, scimitars, and shields. They also used metal sticks weighing about 18 kilos to compete against each other. In addition, they hurled 3.3-meter-long spears at straw scarecrows.

During the third part of the exam from the 23rd to 25th days of the seventh lunar month, students tested in gun marksmanship. On the 27th day, the court announced the names of successful candidates. Before enlisting on the second day of the eighth lunar month, applicants endured a re-examination on seven classics of martial arts, including Sun Zi, Wu Zi, Six Arts of War, Si Ma’s Strategy and Tactics, The Three Strategies of Huang Shigong, and Questions and Answers by Yu Liaozi and Questions and Answers by Li Weigong. Or, they could choose to demonstrate their skills with one of eighteen weapons.

Generally speaking, martial arts examinations under the Nguyen Dynasty were systematic and strict. However, some students tried to cheat. For example, one student might sit for another at an exam. As a result, King Tu Duc decreed rules for rewards and punishments in martial arts exams. The supervisor immediately expelled any candidates who cheated or who brought books and documents. He dismissed anyone who wore sloppy clothes. If anyone took an exam under the guise of another, the supervisor forced both individuals to do military service. He punished those who gave bribes.

From 1802 to 1884, the Nguyen organized seventy-four exams at various levels. A total of 3,893 candidates succeeded in both scholarly and martial arts exams. The formal martial arts examinations in Vietnam ended in 1880 after the French had consolidated their control over Vietnam. However, the martial arts spirit and practice of the masses continued to develop in resistance to French rule.