Descriptions of Chinese martial arts can be traced to the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) which existed more than 4000 years ago. Their origin is attributed to self-defense needs, hunting activities and military training in ancient China. Hand-to-hand combat and weapons practice were important components in the training of Chinese soldiers. From this beginning, Chinese martial arts proceeded to incorporate different philosophies and ideas into its practice—expanding its purpose from self-defense to health maintenance and finally as method of self-cultivation. Conversely, the influence of martial arts ideals in civilian society can be found in poetry, fiction, and eventually film. Chinese martial arts are now an integral element of Chinese culture.
According to tradition, the Yellow Emperor (Huangdi, traditional date of ascension to the throne 2698 BCE) introduced the earliest forms of martial arts to China. The Yellow Emperor is described as a famous general who, before becoming China’s leader, wrote lengthy treatises on medicine, astrology and the martial arts. He allegedly developed the practice of jiao di or horn-butting and utilized it in war.
Shǒubó (手搏) kung fu, practiced during the Shang dynasty (1766–1066 BCE), and Xiang Bo (similar to Sanda) from the 600s BCE, are just two examples of ancient Chinese kung fu. In 509 BCE, Confucius suggested to Duke Ding of Lu that people practice the literary arts as well as the martial arts; thus, kung fu began to be practised by ordinary citizens external to the military and religious sects (pre-dating Shaolin by over 1,000 years). A combat wrestling system called juélì or jiǎolì (角力) is mentioned in the Classic of Rites (1st c. BCE). This combat system included techniques such as strikes, throws, joint manipulation, and pressure point attacks. Jiao Di became a sport during the Qin Dynasty (221–207 BCE). The Han History Bibliographies record that, by the Former Han (206 BCE – 8 CE), there was a distinction between no-holds-barred weaponless fighting, which it calls shǒubó (手搏), for which "how-to" manuals had already been written, and sportive wrestling, then known as juélì or jiǎolì (角力). Wrestling is also documented in the Shǐ Jì, Records of the Grand Historian, written by Sima Qian (ca. 100 BCE).
A hand to hand combat theory, including the integration of notions of "hard" and "soft" techniques, is expounded in the story of the Maiden of Yue in the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wu and Yue (5th c. BCE).