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Chinese Martial Studies, Pop Culture Kung Fu, Southern China

Reevaluating Jingwu: Would Bruce Lee have existed without it?

Huo Yuanjia, the patron saint of the Jingwu Association.

Jingwu (sometimes romanized as Chinwoo) is one of the greatest movements to emerge in the modern (post-1850) history of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Casual observers will likely be aware of at least the broad outlines of the organization’s foundation myth centering around the death (1910) of the talented, if somewhat enigmatic, Huo Yuanjia.  Promoters of Jingwu, then a fledgling Shanghai physical culture association, spread rumors that their recently recruited martial arts instructor had been poisoned by either a Japanese doctor or untrustworthy nurses after he defeated a Japanese martial artist.   Needless to say there is no actual evidence that Huo Yuanjia was murdered.  He most likely died from tuberculosis, one of the great killers of the 19th century.  Yet in the highly charged nationalist atmosphere of the period the charges seemed plausible and the public was willing to accept the story.

This is basically where the Hong Kong movie industry picked the narrative up in the 1970s.  Bruce Lee played a fictional student of Yuanjia named “Chen Zhen” in his break-out masterpiece “Fists of Fury” (1972).  His portrayal of the young student, and his self-destructive quest for revenge, was so powerful that the fictional character of Chen Zhen entered martial arts lore.  Subsequently the role has been reprised by many talented actors.  Perhaps the best of these was Jet Li’s more sensitive and realistic reimagining of the figure in his 1994 masterpiece “Fists of Legends.”  If you ever find yourself with a spare afternoon watch these two movies back to back and consider what exactly it all means in terms of the evolution of Chinese identity.  I think one of these days we are going to need a post about exactly that exercise.

Original Movie Poster for the Hong Kong Release of “Fists of Furry.”

But I digress.  In their rush to glorify the imagined payback to an equally imaginary Japanese slight the Hong Kong movie industry managed to skip all of the really interesting things that Jingwu actually accomplished.  Far from pursuing a vendetta against every Japanese person in Shanghai, what the organization is actually important for is spreading and popularizing the study of martial arts throughout China in the 1910s and 1920s.

The popularity of traditional forms of hand combat reached a low point after the Boxer Uprising and many middle class urban intellectuals actively questioned whether the Chinese martial arts should even continue to exist.  They seemed too factional, too backwards and too unscientific to be part of the modern society that the May 4th reformers imagined.  Many students of physical education were more than happy to toss hand combat on the scrapheap of history and replace it with something truly modern and scientific, like Prussian military drills, or American ballgames.

Gratefully that did not happen.  In fact, just when the predictions of Kung Fu’s imminent demise reached their loudest crescendo a new actor appeared on the scene in the form of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) association.  Jingwu had a new and unique approach to teaching the martial arts.  They began by collecting forms and synthesizing a number of popular northern styles to create a truly unified and modern boxing curriculum.  They then developed instructional techniques based on large classes and the use of line exercises that would allow a single instructor to teach many students rapidly.

A typical Jingwu training class in front of the second Shanghai headquarters of the group. Note the emphasis on forms and line-drills.  Also note the white jackets which were the group’s official uniform.

Since the curriculum was always the same it was relatively easy to set up a franchise system and the quality of the product produced was predictable and reproducible across China’s vast expanses.  Further, whereas traditional instructors might demand decades of a student’s life, it was possible to master the Jingwu system and become an instructor in about five years.  Pretty much anyone who really applied themselves could do it.  Their training methods were safe, hygienic and really improved fitness.  In short, where many of the traditional methods of instruction had resembled a guild system, designed to restrict access to knowledge (and therefore economic competition from new schools) Jingwu became a factory for producing the next generation of reform-minded martial arts instructors.

Yet this competence is not enough to explain the movement’s rapid rise to fame.  Jingwu was smart when it came to advertising and business.  Very smart.  Rather than being run by martial artists (who rather predictably tend to make poor businessmen), a core group of young millionaires backed the association and created its overall commercial strategy.  These individuals had made their fortunes selling products in China’s rapidly growing commercial marketplace, and they realized that martial instruction was just like any other product.  It could be systematized, branded, advertised and sold.  So they advertised and sold it on a massive scale.

In addition to magazine stories and billboards they published newspapers editorials and wrote intellectual journal articles in which they argued that far from being a relic of the past, martial arts instruction was the key to strengthening the nation and addressing various social ills.  The Japanese were a fully modern people and they drew great inspiration from Budo.  Why shouldn’t the Chinese nation draw upon its rich military heritage?  They were no longer selling boxing lessons, their product was now nothing less than national salvation.  Of course to achieve the salvation that Jingwu promised the reach of the traditional arts (as interpreted and understood by their specially trained instructors) would have to be broadened.

Jingwu was eager to show that the martial arts were in fact a “modern” project. Their interest in “strengthening” the nation extended into the military realm.

This is where Jingwu really excelled and opened new horizons.  While martial arts were popular in various parts of China their study was often (though by no means always) restricted to working class (often illiterate) males.  Jingwu, through its appeals to nationalism and modernism was for the first time able to attract large numbers of middle class urban professionals to the martial arts.  As Jingwu branches produced local instructors they were sent out to local elementary and middle schools to instruct the youth.

Women were also encouraged to join Jingwu and the organization supported and had the support of China’s nascent feminist movement.  In fact, because Chinese women did much of the shopping they tended to pay the most attention to magazine and newspaper advertisements.  Realizing this the advertising executives at the Jingwu Association started marketing campaigns in household journal that were specifically aimed at Chinese housewives with the goal of changing women’s perceptions of the martial arts.

A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.

While Chinese storytellers often speak of sword-maidens and the like, the truth is that prior to Jingwu female access to the martial arts was very restricted.  This organization pioneered the teaching of women.  In fact, Jingwu seemed to have a special connection to female martial artists.  Many of the gains that female practitioners made in the 1920s were slowly eliminated by the more socially reactionary Central Guoshu Institute (under GMD control) in the 1930s.

In short, Jingwu forever changed the face of the modern Chinese martial arts.  Its history is fascinating and there is not a whole lot of information about it in the English language.  One of the best resources on the rise and fall of Jingwu is Morris’ Marrow of the Bone (California UP, see the “Short Reading List on Chinese Martial Studies” post).  More accessible to a general readership is Kennedy and Guo’s monograph Jingwu: The School that Transformed Kung Fu (Blue Snake, 2010).

As valuable as these sources are they are just the start.  What we need in the English language literature are much more detailed histories of individual Jingwu branches and instructors, so that we can understand exactly how this school interacted with China’s diverse and heterogeneous martial landscapes.  And just for the record, yes, there is more than one martial culture in China.

For instance, Jingwu remained popular for 10-15 years in Southern China and South East Asia after it basically ceased to operate in the North.  Why?  Clearly there were political reasons, but what else was going on?  One of my current projects includes a detailed look at the history of Jingwu in Guangzhou and Foshan.  Hopefully these more detailed studies will be able to fill in some of the blanks about the emergence of the modern Chinese martial arts in the early 20th century.

Plans for the Foshan Jingwu Association Hall. Note both the ambition of this structure and the fact that construction did not even begin until Jingwu had ceased to exist in northern China.

A locally, rather than nationally, focused study of Jingwu has another advantage as well.  It allows for a much better understanding of what was going on in an area before Jingwu showed up and how these different martial cultures clashed or accommodated one another.  For instance, Kennedy and Guo make the assertion in their title that Jingwu transformed the way Kung Fu was taught.  I certainly agree with this.

But they also make the assertion in their text that Jingwu was really the first modern Kung Fu school in China:

“The first public martial arts school where one could just walk in the door, pay a fee, and sign up was the Jingwu Association, which opened in 1909 and ushered in a new era in Chinese martial training.  The Jingwu’s most influential time ran from 1909-1924.  The founding of the Jingwu Association, with its focus on “walk in, sign up, and learn Chinese martial arts as a form of recreation and exercise” marks the single most important turning point in Chinese martial arts—the transition from being a manual trade associated with the military, militias, and bodyguards to being a form of cultural recreation.” (page 3, Kennedy and Guo).

I totally disagree with this assertion.   Yes this transition was critical, and yes Jingwu helped to normalize and spread it to the middle class in the early 20th century.  Nevertheless, the period of 1860-1910 had already seen the evolution of a martial marketplace with purely civilian, public, for profit schools that catered to the working urban class.  All of this significantly predated and prefigured Jingwu and it is fairly well established in the Chinese language literature on martial arts history.

So let’s break down Kennedy and Guo’s assertion and examine it in greater detail.  It is true that Jingwu represented a departure from the traditional master/disciple relationship described as being “typical” of the 19th century and envisioned in so many Kung Fu films today.  Anyone who paid the tuition was free to join.

Obviously this is not the way the martial arts were always taught in China.  After all, large parts of China lacked a monetized economy during the Qing dynasty.  Only a few moments of reflection leads to the realization that this seemingly minor fact would have had a big impact on the strategies that teachers had when it came to running a profitable school.

Yet civilian teachers are only a minor part of the story.  Traditionally the largest source of martial arts instruction had (unsurprisingly) been the imperial military.  Here men were instructed by officers and military training specialists that made no claim to being a “Sifu.”  They were simply military personal.

But market conditions really began to change and modernize in port-cities like Guangzhou and Hong Kong starting in the 1860s.  The number of urban residents increased as former peasants streamed in from the countryside.  These individuals brought their habits and hobbies with them, including a love for the martial arts.  Could it really be that we had to wait for social reformers in Shanghai in the 20th century to invent the idea of the urban public martial arts school?

The answer is pretty clearly no.  Zeng Zhaosheng provides a very interesting overview of the history and variety of different martial arts associations in Guangdong in his 1989 study Guangdong Wu Shu Shi (A History of Guangdong Martial Arts).  It is clear from reviewing his study that there were a number of different sorts of “schools” that were more or less open to the public in Guangdong alone.  Some, like the Choy Li Fut schools of the Pearl River Delta dated back to the late 19th century and operated continually until disrupted by either the Nationalist Government or the Japanese take-over of the region during WWII.

These schools depended on workers in the industrial and handicraft industries who were pouring into cities like Foshan and Guangzhou at this point in time.  Because they were paid comparatively good wages in money they could in turn pay tuition to a public martial arts school.  This allowed for a steady increase in the number of professional martial arts instructors and it created a need to differentiate your product in the marketplace.  As such we should not be surprised to learn that it was during this time period that many of the most popular regional martial arts styles were first created or “publicly revealed.”

While the Hung Sing school of Foshan liked to posture as some sort of quasi-traditional mutual support society in reality it was nothing of the sort.  Being a member of the school did provide a certain sort of grass-roots level safety-net to urban workers.  It was a good way to network for jobs, learn about cheap housing locations, or to band together and demand higher wages.  Yet these were basically fringe benefits created by the students themselves.  The central purpose of the school was to trade money for boxing lessons in a setting that appealed to people of a certain class and regional background.

The traditional home of the Hung Sing school in Foshan is still open to students today. It was closed by the KMT due to its association with the Communists in 1928, and was again shut down by the Japanese in 1938.

The famous “Three Exclusions Rule” for which Hung Sing is known might lead one to claim that it was not a true public school.  Yet in my view they were basically a creative advertisement ploy and an attempt to craft a certain public image, very popular with industrial workers between WWI and WWII.   These exclusions were written in such a way that they only kept out individuals who would never come there to study in the first place.  For instance, how many “high government officials” were there just yearning to travel to Guangdong in order to learn the art of Choy Li Fut in the first place?  Clearly this was not an issue that would come up all that often in a working class boxing studio.  Nevertheless, this purely symbolic act of exclusion allowed for a more loyal community of students to be created without having to actually turn away any tuition dollars.

Sure there were the trappings of a traditional brotherhood around Hung Sing, and they are still apparent in the school’s myths and legends today.  Yet careful scholars cannot commit the critical error of mistaking the advertising strategy of a firm attempting to appeal to conservative displaced peasant workers for the reality of how they actually operated in the economic marketplace.  In reality the Hung Sing Association stayed afloat by accepting the tuition payments of every unskilled factory worker or traditional artisan who walked through their door.  And lots of workers did walk through their door.  They had studied martial arts previously in their home village (almost always recreationally I might add) and needed something to do on a Sunday afternoon in the big city.

And that is just one example.  There are literally a dozen other schools and associations that one can point to.  All of these were in place in Guangzhou and Foshan before Jingwu ever showed up in 1919 and 1920.  Not only was Jingwu not the first modern public school in the Pearl River Delta, but the local martial marketplace was so crowded with competing schools that they had trouble finding their place for the first few years.  Jingwu was a northern, and to some degree alien, intrusion into a commercial market for hand combat instruction that had been functioning for generations.

I am not an expert on the western regions of China, or the north, but I suspect that if I dug around in local publications or even secondary histories I would find exactly the same thing.  Esherick in the Origins of the Boxer Uprising reports that Plum Blossom teachers had been recruiting students and teaching in the open air of local markets in Shangdong and Henan for decades prior to the government crackdown of 1901.  Yet these schools had a traditional discipleship system, but it is really hard to imagine anything more commercial or open than teaching the paying public on market days.

Rather than being the first, the backers of Jingwu actually seem to have been aware of these markets, and they probably wanted to take them over.  Jingwu was looking for a piece of the action, clear and simple.  They replicated many of the things that Chinese boxing teachers were already doing.  However, in their advertising and general approach to art they decided to modernize and rationalize the sport in order to increase its appeal.  So what does Jingwu lose if we decide that it wasn’t the first public commercial school?

The Foshan Jingwu headquarters as it looked in the mid 1930s. Due to a lack of funds only the central training hall and left-hand wing were finished.

I would argue nothing at all.  This entire line of argument really misunderstands both the late 19th and early 20th century martial marketplaces and Jingwu’s true contribution to Chinese history.  Jingwu was interesting because it was the first truly successful attempt to brand the martial arts.  The idea that you could actually commodify the arts and sell a carefully crafted image, not to the people who practiced them, but to the people who didn’t, was a breakthrough.

The vast majority of Chinese citizens that did not practice boxing still read magazine articles about the traditional arts, they consumed novels, they heard radio programs and watched movies.  After Jingwu and the subsequent Guoshu movement which it inspired, pop-culture media carried the message that hand combat training was an important part of China’s culture.  Further, by strengthening both the body and mind these arts could improve and shape the national character.

Again, most individuals who consumed these messages never actually went on to study the martial arts, but they did absorb the commercial and nationalist mythos that Jingwu helped to create.  It is also likely that they would have been much more supportive of their children or grandchildren starting hand combat training.  Without Jingwu China’s relationship with the martial arts would be very different today.  It is unlikely that there would have been the novelist Jin Yong, or even the movie star Bruce Lee.

In the final analysis Jingwu was the first corporation to commercialize the Chinese martial arts.  Some traditional students look at that as a bad thing, but in reality it helped to shape Chinese popular culture and ensure the survival of all sorts of traditional styles for generations to come.  The legacy of this one organization certainly deserves a great deal of more careful study and thought than it has received up to this point.

The Foshan Jingwu building in the 1990s. After the Cultural Revolution the local Jingwu association was revived, and it continues to exist today.  However, it bears little resemblance to the original 1920s program.

Discussion

16 thoughts on “Reevaluating Jingwu: Would Bruce Lee have existed without it?

  1. Amazing piece. Very well said!! Keep up the great writing 😀

    Posted by westgatekungfu | April 3, 2015, 10:28 pm

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