Militiamen with homemade weapons head to the front.  Photograph by Sha Fei, 1938-1940.
Militiamen with homemade weapons head to the front. Photograph by Sha Fei, 1938-1940.


I recently came across a very interesting photograph.  It was taken by the important (if under-appreciated) combat photographer Sha Fei sometime between 1938 and 1940.  At that point in time he was documenting the progress of the 8th Route Army in Northern China as it resisted the Japanese and attempted to consolidate its base of political power.

By the 1940s the Chinese military was armed with totally modern weapons and was led by officers who were educated solely in western military tactics.  This had actually been the case for a couple of generations.  Nevertheless, one of Sha Fei’s favorite subjects were the much more “rustic” civilian militia and guerilla fighters.

These forces mostly provided support to the more professional communist military forces in the region, and occasionally harassed the Japanese.  Obviously the propaganda value of Sha Fei’s photographs was immense.  Nothing motivates one to go out and support the war effort quite like seeing your country men marching to the front armed with 20 year old rifles and spears.  These images also succeeded in capturing the growing enthusiasm for military training and militia service among ordinary Chinese civilians.

Above we see a small detachment of nine soldiers all from a single village, probably heading out to meet with a larger militia detachment.  These individuals carry a variety of firearms, but also traditional weapons including ring handled swords (probably dadaos) and a spear.  Such groups usually trained together as village militias and they likely studied some form of boxing or martial arts.

Of course the thing that I find most interesting about this photograph is the guy with the cannon.  Yeah, he is actually carrying a 19th century cannon over his shoulder.  And his friend is carrying a gun carriage.  Overall this image, with its mix of weapons, is fantastic.  It is very steam punk.  I feel like this photograph needs to be re-imagined in a movie or by a comic artist.  It has that slightly surreal feel.  Did WWII era militias actually have cannons?  Did village martial arts societies really have access to this sort of ancient artillery?

It would appear that these groups were pretty practical and simply made use of what was at hand.  As I thought about this photograph I recalled that this was not the first time I had come across accounts of village martial artists using artillery in anger.  But for a more detailed account we need to travel to the other side of the country, to the southern-most tip of Guangdong province.

Yingwu Tang Martial Arts Society in Xuwen County

Xuwen County is the most southerly point in mainland China.  It is one of the few areas in China that actually has a true tropical climate and is noted for a number of industries, including year-round fruit production, silk and the cultivation of pearls.  Traditionally the ports of Xuwen and Zhanjiang (the closest major city) were important markets on the busy trade routes that stretched from Vietnam to northern China, and then west to Okinawa and Malaysia.

The area had been a critical market for silk from the time of the Han dynasty, and the local economy’s dependence on both domestic commerce and international trade increased markedly in both Ming and Qing periods.  While the Confucian cultural elites of Northern China attempted to advance a theory of statecraft based on domestic production and parochialism, southern China was increasingly integrating itself into the global economy.

Of course there are some potential pitfalls that one must consider.  With a few brief exceptions (such as the campaigns against Koxinga at the start of the Qing dynasty) the Chinese government never really maintained a strong naval presence in the region.  This combination of a weak state coupled with rich trade encouraged the growth of rampant piracy throughout the coastal areas, just as it led to banditry in the hills and along the highways.

Contrary to the received folklore, it is not the case that all of the pirates that afflicted the coasts of China were Japanese.  In fact, the overwhelming majority of them were actually local Chinese merchants and fisherman who had “gone rouge” for one reason or another.  Endemic poverty pushed many seafarers into a life of crime.  Trade factions or corporations also engaged in privateering against their commercial rivals.

The political economy of violence in these coastal areas was in many respects similar to the basic patters of social organization that historians (Esherick, Robinson, Kuhn ect…) have previously documented in the realm of land based banditry.  Still, piracy in southern China had its own quirks that make it interesting.  Perhaps the best source on this topic is Robert Antony’s monograph, Like Froth Floating on the Sea: the World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial China (Institute for Asian Studies, Berkley, 2003).

I hope to address the issue of piracy in southern China in future posts.  It’s a rich area, and it is clear that the realms of piracy and the martial arts overlapped and interacted in important ways, just as boxing and banditry were interconnected with each other in Northern China.  If nothing else, the “armed escort services” that might have guarded camel caravans in the north spent quite a bit of time on boats in the south.

Yingwu Tang was a small but interesting martial arts group from Xuwen County that found itself caught up in the larger patterns of violence described above.  While ostensibly a community based (not a family based) martial arts society, created by a group of local seafaring merchants, it was often called upon to literally cross swords with pirates and bandits.  And yes, they also had cannons.

Hung Kuen boxing was very popular in the Zhanjiang region from the late 19th century onward.  Zhou Tai, named by later newspaper writers as one of the “10 Tigers of Canton” taught in the Zhanjiang region and trained some students (including Chen Guiting) that went on to be influential.  Many of these local martial artists also become enmeshed in regional disputes.

For instance, in 1898, as tensions with foreign powers rose across China, Master Wu Bangze led a local “resistance” movement against foreign intrusion.  At the same time many coastal villages organized anti-foreign militias.  These movements not only found little support with the provincial government, but after the disastrous events of the Boxer Uprising in 1900, they were actively squashed.

Old cannons on display in the Forbidden City Courtyard.  Source: Wikimedia.
Old cannons on display in the Forbidden City Courtyard. Source: Wikimedia.

Martial arts folklore generally claims that this shows the corrupt nature of the Qing government, which could not be depended on to defend the Han homeland against foreign avarice.  A more nuanced reading of the situation reveals a slightly more rational set of motivations.

Far from defending the coast against foreign navies, the provincial government was instead afraid that these martial arts societies and ersatz militias were simply going to attack foreign missionaries and tourists.  This had happened in the past, but in the tense diplomatic climate following the Boxer Uprising such copy-cat attacks would have been disastrous.  It could have given the British a justification to annex large parts of southern China.  Nor did the central government have the military strength to roll back such a process once it started.  Rather than the government seeing the martial arts societies and local militias as a source of strength, they had become an uncontrollable liability.

It has been asserted that the first public martial arts association in the region was the Qingwu Hall established by Wang Jinlong in Zhanjiang in the early 1920s.  This Hung Kuen group was regionally well known and by the late 1920s it is said to have had 3,000 members.  This certainly fits with developments in other parts of the country.  Boxing went into revival in the 1920s and a number of important groups (including the Jingwu Association) benefited from these trends.

Still, Xuwen had an older, and better established, tradition of public martial arts schools.  These were linked directly to the question of commercial and community defense.  They were also a conscious attempt to mitigate the risks of piracy in the region.  Further, at least one of these schools went on to spawn a local militia group during WWII.

To learn more about the region’s martial traditions I will now present a brief discussion from Zeng Zhaosheng’s 1989 volume, Guangdong Wushu Shi (A History of Guangdong’s Martial Arts).

Yingwu Tang in Xuwen County Defended the Business Travelers

Yingwu Tang was established in Qing Guangxu twelfth years (CE 1886). It was located in Shuijing Port, Hai’an District, Xuwen County.

During the late Qing, merchants in Xuwen mostly traveled by sea to do their business. Due to the great number of the pirates, seafarers had an urgent need to learn martial arts, strengthen their bodies, and defend the merchant ships. Therefore, they established the Yingwu Tang school.  It was located inside the Tin Hau Temple (Cantonese: “Heavenly Empress,” more commonly “Mazu” (pinyin): “Mother Ancestors.”). Over 300 people learned martial arts and were taught by teachers who were [hired] from various other places.

Yingwu Tang has a glorious revolutionary tradition. In the thirties, they used artillery, knives, poles, spears, tridents, and rattan shield to defeat bandits that were led by the “Leizhou Robber” Shi He San and Hai Qing and protect their homeland. In May 1944, members of Yingwu Tang navigated wooden boats and attacked Japanese gunboat in local waters.  The Japanese grew to bitterly hate the people from Haian.  During the war of liberating Hainan Island, over 30 people among the third and fourth generation of Yingwu Tang [students] were boatmen and helm workers. Some of whom were rated as “Seafaring Heroes”.

As of 1987, over 10 people among the third and fourth generation of Ying Wu Tang were still alive and in good health. They were very concerned about the younger generation’s martial arts learning. They often visited the young people to provide on-the-spot guidance. (pp. 73-74).

There are a number of things that are quite interesting about this account.  For instance, it is very suggestive that this group was established by a community of merchants, rather than a single family or lineage.  This type of social organization is generally structured around cooperation in economic markets and symbolically and ritually codified in group support of a village temple.

It may be significant that the group met at the grounds of the Tin Hua Temple, a popular local goddess who was seen as the patron saint of seafaring merchants and fishermen.  Robert Antony points out that there is a certain irony here.  Tin Hua was also the patron goddess of the local pirates looking for loot.  One wonders how the goddess negotiated this heavenly “conflict of interest.”  Of course this very fact strongly suggests that the dividing line between the “local merchants” and the “local pirates” may have been less sharply drawn than one might expect.

The historic Tin Hua (Mazu) Temple is Xuwen County, Guangdong.
The historic Tin Hua (Mazu) Temple in Xuwen County, Guangdong.

In market based towns (as opposed to “single name” agricultural villages) such temples were often supported by a committee of leading local families and wealthy merchants.  Of course these are the very same groups that would have the most to gain, economically speaking, from establishing a local martial arts school and militia.

I find it interesting that knowing a little bit about the structure of the Yingwu Tang in the late 19th century suggests some possibilities about the structure of the local community.  This is one of the things that the field of Chinese martial studies needs to be able to do.  We are most likely to grow as a field by showing that we can throw light on a variety of important historical and social questions beyond just martial history.

These passages also reveal a brief reference to the Yingwu Tang Association using cannons in their confrontation with an especially problematic group of local bandits.  It would be interesting to know more about the social dynamics and background of this particular incident.  It might reveal something about the political economy of the region.  Still, it is interesting to note that cannons (which were probably originally cast and distributed prior to the First Opium War) were still being used as a second-line weapon as late as the early 20th century.  It would appear that the northern Chinese militia group in the opening picture was not alone in its choice of artillery.

Temple altar dedicated to Mazu and her two helper-deities.
Temple altar dedicated to Mazu and her two helper-deities.