It is dangerous to make sweeping statements about the development of the traditional Chinese martial arts during the early 20th century. This was an important period for the hand combat community. Between 1900 and 1949 the complex of behaviors and beliefs that we current think of as the “Chinese martial arts” were reshaped and repackaged in fundamental ways.
Much of this had to do with efforts to make the traditional fighting styles more attractive as a leisure activity for the growing urban middle class. Period discussions and even government propaganda usually casts these efforts as an attempt to improve the physical and spiritual “health of the nation.” These reforms are often seen as an attempt to recast the Chinese people in a mold similar to what the Japanese had created with Budo.
Still, one must be careful not to take this rhetoric too seriously. Most of the major martial reform efforts (including both Jingwu and later Guoshu) were never even accessible to the vast majority of Chinese citizens living outside the key coastal cities. There were other, much more basic, reasons behind this attempt to attract a new body of students.
Following the abolition of the old Imperial Military Service Exams in 1905 a very large percentage of the nation’s hand combat teachers found themselves unemployed. These individuals had made a living preparing students to take this test. At the same time the expansion of the railroads, which increased the ease and safety of overland travel, was a critical blow to the armed escort companies. They had been one of the largest employers of traditional martial artists following the military. Opera was also declining in popularity as new forms of entertainment became available.
Why did so many martial reformers turn to the rapidly growing middle class? Because that was where the money was. The transformation of China’s economy in the early 20th century created a systematic pattern of winners and losers. Skilled workers and middle class professionals who could engage in trade or profit from modernization were the winners. Hand combat instructors, as well as a wide variety of traditional craftsmen, peasants and unskilled workers, were among the losers.
It is no surprise that so many teachers decided that the key to their survival was to reposition the martial arts within society. They needed to somehow move it from the old “unproductive” sector of the economy, and direct it towards the more prosperous economic frontiers. This necessitated some changes.
Most office workers were not worried about being hijacked on the way to work. Simplifying the systems and presenting them to a new audience as a form of exercise and self-cultivation was an obvious strategy. This potential had been in the traditional fighting styles all along, but now it was brought to the fore, and other concerns were allowed to recede into the shadows.
We have gone through different elements of this narrative in greater or lesser detail in a number of previous posts. However, not every hand combat teacher agreed with this basic strategy. While comparatively wealthy, the newly risen middle class was still a small fraction of China’s overall population. And given China’s late industrial development and its various attempts at “rapid modernization,” it was never really clear that civil society and the economy would be allowed to develop on their own terms.
Rather than turning to the market, a large number of martial reformers looked back to the state, the former sponsor of so many hand combat instructors, and searched for way to reenter the government’s good graces. Again, we probably should not be surprised by this. Given the percentage of the national economy that the state dominated, it is only logical that martial artists would seek to break back into that sector.
These efforts proceeded along multiple lines. Some institutions, such as the Jingwu Association, actively lobbied for the inclusion of traditional martial arts training in the physical education curriculum of all primary and secondary schools. Other martial artists turned their attention to attempts to reform and modernize China’s many municipal law enforcement agencies. The very nature of police work insured that these groups would be interested in close quarters hand combat training. Lastly, other martial artists attempted to promote a return to martial arts training within China’s military. An appointment teaching martial arts classes at a local police or military academy was a prestigious honor that could launch a career.
The end result is that the Chinese martial arts of the early 20th century did not evolve along a single linear track. Instead a complex patchworks emerged in which some themes are more dominant than others, but the entire situation is one of dynamic tension. Some martial artists were adapting spear fighting forms to bayonet drills in an attempt to woo the military. Meanwhile others were simplifying the same forms and focusing on “Qi” and “health cultivation.” These seemingly very different trends were simply two economic strategies for survival in a vastly changed marketplace.
I have reviewed this material precisely because we have a tendency to only remember those aspects of martial arts history that are most successful today. Wushu, Taijiquan and Qigong have been the most popular elements of the traditional Chinese martial arts to emerge in the post Cultural Revolution period. Yet there were other historical pathways that could have been taken.
In the remainder of this post we will examine a number of pictures of individuals posing with Dadaos (military big sabers) during the Second Sino-Japanese War (World War II) in an attempt to explore the recursive relationship between the Chinese military and the traditional martial arts. After a period of aggressive westernization and modernization, the Chinese army of the 1930s once again began to appropriate elements from the traditional martial artists in an attempt to build esprit de corps and to find costs effective solutions to tactical problems. At the same time many schools of hand combat started to undergo a subtle, or not so subtle, process of militarization through prolonged exposure to their new customer. Some of these influences can still be felt in the Chinese martial arts to this day.
Two Soldiers and a Puzzle
The bulk of our discussion revolves around the first image, introduced at the top of this essay. In it we see two individuals, apparently soldiers, in relatively new uniforms, standing in a doorway. The most interesting thing about this pair is their arms. Each carries a large (even by the standards of the weapon) shiny new Dadao. We have discussed this saber in a few other places and this picture makes a nice addition to our catalog of historic images. It is also interesting to note that the lintel of the doorway is both inscribed and labeled.
This is critical as it provides us one with two of our only clues for analyzing and dating this photograph. The image itself is from a vintage photograph that I bought at an auction. It is not a postcard. Nor does it appear to be a commercial image reproduced for sale (the verso carries no advertisement or stamp for a photography studio, which is often a sign). Instead this appears to be an actual snapshot taken by someone in the area for their own purposes.
It is always exciting to come across a new image of traditional weapons in their proper historical context. I have never seen this photograph reproduced or published anywhere else, and it is both clear and detailed. Still, the problem with artifacts like this is that we have no idea when, or under what circumstances, they were produced.
Luckily we have two clues to guide our guesses. First, the back of this image was labeled “Peking” in faded pencil. Secondly, after scanning and cleaning the image it became possible to read (most) of the inscriptions along the door. The carved stone along the top is the less helpful of the two. It indicates that the men are standing in the exterior entrance to a fire deity temple. The vertical inscription is more interesting. It reads something like: “”Nationalist revolution soldiers from the 34th army group command post.” I hasten to note that this is only an approximate translation as there was one character that was just too blurry to resolve.
Still, we now have enough information to start thinking critically about our new image. And as soon as we do, we run into trouble. There is a fire god temple in Beijing whose architecture vaguely matches the image in the photo, though I have not been able to local enough pictures of it to find the exact door that the soldiers are standing in (which presumes that the exterior wall still exists and has not been rebuilt). Further, the large shiny Dadao seems typical of the type that became popular in the middle of the 1930s. So possibly what we have is an image of two soldiers from the 34th Army Group posing at a field HQ in Beijing in the late 1930s.
Unfortunately that is historically impossible. The 34th Army Group referenced in the image was not created until 1939 and it spent most of the war in the interior. Beijing was overrun in 1937, so there is no way that this picture could have been taken in the capital prior to the outbreak of the Second Sino-Japanese War. Of course there are many other fire god shrines in China and it is always possible that the photo was simply mislabeled by whoever initially collected it. So that is one possibility. We are looking at a couple of nationalist soldiers in the 1940s standing in front of an unknown 34th Army Group headquarters.
Yet there are some other odd things about this photograph. The uniforms are not quite right for the period. The hats bear the Nationalist Military symbol but they are not regulation issue. By the 1940s most nationalist soldiers were wearing a German style cloth hat with their summer uniforms (and something much warmer in the winter.) The hats worn by these two soldiers seem to be an attempt to copy the crisp peaked cap of the 1920s. However, that style had been replaced in most places by the start of WWII.
Of course it is pretty common to encounter images of Nationalist soldiers in mismatched uniforms. What is much odder is that neither of these individuals wears any indication of rank on their uniforms, either on their collars or arms. Further, the Nationalist army patch is missing from above their breast pockets. And the style of tunic that they are wearing more closely resembles what was being issued in the 1920s, or possibly in a warlord army, than what most individuals in the army were wearing in the 1940s.
Lastly, if these individuals are soldier it is very odd that they are not carrying any modern weapons with them. Most soldiers who were issued a Dadao were also a given a rifle and bayonet. Even individuals in the so called “Big Sword Units” carried at least one handgun (often more) and a number of grenades. These two even lack the basic belts and webbing that would be needed to carry any sort of real equipment. They don’t even have canteens. All they have is their Dadao.
The previous image is also of a Nationalist soldier carrying a Dadao. One suspects that he may even be on guard duty given how he is standing. It is much more typical of what we would expect to see. His hat not only carries the correct pin, but it is typical period issue. You can tell by the strap over his shoulder that he is either wearing a pistol belt or carrying a sleeping roll. Further, the has a patch identifying him as a Nationalist soldier over his left breast.
I am pretty confident that the gentleman at the guard post is actually a Nationalist soldier. I am less sure about the two individuals in our main image. Of course there are a number of other possibilities. They may simply be posing in newly issued uniforms (that are 10 years out of date) before any rank or insignia has been added.
Alternatively, they may not be regular soldiers at all. Given their second-line uniforms (and weapons), one suspects that they might be members of some sort of paramilitary force. In fact, most of the individuals who actually used the dadao were members of local militias, railway guards, watchmen, military police or members of resistance groups. Such individuals were often armed with dadao and equipped with obsolete uniforms and gear (if any at all) precisely because the state could afford to give them little else.
If these individuals were members of a paramilitary group they are suddenly of much more interest to us. It was not uncommon for the military to hire local martial artists to train such individuals. Indeed, both Cheung Lai Chuen and Li Pei Xian (who we have already studied in some depth) were responsible for doing exactly this kind of work. Other well-known master, such as Yin Yu Zhan also taught paramilitary groups and even developed their own special Dadao routines and training programs.
It is not unusual in Chinese history to find martial artists leading local militias. What is interesting is that this was still going on in the mid 20th century. As these individuals adapted their training routines to fit the dadao (a relatively modern weapon) and the current tactical situation, they were opening a door whereby certain strains of the traditional Chinese martial arts were coming to reflect modern military, rather than civilian, influences.
There is one last thread of our mystery that needs to be teased out. Perhaps the individual who labeled the photograph actually knew exactly what he was talking about. Maybe the image was taken at a fire god shrine in Beijing. That might be possible if the image was produced between 1945 and 1948. I do not know where the various field headquarters of the 34th Army group were in the post-WWII period, but it should be remembered that martial artists continued to be involved in the training of paramilitary groups. Increasingly they were used as a check against the Communist Party during the Chinese Civil war.
This is a long-shot, but I wonder if these two martial artists may have had another reason for posing in front of that particular door. Geng Jishan (1860-1928) was one of the foremost Xingyi Quan teachers of his day, as well as a founding member of the Jingwu Association. He was also one of the first individuals to open a public martial arts school in Beijing.
He named his group the Shiming Wushu Academy. His school was inherited by his successor Deng Yunfeng. Deng was very well connected and sociable. Under him the school became renown as a sort of salon where other martial artists came to talk, relax and discuss the issues of the day. His friends and acquaintances included such luminaries as Sun Lutang, Li Cunyi and Chen Tinghua.
Rose Li studied with Deng for a number of years before immigrating to the United States and then the United Kingdom, where she became an important teacher of the internal martial arts. When discussing her training in the 1930s Li always specified that the Shiming Wushu Academy was located on the grounds of a fire god shrine in Beijing. In fact, that is what she called the institution in English, the “Fire God Temple School.”
One wonders if by chance the 34th Army Group temporarily made their headquarters at the same temple, and then began to host classes for local militias and paramilitary recruits. If so our two swordsmen might be standing on the threshold of some of China’s most interesting modern martial arts history. In truth we may never know where and when the picture was taken, but I think the speculation is a fun and educational exercise.