The old adage states that a picture is worth a thousand words. After having reviewed hundreds of potential images for this series of posts, and writing over a dozen entries, I can now state with some certainty that this is not always the case. Some pictures can inspire a great deal of critical or creative thought, but many fall short. An image may fail to spark that moment of interest if the subject matter is either too common or too esoteric. In both cases the viewer is left with little to say.
A sense of movement is important; which is just another way of saying that an image must be well composed. We know instinctively that human beings are mobile creatures, and photographs that do not imply that often feel like they lack a certain depth. The ability to suggest something dynamic in a static frame is one of the hallmarks of a good photographer.
I recently came across a collection of vintage images by a French missionary named Michel de Maynard. These were all taken in Northern China (mostly Shaanxi, but also in Shandong and Beijing) between 1906 and 1912. It was immediately apparent that these pictures really could inspire a thousand words, or even more. Brother Michel de Maynard was interested in daily life and he stopped to carefully observe the sorts of subjects that many individuals of his time simply walked by. Many of his photographs featured groups of people, but he also stopped to document stretches of countryside, the ruins of old buildings and local religious scenes (both Buddhist and Daoist). He also took some wonderful images that recorded China’s martial culture at an important moment of transition.
Michel de Maynard and the Chinese Revolution of 1911-1912.
Fr. Michel de Maynard served as a Franciscan Missionary in China from about 1906 through the opening years of the Republic of China period. He does not appear to be as well documented as some of his contemporaries, though I suspect that if I read French and had access to the Franciscan mission publications of the era we could glean quite a bit of biographical information on his life and career. Today he is best known for his photography of life in early 20th century China.
The good brother appears in a number of his own photographs, as do detailed images of his travel documents. These papers suggest that he was assigned to Shaanxi Province where he acted as a missionary and priest. Like many of his contemporaries he adopted Chinese dress and certain cultural practices in an effort to promote his work and move more freely within the countryside. Most of his pictures appear to be images of people and places in Shaanxi, but a number show other locations in Northern China. For instance, he has a memorable series of images of the Great Wall of China, and another haunting photograph of the Forbidden City abandoned and overrun with weeds in the years following the revolution.
While adding some richness to his catalog, this geographic variety actually complicates the task of interpreting his images. All of these photographs were captured on glass plates which were then individually labeled. Unfortunately these labels are written in French and in an often careless and hurried hand. It is sometimes difficult to read the descriptions that Fr. de Maynard left. To make matters worse he often omitted any reference to the date or location when the image was made. It seems likely that most of the images in his collection are from Shaanxi, but in some cases it is difficult to tell.
Brother de Maynard arrived in China just in time to witness a period of historic change. By 1906 demands for social, technical and political reform were reaching a crescendo. Military and economic leaders across China were clamoring for wide ranging modernization, education was entering an important period of reform and the national mood was turning decisively against the Qing dynasty.
The social history of revolutionary sentiment in China is a more nuanced subject than many martial artists realize. Many of the traditional styles pass along stories (often written in the 1930s) which claim that the entire 19th century was one seething mass of resentment and hatred directed against the foreign Manchu led government. Different arts clamor to be acknowledged as at the forefront of this nascent revolution. The start of the anti-Qing revolution is sometimes read back in time all the way to the fall of the Ming dynasty (basically co-opting old Triad lore).
The reality is much more complicated. In reality the Qing consolidated their power base relatively quickly and there was little elite opposition to their rule after a generation or two. The first half of the new dynasty was a time of rapid economic and population growth. Stresses started to appear in the late 18th and early 19th century. In fact, a number of large uprisings did occur (mostly in Northern China) during the second half of the 19th century. Yet even at this late date, the government was still relatively popular with most of the population (especially if they were seen as standing up to foreigners).
By the time that Michel de Maynard arrived the situation was different. Popular hostility towards the Manchu regime was mounting. They were simultaneously perceived as weak, alien, repressive and ineffectual. Chinese society was also experiencing a rising tide of militarism.
This played itself out in many different ways. There were various efforts to modernize the military (such as the dissolution of the exam system in 1905). Young men joined paramilitary groups and local militias in record numbers, both to promote change and to protect their local villages in the face of social dissolution. Many students went to Japan to study their model of national reform and rapid modernization. Occasionally some of them, such as Qiu Jin, became radicalized and were transformed into violent revolutionaries.
It is not surprising that prominent displays of military culture are seen in so many of de Maynard’s photographs. Many of his images show newly reformed military units, cavalry and infantry formations, revolutionary societies and even local militias. Still, there was one branch of China’s martial culture that didn’t benefit from this upsurge in enthusiasm, at least not to the extent that one might suspect. That was the traditional martial arts.
The reputation of these hand combat societies had been badly tarnished by the Boxer Uprising in 1900-1901. In the following years many public intellectuals explicitly claimed that the martial arts were too backwards, too feudal and too superstitious to be allowed to continue into the modern era. They were not part of the new China that most reformers envisioned.
With the end of the Military Exam System martial artists had lost the state as a sponsor or employer. Further, the creation of cheap and safe train travel eliminated the need for expensive armed escort companies (another major employer of martial artists). These were years of crisis and soul searching for the traditional hand combat systems. It was also when the seeds of far reaching reforms were sown.
I suspect that the Chinese martial arts came closer to extinction in the years between 1900-1911 than they ever have before or since. The enthusiasm for “rebellion” that arose in the wake of the 1911 revolution helped to ameliorate the situation, but it was not until the 1920s and 1930s that these fighting systems were really able to establish a new public image that would carry them into the next century.
For this reason I find it fascinating that Fr. Michel de Maynard captured several images of China’s traditional martial culture, including at least two photographs of contemporary boxing societies, just before this transition took place. I placed what I consider to be the best of these photographs at the top of this post.
The actual background of this image is a little unclear. I have seen it floating around the internet, but it is not included in the Getty Research Institute Digital Collections along with the rest of his photographs from this period. Nevertheless, it is clearly shot against the same backdrop that he used for many of his other posed images, and some of the individuals in this photo appear to be present in a later image known to have been taken by the same photographer. So I think it is safe to assume that this image was indeed produced by Michel de Maynard. Judging by the hairstyles and clothing it was probably taken right before the start of the revolution.
The image shows six young and vigorous martial artists. It has been circulated with the title “Local Militia from Shandong, 1906-1912”, but I think that there are good reasons to doubt this attribution. To begin with, even rural militias in 1911 had access to firearms. See for instance the second image in this post for a visual reference of a real militia from the era. Note that these individuals are armed with rifles, cartridge belts and at least some revolvers.
It is also clear that the martial artists in the top image are wearing costumes rather than uniforms. For that matter, three members of the group are posing by standing on one leg. These costumes seem to visually hint at a connection to stereotypical images of the various millennial groups that have been common in Northern China.
This opens two possibilities. Either these individuals are members of an actual Kung Fu cult or, more likely, they are public performers trading on that image to draw a crowd in the increasingly anti-government atmosphere directly preceding the 1911 revolution. Everything about this picture, from the poses to the costumes, suggest that it was an example of “public performance,” so I am going with the second interpretation. In fact, public display was one of the few remaining ways that a martial artist could make a living during this period. Teaching and private security pretty much rounded out the list.
The ultimate salvation of the Chinese martial arts would come through transforming them from a set of employment skills (essentially one of a number of economic vocations), to a part-time exercise that was open to anyone with the money and an inclination to study them. As they spread throughout China’s growing urban centers they became an ideal vehicle for promoting national identity and other sorts of ideas. The realization that this was the case led to the restoration of a certain amount of social and governmental support.
This transformation depended on an almost total reworking and re-imagination of the past, though one would really have to wait until the 1920s and 1930s to see the fruits of this labor. Still, it is interesting to note that even in the opening years of the Republic era martial artists were actively co-opting and retell the story of China’s troubled 19th century in an attempt to promote their own commercial success.
Not all of the practices that de Maynard observed would survive and thrive to same extent as boxing. Indeed it is somewhat ironic that it was hand combat that would be the element of Chinese martial culture to thrive in the modern world and spread itself the furthest in the current global system. Archery was (and has remained) a popular past time in North America, Europe and Japan. It was also the element of China’s martial heritage that seemed to most impress visitors in the 19th century. Western observers were not bothered so much by the fact that social elites practiced archery in China. Indeed many Europeans of the same period saw it as a good form of exercise and an enjoyable pastime. Rather these individuals were shocked that it was still being used as a criteria in the selection and training of officers by the Qing military.
Archery as a practice survived the transition from battlefield to sporting skill quite nicely in both the west and Japan. The same cannot be said of China. While there were many schools of archery around the country in the late 19th century, almost all of these turned out to be wholly subsidized by the state Military Examination System. Once the exams were eliminated there turned out to be surprisingly little interest in archery itself among the general public.
Stephen Selby has documented how Chinese archery entered a period of rapid decline and then complete collapse following the abolition of the Military Examination System. The preceding picture of the young Manchu officer, with his characteristically long bow and and arrows, is interesting as it captures the twilight of the last generation of China’s once great military archery tradition.
Most of the images in the de Maynard collection focus on more contemporary scenes. One of my favorites is of three soldiers in quilted uniforms posing with carbines and swords. The image was probably taken some time in 1911. The label indicates that the three individuals were former members of the Imperial military who had switched sides, and now fought with a revolutionary army. It is hard to tell what sort of carbines they are carrying. My best guess is that they are probably black powder rifles (either p53s or Sniders) that have been cut down. Each of the soldiers also carries a serious looking sword.
I would like to conclude this discussion by comparing the first image with the one above. I cannot make out the description scrawled beneath the photograph. It seems to start “Lieou and his three sons…” but after that it loses me. This image is dated to 1911-1912.
Notice that all of the martial artists have cut their queues and are starting to grow back their hair. It is hard to tell, but I suspect that some of the individuals who were photographed in the first image are also present in the second. If that is the case than it seems they were representatives of a larger martial arts school or society and “Lieou” is their teacher.
Once again oxtailed sabers and long choppers are popular, but there is no sense that these individuals are costumed or performing. This is a more relaxed photograph. Essentially it is a record of the social structure of “Lieou’s school.” Without a better transcription of the label it may be hard to say much more about this martial arts society. Still, it is interesting to see the traditional hand combat styles as they existed on both sides of the 1911 boundary. Michel de Maynard has shown us a moment of profound social transformation whose effects are still being felt today.