"Sword Dancer." Image circa 1910, distributed circa 1930. Source" Vintage Postcard.
“Sword Dancer.” Image circa 1910, distributed circa 1930. Source” Vintage Postcard.


Introduction: Informants and the Problem of Reliability


The study of the traditional martial arts has tended to rely rather heavily on interviews with “participant informants.”  Cultivating relationships with informants and learning about their worldview consumes much of a researcher’s time during the course of any ethnographic exercise.  Yet there are also inherent dangers that arise in this sort of work.  The job of an anthropologist is to see the basic structure and inner workings of entire social systems.  But that is not the level that most people live their lives at.  The vast majority of individuals are consumed by the details of their daily lives and don’t have much time to discuss esoteric philosophies or the subtle nuances of kinship models with outside scholars.

As a result most people make rather poor ethnographic informants.  They simply see no reason to cooperate with the exercise.  And in truth most of the stuff that anthropologists and other students of cultural history seem to be interested is, on the surface, pretty marginal.  Of course that doesn’t mean that no one is interested in these topics.  Some people are just more drawn to esoteric pursuits and arcane visions of the past than others. 

When you do find an individual who is willing to invest dozens (or even hundreds) of hours discussing some topic, it is a wonderful thing.  Good informants can make an ethnographic study.   Yet the fact that such individuals share the researcher’s interests in these topics can also be a complicating factor.   

To begin with, such informants are by definition are a bit of a departure from the rest of the community.  As often as not most people are content to never contemplate these subjects.  And given that these individuals have committed a good deal of time and effort to studying some topic, we should not be surprised to discover that they often have their own very strongly held theories and opinions on it.

This is where things get tricky.  On the one hand this information is very important to the ethnographer.  But at the same time the scholar is supposed to be building a larger, more integrated model of an entire social system, and not simply publishing the transcripts of their interviews.

All of this requires careful thought and a steady hand.  No one wants to produce a description of the community that would be totally alien (and alienating) to the informants who actually live there.  But at the same time it is not a scholar’s job to pass on the biased views and narrowly expressed opinions of their informants as “social analysis.”

The field of martial studies actually presents us with a number of cases of what can happen when a researcher forgets about this balance.  For years R. W. Smith was the authority on the Chinese martial arts in the western world.  He had been stationed in Taiwan for some time while working for the CIA and he took the opportunity to become intimately familiar with a number of important boxing masters and their styles.

Smith’s approach to martial studies was slightly different from what you see with individuals like Henning, Lorge, Shahar or Bowman today.  By in large each of these scholars relies on historical documents (including period texts, journals, letters and even movies), as well as extensive academic training, to create a comprehensive picture of some aspect of the martial arts and society. 

Smith did not approach his subject textually.  Rather he accepted the common wisdom of the day that the martial arts had no written history.  As such he interviewed and worked with different teachers (informants) in an attempt to create his own vision of the martial arts through the process of “participant-observation.”  He then published his findings throughout the remainder of the 1960s-1990s.

His project succeeded because the methods that Smith employed weren’t really all that different from what most anthropologists or ethnographers do when they are in the field.  Of course anthropologists have had a lot of time to reflect on the dangers and pitfalls of learning through participant-observation, and they have come up with different methods to guard against them.  Smith was in the unenviable position of developing his research methodology as he went along.   

Unsurprisingly this led to some problems in his work.  I have not really made a formal study of his publications.  I hope to look at them in a more systematic way in the future.  But from my own recreational reading it seems that one of Smith’s biggest problems was that he was a little too trusting of his sources.  He did not seem to spend much time thinking critically about their world view and biases.

Consider the following two examples.  The 1920s to the 1940s saw the development of a sophisticated Chinese language literature on the history, practice and modernization of the martial arts.  A number of journals on both popular and physical culture took up this subject.  Authors like Tang Hao and Chen Gongzhe attempted to address historical questions in book length studies. 

This is the sort of literature that author’s like Andrew Morris have relied on when writing their histories of sports in Republican China.  Many of these sources ended up coming to Taiwan.  In fact, some of them were preserved nowhere else. 

While he was a diligent researcher, Smith never seems to have encountered most of this literature.  Why?  Apparently it was because he believed quite firmly that his informants were correct when they told him that the martial arts were taught only through an oral tradition.  If this was in fact the case, why bother going to the university library or contacting obscure book dealers to do research?

Of course this has never really been the case at all.  For an “oral culture” the Chinese martial arts have produced a remarkable number of books, magazines, manuals and letters over the years.  Some of these even go back to the Ming dynasty.  Yet the privileging of “oral tradition” and direct “teacher to student transmission” are important parts of the broader culture of the hand combat community.  I am not surprised that Smith’s informants emphasized these things, yet in accepting their view uncritically he transmitted a somewhat skewed view of the past.

Likewise R. W. Smith always had a remarkably jaundiced view of Southern (which for him meant “Guangdong”) Boxing.  The evolution of his views on this subject between Chinese Boxing (1974) and Martial Musings (1999) is remarkable.  Apparently he had few contact from this area of China and his initial attempts to find good displays of the southern styles (reported in the 1974 volume) were not horribly successfully. 

If Smith’s attitude towards Guangdong’s martial traditions seem ambivalent in his first book, by his last volume they appear to be openly hostile.  He seems to have simply accepted as a known fact that there was no sophistication or excellence in Southern boxing.  Setting aside his personal animus for Bruce Lee, where would this attitude have come from?  Can it really be true that there was not a single martial artist in the entire Southern Chinese cultural zone capable of impressing Smith’s sensitive pallet?  Possibly, yet the much more likely scenario is that we are simply hearing the engrained biases of Smith’s informants and friends being reported as “facts.”

I am reluctant to get too far into these arguments.  These are simply my impressions of Smith’s writing after casual reading.  At some point in the future I hope to systematically study and reevaluate his contributions to our understanding of martial studies.  It may very well be the case that my impressions of him with change with further sustained study.  Still, the previous discussion does point to the sorts of issues that can emerge when we uncritically accept the account of a single informant as both universal and reliable.    

A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930. Source: Huan Fei Hung Museum.
A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930. Source: Huan Fei Hung Museum.


Selling the Art

I have selected three different photographs for discussion in the current post.  They range in date from the final years of the Qing dynasty to the 1930s.  All three photographs were taken in public marketplaces in the city of Shanghai.  Each image records the performance of a different group of itinerant martial artists seeking to make a living by displaying their skills to an assembled crowd.

Period accounts make it clear that such displays were quite common in every major city in China.  Martial arts displays were an easy way to assemble a crowd.  At that point the performers could “pass the hat” or perhaps sell patent medicine or charms to their audience.  Occasionally martial arts teachers would also stage marketplace displays in an attempt to advertise their excellence and attract students.  Esherick (1988) reports that the various Plum Blossom schools, who dominated the small and dusty marketplaces of Shandong province in the 19th century, used this recruiting tactic to good effect.

Such public displays of martial prowess must have been very common.  Photography was an expensive and rare thing in late 19th and early 20th century China.  As a result we do not have very many period pictures of martial artists.  One of the purposes of this series of posts is to collect and sort through what is available.

In that light it is interesting to consider what we do and do not have.  Much to the chagrin of Wing Chun students, we do not have a single unambiguous picture of a “Red Boat Cantonese Opera company,” even though they were the most popular form of popular entertainment in the region for 50 years.  Likewise we have very few pictures of martial arts schools or classes prior to the middle of the 1920s.  And for all of the stories of wandering “Shaolin Monks” that the era generated, none of these individuals ended up on film.  Nor do we have more than a handful of images of the famous “armed escort companies.”   

Yet we have literally dozens of pictures of marketplace Kung Fu performances.

Clearly this was the most visible and publicly accessible aspect of the traditional martial arts.  Nor should we really be surprised to see martial artists out in public making a living.  The development of the civilian martial arts was closely tied to the rise of the new cities and urban culture during the Song dynasty.  In a very real sense martial artists and performers have been a critical part of these economic markets from almost the moment of their creation.

And yet these individuals are maligned in almost all of the same accounts that record their existence.  The idea of “selling one’s art for money” is universally reviled in period accounts.  Performers, like the individuals in this post, usually get the brunt of this aggression.  Nevertheless, soldier, bodyguards and commercial martial arts instructors rarely emerge from these discussions wholly unscathed.

This is actually interesting to consider as most of the great masters of the martial arts who we have discussed here at Kung Fu Tea have performed one of these activities at one point or another in their career.  Traditional China did not have much in the way of a social safety net, and working martial artists had to use their skills to make ends meet.

For instance, Wong Fei Hung performed in marketplaces as a child.  Sun Lutang worked as a bodyguard as a young man, and Ip Man opened a Wing Chun when he found himself destitute after fleeing to Hong Kong.  It seems that most individuals who studied the martial arts did so to make a living.  These skills were just as much about economic as physical security.

So where do these opinions come from?  In China (as in most traditional societies) the elites controlled the written record.  In this particular case the end result is that the historical record shows a strong bias towards Confucian values.  Even relatively well-off martial artists often went to some lengths to demonstrate their acceptance of Confucian values and to argue (at least publicly) for their imposition on the martial arts.

Confucian social order was built around a clearly hierarchic view of society.  In general those classes who labored with their bodies (peasants) were viewed as less virtuous than those who worked with their minds (government officials).  Further, those who engaged in commerce which enriched only themselves (merchants) were seen as morally inferior to those who worked for the good of society as a whole (farmers).

Our marketplace boxers presented something of a “perfect storm” for good Confucians.  Here were people who lacked any education or class standing bilking the peasants out of their hard earned cash with “cheap tricks” or snake oil medicine.

These same opinions were repeated loudly and often by the very few members of the social elite who became martial artists.  There is probably more than a hint of self-justification in their protests.  It is interesting to contemplate how their world view reflects broader patterns of social organization.  Yet if we to use them instead as a source on how working class martial artists understood their own lives, we would be in a world of hurt.  At the end of the day these rebukes do not apply so much to the selling of the martial arts, as they do the entire domain of commerce.  The Confucian elite never really had much sympathy for merchants in any of their guises.

In this case I think that the photographic evidence actually provides a valuable compliment and counter balance to the accounts left by a small number of elite informants.  The martial arts have always been part of the economic marketplace, and for many individuals they have revolved around making a living.  That was the reason why young men were willing to invest so much time and effort into mastering these skills in the first place.  They rationally expected that there would be a payoff in terms of greater income and a more secure life down the road.  Why did soldiers, guards, performers and opera singers “sell their art”?   Quite simply, that is what they were for.


"Monkey Boxers" performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930. Source: Taiping Institute.
“Monkey Boxers” performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930. Source: Taiping Institute.


Three Examples of the Marketplace Martial Arts Show

One of the most interesting things about these photos is that they indicate that the market place performance was often (perhaps usually) a coordinated group activity.  Notice that in each of the photographs there is more than one performer.  And if you look carefully you can often see additional members of the troop positioned around the peripheries of these shots.  This suggests a certain level of sophistication in the organization and presentation of these shows that one might not guess from the more dismissive period accounts.

The first image was taken from a vintage postcard sold at the Palace Hotel in Shanghai, probably during the 1930s.  The image itself is actually at least 20 years older than the postcard it was distributed on.  The actual photograph was taken prior to the 1911 revolution.

The composition of this photograph, with the strong youth center and the aged boxer standing behind him, is striking.  In my mind this is perhaps the best image of a market place display ever taken.  Luckily it is not that hard to come by.  This identical image was reproduced on multiple series of postcards sold in Shanghai over a period of at least a decade.  Copies of this image show up in collections and on auction websites more commonly than one might suspect.  Given its popularity and widespread distribution it is interesting to ponder what this image might have represented to its intended western audience.

The second image was also produced in Shanghai.  It was included in a collection of “folk images” gathered for a celebration of life in Old Shanghai.  As such it is interesting to consider what this image might represent to residents of ultra-modern Shanghai today.  My favorite element of this image is the sheer size of the two oxtailed daos wielded by the younger student.  Those swords would have made an impressive display.

Southern Chinese martial artists might be familiar with this image because of its inclusion in the Huang Fei Hung museum on the grounds of the ancestral temple in Foshan.  The younger martial artists is sometime erroneously identified as southern master himself, but that is not the case.  Rather this picture gives you a pretty good idea of what Huang’s childhood as a martial arts student and traveling performer would have looked like.

The last image is perhaps the most striking.  Collected and conserved by the Taiping Institute this image shows two “Monkey Boxers” performing for a crowd in Shanghai in the 1930s.  Compared to the other two photographs it seems to be the least staged.  It somehow manages to capture the powerful spontaneous energy of the performers.  There is a sense of impending chaos here that you do not see in the other shots.  This could draw a crowd, and it’s a valuable reminder of the energy that these performances probably possessed.  Even by modern standards this last image would qualify as an engaging piece of street photography.



Numerous period accounts given by social elites in the Republic period suggest that the martial arts should be above the “base concerns of the market.”  Yet for many (perhaps most) martial artists, the skills were as much about economic as physical security.  Each of these images helps to reinforce the historic connection between boxing, performance and commerce.

Even those students of the martial arts who once considered themselves to be beyond such concerns often discovered that the gravity of market forces were impossible to escape all together.  In closing I would like to quote the following wry observation by Ip Chun, the son of Ip Man-someone who was once a very privileged student of the martial arts who fell on hard times.

“When I was little, I used to see people doing martial art demonstrations in the streets. When they were finished, they would sell Chinese medicine to you. These people would travel from province to province and in this way, they would make their living. I never imagined, that when I got older, that I would be doing a similar thing.  Instead of showing my martial art skill in the street, I teach seminars on Wing Chun Kung Fu.”

Ip Chun,“Fifteen Years – Traveling the World to Sell My Skills” (Qi Magazine, March/April 2000, issue 48 pp. 26-28.