Tai Chi Boxer.4
Diagram of the Taiji and the Eight Triagrams included in Burkhart.


The first half of the 20th century was a time of rapid transformation for the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Early in the era these fighting systems tended to be associated with practical pursuits such as military or militia training, the armed-escort trade or working as a public performer.  During the 1920s and 30s various organizations (including the Jingwu Athletic Association and the Central Guoshu Institute) attempted to reform the martial arts creating an open commercial system that could be used to promote public hygiene and to foster nationalism in China’s growing (and increasingly middle-class) urban centers.

We have looked at each of these trends in some detail in recent posts.  We have even examined the lives of some exceptional martial artists which bridge these various eras of transformation.  Nor have we ignored the role of popular culture in supporting and promoting this change, either in the form of operas or serialized novels.

The current post begins to examine the end result of these various transformations.  The martial arts of the late 1940s and 1950s really form the basis of much of the modern practice which we still see today.  During this brief window of peace, between the ending of WWII and prior to the start of the Cultural Revolution in mainland China, the traditional fighting styles had a chance to regroup, digest the lessons of the previous three decades, and present a more “middle-class” (and more sophisticated) face to the world.  Many of the most popular lineages, movements and philosophies in the global Chinese martial arts community today can really be traced back to individuals and innovations in the late 1940s and 1950s.

For instance, this was the decade in which Ip Man established the Wing Chun clan in Hong Kong, training such luminaries as Bruce Lee and Wong Shun Leung.  It was a golden era for Wu style Taiji instruction in Shanghai under the direction of Ma Yueliang and Wu Yinghua.  It also saw important steps towards the formation of the new government backed Wushu and Qigong disciplines on the mainland.

So what did educated urban individuals in the 1950s really think about the martial arts?
After decades of promotion in the popular media, how much was really known about the origins and nature of these systems?  Lastly, given the vast economic, ideological and demographic shifts of the last two decades, what had the popular martial arts become?

Image of a Taiji Boxer.  Source: Burkhardt, 1953.
Image of a Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.

Public Perception of the “Modern” Martial Arts in Hong Kong

Obviously it is impossible to answer a question of this scope in a single blog post.  But to begin to address it I would like to start by focusing on Hong Kong (a critical area in the development of the post-WWII southern Chinese martial arts) and two books which were published in 1948 and 1953 respectively.

In general the more prosperous and educated elements of Hong Kong were not overly enamored with the martial arts.  Both the British administrators of the colony and the many small shop keepers and merchants who generated much of its economic activity were wary of the deep connections between certain martial arts schools and the various Triad groups and secret societies.  These organizations might be involved in either seditious or criminal behavior (such as running protection rackets), and martial arts schools were an easy way to recruit and train “muscle.”

This association in the public imagination between the martial arts and backwards lawlessness was one of the big hurdles that the reform movements of the 1920s and 1930s had sought to overcome.  While it has never totally vanished, by the 1950s it was clear that these efforts were starting to bear fruit.  Consider for instance the outsider discussion of “Chinese shadow boxing” presented in Col. V. R. Burkhardt’s Chinese Creeds and Customs (1953, South China Morning Post).

Burkhardt (D.S.O., O.B.E.) was a British military officer whose term of service took in most of the tumultuous first half of the twentieth century.  Born in Clifton in 1884, he was only 19 when commissioned as an artillery lieutenant in 1903.  In 1913 he was sent to Beijing where he studied to become an interpreter before being recalled to Europe during the First World War.

Burkhardt was once again posted to China in the early 1920s as a general staff officer in Tientsin.  He later served as the British military attaché to the ambassador in Beijing.  In 1936 he was sent to Hong Kong where he had a chance to familiarize himself with the city and region that he would write on.  After retiring in 1939 he was recalled to active duty in 1941 and was again assigned to work as the military attaché for the British diplomatic mission in China.

While a career military officer Burkhardt’s personal interests were more wide ranging.  During this various assignments he toured the countryside and proved to be a detail oriented social observer.  Following his second retirement he wrote Chinese Creeds and Customs in 1953.

This volume (a collection of short entries) really has two different aspects to it.  The first is a somewhat systematic survey of the various temples and religious sanctuaries which were still operating in Hong Kong in the 1940s and early 1950s.  In each case the author noted the location and condition of the temple and recorded certain vital facts, such as its major deity and state of repair.  A number of these institutions then received a much more detailed discussions of their day to day operations.

Burkhardt also collected a number of short stories, observations and reminisces about the state of Chinese life and society.  These are even less systematized than his discussion of popular spirituality, and were evidently selected for the entertainment and edification of his western readers.

Unlike some of the other period sources that we have reviewed, Burkhardt does not claim to be advancing a scholarly treatise.  Chinese Creeds was meant to be a popular work, albeit one with some very interesting social observations that are not readily available in other places.  For instance, many of his observations on life among the Hakka and Boat People of the 1950s are particularly illuminating.

Yet for our current purposes the “popular” nature of this work is ideal.  Burkhardt includes in his collection a short essay on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While not an expert on the subject, but being fluent in Chinese and having access to books and articles published in Hong Kong, how did he understand these systems?

This question is important on two different levels.  Burkhardt’s sources and characterization are an interesting suggestion as to what other educated middle class individuals in Hong Kong might have come to believe about the martial arts by the 1950s.

Second, published in 1953 (prior even to Delza’s pioneering Taiji Classes in New York City) this brief article would have been one of the earliest post-war English language sources on the TCMA in general and Taiji Quan in particular.  Thus his essay is of interest to those who study the history of martial arts in the west and the roots of its engagement with popular culture.

I have included much of Burkhardt’s discussion on “Chinese shadow boxing” in the following section of this essay.  In general I have attempted to focus on his introductory and concluding statements, as this is where his conclusions about the TCMA are stated the most forcefully.  Much of his original essay is devoted to somewhat repetitious and technical discussions of various attacks and defenses as suggested by Tung Ying-chieh’s 1948 volume on Taiji Quan.  These sections have been omitted from the current discussion:

Chinese Shadow Boxing

“Foreigners, passing through some secluded spot immune from the wheeled traffic, are sometimes intrigued by encountering a solitary Chinese performing rhythmic motions in a state of complete absorption which renders him oblivious to their presence.  Occasionally there is a diminutive acolyte, in the shape of a small boy, who stands a few paces behind the performer, copying his every motion.  The odds are that he has no connection whatsoever with the principal, but has seized the opportunity of getting a little free instruction in a science difficult to acquire.  It is, in fact, a system of exercises designed to give the practitioner complete balance and muscular control, firstly for the improvement of health, and in later stages for self-defense.  The Japanese, who, before they turned their eyes westward after their illusions were shattered by the invasion of Perry’s black ships, borrowed all their culture from China, probably stole the secrets and developed it along their own lines into what is now known as judo, or jiu-jitsu.

The Chinese call the science the “Great Ultimate Fist”, or T’ai Chi Ch’uan.  The symbol for T’ai Chi is the circle divided by a symmetric curve into two equal parts representing the yolk and white of an egg, the complementary forces which form the motive force of the universe.  Legend attributes its origins to one Hsu Hsien-p’ing of the tang dynasty, and it was still practiced during the brief Mongol invasion.  Chang San-feng at the age of 67 set up a school at Chung Nan Shan, which was infested with tigers, one of his pupils being Wang Chung-o.  Another disciple, Kang Feng-ch’i introduced modifications to the system and formed a southern school, but this failed to survive the death of its originator, whereas primitive methods have been handed down through various families to the present day.  The secrets were jealously guarded as the property of that closely knit and exclusive unit, the Chinese family, so that practice was not widely diffused throughout the country.

Chinese custom always demands a story to account for the origin of any practice, and these fables are usually medieval rather than primitive.  In this case Chang Sang-feng, who practiced the art in the Tiger’s Den, is said to have conceived the theory after witnessing a combat between a bird and snake.  The bird flew down from and tree and made a vigorous onslaught on the serpent who evaded the attack and again, by coiling itself so as to present no vital target to the lance-like beak.  Finally the attacker tired, and made an unbalanced movement, whereupon the snake struck like lightening.

All movements in the exercise are performed slowly and with perfect balance, and there is always a withdrawal before an advance.  In all there are thirteen movements: Eight with arms and five with legs.  Turns are made to the eight positions of the compass, the cardinals and those immediately in-between them.  The movements, all depending on circular motion, have most fascinating names such as “Returning to the mountain, carrying a tiger”, “finding a needle at the bottom of the sea”, or “a girl at her loom.”

Not only is every muscle brought into play, but the exercises act as a mental stimulus as well.  The heart is tranquilized promoting longevity, and the brain is used to activate the members, so that there is no limit to the strength exerted, which is proportionate to the will.

Taiji Boxer.  Source: Burkhardt, 1953.
Taiji Boxer. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.

To achieve the best results one should be an early riser, for it is recommended to start before sunrise, facing east to absorb the strength from the fountain of all energy.  The ordinary person takes up the study largely for health reasons as a cure for headaches, digestive troubles and rheumatism.  The exercises are sufficiently mild to be suitable for all ages to keep fit and as a relaxation from mental strain.

The advanced course is a method of self-defense against an adversary, and two partners spar with one another much as the Japanese teach judo in their elementary schools.  The defense in eight directions is said to be derived from the Pa Kua or the Eight Trigrams, which figuratively denote the evolution of nature and its cyclical changes.  They are combinations of three straight lines, arranged in a circle, said to have been evolved from the markings on a tortoise shell by the legendary Emperor Fu Shi.  The continuous line represent the Yang, or male element and the broken the Yin, or the female component.  The principle is to retire before an enemy attack, and only to counter when he has overreached himself.  The defender’s movements, like his model the serpent, are unceasing, puzzling the adversary, and denying as opening for a decisive blow.

The Colony has a great expert in the art of Mt. Tung, a northerner, who taught the system in the Pearl River estuary for twenty years prior to its “liberation.”  He attended a nation-wide rally at Nanking in Nationalist days, and was one of the twenty-six out of four hundred who lost no points in the competition.

Although a knowledge of Japanese jiu-jitsu has penetrated to every country in the world, Chinese shadow boxing seems to have been entirely neglected by foreign authors.   In Kong Kong Mr. Tung Yin-chieh has published in Chinese a comprehensive manual on the subject, entitled the “Definition of Great Ultimate Boxing” (printed by the Commercial Press) and containing a large number of diagrams and photographs.  The book opens with a foreward and testimonial from friends and pupils, and then tells the story of the bird and snake.  This is illustrated by a line drawing of a bearded man looking out of the window, and watching the contest in his front garden on the lawn between a stone pine and a banana tree.  Then follows a manuscript in the author’s calligraphy, and his autobiography.  Eight diagrams of the T’ai Chi (great ultimate) and the Pa Kuan trigrams precede an illustrated explanation of the health improving qualities of the exercises.  This seems to be no exaggeration, as those who have taken up the practices thoroughly endorse the claims advanced in their favor.

…..[Omitted is a detailed discussions of specific attacks and defenses]…..

This completes forty of the eight-one exercises detailed in the manual for self-defense.  The Chinese attach far more importance to the tranquilizing effects of the system on the mind and body than they do for its value in overcoming an opponent.  It keeps the muscles under perfect control and occupies the mind to the exclusion of everyday worries.  There are none of the dangerous locks and throws which the Japanese have introduced into jiu-jitsu, illustrating the different mentality of the two races.  A further instance is the observance of the “Double Fifth” festival, in which the sword-like leaves of the iris play a part.  In China, they are used to wrap the Ch’un-tze, or special sacrifices for the day, to ensure its safety from evil spirits, who would otherwise intercept it before it reached the virtuous official Chu Yuan, whose ghost prescribed this form of insurance.  In Japan, it is the Boys Festival, when they bath in an iris impregnated hot bath and are given iris-shaped wooden swords to inculcate a warrior spirit.

Tung Yin-chieh’s book ends with a chapter on the “Great Ultimate Swordplay” in which there are fifty one movements…..[Omitted is another  lengthy discussion of the names of movements in the various attacks and counter-attacks]……

A fully qualified boxer requires three years instruction.  The most important point is to relax and not to try too much, being content to learn one or two, and certainly not more than three movements a day.  The whole course can be accomplished in three months, with a further three for revision and correction interspersed with some gymnastics exercises.  The third three months should be devoted to the theory and fundamental rules of the Great Ultimate, before completing the year with a similar period in learning its application to self-defense.

During the second year six months should be given to cultivate balance rather than the use of force.  During the seventh month there should be daily practice with an opponent.  Then a month should be given to jumping exercises, turns and swings.  For the ninth month, muscle development is important, and the year is completed with a combination of physical exercises with jumping turning and skipping.

Sword training occupies half of the third year, and the last six months should be devoted to revision and perfection of all movements, by which time the student should be fully qualified.”

V. R. Burkhardt, 1953, pp. 88-94.

Tung Ying-chieh performing a Yang Family Sword set.  Source: http://www.chipellis.com
Tung Ying-chieh performing a Yang Family Sword set. Source: http://www.chipellis.com

Tung Ying-chieh and the Martial Arts for a New Era

There are a number of interesting points that emerge out of Burkhardt’s discussion which need emphasis or examination.  In general his characterization of the nature and role of the martial arts conforms to discussions that were being had in the Chinese language literature of the time.  During WWII it seems that every martial artist in China was training a “Big Sword Company” for guerrilla warfare and the “defense of the nation.”  The image of these immense chopping swords resonated with the west and they shaped the way that the Chinese martial arts were imagined (to the extent that they were envisioned at all) by the western public during the 1930s and 1940s.

Yet it seems that within a fairly short length of time following the close of hostilities priorities and public rhetoric once again shifted.  Increasingly instructors returned to arguments advanced by martial reformers in the 1920s and early 1930s which inevitably viewed the newly reformed martial arts as primarily a form of physical culture meant to produce health and longevity with some additional self-defense benefit.  While there were some individuals in the 1950s who remained primarily interested in the combat aspect of these pursuits, it is clear that such a view was far from universal.

I am also interested in the repeated comparisons between the Japanese and Chinese hand combat traditions.  Being written on the heels of WWII Burkhardt is less than enamored with the Japanese arts of Judo and Jiu Jitsu.  In comparison to the militarism of the Japanese schools of the 1930s he see much to recommend the resolutely civilian Chinese practice of the 1950s.  In his view it is surprising that the west has yet to take an interest in these styles.

Of course there were very few descriptions of the Chinese arts available to the English speaking public in the early 1950s.  The first comprehensive English language book on Chinese boxing would not be published until 1961 (T’ai Chi Ch’uan: Mind and Body in Harmony, an ancient Chinese way of exercise to achieve health and tranquility by Sophia Delza).  This makes the Burkhardt’s 1953 essay all the more interesting and relevant to cultural historians.

One should also note that the Burkhardt’s main source for this discussion (other than his own informal social observations) was the 1948 volume by Tung Ying-chieh (Dong Yingjie).  While there were a large number of southern martial arts practitioners in Hong Kong during the 1940s and 1950s, Burkhardt himself seems to be mostly unaware of them.  He clearly views Taiji as the superior branch of the traditional martial arts, and sees the southern clans as relatively unsophisticated, backwards and insular (teaching only within the family).

Again, this fits with a lot of public perception in the era, yet it is a tenuous view on factual grounds.  Southern China’s martial arts employ a huge range of theories, sets and training methods.  The development of “public” schools in places like Guangzhou, Foshan and other cities along Fujian’s coast probably predated similar trends in northern China by decades.  In fact, when the “reformers” of northern China first came to the south in the 1920s they had a difficult time precisely because they were forced to compete in relatively sophisticated and packed marketplaces in which a number of different players were already offering public hand combat instruction.

There can be no doubt that most of what Burkhardt knew about the nature of Chinese boxing he learned from Tung’s book and a handful of other articles in the local press.  Ironically this even applied to his understanding of the southern Kung Fu styles.  This is really significant at Burkhardt himself was a long-time resident of Hong Kong.  He was very interested in Cantonese culture and religion, and he spent a lot of time with marginal individuals and communities (such as the Boat People) documenting the more esoteric byways of Chinese life and society.

The fact that Burkhardt’s impressions of the martial arts were almost purely a result of his media and press exposure (despite his long history of field work) strongly suggests that the same would probably have been true for other educated and professional individuals living in Hong Kong in the 1950s.  This would be especially likely if they happened to come as exiles from other regions of China, or if they had no interest in the local contours of the “Rivers and Lakes” of Cantonese culture.  Of course that would probably describe a majority of Hong Kong’s population in the middle of the 1950s.

While it is often asserted that the Chinese martial arts are embedded in an ancient “oral” or “physical” tradition of transmission, this discussion reminds us of the very real and central role of texts and media in their spread and diversification in the 20th century.  It also helps to contextualize the struggles of so many southern masters as they sought to establish a teaching base and perpetuate their schools in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s while other arts, like Taiji, flourished in the region.  The success of a figure like Ip Man was highly dependent on his ability to attract middle class students, yet that would always be a struggle.

Tung Ying-chieh’s career offers some important insights into the development of the Chinese martial arts, and its general public perception, in the first half of the 20th century.  Born in 1898 in Heibi China Tung was first introduced to the martial arts as a child for medical reasons.  As a teenager he had a chance to study Hao style Taiji with Master Li Xiang Yuan.  Later he became a disciple of Yang Chengfu.  Having some literary training Tung assisted in the preparation of Yang’s 1931 book, Methods of Applying Taiji Boxing.  He even offered his own autobiographical preface to the volume:

“When I was young and in school, I was interested in martial arts. My grandfather had an old friend, Liu Yingzhou, who was good at Shaolin and was in the north and well known. I went to learn from him, but he told me: “As I am almost seventy, I am not capable. If you want to learn, the Yang family in Guangping have obtained the secret Wudang transmission. Unfortunately in my age I have known it too late and I only understand it superficially, but I recommend the Yang transmission. Go seek to learn from them. I studied for fifteen years, but alas, I am really stupid and I only know the general idea. All of my fellow students, whether elders or juniors, did better than me.”

By now I have learned from teachers everywhere. I traveled to Baoding, Beijing, Tianjin, Shanghai, Nanjing, Suzhou & Hangzhou, Jiangxi, Shandong, visiting Guangdong, Yunnan, Shaanxi & Shanxi, Hebei, Anhui, Hubei & Hunan, to martial arts masters of each province, every place in the land where there are ancient traces of it, observing ceaselessly the masters of internal and external martial arts. It has made me learn without end. I urge my fellow practitioners to work hard and study without slackening in their devotion. Nowadays I am beginning to understand the deeper subtleties of martial arts, directly due to learning and studying. Now the nation is encouraging martial arts and it is a wonderful thing that my teacher has also produced this book.

   – written with delight by Dong Yingjie of Ren county” (Translation by Paul Brennan, Nov. 2011)

In 1931 Tung followed his teacher to Guangzhou in order to found a new school.  He stayed in the region after his teacher left and established a reputation as a Yang style Taiji instructor.  Prior to WWII Tung moved to Hong Kong and then Macao during the years of the Japanese occupation.  He returned to Hong Kong following the end of hostilities and remained there until his death in 1961.

By the time that Burkhardt first encountered his book Tung was very well known in martial circles.  His book helped to establish both his reputation for technical mastery and erudition.  In addition to the Yang family version of the Taiji Classic his also included 24 of the previously unseen “Yang Family 40 Chapters” (see Douglas Wile 1996, p. 58).  This was one of the first example of this material’s public discussion anywhere.

His reputation got a tremendous boost in the local press following the famous 1954 challenge match between Taiji practitioner Wu Gongyi and White Crane exponent Chan Hak Fu.  While not directly involved in the hostilities Tung was asked to demonstrate his Taiji form for the press as part of the pre-fight show.  Given the massive newspaper coverage of this event (which literally dominated the public conversation for months) one must suspect that this could only have been good for his name recognition and commercial success.

Image of temple patron holding a large sword believed to hold mystical medicinal powers in Hong Kong.  Source: Burkhardt, 1953.
Image of temple patron holding a large sword believed to hold mystical medicinal powers in Hong Kong. Source: Burkhardt, 1953.

Conclusion: Shaping a New Martial Tradition

Perhaps the most shocking aspect of Burkhardt’s treatment of Taiji was his assertion that a detailed and complete course of study in “Chinese shadow boxing” could be completed in three years.  Very few martial arts teachers of any style today would make such a claim.  Wing Chun is supposed to be a relatively compact and simple style.  Some lineages (including my own) claim that one can go through the entire curriculum of basic training in about five years.  Still, even that timeline is too rushed for many teachers.  Suggesting that something as nuanced as Taiji could be mastered in only three years seems calculated to stretch credulity.

Yet this was another area where Burkhardt was relying directly of Tung.  In fact, his outline of a three year study program is basically a sentence for sentence paraphrase of Tung own claims in his 1948 volume.  In all fairness Tung himself expected that most of the individuals reading his book would already have some experience in the performance of the basic forms (probably also learned through the media or some other mass teaching method).  He saw his book and training program as a way to supplement a practitioner’s deep understanding of the art if they were practicing without proper instruction.

And yet it is hard to avoid the conclusion that this is yet another example of the increasing commercialization of the martial arts in the post-WWII period.  The intricate fighting systems of the 19th century were being reduced in complexity so that they could be marketed more cheaply to an ever expanding base of students.  Soon this would even include students in the west.

Is this always a bad thing?  Obviously commercialism can have harmful consequences.  Yet the creation of more efficient markets was also critical to vastly expanding the number of students who would have access to the martial arts.  This, more than anything else, is our best insurance against their untimely extinction.

Commercialization also encouraged engagement and competition between various approaches which were forced to more clearly articulate what product they were offering to potential students.  As one would expect this usually results in the production of a higher quality and more popular “goods.”  Many of the most successful current trends in the modern Chinese martial arts were actually born out of this period of intense competition and creativity which existed more than half a century ago.

As I have argued previously, market incentives have almost always been part of the Chinese martial arts.  I doubt that there was ever a golden age when these skills were passed down only for altruistic reasons.  Even closing an art down and teaching it only “inside the family” was often done as much for economic reasons as anything else.  After all, in the Qing dynasty these were potentially lucrative job skills whose monetary value to the holder diminished with competition.  Restricting access to the arts was, as often as not, just a different strategy for economic competition optimized for then current market circumstances.

I wonder whether the 1950s became such an innovative period precisely because more efficient markets allowed for greater freedom in the flow of people, capital and ideas than ever before.  It is an idea that needs more investigation.  Yet the roots put down in this decade would ultimately bear fruit in the global Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s and 1980s.

Burkhardt’s essay opens a new and interesting window onto how the traditional martial arts were perceived by educated, middle class individuals in the 1950s.  Ultimately some styles were better positioned to take advantage of the openings that the decade offered than others.  But it is clear that by the middle of the century a social space was being opened for a new kind of Chinese martial tradition, in both the east and the west.


Tai Chi Boxer.3
Burkhardt end piece, 1953.