Through a Lens Darkly (18): Chinese Martial Arts and Early 20th Century Cigarette Cards: Building the Global Image of Kung Fu.

Cigarrette card from "China's Famous Warriors" series, "Pirate Cigarettes" circa 1930s.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.  The NYPL has an extrodinary collection of ephemera, including many pieces of interest to students of Chinese martial studies.
Cigarrette card from “China’s Famous Warriors” series, “Pirate Cigarettes” circa 1930s. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library. The NYPL has an extrodinary collection of ephemera, including many pieces of interest to students of Chinese martial studies.

Introduction: Why do we study ephemera?

In many respects the study of the history of the traditional martial arts is the study of Chinese popular culture.  Sometimes we approach the subject from the perspective of political or military history, and that may be fruitful when addressing specific questions.  Yet the traditional hand combat systems (as we know them now) were a civilian body of knowledge embedded within broader market structures.  Even prior to the 20th century the martial arts were connected with performance, entertainment, literature and various ways of making a living.  In stating this I do not mean to imply that they were generally ineffective.  Rather my argument is that they were firmly embedded in late imperial popular (rather than elite or military) culture.  By the first few decades of the 20th century there can be no doubt that they had become a fixture China’s rapidly changing and growing commercial market places.

Hence when we study the history of the martial arts we learn quite a bit about a number of other subjects.  Students of Chinese martial history can contribute to discussions of the evolution of Chinese economic markets, advertising strategies, popular identities and the development of physical culture more generally.

In fact, we are actually uniquely blessed in this regard.  For a long time the development of popular culture was neglected as academic students focused only on elite actors.  Of course the elites tend to leave rich libraries of documents that are easy for scholars to identify and study.

In contrast popular culture quickly becomes almost invisible.  Most of the documents it generates are what archivists and librarians call “ephemera.”  Items like postcards, movie posters, brochures, almanacs and calendars embody a very specific moment in time.  They are designed to be fashionable and to reflect the general state of popular culture at a given moment, and then to be discarded the day they have outlived their usefulness.

And this is exactly what happens.  These documents are potentially rich sources of insights into the thoughts and aspirations of a vast stratum of society.  Yet we are constantly recycling our past in a very literal way.   Popular culture is a challenge to study precisely because we dispose of it.

But every once in a while some corner of pop-culture emerges that which decides that curating and remembering the past should be part of its essential mission.  Of course it goes without saying that most of what is “remembered” has little in common with what actually happened.  Still, the basic impulse often leads to the preservation of all sorts of material that usually gets discarded.

The Chinese martial arts community seems to have adopted exactly this attitude early in the 20th century.  As a result we are fortunate to have some surviving ephemera which helps us to understand the evolution and popular perception of these arts during the Republic of China period.

Of course it is not easy to find this stuff.  But compared to a lot of other popular sub-cultures we really are blessed.  Further, the window that these documents open onto the past provides an interesting witness to the evolution of Chinese popular culture as a whole.

I think that ephemera is interesting precisely because it was never meant to have an afterlife.  Consider for instance the difference between a postcard (something that we have dealt with previously in this series) and a book.  In our last post we saw how a single book published by Tung Ying-chieh in 1948 had the power to shape popular perceptions of the martial arts in Hong Kong a decade later.  This is certainly an important aspect of how literature works in popular culture.  Books are meant to be read, preserved and thought about.  Even penny-novels are in conversation with all of the stories in the genera that have come before as well as all of the stories that will emerge in the future.  Books talk to one another, and in so doing they have an uncanny ability to project themselves through time.

Most ephemera is not like that.  Obviously there are some exceptions (propaganda posters spring to mind).  Yet in general ephemera does not start out with a sophisticated argument and a plan to craft public perception of some issue ten years down the road.

At heart most ephemera is actually advertising.  That means that its creators knew that they only had a split second to convince the viewer that this is something interesting, to build a sense of empathy between themselves and their audience.  As a result these items attempted to capture the public mood and culture that already existed.  In so doing they became a Polaroid picture of a specific moment in popular history.

The images that ephemera promote are still aspirational.  They are not a reflection of China as it actually was.  Yet these little scraps of paper generally do a good job of informing us of what sorts or aspirations (and hence fears) people actually had.

Verso of the previous card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Verso of the previous card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Cigarette Cards and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

In previous posts within this series have already dealt with certain categories of ephemera.  Both postcards and tourist pictures fit into this category.  Press pictures, meant to be printed in a daily newspaper, also seem to fall into this general category.

Today’s post will introduce and examine a new category of ephemera that many readers might be less familiar with.  From about the 1880s to the 1940s cigarette manufactures in North America, Europa and Asia created collectible cards which were included in their packaging.  Initially cigarettes included a blank piece of cardboard to stiffen the pack, but it wasn’t long before manufactures realized that they could print advertising on this flat surface.

Of course advertising is useless if no one looks at it.  As a result American (then British) manufactures began to create long series of collectible cards hoping to catch the attention of the smoking public.

From the beginning sporting themes were popular.  American cards often featured baseball players, while British offerings focused instead on cricket or football.  Warships, heraldry, bare knuckle boxers and detailed instructions for raising backyard chickens all found their way onto collectable cards.

Some of my favorite cards from the early 20th century actually focus on pets.  Many manufactures created cards providing images and descriptions of the various breeds of dog that were popular at the time.  The appearance of different breeds tends to evolve, so these images are an important witness both to the appearance and popularity of certain dogs prior to WWI.  Other brands issued beautiful sets of cards illustrating all of the various exotic parrots and canaries that were commonly seen in the pet trade during the early 20th century.  Again, these cards are an important source of information on what aviculture was actually like during the 1910s and 1920s.

Still, “manly purists” tended to dominate the cigarette cards of the early 20th century.  Various aspects of physical and military culture were perennial favorites.  Also the late 19th and early 20th century was the high point of western imperialism around the globe.  As a result cards which portrayed life in the exotic colonies were quite common.

These trends conspired to make the Chinese martial arts a somewhat popular subject on early 20th century cigarette cards.  Most of the cards that feature these themes seem to be manufactured by British companies.  This is not surprising given the importance of trade in Hong Kong and Shanghai to the economic health of the empire.

The cards themselves were produced in a variety of ways.  Some featured photographs that were reprinted onto the card stock.  This was rather rare, and most images seem to have favored color illustrations instead.  These were usually plain with minimal background, but occasionally embossed examples show up.  The quality of the images can vary tremendously from one series to the next.  Very early illustrated cards were actually printed on silk which was then attached to the card-stock, but I have not seen any martial arts related examples from this era (prior to WWI).

One of the other things that I find really interesting about these cards is the variety in their intended audience.  Obviously the earliest cards were an attempt to sell cigarettes to western audiences by tapping into the allure of things like team sports, boxing champions and exotic images of Chinese beauties.  However, the late 19th and early 20th century was also the first great era of trade expansion.  We often assume that globalization is a new phenomenon, but that is not really the case.  It was not until the late 1970s that we reached the same levels of global trade that we had enjoyed prior to 1914.  And trade in finished goods (as opposed to parts and unfinished products) still has not risen to 1914 levels.

What this means in practical terms is that very soon the consumers of these brands of cigarettes started to change.  Rather than British companies using images of the exotic East to sell their product to working class individuals in Liverpool or Bristol, they soon discovered that they needed to use those same images to sell their products to vastly larger pools of consumers in Shanghai and Hong Kong.  Needless to say the nature and tone of some of these images changed, but it is fascinating to see a British corporation based out of the UK commissioning collectible illustrations of Chinese stories and popular operas of high enough quality to attract the attention of Chinese consumers.

It is almost as though the images of the Chinese martial arts found on these cards come with their own directional signals which correspond to the evolving flows of trade.  At first these are images about China aimed at the west.  Then increasingly they are images from China, aimed at Chinese consumers.  Lastly there are also images from China that are aimed at a western export market.  There can be no doubt that these cigarette cards are an exercise in the commercialization of both Chinese culture and the martial arts.  Yet it is fascinating to watch all of the directions and by-way through which these images flow.

Consuming and Collecting the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

Many of the cigarette cards produced in the west and intended for western audiences are essentially orientalist in nature.  Chinese beauties (in various states of dress) were a common theme.  But images of exotic “Joss Houses,” crowded Chinese streets and burly heroes carrying large chopping swords were not far behind.  In fact, the first image presented at the top of this post fits the bill nicely.  This advertisement for “Pirate” Cigarettes (one of the many brands owned by W.D. & H.O. Wills out of Bristol) looks as though it may have been produced in the 1930s.

Pirate Cigarettes were sold in China and were marketed to both a western and Chinese audience.  As such, advertising images like this one were very common.  Chinese consumers enjoyed the references to the “108 Heroes” of stories like Water Margin or Romance of the Three Kingdoms.  For western consumers the images of fierce warriors and heavy dadaos also evoked familiar, though quite different emotions.

Other early cards targeted only a single audience and were less sophisticated in their market message.  The following card issued by Ogden’s Guinea Cigarettes is a good example of this.  The most remarkable thing about this particular card is that it features an actual historical photograph rather than an illustration.

A group photograph of an archery class or society.  Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.
A group photograph of an archery class or society. Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.

This card was one of a series that Ogden issued attempting to cash in on the notoriety of the Boxer Uprising and anti-western violence with their European customers.  It is unlikely that the card actually shows a group of violent revolutionaries.  Instead this appears to be a very rare image of some sort of civilian archery society or class.  All of the individuals in this photograph carry bows with the exception of one individual who has an ancient matchlock.  None of them appear to carry swords or other weapons, and all are ethnically Han.  The horse in the background also indicates that they are practicing mounted archery.  This actually appears to be a pretty significant photograph, so it’s a shame that we don’t know a little more about the actual identity of its subjects.

"Chinese Proverbs" Series by "Pirate Cigarettes"  Circa 1930s.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Proverbs” Series by “Pirate Cigarettes” Circa 1930s. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

The next card, like the first, was distributed with “Pirate” brand cigarettes.  It is more likely that this was part of a run marketed primarily to Chinese consumers in Shanghai or some other large city.  This card was part of a much longer series illustrating popular Chinese sayings or aphorisms (notice that no English translations have been provided).

The card itself shows four children, two girls pursing indoor activities and two boys practicing boxing in the yard.  A number of recent posts have addressed the involvement of women in the Chinese martial arts, but this is a great illustration of the fact that in the 1930s hand combat was still seen as an overwhelmingly gendered activity.

"Chinese Tale" Cigarette Card, Unknown Manufacturer.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Tale” Cigarette Card, Unknown Manufacturer. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Verso of the previous card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Verso of the previous card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Literary references to hand combat  were quite common.  In fact, it appears that this was the primary medium by which most people were exposed to images or ideas from the martial arts.  One popular tactic with advertisers was to include serialized wuxia stories on the cigarette cards.  These would be illustrated with images of action on one side, and short passages on the other.  It appears that classic stories and novels were popular in these settings, likely because the consumers were already familiar with the plot and identified with the characters.

While literary references to the martial arts seem to be more common than anything else, there are a few other contexts in which the martial arts appear.  A number of different tobacco companies offered cards that illustrated the various industries or trades of “traditional china.”  Many of these cards focused in handicraft production and marketplaces.  Some were aimed primarily at Western audiences, while others were actually marketed directly to the Chinese themselves.

"Chinese Trades."  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Trades.” Pinhead Cigarettes.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Verso of the previous card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Verso of the previous card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
"Chinese Trades." Cigarette Card, unknown manufacturer.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Trades.” Cigarette Card, Pin head Cigarettes. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

The preceding cards appear to fall into the latter category.  Both were marketed by an American company.  They show images of classic marketplace martial arts demonstrations.  These individuals would demonstrate their athletic prowess in an attempt to generate a crowd.  They would then pass the hat or attempt to sell patent medicines to the audience.

Consumers in America would have known nothing about this tradition and there is no indication that these cards were ever intended for their consumption.  Instead these scenes would have been quite familiar to any Chinese individual in the 1930s.  This was probably the only exposure to the actual practice of the martial arts that most individuals had.

Cards focusing on economic categories also included images of traditional Chinese opera.  When directed at western audiences these images usually focused on highly stylized representations of various painted faces.  I have actually seen some beautifully done art deco cards on this subject.

Opera cards intended for Chinese audiences tended to be a little more detailed.  Very often they focused on either the sumptuous costumes of the actors or a specific scene from a well-known play.  Occasionally they would have short texts contextualizing the images.

One of my constant frustrations as a researcher is trying to find old photographs of actual martial arts performances in “military” operas.  In Cantonese opera plots that focused on military themes were actually very common up through the 1940s, but they do not seem to have left much of a visual record.

"Chinese Stage Shows" Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Stage Shows” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
"Chinese Stage Shows." Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
"Chinese Stage Shows." Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
“Chinese Stage Shows.” Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

Each of the three preceding cards is quite helpful in this respect.  They clearly illustrate the sorts of stage action that was popular in regional opera performances in the early 20th century.  I quite like the image of actor fencing with two swords in the first photograph.

However I have never seen anything quite like the throw being executed by the “female” warrior in the third card.  This sort of action would have been impossible to capture with a camera.  I think that this card really presents a sense of the physical dynamism that drove these performances.  It is also a valuable reminder of how ephemera helps to augment the photographic record when attempting to build a mental image of what something (like a turn of the century opera) might actually have been like.

Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collection NY Public Library.
Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collection NY Public Library.
Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Cigarette Card.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Cigarette Card. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.

The last sequences of images falls into a different category.  Occasionally tobacco companies would illustrate a series of cards meant to teach some specific skill.  Popular subjects might be knot tying for sailors, airplane identification, or in one memorable case, backyard chicken keeping.  I suspect that the skills being offered by these cards suggest more about the aspirations and dreams of consumers than their actual circumstances.  If one already owns a yacht you probably know all of the knots that you will need.

A number of cards purport to give consumers special tips on the actual performance of the martial arts.  In this case they illustrate a posture and provide a brief explanation.  On the surface this seems like an absurd way to go about learning the martial arts (and highly ironic if one considers the health risks of smoking).

Still, most of the style manuals that were being mass produced in the Republic of China era didn’t really offer their readers much more than a few illustrations and a brief description either.  In fact, when put in that context these collectable cards appear to fit squarely within the tradition of manual writing which had prevailed from at least the time of General Qi Jiguang onwards.

No tendency is more common in martial arts circles than to disparage the futility of attempting to “learn Kung Fu from a book.”  Yet from the 1920s to the 1940s media, self-study and possibly the occasional seminar was precisely how a lot of individuals in China were being introduced to the martial arts.  I suspect that this was probably especially true for some of the most common arts, like Taiji, which were exploding in popularity with the generally literate and well off middle-class.

One of the things that I found most interesting when reviewing Tung Ying-chieh’s 1948 work on Yang style Taiji (produced while he was in Hong Kong) was his quite frank admission that most of the people buying his book would have learned Taiji without a traditional teacher through the media. Further he believed that his own book could help to correct their issues on put them on a better path.  Why would he have thought this?  By the middle of the 1950s Yung himself was a minor celebrity in Hong Kong, so he probably understood the reality of the interplay between the martial arts and media quite well.  This last set of cards provides another illustration of the same general trend.

Conclusion: The Commercialization of the Martial Arts during the Republic of China Period.

Each of the preceding cards points to some unique aspect of the commercialization of the martial arts and Chinese martial culture.  Of course they also serve to remind us that through mediums like story-telling, opera and wuxia novels, martial culture had been enjoyed as an explicitly commercial activity for some time.  The very fact that these were civilian arts which occurred in a market setting (rather than in the military or a cloistered religious order) suggests that it is actually quite hard to see them as anything else.

The globalization of the early 20th century did not change this essential aspect of the Chinese hand combat systems.  What it did was to open new pathways by which the supply of these systems could meet the growing demands of consumers.  By expanding to fill a variety of needs and market niches the traditional arts insured their own survival.

The great irony of the 1920s-1940s is the frequently heard claim that the traditional arts were “dying” and in danger of extinction.  Martial reformers in movements like Jingwu and the Central Guoshu Institute argued strenuously that if the government did not devote substantial resources to reforming the martial arts that these systems (and a large part of China’s national culture) would disappear forever.

Many modern students of Chinese martial studies simply take these claims at face value and accept without question the idea that the Republic was a time of crisis for the martial arts.  But should we?  I suspect that the answer is actually no.

Ephemera, such as the preceding tobacco cards, are just one more piece of evidence that the martial arts were doing fine.  In fact, they were doing incredibly well.  It is probably the case that they had never been as popular, or were practiced by as many different sorts of people, as they were during the 1920s-1930s.  Across China we see the establishment of vibrant markets in hand-combat instruction which were both bringing the arts to new students and incubating new fighting styles.

Yet the social values that dominated many of these markets appears to have been slightly different from those being promoted by China’s most ardent and modernist reformers.  I suspect that the real reason behind the frequent calls for government intervention and backing was not that the martial arts were dying, but rather that a certain vision of what they should be in the future was not shared by this new crop of students.  Popular literature, oral histories and ephemera are important precisely because they help us to build a more robust view of the past.  They also help us to understand the arguments made by elite reformers within their proper social context.


Verso of the "Chinese State Show" series.  Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.
Verso of the “Chinese State Show” series. Source: Digital Collections of the NY Public Library.


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