Scenes from a local Monkey God Festival Southern China, 2006.  Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.
Scenes from a local Monkey God Festival, Southern China, 2006. Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.


This is the third entry in my short series on the local opera traditions of southern China, particularly as they relate to the development of modern martial culture.  The first essay addressed the persistent (but poorly understood) relationship between local opera troops and radical politics in the Pearl River Delta region of Guangdong province.  This is a particularly important question for individuals who are interested in the history of Wing Chun and the relationship between the martial arts and anti-government activity more generally.  The second entry in this series takes a much closer look at life on the Red Boats and considers what we know about the social and organizational structures of Cantonese Opera companies between the 1870s and the 1940s.

Much of southern Chinese martial arts folklore valorizes and focuses on the period of the “Red Boat opera companies.”  As we have already seen, these stories appear to conflate events from a number of different traditions and time periods, presenting a simulacrum of the past.  This is not to say that local opera traditions had no impact on the development of the regional martial arts.  I suspect that they were actually an important avenue by which new styles were developed, refined, advertised and spread.  But to appreciate how this happened in a historical sense we may need to move beyond folklore and take a closer look at the relationship between opera and other elements of Chinese popular culture.

The previous two essays have helped to get this process started.  Still, we have encountered a number of difficulties.  One of these is what I have referred to as the “curtain of silence” which seems to descend on our understanding of popular culture in Guangdong during the 1850s.

It is just a basic fact of historical research that we always have more resources to study recent time periods than older ones.  In short, we know more about local popular culture in the 1920s than we do the 1820s.  Given the sheer level of disruptions in southern China during the mid 19th century (the first and second Opium Wars, the Red Turban Revolt, Taiping Rebellion, the Small Sword Uprising, the Punti-Hakka Clan Wars etc…) it is not hard to understand why we might have more surviving records about the latter part of the century than the former.

Most of the information that we currently have about Cantonese opera dates to the period after the lifting of the Opera Ban and the subsequent reemergence of the art in the 1870s.  Yet martial arts historians are very interested in how these traditions functioned and contributed to the development of the region’s martial culture in the first part of the century.

Unfortunately I have yet to locate any high quality contemporaneous accounts of local opera in Guangzhou or Foshan that we can draw on.  While theater was quite popular in the region most of the fans (and the performers themselves) had only limited literacy.  Local gazetteers and other elite accounts do mention vernacular opera traditions, but they are not usually discussed in a way that is helpful for our current purposes.

Rather than providing detailed descriptions of opera companies, their social function, training methods, or even the types of performances that they staged, most elite commentators simply make a loud show decrying these performances as unsophisticated and indecent at best, and dangerously heterodox at worst.  Such accounts actually tell us a lot more about elite culture than they do about how the more plebian classes viewed and interacted with theatrical traditions.

Of course we also have no good accounts of local operas written by foreign scholars in Guangdong prior to the 1850s as westerners were not allowed to venture much beyond their “factories” (really warehouses) in Guangzhou.  A handful of adventure seekers (and intelligence officers) occasionally made it further up the Pearl River, but these trips were often cut short by angry mobs.  A number of such travelers never managed to return to tell their tales.  Given the open conflict between westerners and local residents in the 1840s and 1850s, this attitude is not really all that hard to understand.  Still, it limits the range of resources that modern historians can call upon.

What we really need is a solid account of local opera traditions.  Preferably this account should be provided by a skilled social observer.  It would be nice if this individual were writing from a western perspective as he would be less likely to take critical details (often omitted by elite commentators) for granted.  The more ethnographic the account the better it will suit our needs.

Ideally this description should seek to situate theater performances in within their proper social context.  How were they related to local temple festivals?  Who paid for these performances?  What sorts of other activities (commerce, ritual, gambling) surrounded an opera performance?  Lastly, it would be very helpful to have a description of a “martial arts play” and a discussion of how hand combat skills were presented on stage and received by the audience.

An engraving of Robert Fortune as he appeared in the 1850s and 1860s.  Source: Wikimedia.
An engraving of Robert Fortune as he appeared in the 1850s and 1860s. Source: Wikimedia.

Robert Fortune: Botanist, Explorer and Industrial Spy

While we may not possess such an account for Foshan or Guangzhou, if we head up the coast towards Fujian and Zhejiang the situation improves.  These areas had their own regional vernacular opera traditions which, while distinct, shared many basic commonalities with Cantonese Opera to the south.

Both of these areas (and much of Southern China) were explored by a Scottish botanist and scientist named Robert Fortune (1812-1880).  He was especially active in the area between 1853-1856.  These are critical years for students of martial studies due to their proximity to events like the Taiping Rebellion, the Small Swords Rebellion (in Shanghai) and the Red Turban Revolt (in Guangdong).  Fortune, who kept extensive diaries and travelogues, observed many of these events and was among the first individuals to publish first-hand accounts of them in the west.

Like many of the early European explorers and residents in China, Fortune is a fascinating character.  It would be almost too easy to adapt his life into a screen play.  Unlike other luminaries of the period he was not born into a position of wealth or power.  His parents were extremely poor and Robert started his career as a gardener at a local estate at a young age.  He must have impressed his employer because in 1839 he secured a position at the Botanical Gardens in Edinburgh.  There he gained a patron in John Lindley and eventually was appointed to be the superintendent of the Chiswick ‘hothouses’ of the Horticultural Society of London.

At this time scientists in the United Kingdom were actively studying and classifying the plants of the ever extending empire.  The completion of the Opium Wars opened five new “treaty ports” to European visitors in China.  While this was expected to be a great boon to trade it also meant that explorers, biologists and geologists would gain access to vast new areas of China that had never been previously explored or documented by western students.

Fortune was immediately sent to China on a mission to identify, classify and gather new species of plants and flowers.  Over the coming years he would be the first western scientific observer to travel through many areas of the Chinese countryside.  He would also be responsible for bringing a number of important ornamental species back to the west.

Luckily for us Fortune published extensive notes on his travels in four different volumes.  They are: A Journey To The Tea Countries Of China; Including Sung-Lo And The Bohea Hills (1852); Two visits to the tea countries of China and the British tea plantations in the Himalaya (1853); A Residence Among the Chinese (1857); Yedo and Peking; A Narrative of a Journey to the Capitals of Japan and China (1863).

While each of these works has proved to be a valuable resource, some caution is required when reading them.  Fortune was not always entirely candid about his locations and activities (especially in the earlier period of his activity in China).  Much of the country’s interior was still formally barred to foreigners (other than missionaries).  Apathy on the part of local officials, occasional bribes, and a crumbling political infrastructure allowed Fortune to explore areas where foreigners were technically banned.

In other cases more devious measures were needed.  Like Thomas Taylor Meadows, Fortune occasionally resorted to elaborate disguises and other ruses to gain access to particularly sensitive areas.  But why go to all of this effort to collect new plant specimens?

It will probably not come as a great shock to discover that Fortune’s missions were not entirely scientific in nature.  In at least some cases his main aims were actually industrial espionage.  China was a major exporter during the 18th and 19th century.  Some of their exports were so successful that they were actually causing a global currency crisis (this was one of the immediate causes of the Opium War in the 1840s).

At least two of these exports, tea and silk, were agricultural products.  Tea had become a critical commodity in the European trade system and the British East India Company had decided that rather than paying the Chinese for the product they should simply set up production in India.  This would allow them to establish their own export business.

Nevertheless, there were substantial barriers to entering the tea market.  The plants themselves were not widely available outside of China.  Nor is the processing of tea for consumption an easy process.  It was a lengthy and involved procedure whose details were a tightly held secret within China.

A period print illustrating the different stage of processing raw tera leaves.  The information in this image was first recorded by Robert Fortune.  Source: Joseph Williams, 1850.
A period print illustrating the different stage of processing raw tera leaves. The information in this image was first recorded by Robert Fortune. Source: Joseph Williams, 1850.

While tea had become a critical commodity in Europe, Western science understood almost nothing about the plant or its commercial potential.  Prior to Fortune’s first trip Europeans actually believed that green and black teas were produced by two different plants.  In actual fact the only difference between the two products is in how they are processed (black teas are fermented).  Yet even after witnessing the process and bringing back proof Fortune had trouble convincing others that this was the case.

The process by which Fortune disguised himself, impersonated a traveling official and gained access to various processing facilities is a fascinating tale.  Unfortunately it is beyond the scope of the current post, but interested students can learn more about it from both his own writings and other more recent sources. While most of the plants which he smuggled out of China failed to thrive in India’s alien climate, the scientific and industrial knowledge that Fortune brought back was critical to the establishment of the British export tea industry.

This success was a real blow to the Chinese economy and it led to a substantial deterioration in their balance of trade.  Of course that contributed to increased domestic economic problems and social dislocation.  In fact, Fortune’s involvement with the tea industry is a prime example of both the potential and hazards of economic globalization.

An interest in botany is seen throughout Fortune’s many journals and books.  Luckily for us he was also a good social observer with a keen nose for local color.  While not a linguistic scholar, Fortune appears to have had a decent command of Chinese, and was even fluent in multiple dialects.

Some of his later readers have commented that he had a “complicated” view of the Chinese people.  Yet compared to many of his contemporaries I find him to be fairly positive and open minded.  He did not have trouble making friends in his travels and he was always at pains to point out to western audiences that the vast majority of Chinese people were hard working and industrious.  They were in no way the violent zealots that were so often portrayed in the western press.

Still, it is clear that he liked some areas of the country more than others and was not afraid to express his opinions in blunt terms.  He was more comfortable in northern China than the south, and was particularly wary of Guangzhou and its inhabitants.  Still, given the level of open hostilities in the area in the 1850s I am not sure that I would classify this as an “irrational prejudice.”  These individuals often did have a hostile attitude towards foreigners which was not yet seen in other areas of the country.

Critics have also pointed to Fortune’s hostility towards Chinese folk religion and ritual practices.  He disliked popular superstitions and fortune tellers, but so did the local gentry in practically every district of the country.  He found little value in China’s indigenous religion, but I am not really sure how much stock he put into the western institutions of the faith either.  The middle of the 19th century was a high point of rational humanism in the west, so I have never really been sure whether Fortune was uniquely intolerant towards the Chinese, or if he simply carried the standard prejudice against all religions which was popular in many circles during that period.  I have never had a chance to delve deeply enough into his biography to figure this one out.

Still, my general impression is that Fortune had a lot of sympathy for the Chinese people.  He seems to have approached certain topics more thoughtfully than a number of his contemporaries.  His observations on the Taiping Rebels were ahead of their time, and he clearly attempts to check his own cultural prejudice while discussing topics like foot-binding.  In his discussion of the controversial subject he choose to interview actual medical specialists about the results of the practice rather than resorting to the sorts of derision that was common in the popular press at the time.

In some specific ways Fortune’s observations are less useful than those provided by Meadows.  I suspect that this comes down to the men’s backgrounds and mission.  Fortune was essentially a scientist and occasional industrial spy.  While he was generally a detailed observer, plants and agriculture dominated his interests.

Meadows, on the other hand, was a more conventional intelligence officer.  He made wonderfully detailed notes about the sorts of criminals, gangsters, toughs and corrupt officials that made up the underside of Chinese life.  He was probably the better observer of people and personalities.  Yet when read together the works of these two men can give us a much better understanding of the milieu that gave rise to the modern Chinese martial arts.

In the following section of this essay I quote at length from an account that Fortune provided of a river expedition in Zhejiang.  On this particular trip he was fortunate enough to come across a town on the eve of a major Temple festival.  The staging of local operas were to be the main attraction, and Fortune was kind enough to provide a description of a particularly well received “military play.”  Readers should also note his description of how the opera performances fit into both the social and commercial elements of the temple festival.  Here he provides fascinating details, right down to the sorts of snacks that were consumed by individuals of different classes while watching the opera.

A temporary stage erected for the Monkey God Festival, 2006.   Almost all operas at temple festivals were traditionally performed on temporary stages like this one.  Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.
A temporary stage erected for the Monkey God Festival, 2006. Almost all operas at temple festivals were traditionally performed on temporary stages like this one. Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.

A Trip to the Opera

When the tide turned to run up we again got under way, and proceeded on our journey.  In the afternoon we reached the hills; and as our little boat followed the winding course of the stream, the wide and fertile plain through which we had passed was shut out from our view.  About four o’clock in the afternoon we reached the town of Ning-Kang-jou, beyond which the river is not navigable for boats of any size; and here I determined to leave my boat, and make excursions into the surrounding country. [p. 246]  It so happened that I arrived on the eve of a fair, to be held the next day in the little town in which I had taken up my quarters.

As I walked through the streets in the evening of my arrival great preparations were evidently making for business and gaieties of the following day.  The shop fronts were all decorated with lanterns; hawkers were arriving from all parts of the surrounding country, loaded with wares to tempt the holiday folks; and as two grand theatrical representations were to be given, one at each end of the town, on the banks of the little stream, workmen were busily employed in fitting up the stages and galleries,–the latter being intended for accommodation of those who gave the play and their friends.  Everything was going on in the most good-humoured way, and the people seemed delighted to see a foreigner amongst them, and were all perfectly civil and kind.  I had many invitations to come and see the play the next night; and the general impression seemed to be, that I had visited the place with the sole intention of seeing the fair. [p. 247]

Retiring early to rest, I was up next morning some time before the sun, and took my way into the country to the westward.  Even at that early hour—4 A.M.—the country-roads were lined with people pouring into the town.  There were long trains of coolies, loaded with fruits and vegetables; there were hawkers, with cakes and sweet-meats to tempt the young; while now and then passed a thrifty housewife, carrying a web of cotton cloth, which had been woven at home, and was now to be sold at the fair.

More gaily dressed than any of these were small parties of ladies limping along on their small feet, each one having a long staff in her hand to steady her, and to help her along the mountain-road.  On politely inquiring of the several parties of ladies where they were going to, they invariably replied in the language of the district “Ta-pa-Busa-la,”—we are going to worship Buddha.  Some of the younger ones, particularly the good-looking, pretended to be vastly frightened as I passed them on the narrow road; but that this was only pretense was clearly proved by the joyous ringing laugh which reached my ears after they had passed and before they were out of sight. [P. 248]

[omitted is a discussion of foot binding in which Fortune notes that the custom is nearly universal in his present location and in the eastern provinces more generally, regardless of social class.  It is still common in the south [Fujian and Guangdong] but it is less universal.  In this area certain groups, such as the boat people and many peasant women do not bind their daughters feet.]

[P. 251]

About eight o’clock I returned to the town, and took the principal temple on my way.  The sight which presented itself here was curious and striking one.  [p. 252] Near the doors were numerous vendors of candles and joss-stick, who were eagerly pressing the devotees to buy; so eager were they, indeed, that I observed them in several instances actually lay hold of the people as they passed; and strange to say, this rather rough mode of getting customers was frequently successful.

Crowds of people were going in and coming out of the temple exactly like bees in a hive on a fine summer’s day.  Some halted a few moments to buy their candles and incense from the dealers already noticed; while others seemed to prefer purchasing from the priests in the temple.  Nor were the vendors confined to those who sold things in the worship of Buddha.  Some had stalls of cakes and sweetmeats, others had warm and cold teas, snuffbottles, fans, and hundred other fancy articles which it is needless to enumerate.  Doctors were there who could cure all diseases; and fortunetellers, too, seemed to have a full share of patronage from a liberal and enlightened public.

In front of the altar other scenes were being acted.  Here the devotees—by far the largest portion being females—were prostrating themselves many times before the Gods; and each one, as she arose from her knees, hastened to light some candles and incense, and place these upon the altar, then returning to the front, the prostrations were again repeated, and then the place was given up for another, who repeated the same solemn farce.  And so they went on during the whole of that day,–on which many thousands of people must have paid their vows to these heathen altars.

Women offering prayers and incense at the Monkey God Festival, 2006.  source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.
Women offering prayers and incense at the Monkey God Festival, 2006. source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.

[In the following section Fortune describes two small antiques, a porcelain bottle and an old seal, that he bought in the marketplace which he thought might be of interest to antiquarian readers.]

[P. 254]

The streets of the town were now crowded with people; and the whole scene reminded me of a fair in a country-town in England.  In addition to the usual articles in the shops, and an unusual supply of fruits and vegetables, there was a large assortment of other things which seemed to be exposed in quantity only on a fair-day.  Native cotton cloths, woven by handlooms in the country, were abundant, –mats made from a species of Juncus, and generally used for sleeping upon,–clothes of all kinds, both new and second-hand,–porcelain and wooden vessels of various sorts,–toys, cakes, sweetmeats, and all the common accompaniments of an English fair.

Various textile fibers of interest were abundant, being produced in large quantities in the district.  Amongst these, and the chief, were the following: — hemp, jute, China grass (so called)—being the bark of Urtica nivea—and the Juncus already noticed.  A great number of wooden vessels were made of the wood of Cryptomania japonica, which is remarkable for the number of beautiful rings and veins which show to great advantage when the wood is polished. [p. 256]

In the afternoon the play began, and attracted its thousands of happy spectators.  As already stated, the subscribers, or those who gave the play, had a raised platform, placed about twenty yards from the front of the stage, for themselves and their friends.  The public occupied the ground on the front and sides of the stage, and to them the whole was free as their mountain-air,–each man, however poor, had as good right to be there as his neighbor.  And it is the same all over China:–the actors are paid by the rich, and the poor are not excluded from participating in the enjoyments of the stage.

The Chinese have a curious fancy for erecting these temporary theaters on the dry beds of streams.  In traveling through the country I have frequently seen them in such places.  Sometimes, when the thing is done in grand style, a little tinsel town is erected at the same time, with its palaces, pagodas, gardens, and dwarf plants.  These places rise and disappear as if by the magic of the enchanter’s wand, but they serve the purposes for which they are designed, and contribute largely to the enjoyment and happiness of the mass of the people.

On the present occasion I did not fail to accept the invitations which had been given me in the earlier part of the day.  As I did not intend to remain for a great length of time I was content to take my place in the “pit,” which I have already said is free to the public. [p. 257] But the parties who had given the play were too polite to permit me to remain amongst the crowd.  One of them—a respectable-looking man, dressed very gaily—came down and invited me to accompany him to the boxes.  He led me up a narrow staircase and into a little room in which I found several of his friends amusing themselves by smoking, sipping tea, and eating seeds and fruits of various kinds.  All made way for the stranger, and endeavored to place me in the best position for getting a view of the stage.

What a mass of human beings were below me! The place seemed full of heads, and it was impossible to see them, so densely were they packed together.  Had it not been for the stage in the background with its actors dressed in the gay-coloured costumes of a former age, and the rude and noisy band, it would have reminded me more of the hustings at a contested election in England than anything else.  But taken as a whole, there was nothing to which I liken it out of China.

The actors had no stage-scenery to assist them in making an impression on the audience.  This is not the custom in China.  A table, a few chairs, and a covered platform are all that is required.  No ladies are allowed to appear as actresses in the country, but the way in which the sex is imitated is most admirable, and always deceives any foreigner ignorant of the fact I have stated. [P. 258]

In the present instance each actor repeated his part in a singing falsetto voice.  The whole interest of the piece must have lain in the story itself, for there was nothing natural in the acting, the sham sword-fights perhaps excepted.  One or two of these occurred in the piece during the time I was a spectator, and they were certainly natural enough, thoroughly Chinese and very amusing.

"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.

An actor rushed upon the stage amid the clashing of timbrels, beating of gongs, and squeaking of other instruments.  He was brandishing a short sword in each hand, now and then wheeling around apparently to protect himself in the rear, and all the time performing the most extraordinary actions with his feet, which seemed as they had to do as much of the fighting as the hands.

People who have seen the maneuvering of Chinese troops will not call this unnatural acting.  But whatever a foreigner might think of such “artistes,” judging from the intense interest and boisterous mirth of a numerous audience, they performed their parts to the entire satisfaction of their patrons and the public.

“How-pa-how,” said my kind friends, as I rose to take my leave; “Is it good or bad?”  Of course I expressed my entire approbation, and thanked them for the excellent view I had enjoyed of the performance through their politeness.  It was now night—dark—the lanterns were lighted,   the crowd still continued, and the play went on.  Long after I left them, and even when I retired for the night, I could hear, every now than then borne on the air the sounds of their rude music, and the shouts of applause form a good-humored multitude.” [p. 259]

Robert Fortune.  1857.  A residence Among the Chinese: Inland, on the Coast, and at Sea.  London: John Murray, Albemarle Street. pp. 246-259

Another scene from the Monkey God Festival.  Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.
Another scene from the Monkey God Festival. Source: Photo by Samuel Judkins.


This was not the only opera performance that Fortune had the good luck of seeing while pursuing his other projects in the countryside.  However this was probably the one that he was able to study the most closely as his presence did not become a distraction to the audience and the actors on stage.

Given the archaic dialects that most local operas were performed in, we probably should not be surprised that Fortune has little to say on the libretto.  Still, his social observations are invaluable.  I particularly liked the rich image he painted of the sudden upswing in vibrant commercial activity which accompanied the festival.

It is important to remember that traditional opera performances did not occur in a vacuum.  Instead they were the natural extension of a larger set of rituals which defined these sorts of local festivals.   Following Durkheim we should then expect that these basic ritual behaviors would express, and give an almost tangible form to, certain key elements of society at large.

Martial culture and violence was clearly one of those social facets which needed to be expressed and controlled (or rather balanced and put to its proper use) during the course of the temple festival.  The individuals in this account lived in a time of great social disorder.  One wonders if the expression of violence within opera was a way of symbolically containing and harnessing these forces, thus reinforcing the community’s core social values.

On a more technical note I found Fortunes description of the night’s martial performance to be fascinating.  While it is clear that most elements of the acting were highly abstract and stylized, the presentation of hand combat on the stage was quite different.  He felt a vitality and “naturalism” which was at odds with the rest of the performance.  From his description it seems that that audience also noted, and took particular relish, in this change of pace.

I have often wondered how “realistic” (for lack of a more precise term) 19th century opera performers attempted to be in their portrayal of the martial arts.  Obviously this would have an important effect on how these early actors were trained.  It would also impact how audiences would perceive the various hand combat styles.

The current account offers one answer to this question.  Fortune was not a “military specialists,” but he clearly saw the performance that night as possessing both a high degree of virtuosity and reflecting actual boxing practices.  I must confess that I am also particularly fond of this account as it features an interesting description of a hudiedao or shuangdao (double short swords) routine during the 1850s.  This again points to the widespread popularity of this weapon along China’s southern and eastern coasts during the middle of the 19th century.

It should also be noted that a few things were missing from Fortune’s accounts which deserve further consideration.  I found it odd that he did not mention gambling as part of the local festival even though he was quick to point out other vices such as the sudden appearance of fortune-tellers.  I wonder if this was merely an oversight, or if perhaps the village elders had somehow managed to squash this particular vice.

It is an interesting topic to consider as opera’s were often played in close proximity to gambling.  Further, this pastime time was often controlled by organized crime.  I have long suspect that this is one of the ways in which opera troops might have gotten themselves into actual trouble as they moved from one temple festival to the next.

Nor does Fortune tell us very much about the troop itself.  Did it arrive via the river (as he did), or was this a local troop maintained by a member of the gentry?  How many musicians were in the pit?  Did they only perform on a single night, or did the performances go on for multiple days (as one would probably expect)?

Again, Fortune’s interests lay more in China’s plants and agriculture than its social customs.  Still, this is one of the earliest detailed accounts of a local southern opera performance that we have in the English language literature.  It suggests quite a bit about the nature of early 19th century opera and the sorts of martial arts performances which audiences had come to expect.  It also provides a wonderfully detailed image of the fair like atmosphere that surrounded the events.  Overall this is a valuable firsthand account of a Southern Chinese opera performance in the generation before the emergence of the more famous Red Boats of the 1870s-1930s.


If you enjoyed this article you may also want to read: Butterfly Swords and Boxing: Exploring a Lost Southern Chinese Martial Arts Training Manual.