At first individuals like Sun Lutang, Chan Wah Shun, Mok Kwai Lan, Li Pei Xian and Cheung Lai Chuen would not seem to have much in common aside from their love of the martial arts. Collectively they hail both northern and southern China. Some of them championed well known internal styles such a Taiji, while others taught smaller regional arts, or even created their own fighting systems. Some of these individuals were well known throughout the world of the Chinese martial arts during their own lifetimes, while the impact of the others was distinctly local in scope.
One of the reasons why I started the “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists” series was to explore the wide range of variation in the careers of traditional hand combat teachers in the Republic of China period. Even when we restrict our field of study to a specific geographic area (such as the Pearl River Delta) it quickly becomes evident that there was not a single pathway to martial attainment or fame.
Yet for all of the differences, there are also some important patterns that arise within the biographies of these masters. Some of these similarities reflect the influence of larger systemic forces within Chinese society. Identifying these structural factors is a critical exercise for students of martial studies.
Not only will this help to reveal the environment within which these well-known masters lived, it will also clarify something about the forces that shaped the lives of China’s many lesser-known martial arts teachers and students. These systemic variables had a direct impact on the evolution of the traditional fighting systems during the 1920s and 1930s. In fact, much of what we now think of as the “traditional Chinese martial arts” was first codified during these years.
Any investigation of these systemic factors requires us to look beyond the martial arts and turn our attention towards broader trends within Chinese society. Obviously the 1920s and 1930s were a time of great social change. Rapid industrialization, the growth of nationalism, changes in China’s global trade position, reforms in education and new ideas about social organization and gender were all prominent features of this era. Each of these factors impacted the development of the traditional Chinese martial arts in some way.
The current post introduces an equally important, though less frequently discussed, variable to our equation. The Republic era was also one of rapid urbanization. As increased commerce and trade created new employment opportunities in the cities, farmers and landlords alike flocked to these rapidly growing urban centers.
Other individuals were forced off the land and out of their villages as life in the countryside deteriorated. Frequent clashes between various warlord armies, the increased imposition of illegal taxes, social decay accompanying the spread of the opium economy and the breakdown of traditional clan structures (especially in Guangdong) all contributed to the growth of cities.
While urban poverty and crime were real problems, life in the city offered many immigrants opportunities for both stability and material advancement. Education, entertainment, consumption and liberalized values were all things that defined urban life during the 1920s.
Of course China’s vibrant urban economies also offer more room for economic specialization and the creation of small businesses. This was yet another critical factor drawing an entire generation of martial arts teachers to China’s growing cities. As the martial arts grew increasingly commercial it was necessary to go where the paying customers could be found.
Urbanization and the Chinese Martial Arts
Rapid urbanization had an important impact on the development of the traditional hand combat systems. This first struck me when I was working on my book manuscript detailing the social history of the martial arts of Guangdong province. In preparing my manuscript I quickly discovered that I was telling not one story, but two. Trends that affected the development of the martial arts in the countryside (banditry, rural militias, crop-watching societies) were quite distinct from the factors that were leading to the simultaneous development of a cohesive marketplace in martial instruction in the cities.
In these places the martial arts increasingly functioned as a pastime for urban workers and a networking device for new arrivals from the countryside. Petty crime certainly existed in China’s sprawling urban areas. By 1930 Guangzhou had over 1 million residents most of whom did not fit any definition of “middle-class.”
Yet increasingly concerns about the health and well-being of individual students, and the nation as a whole, came to dominate the more urban and “modernist” discussions of the martial arts. While certain professional hand combat teachers might move back and forth between the countryside and the city, it quickly became evident to me that their two sets of students were living very different lives.
This is not an entirely new process, but it is one that has advanced with stops and starts. In his discussion in Chinese Martial Arts Peter Lorge notes the importance of the growth of cities (and the development of a new urban culture) during the Song dynasty to the development of a distinctly civilian martial tradition. This is especially evident when one looks at the role of the traditional hand combat systems in the entertainment and theatrical industries.
Victoria Cass explored the further development of urbanization during the Ming dynasty, with its own set of aesthetic and cultural values, in her volume Dangerous Women. We have already seen how her work on urbanization can help us to understand the social geography of the Chinese martial arts. In fact, Cass does a particularly good job of explaining in basic terms the fundamental urban/rural cleavage that runs through Chinese society from the late imperial period to the modern day. While the social distinctions between these two areas have not always been openly contested, each region has generated its own culture and set of social values.
The conventional wisdom in the historical literature seems to be that the official adoption of a conservative brand of neo-Confucianism during the Qing dynasty turned the spotlight back to the countryside. This reinforced China’s long standing tradition of privileging the virtuous, pious, frugal and rustic existence of rural farmers as the basis of Chinese society. Rural peasants were thought to live in harmony with the land, and thus had a better intuitive understanding of humanity’s place in the universe. They were seen as having a better chance of attaining virtue than their urban neighbors and were also thought to live healthier and happier lives.
Of course most of the degree holders and social elites extolling the virtues of the countryside actually spent a good deal of their time in market towns and regional cities. These places offered more opportunities for education, career advancement and entertainment. One should probably take the late imperial homilies to the idyllic countryside with a grain of salt. Yet it does appear that for much of the Qing dynasty it was the deeply patriarchal, family centered, pious values of the countryside which were held up as national exemplars.
This (like so much else) started to change in the 19th century. That change accelerated towards the end of the Qing dynasty and it rocketed forward throughout the Republic period. As conditions in the countryside deteriorated, and those in urban areas improved, reminisces of the rural life became less rosy. In fact, China’s May 4th Reformers increasingly saw the countryside as a backwards mess of superstition and conservative values which were holding the country back.
These intellectuals were concerned about the lack of economic innovation and growth in most rural areas. They were unhappy with the treatment of women in traditional villages and they rightly concluded that the state of public health was appalling. Lastly, they were flabbergasted by the seeming lack of interest in national politics (and the question of “revolution” in particular) which most peasants exhibited. As nationalism grew in the cities they found it hard to excuse the apathy of the countryside.
Rather than being pious, virtuous or happy, increasingly individuals from the countryside were seen simply as uneducated and unintelligent hicks. Their manners of dress and speech were increasingly viewed as legitimate targets for public derision both in the marketplaces and newspapers of China’s largest cities in the 1920s and 1930s. Within a single generation the countryside had gone from being the spiritual heart of the Chinese nation to an acute problem holding back the development of the nation.
Ironically it was the millions of individuals streaming from the countryside to China’s large cities each year that were fueling this change. Many authors have remarked at how fast these immigrants assimilated into city life, changing their manner of dress, speech and association. This is especially evident when looking at the growth of Guangzhou and other cities in southern China.
Virgil K. Y. Ho has published one of the most comprehensive studies of urbanization in Southern China in his 2005 Oxford UP volume, Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period. Another important contribution to our understanding of this process has been made by Michael T.W. Tsin in Nation, Governance, and Modernity in China: Canton, 1900-1927 (Stanford UP, 2000).
Due to its comparatively early development, and its formative role in the Nationalist Revolution, the Cantonese citizen of Guangzhou had a very highly developed sense of their own urban identity. This communal identification was reinforced through unflattering comparisons to life in the countryside just beyond Guangzhou’s municipal borders. Whereas urban dwellers were thought to be smart and sophisticated, rural residents were increasingly seen as a negative influence on society and a threat to the progress of the city.
Ho notes that during the late 1920s Guangzhou’s police were instructed to stop and search any resident of the countryside entering the city. Because the countryside was increasingly associated with civil disorder the thought appears to have been that these individuals might be carrying weapons. In reality there were probably more than enough weapons in Guangzhou to keep the local criminal elements armed, yet this is an interesting benchmark of popular opinion.
Ho further relates a stomach churning incident in which a large crowd of Guangzhou natives gathered in the streets to mock and harass an older disabled woman from the countryside who was attempting to ask for directions. Eventually the police had to intervene and they took the woman away. Rather than criticizing the behavior of the crowd for bullying a disabled woman, the local newspapers instead reported this as yet another example of a country bumpkin getting what was justly coming to them for daring to enter the city.
Other authors have given lengthy accounts of the development of this new form of urban culture during the Republican era. Given the constraints of the current essay we do not have the space to review them here. But the preceding examples from Ho should be enough to illustrate two very basic points. First, by the 1920s the populations of China’s urban areas were increasingly losing empathy for their rural cousins. Secondly, it was urban values that were on the ascent nationally.
Under these conditions it is not really much of a surprise that recent immigrants would strive to shed any vestige of their rural roots as quickly as possible. To do anything else was to invite public ridicule and suspicion. Nor were these changes restricted to the individual realm. As the martial arts were imported to China’s rapidly growing urban centers during the 1920s and 1930s they too found it necessary to change. On the one hand these styles had to continue to appeal to their core constituency, urban workers who may have grown-up in the countryside. Yet it was also necessary to prove that the martial arts could be urban, modern, scientific and middle-class if these arts wished to thrive in their new environment.
The Urbanization and Social Reform in the 1920s
Most readers will be familiar with the legacy of the May 4th Reformers. These intellectuals were a critical force in the development of Chinese society and culture during the post-imperial period. Through public speeches, newspaper editorials and journal articles they relentlessly campaigned for fundamental reforms in Chinese society.
They sought to transform the educational system, literature, sports, military, industrial and economic policies. “Modernization” became the byword for this era of China’s history. These individuals attacked the “backwards superstitions” of the past and advocated a new future based on “rationalism” and “science.” Only through a comprehensive system of social and political reforms would the Chinese nation be able to take its rightful place on the global stage.
The May 4th reformers had a critical impact on the reemergence of the traditional martial arts during the Republic period. Of course most of these individuals remembered only too well the disastrous Boxer Uprising and did not want to see a resurgence of interest in the traditional fighting systems. So far as they became involved in debates surrounding physical culture they tended to favor scientifically and militarily proven methods of training imported from the west.
Still, their arguments clearly articulated the basic standards that any aspect of China’s traditional culture would have to meet in order to win a place within the new nation. It would have to be “rational” rather than “superstitious”, “open” rather than “sectarian,” “modern” rather than “traditional,” and most of all it needed to claim to be compatible with the scientific worldview. During the 1910s and 1920s various reformers within the martial arts community went about arguing that the traditional Chinese fighting system either did, or with some minor modifications could, meet all of these benchmarks. Chen Gongzhe is a good example of an individual who dedicated his career to this quest.
Still, most martial artists during the 1920s did not enjoy Chen Gongzhe’s elite background, extensive education and wealthy upbringing. Many of these individuals were not fully literate. Thus it is unlikely that they actually encountered the opinions of the May 4th Reformers in learned journals or newspaper editorials. But that does not mean that their careers were not impacted by these debates.
While reading about the development of popular culture in Guangzhou, I was struck by the fact that almost all of the values promoted by the May 4th intellectuals were distinctly “urban” in their origin. Like other liberals they saw China’s rising cities as the best hope for “national salvation.” Those traditional structures that they claimed were holding China back (superstition, sectarianism, greed, sickness etc.…) were all ills that by the 1920s had come to be strongly associated with the countryside.
Andrew Morris, Brian Kennedy and others have noted the important impact that these intellectual reform movements had on elite practitioners of the traditional arts during the 1920s and 1930s. It is clear that both the Jingwu Association and the Central Guoshu Institute were explicitly created and structured to rebut the claim that the martial arts were a backwards, sectarian and superstitious practice.
Yet I suspect that this conversation was more or less confined to elite circles in China’s eastern and southern cities. Neither of the aforementioned institutions actually had much success penetrating into the countryside and interior provinces, even though the martial arts tended to be very popular in these areas. Most practitioners of the martial arts probably experienced these debates as part of the larger conflict between “urban” and “rural” values rather than as an intellectual exercise carried out in elite publications.
Of course there had always been some martial artists in China’s major cities. Guards, soldiers, opera performers and local gangsters all used the traditional hand combat systems to make a living. Yet it is important to remember that the vast majority of urban dwellers had no personal experience with the traditional martial arts.
Things were different in the countryside during the end of the Qing dynasty. Many areas had to rely only on local measures to keep the roads free from bandits. During the middle of the 19th century village militias had become common, and almost every area of the country employed some form of crop-watching society. With few opportunities for recreation, the martial arts became a popular pastime in a number of farming villages during slack times of the agricultural calendar.
A wide variety of people in Chinese society practiced some aspect of the martial arts. Yet when you look at the absolute numbers it quickly becomes clear that boxing was an overwhelming rural pastime. Poorly educated individuals from the countryside were much more likely to be involved with the martial arts than their more prosperous urban cousins. Further, those individuals in cities who did practice these systems were often at the bottom of the social hierarchy (guards, gangsters, opera singers) which further damaged the public perception of the martial arts in urban areas.
As rural individuals streamed into the cities during the early 20th century they brought their rural boxing traditions with them. It was not uncommon for unskilled or semi-skilled workers at a single factory to pool their resources to hire a martial arts teacher from their home town. These new urban martial arts associations helped workers to form a mutual support society in what might otherwise be a hostile environment. Beyond martial training and physical recreation workers found that they now had a voluntary institution that allowed them to network, learn about new employment opportunities and even organize to press their demands. The famous Hung Sing Association in Foshan is a classic example of exactly this sort of group.
Yet this same institution which made the city more livable for so many economic immigrants continued to be a very visible reminder of their “outsider” status. Boxing was overwhelmingly seen as an activity for “country bumpkins.” Further, many of the social values perpetuated by these organizations (a closed and exclusive membership list, reliance on traditional cultural forms, use of esoteric physical and spiritual practices) were directly at odds with the aggressively modernist values which had come to dominate urban spaces.
A lot more research needs to be dedicated to how specific groups dealt with these challenges. It would appear that for some groups the “martial arts association” became a locus of resistance against the emergence of this new modernist discourse and the social and economic disruption that went along with it. Once again I wonder if the Hung Sing Association (especially with its later alliance with the local cells of the CCP) might be an example of this.
Other groups, such as the Jingwu Association, went in the opposite direction. They sought to fully embrace the critique of the May 4th intellectuals. The goal of Chen Gongzhe and the other leaders of this organization was to show that it was not necessary to totally abandon Chinese culture in order to modernize and “save the nation.” Indeed, Chinese forms of physical culture (such as the martial arts) could be reformed and made just as rational and “scientific” as German drill or western gymnastics.
Jingwu aggressively marketed its vision of boxing to China’s growing middle class. To do so they reformed the martial arts to be compatible with urban values. Each of the major aspects of the Jingwu organization, from its attempts to root out “superstition” and replace the traditional Sifu relationship with modern coaches, to its promotion of hygiene and public health, can be seen as a very targeted response to some aspect of the urban critique of rural culture and by extension the martial arts. Even Jingwu’s promotion of diverse recreational pastimes (such as roller-skating or photography) and its embrace of gender equity can be seen as the adoption of the urban values of the Shanghai and Guangzhou cultural elite.
This full-throated endorsement of urban culture and its promotion of “social modernization” was critical to Jingwu’s success in most of the major cities along China’s eastern coast. Its patriotism and concern with “national salvation” was another manifestation of this same tendency, and one that helped it to spread its influence to the expatriate communities of South East Asia. Yet by adopting such a strong position on the question of social values Jingwu ensured that it would enjoy less success in the interior and countryside. These were areas where rural values still held sway.
Of course these two strategies were not the only options. It seems that there were a variety of martial arts teachers and associations that attempted to straddle the divide between these two more extreme approaches. I think that the Wing Chun clan of Foshan and Hong Kong is a good example of this.
Ip Man, Ng Chung So and Yuen Kay San were clearly urbane, sophisticated individuals. They grew up in relatively privileged surroundings and enjoyed good educations. While they spent most of their time in Foshan rather than Guangzhou, it is pretty clear that they participated in the era’s turn towards “more sophisticated” urban values.
Still, Foshan was not considered to be a true urban center by residents of Guangzhou or Hong Kong. Indeed this market town retained its own rather well developed sense of local identity. While its social values seem similar to those seen in Guangzhou, they remained somewhat more sympathetic to the surrounding countryside.
One suspects that Ip Man was well aware of the critiques of the martial reformers of the 1920s and 1930s. It is hard to imagine that someone with his interests, social connections and educational background could have avoided them entirely. In his own approach to the martial arts he too adopted the rhetoric of “modernization” and “science.” He exiled any discussion of such traditional concepts as the “five elements” and “eight directions” from his teaching of the art during the Hong Kong period. Likewise his creation myth is careful to cultivate a concern for the welfare of the nation.
Yet at the same time there are certain undeniably “rustic” elements to Wing Chun that would probably not have been tolerated in a system like Jingwu. While Ip Man reformed the way that material was introduced in his classes he was careful to maintain the traditional Sifu/student relationship. Many period accounts suggest that he went out of his way to project the image of a somewhat mercurial Confucian gentleman in his speech and public bearing. And for all of his dislike of stories of mysterious Qi powers and wandering monks, he still passed on a genealogy that traced his art to Ng Moy, an equally enigmatic Shaolin nun.
Martial Culture and Urbanization: Resistance, Assimilation and Selective Accommodation
It is clear that Ip Man wanted to promote Wing Chun as a “modern art.” Yet one suspects that this probably meant something slightly different to him than to the founders of the Jingwu Association or the Central Guoshu Institute. They were attempting to assimilate the dominant urban values of the day into their newly created martial systems. In so doing they hoped to prove that the martial arts were in fact a fit vehicle for promoting the welfare of the “modern nation.”
Ip Man’s goals appear to have been more tightly focused. He too wished to separate himself from certain aspects of the practice of the traditional martial arts. Yet this was a repositioning of his art within the existing community rather than a radical break with the past. Indeed it was ideas about the past, and possibly a desire to reconnect with it, that attracted many of Ip Man’s students in the Hong Kong period.
His goal seems to have been to build a bridge between two competing, and very real, value systems. On the one hand he promoted a modernist and nationalist discourse, but not at the expense of the Shaolin Temple and other traditional markers of southern Chinese martial culture. All of this stands in opposition to other more severely traditional martial arts associations in Guangdong and Hong Kong which sought to preserve a more robust image of the past and, to some degree, traditional rural values.
Throughout the Republic period the martial arts remained a vehicle for the social advancement of talented youth from the country. For these individuals a martial education was a means to both employment and geographic mobility. Very often this pathway brought young martial artists to China’s rapidly growing urban areas.
Yet the cities offered challenges as well as opportunities to new immigrants seeking to find their fortune. This was especially true for martial artists who were importing a skill-set that could be seen as strongly at odds with the dominant urban values of the day. A variety of strategies were available to these martial artists. Whether they chose resistance, assimilation or selective accommodation in any specific instance speaks not only to their own background and resources but also to the fluid nature of Chinese martial culture in the 1920s and 1930s.