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Chinese Martial Studies, Southern China, Wing Chun

Understanding Opium Use among Southern Chinese Martial Artists, 1890-1949.

Opium Poppy.  Source: Wikimedia.

Opium Poppy. Source: Wikimedia.

Introduction: Wu Song Beats the Tiger

One of the fascinating, yet also frustrating, aspects of Chinese popular culture is the facility with which it generates rich new vocabularies to describe the everyday minutia of life.  In some areas, most famously among Republic era criminal groups, these quirks of language could become almost an independent dialect.  The thick patchwork of euphemism and allusions managed to convey the speaker’s essential point to initiated members of the “Rivers and Lakes” (often in very colorful terms), yet it would baffle the average listener.  Indeed being fluent in the speech patterns of these groups was a valuable job skill for any member of an armed escort company and many other types of martial artists as well.

Many areas of Chinese civil society (and the martial arts are no exception) exhibit this same tendency.  Still, the areas traditionally dominated by criminal enterprises, perhaps due to the increased need for discretion, seem to have gone the farthest down this linguistic byway.  The world of opium smoking and drug abuse is a good example of this.

By in large individuals who lived in Guangzhou and southern China did not go to “opium dens” to spend time and get their fix.  Only anti-opium zealots and foreign missionaries used terms like that.  Most people claimed to go to “chatting houses.”  Indeed period accounts of opium selling establishments describe them as full of conversation as the various patrons discussed the day’s events in an atmosphere that is often sharply at odds with our current notions of what an “opium den” should be.

Likewise the act of smoking opium itself accumulated a number of catch phrases over the years.  One in particular got me thinking about the longstanding connection (at least in popular mythology) between opium use and the Chinese martial arts.  Residents of the Pearl River Delta region of southern China during the 1920s and 1930s would often refer to opium smoking as “Beating the Tiger.”

This phrase is a direct reference to the classical and very popular novel Water Margin in which the hero Wu Song kills a tiger with his bare hands while in a highly inebriated state.  The story of Wu’s exploits are among the best known in Chinese martial fiction and countless schools have named some pose, position for routine in his honor.  Yet most of us would not think of opium users as potential “Tiger killers.”

Indeed the stereotypical image of an opium addict is a shrunken, emaciated husk of a human being, lethargically dreaming away the remaining years of their life.  Nor is this view of opium consumption confined to the west.  Anti-opium campaigners in China went to great lengths to create and popularize this image during the late Qing and Republic periods.

Yet the reality of Opium use in southern China was more complex than the simple portraits produced for public consumption.  In fact the use of this drug intersected with a number of important cleavages in Chinese society.  It was used by a wide variety of individuals for different reasons depending on their economic class, social standing and physical health.

Nor can we take the Republican government’s half-hearted “crusade” for opium eradication at face value.  In truth the “anti-opium medicine” distributed by the officially licensed “opium treatment centers” was simply a highly taxed attempt at establishing a government monopoly on drug sales.  It is unlikely that any of the county or provincial offices in Republican China could have financed their day to day operations without the revenues that came from the sale of narcotics.

Given the prominent place that opium consumption occupies in our discussion of popular culture during the Republic of China, how did it influence the martial arts?  When we read accounts of martial arts masters campaigning against the use of the opium, how do these views help to situate them in the ongoing public debates of the period?

Alternatively, when we come across accounts of addicted martial arts masters, what questions should we as critical historians of popular culture actually be asking?  How common was drug abuse in southern China during the Republic period?  And if we do encounter clear evidence of drug use, how does that help us to understand the milieu that surrounded the martial arts?

This is too large a topic to fully address in a single blog post.  Instead my goal will be to provide some basic background that might be helpful in thinking about this issue, and to briefly discuss how opium intersected with three distinct issues that helped to define Chinese life during the 1920s-1930s.  These are the questions of economic class, political loyalties and access to modern health care.

A Woman Smoking Opium in Shanghai.  Source: Unkown.

A Woman Smoking Opium in Shanghai. Source: Unkown.

Political Narratives and the Limits of our Understanding of Opium Use

It would be an understatement to say that opium use was a politicized issue during the Republic of China period.  Despite frequent assertions to the contrary opium was not introduced to China from the west (though British traders did open up a new route to import supplies from India in the early 19th century).  Indeed the drug has been part of China’s traditional pharmacopeia since at least the Song dynasty and its various effects and medical uses were well understood by medical doctors.  Prior to the introduction of European imports the drug was too expensive for most poor patients to afford, but it was produced locally in some areas of China.  It was routinely used to treat the symptoms of a number of ailments ranging from asthma and tuberculosis to arthritis and declining appetite.

So far as opium’s use was confined to the well-off and generally (though not always) explained in medicinal terms, it was of little interest to the government.  However the rapid increase of imports during the 19th century created a vast new pool of peasant and urban working-class consumers.  It also created a terrifying balance of payments problem for the Chinese economy as silver began to stream out, meaning that it could no longer be used to finance the military and government.  At this point the state’s paternal duty became clear and opium use was increasingly portrayed as a social scourge with serious economic and national consequences.

Throughout the Republic period the government routinely treated all users of opium as addicts.  Further, high rates of opium “addiction” were pointed to as explanations for various social, political and economic failings.  Reformers pointed to opium use in the ranks (rather than poor leadership and the lack of modern supply lines) as the real reason behind China’s various military defeats at the hands of western powers.  Increased opium consumption by the peasants was seen as a cause for the economic impoverishment of the countryside (though unbiased social observers doubted that the countryside was in fact any more impoverished than it had been in the heyday of the Qing dynasty.)

Opium use was seen as a source of both physical and psychological weakness in the body politic.  The Japanese in particular were suspected of importing large amounts of the drug into China as part of a plot to weaken the resistance of the Chinese people (as opposed to simple greed, a more traditional motivation).  The use of opium by young men was seen as especially dangerous as it robbed the productive class of its ability to work and build the economy.  Slowly China was being reduced to a nation of wastrels.  Was it any wonder that others looked at China and called it the sick man of Asia?

The reality of the situation was much more complicated than any of the critiques by anti-opium crusaders might suggest.  Virgil K. Y. Ho has written one of the most comprehensive reevaluations of the opium issue in Chapter 3 (“The Problem of Opium Smoking in Canton”) of his volume Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period (Oxford UP, 2005).  I recently undertook a reading project on urban life and its attendant problems in Southern China during the 1920s-1930s.  So far this book has proved to be extremely valuable.

If you have any interest in these issues I suggest getting hold of a copy.  Most of the social background on opium use in this post is drawn from Ho’s examination of period source.  Unfortunately he never really addresses hand combat in his carefully researched volume.  Nevertheless, it still provides a useful starting point for a lot of discussions that will be of interest to students of Chinese martial studies.

Ho notes that it is basically impossible to find anything like official statistics on the rates of opium use or addiction in Guangzhou and the surrounding countryside in the 1920s-1930s.  One missionary reported that around 60% of the young men in the city smoked opium, but it doesn’t seem that this is a reliable figure.  The local government itself was remarkably coy in its attempts to assess the scale of the problem.  This is likely because the KMT was the largest drug dealer in the city.  Most of its records focused on the amount of money that it earned from selling narcotics franchises to various tax farming companies, and not their customers.

Still, one would never suspect this to be the case simply by listening to their rhetoric.  Sun Yat Sen’s strong denunciations of opium use were widely republished.  The government also sponsored occasional campaigns to get families to commit drug addicted members into the state run recovery programs.  It is unknown how successful these detox efforts actually were.  But given the government’s reliance on opium revenues we should not be surprised to learn that they only received half-hearted support from the state.

Ho estimates that by 1930 Guangzhou had a population of about 1 million individuals.  The various methods that he employed for estimating drug use yielded different figures, but on average it seems that the city had a few tens of thousands of serious drug addicts during most of this period, rather than the hundreds of thousands suggested by some official accounts.  Indeed opium use was a common feature of local popular culture, but according to his estimates its consumption does not seem to have reached the same levels (or had the same socially destructive effects) as what was observed further north in Shanghai at roughly the same time.

One of the problems with estimating these numbers is knowing who to count as a “drug addict.”  Official KMT propaganda cut the Gordian knot by simply treating any individuals who had used opium at any time for any reason as an “addict.”  In the case of drugs like heroine (which would become a problem later in this period) this is probably correct.  Yet Ho notes that the social reality of opium consumption was actually much more complex than that.

To begin with the drug had a long and distinguished history in traditional Chinese medicine where it was used to treat the symptoms of a number of diseases and as a general painkiller.  Interestingly enough opium was actually quite effective in many of these roles.  In fact, we still use codeine, a derivative of the same drug, for some of the same purposes today.

Ho also pointed out that most people who used opium, even recreationally, never became addicted to it in the classical sense of the term.  When prices went up they responded by consuming less or ceasing to use the drug all together.  This doesn’t mean that a number of people didn’t become addicted to it.

In fact, tens of thousands of individuals at a time became physiologically dependent on the drug.  Once established, breaking the addiction could be very difficult, with hospitals in Guangzhou and Taiwan reporting a 2-10% mortality rate for those who tried to do so even in medically supervised settings.  But this was not the experience of most people who took the drug.

A typical period postcard featuring female drug addicts.  This post card was also published in Japan, probably in the 1920s.

A typical period postcard featuring female drug users. This post card was published in Japan, probably in the 1920s.

Official accounts are full of stories of individuals being bankrupted by the exorbitant costs of opium and turning to crime or banditry.  Again Ho finds little truth to these claims.  Bandits were likely to be habitual opium users, but they tended to end up in their rarified profession for economic and social reasons that had nothing to do with opium per se.  In fact the drug was available in a number of grades and strengths that ranged from the luxurious (fine imported Indian opium) to the dirt cheap (the Japanese “red pills”).  It was the rapidly falling price of this good that allowed it to transition from a rich man’s medicine to a general feature of Chinese society in the first place.

In short, Ho concludes that much of the official rhetoric around opium consumption is somewhat deceptive.  While a dangerous substance, opium addiction rates were lower than many period accounts would lead one to suspect.  Further, the actual reasons why opium was consumed tended to be rather complex and to evade any broad generalizations.

The government’s interest in the substance is easier to grasp.  After making some initial plans to actually suppress opium consumption the KMT quickly came to realize that they could not finance their various military and political projects without the revenue stream that an official opium monopoly promised.  The party’s monopoly in this area was challenged by other factions seeking to capture a piece of the market including organized criminal gangs, foreign merchants (notably the Japanese during this period), and even certain groups within the Chinese military who wanted an independent revenue stream.  While the KMT’s official rhetoric decried opium consumption, its actual actions were less convincing.

Still, not all elements in Chinese society treated the issue as lightly as the government did.  A number of groups across the political spectrum campaigned against opium consumption.  Martial arts groups were often part of this.  The Jingwu Association sought to physically strengthen the Chinese people through the spread of the martial arts and improved hygiene.  They positioned themselves as opponents of opium consumption in an attempt to bolster their nationalist appeal.

Other individuals, such as the Taiji Quan master T. T. Liang had a more personalized understanding of the problem.  Prior to taking up Taiji Liang had been a customs official for the KMT.   One of the requirements of his job was to see that the correct shipments of drugs were received at the port, but the supply of competing dealers (including the Triads and other military groups) was kept out.  Needless to say this aspect of his career nearly got him killed more than once.

While Liang survived the more deadly encounters of his youth his constant exposure to the world of drugs, alcohol and women eventually caught up with him, landing him in a hospital at a relatively young age.  He credited his subsequent study of the martial arts with restoring his physical health and spiritual balance.

It is important to remember that the 1930s were a critical time in the evolution of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  These fighting systems were being introduced into newly expanding urban areas.  Of course these were precisely the sorts of places where vices like drug use, alcoholism and prostitution were also on the rise.

In this environment it is not hard to understand why so many individuals might turn to the martial arts as both a physical practice, but also a social structure, to help them reassert control over their lives.  Indeed, this promise of personal restoration and empowerment is central to the Republic era martial arts revolution.

Some groups, such as Jingwu and the Central Guoshu Institute, refocused this promise on the nation as a whole.  Yet I suspect that many of the era’s students were actually looking for a more personal type of salvation.  In this context the turn towards “internal training” rather than “combat efficiency” actually makes a good deal of practical sense.  Rather than simple escapism, this move was an attempt to address some of the concrete problems of the period.

Of course other martial artists would have found themselves on the opposite side of this issue.  Many of these individuals were employed either in the military or the various government police forces during this period.  Some of them would have been tasked with ensuring the proper flow of drugs.  Thus when we hear rumors, such as the persistent claim that Ng Chung So’s school was run out of an opium den in Foshan, we should stop and consider what this really implies.

If this is true (and there is not a lot of actual evidence other than hearsay at this point in time) what does this imply about the place of Wing Chun in Foshan’s larger social structure and economy of violence?  Whose opium was being sold here?  Was it officially licensed and taxed opium, provided by the KMT?  Or were these illicit drugs that came through shadier channels?

Later accounts claim that this particular “chatting house” was partially owned or run by a local gangster named “Bird Fancier Lam.”  It is also supposed to have been a well-known establishment which was patronized by the sons of many wealthy and successful businessmen (exactly the same sorts of individuals who studied Wing Chun with Ng).  If all of this true, then a fascinating picture emerges.

For purely political reasons it seems unlikely that the local gentry would hang out in an establishment that was constantly in danger of being raided whenever the government decided that they wanted to shore up their market share.  This was actually a fairly common occurrence at the time and it might lead to blackmail attempts.  The nature of its supposed clientele might suggest that Ng’s opium den was either officially licensed by the government or was at least making the proper payments to stay in their good graces (and hence to operate openly in the middle of town).

If (and this is a real supposition) all of this is true, then we now know a couple of important things about the social position of Wing Chun in the Foshan era.  This was not an anti-establishment group.  Rather it recruited from the more economically successful members of the local community, and its central school operated out of an establishment that was likely under de facto government protection.  The fact that “Bird Fancier Lam” was involved with the establishment would also suggest something about the sort of individuals who the local government was willing to team up with in the establishment of their opium monopoly.

Very often modern historical accounts assert (often with no evidence other than a hand full of oral accounts which might date back to the 1970s) that one master or another was an opium user.  The label of “addict” also gets tossed around rather freely.  I think a lot of modern martial arts students have a romanticized view of the past and simply accept that everyone smoked opium because that is what China was like.  This is not really the case.

As students of martial studies we need to consider these claims much more carefully.  It may well be that certain prominent individuals did use opium, or some other drug.  Yet this is a claim that needs to be proven.  I say that not because I am all that interested in protecting the honor of past masters.  Rather, if such an assertion can be demonstrated, it becomes as a treasure trove of social and personal information.

Individuals consumed opium for a variety of complex reasons.  Nor was there only one source for these drugs.  All of this helps us to paint a detailed picture of these individuals within local society.   Thus when we hear an account of drug use we need to consider the credibility of our sources and then think long and hard about what else this might imply about a given master’s career and social status.

Gentlemen smoking both opium and tobacco pipes.  Source: Charles J. H. Halcombe. The Mystic Flower Land. 1896.

Gentlemen smoking both opium and tobacco pipes. Source: Charles J. H. Halcombe. The Mystic Flower Land. 1896.

Who Actually Smoked Opium?  Wealth and Public Health

Ho asserts that while opium use had started out as a privilege of the rich, by the 1930s the habit was widely distributed throughout society.  Working class individuals seem to have been particularly prone to use the drug for a variety of reasons.  After all, these people were the least likely to have access to modern biology based medicine.  Thus when they had an illness, anything from a toothache to cancer, they were more likely to turn to opium to treat the symptoms of the disease rather than to go to a hospital and receive more comprehensive medical care.  And in some cases (such as the large numbers of people who died of tuberculosis each year) there simply was no effective cure to be had.

Of course the working poor had other reasons to turn to opium use.  We typically think of the drug as inducing a lethargic dream like state in the user.  This could happen when taken in large doses.  Yet opium could also have a number of other effects.  Users (particularly those who took smaller doses) reported feeling energized and less sensitive to fatigue and pain.

Individuals like rickshaw pullers, coolies and salt porters tended to use opium at much higher rates than other groups.  These were physically grueling occupations with long working days (12 hour shifts were not uncommon).  People in these professions were also likely to sustain injuries that would make it difficult to continue to work.  Yet for many such employees missing a day’s work meant going without a meal.

During normal times the average porter or rickshaw puller could buy a day’s worth of opium for about 10% of their salary (prices could spike rapidly in times of political instability).  Given the relative cheapness of some versions of the drug it is not surprising that such individuals used it as an aid to overcome the boredom and sheer physical exhaustion of their days.  It was these individuals, who turned to opium for its simulative properties, who found within it Wu Song’s elixir.  Like their hero they were also seeking to “beat a tiger.”

We often associate opium use with muscular atrophy and physical weakness.  However, as Ho points out, this is basically a myth (with the exception of some serious cases of long term addiction).  Those symptoms usually have more to with malnutrition and other underlying health concerns.  One of the attractions of opium for working class individuals was precisely the fact that it did not lead to the same sorts of physical degradation as other drugs, and thus it did not impair their ability to do physical work.  For the most part you could not tell who was a regular opium user simply by looking at them.

Opera singers were also likely to turn to opium as a source of energy and revitalization in an otherwise brutal working environment.  Ho reports that during the festival season some opera musicians might actually be forced to perform for more than 20 hours a day with only a few breaks.  Between public performances and private appearances opera singers might also face taxing schedules.  Opium was usually sold by licensed vendors at temple festivals.  Their concession fees helped to pay for the opera performance.  As such there is a traditional association between Cantonese opera and opium consumption.

This is interesting as it was precisely these sorts of individuals, people employed in steady jobs, but on the lower end of the socio-economic spectrum, that were most likely to end up as martial artists during the 1920s and 1930s.  While some martial reformers were pushing to recruit members of the middleclass, by in large the martial arts remained a powerfully working-class phenomenon in places like Foshan and Guangzhou.

Of course wealthy individuals also consumed opium.  Occasionally they even took up Kung Fu.

Ho reports that in general society tolerated opium use by elites to a much greater extent than by the working class.  Wealthy individuals were thought to tolerate the effects of the drug better because of their healthier diets and lifestyles.  I suspect that government officials also assumed that respectable members of the community were less likely to become addicted to the drug because of their superior “will-power” and “morality.”  Of course such beliefs also exempted powerful members of society from the same social constraints that were being promoted for everyone else.

Ho reports that by the Republic period every upper class home being built in Guangzhou contained a special parlor set aside where guests could be entertained and enjoy smoking exotic imported opium.  More disturbingly he notes that certain upper-class families also intentionally addicted their sons to opium smoking in an attempt to keep them in the house and away from the brothels and gambling establishments of the city where they might do real harm to the family’s fortune.

It is clear that Southern China’s upper class in the 1920s-1930s did not share the same moral panic about opium smoking which occasionally swept through the rest of society.  Still, this does not mean that everyone of financial means was an opium addict.  Rather it was seen as less of a problem than other social ills such as gambling.

Ip Man as he actually existed during the Hong Kong years.

Ip Man performing the wooden dummy form during the Hong Kong years.

Conclusion: Was Ip Man an Opium Addict?

For students of Wing Chun this entire discussion tends to become very personalized.  Starting in the 1980s there were a number of accounts that surfaced claiming that Ip Man was in fact a drug addict.  The details of these rumors tended to vary from one account to the next.  Ip Man was known to be a heavy tobacco smoker and most of the accusations suggested that he also consumed opium as well.  A few claimed that he was a heroin addict.  Indeed that drug had gained popularity during the late Republic period.

Some of these accounts focus on a period of his life in Hong Kong during the 1950s, while others purport to comment on his prior incarnation as a still carefree playboy in Foshan.  In some stories (notably one passed on by Leung Ting) his addiction is linked to an affair with a woman from Shanghai.  Interestingly none of these accounts (at least nothing that I have yet seen) claim that he was still using drugs in the final decade of his life.  This is the period that we actually have the most information about.

Judging the credibility of these accounts is very difficult.  Obviously there is a strong tendency to defend the honor of one’s teacher, especially in a period when drug use has been redefined as a serious crime.  Thus we must remember that the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.

At the same time, many of the existing accounts of his drug use have their own credibility issues.  Some are second or even third hand.  A lot of them are simply implausible.  Ip Man’s gaunt appearance late in life had a lot more to do with the fact that he was dying of throat cancer than any past drug use.  Some of these accusations seem to be an attempt by students of one generation to discredit the martial heritage of their Kung Fu brothers by claiming that Ip Man’s teachings at other times was compromised.  Only they were in a position to inherit his “true system.”  Given the nature of lineage politics these sorts of claims need to be treated with caution.

In various interviews conducted in Hong Kong my research partner has repeatedly and directly asked Ip Ching (Ip Man’s younger son who lived with him during the 1960s) about the accusations of drug use.  He has flatly denied any knowledge of his father ever using drugs, whether opium or heroin.  Of course most of the stories focus on either the 1950s (while he was still in Guangdong) or the 1920-1930s.

It is possible that Ip Man may have habitually used drugs in the past but was clean by the final decade of his life.  Still, a serious addiction is a tough thing to beat.  What Ho would remind us is that most of the people who consumed opium during the Republic period, for whatever reason, did not end up as junkies.  Nor was it usually possible so casually assess whether someone was a drug addict.  Losing weight and spending a lot of time napping are not actually evidence of drug use.  In Ip Man’s case they could well be evidence of growing old.  We often forget that he took up Wing Chun instruction in Hong Kong at the same stage of life at which most people are thinking about retirement.

Was Ip Man a serious drug addict?  There does not seem to be much in the way of actual independent and verifiable evidence to support that, at least for the later stages of his life.  Did he habitually use drugs at some point in time?  That is more plausible.  Occasional opium use was pretty common in Southern China within his social class during the Republic era.  His employment as a detective in the police department would have brought him into close contact with both the criminal and official elements that drove the area’s narcotics trade.

After reviewing the various accounts I remain hesitant to answer this question in a definitive way.  Ip Man’s life seems to be passing from the realm of “lived history” to “martial arts mythology.”  As such we need to carefully consider the ultimate origin and function of these accusations.

Regular readers of Kung Fu Tea will know that I am generally an advocate of “warts and all” biography.  Still, I am concerned that these sorts of accounts are a symptom of an “Orientalizing” tendency within the martial arts community.  Our romantic notions of the past lead us to accept a vision of Chinese popular culture and its relationship with narcotics that is actually not all that accurate.  I suspect that these sorts of stories tell us as much about Ip Man’s teenage students during the 1950s (and even us today) as they do about him.

In conclusion, these are accounts that need to be demonstrated rather than simply asserted and accepted.  If we could show that Ip Man did use certain drugs at a specific point in time, this would actually open a valuable window into understanding his place (and by implication Wing Chun’s place) in Chinese popular culture.  From a historical perspective this is a very exciting prospect.  Yet it is precisely the value of this potential discovery that necessities caution on our part when evaluating our current sources.

Of course students of Chinese martial studies will encounter very similar issues in other styles and lineages. Nothing about this issue is really unique to Wing Chun.  Instead it points to the importance of placing the martial arts within the broader framework of the era’s popular culture, rather than attempting to understand them in pristine isolation.


A weight used in the measurement and sale of opium.  Source: Wikimedia.

A weight used in the measurement and sale of opium. Source: Wikimedia.



9 thoughts on “Understanding Opium Use among Southern Chinese Martial Artists, 1890-1949.

  1. I dig your approach here. I’m ordering the book today. I’ve heard several of Kuo Lien-ying’s direct students say that he claimed to have been addicted to opium several times and that he kicked the habit each time by doing Standing Meditation (Zhanzhuang) for 6 hours…through the “shakes.” My understanding is this was offered as evidence of the great health benefits of that practice (Yiquan). Anding another interesting connection to the making of modern martial arts. It seems quite plausible and I’m doubtful there could be any other type of evidence other than a contrary opinion or another oral account, although an arrest record would be gold. Although keeping with the theme of your post, these accounts date from (and are colored by) the late 1960’s San Francisco, a center of drug positive popular culture.

    Posted by Scott P Phillips | December 16, 2013, 7:45 pm
  2. Fascinating. I like your approach here, though I also think we’ll be struggling to find any conclusive evidence. I find it interesting that the current trend of turning Ip Man into a hero seems to also require a supposed anti-opium (addiction) stance.

    Posted by Tom | February 7, 2015, 9:50 pm


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