Dadaos held by two soldiers in front of a temple in Beijing.  Source: Author's personal collection.
Dadaos held by two soldiers in front of a temple in Beijing. Source: Original photograph.  Author’s personal collection.


Introduction: Anti-Foreignism in Republican Guangdong

Students of the traditional Chinese martial arts are frequently reminded that until very recently these systems were “closed” to outsiders.  Then, in the wake of Bruce Lee, Kung Fu masters around the world decided to magnanimously open their schools to foreigners.  Needless to say this was very different from the “good old days” of the 1920s-1930s when the traditional hand combat systems were used to protect the Chinese nation and fight imperialism.

Such accounts have become accepted as basically a “common sense” interpretation of the popular history of the Chinese martial arts within the global market.  Yet Prof. Thomas A. Green has pointed out that we should be cautious when approaching such stories.  In his 2003 essay “Sense in Nonsense: The Role of Folk History in the Martial Arts” he points out that many of these accounts bear all of the markers that one would expect to see in “popular legends.”  These stories serve an important social function (reinforcing group solidarity and passing along a shared world view) while at the same time enrobing the styles that pass them along in the halo of ancient and exotic achievements.  Rather than complaining about strenuous training practices, modern students should be grateful that they even have access to such secrets at all.  It wasn’t always the case.

Of course this does not mean that some teachers might not have carried a genuine antipathy towards the west, or foreign things in general.  Yet the frequency of these attitudes is something that should be studied, rather than simply assumed from the handful of (mostly post-WWII) accounts that we usually discuss.

Virgil K. Ho has recently argued that historians tend to vastly overstate the strength of anti-western and anti-foreign sentiments in Guangdong province during the Republic period.  Both western and Marxist historians have tended to favor a few stridently vocal nationalist voices which are readily apparent in the written historical record, while ignoring the opinions of the vast majority of the areas citizens and business owners. These individuals generally had a more nuanced, and positive, assessment of the foreign districts of Guangzhou (Shameen) as well as western dress and custom.  Hong Kong’s relative political stability and dedication to the “rule of law” was often held up by middle class citizens of Guangdong who tired of the KMT’s corrupt business practices and frequent expropriations of private wealth to make up government budget shortfalls.

This is not to say that Guangdong was unimportant to the formation of Chinese nationalism, or that there were not real periods of tension (and even violence) between the western powers and the local communities in southern China.  There certainly were.  The Hong Kong strike of 1925-1926 comes to mind as one such example.

Rather Ho’s point is that it is dangerous to generalize from these exceptional cases.  Most citizens of southern China had no problems separating their anti-imperialist concerns from a more generalized feeling of “anti-foreignism.”  After all, the local economy was deeply impacted by globalization.

In Ho’s words, the population had learned that there were both friends and competitors within the international sphere.  Of course this degree of nuance (or perceived indifference) did not always sit well with the more strident May 4th Reformers and nationalist thinkers.  [For more on this topic see Virgil K. Ho. “The Limits of Hatred: Popular Attitudes Towards the West in Republican Canton.” in Understanding Canton: Rethinking Popular Culture in the Republican Period. Oxford University Press. 2005. 49-95].

Ho makes a number of interesting points.  Yet his reassessment of the degree of anti-foreignism in southern China could probably be expanded.  One might start by considering the historical record left by the explosive growth of the martial arts in the area during the Republic era.  This renaissance was getting underway precisely during his period of study.  Further, the many links between the local martial arts schools and the region’s political and economic debates suggest that if you wish to understand the development of nationalism in southern China during the 1920s and 1930s, this would be a good place to start.

"Sword Dancer."  Image circa 1910, distributed circa 1930.  Source" Vintage Postcard.
“Sword Dancer.” Image circa 1910, distributed circa 1930. Source: Vintage Postcard.

The Role of “Folk History” vs. “Invented Tradition” in Kung Fu

At first glance the Pearl River Delta’s marketplace in hand combat instruction would seem to poses a serious challenge to Ho’s assertions.  Compared to earlier eras (and even the 19th century), our understanding of the evolution of Republican arts is much more complete.  This was a time when many new styles were created and others underwent fundamental transformations.

As part of this process many schools created or updated their historical and genealogical accounts.  We have already discussed how and why this process happened in a number of other places. What is central for the current conversation is that during the 1920s-1930s a vast body of quasi-historical literature was created around the traditional fighting arts.  Some of this was published in “official” boxing manuals that were sold to the public; other elements of it were distributed in semi-fictionalized newspaper stories chronicling the exploits of national or local heroes.

Much of this material was specifically edited and cobbled together for consumption by martial arts students.  These historical accounts usually contained the specific lineage of instruction for a given fighting school, technical aphorisms to aid students, and legendary accounts of the martial genius of the style’s founders.  Very often this material was passed on through a loosely regulated process of oral instruction, and much of it has survived to the present day.

Green notes that while the historical reliability of such accounts is often shaky at best (with many of them being no better than badly written fiction) this sort of “folk history” can be invaluable to students of martial studies.  The actual purpose of such folklore is to speak to the struggles and challenges that these martial artists faced in their own day.  The norms, identities and beliefs that these stories actually convey are those of Republican China, not the distant past.  Citing James C. Scott, Green asserts that these stories are “weapons of the weak.”  They were consciously promoted and used as narratives of resistance by socially and politically marginalized groups who sought to rally support and promote change.

Martial artists were often (though not always) working class individuals.  The economic and social changes of the 1920s-1930s had a profound impact on this group.  Nor do they usually receive a lot of attention in our studies.  Thus the folk history of hand combat schools opens a window onto the concerns, and potentially the anti-foreign beliefs, this important social class.

If this is indeed the case, the folk history of the Republican martial arts offers a seeming cornucopia of xenophobic bias.  This material will actually be pretty familiar to modern readers as many of these stories have become the recycled plots for the last 60-70 years of Hong Kong Kung Fu films.  Stories of the noble (but ultimately doomed) Shaolin monks fighting off the imperialism of the foreign Qing dynasty is the standard starting point for much of this mythology.  Other accounts embroider this basic tapestry with foreign wrestlers (often Russian or British) who seek to humiliate the Chinese people and Japanese villains who assassinate local heroes.  Nor should we forget the corrupt local officials backed by western money and weapons.  Toss in a motive for revenge (and possibly a rivalry with another kung fu school) and one has the plot for a decent number of martial arts films.

This is not the first time that I have considered Green’s essay on folk history. I have found his work to be quite helpful in thinking about these issues in other areas.  In the current post I would like to try something slightly different.

In the conclusion to his essay Green points out that folk history is in many ways analogous to Hobsbawm and Ranger (1983) ideas about “invented tradition.”  They argue that the category of invented tradition includes ideas that were specifically created by a known author, or entire complexes of pseudo-historical practices that arose rapidly (say over the course of a few years), but whose originators are less clear.

These innovations are often a response to some sort of change in which the political, cultural or economic elite attempt to craft institutions that will allow them to create social stability, cement their relationships with other actor and legitimate the basis of their influence through reference to older historical practices.  Hobsbawm and Ranger were writing from a Marxist historical perspective.  Subsequent scholars have found this concept to be a useful tool for analyzing the power implication of the creation of new institutions which claim a “traditional” heritage.

Green notes that his ideas about “folk history” share many of the same social implications and insights as the concept of “invented tradition.”  Yet he cautions readers that when considering the martial arts we should bear in mind that these institutions are “consciously organized and utilized rather than invented.”

Yet to what degree is this always the case?  Are the modern Chinese martial arts exclusively the domain of “folk histories?”  And how would it impact our assessment of anti-foreign sentiment among southern China’s martial artists if we were to learn that elements of this discourse were actually generated through a mechanism closer to what Hobsbawm and Ranger imagined?

Other scholars have found the concept of “invented tradition” to be quite helpful when considering the evolution of the late 19/early 20th century Asian martial arts and their relationship with nationalism in the region.  Consider Inoue Shun’s chapter “The Invention of Martial Arts: Kano Jigoro and Kodokan Judo.” in Stephen Vlastos (ed.) Mirror of Modernity: Invented Traditions of Modern Japan (University of California Press, 1998).  He argues quite persuasively that we should think of Kano’s creation of Judo, and the subsequent development of Meiji era “budo,” as an example of invented tradition.  This “tradition” was once again re-invented following Kano’s death when Japan’s political elites decided that they needed a new set of tools to promote their own vision of nationalism.

The development of late Qing and Republic era hand combat did not happen in a vacuum.  The reformers within China’s martial arts sector were acutely aware of what was happening in Japan.  Some, like the noted martial arts historian Tang Hao, even went to Japan to study these developments first hand.  Many more asked why their martial arts could not be reformed and purified along similar lines to promote both the physical and spiritual strength of the Chinese nation.

A number of groups immediately undertook this task.  The two best known examples of these are the Jingwu (Pure Martial) movement, which dominated the martial arts landscape for much of the 1910s-1920s, and the later government backed “Central Guoshu (National Arts) Institute.”  This later group had a critical impact on the development of the martial arts during the 1930s.  Together they span the entire Republic era.

While these groups were important, and had a major impact on the way that the martial arts were actually practiced, readers should not assume that they simply had a free hand.  Both groups had trouble penetrating into areas of the countryside that were not controlled by the ruling KMT factions.  For that matter neither group moved much beyond the major urbanized centers of the eastern and southern coastal regions.

They also faced substantial competition from countless smaller, more traditional, regionally focused schools.  In fact, this plethora of small schools was precisely the “problem” that these reform movements sought to solve.  Traditionally the martial arts had been an expression of local culture, and most schools were oriented towards their parochial sponsors and concerns.  The Republic era reformers sought to create a new institution that would do away with these local schools and create a modern reform movement that would strip the martial arts of their feudal, secretive and superstitious ways while creating a powerful force for advancing a unified, militant, expression of Chinese nationalism.

Of course there was one major with problem with this.  While writers in the 1930s liked nothing more than to predict the imminent death and collapse of the traditional martial arts (which could only be saved through their reform programs), the actual facts on the ground usually told a different story.  Starting in the 1920s southern China saw a general revival of interest in its many local martial arts schools.  Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar, White Eyebrow, Dragon, Southern Mantis and Wing Chun each blossomed during this period.  These trends continued to accelerate in the 1930s.

The traditional arts were not dying.  Instead they had learned how to successfully compete in the newly urbanized market for hand combat instruction.  Incidentally this was something that the reformers always found a bit more challenging (hence their frequent cries for government support and subsidization).  In retrospect the 1930s was the golden age of traditional Kung Fu in southern China.

Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the later Jingwu Association, another liberal group seeking to use the martial arts to reform and "save" chinese society.
Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the Jingwu Association, one of the groups seeking to use the martial arts to reform and “save” the Chinese nation.

“Market Based” and “Centrally Led” Competition in the Chinese Martial Arts

This clash of local and national movements is one of the most interesting trends of the period, yet it is often ignored by even dedicated students of martial history.  The explanation of why is similar to the point that Virgil Ho raised in his critique of the “anti-foreignism” literature.  While fewer individuals were interested in the martial reform movements, they tended to be well educated and better connected.

These movements generated entire newspapers, journals, radio programs and even national debates over the state of China’s physical culture.  Tang Hao’s work on martial arts history and theory is still read today.  Modern historians have no trouble locating impassioned newspaper editorials by supporters of the Jinwu Association.  These are precisely the sorts of voices that are the easiest to hear, so there is a natural tendency to overestimate their impact when reconstructing the era’s popular culture.

This is precisely where the more popular aspects of “folk history” and “invented tradition” come into play.  While the local masters of the era tended not to engage in national media debates, they did leave a rich body of folklore behind which suggests exactly what sorts of issues were most pressing to them and their students.  For all of their discussion of “modernization” and “rationalization” organizations like Jingwu and the Central Guoshu Institute were also forced circulate their own stories, hagiographies and historical accounts.  As Green suggested, these served to legitimize their mission and provide both students and instructors with a shared sense of vision and purpose.

It is interesting then to compare the most popular legends that emerge out of the economic market for traditional kung fu with those that were promoted by the elite led reform movements.  In so doing we are essentially examining a body of anonymously produced “folk history” (in exactly the sense that Green defined the term) with a separate canon of “invented traditions” as imagined by Hobsbawn and already illustrated in Japan by historians like Inoue Shun.  As these authors would expect the first group of stories is essentially rising up from the popular level, while the second is being consciously written and distributed by social and political elites seeking to further their vision of the nation.

The general tendency today is to simply conflate all of these stories together as “Kung Fu legends.”  This reflects the ways in which these stories have been preserved and recombined by later (post-WWII) market forces and the Hong Kong film industry.  Yet in the 1920s-1930s these were competing narratives.  They also imply different conclusions for our original question regarding the prevalence of anti-foreign attitudes in southern China.

If one had to point to the single defining historical legend of the traditional southern Chinese martial arts it would have to be the “burning of the southern Shaolin temple.”  After decades of faithful service, the Qing turned on Shaolin out of fear of their martial prowess.  Through treachery they managed to destroy the temple and kill its inhabitants with the exception of five survivors.

These individuals went on to create the most important martial arts styles of southern China.  In fact, by the 1930s all of the Cantonese martial arts claimed descent from the Shaolin temple in one way or another.  These same survivors also went on to create the various secret societies or “Triads” who sought to “destroy the Qing and restore the Ming.”

Given the foreign origins of the Qing dynasty, it is not hard to see a certain anti-imperialist streak in this story.  In fact, prior to the 1911 revolution it appears to have been read as an explicitly “anti-foreign” story.  Yet when you review the novels that surround the Shaolin arts in the popular imagination it is pretty clear that these “monks” spent most of their time fighting with each other, rather than the Qing.  In the novel Everlasting, which did much to popularize the basic Shaolin myth in the late 19th century, it was exactly this tendency towards local feuding that led to the destruction of the temple by the Emperor’s troops.

Hamm, in his work on Everlasting, has also suggested that the story should probably be read as a commentary on the importance of local identity and the essential characteristics of southern Chinese heroes.    This is particularly important to remember when we consider that most of the people who transmitted this legend to us lived and wrote in the 1920s-1930s.  The Qing dynasty was long gone before they ever put their pens to paper.  So what exactly did this story mean to them?

Clearly the myth of the Shaolin Temple is a parable of resistance.  But by the 1930s writers were sensing a very different set of threats.  The government that caused needless conflicts and expropriated wealth from the people was their own, and not a “foreign” entity.  While martial artists still traveled from the north to set up schools and challenge southern masters, they now tended to be ethnically Han rather than “imperialist Manchu soldiers and corrupt officials.”

The myth of the Shaolin Temple can be used to promote nationalism, and it has been employed that way in the past.  Yet this expression of popular “folk history” is actually more interested in regional identity and conflict.  Its use by the martial artists of the Pearl River Delta region is designed to express key local values, as well as offering a model for resistance against all types of social encroachment.

In contrast the “invented traditions” that frame the creation of the Jingwu Association are much more explicitly nationalist in character.  In actual historical terms Jingwu was created by a number of expatriate Guangzhou businessmen living in Shanghai.  The organization and funding of the group was well planned and it was essentially run by a committee of like-minded friends and associates.

Yet in the popular imagination the Jingwu Association was the creation of a respected northern martial arts master by the name of Huo Yuanjia.  Born to the son of security guard for an armed escort company, Huo was introduced to the fighting arts at a young age.  He is said to have built his reputation by defeating foreign boxers or wrestlers (accounts vary) at a time when imperialism was increasingly concerning.  Later he came to Shanghai and joined the Jingwu Association.  Shortly afterwards he died, mostly likely from tuberculosis or some related disease.  Tuberculosis was distressingly common in china in the early 20th century.

After his death rumors started to circulate that a Japanese doctor had actually poisoned Huo.  Supposedly this cowardly act of murder was the result of jealousy over his immense martial skills and the threat that they posed to the local Judo establishment.  The media savvy leaders of the Jingwu Association immediately moved to declare Huo the “spiritual founder and leader” of their organization.

It is doubtful that this is how most outside observers would have described him in life.  Nor does it seem all that likely that he was actually murdered as part of an elaborate plot.  Yet the legend of Huo’s battle’s with foreign fighters and his eventual “martyrdom for the nation” went on to propel the Jingwu Association into the national spotlight.  They used the legend of Huo to further bolster and add legitimacy to their own agenda for promoting a certain brand of Chinese nationalism.

Where anti-foreignism was tangentially related to the myth of the southern Shaolin temple, it was at the heart of the creation drama of the Jingwu Association.  Creating citizens capable of defeating larger European bodies, and spiritually resilient enough to stand up to imperialist machinations, was the mission of this reform movement.  Only through the moral guidance of Huo Yuanjia could the traditional Chinese martial arts be purified and put at the disposal of Chinese nationalism.

Cheung Lai Chuen, dressed in Buddhist robes.
Cheung Lai Chuen dressed in Buddhist robes, suggestive of his styles “Shaolin roots.”

Conclusion: Final Considerations

Given what we have learned from Hobsbawm and Green we might expect that “invented traditions” would almost always be the product of social elites with a nationalist and modernist agenda.  Folk histories, while having many of the same goals, are more likely to be consciously organized and assembled by a variety of editors working within popular culture.  These are what James C. Scott termed “weapons of the weak.”  They are created by people attempting to situate their own struggles against a broader cultural backdrop.

The preceding essay has attempted to demonstrate that both types of stories and innovations are evident within China’s martial arts community during the 1920s and 1930s.  These two different approaches to storytelling stemmed from different groups with competing agendas and visions of what the Chinese martial arts should become, and how they should relate to both the state and the nation.  The martial arts of the Republic era were never a unified phenomenon.  Rather they were the subject of sustained debate at many levels.

One aspect of this competition happened at the level of popular storytelling.  The reform movements tended to craft legends that promoted their nationalist agenda through anti-imperialist and anti-foreign narratives.  The regional martial arts masters of southern China favored stories that focused on the question of local identity and resistance (much to the dismay of nationalist reformers).  While groups like Jingwu and the Central Guoshu institute were able to steer much of the national conversation about the arts, the traditional styles of southern China remained massively economically successful.

These findings actually support Ho’s initial suspicion that in emphasizing a few loud voices we have overlooked the fact that most residents of Guangdong were actually quite moderate and nuanced in their discussion of foreign individuals, ideas and trends.  While certain intellectuals attempted to sway the public towards their own brand of nationalism their efforts were, at best, a partial success.  An analysis of popular storytelling in the martial arts community suggests a similar conclusion.

On a more theoretical level I think that students of Chinese martial studies could benefit from a deeper examination of the tensions inherent in the concepts of “folk history” and “invented traditions.”  Rather than choosing one or the other we should be sensitive to the possibility that both may be at work in a given era.  Further, they are likely to reflect the preferences and strategies of different sorts of social actors.

Within Guangdong’s hand combat market the boundaries between these two camps were always somewhat porous.  The local branch of the KMT was happy to work with either side when it advanced their agenda.  Likewise individual instructors might drift back and forth between the two approaches, especially if lucrative employment opportunities presented themselves.

Yet it is impossible to understand the central drama of this period if you ignore the existence of these competing social movements within the martial arts community.  At a minimum when thinking about a historic master and his approach to the martial arts (whether it is Gu Ruzhang, Ip Man or Cheung Lai Chuen) it is useful to consider where their careers lay in relation to these larger debates.  Who funded their teaching? The state, the local marketplace or both?  How were they situated within society?  What types of stories and traditions did they pass on and, just as importantly, how have they subsequently been remembered by their students?  There is still much to be learned from the folk history of the traditional Chinese martial arts.


A weapons performance at the National Guoshu Exam.
A weapons performance at the National Guoshu Exam.