A local militia armed with spears outside of Guangzhou, 1938.
A local militia armed with spears outside of Guangzhou, 1938.

Introduction: The Martial Arts and National Identity in the Popular Imagination

While few people can really claim to be experts in either the history or practice of the martial arts, the last six decades of popular culture have given most individuals in the west a set of shared beliefs and impressions about these fighting systems.  For instance, they will immediately recognize the term “Black Belt” and apply it to all sorts of arts.  They will also associate certain styles with specific countries.  Karate and Judo are known to be Japanese.  Kung Fu and Taiji are both synonymous with China in the popular imagination.  And of course everyone “knows” that boxing is a western sport.

Except of course if you happen to be in the Philippines, where you can meet many fine professional and amateur boxers.  For that matter I suspect that there are vastly more practitioners of certain Southern Chinese martial arts in North America and Europe than there are in Hong Kong and Guangdong.

Nor is this “globalization” of the martial arts a new thing.  Apparently it has been going on for as long as individuals with an interest in fighting have had access to ships.  Without White Crane’s journey to Okinawa, would Karate exist?  Or lacking Japanese immigration to Brazil, would the UFC look the same?  In both cases the answer seems to be doubtful.

Yet the belief that somehow the “traditional” fighting systems reveal an essential element of “national character” is incredibly persistent and widely held.  This fact was driven home to me recently while watching cartoons with my nephew.  In the wake of the critical and commercial success of the “Avatar: the Last Airbender” a sequel (apparently in its second season) titled “The Legend of Korra” has also been commissioned.

This is not a series that I have followed regularly so I will not attempt an in-depth critique.  Still, I have always been fascinated by the fact that the various social groups which make up the world of the “Avatar” are identified quite distinctly as “nations” rather than states or empires.  This is all the more remarkable as most of the “nations” of the original series are clearly pre-modern societies.  Yet nationalism is a distinctly modern phenomenon.  The very idea of the common social identity that we now refer to as “the nation” is only a couple of hundred years old.

The “Legend of Korra” is set in a more industrialized future version of the same world.  Thus the claims to national consciousness in that series are less anachronistic.  Yet in the episode that I was watching (Season 2: Beginnings Part 1-2) the main character is forced to travel far back into the memories of the human race to a time when the spirit and mundane world were still intertwined.

This fictional journey was undertaken with the ostensible purpose of explaining what an “Avatar” was.  However, the exercise quickly expanded into a more general effort at mythic world-building.  Using striking and highly symbolic imagery the animators attempted to explain many facets of their fictional world.

Tellingly, one of the most important “facts” that they sought to introduce was the ancient and timeless origins of the various “nations” that would be seen later in the story.  Each of these ancient proto-nations was also shown to have its own distinctive martial art, almost from before the moment of its historical birth.

This idea that nations are eternal, that they somehow loom up out of the mists of history, is called “essentialism.”  It is based on the belief that there is some essential or immutable characteristic that gives a group its distinctive identity and makes the borders between nations hard and easily distinguishable.  Language, ethnicity and religion are probably the three most commonly cited seeds of proto-nationalism.  These supposedly immutable characteristics are then often pointed to as the explanations for modern conflicts between nations.  So rather than the civil or international wars being the results of a failed political process, they are reimagined and sold to the public as “ancient ethnic hatreds” or “eternal religious conflicts.”

In general this sort of essentialism is not a very productive way to think about the emergence of modern social and political communities.  Tying the martial arts to national ideologies based on racial purity (in the case of the Japanese during the 1930s) or Darwinian competition demanding rapid modernization (China at the same time) was not an altogether successful social experiment.

Still, the fact that our Saturday morning cartoons are discussing (in great detail) how the various martial arts are an expression of ancient and timeless natural attributes is a valuable reminder of just how widespread this idea is.  It has become one of those things that “everybody knows.”

Nor are these discussions limited to the realm of popular entertainment.  We should not be surprised that students of the martial arts find social and personal meaning in these practices.  But it is striking how often the identities and norms that they discover are essentially “national” in character, especially when we remember that at least some of these practices are actually older than (or contemporaneous with) the nation-states that they are thought to embody.

Troops from the Ma Clique train with Dadao, probably in north western China.  Photographer unknown.  Notice that most of the individuals in this formation are very young and also lack any form of rank or insignia on their uniforms.  I suspect that these are raw recruits or members of a paramilitary group.
Troops from the Ma Clique train with Dadao, probably in north western China. Photographer unknown. Notice that most of the individuals in this formation are very young and also lack any form of rank or insignia on their uniforms. I suspect that these are raw recruits or members of a paramilitary group.

Bringing Nationalism into the Chinese Martial Arts

There are certain ideas and concepts that have a powerful effect on how we perceive and understand our world.  “Capitalism” is certainly one of these.  I have noticed when teaching classes on political economy that my students often have a very difficult time imagining, let alone really understanding, how a feudal economy worked.  “Religion” is another one of these conceptual frameworks that tends to impact how we see and understand the world.  A modern western approach to religion as an individual matter of conscious does not always aid understanding of other cultures, or even different periods of our own history.

“Nationalism” is perhaps the best example of a concept that has had a striking impact on how we perceive and imagine our world.  Once we have learned about and experienced the existence of national identities, it becomes very difficult to imagine what life was like without them.  This is precisely why we see cartoons projecting these images onto ancient mythical pasts.  The idea of the nation has fenced in our collective modern imagination in some very real ways.

Individuals within the state of China during the Ming dynasty did not think of themselves as “Chinese.”  They certainly knew what government they were subject to, but with the exception of a tiny number of officials and government functionaries, it seems unlikely that anyone took the political state of China as the basis for personal identity.  Instead individuals would have identified themselves in a number of different (often overlapping) ways.

In Southern China perhaps the most relevant identity revolved around one’s clan affiliation and extended family.  Language and ethnicity were also important markers of social belonging.  But so was one’s city or village of origin.  Likewise, individuals who practiced the martial arts did so because they were soldiers, militia members, actors, medical professionals, private guards or engaged in traditional self-cultivation practices.  It is highly unlikely that anyone devoted themselves to these systems simply because they were “Chinese.”

This basic pattern held firm up until the end of the 19th century.  In fact, many intellectuals did not begin to seriously consider the question of “the nation” until they started to study western models of modernity and revolution around the final decades of the Qing dynasty.

But what is a nation?  This seemingly universal concept actually poses quite a problem for historians and political scientists.  In the current era national identity has become a ubiquitous feature of life.  In the popular imagination it has acquired an air of immortality.  It is projected onto an infinite past and future.  Russians are sure that they have always been “Russians,” just and the Scots are sure that there has always been a Scotland.

Yet the great scandal of these identities is their actual youth.  While collective communities have always existed, the existence of nations, and the belief that these groups should form the boundaries of politically legitimate states, is relatively new.  The first nations to appear on the world stage emerged only a few hundred years ago.  In fact, Benedict Anderson, Ernest Gellner and Eric Hobsbawm, while differing on the details, all agree that the rise of nationalism can be thought of as a byproduct of cultural, economic and political changes that occurred with the emergence of modernity in the 18th and 19th centuries.

Each of these three theorists of nationalism has made important contributions to the discussion.  Due to the constraints of time and the specific argument that I wish to make about the Chinese martial arts, I would like to limit these remarks to Benedict Anderson.  His volume, Imagined Communities (1983, 1996 Verso) has had a profound impact on the discussion of nations and nationalism in the academy.

Anderson begins by noting that nations are an extension and a continuation of prior cultural forms.  They emerged (and filled a role) at a time when hierarchically organized, multi-ethnic empires were on the wane.  As “sacred languages” (Latin, Classic Arabic) gave way to local vernaculars, new patterns of communication and organization became possible.  Likewise, as philosophical thinkers moved away from sacred or “messianic time,” where current events are prefigured in the past and realized in the present, new modes of empty linear time were imagined that allowed for a more rational (and profane) understanding of causality and social relationships.  Anderson identifies this last transition as being particularly important as it allowed for the imagination of larger and more complex communities, all acting simultaneously, progressing through linear time.

One place where Anderson departs from his predecessors is in locating the earliest realized national impulses in South America.  He argues and demonstrates in some detail that it was the bureaucratic pilgrimages of local officials, who by fault of their birth were barred high office in Europe but were free to move from office to office in the administrative area in which they lived, that first lay the foundations for the growth of national awareness within a bounded geographic area.

This process was made possible by the prior invention of “print capitalism.”  This combination of limiting geographic institutions and the spread of print capitalism led to the initial development of nationalism, first in the Americas and then in Europe.

In a longer essay it might be interesting to consider how these processes played themselves out in China.  In Europe Latin, the sacred language, was displaced, in favor of local print vernaculars.  Yet in China Mandarin retained its hegemonic position throughout the polyglot empire.

Again, bureaucratic pilgrimage seems to have played a key role in shaping the emergence of national consciousness in both the western colonies and Imperial China.  Douglas Wile has written at length about the how the political careers of the Wu brothers may have shaped both their perception and attitudes towards the state as well as the subsequent development of their approach to Taijiquan.  Of course the nature of these two sets of pilgrims were quite different, so careful thought would be required before applying Anderson’s model to China in the middle or late 19th century.

Rather than delving deeper into these similarities and differences I would instead like to engage another of Anderson’s insights that seems more directly related to the problem at hand.  Put simply, once invented the idea of “the nation” became impossible to control.  As economies and social systems modernized, national identity proved to be a powerful tool with which states could martial the resources and loyalty of society.  In basic terms, the nation brought society and the institutions of the state into a much closer alignment than they had ever enjoyed before.

Across Europe revolutionaries reimagined their campaigns as nationalist crusades for self-determination.  Likewise authoritarian empires and states began to ask how they too could capitalize on the institutional empowerment that accompanied nationalism without having to devolve too much power or authority to the masses.  The international system is fundamentally social in nature.  Once the advantages of a nation-state system became clear there was nothing stopping its adoption by a large number of groups, some of whom had quite different political and social agendas.

This brings us back to post-1911 China.  The revolutionaries who overthrew the Qing were very much aware of the potential benefits of the nation-state model of social organization.  Yet this new system was very different from how China had been organized or imagined in the past.  The Qing, like every dynasty before them, had overseen a multi-ethnic, polyglot empire united by a common language, a ruling ideology and force majeure.

While populations living in the large coastal cities were quick to adopt a more modern Chinese national identity, the interior peasants, still living a distinctly pre-modern life, remained strongly embedded in more traditional networks of identity and loyalty.  And even in the major urban areas reformers doubted the patriotic devotion of many of their countrymen.  Would they really be willing to sacrifice themselves as part of a national struggle?

Strengthening and deepening this nascent Chinese nationalism became a major priority of reformers and political leaders from a variety of backgrounds.  They realized that this could not be carried out without a new set of institutions.  And at the same time they also sought to reform the general health and public hygiene of the masses.

It rapidly became apparent to a number of social elites, both in the worlds of politics and the business, that the traditional martial arts might hold the keys to promoting a more robust and energetic form of nationalism among the public.  This solution was not entirely unique.  Chinese reformers were well aware of the militarized physical culture that was being promoted in Germany prior to WWI.  A number of individuals worked hard to import that same system to China.  Other intellectuals were more impressed with Japanese efforts to promote the martial arts and “Budo” as way of uniting the population and instilling within them a “warrior spirit.”

Given the importance of martial practices in these two states, why couldn’t China do something similar?  The difficulty was that the traditional Chinese martial arts were firmly embedded in a pre-national identity complex.  They seemed out of step with the larger program of rationalization and westernization that dominated the May 4th national discourse.

The first step in using the martial arts to build the Chinese nation would be to purge them of their superstitious, feudal and backwards elements.  Lineage organizations, secrecy and esoteric practices were all deemed unfit for a new set of “national arts.”  What was needed was a set of universal exercises to strengthen the physical and spiritual health of the people so that China could compete as a nation among nations on the global playing field.

Andrew Morris has devoted much time and effort to flushing out the connection between nationalism and the martial arts in this period.  Chapter Seven of his monograph Marrow of the Nation gives a good overview of the efforts to modernize and reform the martial arts during the Republic period.  A much more detailed discussion of how the efforts of specific groups (including the Jingwu Association and the Central Guoshu Institute) related to shifting trends in Chinese nationalist thought can be found in his 2000 article “Native Songs and Dances: Southeast Asia in a Greater Chinese Sporting Community, 1920-1948” in the Journal of Southeast Asian Studies (31:1 pp. 28-69).

In a different article I would like to look at the nuances of the types of nationalism promoted by the various martial arts groups that dominated this period.  But for the moment it is probably enough to speak in more general terms.  Both the Jingwu and the Guoshu movements sought to use the martial arts to strengthen the feeling of nationalism among Chinese individuals both within the state and in the larger diaspora.

Jingwu’s strategy for accomplishing this goal was unique.  While promoting a modernized and sanitized version of the martial arts, they claimed that by stripping away layers of feudal superstition they had revealed what was “essentially Chinese” about these practices.  Thus anyone, regardless of their gender, ethnicity or even country of origin could have a direct embodied experience of the primordial Chinese national heritage simply by signing up for classes in one of their branch locations.

Jingwu also worked hard to modernize both the image and the substance of the Chinese martial arts.  They focused their proselytizing efforts on middle class urban dwellers, a group that had traditionally shunned martial arts instruction.  But once the martial arts were reimagined as a way of conveying the “national essence” through passing on embodied cultural knowledge, these old prejudices lost their prior social significance.

Benedict Anderson would also be quick to note that Jingwu enthusiastically harnessed the full potential of the era’s print capitalism.  They published libraries of instructional manuals, reams of newspapers (both national and local) and various memorial projects.   They argued that to modernize the martial arts, and to preserve and promote their essentially national nature, it was important to move them firmly into the literary sphere.  Of course this also helped to create a virtual community of like-minded readers and martial arts practitioners, united in both technique and study, which stretched from Beijing to South East Asia.

The Central Guoshu Institute was created by the Nationalist Party for the explicit goal of promoting the martial arts as a mechanism to strengthen the nation both physically and socially.  Morris notes that the KMT was much more instrumental, and state focused, in their approach to physical culture than Jingwu.  Jingwu made a great showing of staying out of partisan politics while focusing its attention on China’s martial heritage.  The Guoshu movement, on the other hand, sought to indoctrinate the masses with greater loyalty not just to the nation, but to the party and Chang Kai Shek.  While it continued to pay lip-service to the idea of traditional martial culture, it saw nationalism more as a solution to immediate political, economic and social concerns.  Above all the martial arts were a tool to promote state building.

While this revolutionary and statist approach came to dominate the areas of China controlled by the KMT, Morris demonstrates that it proved to be much less attractive to diaspora Chinese populations.  These communities stuck with the earlier approach to the martial arts that they learned in the 1920s.  In fact, Jingwu is still more popular in South East Asia than it is in China today.

Andrew Morris’ historical research on this question points to a fundamental issue that students of Chinese martial studies should be aware of.  Yes, multiple national movements attempted to harness the power of Wushu to promote Chinese nationalism during the 1920s-1940s.  We are actually still living with the results of many of these policies and strategies today.

Yet there was never one united view of the nature of the Chinese nation, where it gained its strength or what its ultimate destiny should be.  These were all questions that were contested by political thinkers.  When attempting to understand where a given martial arts movement or manual fits into the broader picture of the era we need to be sensitive to this variation.  While the nationalism of Jingwu and that of the Central Guoshu Institute may sound very similar to us today, they were distinct and competing philosophies at the time.

Detail of previous postcard. Circa 1920.
Detail of a vintage Japanese postcard showing Chinese martial arts performers. Circa 1920.  Source: Author’s personal collection.

Imagining other Communities: Local Martial Arts as an Escape from the Nation

Nations are not the only imagined community that historical or cultural researchers will encounter.  Some theorists have argued that in the face of globalization other sorts of identities, such as local or regional loyalties, should come to the fore.  This is an interesting point to consider as Southern China and Hong Kong had a front row seat to the eruption of 19th century globalization.

The area’s economy was heavily dependent on both trade and commerce.  In fact, Guangdong had been dependent on food imports from at least the early 19th century as so much of its land had been turned over to commercial agriculture (silk, tea, opium, etc.) and handicraft production (iron, salt, paper, porcelain).  It did not take long for the traders of Guangzhou to discover that in many respects they had more in common with their fellow merchants in Hong Kong and Vietnam than they did their ostensible political masters in Beijing and Nanjing.

Language also proved to be a challenge for the smooth development of Chinese nationalism.  Following Anderson’s expectations “print vernaculars” did develop in southern China during the early 20th century.  In Paper Swordsmen John Cristopher Hamm notes that martial arts novels produced in southern China began to go out of their way to include unique Cantonese expressions and pronunciations in their prose to increase their identification with a local readership. Yet in this case, commercial decisions on the part of printers served to undercut the growth of a unified Chinese nationalism rather than support it.  Instead such stories further bolstered the growth of a unique, and stubbornly independent, local identity.

It is also interesting to reconsider Benedict Anderson’s contention that the lessons of nationalism were available to all to learn.  Certainly the political leaders of both the Nationalist and Communist parties were acutely aware of the benefits of a mobilized and nationalist citizenry.  But what lessons about “the nation” had local citizens and elites learned by the end of the 1940s?

This picture was much more mixed.  The KMT had few supporters left in Guangdong by the time that their government fell in 1949.  Long before that many individuals had given up on the party as being hopelessly corrupt, venial and incompetent.  Huge amounts of wealth had been forcibly extracted from local merchants to support nationalist causes like the Northern Expedition.  Nor had the Nationalist proved to be all that effective in protecting the nation from the Japanese.

Just as in Japan the creation of a unified national identity had been one part of a larger policy in which huge amounts of wealth were transferred from the population to the government to support the building of a modern state.  But unlike the case of Japan during the Meiji Restoration, it was not always apparent to the residents of southern China that they had gotten their money’s worth.

As we have already seen elsewhere, it is clear that a sense of Chinese nationalism did emerge in Guangdong and Hong Kong following the fall of the Qing dynasty.  Yet we should probably not be too surprised to discover that by the 1950s residents of Hong Kong were facing a more complicated situation.  Many of these individuals were refugees from other areas who had just witnessed a succession of national crisis in a short period of time.  Other individuals were local residents who felt that their regional culture was increasingly besieged and under threat not just from the forces of modernization and imperialism, but by the recent influx of new refugees from the north.

When thinking about this later group it is interesting to briefly consider what we already know about the creation myths of the various local martial arts styles that were being popularized and taught during this period.  Most of these myths focus on the burning of the Shaolin Temple and the escape of the five elders who go on to teach Kung Fu and to create revolutionary organizations dedicated to the overthrow of the Qing and the restoration of the Ming.

The Wing Chun creation myth is actually a classic example of this more general genre of storytelling.  Ip Man’s version of the story is perhaps the most widely known.   It has all of the elements that one expects to see in a southern Chinese Kung Fu creation narrative.  We should also note that the story is basically free from modern nationalist elements.

One may be tempted to point to Ng Moy’s almost obligatory charge to resist the Qing as proof of Wing Chun’s nationalist character.  Yet a moment’s reflection casts serious doubt on this reading of the story.  Again, there are all sorts of socially constructed communities, and sometimes they come into contact with each other.  Clearly this element of the Southern Shaolin narrative points to ethnic conflict, but is it necessarily “national” in character?

 The question can be addressed from a number of angles, but the answer always appears to be no.  From 1911 onward Chinese intellectuals explicitly sought to create a multi-ethnic nationality, as we see in much of Western Europe and the Americas.  By the 1950s few people doubted that you could be both Manchu and Chinese.  The early five colored flag was designed specifically to illustrate the fact that Chinese nationalism was not based on ethnicity (at least not officially.)

Of course the story of the burning of the Shaolin Temple predates the emergence of modern nationalism as a mass phenomenon in Southern China by at least 100 years.  B. J. ter Haar has conducted the most detailed historical study of the emergence of and interpretation of this myth that I have yet to see.  His discussion of it, both in the context of criminal brotherhoods and martial arts societies, is well worth reading.

Ter Haar points out that one cannot simply understand the Manchus as a competing alien nation in these stories.  Indeed, at the time that they spread there was no understanding that China was simply one nation among many, competing on equal terms.  That is a much more modern way of looking at history.  Instead China was understood as what was “central.”  What lay outside its borders was dangerous, and often explicitly demonic.

In many of the more detailed versions of the story of Shaolin’s destruction detailed in his work the Qing are explicitly identified as a demonic, rather than simply an alien force.  As ter Haar and others have argued, the charge to “resist the Qing” in 18th and 19th century folklore and local uprisings tends to be an expression of millennial religious thought rather than some sort of modern nationalist cry.

In comparison the story of Huo Yuanjia promoted by the Jingwu Association is explicitly nationalist and modern in character.  Huo dies as a martyr for the Chinese nation.  There is basically no other way to read this story.  The folklore surrounding the destruction of the Shaolin temple is much more complicated by comparison.

All of this begins to reveal one of the central problems with nationalism.  Once you accept that you are a member of a unique nation, by extension so is everyone else.  Whereas China once occupied a unique place as the “Middle Kingdom” mediating between the Heavens and the Earth, now it is simply one more player in an increasingly tiresome political game.  As Anderson noted the existence of sacred languages and “millennial time” allowed individuals the comfort of projecting their individuals or collective defeats against a larger cosmic backdrop that assured their future vindication.

Yes, the Shaolin Temple has been destroyed but the story is not yet over.  It has become imminent within us.  We have been drawn into what Eliade might call “sacred time.”  And do any of us really doubt how the story will the ultimately end?

Weber characterized modernization as the descent of an iron cage for good reason.  Yes there is great efficiency to be gained.  Nor is there any doubt that both the state and society will be better able to achieve their goals.  But an increasingly rational world also imposes its own psychological costs.

While reading various statements by members of the Jingwu and Guoshu organizations I was struck by the fact that they had little nostalgia for the past.  Universally they agreed that China had once had a great martial culture, but it had all gone so horribly wrong.  To be more precise it was their job to save the martial arts from their own past.  The national reform movements of the 1910s-1940s were forward looking and relentless in their optimism.

This is very different from the sense that you get when researching the local styles of Southern China.  In purely commercial terms they were more popular than their national competitors in the 1920s-1930s.  By the 1950s in Hong Kong they had no serious challengers with the exception of a few traditional northern schools.  But their rhetoric is always tinged with a heavy dose of nostalgia.

For them the future is cloudy.  The great masters lay always in the past.  Nor do they look to the future for salvation.  Instead through their myths they gaze beyond the concerns of modernity and the nation in an attempt to reconnect the practitioner with something larger.  This is not Jingwu’s vision of “essentialist nationalism.”  Instead it might better be thought of as a return to the logic of ritual grounded in Millennial Time.


When researching the modern Chinese martial arts it is impossible to avoid the topic of nationalism.  This is especially true if you are interested in the period from roughly 1910-1950.   The development of various martial arts movements helps to open a window of understanding onto the evolution of nationalist identities at the popular level during this period.

The previous essay also suggests that some caution is required when thinking about this subject.  Various martial arts organizations promoted differing ideas about the origin, nature and purpose of nationalism during this period.  Further, these debates appear to have been quite self-conscious.  Thus when studying the various national reform movements or elite writing on the martial arts we need to be sensitive to the contours of this discussion.

Likewise we must remember that at the popular level the situation was even more complicated.  At times the larger discourse on nationalism was embraced enthusiastically.  The Jingwu Association’s rapid spread during the 1920s is a good example of this.  At other times, such as within Hong Kong’s Cantonese speaking population during the 1950s, the martial arts seemed to turn their back on both modernity and the nation, seeking instead to reconnect with other ways of imagining the local community and reestablishing bruised identities.

One of the dangers with national level narratives is that you lose the ability to distinguish these more granular trends.  In the future focused regional or local studied may help us to better understand exactly how martial artists engaged with various nationalist discourses, and why they sometimes chose to set them aside.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: The Soldier, the Marketplace Boxer and the Recluse: Mapping the Social Location of the Martial Arts in Late Imperial China.


A Buddhist monk and novice leaving a the temple.  Probably Shanghai, circa 1900.
A Buddhist monk and novice leaving a the temple. Probably Shanghai, circa 1900.