A late 19th Century Guardian Sword made of period coins.  Such talisman were used as protective magical weapons.  Source:
A late 19th Century Guardian Sword made of period coins. Such talisman were used as protective magical weapons. Source: http://www.oriental-arms.com/item.php?id=2583


Classification remains one of our central problems in the study and analysis of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  When thinking about the origin and relationship of these fighting systems most efforts begin with an attempt to create groups of “similar” styles.  Sometimes these efforts are successful, but other times the exercise raises more questions than it resolves.  The boundaries between one fighting system and the next are not always as clearly defined as a simple lineage chart might lead one to believe.  Many of the concepts that we use to classify the martial arts are both vague and under theorized.

When viewed in its geographic and temporal totality, Chinese martial culture offers researchers an almost unbelievably diverse research area.  Things are a little more orderly when you limit the scope of a project to a single area or period (say, Guangdong Province between 1850 and 1950).  Yet the complexity of even this reduced field of study can still be overwhelming.

One of the most basic organizational concepts that comes out of popular writing on the Chinese martial arts is the division between the “northern” and “southern” schools.  Clearly there is something to this as certain hand combat traditions tend to arise and be practiced in some geographic areas but not others.  And there are groups of both “northern” and “southern” schools that do seem to share certain techniques, concepts, strategies and key symbols with one another.  Yet agreeing upon specific definitions is difficult and various authors have offered a number of suggestions in an attempt to move us beyond simplistic platitudes about “Northern legs and Southern fists.”

One of the recurrent problems in these conversations is that not all southern (or northern) arts actually look the same or appear to be all that closely related.  There are southern styles (Mok Gar comes to mind) that place a lot of emphasis on kicking, and northern arts that are fully versed in close boxing and grappling.  Of course this is the basic purpose of any sort of system of classification.  They are useful to researchers precisely because they point out interesting puzzles that may not have been evident before.

Still, it may not be a good thing if a given system of classification yields too many strange “puzzles.”  Often this suggests that we may need to upgrade our conceptual framework.  I suspect that this is actually the case with much of the popular discussion “Northern” and “Southern” arts.  It is not clear that this dichotomous category does as much work for serious historical research as we might like.  Of course this idea may still be a perfectly workable concept in other sorts of discussions.  And it may even be the case that the “Southern martial arts” as a distinct conceptual category makes more sense in some time periods than others.

II would like to explore this last point in greater detail.  The following post is not meant to be a definitive statement on the origin of the Southern arts.  Rather it is simply a personal thought experiment designed to encourage some creative thought on the emergence of regional identities in the martial arts.  Local differences have always existed in hand combat training.  But that does not necessarily mean that individuals always saw these stylistic differences as central to their regional identity or an expression of some “essential” element of culture.  Instead the widespread belief that a distinctly “southern” set of fighting styles existed, and their progressive differentiation (both in technical and cultural terms) may actually be a later development than most readers might suspect.  In the following essay I will argue that the development of this unique branch of southern Chinese martial identity mirrors other changes that were happening in the international, social and economic realms, all of which supported the rise of a self-conscious and politically aware “Southern” identity where it did not exist prior to the second half of the 19th century.

Assorted Chinese coins.  Source: Wikimedia.
Assorted Chinese coins. Source: Wikimedia.

The Problem of “Northern Arts” in Southern China

Choy Li Fut was probably the most popular fighting style practiced in large parts of Guangdong province during the late 19th and early 20th century.  Practitioners of this style helped to pioneer the concept of the public martial arts school, and realized the potential of commercial classes in urban locations (designed to serve the growing population of industrial workers) before just about anyone else in China.  As such Choy Li Fut should play a critical role in any discussion of the development of the modern Chinese martial arts.

But this is where the aforementioned classifications problems come to the fore.  Is Choy Li Fut really a “southern” art?  In purely historical and sociological terms the answer is pretty clearly yes.  Unlike other traditional fighting systems it does not claim great antiquity.  We know who invented it, when it emerged and where it was practiced.

Still, it is not hard to look at this system and identify a number of “Northern” elements.  In fact, there are a number of specific sets, styles and weapons that are practiced throughout the south which claim a more northern origin.  Some of these are stylistically obvious, others are less so.

So how should we explain the appearance of northern martial practices in southern China (an area that is often assumed to be both culturally and linguistically unique)?  Hing Chao recently addressed this question in an article that he wrote for the Ming Pao Weekly.  Bernard K., at the excellent blog Be Not Defeated By the Rain, has been generous enough to provide a translation of this essay (as well as a number of others by the same author).  While I am not going to engage Chao’s thesis on a point-by-point basis in this discussion readers will want read it over either now or at some point in the future.

Before going on I should preface my comments by saying that I really enjoy all of Hing Chao’s articles.  His writing is very thoughtful and consistently high quality.  I also enthusiastically endorse his methodological approach to Chinese martial studies.

Rather than attempting to work his way backwards from current published and oral accounts (an exercise that inevitably tells you more about the present commercial and social situation than the past) he instead situates the martial arts as one aspect of popular culture.  He then acknowledges that we have very few detailed historical sources that focus only on the Southern martial arts for most of the late imperial period.  But we do know a lot about other sorts of social and economic history.  By drawing on this better understood material it is often possible to paint a much more accurate picture of the world that the martial arts existed in, and make some reasonable deductions as to what was really going on.

Given that my training is as a social scientist, I have used the same basic approach in a lot of my own research and have found it to be very productive.  This deductive method often yields insights and suggestions that are quite novel and different from the more commonly repeated assertions that arise from the “folk histories” of the various fighting styles.

In this essay Hing Chao sets out to explore some of the ways in which “Northern” martial influences found their way into various southern styles.  After briefly reviewing some of the region’s ancient history he correctly notes that what most readers are interested in is actually the result of events that occurred in the last 100 years of the Qing dynasty.

He then goes on to explore three very plausible mechanisms by which we might see regional martial mixing.  The first of these is demographic changes in Fujian and Guangdong province.  The second focuses on the role of the Taiping and the concurrent Nien Rebellions in the realignment of martial skills around the country.  The final mechanism is the “self-strengthening” movement promoted by the Jingwu and Guoshu organizations in which large numbers of Norther teachers were invited to the south as part of an ideologically driven nationalist project.

I have already discussed his first and third hypothesis in a number of other places and I basically concur with his analysis of those events.  In this essay I would like to focus to the second mechanism that he proposed and take a closer look at how the social, political and economic disruptions of the mid-19th century helped to create what we now think of as the southern Chinese martial arts.

In the following discussion I would like to introduce a different, more counter intuitive, set of suggestions.  Hing Chao suggests (quite sensibly) that we should think about these large scale military events because they managed to involve such a large percentage of China’s population.  The Taiping Rebellion alone is probably the largest civil war to ever occur in the history of the human race.  An unprecedented number of people were placed under arms (often against their will), trained by individuals from different parts of the empire, and then marched from one province to the next.  They mixed with soldiers from various regions and causes, and then went home (or in some cases fled in hiding).  It is easy to see how these massive social and political disruptions led to a number of different northern martial innovations being imported to the south in the 1850s-1860s.

But if we take a step back from the security situation and look instead at the region’s economic history a more complicated picture begins to emerge.  The aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion was hardly the first time that northern martial arts masters made their way south.  Still, the second half of the 19th century was the period when the “Southern Chinese martial arts” really began to distinguish themselves as a distinct community.  Lastly, the late 19th and early 20th century was also a time of critical change and evolution as these fighting systems found way to adapt themselves to new market conditions.

I think that Hing Chao’s conclusions are perfectly reasonable, and there may very well have been an infusion of northern techniques into Guangdong’s martial practice in the mid-19th century.  Yet from my perspective the much more interesting question is this: How did these same forces lead to the emergence of a new, highly self-conscious, technically distinct “Southern” martial arts movement?  In some senses the persistent idea of the “southern arts” is actually harder to explain, and more interesting, than the spread of northern fighting techniques into the region.

One Hong Kong Dollar, 1867.  Source: Wikimedia.
One Hong Kong Dollar, 1867. Source: Wikimedia.

Understanding the Evolving Political Economy of the Pearl River Delta Region

A number of towns within Guangdong province witnessed important innovations in the evolution of the Southern martial arts.  Still, it seems likely that Guangzhou (the provincial capital) and Foshan (a nearby commercial town with very close economic ties to the capital) probably saw the most substantive innovations during this period.  Let’s begin by briefly reviewing what we know about the political economy of the Pearl River Region both before and after the mid-century disturbances of the 1800s.

Prior to the outbreak of the first Opium War, Guangzhou occupied an enviable position in China’s trade system.  The fact that all foreign trade was routed through this port gave the region a virtual monopoly on the export of goods like Chinese tea, silk, sugar, opium and porcelain.   It is hard to overstate the importance of these trade flows, either to the region’s domestic economy or the global economy more generally.  Such a high percentage of all international trade moved through the Pearl River delta that the local merchant’s organization (the Cohong) had a critical impact on global trade balances and exchange rates.

Guangzhou occupied an equally important role in China’s domestic trade.  Goods from all over the nation were shipped first to Foshan and then to Guangzhou for export.  At the same time merchants and bankers from around the empire flocked to the southern port to pay top dollar from highly sought after European imports.  These would then be shipped back to various corners of the state.

Foshan played a critical role in this regional balance of trade.  It occupied a section of the West branch of the Pearl River that made it a natural point for warehouses and through-shipping to the capital.  It also held the imperial iron monopoly and its workshops produced many of the metal goods (from cooking posts, or knives to cannons) that would be exported throughout the country.  It was also a critical center for the manufacture of a number of handicrafts (including paper, medicine and pottery) that were vital to keeping Guangzhou’s economy running.

Prior to the 1850s commercial real estate along this region of the Pearl River was in high demand.  Merchants from all over China (and indeed the rest of the globe) flocked to region to take part in this unique trade environment.  Of course none of this could happen without a robust financial and political infrastructure.

The state reinforced this dominance in trade by granting monopolies and explicitly prohibiting other ports from competing with Guangdong (at least legally).  Huge amounts of silver and credit were needed to provide liquidity and currency exchange in the local markets.  This was provided by the massive (and highly sophisticated) banks of Shanxi (the piaohao).  Both the capital and Foshan were (quite literally) studded with occupational and “home town” guild halls.  Distinct from the local production guilds, these organizations existed to provide lodging, shelter and services to many tens of thousands of merchants and travelers who were constantly moving in and out of the region on business.

Unfortunately legitimate traders were not the only individuals attracted to region’s rich ports and waterways.  As the area’s population rose, economic pressures (manifest in falling land-labor ratios and rising rents) forced large numbers of local peasants into banditry and piracy.  The area’s lucrative trade made this transition all the more profitable.

Southern China has seen many waves of piracy in its history.  The period between 1790-1810 was particularly violent, with a number of villages and walled cities actually being sacked by large roving pirate forces.  And while that particular “crisis” was eventually put down, the area’s waterways and roads were never totally safe.

Of course this challenge was not unique to Guangdong.  During the final decades of the Qing dynasty the regime discovered that it was less able to project force, and hence enforce public order, throughout the empire.  Increasingly local governments and individual firms discovered that they were responsible for providing their own security.

This market in private security became quite a large industry along China’s more important commercial arteries.  The armed escort companies of Northern China (immortalized in the Wuxia novels of authors like Jin Yong) tend to be better remembered today, but similar firms operated throughout the empire.  In Guangdong province it was common for both merchant ships and passenger farriers to be armed with a number of cannons.  Even the “Red Boat” opera companies took no chances and hired professional security guards (armed with modern rifles) to accompany their ships on their rounds.

Merchants vessels also hired security companies to insure the delivery of their goods.  Wong Fei Hung’s son who tragically was shot by a co-worker (leading to his father’s progressive withdrawal from the world of Kung Fu) worked for just such a company along the Eastern Brach of the Pearl River.  Of course merchants traveling to and from Northern China brought their own guards and entourages with them.

While it seems likely that the social chaos of the Taiping period may have accelerated the movement of certain practices, I am not sure that we need to assume that this process was all that unique.  Guagzhou and Foshan were incubators for martial arts development precisely because of their rich commercial environments and economic dependence on trade.  These two cities brought together soldiers, private guards, officials, merchants, pirates, opera performers and gangsters together from across the empire.  They were one of the few places in the region where one could expect to earn a decent living as a martial artist.  I have always suspected that the sort of martial exchange that Hing Chao describes were in fact a regular feature of life in the major port cities of Guangdong and Fujian province, at least up until the 1850s.

Of course nothing lasts forever.  From a martial arts perspective one of the interesting features of the Pearl River Delta is how completely the region’s political economy was transformed after the middle of the 19th century.  As with any sufficiently complex phenomenon it is impossible to explain everything that happened with a single variable.  Rather changes in both the international and domestic environments led to the emergence of a very different local economic situation.  While still highly profitable and focused on trade, the regional economy of the late 19th century was fundamentally different (and in some ways less vibrant) than what had come before.

The first blow to the old trade system was struck by the British through their overwhelming victory in the first Opium War.  This had an immediate impact on the Chinese trade system.  First the Cohong lost their monopoly and Europeans were granted greater access directly to Guangzhou’s markets (leading to the so called “Entry Crisis”).  At the same time Guangzhou lost its privileged access to Western markets.  A number of other treaty ports were opened to global trade (not the least of which was Shanghai) and Guangdong’s commercial influence diminished.

The creation of Hong Kong also had a substantial impact on the local economy.  Chinese merchants preferred the new city both for its deeper harbors and greater degree of “law and order” compared to what other parts of southern China enjoyed.  The new city’s currency also became the preferred medium of exchange for local merchants in a number of industries.

At the same time that these economic transformations were emerging, the region was hit with one political crisis after another.  The outbreak of the Taiping Rebellion to the north led to increased tax extraction as the government attempted to fund the massive civil war.  These policies stretched the resources of the local gentry and merchants.  Eventually the entire area would be engulfed in a prolonged tax revolt that led to massive property destruction and loss of life (the “Red Turban Revolt.”)

Some of the most important results of these political events were much more subtle and are often omitted from our discussion of the region’s history.  The Taiping and Nien Rebellions left Guangdong in an increasingly isolated geographic position.  The flow of northern goods and merchants dropped almost immediately due to the disruption of both agricultural production and travel routes.

Likewise the Banking clans of Shanxi, who had provided the financial lifeblood of the city, played much less of a role after the middle of the 19th century.  As trade flows changed Guangzhou and Foshan discovered that they were now reliant on Hong Kong for their access to global markets.  And while they no longer had a monopoly on this trade, the loss of various domestic markets within the Chinese system made global markets more important than ever.  The entire mercantile focus of the region began to shift away from China, towards the rest of the world.

A similar transformation was underway in the banking industry.  As the large and sophisticated banks of Shanxi were displaced from their role in the local market, southern banks (most of them located in Shunde) became increasingly popular.  These banks specialized in providing both loans and bridge financing to commercial interests who wanted to do business with Hong Kong.  British banks in the territory were reluctant to do business with Chinese firms on the other side of the boarder due to the obvious risks of such loans.  This situation created a lucrative opportunity for the more specialized banks of Shunde to displace the northern Chinese financial institutions both in terms of offering financing and dominating the region’s currency exchanges.

The region’s political instability also led large numbers of merchants to abandon China and immigrate to other areas of South East Asia, the Americas and even Europe.  Many of these individuals established new trade businesses which sought to connect Guangdong’s productive capacity to the west via the ports of Hong Kong.  These individuals also sent large amounts of capital back to China in the form of wage remittances, the reinvestment of businesses profits and donations to charitable or social causes.

At this point we should stop and consider the combined social effects of these economic shifts.  In both the first and second time periods Guangzhou did a lot of business with the global economy.  Yet in the first half of the 19th century it was firmly embedded within the larger Chinese economic and financial system.  Many of the goods that it shipped were not its own.  They were produced all over China.  The financing for this trade also tended to come from other areas, and the seasonal flows of northern merchants was the literal lifeblood of the local economy.

The economic and political disruptions of the middle of the 19th century changed all of that.  Together they insured that Guangdong’s economy would be increasingly isolated from the rest of the country.  Where as its merchants had previously seen their counterparts from the north as their natural business partners and allies, increasingly they would now look to British financial interests in Hong Kong and the diaspora community of South East Asia to fill that same role.

This brings us to one of the interesting ironies of the development of southern Chinese identity and local culture.  The region’s increased integration into the global economy had a complex, and sometimes contradictory, impact on identity formation.  Exposure to western ideas and the less pleasant aspects of imperialism aided the growth of nationalist sentiment in the region.  This is particularly true after the 1911 overthrow if the Qing.  But even before that a remarkable number of China’s revolutionaries hailed from Guangdong province.

Nevertheless, the workings of the global trade system also tended to isolate Southern China from the economic and financial concerns of the rest of the country.  By drawing it more tightly into the realm of the international trade system it opened a space for new sorts of regional trade and financial exchanges to emerge that had not been possible before.  Both regional trade within southern China, and international trade directed through Hong Kong, increased dramatically while trade northern parts of the country decreased.

Students of globalization in the current period have noted that, contrary to expectations of functionalists in the 1950s and 1960s, increased integration into global markets does not necessarily lead to the decline of “national” loyalties.  Indeed globalization itself seems to create an entire host of new problems for states to deal with.

While nationalism has not gone away, it is seeing new competitors.  Specifically regional identities are strengthening and becoming more relevant around the world.

The case of southern China between 1850 and 1900 is fascinating precisely because it provides such a clear illustration of how this process actually happens.  Integration with the global economy can cause both financial shocks and increased political instability.  Together these may lead to a strategic realignment of identity as new economic and social relationships are forged.  Again, Guagzhou is particularly interesting as it presents us with the seemingly paradoxical outcome of the simultaneous emergence of both greater national and regional consciousness at the same time.

Or maybe it is not really a puzzle at all.  After all, a “regional” identity can only exist in dialectic tension with a larger imagined community.   It is precisely the boundedness of these sorts of identities that makes them interesting.

Chinese Silver Tael.  These silver ingots were the stanard currency accepted by the Ming and Qing governments for tax payments.  Neither dynasty minted silver coins,  The production of raw taels was far cheaper.
Chinese Silver Tael. These silver ingots were the stanard currency accepted by the Ming and Qing governments for tax payments. Neither dynasty minted silver coins, The production of raw taels was far cheaper.

Conclusion: The Social and Economic Origins of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts

In the final section of this essay I would like to return to our initial discussion of conceptual categories and consider what all of this means for the “Southern Chinese martial arts.”  To be at all theoretically interesting this phrase cannot just be a universal label for all of the hand combat practices seen in Guangdong province.  It must attempt to describe and explain certain trends seen within this this region’s martial practices.  Yet when we apply this framework we immediately discover that some of the region’s most cherished traditions and practices look distinctly “Northern.”

Hing Chao attempted to explain all of this by pointing to the demographic flows of people, mid-19th century political instability and later 20th century “nation building” projects.  All of these things impacted southern China and I think that his explanations are basically correct.  Still, if we push on a little further into the study of the region’s political and economic history (an exercise that he himself recommends), I am no longer sure that we are actually asking the right question.

To begin with, why are starting off with the assumption that the southern arts were in some substantive sense radically different from what was seen in every other region of China?  Given that we have so little detailed information about these fighting systems in the 18th and early 19th centuries it may be useful to question our assumptions here.

Secondly, even if these systems were different on a technical level (which, to be totally honest seems likely given the regional nature of the martial arts), should we really accept that these variations formed the basis of self-conscious conceptual categories on the part of practitioners.  Put another way, when thinking about Kung Fu prior to 1850, would “Northern” vs. “Southern” seem more or less relevant to a local practitioner than “Opera” vs. “Militia” or “Cantonese” vs. “Hakka”?

At this point we do not have enough information to answer this question conclusively.  But I think that we can be fairly confident in asserting that the idea of “Southern” kung fu existing as a unique tradition that embodied something important about regional culture becomes more readily evident in the final years of the Qing dynasty.  This idea then progressively strengthen from the 1920s to the 1950s, and it really blossoms form the 1950s to today.  In short, the “discovery” and drive to preserve the southern Chinese martial arts seems to parallel the simultaneous “discovery” of a distinctive “southern” regional identity more broadly.

While Hing Chao set out to discover why “Northern” techniques sometimes appear in the south, what he has actually done is to suggest a number of factors that led to the isolation, identification and reification of the southern arts as a distinct expression of local identity.  Interestingly all of this is happening at exactly the same time that reformers in Northern China are making the argument that the martial arts in general are somehow an embodiment of, and key to cultivating, a distinct Chinese national identity.  This can be seen in the published works of authors like Sun Lu Tang or the Jingwu Association.

As this rhetoric was spread to the south by various publishing companies and reformers, local martial artists, facing new competition from the northern styles, had no trouble appropriating this logic and turning it around.  They were then able to argue that the local arts were in fact an expression of “southern” cultural values and worthy of veneration.

This argument would have come as quite a surprise to a professional guard with a caravan escort company in the 1820s.  Such an individual may have spent his life traveling between Henan and Guangdong and association with a wide variety of other security professionals along the way.  Yet it would probably appear to be “common sense” to a teenager in the much more parochial and regionally focused Foshan or Guangzhou of the 1920s.

One of the places where we may see evidence of this progressive emergence of southern identity (particularly as it applies to the martial arts) is in the realm of Wuxia novels.  I have always been interested in the discussion of the emergence of the “old school” Guangdong martial arts novels provided by John Christopher Hamm in his book Paper Swordsmen.

Readers should pay special attention to his discussion of the commercial links between the Guangzhou and Hong Kong publishing and newspaper industries in the final decades of the Qing dynasty.  He restricts his discussion to the realm of print capitalism and points out quite a few important implications of this cross-border trade for the emergence of a unique regional identity.  Yet everything that he discusses is really just a specific manifestation of the much broader reorientation of regional trade that I discussed above.

When reading his argument it is also important to remember that martial arts novels were not a new phenomenon.  They had been consistent “best sellers” since at least the Ming dynasty.  Yet for the most part the residents of southern China seem to have read and discussed the same sorts of novels as everyone else (Court-mysteries, Water Margin, Romance of the Three Kingdoms, ect…).

The first novel that Hamm finds which carries a distinctly “Southern” identity, both in terms of the references to the Cantonese language and martial arts practices (specifically the story of the destruction of the Southern Shaolin Temple) is not released until about 1890.  While he concedes that it may have been based on material a decade or two older (the finished novel was published anonymously), it is pretty clear that that contemporary readers regarded this as something new and innovative.  This single book sparked an entire genera of imitators, each claiming to reveal the secrets of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  This new school of fiction then expanded and thrived until well into the 1950s.

If the idea of the unique nature of the “Southern” martial arts were somehow essential to the region’s local culture this would be quite hard to explain.  Yet if the concept of the “Southern arts” as a special category (e.g., as we now understand and use the phrase) emerged in conjunction with a growing awareness of southern culture as whole, and all of this was the result of economic and social processes happening in the late 19th century, then the timing of the emergence of the “Old School” Guangdong Wuxia novels makes perfect sense.  A more detailed understanding of the region’s political economy helps to explain many of the trends that Hamm notes in his study of martial arts literature.

One simply cannot sell consumers a novel or a fighting style based on their shared “southern culture” before that concept emerges as a salient aspect of their personal identity.  Given the highly mobile nature of soldiers, merchants, guards, performers, pirates and other martial artists, the appearance of northern techniques and styles in southern China in the early 19th century is not actually that much of a surprise.  The much more interesting question is why the Pearl River region developed a distinct set of martial practices at all, and when exactly the practitioners of these arts began to think of them as uniquely “southern” rather than simply as “effective.”  Researchers need to be aware that categories like “Northern” and “Southern” are not simply technical observations.  Rather they are the product of a complex process of social construction and negotiation.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An Economic Approach to Understanding “Lost Lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.


An ancient coin dating to Han dynasty.  Source: Wikimedia.
An ancient coin dating to Han dynasty. Source: Wikimedia.