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Biography, Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (12): Tang Hao – The First Historian of the Chinese Martial Arts

Taiji Quan being practiced at Wudang.  Source: Wikimedia.

Taiji Quan being practiced at Wudang. Source: Wikimedia.

Introduction: The Problem of History in the Life of a Historian

Tang Hao is not a household name, even among avid practitioners of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While little known outside of certain specialized circles, few people have had a more profound impact on the way that we write and think about these hand combat systems.  A lawyer by training and profession, Tang Hao was the first individual to undertake a serious, sustained, investigation of the history of the Chinese martial arts using modern documentary and field research methods.

Prior to his time the Chinese martial arts had been ahistorical.  History, after all, is more than an immutable list of cosmically given names and dates.  It is one type of ongoing conversation in which that information is passed on and transmitted throughout the community.  Nor is history ever value neutral.  Even if the analyst in question has no political or ideological leanings (something which was certainly not true in Tang’s case), the very act of giving people different tools for understanding the past also grants them new ways of thinking about and arranging the present.

Tang Hao was very aware of the transformative social power of well written historical research.  He was counting on it.  In an era when so many other martial artists were (sometimes literally) taking up the sword for the defense of the nation, he instead picked up his pen.

His entire adult life was characterized by a truly remarkable faith in the power of the traditional martial arts to transform and liberate the Chinese people, even in a time when the country was riven by both civil war and international occupation.  But before that could happen his readers needed to see the martial arts for what they “really were.”

Throughout his voluminous writings Tang Hao sought to liberate China’s martial heritage from the social constructed framework that had arisen around it in the late Qing and early Republic period.  He demonstrated that the origins of these fighting systems lay in historical military exercises rather than revelations from Buddhist Saints or Daoist Immortals.  Tang sought to crush the secrecy and false lineage claims that have always dominated the traditional hand combat systems.  Most of all he wanted his readers to understand that, while uniquely Chinese, the martial arts were an ultimately rational and practical system of physical culture that should be revived and placed at the disposal of the state.

Of course the vision that he articulated bore almost no resemblance to how the martial arts were actually practiced or discussed in society generally.  The various reform movements of the 1920s and 1930s (the Jingwu and Guoshu associations) did resemble Tang’s vision of a modernized, yet at the same time “restored,” branch of Chinese physical culture.  Yet this approach tended to be confined to educated and middle class circles in China’s leading cities (mostly along the east coast).

The martial traditions of the majority of the population were much more “traditional” in orientation.  Nor did most martial artists appreciate Tang Hao’s gift of “rational history.”  They were much more comfortable with their creation myths, legendary temples and secret lineages.

Of course historically informed readers will already know that most of this “traditional” approach wasn’t actually all that old.  Certainly it drew on older stories and motifs.  Yet as Thomas A. Green, Stanley Henning and others have already reminded us, most of these myths were “invented traditions.”  A few of these martial systems emerged from the last half of the Qing dynasty, but most were actually much younger than that.

The great irony is that in the grand scope of things, many of the “traditions” that Tang Hao sought to debunk were in fact not that much older than his own modernist view of history.  Nor did these stories arise in a vacuum.  As we have already discussed in a number of places, in addition to their immediate commercial benefits, this folklore also had important social and cultural ramifications.  These stories sought to tell martial artists who they were and situate their practice against a rapidly evolving drama of nation building and imperialism.

I have always suspected that Tang Hao must have known, at least on some level, how recent most of the myths that he argued against really were.  And he must have realized that these stories were promoting a vision of the martial arts and their relationship with society that was diametrically opposed to the ideological causes that he had dedicated his life to.  Still, in the perpetual upheaval that was the Republic of China, it was probably more effective to argue against the “feudal superstitions of the past” than to admit that there might be more than one model of how the state and society should relate to each other.

I am starting my review of Tang Hao’s life and career with this specific discussion for a reason.  Given the overwhelmingly historical nature of his writing it is easy to assume that Tang’s ultimate goal was to somehow liberate the Chinese martial arts from a recently decayed past.  If this was really the case it would be hard to understand why his work generated the opposition that it did.

In reality his conflict was with the present.  The early 20th century saw not one but two reform movements within the Chinese martial arts.  One of these was an elite led project focused on nation/state building.  The Jingwu and Central Guoshu Institute (as well as post-1949 Wushu) all grew out of this impulse.

The other reform movement was happening at the local level across China as individuals with martial backgrounds looked for new ways to monetize their skills.  The rhetoric of these disparate groups also strongly favored the emerging idea of national consciousness.  Yet this vision of the martial arts was both market mediated and sought liberation through a renewed vision of the past.  While state backed reformers appear to have loved nothing more than to pontificate on the ultimate demise of the Chinese martial arts (unless more government support was forthcoming), the truth is that the martial arts had never been more popular than during the 1920s and 1930s.

Unfortunately for reformers like Tang it was the market driven discourse of “lost lineages” and “secret techniques” that was rapidly winning out.  It was this alternate vision of China’s martial future that he sought to deflate with his historical pen.  In so doing he managed to stir up more popular opposition than one would think possible for an author writing on such arcane subjects.

Nor was this the only ideological battle that framed Tang Hao’s career.  He was outspoken in both his political and social views.  He was arrested, and even tortured, multiple times for his supposed associations with the Communist Party.  Tang even became involved in such famous events as the “Seven Gentlemen Incident.”

One of the things that we need to remember when reviewing Tang Hao’s career is that for most of his adult life he was a known public figure.  While certainly not a celebrity in the conventional sense of the word he was very much an identifiable personality, especially in education and physical culture circles.

Unfortunately Tang Hao’s life and career are less well known in the west today.  By far the most detailed discussion of his life in English is provided by Kennedy and Guo in their volume Chinese Martial Arts Training Manuals: A Historical Survey (Blue Snake, 2005).  Andrew Morris discusses a few episodes from his career briefly in his investigation of sports in Republican China.  Tang Hao also makes a number of appearances in the writings of Stanley Henning. But for all of that we do not yet have anything like a complete biography of this individual.  This is a shame.  As Kennedy observed, he was the rare historian whose life was as interesting as the material he researched.

A detail of the restored Qing era murals at the Shaolin Temple.

A detail of the restored Qing era murals at the Shaolin Temple.

Early Puzzles in the Life of Tang Hao

Much of what we currently know (in both Chinese and English) about the life of Tang Hao comes from a memorial essay written by a colleague and friend named Gu Liu Xing.  This is the major source that informs Kennedy and Guo’s biographical sketch.  Gu was the Vice Director of the Shanghai Physical Education Research Institute when he wrote this account some years after his friends death.  Given the type of exercise, the highly sensitive nature of some of the political issues that Tang Hao’s life touched on and the years that had already passed, we must treat this account with caution.  As Kennedy observes, some of the most interesting elements of Gu’s account are the silences and mysteries that he leaves behind.

Tang Hao (also Tang Fan Sheng) was born in Jiangsu province.   Peter Lorge lists the year of his birth as 1887, whereas Kennedy and Guo place it instead in 1897.  Given their more extensive focus on this period and the details of Tang Hao’s biography I have given their dates priority.

As a child Tang Hao was born into poverty.  In fact, the specter of reoccurring bouts of poverty would haunt him throughout his entire life.  His family made a living by doing piecework sewing.  It seems that at first young Hao was able to attend school, but was forced to quit as a teenager for economic reasons.  While acknowledged as a deeply learned individual, his friend Gu reports that he was basically self-educated.

Much about Tang Hao’s early adult life remains to be clarified.  Sometime after leaving schools the young man apparently made his way to Shanghai seeking opportunity.  This would have likely been at some point in the nineteen-teens.  What he found was Liu Zhen Nan, an instructor in Liuhe Quan (Six Harmonies Boxing).  Interestingly Liu had some connections with the educational world.  In addition to his own school (the “Chinese Guoshu Study Institute of Shanghai”) he was an instructor at Jiao Tong University.

This brush with the educational establishment, whatever form it took, seems to have been fortuitous for the young Tang Hao.  Gu notes that by the early 1920s he had been named the principal of the Shanghai Shang Gong Elementary School.  How Tang Hao went from being a poor rural youth with little formal education to a school principal in such a short time is something of a mystery.

Of course all of this is happening at the height of the Jingwu movement, when a number of local schools were hiring martial artists to teach physical education classes.  I have no evidence to back up the conjecture but I wonder if this was how Tang Hao got his foot in the door.  After that his naturally studious nature and extreme work ethic would have been enough to insure his success.  If so then we can count him as yet another example of a rural youth who successfully turned to the martial arts as a means of social advancement and mobility.

Tang Hao continued his association with the martial arts after attaining steady employment.  Gu notes that even the local opera troops were impressed with the displays of Kung Fu put on by his young students.  Tang Hao himself also developed an interest in a number of other martial arts including Xingyi Quan (taught by Li Cunyi) and Taiji Quan (Chen Fake).

The first reference to Tang Hao as a noted public figure which I can find dates to 1923.  Interestingly it has very little to do with his background in the martial arts.  Instead the incident illustrates the respect that he had gained as a mainstream educational thinker.

Andrew Morris has documented at some length the importance of the YMCA movement in bringing western amateur sports to China.  In fact, YMCA officials seem to have organized, and even led the delegations of, Chinese athletes sent to various international sporting events and competitions.  This situation was tolerated in the in the 1910s.  Yet in the more politicized (and nationally aware) 1920s the arrangement became unbearable for the Chinese athletic community.

Things seem to have come to a head in the early 1920s when Chinese athletes wanted to boycott a set of regional games being held in Japan for political reasons.  However, the head of the athletic commission, a missionary and YMCA director, insisted that such behavior was “unsporting.”  Not only did he send a team, but he personally led the “Chinese” delegation.  The sight of the Chinese team being led by a foreign missionary in a supposedly “national” sporting competition resulted in derision and boos by the Japanese spectators.  It was also felt to be humiliation that could not stand back in China.

In 1923 a new body named the “Chinese Athletic Association” was formed to take control of the situation and insure that this did not happen again.  Tang Hao was one of the educators who was appointed to oversee the effort.  Interestingly a number of martial artists were also selected for the board.  But Morris points out that Tang Hao was not among their numbers.  Instead he was selected to represent the orthodox educational establishment.

The 1920s were a defining period in other respects as well.  While he became increasingly outspoken, certain questions remain about Tang Hao’s political and ideological commitments.  Kennedy and Guo are silent on the question of his political affiliation, though they note that he was arrested for being a Communist with surprising frequency.  It seems that many of the individuals that he associated with later in the 1930s were either Communists or were perceived as “enemies of the state” by Chiang Kai-shek’s wing of the Nationalist Party

The first such incident occurred early in 1927.  Of course this was when the Nationalists retook Shanghai and, in a surprise turn, Chiang Kai-shek sought to purge his party of its Communist wing.  The end result was the “Shanghai Massacre” in which Communist soldiers and suspected party members were rounded up and executed.  During or shortly after this event Tang Hao was also arrested on suspicion of being a member of the Communist Party.

As Fredrick Wakeman has documented in his books on policing Shanghai and Dali’s secret service, very bad things often happened to those who were accused of being a communist party member. Either because of his public stature or the quick action of a well-connected “Kung Fu brother,” Tang Hao seems to have been spared the worst of it.  Ju Guo Fu, a fellow student of Liu Zhen Nan, as well as an accomplished wrestler and western boxer, brought his family to Shanghai and promised them as a bond against Tang Hao’s release.

At this point Ju and a number of Tang’s associates decided that it would be best if he avoided further trouble by leaving the country.  They arranged for him to visit Japan where he studied political science and law.  Of course this also gave Tang Hao a chance to observe the Japanese method of integrating martial arts instruction directly into the mainstream educational institutions of the day.

Like many other Chinese visitors during the period he was deeply impressed with what he saw.  This trip seems to have been the start of Tang’s career as a public intellectual within the field of the “martial arts” rather than simply “education.”  Kennedy and Guo note that while in Japan he studied Pi Ci (a type of modern bayonet and sword sparing, called “Jukendo” in Japanese).  Other accounts state that he also studied Judo and Kendo, but I have not been able to verify the sources behind these assertions.

One of the most important things to note about Tang Hao’s sojourn in Japan is its relative brevity.  While he is often referred to as a “Japanese educated” lawyer, one wonders how many semesters of class work he actually managed to complete given his other responsibilities.  Tang could not have arrived in Japan much before the summer of 1927, and he left for Nanking after receiving an intriguing job offer in the summer of 1928.  Given that he is remembered today almost entirely for his scholarly contributions, it is fascinating to note that this year abroad is the only formal higher education that Tang Hao seems to have received.

Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts.  Notice they wear the long hair of Taoist Adepts. Source: Wikimedia.

Taiji being demonstrated at the famous Wudang Temple, spiritual home of the Taoist arts. Notice that images like these represent much of what Tang Hao was fighting against in the Traditional Chinese martial arts.  Source: Wikimedia.

Tang Hao: The First Historian of the Chinese Martial Arts

One of the Republican government’s first orders of business as they expanded their borders northward was to establish their own martial arts training program.  It was hoped that this new institution would promote martial development in schools and among the people with the aim of improving the nation’s health while at the same time unifying it resolutely behind the leadership of Chang Kai-shek.   Whereas Jingwu had focused on promoting a culturally bounded sense of “nationalism,” this new project, called the “Central Guoshu Institute,” was more state-centric in its focus.

Unfortunately the initial organizational structure that was created (divided between “Shaolin” and “Wudang” departments) split into competing factions and imploded almost immediately.  So in the summer of 1928 the Institute was reorganized, and new groups of individuals were brought in.  Among these were such level-headed educational professionals as Tang Hao.  Newly returned from his tour of Japan he was appointed the “Section Chief for Editing and Reviewing” of the “Publications Division.”

On the surface it is hard to imagine any job that Tang Hao would have been better suited to.  Still, it is interesting to stop and question why he was even offered this position.  After all, he was being offered a job with a regime that had recently jailed him on suspicion of being a Communist.  And while Tang Hao would go on to become the most important martial arts historian of his generation, all of his most significant works were still in the future.  I don’t think that any of this research that he is currently remembered for had actually been published prior to his appointment.  Once again Gu maintains his silence on these critical questions.

If his new colleagues were expecting great things from Tang Hao they did not have long to wait.  In 1930 he arranged an expedition back to Japan for his fellow institute member (all noted martial artists and wrestlers).  Gu states that the ostensible purpose of this trip was to survey the progress of the Chinese martial arts styles in Japan, yet I suspect that the delegation was probably just as interested in seeing the Japanese models for themselves.

Upon returning from this mission Tang Hao presented his finding to the Institute.  He then published them in the “National Martial Arts Unification Monthly.”  In these remarks he laid out what would become hallmarks of his approach to the martial arts.  Specifically he called on the Chinese hand combat community to focus on the development of the more “practical” (by which he really means “militarily relevant”) aspects of the Chinese martial arts.  Given the state of the Japanese martial arts in the 1930s it is hard to imagine that Tang Hao was not deeply impressed by what he saw of government sponsored Budo.

This call for practicality went well beyond the technical applications of the martial arts.  Kennedy and Guo note repeatedly that he was just as interested in applying this same rubric to the historical and theoretical study of the martial arts.  He abhorred what he considered to be the faux spirituality and mysticism of Republic era martial arts.  He relentlessly attacked the shaky lineage claims and propensity towards secrecy that could be seen in so many popular styles.  The martial arts were to be a vital part of training soldiers and defenders of the nation, not opera performers, temple troops or folk masters.

This brings up a number of important points that need to be considered when evaluating Tang Hao’s work and findings.  Almost all of the larger points that he made were absolutely correct and are still the basis for our “historically accurate” understanding of the Chinese martial arts today.  Bodhidharma did not bring Kung Fu to Shaolin and Daoist “fairies” are probably not the best explanation of the “internal arts.”  Nor does it appear that Tang Hao ever intentionally distorted the facts that he reported.  This is precisely why his work is still consulted and discussed by historians today (see Wile 1996 or Shahar 2008 to name just a few examples).

Still, when you read reformers of Tang Hao’s generation it is clear that they had a very strongly held theory of what “society” was and how it was supposed to relate to the state. For an extensive discussion this point see Michael Tsin. 1999. Nation, Governance, and Modernity in China: Canton 1900-1927 (Stanford UP).

His assumptions on these core issues are fundamentally different from most of his modern readers.  As such we should not be surprised to discover that they probably had an impact on how he interpreted the data that he encountered.  Specifically Tang Hao did not seem to accord any sense of legitimacy to any institution within society that was not attached to or furthering the aims of the state (this is what many Chinese reformers believed the fundamental purpose of “society” to be).

This basic set of assumptions seems to have bled over into how he viewed the many social locations of the martial arts.  The social value of their supposed martial function was clear.  But when looking at the practices of street performers, temple troops, traditional doctor or even the historically significant millennial uprising of the 19th century, it does not appear that he saw much that was “legitimate.”  At best the role of the state was to reclaim the martial arts from these sorts of actors and the last 100 years of their degradation.  These sorts of subaltern practices are either ignored or criticized.  But Tang Hao doesn’t really attempt to understand how the martial arts functioned within, or reinforced, these other institutions within Chinese society.

This is probably the greatest limitation of Tang Hao’s research today.  Increasingly historians are moving beyond asking simple questions about the origins of various styles and instead are attempting to use elements of the martial arts to understand aspects of the popular culture and larger social world of the Late Imperial and Republic periods.  Given the nature of his project and assumptions Tang Hao’s work is less immediately relevant to these sorts of research questions.

Tang Hao’s first landmark study was also released in 1930.  This book was titled A Study of Shaolin and Wudang and it was published by the Central Guoshu Academy.  Within its pages Tang Hao boldly set out to gore as many sacred cows as possible, all in the name of reclaiming the martial arts as a rational, and potentially modern, aspect of Chinese physical culture.  He advanced critical arguments (which still influence scholarship today) exposing the weak foundations of Shaolin and Taiji’s most popular creation myths.

While intellectually sound, Tang Hao’s efforts did not find an entirely receptive audience.  Indeed this one volume seems to have accomplished the impossible.  It brought together the disparate and feuding factions of the traditionalist community in a united dislike of Tang Hao and his historical criticisms.  Nor am I entirely clear about how much cover and support the author received from his ostensible employer, on whose behalf the volume was published.

Gu reports that Tang Hao’s criticisms engendered enough hostility that a group of traditional practitioners in Nanjing were basically conspiring to run him out of town.  Once again his Kung Fu brother Ju Guo Fu stepped in to clear the matter up.  After meeting with the aggrieved parties he arranged a deal by which they would agree to back off, and Tang Hao later left town on his own accord.

Given the very real political clout of the Guoshu establishment one wonders why things were allowed to escalate to this point.  Why was it necessary to bring in an outside arbiter?  Why didn’t the Institute fight harder to keep their prize scholar?  Once again, Gu deftly sidesteps these rather obvious questions.

It is dangerous to hazard much of a guess about these issues at this historical remove.  Still, the Central Guoshu Institute was actively appropriating certain elements of Chinese traditional martial heritage, and the dividing line between the “reformers” and the “traditionalists” was occasionally a fuzzy one.  One wonders if perhaps Tang Hao’s 1930 barrage alienated some of his employers as well.

Following his departure from Nanjing he returned to Shanghai.  There he put his newly acquired education to good use and began to practice law.  The period from 1931-1941 was probably the most productive of Tang Hao’s life in terms of original research and writing.  Gu recounts that during these years he became a practical hermit, dedicated only to his writing.  Still, when he did emerge from his study he managed to get caught up in interesting (and potentially dangerous) events.

Tang Hao also pursued his more practical interests in the martial arts during these years.  In 1931 he organized his own local group called the “Shanghai National Guoshu Anti-Japanese and National Salvation Association.”  Gu himself joined this group and this is when his relationship with Tang Hao was really forged and strengthened.  The formation of this group seems to have been a result of the Japanese Invasion of Manchuria in the same year.

In 1932 Tang Hao and Chen Zi Ming undertook the difficult trip to Chen Village where, through both archival and field research, he would do some of his most important work on the history and evolution of Taiji.  This work is still referenced in any serious discussion of the origins of Taiji Quan.

As concerns about Japanese imperialism mounted in the late 1930s Tang Hao redoubled his efforts to promote the martial arts, and Pi Ci in particular, as a training tool for the Chinese military.  By 1936 he had his own organization drilling in the more modern sword and bayonet method and he was busy trying to develop different sorts of training equipment.  That year also saw the publication of at least four more monographs.

The coming Japanese invasion was another turning point in Tang Hao’s life, though perhaps not of the sort that many would suspect.  In 1936 a number of individuals who were associated with Tang Hao formed a “national salvation” group and demanded that the KMT government put aside their long-running civil war with the CCP and unite to face the Japanese.  This incident inspired a strike at a Japanese spinning factory in Shanghai.

Chang Kai-shek responded to the groups’ demands by having them and their associates imprisoned.  These events became known in the press as the “Seven Gentlemen Incident.”  Gu was one of those arrested, though he was later granted bail.  Tang Hao functioned as Gu defense lawyer and continued to visit and council with the other “Gentlemen” who remained behind bars until 1937.

This was an important and highly publicized event.  Students across China demonstrated in solidarity with the “Seven Gentlemen.”  Madame Sun Yat Sen even traveled to Shanghai to conduct a sympathy demonstration where she demanded to be arrested on the grounds that the only real crime that the group had committed was to be patriots.  Not surprisingly Chang Kai-shek saw things differently.  He was very concerned about anything that increased public sympathy for the Communist Party and he accused the “Gentlemen” of “endangering the republic” (a very serious charge).

Despite his prior problems with the government Tang Hao stayed in shanghai to act as defense council.  He and Gu even managed to bring their new and improved Pi Ci training equipment into the prison to do a little bit of training with their friends and associates.

Shanghai was ultimately overrun by the Japanese in 1937.  Rather than fleeing the city Tang Hao opted to stay and continued to work as a lawyer throughout the occupation.  He had a number of important books, including his edited collection of Qing era archery manuals, published in 1940.  Still, while he managed to stay intellectually active he was dogged by political problems.

In 1941 the Chinese civil administration of the city (working under the Japanese occupation) sought to once again arrest Tang Hao on suspicion of activities for, or membership in, the Communist Party.  Tang Hao was tipped off about the imminent arrest by a well-connected local merchant and went into hiding in a rice warehouse.  While in hiding he finished work on his Study of Shaolin Quan Secret Lessons, a refutation of a very popular, but also spurious, Shaolin manual that had been published in 1915 (incidentally this is the same book that R. W. Smith republished in English as the Secrets of Shaolin Temple Boxing).

The volume was quickly typeset and published in 1941 by the Shanghai Modern Book Company.  I have always been a little surprised that Tang Hao was able to publish so many volumes on the Chinese martial arts in the early years of the Japanese occupation of Shanghai.

Shortly after the release of this volume Tang made a critical error in judgment.  He became convinced that the police were no longer interested in arresting him and so he returned home.  After arriving he was incensed to discover that his precious files and research materials on the martial arts had been partially destroyed by rats.  He blamed his wife for the loss.  She responded by hanging herself.

Gu reports that Tang was devastated by his wife’s suicide.  Yet things were about to get much worse.  While the civilian police had lost interest in Tang it seems that the Japanese had not.  Shortly thereafter he was arrested by the Japanese military police and subjected to torture as part of his interrogation about his affiliation with the Communists.

Gu reports that upon learning of his friend’s arrest he approached a highly influential factory owner who was able to intercede with the Japanese and secure Tang Hao’s eventual release.  After being let go he fled to Anhui province where he eventually settled and remarried.

A view of the Pagoda or Stupa Forest at Shaolin, one of the largest at any Buddhist Temple in China.

A view of the Pagoda or Stupa Forest at Shaolin, one of the largest at any Buddhist Temple in China.

Conclusion:  The Final Years and Legacy of Tang Hao

Kennedy and Guo report that Tang Hao moved back to Shanghai after the city’s liberation from the Japanese.  While he continued to work on various projects he was not as productive in this final period of his life as he had been in the previous decade.  He completed his study of Emei Boxing, and seems to have transitioned easily following the 1949 “Liberation” of China by the Communist Party.  Unlike so many other martial artists who had worked with the KMT during the 1930s he felt no need to flee to either Taiwan or Hong Kong.

In fact, Tang Hao eventually found steady employment with the new regime.  In 1955 he was appointed to the Commission of Sports.  This afforded him the opportunity to continue his massive research project on traditional Chinese sports and physical culture.  That effort eventually resulted in the eight volume History of Chinese Martial Arts and Sports. On January 20th 1959, Tang Hao died in his apartment in Beijing.  Gu reports that he had remained immersed in the study of his beloved martial arts right until the very end of his life.

Tang Hao’s life is a fascinating microcosm in which we can observe the various social, ideological, political and cultural elements that dominated China’s turbulent 1930s-1950s.  Throughout it all he maintained a single minded focus and laid much of the foundation for our modern understanding of the history of the Chinese martial arts.  Yet to really appreciate his contributions we must not make the mistake of viewing him only as a dispassionate and detached observer of history.  Indeed he was deeply involved in the events of his day.  It is also clear that he hoped that his vision of China’s martial past would help to shape the nation’s future.

While not without his flaws or ideological bias, Tang Hao went to some lengths to be a detailed and fair observer of the evolution of a number of styles.  This is precisely why he is still occasionally cited by historians today.  Yet, to a certain extent, I think that Tang Hao is not better known because he has become a victim of his own success.

His works opened the door for Chinese martial studies by proving that modern, document driven historical studies of the traditional fighting arts were possible.  Subsequently a number of scholars, in China, Japan and increasingly the West, have all walked through that door.

As such the discussion has progressed, evolved and generally moved beyond the point where Tang Hao left it.  Currently there doesn’t seem to be any sort of critical pressure to make his pioneering works from the 1930s and 1940s more widely available.  In almost every case one can glean even more information (and more professional analysis) from recently published studies.

Still, I cannot help but wonder if this is a mistake.  Tang Hao was a towering figure in his generation.  He was not just an observer of history, he was very much part of it.  His books are not just, or at this point even primarily, important for what they say about the distant past.  They are also a critical witness to the evolution of modern thought on the Chinese martial arts during the Republic period itself.

This is critical as the arts that are practiced today are in large part a product of these decades.  They emerged out of a debate about how best to reform China’s traditional fighting system; about the proper relationship between the national arts, the state and society.  Our current practice continues to be shaped by these discussions in ways that often escape our notice.  Tang Hao, while not a household name among most practitioners of the Chinese martial arts today, played a critical role in shaping this debate.  Making his works more widely available and better known would be a great help to our ongoing reassessment of the Guoshu period.

oOo

A portrait of Tang Hao, 1897-1959.  Source: Wikimedia.

A portrait of Tang Hao, 1897-1959. Source: Wikimedia.

oOo

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Ming Tales of Female Warriors: Searching for the Origins of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.

oOo

Discussion

12 thoughts on “Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (12): Tang Hao – The First Historian of the Chinese Martial Arts

  1. Working as a sinologist on the Taiji Tushuo of Chen Xin, with many direct accounts out of the Xiaojia tradition, it must be noted that TH probably also had his own agenda, was surely not a historian in the modern western sense, lacking methodology and objective approach. But then, in those times, he did change a lot for the research on CMA! Nice article!

    Posted by Bai Yiming | March 14, 2014, 3:32 am
  2. Great website, great article!
    Brief bio of Tang Hao can also be found in the footnotes to my article about Chen clan boxing manuals: http://www.chinafrominside.com/ma/taiji/chenboxingmanuals.html
    (sorry for shameless self-promotion…:)

    Posted by Jarek Szymanski | November 8, 2014, 5:11 am
  3. Tang Hao was a shill for the government. As already mentioned, he was not really a historian nor should his “research” be considered accurate.

    Posted by Robert | December 11, 2014, 2:27 am
  4. The Kung Fu was my first sport, today I do not practice as before for lack of time, but still passionate about everything related to Kung Fu

    Posted by Massa Muscular | January 31, 2015, 6:24 pm

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