Zheng Manqing with sword, possibly on the campus of Columbia University in New York City.
Zheng Manqing with sword, possibly on the campus of Columbia University in New York City.


Introduction: Zheng Manqing Accepts a Challenge

While doing some preliminary historical research on Zheng Manqing, the well-known painter, physician and Taijiquan master, I came across a fascinating account of a challenge match that he was involved with during World War Two. This story, as published by Douglas Wile in his volume Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writings (2007), was originally related by Xu Yizhong. Xu was a student of Zheng’s and was the director of the Hangzhou Zheng Style Research Association head of the Shizhong Research Society.

The account contains a number of interesting elements and it struck me as the perfect opening for a discussion of the common refrain, seen throughout the Republican period, that China was the “Sick Man of Asia.” This is a central and important topic for anyone concerned with the development of modern Chinese martial culture. It is certainly something that deserves to be treated in greater detail in the future. In the mean time I would like to use this post, beginning with a discussion of Zheng’s challenge match, to explore some preliminary ideas on the topic.

While discussing his teacher’s patriotic sympathies Xu noted:

Zheng also said: “Those who understand the secrets of Taijiquan are very few. I would very much like to put them into words and publish them, but I am afraid they would be stolen by foreigners.” This is an expression of his patriotism.

In this connection, it is worth mentioning a match between Zheng and a certain gentleman named Karl on the staff of the English embassy. During the War of Resistance, the various embassies were concentrated in a couple of blocks in the Futu Gate area. Karl had lived for a long time in the English quarter in Hankou. He was a “master of Chinese culture,” and not only spoke fluent Chinese but had also studied many schools of Chinese martial arts and was on friendly terms with many members of the Chinese elite.

At the time, although battles at the front were fierce and bloody, behind the lines, the lives of the diplomatic corps were relatively relaxed and enjoyable. Because of his contacts in the martial arts community, Karl participated in many matches and always emerged victorious. As a result he was a bit arrogant and full of himself.

A group of Chinese felt that this was an embarrassment to the reputation of Chinese martial arts, and to help restore face, decided to seek out Zheng to carry the banner of China. However, they were afraid that if they first explained the background to him, he would not agree, especially since his mother was still alive, and if she found out, would certainly block the plan. So they arranged a time with Karl, and my fellow townsmen He Yiwu, director of the Disabled Veterans Administration, agreed to get involved. He Yiwu was a great fan of martial arts. (At the time, Sichuan martial arts master Lan Boxi sought a match with Du Xinwu. Later, Wan Laisheng got involved and publically condemned Lan Boxi in the press, creating a great furor in the whole city. This was all instigated by them.)

On a Sunday afternoon, they drove a car to Lailong Lane, and He Yiwu went to Zheng’s house and asked him to come to the English embassy to treat a sick patient. When his mother heard this she said “Go ahead! Even the British Embassy has heard of you.” Once they were on their way, He Yiwu explained the plan to him and at this point Zheng had no choice but to go along with it.

When he reached the Embassy, the whole staff lined up to welcome him, almost like an army waiting for an enemy attack. After exchanging pleasantries they repaired for a lawn inside the embassy, where Karl demonstrated breaking bricks with his bare hands. He shattered a stack up to his chest with a single chop.

Zheng said, “Why don’t you try to break my arm with your chop?” Zheng stretched out and allowed Karl to chop away at his hand, all the while laughing and joking as if nothing was happening and suffered no harm at all. Then they proceeded to the formal contest. Karl was a large man, fully a head taller than Zheng, and he launched the first fierce attack. Zheng offered no resistance and was driven into a corner of the lawn hard by a wall, where he had no room left to avoid Karl’s onslaught. He stretched out his two huge arms like a tiger about to pounce on a lamb. With his chance hanging by a thread, all you could see was Zheng withdrawing just enough to deflect Karl’s force, borrow it, and using intercepting power, throw him a great distance, where he fell flat on his face. Chalk one up for China!

As we prepared to leave, the embassy staff once again lined up to send us off, and courteous glances were exchanged on both sides. However, once we were out of sight, someone looked back, and those puffed out chests and stuffed bellied immediately turned into hanging heads and a look of utter dejection. What an indescribable feeling of joy for us! From this we can see that in relations between nations, even the smallest incidents are charged with mixed emotions and taken very seriously.

Douglas Wile. Zheng Manqing’s Uncollected Writings on Taijiquan, Qigong, and Health with New Biographical Notes. (Sweet Chi Press, 2007), pp. 35-37

This single account raises a host of questions starting with its historical accuracy. Readers should note that this account was not actually written by Zheng himself. Rather it was related by a student many years after the fact. Nor does it contain all of the details that a historian might want. I have tried without success on a couple of occasions to identify the British martial artists who served as the accounts main antagonist.

Given my interest in the historical spread of the martial arts, “Karl” is a fascinating figure. Here we have a western student of the Chinese arts in the 1930s and 1940s who manages to achieve a high level of skill in these fighting systems (and apparently some cultural expertise) all while working within the diplomatic corp. If “Karl” left any diaries, letters or reports behind both diplomatic and martial arts historians might find them to be valuable. Unfortunately I suspect that identifying “Karl” might take a lot of actual archival research and even then it seems like a long-shot.

What if we leave “Karl” aside for a moment? Obviously the point of this account is to suggest something about Zheng and the Chinese martial arts, not his opponent who, in all honesty, seems to lack any defining traits other than his easy interchangeability with any number of stock kung fu movie villains. So what “memory” does this account attempt to propagate in its readers?

One of the most striking things about the preceding account is its sheer physicality. What is emphasized repeatedly is “Karl’s” size and brute strength compared to Zheng’s slight nature. Where one advances the other yields. While one shows himself to be a patriot and a filial son, the other is puffed up and in desperate need of being knocked down a peg or two.

This last point is perhaps the strangest in the tale. One might suspect that a group of Chinese martial artists would be interested in a local diplomat or consular employee who had taken up their practice. The account does not suggest that “Karl” succeeded in his other fights by using western boxing or wrestling. Rather, if the story is to be believed, he was a serious student of the Chinese martial arts. Yet these victories were not seen as a credit to his teacher or style. Instead they were another humiliation to the Chinese people.

It is not actually clear from this account what “Karl” did to win the antipathy of this group of martial artists. Yet the framing of this story leaves no doubt as to how we are to read it. The account begins with Zheng relating his reluctance to write on the subject of Taijiquan for the express fear that “foreigners” will steal the arts secrets. The implication here is that this is knowledge that rightly belongs to the Chinese nation.

The account then ends with a classic bit of psychological projection. After Zheng’s (inevitable) victory Xu relates how some anonymous observer looked back so that he could relate with relish the humiliation and despair that the entire British diplomatic service felt following the defeat of one of their own. We are then sagely informed that “From this we can see that in relations between nations, even the smallest incidents are charged with mixed emotions and taken very seriously.”

Except that this event was not actually a contest between nations. It was a meeting of two martial artists. If “Karl” actually exists, and the events in this account transpired the way that it was recorded, I have a hard time believing that he was really crushed with despair. Anyone who actually spends a lot of time sparring in the martial arts gets used to being punched, kicked, thrown and choked. That never seems to happen in heroic Kung Fu legends, but it is pretty much the day-to-day reality of going to the gym and actually working out in a competitive environment. Nor is there anything that most martial artists like more than to see a display of really amazing or unexpected skill. It is the possibility of witnessing exactly that sort of expertise which drew most of us to the martial arts in the first place.

Still, everything about the framing of this story makes it clear that it is not really about Zheng and “Karl.” Instead it is about China and the west. Racial and national privilege manifests itself in many ways in the modern martial arts. For instance, when I spar with my training partners I never really have to worry that a poor performance on my part will somehow reflect badly on the Caucasian race or the American nationality. That is how “privilege” works in this specific instance. Yet members of other minority groups might feel exactly that sort of pressure. Indeed, the subtext of Xu’s story is that if Zheng had lost to “Karl,” the Chinese delegation would have brought substantial shame on the Chinese nation as a whole. They would have felt just as dejected and humiliated as they assumed that the British delegation should have felt in the wake of their victory.

This story serves a number of social functions. Obviously it helps to limit and frame the problem of violence, explaining when and under what circumstances one can (and should) resort to conflict to sort out your differences. Yet we also see the very clear assertion that the Chinese nation is “strong.” That it can meet westerners on their own terms and defeat them, both individually and nationally. No longer can we call China the “Sick Man of Asia.” Through the martial arts they can be made strong in body and spirit. Seeming physical weaknesses can be turned to strengths, and that power can be used to extract revenge on those who have wronged them in the past.

Very often we see the traditional Chinese martial arts treated as a basic technology that practically anyone, regardless of their background, can benefit from. In fact, Zheng left Taiwan and spent the last phase of his career writing, teaching and practicing medicine in New York City. The vast majority of his Taijiquan students in this period were not Chinese. Perhaps this move caused some lingering doubts, and so a story emphasizing his patriotism was felt to be a necessary testament for posterity?

In any event, there has always been another, more nationally focused, narrative that has followed the Chinese fighting systems. The account of this challenge match seems to reinforce the idea that the traditional martial arts are an extension of the Chinese nation, and not simply a “body technology.” In it only the Chinese are fit to master the secrets of Taiji. In a global system defined by “contesting nations,” how could it be otherwise?

Gatling gun at the Nanjing Jinling Arsenal, 1865.  Source: Wikimedia.
Gatling gun at the Nanjing Jinling Arsenal, 1865. Source: Wikimedia.


Revisiting the Sick Man of Asia

Nowhere in this account is the phrase “Sick Man of Asia” specifically mentioned, and yet the metaphor casts it shadow over the memory of these events. Perhaps no other refrain was more frequently invoked by martial arts reformers of all stripes in the early 20th century. For many individuals, China’s traditional fighting arts were the answer to many of the questions that this phrase invoked. Nor has it faded into obscurity in the intervening decades. This unfortunate imagery still makes appearances in modern Chinese popular culture and social discussions.

Given its ubiquitous presence it may be profitable to take a moment to consider where this phrase originated, how it has been used and why it developed such a strong connection with public discussions of the martial arts. Indeed, who is likely to forget Bruce Lee’s performance as Chen Zhen in “Fists of Fury” and the retribution that this insult unleashed on Shanghai’s Japanese residents?

The original “sick man” formulation appears to have come out of private diplomatic correspondence regarding the ultimate fate of the Ottoman Empire in the 1860s. It is likely that journalist (including those writing for the NY Times) misquoted these communications and characterized the Ottoman Empire as “the sick man of Europe.” This formulation has since been applied in print to practically every major state in Europe and good many others throughout the international system. The exact meaning of the phrase seems to vary depending on the situation in which it is used. In the case of the Ottoman Empire the problem was perceived to be corrupt and decaying political institutions that were causing the realm to crumble at exactly the same time that many of its more vigorous European neighbors (Russia, Germany, the United Kingdom) were looking to expand their influence and even territorial holdings.

The original debate about the fate of the Ottoman Empire was happening at approximately the same time that the Chinese Empire was also coming under increased pressure from the Western imperialist powers. It was perhaps inevitable that a journalist would appropriate this phraseology and apply it to the Chinese case.

It appears that in 1896 a British owned newspaper in Shanghai may have used this phrase with reference to the decaying Qing dynasty and its place in the international system. Liang Qichao, an important historian, political thinker and journalist, subsequently translated the phrase into Chinese and began to promote it in internal discussions.

From the final years of the 19th century onward the “Sick Man of Asia” formula became ubiquitous in debates about Chinese reform and modernization (or the lack thereof). Yet it was almost always used by Chinese journalists, reformers or political thinkers with reference to their own situation. I have run across a handful of instances in which the phrase may have been used by writers in Japan or some other country, but by in large the phrase was “popularized” through domestic publications.
Of course this is not meant to imply that western publication never said demeaning things about the Chinese state or people. They certainly did. Yet this phrase was never as popular outside of China as inside of it.

In attempting to understand why this expression captured the popular imagination to the extent that it did, it is important to consider when Liang Qichao and the other reformers brought it into the public discussion. The earliest uses of the expression seem to date to 1897 and the closing years of the century. China’s national self-image had been badly challenged by a series of disasters in the second half of the 20th century including its losses in the Opium Wars, the signing of the unequal treaties, the government’s disastrous response to the Taiping Rebellion as well as more prosaic (but no less deadly) natural disasters including floods, droughts and famine.

As the true scope of the western threat became clear the Qing court responded by backing a policy of “self-strengthening.”  Obviously this is an important historical subject and there is a lot written on it. At its most basic level this strategy attempted to adopt the western knowledge and military technology that was necessary to modernize the country without sacrificing its traditional social structure or Chinese identity. In fact, Douglas Wile has identified the late 19th century development of Taijiquan as a reflection of this “self-strengthening” ethos.

For a variety of reasons (some quite complex) this strategy ultimately failed. While it did succeed in importing new technologies, the administration of these programs tended to be highly inefficient and corrupt. The Chinese could make modern warships and rifles but, lacking an efficient market, the costs were many times what European states paid for comparable goods. Worse yet, many of these programs accelerated the slide towards regionalism and challenged the court’s ability to speak to foreign powers with a single voice.

By the late 19th century it became clear that the “self-strengthening” movement had failed. What was needed was a much more comprehensive set of reforms, ones that would take on entrenched social structures. Only in this way could China hope to transform its political and economic structure. This was the social moment that the original invocation of the “Sick Man of Asia” seemed to capture. The disastrous Boxer Uprising (1899-1901) would create an even greater sense of urgency while further challenging the Qing’s social legitimacy.

Still, one needs to ask why so many social reformers would phrase their rallying cry in the form of a foreign insult? Again, it is not that the foreign powers never said negative things about these Chinese, but by in large this specific formula wasn’t one of them. “Sick Man of Asia” became a something of a mantra precisely because it captured a national mood. Rather than the Chinese people feeling demeaned after hearing foreigners say this, it seems to have exploded in popularity because it captured the humiliation, self-doubt and sense of crisis that Chinese society as a whole had been experiencing since the 1850s.

Given that the emotional response that the phrase generated was both very real and visceral we should not be surprised to see that it quickly entered political discussions. In fact, the “Sick Man of Asia” formulation became very useful to all sorts of reformers. Why? Simply put, economic, political and social reforms are very expensive. They create new sets of winners and losers. Further, the losers will often be people who are doing quite well out of the current system and they will have both the resources and incentives to fight the reforms at every turn.

Skillful politicians learned a long time ago that the specter for foreign pressure, violence or humiliation can often be invoked in domestic political debates to win concessions that would not otherwise be forthcoming. By invoking the presence of third player (who may or may not even be aware that they have become part of the policy debate), it becomes plausible to push much more radical sorts of change.

Of course the general utility of this sort of strategy also ensures that it will be practically content free. Hence all sorts of political movements were able to invoke the specters of foreign commentators calling the Chinese the “Sick Men of Asia.” One could cure this ill by strengthening either society or the state, the economy or the military, by building modern hospitals or supporting traditional medicine. In the realm of physical culture you could even avenge the slight by promoting the traditional martial arts or western gymnastics.

Martial artists and physical culture reformers frequently used this formulation in arguing for the expansion of their programs. In fact, they had something of an advantage in this area. Attempts to build a stronger Chinese state were accompanied by efforts to create a stronger “society” to support and uphold it. The Chinese people needed to be transformed from a “pile of sand” (to use another famous phrase from the era) into something tough, resilient and malleable.

A combination of social Darwinism and militarism seems to have turned the attention of many national leaders to the physical health of their citizens during the interwar years, and China was no exception. Here the idea of the “Sick Man of Asia” became a tool for attacking problems as diverse as malnutrition, drug addiction and tuberculosis.

By advancing a plan for addressing the physical health of the nation the traditional martial artist could make themselves part of the modernization dialogue. This was critical for survival in the post-May 4th environment.

These efforts can be seen in any number of places. The Jingwu Association went to great lengths to promote scientific athletic training and modern hygiene in addition to more traditional forms of boxing. Classes at the Central Guoshu Institute included segments on party loyalty, health and bayonet fighting in addition to boxing.

Numerous martial arts publications and technical manuals published in this period explicitly invoked the specter of the “Sick Man of Asia,” thereby advancing the traditional fighting systems as the cure of this sociological disease.  A classic example of just such an argument was made in the pages of a 1928 edition of the Martial Arts Weekly by Chiang Ying-hua.

“Although modern weapons have replaced martial arts, Europeans and Americans still practice, study and promote them for body and mind. Even their games embody the martial spirit, while we Chinese look down on the martial arts…and therefore abandon our tradition in hopes of imitating others. Before we have mastered Western ways, we have already earned the title of “the sick man of Asia.” We fail to understand that a healthy spirit is a function of a healthy body, and only with a healthy citizenry can we have a healthy nation. Although martial arts are not relevant to every aspect of modern warfare, they are useful in strengthening the individual, training groups, creating courageous soldiers, and developing responsibility and stamina. Is this less important than studying bombers, warships, artillery, and poison gas?”

Chiang Ying-hua, Martial Arts Weekly (1928), quoted in Douglas Wile’s Tai Chi Ancestors: The Makings of an Internal Art, pp. 190-191.

As Wile points out in the same work, by the 1930s a violent clash with the Japanese was seen as inevitable by many Chinese leaders and writers. In these circumstances strengthening the nation both physically and psychologically became imperative. Zheng’s challenge match happened in the midst of precisely this conflict, one that pitted both the Chinese and the British against a mutual enemy.

How should we understand this turn towards a more essentialist understanding of the link between the Chinese martial arts and the nation? As Wile points out, national identity was seen as an important ingredient in increasing the people’s will to resist foreign aggression. This is precisely what was so threatened by westernization. After all, why would the people fight to preserve China if they themselves were already “westernized?”

In this final formulation we see Taijiquan curing the “sickness” of the Chinese people by strengthening their cultural and social roots. Under these circumstances “Karl’s” study of the Chinese martial arts may actually have made him more threatening precisely because it eroded the distinct boundaries between “insider” and “outsider” at a moment in time when these identities were being called on to bear the burden of national resistance.


Guoshu demonstration by Nationalist Troops, Hunan 1937.
Guoshu demonstration by Nationalist Troops, Hunan 1937.


Conclusion: The Question of Nationalism in Chinese Martial Studies

The phrase “Sick Man of Asia” is fundamentally a product of the worlds of journalism and public debate. That is where the term was coined, applied to China and then extended to a wide range of much more specific discussions. Yet its frequent appearances in the martial arts literature of the 1920-1940 is a valuable reminder of why we cannot understand these fighting systems apart from the social, political and cultural systems that they were embedded in. Indeed, this phrase continues to be invoked in popular films, TV shows and casual discussions up to the present day.

The modern Chinese martial arts seem to be a Janus headed phenomenon. On the one hand they have moved easily into the realm of global markets. Individuals from all areas of the world, and all walks of life, are studying these systems. Increasingly the Chinese state is harnessing this popularity by encouraging “kung fu tourism” and making the martial arts part of its public diplomacy package.

Yet at the same time there remains a strong sense that these arts are distinctly “national” and cultural in nature. Occasionally these two trends can even collide within a single organization, leading to feelings of confusion and raising important questions about the future development of the traditional arts.

As Petrius Liu reminds us in the introduction to his recent volume, the ultimate value of Chinese martial studies lies in its ability to come to grips with these questions:


“The past decades have seen a broad transformation of Chinese Studies into the new Sovietology. In the international sphere, this change has involved, in equal measures, frenzied media denunciation of China’s human rights violation, pollution, and military buildup—and at the same time, popular, sensationalist images of mummies, angels, and kung fu-fighting pandas. A culture of martial arts has come to play a surprisingly important role in shaping China’s global identity, delineating the contours of its cultural influence helping to predict its political transformations, and suggesting ways to interpret its historical formation as a nation-state. Far from being a trivial matter of popular culture, Chinese martial arts are persistently linked—in the imagination of academic critics, political gurus, business entrepreneurs, and social activists—to the master narratives of the twentieth century: capitalism, colonialism and globalization.”

Petrus Liu. Stateless Subjects: Chinese Martial Arts Literature & Postcolonial History (Cornell UP, 2011), p. 1



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists: Qiu Jin—the Last Sword-Maiden, Part I.