Traditional Chinese Martial Arts, the Nautical Life and Piracy
In the following post I will introduce what I believe to be an account of the earliest large-scale Chinese martial arts demonstration in the United Kingdom and possibly all of Europe. Nor was this an event of little importance. Staged on the deck of an authentic junk which had sailed across the pacific (previously stopping in Boston and New York), this performance coincided with the 1851 Great Exhibition and attracted the notice of social luminaries including Charles Dickens (who wrote about it), Prince Albert and even Queen Victoria. Unfortunately the operatic and martial arts performances staged by the ship’s crew elicited little respect in the British press, and instead came to symbolize the backwardness of Chinese society at a time when the industrial revolution was transforming European life.
As significant as all of this is, it is not the only reason why I decided to discuss this incident. The Chinese systems of hand combat are interesting precisely because they touch on so many aspects of social and cultural life. Elements of “martial culture” can appear practically anywhere, making its study essential to understanding the development of modern Chinese popular culture in either its homeland or in a global context.
Current discussions of the internationalization of the martial arts often focus on technologically driven media discourses such as the dissemination of images through film, television or increasingly the internet. Still, there was a prior stratum of beliefs about Chinese culture that these more recent conversations engaged with and reacted against. To put it in the simplest possible terms, Bruce Lee became the “Little Dragon” for western audiences precisely because he was not Charlie Chan or Fu Manchu.
I have always been interested in the genealogy of certain ideas and symbols. Whenever you start to dig into the history of these subjects you inevitably discover that things were never quite so simple as they seem from a distant vantage point. As such I have been looking at some of the earliest western interactions with “modern” Chinese martial artists in the 18th and 19th centuries both as an additional source of historical data, but also in an effort to understand what earlier generations knew about the Chinese martial arts, and how they were perceived prior to the post-WWII cultural transformation that opened a path for their more general acceptance.
One might simply assume that nothing was known of the Chinese fighting systems in the west during the 19th century, but that is not actually the case. Globalization (meaning the process by which the production of goods, capital and ideas have increasingly become detached from nationally bounded markets) defined life in the second half of the 19th century in profound and disruptive ways. Steamships, telegraphs and trains drastically lowered the price of trade and information while increasing the popular demand for both. Huge numbers of workers migrated in search of higher wages and a better future. Indeed, it was this growth in the global free trade system (as well as the advent of late 19th century imperialism) that drove the nations of the west to China’s door.
Obviously this period of global transformation was not driven by the internet. Instead the critical technologies of day were naval in nature. Merchant vessels brought goods from China to the west, and western gunboats imposed increasingly onerous demands on the east. While the traditional Chinese martial arts were not popularized in the west until the 1970s (generally considered to be the starting point of “modern” globalization) their initial introduction was actually much earlier.
The existence of the martial arts has been part of the western image of Chinese life from the very beginning. Accounts left by early explorers and missionaries mention martial practices. Early collections of Chinese goods assembled by the veterans of the “Old Canton” trade system included large number of military and private arms. The Opium Wars and the Taiping Rebellion also led to multiple accounts of Chinese martial arts being published in widely read western newspapers, journals and books. Early Chinese visitors to North America even brought their fighting systems with them (though they did not establish actual schools until much later). In each of these cases maritime travel was the medium by which contact was established between Western consumers and Chinese martial traditions.
For some reason this era of trade and exploration does not receive a lot of attention in current discussions of Chinese martial studies. This is unfortunate as it raises a number of questions. Specifically, how did early images and demonstrations of martial culture impact the public perception of China in the west? How and why did these sentiments change so radically between periods like 1810-1830, when China was viewed as a mysterious but usually positive place, and the 1850s when its customs and culture became objects of almost universal ridicule to an extent that was not seen either before or after? Lastly, if the tides of globalization brought knowledge of the Chinese martial arts to western shores in both the 1850s and the 1970s, why were they basically ridiculed and ignored in one period while being enthusiastically embraced in another?
Over the course of the next four to six weeks I will be writing a series of posts looking at the role of sea travel and piracy in the development and the dissemination of the traditional Chinese martial arts. A few of these posts will review the situation in China in the 19th century, but other will instead seek to place this exchange of goods and ideas in a more international context. By the end of this series we will be in a much better position to address the foregoing questions.
Bringing the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts to London
In December of 1846 the Chinese junk Keying, commanded by Captain Charles Alfred Kellet and manned by a crew of 30 Cantonese and 12 western sailors, left the port of Hong Kong under false pretenses and with fabricated documentation. While the South China Sea was famous for its local piracy, in this case the captain and his financial backers in Hong Kong were the ones acting in defiance of maritime law.
Chinese law prohibited the export of ships to other countries. Kellet actually had no intention of carrying trade goods to Java and then returning to Hong Kong as he had declared. Instead it was his plan to take the ship to New York City and then other western ports where its cargo of Chinese goods (and more importantly its indigenous crew) could be used as a floating museum to educate the public about the nature of oriental life. Given the success of Dunn’s massive exhibition of Chinese artifacts only a few years before, one can see why a group of businessmen might be interested in funding such a venture.
Still, his plan suffered a number of setbacks. Rather than recruiting individuals that might actually want to visit the west and informing the crew of the true nature of their mission, Kellet instead signed a false contract with the Chinese sailors assuring them of an 8 month commercial journey that would end in Guangzhou. When his rouse was discovered he prevented them from leaving by force of arms, effective abducting and holding the Chinese sailors against their wills.
Once in New York Kellet discovered that the public discourse on China had changed in his absence. Whereas individuals in the 1820s, and even the 1830s, had been fascinated by China, viewing it as a remote and romantic land, by the middle of the 1840s the public was taking a decidedly different view of things. China had become a byword for ridicule in the public press. The same fascination was still there. But romantic and reverential discussions (encouraged by Dunn’s exhibition of “10,000 Chinese Things” less than a decade earlier) had been replaced with racially charged comedy. Almost all aspects of Chinese life, from their hairstyles to modes of dress, became objects of public derision.
This metamorphosis was a complex process that defies single variable explanations. Obviously simple racism and their humiliating defeat in the Opium Wars early in 1840s did much to bring the Celestial Empire down to earth in the eyes of the western public. Still, as Haddad points out in his volume The Romance of China: Excursions to China in US Culture: 1776-1876 (Colombia UP, 2004, an excellent reevaluation of the early construction of Chinese identity in America and the source of much of the background on the Keying in this post) it is unlikely that this is the whole story. Other powers had certainly suffered military defeats without becoming the objects of public ridicule. For that matter no one bothered to stage Broadway production lampooning Indian or Aboriginal Australian modes of dress or hairstyles, all of which were equally alien.
China’s sudden fall in status seems to have been at least partially a reaction against the highly romanticized depictions of it in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Following the defeats in the opium wars what had previously been the “dignified behavior” of the Celestial Realm morphed into the “stubborn pride” of its officials who refused to acknowledge the manifest superiority of the western model. Much of this criticism was couched in gendered terms. Chinese men were increasingly viewed as effeminate and ineffectual. Popular depictions from this period showed them in flowing silk robes quite unlike anything that most Chinese individuals actually wore. Likewise the “heathen” and “opium addicted” nature of the working class was increasingly emphasized. This fear of social deviancy would reach a fevered pitch as Chinese emigration to California increased in the 19th century.
Haddad points out that this transformation in the public view of China was remarkably sudden. A number of American missionaries that had left for China in the 1830s, and had developed a measure of respect for and familiarity with its people, were literally aghast at the sorts of public discussions that were happening upon their return in the late 1840s and 1850s. Captain Kellet quickly realized that the initial plan of turning the Keying into a floating museum would not work in this new, more hostile, environment. Instead he turned the vessel into a floating side-show designed to emphasize and exploit the comic strangeness of Chinese life.
Crew members that had previously been barred from using opium or practicing their native religion were now encouraged to do so. Ticket buying New Yorkers could in this way clutch at their pearls as they viewed the “reality” of Chinese life. In a further display of “reality” Kellet exploited popular beliefs of the time by informing the public that the Chinese members of the crew relished the eating of dogs, cats and rats. In fact the crew ate pretty much the same food as everyone else in NYC as that was all that was available from the local markets. Still, one stewed meat looks pretty much like another. The public loved the display of supposed barbarism and the Chinese crew, who spoke no English, may have been spared the worst of the humiliation.
Continued problems with the crew were probably the undoing of Kellet’s surprisingly profitable run in New York. With the aid of some Cantonese speaking missionaries (who were appalled at what was happening) the crew successfully sued the captain in court for their back wages and long promised return passage to Guangzhou. About half of the crew left for home, and the remainder were enticed to stay with the ship on better terms.
After leaving New York Kellet sailed the vessel to Boston but seems to have had less success there. Then in 1848 he and his mixed race crew sailed the Keying across the Atlantic to London. Here the Keying enjoyed a notable measure of success. It remained on display in the city of a number of years. In 1851 the vessel sought to capitalize on the enthusiasm created by the opening of the Great Exhibition. Wonders from around the world were staged in “national pavilions” in the Crystal Palace. This sudden enthusiasm for international sights and sounds (and the inevitable national comparisons) created an ideal business climate for Kellet who responded by organizing shows that could be staged twice daily.
The voyage of the Keying was an important moment in the early construction of Chinese identity in the west. Much more has been written on this vessel and its crew than we can review here. A large model of the ship even resides in the Hong Kong Maritime Museum. Charles Dickens was left to reflect on the differences between Chinese and British society after visiting the floating museum, and it appears in the letters of Queen Victoria.
Given the high profile nature of this event, it is interesting that most accounts fail to mention the important role that the martial arts played in the Keying’s enactment of Chinese identity. Recall that the crew members of this vessel were not professional performers. They were essentially random sailors from Southern China.
When Kellet decided to convert them to a floating floorshow and night club, what could they do? As it turns out the crew’s performances consisted of some amateur Cantonese opera and a rather more elaborate martial arts exhibition complete with the display of unarmed forms, acrobatic feats and weapons demonstrations (including two man sets) all set to traditional music. In fact, the descriptions of these performances in the period press seem to indicate that this show was probably identical to the many martial arts exhibitions that have been staged in Chinese markets and festivals for hundreds of years. Given this measure of authenticity, it is fascinating to consider that this was probably one of the earliest, if not the very first, large scale demonstrations of the Chinese martial arts in the UK.
Note the following account published by the Illustrated London News on August 2nd 1851:
The Chinese Junk being now, by permission of the civic authorities (the conservator of the river), firmly established on the mud-bank at the end of Essex-street, Strand, close to the outfall of the main sewer of St. Clements’s parish, is thrown open daily—morning and evening—with a variety of entertainments a al chinoise, including a vocal and instrumental concert, a grand assault of the arms, Chinese conjuring tricks, etc. The native crew, who, of course never contemplate going to sea again, are the performers, and equip themselves in an artistic manner worthy of the “supers” of the Victoria or Astley’s.
At the evening performance the queer old craft is lighted up with festoons of coloured lamps—a sort of miniature [missing]hall, and in the midst stands an open orchestra, in which four or five instrumentalists (“barbarians,” not Chinese) prepare the ear for the extraordinary combination of sounds which is to follow. Nothing can exceed the gravity of the “celestials,” as they take their position in the midst of the assembly on the main-deck, and proceed to fright the ear with gong and drum, and cymbal and agonizing cat-gut: the leader beating time with a stake upon a sort of tin saucepan-lid supported on three legs. Then the vocalization! The extraordinary squeaking duet, half plaintive, half comic, between the said leader (who is a sort of Costa and Mario rolled into one) and a younger aspirant in the background—what can possibly exceed its harrowing and ludicrous effect? Nothing except that impromptu feline discourse which we sometimes hear on house-tops at the dead of night.
The concert being concluded amidst the breathless silence of an astonished auditory, the war demonstrations and feats of arms then commence and these are certainly no less extraordinary than what has gone before. The first set consists of a set of grotesque posturing, in which the performers disport themselves severely one after the other, each succeeding one striving to outdo the other in the wildness and extravagance of his gesture—flying and leaping round the deck, thrusting out the arms right and left, threatening, retreating, &c. the musicians all the time keep up a terrific clang.
Next come a series of somewhat similar performances with long poles or lances, this scene closing with a set-to between two performers, which we have endeavored to embody in our engraving. Swords are also introduced and brandished about in the same manner, which, if intended to give any idea of the military science of the Chinese, shows them to be very far behind any other known nation in the world in that respect. One young hero, in the course of his “war demonstrations,” afforded great amusement every now and then, particularly after some very startling efforts at cut and thrust, by throwing himself down, and turning a somersault over his shield. When we left, the “barbarian” orchestra was about to strike up again, and dancing, it was said, was about to commence, but we did not wait for it.
Conclusion: The Martial Arts and the Construction of “China” in the 19th Century
It is interesting to note that Chinese hand combat systems began to appear in the world of popular entertainment during both great periods of expansion in the global trade system. In the 1850s as well as the 1970s they were perceived by audiences as being inescapably linked to Chinese ethnicity and identity (we have no idea how the crew of the Keying understood their skills). Both of these eras occurred as the Pacific region was gaining importance in the global economic system, and both followed military conflicts in the area. Yet the reception of these early performances could not be more different from that which greeted Bruce Lee or David Carradine.
In the 1970s the public rushed to embrace this new expression of physical culture. Crowds of students were eager to learn what it meant to be a martial artist or even (to a limited extent) to be “Chinese.” The 1850s saw no equivalent outpouring of enthusiasm.
It is useful to ask why. The overt racism of period media accounts notwithstanding, it is possible that the show staged by the crew of the Keying was not all that impressive. After all, these individuals were at best amateur opera singers and martial artists. Long poles and pikes were a standard weapon employed to repeal boarders on Chinese naval vessels, so it should not be a surprise to learn that they made up a major portion of the martial arts demonstration. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this account is that a randomly selected crew of Chinese sailors would have enough formal training in Kung Fu to be able to stage a decent demonstration in the first place. Of course the recent humiliation of Chinese forces during the Opium Wars likely undercut much of the emotional appeal of this performance no matter the quality of their skills.
There is another issue that we should also consider. The display on the Keying did not happen in a vacuum. It occurred at a specific moment in Victorian life. The 1851 Great Exhibition was incredibly socially significant. Queen Victoria and Prince Albert’s attendance of the public event, which freely mixed individuals from all stations of life, was seen as proof of the ultimate success of the UK’s modern constitutional monarchy.
In fact, the word “modern” appears throughout discussions of the event. While far off places like India sent Elephants to the display, the UK wowed crowds with its state of the art steam engines,industrial printing presses and manufacturing machinery. Business leaders promised the mass production of household goods at previously unthinkable prices. The 1851 exhibition was, among other things, a triumphalist celebration of the power of modernity to change the world. The crowds loved it.
As Dickens noted, the Keying very strongly suggested that if the UK was the most modern nation in the world, China was the most traditional and backwards looking. This relatively simple wooden vessel was dwarfed by the steamships brought in to be toured by the crowds visiting the exhibition. If the UK had become a model of the politically modern constitutional state, China appeared to be a holdout of medieval despotism.
Nor did the fruits of that tree seem all that appealing to the British masses. In the 1850s European faith in progress pushed individuals away from a serious engagement with Chinese culture, where as in the 1970s growing disillusionment with both the economic and political systems of the day seem to have fueled a renewed interest in the romance of orientalism.
As sad as many of the account of the Keying are, it is of some comfort to note that the vessel was also present at the very moment that the tide of history began to turn. In some ways 1851 marked the high point of enthusiasm of for the industrial revolution. Still, not everyone was impressed with what they saw in the Crystal Palace. Some individuals were appalled.
In the mass production of furniture, art and books, counterculture figures like William Morris and his friends Edward Burne-Jones and Dante Gabriel Rossetti saw a darker vision of soul crushing conformity. Both the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Arts and Crafts Movement attempted to create a more meaningful vision of modern life by explicitly reacting against the industrialization of the 1851 exhibition. Both movements sought a return to craftsmanship over mass production. Critically, the schools of design that they inspired would later turn to China and Japan for inspiration in the realms of both art and architecture.
Whereas others had looked at the east and seen only backwardness and hubris, those who followed in the wake of the Arts and Crafts Movement saw something else. In Asia they found a source of resistance against the pressures of the modernization and a font of timeless wisdom. Obviously this was a just a different phase of (more positive) orientalism than what had come before.
In truth both China and Japan spent the late 19th century modernizing as fast as they possibly could. Nor should we think of the Keying as a physical artifact of some quaint or timeless element in Chinese culture. The vessel looked outmoded and old to Dickens because it was obsolete, even by Chinese standards. Kellet and his Hong Kong backers could afford it precisely because Chinese shipping companies were dumping their fleets of junks in the middle of the 19th century as they started to build larger, faster, steam-powered ships. Yet that very practical reality was never advertised to the ship’s many western visitors. It was precisely the sort of fact that had no place in either side’s understanding of “Chineseness.”
Still, the association of Chinese aesthetics and philosophy with western counterculture movements did not arise sui generis from the ashes of the Vietnam War or the Kung Fu films of the 1970s. This connection was first made much earlier. The voyage of the Keying and its introduction of Kung Fu to the Victorian public was a part of this process, though the seeds that it brought from Southern China would take many years to find favorable conditions for germination.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: An Account of Regional Folk Opera and Martial Performances in Southern China during the 1850s.