How should we understand China’s traditional martial arts? Minimal observation will reveal that these are multifaceted social institutions whose interactions with popular culture are complex and ever changing. Still, as Douglas Wile has noted, when discussing hand combat practices there is a strong tendency to see any event that occurred prior to the founding of the Republic as though it emerged from some timeless oriental landscape.
There is also an odd propensity within popular discussions of the martial arts to view China as both isolated and unchanging. Even when lineage histories show this not to be the case, students still desire to delve into the deep past, to find some era when a “real tradition” might have existed. This mythical beast is always imagined to be static, technically unchanging and culturally pure.
All of this is strongly at odds with the actual contours of Chinese history. The vast size of the Chinese empire ensured that no unified “martial culture” could exist. Different regions and classes developed institutions and practices that were appropriate and rational responses to their specific challenges.
Nor were these trials constant. Chinese history is a fascinating subject precisely because it is so dynamic. Guangzhou was a very different place in 1833 than in was in 1853. Likewise no one in central China in the 1830s anticipated the full destructive fury that the Nian and Taiping Rebellions would unleash on the countryside a few decades later. The social, military and economic institutions that emerged from the ashes of these conflicts in the 1860s were different in certain key respects from what had preceded them.
Recently I had the chance to reread Elizabeth Perry’s classic monograph Rebels and Revolutionaries in Northern China, 1845-1945 (Stanford UP, 1980). The political economy of violence in Chinese society is a popular subject and there are a number of more recent books that take up this theme (see for instance Robinson, Bandits, Eunuchs, and the Son of Heaven (2001); Tong, Disorder Under Heaven (1991). Still, for a variety of reasons I think that her volume is well worth studying. While it clearly responds to a number of questions that dominated the historical discussion of China in the early 1980s (such as the origins of the Communist revolutions in a comparative context), her more general observations have a timeless nature.
While she never offered a protracted discussion of hand combat practices (something that clearly weakened her work compared to the efforts of Esherick or Cohen who addressed many of the same topics a few years later), her discussion of the region’s martial culture remains very important. In fact, her descriptions of the social environment in central and northern China in the middle of the 19th century continues to shape, and be reflected in, academic discussions of the history of arts like Taiji and Xingyi Quan. Douglas Wile’s discussion of the area affected by the Nain rebellion (a topic of vital interest to those interested in Taiji’s mid-19th century metamorphosis) seems, to my ear, to be strongly flavored by Perry’s reading of these events.
I originally turned to Perry as I hoped to write something on the Republic era Red Spear Uprising. This incident is critical to students of popular martial traditions during the 1920s. Unfortunately it has not attracted a lot of academic interest in the west, and Perry remains one of the most important academic interpreters of this incident.
Still, my discussion of the Red Spears will need to wait for another day. While reviewing the area’s (exceptionally rich) history of banditry and disorder, I was struck by a number of her observations regarding the origins and structure of the earlier Nian Rebellion (1851-1864). This insurrection (which devastated large sections of Anhui, Shandong, Henan and Jiangsu) posed a serious threat to the Qing government which was also struggling to contain the Taiping Rebellion further to the south.
The nature of the Nian movement has proved to be somewhat perplexing for students of Chinese history. The origins of the group are debated, as are its connections to the area’s “White Lotus” tradition. Scholars even disagree as to whether the Nian should be characterized as anti-government rebels, revolutionaries or simply as an exceptionally sophisticated system of social banditry. Was this movement a natural outgrowth of the area’s poor agricultural prospects (marred by frequent floods) and long history of female infanticide (an argument advanced most recently by Valerie M. Hudson), or should we instead see this as a rational response to economic developments in the international system and specific policy initiatives by the Qing state?
As Douglas Wile and others have noted, this entire geographic area is central to the development of China’s modern martial arts traditions. Students from Heibi and Shandong Provinces dominated the national military exams throughout the Qing dynasty. This was also the same area that would give rise to a number of important folk hand combat traditions including (but not limited to) Taijiquan, Shaolin, Plum Blossom and Hong Boxing.
A better understanding of the nature of this region’s martial culture may also shed some light on how best to understand these systems today. Are they simply repositories of “ancient” cultural knowledge doomed to fade in an increasingly modern world? Or are these systems fundamentally adaptive in nature, allowing both individuals and communities to succeed in what has always been a rapidly changing environment?
The Geography of the Nian Uprising
Perry begins her exploration of the Nian uprising by investigating both the origins and nature of the individual bandit bands that came together to comprise the larger movement. Geography played an undeniable role in the promotion and shaping of the region’s martial culture. The flat lands surrounding the Huai and Yellow Rivers were notoriously prone to flooding. While the soil derived its exceptional fertility from these floods, once they erupted there were no natural features to offer shelter. As the Qing dynasty became increasingly inefficient and preoccupied with internal troubles, maintenance of the dikes suffered with tragic consequences. One particularly important flood of the Yellow River in 1851 led to the deaths of massive numbers of peasants and the loss of tens of thousands of square miles of farmland.
It seems that water was always an issue for residents of these areas. Regular floods alternated with years of drought throughout the 19th century. Further, as the area became increasingly impoverished over the late dynastic period its once elaborate system of irrigation vanished. While the region had once seen intensive rice cultivation, by the late Qing the peasants were reduced to dry farming winter wheat.
This was an important development for a number of reasons. Wheat grew well in the climate and needed less labor to produce. However it also required larger fields and had a lower per acre yield. The end result was that the average family farm was less profitable, and employed fewer workers, than in the past. Most of the residents of the area were so poor that they could not actually afford to eat the wheat that they grew, surviving instead on beans, sweet potatoes and some assorted vegetables.
Even in a good year the area was not prosperous. There was little manufacturing or trade of any kind. Basic items of clothing had to be imported from elsewhere at prohibitive prices.
Peasants attempted to survive through two basic strategies. Some focused on economization at home while others involved outward movement. Female infanticide was common throughout the area as baby girls were seen as an economic liability. Excess sons (the so called “bare sticks”) were instead perceived as an asset to the family as they could provide seasonal labor on the farm while spending the rest of the year “working” (often as a thug, smuggler or bandit) in other areas of the region, sending “remittances” home as their fortune allowed.
While there is a common tendency to think of these younger sons as peripatetic drifters unattached to local society, one of the great innovations of Perry’s research was to point out that, while marginal, they actually remained closely linked to their birth families and clans. Thus there was always a much larger social group that benefited from their illegal activities which was willing to support and shelter them. This pattern is critical as it would continue throughout the first half of the Nian Rebellion and it actually lent the movement much of its unexpected strength.
Still, after due consideration Perry argues that geographic factors alone cannot account for the Nian uprising nor, in my view, can they explain the unique nature of the region’s martial culture. While the landscape was flat its flooding was very predictable and (to some extent) preventable. The degradation of the state has as much to do with the 1851 and 1855 tragedies as the weather. Nor was this the only area in China to suffer from a high rate of female infanticide. Perry reports that the ratio of male to female children in the region was about 130:100. She points out that while quite substantial, there were other regions in China that were even more imbalanced which did not exhibit this area’s predilection for violence and rebellion.
While the floods of the 1850s acted as “triggering events” that helped to turn what had been a massive banditry problem into an explicit rebellion, Perry argues that we need to look at broader developments and state policies to understand the true origins of this crisis.
The Evolving Political Economy of Martial Culture
The origins of the Nian Rebellion start with a linguistic puzzle. The term “Nian” appears to be drawn from the Beihua dialect. In popular and official usage it came to be associated with the area’s bandits by the 1810s if not earlier. Perry suggests that the original meaning (“twist”) may have been a reference to the making and use of cloth torches in nighttime raids. Alternatively the name may actually be a reference to the traditional (and very important) association of these groups with one of the area’s most profitable industries, salt smuggling.
Perry notes that certain official reports identify the Nian as being the remains of the White Lotus Rebellion (1796-1804) which the government had finally put down at considerable expense. On the surface this assessment seems unlikely as the Nian had very little interest in heterodox religion of any sort (though one official traveling through the area did note with alarm the presence of extravagant temples dedicated to legendary bandits drawn from Chinese literature).
Other government memorandums linked the Nian with the hired civilian soldiers (or “braves”) which the government had employed in large numbers in the suppression of the White Lotus movement. In addition to military degree holders, this region of China had also supplied most of the mercenaries who fed this conflict. At first these individuals were recruited for the military labor corps (which traveled with the Green Standard Army to carry supplies and provide logistical support). Later more residents were recruited to actually take part in battlefield operations as hired braves.
The usefulness of these civilian troops (which included a certain number of martial artists) has been a controversial subject. Traditionally they were said to be more effective than the derelict Green Standard and Banner Armies, and they did achieve a number of victories on the battlefield. Recently Yingcong Dai (“Civilians Go into Battle: Hired Militias in the White Lotus War, 1796-1805” in Asia Major (Taipei: Academia Sinica), Third Series, Volume 22, Part II (December 2009): 145-178) has argued that this understanding is fundamentally flawed.
While highly paid, he viewed these troops as having been less effective and less disciplined than the regular army. After conducting an extensive review of the primary sources he concludes that the move towards employing large numbers of braves was basically a scam perpetuated by military officials attempting to restore high levels of funding after their budgets had been trimmed during a round of governmental reforms in the late 18th century. Yingcong goes so far as to claim that field commanders actually intentionally drew out and prolonged the conflict with the sectarian rebels in an attempt to maintain these new higher levels of military spending.
Braves received a number of benefits that were not accorded to members of the Green Standard Army. In addition to higher base pay, they also received generous incentives for valor on the battle field and insurance in the case of death or injury. Of course officers at all levels enriched themselves by skimming a certain percentage of these funds. In many cases troops received less pay than they were expecting, and in some instances their insurance and severance benefits simply vanished before reaching the front.
As was always the case at the end of major conflicts, a certain percentage of these soldiers found themselves without their expected benefits or the prospects for any form of employment. It was not uncommon for these individuals to use their military skills to form bandit bands. More aggrieved parties sometimes joined the remains of the White Lotus rebels and actively fought against their former comrades in the Green Standard Army. Yingcong notes that in period sources these treasonous braves were simply referred to as “White Lotus Rebels.” Thus the two different sources that Perry notes are in all likelihood describing exactly the same group of former mercenaries.
Over time a number of these individuals returned to their homeland in central China where they found new ways to apply their martial skills. Anyone interested in budgetary competition and questions of corruption in the Qing military may want to take a closer look at Yingcong’s article on the role of civilian soldiers in the White Lotus Uprising.
If massive corruption within the military helped to create the initial Nian bands at the start of the 19th century, the irrationality of the state salt monopoly ensured that these same groups would prosper and grow during the following decades. As we have already seen, agriculture was a risky proposition in the flat flood plains surrounding the Huai and Yellow rivers, especially for small holding peasants whose lands tended to be concentrated in just one or two locations. While illegal, salt smuggling turned out to be a much more stable industry, and a frequent form of employment for the region’s “bare sticks.”
During the Qing dynasty the government’s salt monopoly was divided into 11 districts, each of which collected taxes on the sale of this vital mineral. In each area the amount of salt that could be sold and its retail price was legally mandated by the state. These taxes were actually an important source of revenue for the government. Since the demand curve for salt is relatively inelastic (meaning that individuals must consume a certain amount of it-or risk death-even if the price increases) it provided a very predictable source of income. By forcing all whole-sale transactions into a limited number of districts the government also ensured that the tax could be collected with minimal expense to itself.
Unfortunately there were certain nuances in the salt system that tended to undercut the rationality and efficiency of the venture. To begin with, not all salt is of equal quality. Perry notes that the salt which was produced in Anhui Province was actually famously foul tasting. Not even the local chronically impoverished peasants were willing to consume the stuff. Making matters even worse, the price of salt varied in each of the 11 districts. Not only was this region’s salt of terrible quality, it was also among the most expensive in all of China.
Enterprising peasants quickly learned that they could make a trip to the south, buy the much cheaper (and higher quality) salt in other districts from shady middlemen, smuggle it back into their home territory and sell it for a huge profit. If the appropriate bribes were made along the way, this could be lucrative off-season work.
Of course smuggling involved traveling through bandit infested regions while carrying either money or large quantities of salt. Like every other sort of merchant in the 19th century these smugglers turned to “armed escort companies” to provide security on the road.
Armed escorts services employed and trained thousands of martial artists across China during the 19th century. They did more business in central and northern China than anywhere else. After the military and opera companies, they were perhaps the largest single employer of martial artists.
Of course these firms were licensed and had to maintain good connections with local officials and the legitimate merchants. As such impoverished salt smugglers could not turn to the better established “regular” firms. Instead they hired local bandits and martial artists who could be found in the region’s marketplaces. These individuals were known in official sources as the “Nian.”
Providing security for traveling salt smugglers proved to be lucrative and steady work which supported the spread of an entire class of regional specialists in violence. As well as being able to buy weapons and horses, these individuals became intimately familiar with the countryside, learning to travel quickly and without detection. As they participated in (illicit) trade they formed networks of contacts throughout the region. The income which they earned as escorts also allowed the Nian to maintain a somewhat lavish lifestyle of feasting and drinking when they came into town. Officials who saw their behavior noted that they frequently displayed their martial skills and even engaged in duals in the streets over the slightest provocations.
Perry divides the various sorts of bandits in the region into three groups. First there are members of “temporary bands.” These are peasants who adopt predatory strategies of raiding neighbors or engaging in smuggling when the crops fail or there is not enough food at home. Once the situation resolves itself these individuals return to plant their fields, resuming the life of a mundane peasant.
The Nian of the early 19th century fall into the second category. These are standing or “permanent” bandit groups. Individuals in such bands have no home to return to. Instead they make their living solely on the “Rivers and Lakes” of central China.
Given that salt smuggling in the region was highly seasonal in character (no one did it during planting or harvesting time) the underworld escort companies had to find a sideline to hold them over. Usually this involved highway robbery and raiding local villages. The fascinating thing about all of this is the realization that it was the irrationalities of the government controlled salt market that subsidized and supported not just an entire class of roving bandits, but the regional forms of martial culture that went along with them.
The third classification in Perry’s typology of disorder moves beyond simple thievery into open rebellion against the state. While the unfortunate geography of central China created large numbers of temporary bandits, it was the policies of the state in both the recruitment of braves and the failure to rationalize internal trade that subsidized the professionalization of these groups. It would be a combination of both state policies and international events that would move large segments of central China’s highly mobile population into open insurrection.
The economic foundations of the Nian Rebellion can actually be found in the 1840s. Traditionally China (like much of Asia) had employed a silver based monetary system. Silver became one of Mexico’s most important global exports, and much of it (mediated through the old Canton trade system) ended up in China where it was used to finance the state budget and pay the military. As the 19th century wore on China would find both its balance of trade and monetary system under assault. This ended up having important and unintended consequences even in areas of the empire that seemingly had no access to international trade.
While ounces of silver circulated as a de facto national currency, most peasants relied on much less valuable copper and bonze coins for the vast majority of their transactions. This was an issue because when farmers sold their grain they received payment in copper coins, but they had to pay their taxes to the government in silver. During the middle decade of the 19th century the price silver skyrocketed. The effect on central China’s already stressed farmers was devastating.
A number of variables contributed to this growing monetary crisis, all of which had their origin in the global financial system. To begin with Mexico’s silver exports to China were disrupted in the 1840s by its conflict with the United States. As the supply of silver dropped, its price (measured against both copper coins and Chinese goods) spiked.
To make matters worse, China’s balance of trade was shifting in a negative direction throughout the 1830s and 1840s. At heart was the growing market for opium entering the country through Guangdong in the South. Opium had long been part of the traditional Chinese pharmacopeia, but its use had been restricted to a small percentage of the nation’s wealthy individuals. Much cheaper opium from India rapidly expanded its use among both urban and rural workers. The social cost of this spread were serious, but even more worrying to the state was the massive amount of silver being paid to the foreign firms that supplied the drug. This huge outpouring of currency caused the price of silver to increase yet again.
The story of the Opium Wars has been related in many other places. What are less often appreciated are the unintended economic consequences of its settlement. In a previous post we saw how the opening of additional treaty ports contributed to the 1849 piracy epidemic in the Pearl River Delta.
Central China was also destabilized by these events, but here the most important aspect of the unequal treaties was the large war reparation payments that the government was forced to make to the British. Like all other international transactions these were denominated in silver. Given the market disruptions that we have already reviewed, the imposition of these payments led to a catastrophic increase in the price of silver.
While nominal taxation rates remained unchanged, farmers discovered that the declining value of copper coinage compared to silver more than doubled their actual tax bills. For many peasant families already struggling on the brink of solvency, this spike in the effective tax rate was simply too much.
Of course the final straw was the catastrophic flooding that hit the entire region in 1851 and again in 1855. The government’s response to this humanitarian crisis was (quite correctly) seen as hopelessly inadequate, corrupt and inefficient. It is an axiom within the political science literature that rebellions and civil wars do not erupt simply because circumstances are bad. Populations can show remarkable tenacity in the face of adversity. Instead groups turn against the ruling authorities when expected benefits and relief fail to arrive.
The doubling of the tax rate and simultaneous failure to address the floods which left millions homeless was simply too much for multiple leaders of Nian bands as well as ordinary peasants. One of the many advantages of banditry is that “loot” constitutes a tax free income source and thus a more viable survival strategy than farming in risk soaked central China.
“Old Cows” and the Martial Arts as a Community Defense Strategy
After discussing the origins of the Nian bandits Perry notes that this turn to crime was not the only adaptive military strategy that we see in the region. Rather than raiding outwards in an attempt to gather more resources, some communities instead turned inward, putting but both metaphorical and literal walls to the outside world. In fact, the middle of the 19th century saw the construction of walls, motes, towers and forts all over central and northern China.
These rising brick and earthen structures, all with gun emplacements, quickly transformed the landscape. The government even encouraged the construction of village forts as a way of protecting the populace at little expense to itself while at the same time denying the ever growing army of bandit-rebels the supplies that they needed to stay in the field.
Of course there was nothing to stop Nian bandits (who often had the support of their home villages) from building or taking over forts of their own. These walled settlements were also an effective tool for projecting power. The entire countryside came to assume a distinctly feudal nature in only a few years. Needless to say none of the forts, either those controlled by the Nian or the “loyal militias” had any intentions of opening their gates to the state’s tax collectors.
Given the centrality of static defense and siege tactics to military conflict in 19th century China, I have always been a bit surprised that we don’t hear more about this topic in the martial arts. I personally suspect that this is one more testament to the degree to which all of these practices were fundamentally reshaped during the Republic period. Still, there was another common defensive strategy during this period that might be of greater interest to modern readers.
Perry notes that large landholders, often the target of Nian raids, were not simply willing to sit back and see their investments destroyed. In addition to financing the construction of forts (which they then occupied as semi-autonomous feudal lords) these individuals also promoted the creation of various sorts of local militias and defense leagues. Some of the most successful of these organizations were referred to as “Old Cow Societies.” Observers at the time noted that these groups actively spread martial arts training.
In many respects the region’s Old Cow Societies (which borrowed their name from previously defensive groups who had fought under the same title) closely resemble Esherick’s discussion of “Big Sword Societies” in Shandong at the end of the 19th century. These organizations were financed and run by wealthy peasants who encouraged other farmers and tenants in the region to join. The wealthier members of the group stockpiled weapons, hired martial arts instructors to act as trainers, and hosted heterodox religious ceremonies (something that was actually quite rare among the Nian).
This last point is particularly important given the frequent debates about the role of esoteric spirituality in the Chinese martial arts. In a somewhat off-handed remark Perry notes that almost all of the Nian bandits were organized along lineage lines under the command of a warrior-chief who was also the family patriarch. Even the larger bandit armies were really just collections of multiple lineages, each with a sub-chief, as well as some impoverished peasants that spontaneously joined the column as it moved across the landscape.
While offensive raiding institutions were always organized around a single lineage, defensive structures were instead community based. They did not depend on the leadership of a single patriarch, but rather collective bands of village elders, landlords and members of the gentry (if any happened to be present). Lightening raids could be carried out quickly and easily by smaller lineage groups. But defending large static areas (including farmland as well as villages and forts) was a much more complicated and expensive undertaking.
To begin with, there had to be enough capital in the local area to make its defense economically rational in the first place. Many of the smaller single surname villages were so poor that the defense of the status quo was not really a viable survival strategy. They were forced to go out to acquire more resources and, as such, contributed to the region’s growing supply of raiders.
Larger villages with multiple surnames and a more sophisticated leadership structure often had assets worth defending, but they also faced additional challenges. The various clans that composed these villages sometimes had a long history of mutual antagonism. Nor was it always clear that it was really in the best interest of impoverished tenant farmers to join the landlord led militias rather than the rebels.
What was needed was an effective way of forging a diverse (and not always happy) group of people into a unified fighting force. This is precisely why it is interesting that the local notables seemed to turn to quasi-religious martial arts associations rather than more traditional village militias during this crisis. Perry notes that each of these groups hired a number of martial arts teachers, but their training was often more than purely physical.
Upon joining an Old Cow Society members burned incense together in common religious ceremonies, ritually invoking the creation of a new community bound by divine contracts. Charms were written on strips of paper, burned and their ashes consumed to provide benefits in battle (often invulnerability). These martial arts associations turned out to be surprisingly effective fighting forces, and they often became the archenemies of local Nien armies.
While it seems unlikely that a common pattern of heterodox worship and magical charms materially contributed to the success of the Old Cows, it may be reasonable to speculate that these behaviors allowed a diverse group of individuals to create a new shared identity. Likewise the turn to formal martial arts instruction (something which is never actually mentioned in Nian camps, though some of these individuals certainly had a background in boxing) seems to have been an important part in the creation of this new social reality.
Perry’s trenchant observation about the correlation between social structures and preferred military strategies (i.e., Lineage/Banditry vs. Community/Defense) requires more thought. Specifically, future researches need to consider how the structure of martial arts societies contributed to the creation of social capital and identity within diverse communities, rather than just the transmission of technical skills. In fact, one suspects that in actual battlefield conditions (where much of the combat was taking place with rifles and cannons) it was this prior set of benefits that actually made them the most useful to their institutional sponsors.
Conclusion: Lessons of the Nian Rebellion
This essay has demonstrated that the Nian Rebellion has much to teach us about the evolution of China’s 19th century martial culture. It also suggests some interesting corollaries about the role of the martial arts in the modern era. As Perry notes geography is a critical and often overlooked variable. It structures the possibilities that actors face in any situation. This in turn necessitates that students see the martial arts as evolving within specific local contexts, and being an expression of local culture, rather than relying on overly simple national narratives.
Still, we must avoid the temptations of geographic determinism. Far from being a static reflection of the landscape, we have seen in this brief discussion that even within the context of a single region, martial culture is both dynamic and changing. It is comprised of a set of adaptive strategies that individuals and groups manipulate as their situation changes or worsens. Heterodox martial cults like the “Old Cow Societies” played a role in the region during the 1850s-1860s with no real precedent during the 1810s-1820s. While it might be tempting to see these groups as evidence of a “timeless tradition,” a more accurate reading would be that they represented one social strategy among many that local elites might call upon when they felt threatened.
Likewise, the drama that played itself out in central China was partially the result of events at the national and international levels. Specifically, irrationalities in the Qing’s military budget process and salt monopolies subsidized the professionalization of the “Nian.” A sharp rise in the price of silver (as well as botched responses to natural disasters) helped to push what had previously been a criminal problem in a more political direction.
There is no doubt that Chinese hand combat systems draw from a rich stock of culturally important symbols and traditions. It is not possible to fully understand the nature of these institutions without being conversant in this social world. Still, it is clear that these institutions are more than just ossified “cultural wisdom.” Individuals turned to them precisely because they provided both physical and social skills that were desperately needed to negotiate a rapidly changing landscape. Further, community leaders manipulated these traditions in order to create tools to address what had become an existential crisis for central China’s social order.
Students of history of may wish to consider these observations and bear them in mind when looking at other cases. Those more concerned with the place of the Chinese martial arts in the modern global environment may also appreciate this message. The evolution of central China’s martial traditions during the first half of the 19th century suggests that these practices are not a “cultural memory” transmitted from an idealized past. Rather the Chinese martial arts (as a whole) have been an evolving set of tools that both reflect one set of cultural values while allowing their users to interface with rapidly changing environments. Evolution is at the core of what they have always been.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (13): Zhao San-duo—19th Century Plum Flower Master and Reluctant Rebel