A Second Look at a Rare Photograph
It would be an understatement to say that period photographs of Qing-era martial arts activities are rare. For a variety of reasons these themes were less popular with both western and Chinese photographers than a number of other images. The various social disruptions of the 20th century (particularly the Cultural Revolution) also helped to insure that much of the material that once existed was destroyed. One of the purposes of this occasional series is to gather and discuss those images that students of Chinese martial studies still have access too.
Today’s post begins by revisiting an image that I first introduced in a discussion of photographs of Qing era archery training. Given the nature of early camera technology one can basically assume that all pictures form this period were composed by the photographer, and hence in some way “artificial.” Still, even highly contrived images can convey important ethnographic or social information. If nothing else they may at least offer a window into how their intended audience viewed Chinese martial culture at the time.
With the exception of a few newspaper engravings and photographs most of these images never really enjoyed a huge circulation when they were first produced. That is one of the factors that makes the above photograph (which was also discussed in previous post) so interesting. In the late 19th and early 20th century cigarette cards were a popular collectible which circulated widely in both Europe, North America and Asia. The images that they carried both reflected and helped to shape popular beliefs about China.
Interestingly martial themes were not among the most common images of China to be included on these cards. Give the amount of press that the “Boxer Rebellion” generated one might have suspected that publishers would have gone to greater lengths to feed the public’s desire for pictures of the conflict. Still, while searching the internet I did locate at least one image of “Chinese Boxers” provided by the Ogden Cigarette Company. This photograph shows at least ten men and a boy who are evidently part of some type of martial group. Most of the men hold bows and arrows. Also present is one individual leaning on a thick pole that somewhat resembled a “jingal” or heavy wall gun. A second individual (of higher social status) and is seated next to a white horse.
It seems highly unlikely that the people in this image are actually related to the peasant spirit-boxers of Shandong who rose up in 1900 and laid siege to the foreign ligation in Beijing. To begin they are entirely too well dressed. Nor can I imagine a group of armed and vehemently anti-foreign Boxers stopping to have their picture taken with western technology.
Of course there were lots of other types of martial groups in late Qing China. These individuals might belong to some sort of local militia or defensive league. I also speculated that they might be a more formal group of archery students who (judging from their clothing and boots) had a greater degree of status or social aspiration. While a rare and fascinating image, its hard to say exactly what we are seeing here.
This bring us to the next photograph. A few weeks ago I decided to try and locate a physical copy of the previous image to add to my collection of vintage photographs and postcards. Given that most individual cigarette cards are not very expensive, and the fact that Ogden mass produced these images by the tens of thousands, I didn’t think that it would be hard to track down a study specimen. I found one on ebay later that evening and purchased it for a few dollars.
After receiving it in the mail I sat down to compare it with the previously discussed photograph and discovered, to my surprise, that these two cards were not the same. While similar in most respects, my newly purchased image included a much wider scene. Apparently the more commonly seen card is actually a later reissue of the original picture which was cropped to focus on the central figures. The earlier photograph includes a couple of additional individuals, also armed with bows and arrow.
The greater height of the original image also reveals that the man leaning on the heavy pole was not armed with a jingal, as I had at first guessed, but was instead holding the longest Wukedao (Heavy Knife) that I have seen in a period photo. These heavily built weapons were employed as a test of strength and skill in the Imperial Military Examination system. It was common for Qing era martial artists to practice with Wukedao of various seizes and weights as they built up their strength and prepared for the test. Still, the size of this example, which appears to be almost twice the height of most of individuals pictured in the photograph is exceptional.
After finding this image I began to contact some collectors of cigarette cards to find out if it would be possible to date these two specimens. Unfortunately it is impossible to say much with certainty. Ogden produced a staggering 27,000 distinct cards within the “Gold” series between 1897-1907. Nor is anything like a comprehensive catalog of images available. While it seems reasonable to assume that the uncropped card is the older, and that they were published during or after the Boxer Rebellion, we cannot say much more than “circa 1900-1907.”
Still, the appearance of the second version of the photograph may be more helpful in terms of interpreting the subject matter of the image. Given that the Imperial Military Examination consisted of tests of mounted and standing archery, as well as the use of the Wukedao, pulling heavy bows and lifting stones, I am now more inclined to see this as a group of examination students as opposed to militia members. The appearance of a horse and a heavy knife in the same picture just seems to be too evocative of the examination system.
We may yet discover more about the individuals in this photograph. Given the huge number of cards that Ogden was producing it seems unlikely that they were doing much original photography. If this is a reproduction, the original (and hopefully information about the photographer and his subjects) may yet turn up in a museum, university or private collection.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (22): Heavy Knives and Stone Locks – Strength Training in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts