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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Reviews

The Red Spear Society: Origins of a Northern Chinese Martial Arts Uprising

A local militia armed with spears outside of Guangzhou, 1938.

A local militia armed with spears outside of Guangzhou, 1938.



Introducing the Red Spear Movement



There can be no doubt that Chinese martial studies has made substantial strides in the last decade. Still, to understand the nature and direction of this research area it is important to consider the articles that have not been written. A thoughtful examination of some of these holes, including both empirical and theoretical omissions, may be a useful exercise for those seeking to understand and improve the overall quality of our discussion.

Consider for instance the “Red Spear” societies that dominated so much of rural life in northern China for practically the entire length of the Republic period (1911-1949). These village defense organizations were a fascinating microcosm of the economic, political and social trends which were rapidly reorganizing life throughout the region. Funded largely by landlords and local notables, these defensive organizations relied on both martial arts training as well as appeals to heterodox religious practices, including beliefs in both hard qigong and invulnerability practices, to ensure order in the surrounding countryside.

While the main target of the Red Spears was the persistent banditry which plagued the region (and actually increased in severity during the chaos of the warlord period), these groups felt free to resist any sort of outside intrusion. In addition to hunting criminals they engaged in a substantial amount of feuding and resource competition, opposed the spread of the warlord and Japanese armies, and even resisted the KMT’s efforts to reestablish local control after the Northern Expedition. Over time the main antagonists of the Red Spears shifted from the mobile bandits of the countryside to government tax collectors who demanded ever larger payments but offered few public services in return.

The Red Spear movement encompassed thousands of small groups spread across a wide area including Anhui, Henan, Hebei, and Shandong. Most, though not all, of the groups considered to be part of this movement shared a core set of beliefs, training practices and organizational structures. Some accounts date the appearance of these associations to around 1911, but the first clear accounts in the historical record do not emerge until the late nineteen-teens. By the mid 1920s the movement had spread widely across the region and in many areas it found itself in violent conflict with not just criminals but county militias, warlord armies and even the KMT.

The heyday of the Red Spear Rebellion lasted from the middle of the 1920s to roughly 1935. Many of the groups that went dormant as the KMT reestablished order resumed operations after the Japanese moved into the area in the late 1930s and continued to be present in some form until the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949.

In short, the Red Spear movement provides us with an incredible opportunity to study how martial institutions functioned within a broader social framework at a time when northern China was undergoing rapid social change. Here we see hand combat groups forming large regional networks which proved to be remarkably successful in thwarting the financial ambitions of bandits, warlords and local governments alike. Yet almost no sustained discussion of the Red Spear movement has occurred in the literature on the history or sociology of the Chinese martial arts. Peter Lorge (Chinese Martial Arts from Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century, Cambridge UP 2012) does not even include a reference to this remarkable (and politically significant) episode in his index. Nor is he alone in this omission.

In all honesty the Red Spears have not fared much better in the general historical literature. Unless one is located in China and has direct access to archives of local historical documents, most discussions of this movement are confined to a relatively small number of secondary sources. In the 1970s Tai Hsuan-chi responded to a growing Chinese literature on the revolutionary origins and implications of the Red Spears by releasing a monograph on the subject. As more scholars in the west became interested in questions of rebellion and social disorder, this work was translated by Ronald Suleski and published by the University of Michigan in 1981 as The Red Spears, 1916-1949.

Tai’s work offers a number of important historical discussions. Given the concerns of Chinese scholars at the time he focused extensively on the origin and nature of the movement, which he views in somewhat unitary terms. In fact, the degree to which the Red Spears can really be discussed as a single continuous social movement is one of the unspoken issues that haunts the small literature on the subject. Critics have noted that his work, while strong on detail, lacks a solid theoretical framework for understanding the varieties or evolution of social movements.  Still, it’s the most comprehensive treatment of the Red Spears that is currently available in the English language literature.

Unfortunately Tai Hsuan-chi’s book is both somewhat dated and difficult to find. More frequently seen is Elizabeth J. Perry’s chapter “Protectors Turned Rebels: The Case of the Red Spears” in Rebels and Revolutionaries in Northern China, 1845-1945 (Stanford UP, 1980). This study makes use of Tai as well as a number of additional primary sources including archival records, newspaper accounts and local gazetteers. It is also interesting to note that there was a Chinese language literature on the Red Spears that appeared in the 1920s and 1930s, as the movement itself was unfolding. Perry also drew extensively on these sources.

While the existing secondary literature on the Red Spear movement is underdeveloped, it is hard to overstate the significance of this material to students of Chinese martial studies. Obviously our understanding of Chinese popular history has grown since the late 1970s. While the basic historical research in these sources remains sound, much of this discussion could do with an update. In fact, this is an area where students of martial arts history might be able to make important contributions in the construction of a more nuanced and theoretically grounded discussion of these events.

As regular readers will know I recently finished a series of posts looking at a variety of subjects and discussions connected to the problem of piracy and maritime violence in southern China during the 19th century. Given the success of that series in placing the martial arts within a larger framework of historical events, I propose to do something similar for northern China. Over the next few weeks I intend to produce a series of posts, each of which will engage with some aspect of the Red Spear movement.

These posts will have three basic goals. The first of these will be to introduce students of martial arts studies to the basic nature and events of the Red Spear Rebellion. Secondly, by looking at some specific issues in the organization and function of individual associations we hope to learn more about the place of the martial arts within Chinese popular culture during the early 20th century. Lastly, I will demonstrate how a sensitivity to the actual practice of hand combat can open up some theoretical puzzles regarding this movement that the mainstream historical literature has yet to address.

The remainder of this post has two goals. First I would like to briefly discuss the contributions of Prof. Elizabeth J. Perry. Her name should be very familiar to anyone interested in the history or sociology of the Chinese hand combat in the pre-1949 era, yet for some reason her work on social violence is not widely read by martial studies students. In the second half of this essay we turn our attention to the origins, first appearance and name of the Red Spears.



Communist Party Women's Militia in Yanan, 1938.  Photographer unknown.

Communist Party Women’s Militia in Yanan, 1938. Photographer unknown.



Elizabeth Perry and the Study of Social Violence


The ultimate origin of the traditional martial arts remains fundamentally contested. Some researchers find the true meaning of these practices within the functioning of local militias or in preparations to take the Imperial Military Examination. Other scholars have instead turned toward opera, ritual and traveling performers to locate the roots of the complex of practices that we now associate with the civilian martial arts.

Wherever their ultimate origin lay, the one thing that is clear is that these practices quickly became implicated in all sorts of social violence during the late imperial period. The frequency of injunctions and decrees banning the practice of the martial arts at both the national and local level can leave us in no doubt of two things. First, officials were genuinely concerned about the intersection of popular boxing and violence. Secondly, the need to constantly repeat these bans strongly suggests that they were basically ignored. Indeed, as so many historians have pointed out (see Esherick, Cohen, Kuhn, Perry, Wakeman ect…) local communities and regional governments depended on these schools to stock their defense forces with new recruits and “braves.”

Moving away from the ultimate (and probably unresolvable) questions of origins, many students of martial arts studies are currently striving to better understand the relationship between hand combat institutions and the rapidly evolving political economy of violence in the late Qing era. Few authors have contributed more to our understanding of this milieu than Elizabeth J. Perry.

Of course I may be sympathetic to her arguments as we both share a common background in the field of political science. Perry was born in mainland China in 1948 where her parents were missionaries but she grew up in Tokyo. She graduated from Hobart, William Smith College in 1969 (which must have been about the same time that my father was teaching anthropology there). She later went on to receive her doctorate in Political Science from the University of Michigan in 1978. Of course Michigan is one of the powerhouse departments in Political Science, and is known for both the strength of its Asian Studies focus as well as its highly empirical (and increasingly mathematical) approach to research. Perry is currently a distinguished professor of Chinese history and politics in the Department of Government at Harvard.

Over the course of her career Perry has proved to be a prolific author and researcher. Most of her projects somehow revolve around the topic of popular political protest and violence in Asia. Theoretically she draws from the arguments of Charles Tilly and James C. Scott, applying these insights to cases as diverse as military uprisings in the late Qing, labor organization in Shanghai in the 1930s, and the politics of workers militias under Mao. Some of her more prominent works include Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (1980), Challenging the Mandate of Heaven: Social Protest and State Power in China (2002), Patrolling the Revolution: Worker Militias, Citizenship and the Chinese State (2005).

Of course no scholar as successful as Perry is without her critics. These dissenting voices arise from a number of perspectives, some within the field of political science, and others coming from outside the social sciences all together. One of the things that seems to unite a number of these critiques is the perceived lack of theoretical depth in Perry’s writing.  Over the years a number of reviewers have noted that she spends more time discussing elements of cultural continuity (often over improbably long timelines) rather than focusing on clear instances of change.

In fact, students of martial studies can see an example of this by comparing her discussion of the Nian Rebellion in the middle of the 19th century to the Red Spear movement in the 1920s-1930s. While she notes a number of major changes in the social environment (including the weakening of local clan structures) she continues to see the Red Spears as a logical continuation of a certain set of peasant survival strategies first employed almost 100 years earlier.

Perry’s description of these strategies (clan based predatory behaviors vs. community funded defensive measures) was convincing precisely because it was grounded in a finely grained understanding of the social, political and economic institutions of the mid 19th century. Yet a hundred years later all of these foundational building blocks had changed beyond recognition. The once strong clan system had all but dissolved in her research area. While she notes this change in passing, she never stops to really study the issue. Likewise commercial opium farming came to replace the subsistence winter wheat cultivation of the previous era. Even the political landscape was transformed with the fall of the Qing and the rise of the much weaker and less legitimate Republic.

Given the sweeping nature of the social changes between 1830 and 1930, one might suspect that peasant strategies of resistance and violence would have been forced to adapt. Indeed, the Red Spears were on some level a new phenomenon. Improbable creation myths notwithstanding, this is a movement that only came into being in the 1920s.

Perry acknowledges all of these factors, yet she treats the changes as minor issues that are basically exogenous to her model of social violence. Even though the institutions of the family and state have changed beyond recognition, her discussion always circles back to patterns of continuity in both geography (floods and famine) and village organization (specifically, the role of landlords and property rights).

One of the debates within the field of political science is how to deal with questions of culture when attempting to understand specific outcomes. To oversimplify what are often very nuanced arguments, are outcomes the result of rational competition mediated by social and political institutions, or do they instead reflect irrational values, identities and discourses that flow from political culture?

On a deeper level, how should we think of culture itself? Is it best understood as a stable system of signs providing meaning and continuity across generations, or is it something much more plastic and prone to disjoints and ruptures. In short, if we accept political culture as an explanatory variable, what sort of factor is it? One that provides deep continuity (see for instance Robert Putnam’s work on social capital and democracy in Italy) or can it explain instances of rapid change?

Charges that Perry’s works are devoid of theory are not really accurate. She has a theoretical approach that is shared in common with all of the “traditionalist” and “realist” approaches to diplomatic history, comparative politics and international relations. Like many scholars from this milieu she tends to focus on materialist, or outwardly rational, explanations of behavior. Yet certain critics have noted that those assumptions alone are not enough to explain the profound historical continuity that she perceives. That seems to stem instead from her discussion of highly stable cultural constructs. Rebecca E. Karl (History, NYU) has claimed to perceive in this a retreat into cultural stereotypes of “oriental despotism.”

What then of the Red Spears? It is interesting to note that Perry’s work so often touches on, and even explicitly mentions, the martial arts. Yet unlike Esherick and Cohen, this is not an area that she appears to have developed a specific expertise in. Obviously bringing together a better understanding of traditional Chinese hand combat with Perry’s detailed exploration of violence and resistance in northern China would be one way to create an updated and expanded understanding of the Red Spears. Yet such a project might also shed light on some of the basic theoretical debates that her work seems to have sparked.

As we will see in the following series of posts, the Red Spears were never a single thing. This was a highly variegated phenomenon which evolved both by region and time. Those interested in cultural continuity might point out that it is fascinating to see heterodox magical and spirit boxing techniques last observed in the 19th century being resurrected in the 1920s.

Yet it is equally fascinating to note how quickly these practices were abandoned as Red Spears were integrated into KMT led county militias in the mid 1930s. Given the military efficiency of the Red Spears, why did the culturally conservative KMT object so vehemently to their spiritual and religious practices? If these were deeply ingrained cultural behaviors (a constant rather than a variable for hundreds of years) how did they change so fast? And how should we explain the sudden reappearance of the Red Spears in the 1940s? By looking at the details of their martial practice, and noting how it changed over time as the mission of this social movement evolved, we might be able to draw some conclusions about the relevance of “cultural” vs “institutional” explanation of social change in northern China.


Members of a local militia outside of Guangzhou assembling in the summer of 1938.  Note the mix of modern and traditional weapons.  Photo by Robert Cappa.

Members of a local militia outside of Guangzhou assembling in the summer of 1938. Note the mix of modern and traditional weapons. Photo by Robert Cappa.



Origins of the Red Spears



Any discussion of the “origin” of the Red Spears is complicated by the fact that the object of our study is a rhizomic social movement made of many small groups that did not all appear at the same time or in the same place. While some of these groups shared a core philosophy and training program, notable variations were evident. Further, certain branches of the “Red Spear” movement apparently rose in competition or conflict with other groups. Further complicating the matter is the fact that many of these groups did not refer to themselves as “Red Spears” at all. In fact, none of the earliest documented groups appear to have used this name, which instead seems to have arisen within the local environment.

At the most basic level “Red Spear Societies” describe a certain strain of village defense leagues that became popular in northern China during the 1920s and 1930s. These organizations were distinct from the older county militia system. They were usually organized and financed by local landlords who wished to ward off both increasingly violent bandit attacks as well as ever greater tax demands levied by various regional warlords.

The name of this social movement probably originates with their highly visible signature weapon, a long spear tipped with a tassel of horse hair which had been dyed red. Spears were a relatively inexpensive weapon to make, and had always been the mainstay of the traditional Chinese battlefield. Given that most martial arts teachers would have been able to teach both pole and spear routines, it is not surprising that this should be a peasant militia’s main weapon.

Of course the Red Spears employed an entire range of weapons when actually engaged in combat including modern rifles, handguns and swords. It should be remembered that both the bandit gangs and warlord armies whom they spent so much time fighting during the 1920s were armed with very modern Mauser rifles. Records also indicate that the Red Spears made good use of both siege tactics and arson in their various disputes.

Perry seems to vacillate in her assessment of the actual origins of the Red Spear movement. Given that this group is best known for its campaign of tax resistance, she begins by noting that certain economic and international factors could help to explain the rise of the institution. The peasants of northern China had seen their tax burden rise after the indemnity payments demanded by the west in the wake of the failed Boxer Uprising. The fall of the Qing also resulted in skyrocketing tax rates throughout the region as the fragile warlord and Nationalist governments competed to consolidate power.

The tax situation during the 1920s was particularly grim. Peasants were forced to sell their crop to local warlords who printed unlimited amounts of their own paper currencies. These same warlords then demanded that farmers pay their taxes in silver or gold. In essence the state was taxing the farmers twice. First by expropriate the entire value of the harvest (by buying crops in a worthless script) and then imposing the tradition tax. It is not surprising that local villages would spend substantial resources in organizing to resist these demands.

Nevertheless, in other places Perry notes that the actual trigger for the formation of individual Red Spear chapters was usually not tax evasion, but banditry. The weak government that followed the fall of the Qing was utterly incapable of maintaining the dikes that were necessary to prevent flooding across northern China’s agricultural plain. The result was a series of devastating floods (ironically often followed by droughts) that destroyed countless villages across the region. Following time honored tradition, the affected peasants responded either by becoming refugees or taking up banditry.

The period after 1911 saw a massive expansion in banditry across the entire region. Perry notes that reliable estimates suggest that Henan province might have had half a million professional bandits by the early 1920s. Shandong had it even worse. Some estimates suggest that the province was home to over one million bandits at the time. Protecting both fields and villages from this menace was an urgent priority, and local elites quickly noted that help from the state would not be forthcoming. They were on their own.

The banditry and taxation problems were not unrelated. One of the state’s initial responses to the banditry crisis was to take on more soldiers. This both provided the government with material resources while restricting the supply of potential bandits in the countryside. Warlord armies tended to grow by incorporating the most aggressive and successful bandit bands directly into their ranks. Needless to say this tendency did not ingratiate them with the local landlords or Red Spears. The KMT instead pressed individual civilians into service. Occasionally all of the men in a given town might be seized and press ganged into the military. The conditions facing these individuals were deplorable and disease and malnutrition were common.

The swelling number of soldiers in the region led to ever greater tax demands on the peasants. Unfortunately this military presence did not lead to greater law and order. Groups of soldiers stole food and clothing from farmers. Nor did they do much to solve the bandit problem. In fact, military officers often conspired with bandit leaders to allow them an opportunity to escape. Blanks might be fired rather than of real ammunition. The failure to ever “solve” the banditry problem was seen as a pretext for maintaining and expanding the bloated armies that dominated life in the region.

Perry notes that the first documented Red Spear group (actually known as the “Red Flags”) appeared in southern Shandong in 1919. This group was active until 1921 and it formed in response to the menace of the Sun brothers bandit gang. It actually enjoyed a fair degree of success and seems to have inspired successor movements throughout the region and into Henan.

By 1923 the pattern had spread to Kiangsu. Here villages formed “Tasseled Spear Societies” in response to the gross incompetence (and probable corruption) of the local county militia system. Trouble started when a county militia officer sent out agents to collect fees and taxes from various villages. The elders of these settlements noted that the militia had not responded to calls for help following any recent bandit raids in the area.

Rather than continuing to pay for non-existent services, they hired a martial arts teacher and set up their own “Tasseled Spear Society.” This led to competition and feuding between the two militia groups that quickly devolved into open violence.

County officials who sought to put the “Tasseled Spear Society” down banned it as a “transformation of the Boxers” who had been responsible for the humiliation of the state in 1900. It is interesting to note that laws banning spirit boxing were still “on the books” in the middle of the 1920s.

Nor was the county government the only ones to associate the Red Spear with the Yihi Boxers of 1900. This identification seems to have been common within the ranks of the newly formed groups as well. Perry reports that one pamphlet that circulated in the 1920s claimed that the name “Red Spear” was actually a pseudonym adopted by White Lotus anti-government revolutionaries in the Yuan dynasty. This patriotic movement had survived for centuries under its assumed identity, and the Yihi Boxers of 1900 had been an offshoot of this movement. There is no historical truth to this story, yet it helps to illustrate the conceptual world that the Red Spears inhabited.

More interesting are two legends that a period writer named Chang Chen-chih reported to be popular with various Red Spear groups. The first of these claimed that the ultimate origins of this movement lay with a soldier named Liu I who had been a military officer in the army of the Taiping Kingdom. After realizing that the Taipings were in decline Liu traveled to Omei Mountain in Szechuan where he became a monk, practiced Qigong and attained immortality. Apparently the audience of these stories didn’t find it odd that a high ranking officer in the vehemently anti-Daoist and iconoclastic Taiping forces would retire to life as an immortal. Liu is then said to have adopted eight disciples who popularized and spread his magical techniques as a form of bandit control.

An alternate version of this creation myth dispensed with the Taiping connection but maintained the Daoist origins of the group. It claimed that the Red Spears were in fact founded by a priest named Chang Lao-tao, a descendent of the Daoist master Chang Lao-lu. After having attained physical invulnerability this holy man also applied his skills to the field of bandit eradication.


Member of a local militia outside of Guangzhou, 1938.  Source: Vintage war photography by Robert Cappa.

Member of a local militia outside of Guangzhou, 1938. Source: Vintage war photography by Robert Cappa.



Conclusion: Making Sense of the Myths


These stories raise a couple of interesting points. They seem to very strongly suggest that the practitioners of the Red Spear method understood their unique technology of violence as originating within the realm of miraculous spiritual attainment. Like so many martial arts both before and after, the Red Spears derived their legitimacy from their links to an immortal hero.  As we will see in future posts, this set of beliefs is not particularly surprising given the actual content of Red Spear martial and magical training.

Still, it is also important to note what we do not hear in these stories. Perry frequently equates the techniques of the later Red Spears with the heterodox religious practices of the Yihi Boxers. This is one area of her analysis that requires a bit of caution. Readers should note that this chapter substantially predates Esherick and Cohen’s later, much more detailed, study of the various groups within the Boxer Uprising.

Esherick in particular notes that that we must be careful in applying the “heterodox” label to invulnerability techniques such as the Golden Bell. Any religious practice that falls outside of the prescribed rituals of Confucianism was heterodox during the Qing dynasty. In that sense the rituals of invulnerability were certainly beyond the pale, but so was every other religious institution, ritual, sacrifice and festival in village life. Pretty much all non-elite public religious practice was “heterodox” in the eyes of the Confucian scholars.

More important is the question of White Lotus associations. Very often “heterodox” became a code word for millennial involvement. Esherick has demonstrated at length that the basic technology of invulnerability has nothing to do with the much feared White Lotus movements. All of the elements of these rituals come directly out of village popular religious practice. In short, these rites were popular precisely because they made a good deal of sense to the peasants who participated in them. They probably didn’t view what they were doing as very “heterodox” at all.

There is another problem with Perry’s frequent use of the Boxer analogy to understand the Red Spears. Most of the Yihi Boxers did not practice the sort of invulnerability magic (let alone months of mundane martial arts training) that we see here. Instead these individuals derived their powers through rituals that invoked a state a spirit possession in the warrior. Peasants were familiar with these deities and social scripts as they came directly from the world of vernacular opera. While there had been groups in the area that practiced invulnerability magic (and they had even gone into rebellion in the decade prior to the Boxer Uprising), the techniques and forms of social organization practiced by the Yihi sect were actually quite different from what we see with the Red Spears. As such students need to make a concerted effort to understand this later movement on its own terms.

This then brings us back to the two creation myths. Stories such as these should sound very familiar to any student of martial arts history. They are nearly identical to the sorts of marketing legends that were being created by martial arts styles across China during the 1920s as they sought to attract students and establish their legitimacy.

This is important as these sorts of myths are somewhat different from the types that were told by religious movements. Other than the passing reference to a Daoist immortal, there is no actual religious content, let alone a salvific theology, in either of these stories. While they contain an ostensibly religious figure, in both cases his mission to the world remains essentially martial in nature. What both of these teachers offers is excellence in kung fu rather than spiritual attainment.

Likewise both of these stories are basically devoid of any sort of substantive political discussion or ideology. Given the frequent association of the Red Spears with tax revolts and other sorts of rebellions, one might expect that the group would have a fully formed political ideology. Indeed, they became such a potent political force that warlords, the KMT, the communists and even the Japanese all discovered that they could not be ignored.

Still, the Red Spears (while admittedly diverse) had no plan for national domination. The main political concern of the movement seems to have been to keep tax collection and village governance local, but even that was just a thinly disguised reflection of the economic interests of the landlords who financed these groups.

The political norms that can be gleaned from these stories tend to reside in the implied background of the characters rather than in their actual actions. The fact that the Red Spears rhetorically associated themselves with anti-government movements as diverse as the White Lotus Society or the Taiping Kingdom seems to be a shorthand way of demonstrating their pro-Han/anti-Manchu patriotism rather than advancing an actual statement of political or religious values. In all of these cases the hero is a member of a patriotic group that has been betrayed by the government that is supposed to ensure harmony. Of course this also the main motivating theme of many of China’s great martial arts myths including the novel “Water Margin” and the southern kung fu myth of the burning of the Shaolin Temple.

All of this implies something genuinely important about the Red Spear movement. Rather than being primarily social or political associations, these groups were essentially martial arts clans. That is how they publicly identified themselves and explained their origin and function to the outside community. While Perry misses this fact, the origin stories that they told about themselves were essentially identical to the sorts of myths that other kung fu groups were composing and spreading in the 1920s. In fact, much of the popular understanding of these arts still goes back to myths that were composed in this era.

All of this is good news. First it strongly implies that students of Chinese martial studies will have something to contribute to the reevaluation of the Red Spears. Secondly it provides us with a broader context to understand the evolution of these groups throughout the 1920s-1940s. We are not just witnessing the evolution of a generic social movement, but one that has self-consciously placed itself within the developing world of the martial arts. Lastly this suggests something about the cultural background, norms and identities that might be shaping the behavior individuals and leaders within these organizations. We will return to all of these subjects in future posts.





If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Inventing Kung Fu



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