A soldier during the 1930s, armed with both a Mauser handgun and dadao.
A soldier during the 1930s, armed with both a Mauser handgun and dadao.





This is the second entry in our ongoing study of the Red Spear movement in northern China during the first half of the twentieth century. For a brief overview of the origins of this movement and its relevance to discussions of martial arts history please see here.

In the previous post I noted that the Red Spear movement has come due for reevaluation. Periodic reconsideration of key subjects are an important part of any historical discussion. In this case it may be especially useful as much of the literature on these events dates back to the 1970s and early 1980s. While the quality of this historical research is generally good, it goes without saying that much has changed since then. Our understanding of Chinese popular and martial culture in the Republic era is much improved, and this may alter how we frame the discussion of the Red Spears in important ways.

The theoretical interests of historians, social scientists and cultural theorists have also continued to evolve. Much of the previous discussion was geared towards uncovering the origins of this movement as a way of understanding the idea of “popular rebellion” in rural China. This in turn was one aspect of a larger Cold War driven research program focused on understanding the origins of the Chinese communist revolution.

While these remain interesting questions, current scholarship tends to be less willing to accept the Red Spears as a unitary subject of study and is instead more interested in questions of regional variation, how this social movement evolved over time and the obvious discomfort that its existence has caused so many commentators on Chinese society.

Students of Chinese martial studies are well positioned to contribute to this discussion. While unique in some respects, there are certainly a number of striking similarities between northern Chinese martial arts societies and Red Spear chapters. These extend beyond the simple practice of Kung Fu (in truth there are only so many ways to wield a dao or spear) and includes cultural elements as well.

For instance, students of martial arts studies will immediately recognize the sorts of legends purporting to explain the origins of the Red Spear movement. Composed in the 1920s they bear more than a passing resemblance to the sorts of “creation myths” which were being composed and circulated by China’s many folk martial arts systems.

The pattern of social organization seen in the creation of Red Spear chapters, where a village notable might sponsor the creation of an altar and school in the local clan temple has been observed in many other times and places as well. Lastly, some of the Red Spear groups discussed by Perry (see especially the “Big” and “Small” Hong Boxing Schools) were actually preexisting martial arts groups that appear to have gotten caught up in the early 20th century rush to construct local militias. They managed to outlive these trends and continue to be part of the martial arts community today.

Of course this will not be a one sided exchange. Students of Chinese martial studies also have much to gain from a reexamination of the Red Spear movement. Given the numerous debates as to the role of religion or spirituality within the Chinese martial arts, this is potentially an interesting case. While elements of different esoteric spiritual practices (including invulnerability rituals, spirit possession and magical healing) have long been present in a minority of folk styles in Northern China, over the course of only a few years in the 1920s these practices exploded in popularity and were adopted by more people than had likely been the case the during the previous century. So many men were being forced to join Red Spear units (the entire male population of many small villages), and the training regimes of these groups were so demanding (often meeting every day for multiple hours), one suspects that other more conventional martial arts practices were probably pushed into the background.

While the rituals of the Red Spears were direct descendants of various local religious practices, we must consider the possibility that there was nothing “traditional” about the sudden eruption of these practices in the 1920s. As Esherick has pointed out in his study of “Big Sword Societies” in the same region in the 19th century, there were always some groups that shared these general beliefs. Yet they were a minority with the local landscape.

So why in the early 20th century did this set of minority practices suddenly become a mandatory regime for most adult males between the ages of 16 and 60 throughout much of Northern China’s countryside? This is not only a puzzling episode in the history of the martial arts, but it would appear to fly in the face of much of sociology’s “modernization hypothesis.” Likewise the widespread nature of the Red Spear movement may provide us with a wonderful opportunity to directly observe how martial culture interacted with various aspects of local, provincial and national society.

Those interested in the Red Spears will likely find the existing English language literature somewhat limited. While this topic has also been addressed by scholars in China and Japan, the two most commonly cited sources on the topic in the western literature are Elizabeth Perry’s chapter on the topic in her important monograph Rebels and Revolutionaries in North China, 1845-1945 (Stanford University Press, 1980) and Tai Hsuan-chih book, The Red Spears, 1916-1949, translated by Ronald Suleski (University of Michigan, 1985).

In our last post we took a detailed look at Elizabeth Perry’s thoughts on the origins of the Red Spear movement, and the reception of her work within the academic literature. In today’s post we will turn our attention to the prior efforts of Professor Tai to bring the Red Spears back into the center of academic discussions of Chinese history during the Republic period.

Prior to the initial Chinese language publication of Tai’s monograph in 1973 the Red Spears had received virtually no sustained scholarly attention. This is quite surprising as they successfully mobilized hundreds of thousands of civilians to resist local bandits, the warlords, the communists, the KMT and the Japanese in quick succession.

Given their importance to understanding the local landscape of northern China in the 1920s and 1930s, it all seems like an unlikely oversight. Tai notes that in the more political atmosphere of the 1950s and 1960s the mixed legacy of the Red Spears posed a problem for all sorts of historians. While scholars in mainland China were happy to see peasants resisting the Japanese and KMT tax collectors, they were bothered by the fact that these groups tended to be led by the local gentry. As such they were staunchly opposed to the communists. While scholars in Taiwan were less concerned with the conservative and reactionary nature of the Red Spears, they were less happy to discuss the sectarian basis of this movement’s social organization, or its systematic opposition to the national government throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s.

In short, scholars tended not to discuss the Red Spears because this multitude of intersecting groups, stubbornly local by nature, did not fit into the dominant narratives of Chinese history that defined the post war discussion. I think that we can go one step further than Tai in suggesting how the Red Spears could be on the one hand a hugely popular social movement, yet also a somewhat embarrassing subject.

In the end it may all come down to the nation building project. Historians in both the CCP and Taiwan (and many in the west) have sought to weave competing narratives of China’s emergence as a “modern nation” out of the tumultuous ashes of the 20th century. Yet the Red Spears do not conform to this nation-building narrative.

It is not so much that they opposed the idea of a nation as that they were doggedly dedicated to ensuring survival at the local level. Specifically, the Red Spears stood ready to oppose any agent of national or social reform who threatened their parochial way of life. Of course everyone’s plans for nation building (no matter their ultimate origin) were all predicated on the extraction of massive amounts of wealth from the countryside in an attempt to jump-start various modernization, education and reform programs. Ergo the Communists, Nationalists and Japanese all got off on the wrong foot with the Red Spears.

The Chinese martial arts themselves were traditionally a product of local popular culture. While some reformers (notably the Jingwu and Guoshu movements) attempted to reform and harness these practices as part of their nation building program, a certain tension always remained between local pride and national identity. Nowhere can this be seen more clearly than within the ranks of the Red Spear Uprisings of the 1920s and 1930s. This parochial loyalty, as much as anything else, probably accounts for the hostile or confused tone of so many later judgments. The Red Spears turned out to be incredibly effective social organizers, but they had thrown their weight behind the wrong types of communities.



A nationalist militia in the 1940s armed with spears.  Many of these groups were composed of former Red Spear units that had been reorganized by the KMT.  Source: http://www.historyextra.com/gallery/chinas-wars
A nationalist militia in the 1940s armed with spears. Many of these groups were composed of former Red Spear units that had been reorganized by the KMT. Source: http://www.historyextra.com/gallery/chinas-wars



Professor Tai’s great contribution was to refocus this discussion and argue that a better understanding of this social movement was necessary when coming to terms with broader patterns of rebellion and revolution across northern China. Still, it is interesting to consider his motivations for writing this book in the first place. Most of his prior research dealt with various secret societies in the late Qing including the White Lotus, Hung Men and the Heaven and Earth Society. His previous book was an in depth examination of the Boxer Rebellion seeking the origins of the uprising in northern China’s village militia tradition (Study of the Boxers, 1963).

As a youth Tai had lived in the countryside of Northern China where his father was a wealthy landlord and lineage elder. Due to their visible social status the family became frequent targets for kidnappers. Tai, his older brother and father were all kidnapped and held for ransom multiple times. After a relative was abducted and killed Tai’s father organized a branch of the Yellow Spears (one of the many groups that made up the larger “Red Spear” movement) which met to train daily in the family home (most likely in the clan temple). Tai vividly remembered watching groups of about sixty men gather daily to perform rituals and engage in kung fu training in the family home. Later this group of Yellow Spears would become involved on the losing end of a pitch battle with other elements of the local Red Spear movement, resulting in the deaths of many of Tai’s relatives.

Given Tai’s deep personal connection to the Red Spear movement, it is important to note what his book is not. It is not a personal account, nor does it focus on the family events that Tai directly witnessed. Unfortunately these are mentioned only in passing.

Instead Professor Tai pursued his research into the Red Spears with all of the professionalism that one might expect. He relied on official sources that were recorded at both the provincial and local level. He also drew heavily on local gazetteers, contemporary newspaper accounts and even popular folk songs and poetry. Direct field work and interviews did not play as much a role in this work, but given Tai’s location in Taiwan and Singapore this is understandable.

In future posts I will engage with the actual substance of Tai’s research in greater detail. However, in this more introductory post I would like to make a few observations about his work. This volume is not without limitations. To begin with, it is now quite dated. Matters are also complicated by the fact that what the University of Michigan actually published was an abridgment of Tai’s original (much longer) volume. To “aid the reader” many names of specific groups and details (as well as entire chapters that the translator felt were too repetitive) were simply omitted from the English language version. The end result is extremely readable, but might contain less historical detail than a student of the Red Spear movement might wish.

There are two additional points that need to be assessed with some care. To begin with, Tai attempts to use the Boxer Uprising (1899-1900) as a theoretical framework for understanding both the village militia movement in general and the Red Spears in particular. However his understanding of the Boxers is fundamentally flawed. Interested readers will want to carefully compare his work to that of Esherick and Cohen. This may have had the unintended consequence of leading Tai to emphasize certain accounts and behaviors in an attempt to remake the Red Spears in a “Boxer mold.” Yet in reality the mold that Tai was working with doesn’t even fit the Boxers, let alone the much later militia movement, with much precision.

A number of other critics have already noted that while Tai preserves and publishes some really important historical sources, his book does not deal with any of the more theoretical discussions of social movements or banditry. This is true, yet readers should also be aware that Tai is not simply reporting his sources as he found them. The Red Spears were an incredibly diverse movement which varied both geographically and over time. Even two chapters in the same region might have important differences.

Suleski’s translation of Tai’s work carries an introduction by Elizabeth Perry. In it she outlines some of the research that looks specifically at this sort of regional variation within the Red Spear movement. Readers should note however that Tai himself does not emphasize this critical fact. He actually obscures it. Following the pattern set in his prior work on secret societies, Tai often sees larger, more coherent and hierarchically organized social structures than most modern historians would be comfortable with. This tendency towards unification allowed Tai to lump the relatively few sources that existed together into a single “coherent” description of how a “typical” Red Spear unit functioned.

Yet if you carefully examine the footnotes it becomes apparent that what Tai presents is a radically composite view of how the Red Spears may have functioned in general, rather than an actual account of what any specific chapter was really like. This limits the utility of his narrative for those seeking to explore geographic or temporal variations. It is actually a shame that he did not focus more heavily on his own family’s involvement with the Yellow Spears as that would have provided us with at least one firm and detailed data point.

Still, it is not my aim to dissuade readers from reading Tai’s research. It is full of interesting historical observations. Readers will want to pay special attention to the volume’s front matter. The introductory essay by Elizabeth Perry makes a very nice addition to her previous work on the Red Spears and introduces a number of the theoretical discussions that critics noted were missing from her initial work. Ronald Suleski’s introduction provides additional details about Tai’s background and the original manuscript.

Lastly, Tai asked his friend and colleague T’ao Hsi-sheng to contribute a preface to the volume. T’ao’s childhood and background were similar to Tai’s. His preface goes a long way to providing the sorts of personal recollections that are missing from Tai’s more conventionally scholarly volume. Students of martial arts studies will find T’ao’s preface to be one of the most valuable aspects of the volume.

Leveraging his status as an “inside/outsider” in Henan’s countryside, T’ao provides us both with a compelling portrait of local society as well as the place of the martial arts within it. His brief notes about high-school martial arts displays, and the role that these played in local marriage patterns, are particularly interesting. These are descriptions that we just do not find in most discussions of the Republic period martial arts, yet they are critical for understanding their changing place in local society.

Unfortunately I suspect that many readers will not actually get a chance to look at this material. Tai’s book is long out of print and tends to be a bit expensive. Worse yet, it is of an age that many libraries are purging it from their collections. Needless to say this is not a book that you can get on a kindle.

Many of the most critical historical observations within Tai’s work have made their way into Perry’s subsequent publications. To be perfectly honest she actually does a better job of contextualizing this information. Still, there are interesting elements within his work that are worth discussing.

In an attempt to aid readers who might not feel compelled to search out a copy of this monograph I have included a couple of extended quotations below. The first of these is the preface written by T’ao Hsi-sheng. This material will be of interest to anyone looking for firsthand accounts of the martial arts community in Northern China in the late Qing and Republic period. After that I included a shorter excerpt from Suleski’s essay describing Tai’s family history with the “Yellow Spears.” Readers should note that given the date of publication this volume used the Wade-Giles system.

Together these brief excerpts help us to build a more detailed understanding of the local communities that created and sustained the Red Spear movement. They also leave little doubt as to the value of martial arts training in everyday life and local culture. All of these themes will emerge again in future posts on the Red Spear movement.


Member of a northern Warlord Army displays his Mauser handgun and Dadao.  This picture probably dates to the 1920s.
Member of a northern Warlord Army displays his Mauser handgun and Dadao. This picture probably dates to the 1920s.  The Red Spears often clashed with similar soldiers.


Preface by T’ao Hsi-sheng (pp. xxix-xxxii)


In this book T’ai Hsuan-chih explores the role of the Red Spear secret society in the complex period between the 1911 Revolution and the Northern Expedition of 1928, and the ways in which the Red Spears were involved in the social and political problems caused by the warlords and the constant warfare which plagued China at the time. This historical period is too often neglected.

In the early Republic period such self-defense organizations as the Red Spears were largest and most numerous in Honan province. Before the 1911 Revolution I travelled with my parents through Honan, including the cities of Lo-yang and K’ai-feng, where I lived as a middle-school student. After the 1911 Revolution, I often visited Hsin-yang. My travels gave me the opportunity to become well acquainted with the social and political conditions of northern China through personal observation. There are several stories I can recall about local self-defense groups such as the Red Spears.

The area where the provinces of Honan, Anhwei and Shantung meet, where as I boy I traveled with my father, is notorious for bandits who shot whistling arrows to announce their coming. Although the common people there armed themselves for self-protection, they did not lightly oppose these bandits. Usually the police could not capture the highwaymen because they lacked information about their movements. Even if they managed to capture a well-known bandit leader, the leader might make a confession, or deny everything, but would never involve other members of the band or implicate those who helped him.

Southwestern Honan is mountainous and at that time was another area filled with bandits. At the end of the Ch’ing dynasty the highwaymen had strict codes of conduct among themselves. In one case, when a girl was raped the leader sentenced the responsible band member to public execution and all the members took this as a warning. One year, when I was a middle-school student returning to K’ai-feng from a summer vacation, our carriage passed through as area where the bandits came and went freely and the common people had built fortifications and earthworks to protect themselves. This brought to mind stories of similar situations in China’s past. The memory is still fresh in my mind.

To the south of the Lo River in Lo-yang hsien a road once ran into the mountains. At the end of the Ch’ing dynasty this was an area where the bandits and common people often confronted one another. In nearby regions, at the end of the Ch’ing, one could still travel to visit the temples there, but by the beginning of the Republic even the beautiful Ch’ien-ch’i Temple was used as a bandit headquarters.

Most of the men who lived in the village on the plain practiced the martial arts. My middle school in Honan was one of the first in the province and so it was well known. Behind the school was a large athletic field where, in addition to gymnastics, the students practiced the martial arts. I remember the most skillful students, two brothers who came from Lin-hsien and an uncle and his nephew from Sui-p’ing. In Lin-hsien every March a large competition in the martial arts was held just outside the city in which most of the youth participated. The best participants would dress as well-known heroes from Chinese history such as Chang Fei, Kuan-kung, and others. In Sui-p’ing hsien, people often encouraged their sons to train in the martial arts. They even employed teachers to instruct them, which accounted for their expertise. Young girls would stand at the edge of the field watching the competition and if they found a boy they liked they would seek out the head of his house to see about a marriage. My classmates at the middle school were some of these skillful boys from Lin-hsien and Sui-p’ing hsien.

The above remarks give an impression of the lives of people in Honan at the end of the Ch’ing dynasty, but with the beginning of the Republic many political and social changes took place. During the late Ch’ing, the people of the plains encouraged their children to study the martial arts as an aid to protecting their villages. They did not believe in the use of magic practices like amulets and rituals as a means of protection. For example, when my father was working in Yeh-hsien there was a self-defense group which practiced a form of martial arts which they said could be mastered in eighteen days. My father would use his head as a weapon, hitting it against a brick without suffering any injury. He also claimed not to fear bullets, though he dared not face these “steel balls without smoke.” Later, when I was in Lo-yang, I saw secret society members who did magic charms to protect themselves. By the end of the Qing many villages had earthen walls and other means of defense, but after the beginning of the Republic these were no longer sufficient. With the coming of the warlords and the increase in banditry, society became ever more unstable and fighting so widespread the common people reverted to belief in magic, probably because they had no other protection.

At the end of the Ch’ing period the bandits usually practiced a code of honor among themselves. This was because the suppression of such rebellions as the T’ai-ping Heavenly Kingdom [1851-64] left provincial and county governors with plenary powers to impose sanctions upon bandits. At that time, provincial governors could deploy troops and local officials could even order executions. Long ago China did not have a police force because villagers organized for their own defense and local authorities supported the people by granting legal permission to carry out death sentences. If bandit groups became so strong that the people and the authorities could not subdue them, regular army forces were summoned. When this occurred, the local people sometimes suffered as much as the bandits at the hands of the government troops. Thus, villagers with martial skills assisted local authorities. But, if they could not overcome the bandits they often struck a bargain with them. In such cases the bandits would agree to cease operations in the immediate vicinity and in return the people would not organize against them.

In the early 1900s, I observed local officials who were appointed to posts in the countryside under orders to eliminate banditry. They considered themselves responsible only for chasing the bandits out of their hsien and sometimes they resorted to negotiations to accomplish this task. Knowing that their reputations would be enhanced if the bandits left the hsien, they would agree to refrain from punitive action if the gangs would abandon the area. In such a case they protected their own territory by moving the brigands into a neighboring jurisdiction.

With the beginning of the Republic conditions deteriorated greatly due to the imposition of special taxes, the spread of warlordism, and so on. Local officials did not protect the people and people could not protect themselves. Bandits were everywhere. They even invaded the towns and killed officials. Obviously these authorities could not protect themselves, let alone protect the people, and the army protected no one. The warlords had no morality and the bandits no code of conduct. Where was order to come from?

Once in the late Ch’ing a bandit known as White Wolf was captured, but the government released him with only a light punishment. In the early Republic this man became the leader of a bandit gang. Whenever the gang marched, White Wolf would lock himself in a covered sedan chair and give the keys to his followers to show that he had no intention of abandoning his comrades.

The roving bandit gangs were broad-based organizations but it is inappropriate to speak of them as heroes or romantic adventures. To protect themselves the common people formed their own broad-based organizations. These groups arose partly as a reaction to rampant warlordism and partly as a response to the depredation of the bandits. The Red Spears was this sort of popular self-defense group.

In this book Tai Hsuan-chih has provided an overview and analysis of the Red Spears and their organization. And the social and political environment which spawned them. The recollections from my youth are intended as an added, more personal glimpse of the Red Spears.


Militiamen with homemade weapons head to the front.  Photograph by Sha Fei, 1938-1940.
Militiamen with homemade weapons head to the front. Photograph by Sha Fei, 1938-1940. This photo also gives a fairly good impression of what a small group of bandits would probably have looked like.


Translator’s Introduction (pp. xxiv-xxv)


Tai Hsuan-chih was born in 1922 in Hsin-tsai hsien, Honan province, into a family which owned about four hundred mou of land near the Hsin-tsai county seat. His father was the clan elder who counseled clan members and every spring supervised the distribution of free food to members in financial trouble.

Tai experienced personally the conditions which led to the formation of secret societies and the way in which they were organized. Before Tai’s birth and during his childhood, bandits flourished in the vicinity of his family home. In 1912 and 1913 local warfare around Tai’s home became serious. Although the family employed armed body guards, Tai’s older brother, then four years old, was twice captured by bandits and had to be ransomed. When Tai was an infant, he and his mother were taken hostage by bandits and held for ten days. The most serious encounter occurred in August 1926 when bandits stormed the Hsin-tsai county seat and captured most of the males in the family, including the five year old Tai, his father and eleven year old brother. After about a week Tai’s brother was released and told to return to his family home to secure cash for the ransom of his father. Tai was also released by the bandits. After a month in captivity, Tai’s father managed to escape and rejoin his family.

In the spring of 1927, another Tai relative was captured and apparently killed by bandits who demanded money and opium. His body was never found. To avenge his murder Tai’s father organized the Yellow Spear Society [Huang-ch’iang-hui], which resembled the Red Spears. A large room in one wing of the family house, where Tai and his brothers and sisters used to study, was designated as the meeting room [hui-t’ang] of the society. A man known as Teacher Liang was invited to erect an altar in this room and prepare the written magic phrases. About sixty young men joined. Members gathered in the meeting room every evening after supper to practice with broadswords and perform many of the ritual training exercises described in Tai’s book. Tai, then a boy of six, would peer in the windows of the meeting room, observing the training of the society members.

Since his father was a graduate of a private academy in K’ai-feng, Tai has always felt that he did not personally believe in the power of magic incantations, but organized the Yellow Study Society so that clan members could protect themselves and their property from bandits. His father funded the society, but never took part in its rituals. It was formally disbanded in 1929 when the family left the countryside where they had been living since 1926 [sic?] and returned to the Hsin-tsai county seat.

Tai has had a distinguished career as a historian. He graduated from National His-pei [Northwestern] University in 1947, and taught at Taiwan National University from 1949-1969. He taught in the History Department of Nan-yang University in Singapore from 1969-1979, and has served as chairman of the department from 1975 to 1977. He has been a visiting professor at National Ching-chi University in Taiwan since 1979.





If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: The Book Club: Chinese Archery by Stephen Selby: A critical text for all students of Chinese martial studies.