A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.





This occasional series of posts is dedicated to the display and discussion of vintage images of the Chinese martial arts. While occupying an important place in popular culture, the martial arts were traditionally associated with non-elite groups. As a result we have fewer photographs recording the reality of these practices in the late 19th and early 20th century than one might expect. Worse yet, many of the existing photographs, letters, news clippings and journals dealing with these practices were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. By reexamining the existing images and ephemera surrounding the martial arts we hope to better understand how they were perceived both in China and the west.

While the images themselves are always fascinating, these discussions are most useful when they lead us to consider historical, theoretical or conceptual issues surrounding the study of the Chinese martial arts. In this post I will display two different images recording actual martial arts demonstrations which happened in the Shanghai area during the early 20th century.

The fact that these images were subsequently republished as a postcard and within a popular encyclopedia would lead one to suspect that knowledge about at least some aspects of the “Chinese martial arts” would have been widespread in the west by the 1920s. After all, this is certainly what modern observers see when they examine these photographs.

Yet it is unlikely that members of the original audience would have been any more familiar with the idea or concept of “the martial arts” after seeing these photographs. Readers today tend to take the term for granted. We often forget that this is a comparatively recent concept in the west, and one that was not available to most observers of Chinese martial culture in the late 19th and early 20th century.

When watching a display in Shanghai, or after receiving a postcard featuring “local color” from a friend, what exactly did most people actually see? At what point did a more basic understanding of the martial arts change these perceptions? Lastly, how does understanding the evolution of this conceptual discourse affect our ability to do historical research on the role of martial arts in popular culture?


marketplace martial artists.full page
Two Illustrations from “Peoples of All Nations” (1922) edited by John Alexander Hammerton.




Jugglers, Acrobats and Dancers: Just a normal trip to the market.



Activities related to what we now think of as the martial arts were spread widely throughout Chinese society. Many people engaged in some of these practices for their own reasons, and it is clear that most of these individuals would not have felt much of an intrinsic sense of brotherhood with their fellow “martial artists.” An opera singer rehearsing for a role, a young man practicing mounted archery for the military exam, a pirate sailing down the Pearl River and a peasant militia member drafted into his clan’s crop-watching society all relied on “hand combat training” to make a living. Yet none of these individuals would have thought that this fact made them socially similar to each other.

The idea that all of these diverse practices and life-ways can somehow be reduced into a single “traditional Chinese identity” is actually a quintessentially modern notion. It is also one that cultural, historical and sociological students need to treat with caution as it tends to collapse some of the variation that a better understanding of Chinese martial culture could potentially reveal.

As such the average early 20th century urban dweller was more likely to come into contact with certain versions of Chinese martial culture than others. Obviously the specifics of this might vary a great deal by time and space. Still, it seems safe to assume that in the Republic period most of these people formed their impressions of the martial arts based on three sources, all closely linked to popular entertainment.

Vernacular operas featuring martial arts performances were popular all over China and not only exposed audiences to certain elements of physical culture, but embedded all of that in a rich web of tradition and meaning. Later these performances contributed to the spread of radio programs and martial arts films. Yet for much of the 20th century local opera traditions remained popular.

People were also exposed to accounts of incredible martial exploits through story-telling and literature. These might include classic novels such as “Water Margin,” more erudite wuxia tales and even serialized kung fu dramas published in newspapers.

Last, market place displays of martial prowess, either as a means of attracting a crowd to sell a product, or simply to pass the hat, were very popular. These displays were seen on a daily basis in some areas and became so common in places like Shanghai that even western residents who had no particular background in the martial arts began to develop an eye for local talent. (That is a subject for another post.)

In short, most urban dwellers in the 1920s and 1930s seem to have formed their impressions of the martial arts in basically the same way that they do today. First they were exposed to these ideas through the entertainment industry. Occasionally some became aware of the arguments of various martial reformers (e.g., the Jingwu Association). Then a small percentage of these individuals decided to seek out instruction for their own reasons (heath, safety, job security, boredom etc…). All of this should sound very familiar to modern martial arts practitioners.

Given the importance of these impromptu urban martial arts displays, one would suspect that there would be lots of photographs of them floating around. After all, photographers tend to be attracted to colorful performances and local flair. It is no coincidence that so many images of early Chinese martial artists feature these sorts of public displays.

This does not mean that finding these pictures is easy. Beyond all of the normal challenges we must consider the question of conceptual vocabulary. The individuals who produced, labeled and marketed these photos in the west saw many things in them, but they did not perceive the existence of “martial artists.”

Consider the two images attached to this essay. The first is a photograph of a martial artist in the midst of some sort of sword routine in Shanghai in the early 20th century. Note the niuweidao, or “ox-tailed sword,” which he holds by his shoulder. This type of blade was particularly popular with civilian martial artists. While easily identifiable to modern viewers as a “martial artist,” at the time this individual was instead labeled as a “sword dancer”

The situation is similar in the next set of photographs, both taken from an early 20th century encyclopedia. Here we see two different marketplace demonstrations in progress. The first is focused on feats of “hard Qigong” while the second shows another individual holding two niuweidao. Both of these pictures are interesting as they focus not just on a single martial artist, but instead attempt to place them within a social context including other performers and spectators.

Yet none of these people are labeled “martial artists.” Once again some are seen as “jugglers” while others are “acrobats.” Nor is this an isolated case. As I flipped through my collection of vintage postcards I recently realized that I do not have a single image of Chinese “martial artists.” Instead everyone is “a juggler,” “an acrobat,” “a soldier” or “gamblers,” “dancers,” “boxers” and “opera singers.”

This is odd as one is much more likely to encounter “martial artists” on vintage Japanese postcards of the same period. In fact, most Japanese images will even label the individuals styles (Kendo, Judo, Karate etc…) and explain something about the setting. While the various Japanese arts seem to have coalesced into a single cultural category focusing on martial attainment and self-improvement, the Chinese practices resisted the adoption of unified conceptual categories in the western mind.

Some Chinese individuals were “harmless acrobats,” others were “blood-thirsty boxers.” In either case very few western viewers seem to have been interested in looking beyond the function of these practices to find their deeper social meaning. Again, this is interesting precisely because individuals in the west hand no trouble doing this with Japanese martial practices.


This chart was produced using google's Ngram tool.  Using a sample of 5 million scanned books it show how the use of certain terms or concepts has changed over time.  Note that the terms "Martial Art" and "Kung Fu" (while certainly present from the early 20th century onward) do not gain popularity until the 1970s.  By contrast the name of Japanese arts such as Judo have been popular terms since the early 20th century.
This chart was produced using google’s Ngram tool. Using a sample of 5 million scanned books it shows how the use of certain terms or concepts has changed over time. Note that the terms “Martial Art” and “Kung Fu” (while certainly present from the early 20th century onward) do not gain popularity until the 1970s. By contrast the name of Japanese arts such as Judo have been popular terms since the early 20th century.



The Etymology of the “Martial Arts”


The ultimate source of this paradox is the fact that the modern concept of the “martial arts” was coming into being at roughly the same time that many of these photographs were taken and sold. In that sense they are artifacts of an interesting transitional phase in the west’s engagement with the traditional Asian hand combat methods. The details of this process, a complicated subject which I will only touch on below, are in many ways a product of the very different places that Japanese and Chinese “traditional culture” were coming to occupy in the western imagination.

It is difficult to put our fingers on the exact moment when the modern concept of the “martial arts” entered western popular culture. The noun that now occupies our thought had already been in circulation, attached to slightly different meanings and concepts, for some time. For much of the 19th century the term “martial arts” applied merely to the sorts of military training that was then common in the west. The phrase itself found its way into popular usage through a number of outlets, including a couple of very well-known poems. One can find references to the martial arts of China and Japan in early and mid-19th century texts, but these almost always refer to topics such as archery, gunnery and logistics rather than civilian schools of hand combat.

An example of this can be found in a 1904 Harper’s Weekly (vol. 48) article titled “From Liao-Yang to Mukden” by Charles Johnston. When discussing the Manchurians we read “They are allowed to take degrees and pass examinations on comparatively slender qualifications, making up for this shortcoming by supposed martial arts, mostly rather obsolete.” In purely historical terms many of these Manchu individuals likely studied what we now consider to be the “traditional” martial arts. Yet Johnston clearly has some other concept (centered on modern military training) in mind when he invoked the noun.

A number of sources on the internet claim that the current concept of the “martial arts” was coined in 1933 as a direct translation of the Japanese term “bujutsu.” This is an interesting idea as there was a fair amount of interest in the Japanese hand combat systems (particularly Judo and Jujitsu) from the turn of the century onward. Still, no clear sources are provided for this assertion and I wonder about its reliability.

I have not yet been able to research the question to my satisfaction, but it seems that the modern usage of this term goes back at least as far (or is substantially prefigured in) Ernest John Harrison’s landmark 1912 publication The Fighting Spirit of Japan and Other Studies. Harrison was a pioneering figure in the global spread of the traditional Asian hand combat systems. He first began to study Jujitsu (Tenjin shinyo-ryu) in 1897 while working as a reporter in Japan. He later moved to Tokyo and became an enthusiastic student and promoter of Judo. Harrison was even the first westerner to earn a black belt in Kodokan Judo. Today he is probably best remembered for his many post-WWII publications and efforts to promote the global spread of Judo.

From a historical standpoint Harrison’s most interesting book may have come many years earlier. In 1912 he released a volume of memoirs documenting his own study of the various hand combat methods while living in Japan. In effect he invented the “martial arts travelogue,” a genre that has become increasingly popular with modern readers (see Robert Twigger, Matthew Polly or Nick Hurst to name just a few examples.)

Harrison repeatedly uses the term “martial art” in a way that suggests he wishes to appropriate it for his own purposes. Rather than just referring to military training, it is clear that he has a different concept in mind, one that likely formed as a response to his exposure to the various Japanese schools of hand combat. These practices are more than simply “obsolete” or “traditional.” They convey some other type of meaning. Note for instance that Harrison includes a chapter on Zen culture in his martial arts review.

He begins the process of introducing his readers to a new concept by speaking repeatedly of the “esoteric martial arts.” These are lessons in controlled violence that are not simply about destruction. Rather they contain a deeper meaning.

In today’s world this is simply common sense. Every child who watches “Kung Fu Panda” or the “Karate Kid” know that the martial arts are “not about fighting.” This idea was not quite so widespread or well developed in the west at the dawn of the 20th century. In Harrison’s writing you can see him stretch to find a language that would allow him to explore these ideas.

A more detailed discussion of Harrison’s book will need to wait for another day. Yet it is interesting to note that he does bring up the question of whether there is a relationship between various Chinese and Japanese fighting styles. Given that this work, and those that followed in its wake, helped to define Japanese hand combat practices as “martial arts,” one might expect that the same concept would easily map itself onto to the various branches of Chinese physical culture.

This did not happen. A review of published books and newspapers shows that there are basically no references to an analogous concept of the “Chinese martial arts” during this period. Instead a variety of other terms are employed. “Chinese Boxing” is perhaps the most popular followed by Kung Fu, juggling and even acrobatics. Harrison certainly discussed his experiences with traditional hand combat as an encounter with a different culture. Yet his personal example showed that these practices were based on principals rather than identity, and hence open to all.

In contrast “Chinese Boxing” was often tied to the perception of xenophobic violence or pride. It tended to be invoked as a marker of exclusion, as a boundary that could not be crossed. Whether this was actually true in practice is entirely datable. Yet this seems to have been the general feeling in the west during those rare moments when Chinese martial culture became a topic of conversation. While the term “judo” (and by extension the idea of the “Japanese Martial Arts”) enjoyed widespread recognition in the west throughout the early and middle parts of the 20th century, the “Chinese martial arts” as a unified cultural system would not gain comparable exposure until the 1970s.


"Monkey Boxers" performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930.  Source: Taiping Institute.
“Monkey Boxers” performing in a public market in Shanghai circa 1930. Source: Taiping Institute.



Conclusion: Researching the Chinese Martial Arts



Given the importance of martial values and themes in Chinese popular culture, the absence of good information on the folk fighting systems during the late Qing and Republic periods can seem like a paradox. There are many reasons why information on topics such as these tends to slip away. Yet one of the critical things that modern researchers must remember is that our current concept of the “martial arts” may be responsible for much of our difficulty.

It is not hard to grasp that our understanding of what defines a traditional hand combat system today is different from what a teacher in the 1820s or 1830s might have believed. Yet we often forget that our ideas are also equally distant from how contemporaneous western observers saw things.

In reality the historical record that these individuals left behind is full of information about the Chinese martial arts and martial culture. Yet none of it is labeled that way. Instead we find accounts of “boxers and acrobats,” “soldiers and bandits.”

I recently came across a discussion of a team of “Chinese jugglers” in a historical study published by a major university press. In reality these individuals were probably highly trained opera performers and martial artists. Yet the volume’s author seemed to regard them as simple public performers as that is how they were described by the audiences who saw them more than a hundred years ago. Living in the west they had no conceptual tools to understand or describe the martial arts exhibition that they had just witnessed.

When searching for information on the Chinese martial arts, one must be prepared to cast a wide net. We should also remember that the problem of cultural translation can run more than a single layer deep. Historical research becomes very challenging when we neglect to critically examine the content and origin of our key concepts. So the next time you run across a photo of a “Chinese acrobat” be sure to take a second look. Where other people see a circus performer you might instead find a martial arts master.





If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Conceptualizing the Asian Martial Arts: Ancient Origins, Social Institutions and Leung Jan’s Wing Chun.