Introduction: Wing Chun Warriors Come to Beijing
The Beijing News and South China Morning Post recently reported on a case of community violence that erupted in Yanjiao, Hebei province. This area, just 35 km from the center of Beijing, has the misfortune of sitting on the boundaries between the Beijing, Tienjin and Heibi administrative zones. Such areas have traditionally presented Chinese officials with headaches as they are can be difficult to oversee. Corruption and crime are often the result.
In this case the problems started when local officials subcontracted the provision of community services to a number of private companies. These management groups collected various local fees and taxes, but then provided no services. They even seized public spaces (such as community parks) to build their own for-profit businesses. When local residents resisted the escalating pattern of extortion the management firms brought in groups of thugs to attack their (often quite elderly) critics.
Relief from the local government (which was presumably receiving lucrative payments in exchange for the management contracts) was not forthcoming. Eventually the situation got bad enough that the residents decided to hire a Wing Chun Kung Fu instructor from Beijing. When the local thugs realized that this individual was training the citizens, a group of them attacked and badly beat him.
This move escalated the conflict. The Beijing Wing Chun organization sent reinforcements to the area and the training program was expanded. The next time the residents met the management company things went very differently. The police were forced to step in and place its employees in “protective custody.” Only at this point were negotiations opened between the government, the management firms and the local citizens.
This case raises a number of issues for students of martial studies, beginning with the question of why it was reported at all. The events in Yanjiao are by no means an isolated case. Similar disputes with private management companies are happening all over the country. Even the venerable Shaolin Temple is currently locked in a three way legal battle between itself, the local government and a remarkably brazen management firm. Nor is it that unusual for these disputes to turn violent, though we should note that the monks of Shaolin have not resorted to Kung Fu to sort out their problems.
One suspects that the South China Morning Post found the story noteworthy only because the residents of the town turned to a Wing Chun clan for help rather than some other local art. Obviously Wing Chun is a southern style and the residents of Hong Kong take a great deal of pride in it. The recent series of Ip Man biopics have helped to spread it’s practice throughout China and it can now be found far beyond its original homeland.
Still, the reporting on this story leaves out a number of potentially important details. It seems unlikely that the citizens of Yanjiao would go to Beijing in mass. This effort was surely organized by a few well connected residents. One also suspects that these individuals had both the means to hire an outside instructor and enough capital that it was worth taking on a risky investment to protect it. Unfortunately the reports do not give us any insights into how the effort was organized.
On an even more fundamental level, students of martial arts studies must ask “why Kung Fu?” Protests are commonly seen in these sorts of situations, as are countervailing bribes. And the monks of Shaolin opted for a legal remedy. Why then did the residents of Yanjiao turn to a martial arts clan to organize their resistance? What can these sorts of community conflicts tell us about the actual place of hand combat institutions in local society?
Modern Chinese martial arts schools often have rich bodies of folklore and oral history. Yet few of these stories explicitly focus on the clan’s relationship with other competing groups in society. Worse yet, stories set in the alternate world of the “Rivers and Lakes” often have the effect of rhetorically removing the martial arts from the realm of mundane existence.
The following post contributes to our recent investigation of the origins and nature of the Red Spear movement in northern China during the 1920s-1940s. This essay investigates the frequently tense relationship between the Red Spear defensive societies (often explicitly organized as community militia) and other local martial arts societies. By looking at how and why these groups came into conflict with each other we will gain valuable clues as to what social roles both sets of institutions were expected to perform, and whose interests they protected.
While the Red Spears were notorious for feuding with other groups, in the current essay we will only have the space to briefly discuss two cases. The first is the relatively well known account of the Chen style Taijiquan master Chen Fake’s conflict with the Red Spears of Wen County. After that we will turn our attention to a split within the Red Spears of northern Henan who organized themselves into the “Old” and “New Style” sects (Laopai vs Xinpai). The conflict between these two factions escalated and ended up involving a number of other organizations (including the “Big Red School” and “Small Red School” movements) and the Yellow Spears.
Of course geographic and political variables play an important role in both of these stories. 1925 saw a number of natural disasters that devastated the region, leading to starvation and a sharp increase in banditry in 1926. Both of the conflicts that we will be examining today were ultimately products of this destabilized social environment. Still, the purpose of these cases will be to explore the ways in which these conflicts between these groups played themselves out rather than to locate their ultimate origin.
Chen Fake Fights the Red Spear Bandits
As we have seen in our previous review of the literature, Tai Hsuan-chih locates the ultimate origins of the Red Spear movement in the Late Imperial militia system. Likewise Elizabeth Perry notes that the ultimate impulse behind the formation of these groups was community defense. Local elites whose investments were threatened by the sudden increase in banditry (as well as tax collectors who accompanied the warlord period) found it in their interest to invite Red Spear teachers into their communities to set up defensive organizations.
Both authors acknowledge that as time went on some bandit groups actually took up the trappings of the Red Spear movement. Red Spear groups who were cut off from their homes also had a tendency to turn to banditry to maintain their organizations. And of course Red Spear chapters became a tool by which elites from rival communities could fight over disputed resources. All of these equivocations notwithstanding, both authors focus most of their attention on the defensive nature of the Red Spear movement.
While this assessment may be academically and historically accurate, it is worth noting that it was not always shared by other actors in northern China. Local government, whether under the control of the warlords or the later KMT (or for that matter the Japanese) tended to view the Red Spears as a dangerous religious and martial cult that posed a direct threat to national unity and the formation of an efficient modern state. We can also get some idea of how other martial arts groups understood the Red Spears by looking at their stories of conflict.
In purely historical terms this was far from a marginal movement. Henan and Shandong province together likely had over 10 million Red Spears during the late 1920s. The historian Xin Zhang (Social Transformation in Modern China: The State and Local Elites in Henan, 1900-1937. Cambridge UP, 2000), estimates that up to 70% of all adult males in Henan province were members of one of the many local defensive groups.
In numerical and social terms the Red Spears were one of the most important regional actors. Yet they were not among the oldest or best established. As we have seen in previous essays, while there is a temptation to see the martial magic employed by these groups as ancient and timeless, it was in fact a recent development. Yes such practices had an ancient history, yet their sudden rise to dominance in the “modern” 1920s-1930s came as a shock to many individuals in the region. While the martial arts had always been popular in Henan and Shandong, the vast majority of these practitioners were not memorizing hundreds of spells to grant invulnerability or to stop up the barrels of enemy artillery.
Chen Fake (1887–1957) was the son (Chen Yanxi), grandson (Chen Gen-yu) and great-grandson (Chen Chang-xing) of a family of exceptionally talented martial artists. Each of these individuals hailed from Chen village in Henan province. We should also note that each of Chen Fake’s predecessors had also been active in the world of armed escort services.
As law and order broke down in the late Qing dynasty, merchants increasingly found it necessary to hire firms (often run by martial artists) to protect their goods and payments while in transit. Such ventures were actually one of the main employers of martial artists in the 19th century. They also suggest the close relationship between hand combat organizations and both economic markets and local elites (who tended to be heavily invested in the success of those markets).
Chen Fake was a critical figure in the introduction of Chen style Taijiquan to the rest of China. His life story is often used as an illustration of the necessity of hard work (rather than secret teachings) in the achievement of martial excellence. As I have read more about him I think that he would make a great candidate for our “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” series
Many stories are told about the martial exploits of Chen Fake. As is often the case it can be difficult to distinguish actual historical events from the later elaboration of distant students and admirers. One of the best established stories details Chen’s involvement in the suppression of a local Red Spear’s uprisings. Interested students can find English language translations of these accounts in Peter Wu Shi-zeng’s essay “Chen Fake and the Highest Levels of Taijiquan” and David Gaffeny’s volume Chen Style Taijiquan: The Source of Taiji Boxing (Blue Snake Books, 2002).
Both of these stories begin by noting that by 1926 social degeneration and banditry became a crisis in Henan. In that same year a heretical organization and bandit gang called the “Red Spear Club” began to attack and capture various towns in the northern and central regions of Henan. By the middle of the year the Wenxian district was in danger of falling to the new movement.
At this point the embattled district administrator turned to a number of actors and asked them to contribute to the protection of the county seat. Specifically, he formally requested that Chen Fake (then a prominent Taijiquan teacher) organize his school to fight for the defense of the county.
Some sources report that upon arriving at the county seat Chen immediately captured two of the Red Spear bandits, though Peter Wu notes that these specific accounts cannot be verified. What is more certain is that his presence led to an immediate challenge from another martial arts instructor who had also been recruited to aid in the defense of the county seat. Thus it would seem that martial artists in the region were expected to be available for official government requests.
While discussing the threat Peter Wu characterizes the Red Spears as “an evil religious sect. Its members would utter spells and use magic charms, and by inscribing talisman on their bodies before battle they believed that they would become bullet proof and impervious to knife thrusts.” In these accounts what sets the Red Spears apart from other organizations was not their actual method of combat (which typically relied on spears, rifles and arson), but rather their more esoteric religious practices. While these were understandable to local communities that fell outside of the Red Spear’s sphere of influence, they were often viewed as being somewhat malevolent rather than purely “defensive.”
As Perry noted, most of the larger villages and towns in the area had their own walled forts. The seat of Wen County was no exception. The Chen family account states that by the time the main body of Red Spears arrived to lay siege to the fort, all of the draw bridges had been raised except for one. This was guarded by Chen Fake who was armed with a single long pole. One presumes that his students (whose presence had also been requested by the government) were either on the bridge or the walls.
The leader of the Red Spear bandits rushed at Chen who with a single thrust from his pole knocked his opponent’s weapon away. He then followed through with a devastating strike of his own, effectively impaling his opponent on the end of his own unsharpened pole. After witnessing the dramatic death of their leader the rest of the attacking party took flight.
On a purely tactical level I tend to doubt that an entire siege could actually be resolved with a single duel. We have numerous accounts of similar battles and many of them involved thousands of soldiers on both sides. Still, there is one aspect to this story that lends it an added dose of credibility.
Stories of past masters and glorious challenge matches often end with a climatic death. Yet they tend to ignore the fact that in the real world when you kill someone (especially in a public brawl or challenge match) there are very real legal and political consequences. Both the Qing and later Republic government took these sorts of deaths very seriously if for no other reason than that they tended to lead to community feuds which could be extraordinarily costly.
The legal repercussions of Chen’s actions on the bridge that day haunted him until practically the end of his life. His student Hong Jun-sheng relates that when he attempted to visit his teacher in Beijing in 1956 he found him being questioned by two agents of the new Communist government. They had been tasked with investigating the events of 1926 and were treating Chen’s involvement in them as a “manslaughter case.” Ultimately the government took no action against Chen (perhaps because they were too busy violently suppressing what was left of the Red Spears in the countryside). Yet the master confided in his student that what was once “a good deed done for the people has become a troublesome matter.” It is precisely the emergence of these sorts of uncomfortable consequences that grant legitimacy to the original story.
The Defeat of the Yellow Spear Society
The preceding account notwithstanding, the Red Spear movement proved to be a success on many levels. This organization succeeded precisely because it gave local elites new tools to both discipline their own communities and pursue more expansive goals. These might include the eradication of local banditry or the competition for scarce economic resources with other communities.
This success encouraged a host of imitators. The Red Spear movement itself was highly factionalized and it was not uncommon for different chapters to clash with one another (particularly if the needs of their elite backers demanded it). Other groups also attempted to cash in on their success. In Appendix C of her work Perry lists no fewer than 42 other competing groups.
One of the more serious fissures to emerge within the Red Spear movement occurred in Northern Henan. In the early 1920s two factions emerged. There were the laopai (or “old style”) and xinpai (or “new style”) sects. As these two factions fought other groups (including martial arts clans) took sides and tried to sway the balance. One of the largest and most resilient of these was the “Yellow Spear Society.”
While the Yellow Spears left little mark on the historical record we do know something about them. This is because the father of the historian Tai Hsuan-chih organized a branch of the society which made enough of an impression on his son that he would later go on to write one of the most important studies on the Red Spear era.
Like so much else in Northern China, the fate of the Yellow Spear Society took a turn for the worse in 1926. In January of that year a large battle (involving more than 10,000 combatants) was fought on the border separating Tangyin and Yingyang counties in northern Henan. The Yellow Spears entered the fray on the side of the Old Style sect, but they were ultimately defeated by the New Style Red Spears and their martial arts allies. As a result the Yellow Spears were forced to dissolve and the New Style absorbed many of the adherents of its rival sect.
Yet this is not the last that we hear of the Yellow Spears. Apparently the teachers of this organization were still looking for work and a number of communities in other parts of the province faced the sorts of collective action dilemmas that these groups specialized in solving.
In 1922 Tai Hsuan-chih was born in the county capital of Hsin-tsai hsien. His father was a man of some means, owning about 400 standard agricultural units of land at a time when 30 such units could comfortably support a peasant family. While not among the very rich, the elder Tai was certainly well off. During the early 1920s (at about the same time that there were warlord disturbances in the region) he moved his family from the city out to a village in the countryside where his land holdings were located.
He also had the good fortune of being the eldest son of the senior lineage in the Tai clan. As such he was responsible to renting out the family temple, collecting revenue for various corporate projects, and distributing charity grain in the spring. This important social position likely provided Tai with some additional sources of revenue, as well as ensuring his place within the local elite.
Unfortunately the Tai family did not enjoy peace at their country estate. Instead they found themselves at the mercy of local bandits who kidnapped and ransomed members of the family with such frequency that one gets the impression that the clan became little more than a human ATM. Ronald Suleski does a nice job of outlining the various kidnappings in his introduction to Tai Hsuan-chih’s book.
There were enough of these events that it would be tiresome to rehash all of them here. The family generally paid the requested ransom until one particularly unfortunate incident in 1927. In that year bandits kidnapped and murdered a relative of Tai Hsuan-chih after demanding money and opium. Suleski reports that the body of the deceased clan member was never recovered.
At this point Tai’s father decided to take action. In retaliation he reached out and located a member of the Yellow Spear Society named Teacher Liang. Liang was invited to the village and was encouraged to set up a new school. This organization met daily in the family’s ancestral temple. One suspects that Teacher Liang’s classes were filled not just with peasants from the local community, but also members of the Tai clan and their tenant farmers.
Tai Hsuan-chih briefly discusses the training and spiritual practice of the Yellow Spears in his monograph. For two years the group defended local economic interests and hunted local bandits. Yet outlaws were not the only threat to local stability.
Perry notes in her study that the villages of northern Henan often competed for scarce economic resources. When this competition was carried out by individual families it traditionally took the form of banditry. But when the combatants were entire communities, they used institutions like the “Old Cows” and “Red Spear Chapters” to project power and protect their assets. In fact, the relationship between the Red Spears and the local elite in Hsin-Tsai County does not seem to be entirely different from what Chen Fake faced in Wen county. A certain amount of leeway was granted in exchange for assurances that one would defend the people and their property when the time came.
In the winter of 1929 some unknown dispute erupted between the Tai clan and another neighboring community. The result was a battle which pitted thousands of Yellow Spears against a rival Red Spear force. The young Tai Hsuan-chih witnessed much of the fighting. He reported that the fighting raged on for five hours. Eventually the Yellow Spears were defeated and suffered heavy casualties. Tai notes that he lost five close relatives in the engagement.
Following the defeat Tai’s father did not attempt to resurrect his Yellow Spear chapter. In fact, Tai does not give much of an indication of how his father’s standing in local society changed, or what concrete demands precipitated the fighting. He does however report that after the defeat his father left the countryside and returned to his home in the city.
Conclusion: The Role of Martial Institutions in Local Governance
It is not surprising that Tai’s father did not attempt to resurrect the Yellow Spears in 1929. Following their victory in the 1928 Northern Expedition, the Nationalist Party (KMT) was slowly consolidating their control of Henan’s rural and often wild countryside. At first these efforts tended to be confrontational as the army seized control of long lost territory and tax revenue.
Attempts to forcibly extract resources, or to upset the balance of power in local communities, were often met with armed resistance. The KMT was basically responsible for provoking the 1928 Red Spear Rebellion as they did not fully appreciate the degree to which the countryside had reorganized itself into autonomous quasi-militarized units capable of resisting their demands
Yet by 1929 the situation had changed, and during the 1930s the Red Spears practically vanished from the local landscape. To get a better idea of the social roles that both they and other martial arts clans performed, it is critical to understand how this sudden transformation actually happened. It is not the case that the superior firepower of the KMT defeated the Red Spears on the field (though they did win a number of battles). Nor did the party overcome their rural opposition through any sort of ideological victory.
Of course this should not be interpreted as a lack of effort. After deciding to adopt a more accommodating approach in the countryside, agents of the KMT worked hard to instill a sense of nationalism and revolutionary ethos in the local peasants. Their background in the martial arts actually became an important part of this effort.
One of the KMT’s first acts in 1928 was to create the Central Guoshu Institute (with its headquarters in Nanjing). This organization was meant to promote the traditional martial arts throughout China. Yet this was not a simple funding exercise. Instead the Institute developed a very specific vision of how the martial arts needed to be reformed, modernized, stripped of their superstition and secrecy.
Most importantly, these newly rationalized arts needed to be crafted into a tool capable of strengthening the people, both ideologically and physically. The structure of the institution and its various projects also attempted to ensure that these newly cultivated martial resources would be placed at the disposal of the state and ruling party.
A number of authors (see Henning, Kennedy, Acevedo and Morris) have discussed the evolution and goals of the central Guoshu Institute at some length. We do not currently have the space to look at their arguments or to review the many sources that these scholars have generously translated. Yet I would like to make one additional argument.
When reading the various magazine articles or book chapters produced by the Central Guoshu Institute during the late 1920s or early 1930s, no themes receive more emphasis than the need to strip the Chinese martial arts of their secrecy and backwards superstitions. These warnings are often read as being directed at teachers of the various folk boxing styles that dominated the commercial marketplaces for hand combat instruction in China’s larger cities.
Indeed, these teachers often marketed their schools with tales of amazing qi powers and secret family techniques. The negative judgments of martial arts reformers notwithstanding, these things were actually quite popular with urban Chinese consumers in the 1920s and 1930s. A quick review of period wuxia novels will demonstrate this point.
The martial reformers of the day were uncomfortable with these trends. By their own admission they were attempting to create a vision of the martial arts that would be compatible with an educated, urban, middle-class lifestyle. All of that is fairly uncontroversial. But were urban folk-teachers the only targets of Guoshu’s often heated rhetoric?
After studying the Red Spear movement I have begun to suspect that they were not. Students today tend to think of the Red Spears as a minor movement (if they are remembered at all) because of the way that they are discussed and dismissed in stories like those that we have reviewed above. Yet in the late 1920s they were a major force to be reckoned with. Again, up to 70% of all fighting age males in Henan province may have been involved with them, or a related group, at the time of the 1928 Northern Expedition. The following hypothesis requires additional research, but I am starting to suspect that at least some of the rhetoric associated with the Guoshu movement was a direct response to the challenge posed by the massive popularity of groups like the Red Spears.
Still, the ideological arguments of martial arts reformers do not appear to have been any more successful in suppressing the Red Spears than the KMT’s superior fire power. Consider the fact that many of these chapters simply sprang back into existence (with their magical practices completely restored) following the Japanese occupation of the area in 1938.
In reviewing our two cases it seems that the Red Spears and other martial groups were bound to come into conflict with each other as both were playing similar roles within unstable and conflict prone communities. Specifically, these institutions received some degree of social support because they provided local elites with the tools necessary to accomplish two important goals.
First, the hierarchical nature of martial arts clans and militias provided leaders with a way to discipline and unify their communities. The very nature of martial training tended to build a common identity that was an essential aspect of community defense. Secondly, the new military capabilities of these forces, in addition to their increased morale and discipline, allowed local elites to begin to project power beyond the boundaries of their community as they competed for economic resources. Those communities (such as Chen village) with strong martial traditions possessed a distinct competitive advantage. To level the playing field other actors, including the Tai Clan in Hsin-Tsai county, found that it was necessary to adopt their own martial institutions to remain competitive.
Daniel Amos reported a very similar pattern of social organization when looking at the martial arts of Guangzhou during the Republic period. Kung Fu schools were common and they competed with each other for prestige and students. Yet most of these clubs were also supported by some other important player in local society, be it a secret society, a wealthy merchant or a political faction. In the early 1950s the Communist Party destroyed the voluntary martial arts associations of Guangzhou not by attacking them directly, but rather by systematically deconstructing the much more basic social and economic institutions that they relied upon for both material support and social meaning. As the Communists transformed society the folk martial arts vanished as there was no social space left for them to exist within.
What we see in Henan after the Northern Expedition is very similar. Rather than engaging in direct conflict with local society, the KMT eventually decided it that it would be wiser to simply buy off and accommodate the elites. For the most part this new strategy was successful and it allowed the party to begin to rebuild local political institutions.
In exchange for protection local elites gave up direct access to political and military power. Increasingly all social efforts were directed through official government channels, and it was party officials who would broker disputes between communities. The Red Spears suddenly went dormant after 1929 because with the restoration of even marginally effective government, local elites no longer needed tools to pacify their communities or to project power. Without their active support the Red Spear chapters simply could not function.
This might also explain another paradox regarding the martial arts. In general the 1920s and 1930s were good decades for Kung Fu and the more conventional schools in urban areas saw impressive growth. Yet Acevedo reports that there was a decline in elite interest in the martial arts (measured in terms of articles in various publications) in the middle of the 1930s compared to the 1920s. Perhaps the KMT’s consolidation of power after the warlord era contributed to the feeling among the educated elite that other sports were more appropriate for a “modernizing China”?
All of this changed in 1937 and 1938. Not only did the Red Spear movement reappear in the north to meet the Japanese challenge, but in the south martial arts teachers of all types (often with the support of local political and social elites) closed their urban schools and began to train “Big Sword Teams” to defend the countryside.
It would seem that the roles played by these types of associations are deeply embedded within Chinese society. From the Late Imperial period onward martial arts institutions have existed as one part of a larger system allowing local elites to manipulate communities and create the conditions necessary for autonomous governance. As such they can be discordant with the demands of a unified and rational state.
The existence of independent martial institutions presents an ongoing challenge to the Chinese government. On the one hand these organizations have the ability to penetrate deeply into local society, providing certain goods at a relatively low cost. On the other hand their mere existence may accelerate centrifugal tendencies in times of national crisis. This was certainly the case with the Red Spears.
The Qing, Republic and Communist governments have each tried (in their own ways) to eliminate and then co-opt these martial institutions. By refocusing on the question of local versus national control we might be better able to understand the fundamental similarities and differences in their respective strategies. As the case of the Wing Chun warriors of Yanjiao village in Heibi make clear, it is still possible for these patterns to reappear in community conflicts. The various battles of the Red Spears may yet reveal important insights about the nature of modern Chinese martial culture.
To Read More about the Red Spear Movement see the other Posts in this Series: