Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province.  Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip.  Source: Author's personal collection.
Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip. Source: Author’s personal collection.




Introduction: Kung Fu and Marginality



While writing the recent article on Ark Yuey Wong, I had an opportunity to chat with Charles Russo.  He has been doing research on the history of the Chinese martial arts in the San Francisco bay area, and I hope that we will be hearing quite a bit more about this fascinating project in the coming months. Our conversation eventually drifted into the evolution of Chinatown’s economy and the roles that martial artists played within its social structures.

When looking at the lives of specific individuals, it is not hard to guess why some in the local community distrusted martial artists. These figures were often aligned with various Tongs and they performed a wide range of services including the provision of security, collection of gambling debts and the training of other enforcers. Are such activities the root of the often mentioned, but seldom explored, distrust of martial artists within Chinese society?

I have been mulling over this basic question for the last couple of days. I suspect that social attitudes towards martial artists are both more nuanced and varied than one might expect. In general one can say that the Kung Fu clans operate under something of a social cloud. Yet the shape of that cloud and the reasons for its formation vary by both geography and time. By delving deeper into the varieties of distrust that have been recorded in the literature, we might gain some insight into the ways in which the traditional arts have interacted with different aspects of Chinese popular culture.

Of course not all treatments of the traditional fighting arts have been uniformly negative. It is important to remember that novels and films featuring these motifs have been very successful at the popular, and occasionally even the elite, levels. Nor do all commentators ignore the value of these practices to local communities. Consider the following account offered by T’ao Hsi-sheng:


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.

Preface by T’ao Hsi-sheng (pp. xxix-xxxii), in The Red Spears, 1916-1949 by Tai Hsuan-chih. University of Michigan Center for Chinese Studies, 1985.


This quote is drawn from a fascinating preface written for Tai Hsuan-chih’s groundbreaking study of the Red Spears in Republic era northern China. While one may debate the degree to which these sorts of heterodox martial cults should properly be considered as a part of the region’s martial arts traditions, the author of this preface concluded that one could not understand the former without grasping something of the nature of the later. His frank discussion of the martial culture of this section of Henan, prior to the coming of the Red Spears, is one of my favorite aspects of this book.

This passage is notable for its very positive portrayal of regional martial arts traditions. They are rhetorically juxtaposed to the area’s equally long history of banditry, with no suggestion that the two phenomenon might actually share a great deal of overlap. The fighting arts are instead portrayed as a solidly community based activity. The brief discussion of their role in youth culture is particularly fascinating.

Still, passages like this stand out precisely because they are rare. In general serious Chinese social historians have not adopted such a bucolic attitude towards the martial arts. Popular opinions on the social value of the Chinese hand combat systems also tend to be rather diverse and occasionally divisive. While a handful of students always held these traditions in high esteem, many others had a darker view of the individuals who actually practiced them and their function within in local communities.

For much of China’s history the martial arts were something that the better elements of society studiously avoided. Nor is this phenomenon confined to the distant past.

Reformers and apologists have done much to improve the public image of the Chinese martial arts since the 1970s. Yet one of the reasons why the traditional fighting systems continue to struggle in China is that parents would rather see their children investing more hours into study rather than “a distraction” of somewhat dubious value. As a result the traditional martial arts have become a highly class-stratified activity across much of mainland China. Wushu schools are filled with students from poor backgrounds facing bleak job prospects. This reality has done little to increase the social prestige of the traditional fighting arts.

The roots of this pattern predate the current era. Some of the very first western accounts of the Chinese martial arts as social institutions (as opposed to purely technical practices) noted the marginal status of their practitioners and the distrust that this inspired in the Imperial government.



It is stated to the Emperor that the men who navigate the grain boats up the grand canal, from Che-keang province northward have formed themselves into bands, who practice boxing, cudgeling and the use of various weapons, for the purpose, as they say, of defending themselves against robbers; but really for the purpose of domineering over any person who may thwart their will. A case is just now under consideration, in which they killed one man, and wounded three others. They are perfectly organized, and hundreds of them collect, in a moment, at the cry of the captain whom they have appointed over them; and of whom they have made and idol image, which they worship evening and morning. –Indo-Chinese Gleaner.

The Missionary Herald. Volume XVII. December 10th, 1820. Boston: Crocker and Brewster Printers. P. 198.


The sailors and guards that accompanied goods on the Grand Canal were often noted for their skill in boxing and the use of traditional weapons. Self-protection was a paramount problem for anyone involved in trade during the tumultuous final century of the Qing dynasty. Of course the formation of the Green Gang was probably just as important for ensuring the economic security of these boatmen.

Nor was a generalized distrust of martial artists confined to officials of the Qing Dynasty. During the 1920s a number of reformers sought to rework the traditional fighting arts to create tools that could strengthen both the physical health of the people, as well as their identification with the Chinese nation. This modernizing agenda was first championed by the Jingwu Association and was later continued by the government backed Central Guoshu Institute.

Given that “reform” and “modernization” were the watchwords of the era, it should be no surprise to learn that these efforts were met with a degree of enthusiasm within China’s growing urban areas. Still, not all of the “May 4th Reformers” were convinced that the traditional arts could be re-imagined along scientific lines. In their view these activities were too closely associated with China’s feudal past and the humiliations of the late 19th century (including the Boxer Rebellion).


“There are many now who actively support and advocate boxing. Remember, this was advocated in the past, but then it was pushed by Manchu kings and princes; now it’s Republican educators…. These educators take these old ways, “passed down from a mystic woman of the highest heavens or some such, to the Yellow Emperor, and then to some nuns,” now called “new martial arts” or “Chinese calisthenics,” and tell youngsters to practice….

Some say that the efficacy of Chinese people learning western calisthenics cannot yet be seen, so we have no choice but to teach our own nation’s calisthenics (or boxing). But I think that if you pick up foreign hammers or batons and begin exercising your arms and legs, this will have some “efficacy” in terms of muscular development. How could you not see it?

Apparently we now have to switch to “Wusong Slipping out of Handcuffs” or some other [martial arts’ tricks. I suppose this is due to Chinese people being physically different from foreigners….We have seen all of this before in 1900 [the Boxer Rebellion]. That time it ended in the total destruction of our reputation. We will have to see what happens this time.”


pp. 193-194. Lu Xun. “Random Thoughts” in the October 1918 issue of New Youth, translation provided in Andrew D. Morris, Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sport and Physical Culture in Republican China. (Los Angeles: University of California Press). 2004.


Lu Xun, an acclaimed writer and intellectual within the May 4th movement, nicely illustrates much of the era’s elite distrust of the traditional martial arts. While students of martial arts studies correctly dedicate substantial resources to understanding the evolution of these practices during the Republic period, what we often neglect to notice is just how much faster other sports, including track and field, western boxing and even ball games, were growing in popularity. While both the Jingwu and Guoshu movements argued that the martial arts could be a vital part of China’s evolving national identity, most individuals still chose to invest their leisure hours elsewhere.

This ambivalence towards the role of the martial arts within society was not limited to the Republic period. Other areas, both before and after the Second World War, also had a complicated relationship with the martial arts. Hong Kong is a good example of this.

During the 1950s novels featuring the adventures of martial artists became a staple of both newspapers and public culture in Hong Kong. Jin Yong, perhaps the most successful of this new generation of Wuxia authors, remains the single most widely read modern Chinese novelist. At the same time Hong Kong’s film industry was discovering an almost limitless market for movies featuring local folk heroes such as Wong Fei Hung.

This embrace of the martial arts as an organizing symbol within public discourse did not always extend to an equally warm acceptance of flesh and blood martial artists. In his dissertation research conducted in Hong Kong, Daniel Amos found that the majority of individuals had a negative impression of the martial arts during the 1960s and 1970s. In the popular imagination these fighting systems were often associated with Triad organizations which exploited local neighborhoods and rampant youth delinquency. Follow up research with law enforcement officers in Hong Kong revealed a very similar set of findings. The police and other social elites argued (often quite correctly) that a number of martial arts schools were nothing more than fronts for criminal groups.

Similar attitudes towards the martial arts could be found in other communities throughout the Chinese diaspora in the 1970s:


“…the 1970s in New York City were marred with gang activity and few opportunities to arise from the landscape of what seemed to be a city wide ghetto. To the Chinese population, anything connected to kung Fu was looked at negatively because Kung Fu was typically associated with illegal enterprises that extorted from the community of hard working Chinese in Chinatown. Instead of being respected as a martial art, Kung Fu was despised for its function in an enforcer’s arsenal. Needless to say, my parents never allowed me to go anywhere near a mou gun—Kung Fu school.”

pp. ix-x, S. L. Fung, Pak Mei Kung Fu: the Myth & the Martial Art. New York City: TNP Multimedia. 2008.


The current post is not the place to multiply examples, but very similar accounts of the social stigma associated with learning the martial arts can be found in a number of other communities. Fung nicely summarizes what was a commonly held belief. Many parents actively discouraged their children from taking up the martial arts because of their unsavory connotations and associations.



Stereoscope image of a junk dealer selling swords.  Probably late 19th century.
Stereoscope image of a junk dealer selling swords. Probably late 19th century.




The Varieties of Marginality, 1820-1970



The preceding quotes are valuable in that they illustrate the degree of mistrust that the traditional martial arts have inspired. While certain individuals enthusiastically embraced these practices, and they even became the subject of national reform projects, many others remained unconvinced. From the late dynastic period to the current day, a social cloud has followed the traditional methods of hand combat.

At the same time it is equally useful to consider the range of objections in each of these quotes. While many individuals had reservations about the martial arts, they did not all reflect a shared vision of what they should be.

It seems that we can divide the most commonly encountered objections into roughly four categories. First, there are arguments that see hand combat as associated with the forces of criminality and social disorder. Interestingly these shadowy threats manifest themselves quite differently in various times and places.

When discussing Henan in the early Republic period the big threat was rural banditry. In Hong Kong and New York the forces of disorder instead configured themselves as a secret society or a gang. Whether the fear is of a bandit army, a street gang or a highly organized criminal operation, there is a persistent perception that the martial arts are often used to advance the interests of economically predatory actors.

Another obvious axis of disagreement revolves around the competing concepts of “modernization” and “traditional culture.” A number of actors have sought to re-imagine the martial arts as a vehicle to preserve some essential element of traditional Chinese culture while revealing a fundamentally “scientific” practice. Other reformers, including much of the May 4th movement, considered this to be a fool’s errand. In their view the martial arts simply cannot be compatible with a scientific worldview as they are the product of a pre-modern era.

The third axis of debate is actually somewhat related to the second. One of the great social shifts that took place in the Republic era was a reorientation away from the privileging of “rural” values towards a full embrace of urban culture. For thousands of years Confucian philosophy had lauded the virtues of simple village life. Yet by the 1920s urban values were clearly dominant.

It is fascinating to note that the one really positive discussion of the martial arts in the preceding material was drawn out of a nostalgic reminisce about life in the countryside during a “simpler era.” Nevertheless, the strong association between the martial arts and rural culture which dominated the popular imagination during the 1920s-1930s proved to be a major barrier that reformers struggled to overcome. While it is not always obvious to modern readers, many of the objections launched against the traditional martial arts are reactions against their rural roots and seeming unsophistication. The struggle against this stereotype has helped to shape much of the subsequent evolution of the public image of these fighting systems.

Lastly there is the question of elite vs. plebeian culture within the martial arts. This specific anxiety does not find clear expression in any of the preceding quotes, but as I think about narratives that emerge from the period it seems to be a common theme.

In his reevaluation of the social impact of opium use in Republic era Guangzhou, Ho notes that drug abuse by poor individuals and social elites was viewed very differently. The consumption of opium by working-class men in urban areas was seen as a national crisis. Not only was this drug sapping the strength of the nation, but it was turning an entire generation into addicts and violent criminals.

Of course opium consumption was even more popular among the city’s most wealthy citizens. Ho reports that it was not uncommon for rich families to build special parlors dedicated to opium smoking in which they entertained their guests and important officials. One might suspect that this sort of behavior would lead to a public outcry. Oddly it did not.

Ho notes that the public was largely unconcerned with drug use among elites. It was widely thought that the innate moral superiority of individuals from society’s “better” social classes would protect them from the corrosive physical and mental effects of the drugs. In some odd way social status itself made one immune from the possibility of addiction.

I suspect that a similar double standard applied to the perceived social dangers of the martial arts. The vast majority of students came from working class backgrounds, and the public seems to have been very worried about these people falling in with criminal elements or becoming enforcers for some local faction or revolutionary cause.

While fewer in numbers, it is interesting to note that some individuals from relatively wealthy families also took up the martial arts. Ip Man is a classic example of this. So are Lau Bun and Ark Yuey Wong, two pioneers of the Chinese martial arts in the United States, both believed to come from fairly well-off families.

In purely economic terms it is not hard to imagine why wealthy families would support younger sons studying the martial arts. In an era of economic and social uncertainty, having strong connections to martial networks might help to ensure the survival of the family fortune. Yet there does not seem to have been much public concern about these individuals being “corrupted” by the world of Rivers and Lakes or becoming crime bosses.

Instead wealthy and highly educated students quickly came to be imagined as the ideal martial artist. Such an individual could both uphold the ideals of martial virtue and be a respected pillar of the community. These were the sorts of images that dominated the Wong Fei Hung films and many Kung Fu novels. One suspects that cultured martial artists from a wealthy background enjoyed a certain “benefit of the doubt” that their more plebeian brethren did not.  Alternatively the construction this story telling motif might be seen as an example of what James C. Scott termed the “weapons of the weak.” Here we have economic consumers crafting narratives of how virtuous martial artists should reinforce the existing economic order rather than exploit it.



A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930.  Source: Huan Fei Hung Museum.
A martial arts performance at a marketplace in Shanghai, circa 1930. Source: Wong Fei Hung Museum.







For all of the variety of objections launched in different times and places, one suspects that there are a few common threads that helped to make Chinese martial artists vulnerable to a certain level of social suspicion. Perhaps the most obvious and frequently discussed of these is the juxtaposition between “Wu” and “Wen,” or civil and martial virtues.

Boretz provides a detailed discussion of how these fundamental categories affect the performance of identity among marginal youth in southern China. At the most basic level, social stability can only be guaranteed through the continuing hegemony of “civil” values. By providing an alternative route to the achievement of masculinity and social status, martial arts groups are likely to be perceived as a socially disruptive force.

Nevertheless, one suspects that much of the distrust of martial artists stemmed from much more mundane concerns. Ip Ching, the son of Ip Man, has stated on a number of occasions that his father forbade his students from forming Lion Dancing teams or associations. Given the usually close association between Lion Dancing and the southern martial arts, it is useful to consider why he did this.

Ip Ching explains that his father came from a wealthy background, as did many of his Kung Fu brothers in Foshan. The families of these individuals often owned businesses. Lion Dancing sometimes became a means by which different criminal factions attempted to collect protection money or to control the economic actives of businesses within their territory. Years later in Hong Kong it remained a practice that his father did not want to be associated with.

If we think of society as an economic market there are basically two sorts of actors. First, we have individuals who engage in productive work in an attempt to create assets. Secondly, there are those individuals who simply redistribute wealth from one player to another. Peasants and manufactures are individuals engaged in the production of wealth. Tax agencies are the classic example of an organization that does not create any wealth, rather they redistribute it from one set of players to another.

There are other redistributive actors in society as well. Criminal networks usually don’t do much to grow the overall GDP. Many other sorts of voluntary associations basically function in the same way, consuming and transferring resources rather than creating them. Unsurprisingly these sorts of actors tend not to be very popular with the average citizen and taxpayer.

When looking at the biographies of individual martial artists, it is interesting to note how many of them were employed as “fixers” for redistributive organizations. In both China and the west a large number of martial artists worked as debt collectors for criminal groups. The Qing hired these individuals as both tax collectors and employees within the salt monopolies. Kung Fu teachers were also employed by labor unions, both to teach their style as a perk of membership, but also to ensure social order and to negotiate disputes that might arise. Police and military forces put large numbers of martial artists on the payroll.

Not all martial artists went on to establish economically successful schools (a “productive” activity). Some functioned as the cutting edge of wealth redistribution. I suspect that this, as much as any other factor, may have contributed to the social cloud which has traditionally followed the Chinese martial arts. In fact, the public may like stories about independently wealthy martial artists precisely because such individuals will have no incentive to get caught up in this sort of economically predatory work.

The details of this anxiety are not universal. They changes over time and by location. As such we need to consider each account within its proper context. Still, this topic is another illustration of how the discussion of the martial arts might open an unexpected window onto deeper issues within Chinese popular culture.








If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Understanding Opium Use among Southern Chinese Martial Artists, 1890-1949.