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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies

Historical Fact vs. Social Discourse in the World of China’s 19th Century Martial Artists

Woodblock print of Chinese warrior holding a sword.  All of the illustrations in today's post come from Scott M. Rodell's excellent Tumblr "Steel & Cotton."

Woodblock print of Chinese warrior holding a sword. All of the illustrations in today’s post come from Scott M. Rodell’s excellent Tumblr blog  “Steel & Cotton.”




Introduction: What do historical documents reveal?



Students of martial arts studies often investigate the various “discourses” which surround these fighting systems. Such discussions turn to the media (movies, TV programs, video games, internet postings, wuxia novels etc…) to better understand the role of the martial arts within Chinese (and global) popular culture. But what role do these same concerns and methods play in our attempt to reconstruct the earlier history of Chinese hand combat?

While visiting Scott Philips’ blog “Weakness with a Twist” I noticed that he recommended a few chapters in the 2002 collected volume Chinese Femininities: Chinese Masculinities (eds. Susan Brownell and Jeffrey N. Wasserstrom, U. of California Press). I had not run across this particular collection before, but he insisted that a couple of the chapters were actually highly applicable to understanding the world of China’s traditional martial arts. After ordering a copy of the book I have to say that I am pleased with his suggested readings.

In today’s post I would like to take a closer look at one chapter in particular. David Ownby’s research will already be familiar to many students of Chinese martial studies. His volume Brotherhoods and Secret Societies in Early and Mid-Qing China: The Formation of a Tradition (Stanford UP, 1996) is considered a classic, and more recently he has written on Falon Gong. Later this year I am planning on doing an extended series of posts on Chinese secret societies as they relate to the martial arts, and Ownby’s writings will make an appearance there.

Still, his 2002 essay (“Approximations of Chinese Bandits: Perverse Rebels, Romantic Heroes, or Frustrated Bachelors?”) deserves more immediate attention. Much of what he has to say about the social perception and discussion of bandits in late imperial China is actually directly relevant to our study of martial artists. Indeed, as so many authors and historical cases make clear, even if the Venn diagrams of these two groups were not totally congruent, there was certainly a great deal of overlap.

While the popular discussion of Chinese martial arts history tends to focus on biographies of socially elite practitioners (e.g., the Yang family or the Wu brothers in the case of Taijiquan, or possibly Ip Man and Yuen Kay San for Wing Chun), such individuals were exceptions within the martial realm and not the standard. Typically the martial arts were seen as an avenue of social advancement for young, uneducated and unattached men from the countryside. As our previous discussions of piracy or the Red Spears suggest, for such individuals labels like “militia member,” “martial arts student” and “bandit” were very flexible and subject to frequent reinterpretation.

Ownby starts off his discussion by noting that it was exactly this liminal quality that made groups like bandits, martial artists and prostitutes so problematic within neo-Confucian society. While such individuals were seen as resting outside the established social order of “good society,” on occasion they could rise to fame and prominence. Prostitutes could become courtesans, concubines and the mothers of powerful men. Martial artists might become bandits. And bandits, if they proved to be successful in plying their trade, could even be offered a commission in the imperial military.

This flexibility demonstrates a number of things. First, these individuals often served important functions that the social elites of the day were nevertheless reluctant to discuss. The village thugs that collected rents and upheld the social prestige of the local landlord might very well be (and in many cases often were) the bandits that plagued the next village over. Yet local elites could not function without their own strongmen (see Robinson 2001 for perhaps the finest discussion of the political economy of violence in the late imperial period.)

This highly visible contradiction between strongly held Confucian norms and actual social practice called out for some sort of explanation. The result was the emergence of a number of different discourses attempting to explain why Chinese society had no shortage of groups that might use occasional violence in the pursuit of their own advancement.

Rather than reviewing the details of specific cases, Ownby more closely examines four different “Approximations” of bandits (really four different modes of discourse on the problem of social violence) that arose in the late imperial period. First he asked how such individuals were excused, type-cast or condemned in the official world of imperial proclamations, criminal proceedings, political memos and local gazetteers. He then contrasted this view with the construction of various types of “good fellas” in the popular discourse of wuxia novels, oral stories and the omnipresent medium of vernacular opera. In the third section of this chapter he looked at how both the Nationalist and Communist party attempted to combine traditional and western notions of “social banditry” in an attempt to create a new vision of rural revolutionaries. Lastly Ownby turned to the question of gender, and explored how a barely submerged discourse on gender, marriage and masculinity contributed to the creation of these other images of social violence.

The following post will focus on the first, second and fourth elements of Ownby’s argument during the late imperial period. The exercise will give us a chance to develop an answer to the question that introduced this essay.

Ownby reminds us that while we often go to primary sources seeking “the truth,” what we inevitably find are not facts but rather “approximations” of events and motivations that are structured (sometimes even subconsciously) by the political and popular culture of the era in which they were produced. Careful historians need to be aware of this sort of bias and take it into account when evaluating records. As Stanley Henning has noted, a greater appreciation for the many nuances surrounding the martial arts (and questions of social violence in general) is necessary to better interpret the historical record.

It may be that the sorts of hard and fast appeals to “the facts” that we want to make when approaching history are often impossible. Instead, each of these documents will require historical, literary and cultural criticism before its message can come into focus. The bad news then is that there may be less factual information in these sources about historical martial artists, secret society members or bandits than we would like. Yet Ownby suggests that the sorts of discourses that emerge from this literature are sufficiently varied to reveal insights about the world that these social actors existed within, and occasionally rebelled against. Through the act of reading we learn at least as much about the authors who wrote these texts as the subjects that they purported to address.






Two Approximations of Social Violence in the Historical Record



Ownby begins his review of the discourses surrounding banditry (and by extension martial arts groups and secret societies) by turning to the voluminous literature produced by members of the gentry and other political elites during the Qing dynasty. Of course many of these same texts have been used extensively by other historians hoping to understand the political economy of power within the 18th and 19th centuries.

He notes that many period treatments of the problem of violence are formulaic. When reporting on a social disturbance (whether a lineage feud employing mercenaries, an outbreak of river piracy or the eruption of banditry in the wake of a drought), almost all authors begin by dutifully noting that most of those caught up in the violence are at heart good (but probably stupid) people who were basically in the wrong place at the wrong time.

As one 19th century official put it in his report:


“According to my humble estimate, among the large number of bandits now existing, two in every ten are roused by their hatred towards local officials, three in every ten are driven to extremity by hunger and cold, and four…are either constrained to join after having been captured…or coerced to follow…after having been driven from their home villages. No more than one in ten… have willingly become bandits.” (Ownby 227).


Such a summary will sound very familiar to anyone who has spent much time with period sources. Indeed, it is somewhat suspicious that the relative percentages never seem to vary all that much, no matter the type of crime (piracy vs bandit gangs) or the century (Ming vs. Qing) or even the region of the country (north vs. south). In all cases the percentage of dedicated criminals is very small, and the number of unfortunate peasants is large.

Such consistency suggests that the officials writing these reports may have been responding to pressures other than events of the ground. Within this literature Ownby notes the emergence of a politically driven neo-Confucian discourse on social violence.

The state justifies its extraordinary political powers by claiming at all times to maintain a posture of paternal benevolence towards its subjects. They are to be led through righteous example rather than dominated with brute force. Hence when dealing with anti-social behavior (whether in the shape of local feuds, criminal banditry or open rebellion) it generally behooved the state to deal with the leaders of such movements harshly, while striving to reeducate their followers and return them to their farms and normal employment. Indeed, it is not hard to find examples of compromise, diplomacy and leniency when looking at the state response to violence (especially when dealing with those individuals who were not deemed to be “leaders.”)

Ownby notes that this discourse could also be extremely self-serving. In truth the Ming and Qing states were notoriously week. Both had trouble financing the troops needed to keep the roads clear of bandits, let alone enforcing social order in the countryside. In truth the state was forced to compromise in many situations because it literally could not afford to do anything else. This is especially true when we remember that in many cases the “bandits” that they were pursuing often had a relationship with (and might have been personally employed by) local strongmen whose cooperation the state needed. Rather than admitting the often precarious situation that provincial leaders found themselves in, the “attitude of benevolence” outlined above allowed leaders to choose their battles while paying homage to important political norms. Only a small number of “dedicated bandit leaders” were ever identified as the state could not afford to discover more.

Ownby further notes that most of the official reports did not go on to offer much of an analysis of the actual motivations or plans of the “committed bandits” that occupied the state’s attention. This is surprising given the intelligence value of such information. Instead subordinates attempted to demonstrate their grasp of the situation by labeling the offenders in their memos. Typically most violent individuals fell into one of three categories. These were the “uncivilized,” the “heterodox” and the “greedy.” Readers should note that all three of these labels were also routinely applied in Confucian critiques of martial artists during the same period.

“Uncivilized” bandits (or martial artists) were not necessarily evil by nature. Rather, these men (often from rural areas) were viewed as “unformed” as they had yet to learn basic lessons about social norms and hierarchies. Such a “good fellow” might be brave and value loyalty, but he was often stupid and failed to properly consider the consequences of his actions. These individuals were said to value the thrill of drinking, fighting and carousing.

Alternatively they may be loyal to the wrong institutions. Landless youth from southern China who would give up their lives as “forfeits” in the case of lineage dispute (where a homicide led the state to demand an arrest and execution) were specifically mentioned by a number of period officials. The values of such individuals were “unformed” rather than evil per se.

This then brings us to the second class of miscreants identified in official records, “heterodox bandits.” The behavior of such individuals implied a degree of education and turning away from the proper path.

The late imperial dynasties were somewhat theocratic as the head of the government (the Emperor) was also the head of the cult (the Son of Heaven). It was not theoretically possible to challenge the established religious order of the day without also attacking the legitimacy of the ruling dynasty. For this reason the state was especially interested in rooting out heterodox religious groups. Such a strategy is more understandable when we consider the fact that numerous heterodox movements led to rebellion in the 19th century alone (consider the White Lotus, Eight Trigrams, Taiping and Boxer Rebellions to name a few examples).

Our own review of events leading up to the Boxer Uprising demonstrates that the state was especially wary of the alliance of heterodox religious movements and martial arts societies. While conceptually distinct as social movements, during most of the major uprisings of the period these two groups tended to find each other. As a result an emphasis on invulnerability magic or other forms of heterodox religious belief helped to bring down many “Big Sword Societies” or martial arts groups that the state might have otherwise ignored during the late Qing (see Esherick).

The heterodox label came to be applied to all sorts of cases in which groups either threaten (or were perceived to have attacked) the good order of the kingdom. For instance, this designation provided the empire with the normative justification that it needed to challenge the secret societies that dominated the cities of southern China during the late 19th century.

Nevertheless, the most common descriptor attached to the actions of various bandits, martial artists or secret society members was “greedy.” Occasionally these individuals were even described as “entrepreneurial.” Ownby notes that in western terms this might be construed as a compliment, but that is not how it was intended in the official discourse.

Whereas other bandits might be forgiven for being basically good but stupid (uncivilized) or misled by a charismatic leader (heterodox), greedy individuals were evil precisely because they knowingly put their own profit before the social good. This aspect of conscious evil made the “greedy bandit” barely human. As such the label was employed to counter the appeal of some figures (often focusing on their “loyalty” or “righteousness”) that emerged from the popular discourse.

The stylized nature of these claims makes analyzing their historical accuracy difficult. Certainly there have been heterodox bandit leaders in Chinese history. Some even succeeded in establishing dynasties of their own. Likewise it is not hard to find accounts of basically unsophisticated peasants who rose up without understanding the likely consequences of their action. And Ownby notes that many of the secret society chiefs who made a living by selling initiations within their organizations were nothing if not “entrepreneurial.”

There is a certain element of truth in each of these categories. In fact, Antony’s careful historical analysis of southern Chinese piracy (which draws on both imperial and western sources) suggests that most crews were made up of individuals who were either pressed into service or joined out of economic necessity. Yet the approximations of violence given in these records were not really attempting to accurately describe this situation so much as to warn others while blaming the systemic failings of the regime on a few “corrupt local officials” (another stock character in the elite discourse).

Bandits, martial artists, pirates and mercenaries tended to enjoy a more positive (if still somewhat troubled) reception in the popular discourse. This conversation was aware of elite warnings, yet it often twisted and upended these pronouncements to create new images of its own.

Whereas official memos excoriated marketplace ruffians and martial artists for their drinking, fighting and hot tempers (using these behaviors to demonstrate that such individuals were “uncivilized” and dangerous), exactly those same traits, when combined with an outsized portion of group loyalty, were held up as the epitome of “martial virtue” when discussing the 108 heroes of the novel Water Margin. Likewise the many hot tempered figures who surrounded the Shaolin Temple in Fujian and Guangdong’s late 19th century Kung Fu novels were described in exactly this way. The population of various parts of the empire actually seems to have taken a good deal of pride in their truculent reputations. Thus there is an interesting process of inversion which occurs as the official discourse on “uncivilized” and “heterodox” martial artists is processed through the lens of local popular culture.

The “greedy bandit” enjoyed no such reprieve in the popular imagination. Economically motivated crime was a very real scourge of the countryside. It seems that individuals had an easier time forgiving those who were motivated by betrayal, a hatred of corrupt officials, or a misplaced sense of loyalty than criminals who simply sought wealth and advancement. Needless to say, popular discourses tended to produce more “approximations” of the first type of “good fellow” rather than his economically motivated cousins.

Much of this attitude bled over into discussions of Kung Fu. While some sorts of boxers could be problematic, none seem to have been more so than those who would “sell their art.”

How did such a discourse form? What was the popular equivalent of the official world of dispatches, memos, reports and gazetteers? One of the great problems with historical discussions of the martial arts has been the overestimation of illiteracy during the late 19th century. Ownby points out that literacy was actually more widespread in this era than we generally acknowledge.

As a result individuals had greater access to both classic and contemporary martial arts novels featuring the exploits of both heroes and bandits than one might expect. Elements of these novels also became important themes for professional story tellers or educated citizens who took up that role during local celebrations. It would not be uncommon to encounter individuals who knew whole sections of Water Margin or the Romance of the Three Kingdoms by heart.

In some of my own writing I have also demonstrated that there was a more abundant supply of cheap printed literature on the technical practice of the martial arts in this period than one might expect. This too was an important (if often overlooked) aspect of the popular discourse surrounding the martial arts.

Yet there can be no doubt that vernacular opera was the great medium of the age. The repertoire of Cantonese Opera troops in the 19th and early 20th century tended to heavily favor “martial plays” which helped to spread certain attitudes regarding both bandits and kung fu students. Various troops would even compete for audiences by being the first to showcase a new fighting style on stage, or to offer a particularly compelling re-write of a classic martial arts themed story.

One of the strengths of Ownby’s chapter is his demonstration that much of late imperial China (particularly the urban areas of the coastal and the southern zones) were literally soaked in media. In addition to the newspapers, novels and story tellers that were ubiquitous by the end of the 19th century, he estimates that the average village dwelling adult male would have been exposed to over 350 opera performances (each featuring several distinct plays) by the time he reached the age of 30.

We have a tendency to assume that media saturated environments are a new phenomenon that arose only in the age of Facebook. While the internet is certainly a relatively recent invention, it would be a grave mistake to assume that individuals living in southern China during the 19th century existed in a state of pristine cultural isolation. In fact, Ownby’s theoretical peasant has spent much more time watching operas in temples than I have sitting in movie theaters! If we want to understand how the martial arts and other forms of social violence were thought of, or the role that they played in Chinese society, we simply cannot neglect the popular and literary discourse on these issues. Indeed, the sorts of “traditional Kung Fu” that we practice today are the product of a media soaked environment. It never existed in a purely “military” form.







Gender and the Approximation of Social Violence




In this essay I have assumed that the martial artists and bandits in question are male and have used male pronouns throughout. This has not been a coincidence. In strictly historical terms there were small numbers of female martial artists. Victoria Cass, in her study Dangerous Women, even reminds us that there were prominent female rebel leaders and bandit figures (interestingly many of whom fell into the “heterodox” category.)

Yet the entire point of Ownby’s article has been to focus on the image of the bandit (and other potentially violent figures) in the popular imagination. As he notes in the final section of this article, such a person was typically envisioned as male. Or to be more specific, they were seen as misshapen, vulnerable or dangerous males. While popular discourse noted their biological sex, it consistently denied them the type of social status that “real men” (those whose existence conformed to Confucian expectations) enjoyed.

There is nothing particularly new about noting the link between gender and social violence in late imperial China. Most recently Prof. Valerie Hudson has popularized arguments linking sex-specific abortions in parts of China to a rise in sexually frustrated bachelors who may cause greater social and political instability. While Qing officials did not engage in modern gender discourse, they were actually quite aware of the relationship between large numbers of unmarried men (again, products of female infanticide, plural marriage practices and the resulting distortions to the marriage market) and a rise in social disorder.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of Ownby’s 2002 chapter is that he moves beyond questions of demographics and causality to identify a uniquely gendered aspect of the discourse surrounding social marginal and potentially violent individuals within Chinese society. Unmarried men lacking property and prospects were often referred to (somewhat phallically) as “bare sticks.” Such individuals did not fit within the conventional social order as failing to produce an heir was considered to be the ultimate unfilial act. And without children to conduct sacrifices on their behalf, the prospects of these individuals in the next life were bleak.

Following Freud, Ownby concludes that such individuals would have had a strong incentive to attempt to reclaim their social status by crafting an alternate narrative of how masculinity was to be performed. This new form of “protest masculinity” found its expression in countless variants of the code of “martial virtue” as it was reinterpreted by gangsters, secret society members, martial artists, drifters, marketplace enforcers and political rebels. In each case some Confucian values were preserved, while others were either inverted or subverted to create an alternate mode of public morality. This new set of norms then came to be the focus of public performance for many of the “bare sticks” hoping to reassert their social worth.

Ownby’s discussion of “protest masculinity” prefigures (and helps to support) Avron Boretz’s much more nuanced argument in Gods, Ghosts, and Gangsters: Ritual Violence, Martial Arts, and Masculinity on the Margins of Chinese Society (Hawaii UP, 2010). Boretz’s discussion is both richer and better theoretically grounded. Years of ethnographic research among the temple martial arts association of southern China and Taiwan (as well as living and working with the petty criminals and hustlers that inhabit this world) allow Boretz to more fully explore these ideas. He is also better able to frame his findings within a Chinese cultural context rather than resorting to the categories of Freudian analysis.

Still, the enduring value of Ownby’s work lays in his treatment of gender as one aspect of the popular discourse surrounding banditry in the late imperial period. These sorts of discussions were not without concrete policy repercussions. Community elites realized that the “bare sticks” were vulnerable to the appeal of anti-systemic forces on both an economic and a social level.

This reality was dangerous as it undercut the state’s preferred narrative that social violence erupted only rarely, and then only when the unwary or desperate were led away from their proper place. Here we have a large group of people with no economic prospects and little place in the formal social order who are actively seeking to construct narratives of resistance and personal empowerment. In reality, China’s pervasive problems with banditry, lineage feuds and rebellion were the expected consequences of the fundamental contradictions that lay at the heart of its social system.

Structural problems often call for an institutional response. Perhaps the most common official strategy to deal with the threat of socially marginal males was cooptation. Realizing that what they wanted (beyond simple material survival) was an acknowledged role in society, leaders would periodically hire these young men as “braves” to be integrated into military units or organized as local militias. Obviously having a background in the martial arts helped to ensure one’s prospects as a successful mercenary.

Such a strategy was not without substantial economic costs. In his analysis of the White Lotus Rebellion (“Civilians Go into Battle: Hired Militias in the White Lotus War, 1796-1805” in Asia Major Vol. 22, No. 2, (2009), pp. 145-178) Yingcong Dai argues that such forces were both more expensive and less effective than military historians have traditionally assumed. Beyond that, these former soldiers often turned to banditry when their units were dissolved during peacetime.

Still, these militias (whether financed by the provincial government or the local gentry) solved two pressing problems. First, by hiring huge numbers of young employed men they deprived rapidly expanding bandit armies of their traditional source of recruits.

Secondly, the formation of civilian fighting units allowed the state to coopt the alternate discourse of masculinity that had been created by groups of marginal males. It could then redirect that anger and social energy towards its own ends. At the same time, these militia members were granted a measure of the acknowledgement that they craved and a (limited) place in the existing social order.

It might be fruitful to reconsider the role of China’s late 19th and 20th century martial arts schools within this conceptual framework. If the hiring of braves and militia members was the government’s response to a demographic and gender crisis, perhaps the growth of the civilian martial arts (and their begrudging toleration by the state) can be understood as local society’s contribution to the effort. Once again, these schools tended to recruit young males who lacked other prospects.

From this perspective the heavy emphasis on “martial virtue” and “eating bitter” in many of these schools, as well as their often highly gendered folklore and world view, comes into focus not as a quaint characteristic of martial training in a bygone era, but as one of the central goals of the exercise. Such schools may have been just as focused on promoting social order and building an alternate discourse on masculinity as training competent fighters. Indeed, solving the latter problem without first addressing the former could have been disastrous for all involved!




Ming era print (1635) showing individuals with assorted weapons.  Source: Steel & Cotton.

Ming era print (1635) showing individuals with assorted weapons. Source: Steel & Cotton.





Conclusion: Institutions, Agency and Social Discourse



Ownby notes at one point in his chapter that discourse is not destiny. While powerful social forces were at work pushing marginal individuals towards banditry or other criminal enterprises, he notes that many more resisted this temptation. He sidesteps the question of agency or causation by noting that his article was not the place to tackle such questions. Yet his emphasis on discourse seems to offer us some potential clues.

The creation of a strongly gendered discourse of “protest masculinity” may well have contributed to the growth of social disorder. Clearly it led to the valorization of problematic figures within popular culture. Yet once such a discourse has been established, various institutions (both within the state and civil society) will start to react to it. The rise of new institutional forms such as local militias, private security firms and civilian martial arts schools may all be examples of how even seemingly anti-systemic impulses can be re-channeled to support key social values.

Ownby’s review of the literature on banditry and other forms of social violence reminds us to be wary of conflating “discourse” with “fact.” Historical documents were written from a particular point of view and often with a very specific audience in mind. When that audience was an imperial censor, for instance, it behooved one to adhere closely to the ideological conventions of the day.

Yet that should not be taken to mean that these accounts have no value. If approach with the proper historical, literary and cultural tools these “approximations” of history can yield a wealth of data about the world of China’s traditional martial artists.







If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see:  Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (13): Zhao San-duo—19th Century Plum Flower Master and Reluctant Rebel .







  1. Pingback: China’s One Child Policy and Martial Arts Studies | Kung Fu Tea - November 20, 2015

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