Introduction: Race and the Invisibility of the Chinese Martial Arts
There is some debate as to which statesman can rightfully claim the honor of being the “first” American advisor employed by China’s new Republican government. Obviously a number of foreign military, industrial and economic consultants had been hired by the Qing dynasty. Still, when considering the fledgling Republic, two names are frequently put forward. These are the distinguished American diplomat and scholar William Woodville Rockhill (1854 – 1914) and the progressive, anti-imperialist newspaper pioneer Thomas Franklin Fairfax Millard (1868 – 1942).
Both individuals were giants in their respective fields and helped to shape certain aspects of America’s perception of China and its foreign policy in the Far East. Both are also united by another, more unfortunate circumstance. Despite their importance to the development of Sino-American relations, the contributions’ of both individuals have largely been forgotten. Indeed, their generally positive view of China and progressive stance on the question of its independence in the face of foreign economic and political pressures did not always endear these two gentlemen to the “powers that be.”
Their reception by the Chinese was somewhat better. Rockhill (forced into retirement from the diplomatic corps following the election of the Democrat Woodrow Wilson) was offered a position with the Chinese government soon after the founding of the Republic. Unfortunately he suffered a heart attack while traveling to claim his post and ultimately died in Hawaii. Millard took on a different role with the new government, and was noted for his high level of access to Sun Yat Sen and his later support of Chang Kai-shek.
Both men have also left us a fascinating descriptions of the traditional Chinese martial arts as they existed during their respective generations. One of my long terms goals has been to introduce important western accounts of Chinese martial arts during the 19th and early 20th century. The potential value of these reports is that foreign observers were sometimes more eager to discuss the comings and goings of mundane life which informed elite observers tended to pass over in silence. Given the decidedly popular nature of Chinese boxing during the late Qing, this additional set of observations can be helpful.
Unfortunately the basic attitudes and prejudices that many foreign observers carried with them tended to be less helpful. Given the nature of the era, many western observers viewed the world through the lens of “racial types.” This pernicious inclination to identify the behavior of a single individual as a manifestation of some “essential” group trait complicates our reading of the historical record.
Western discussions of the martial arts are actually one place where we can see this process play out. Early 20th century racial hierarchies were more kind to the Japanese than the Chinese. This probably had its origins in the west’s admiration both for that state’s “martial spirit” and its rapid modernization during the Meiji Restoration. In comparison to the Japanese, many less informed travelers deemed the Chinese to be hopelessly backwards, superstitious and haughty. These racialized attitudes were then propagated throughout the popular media of the day. Travelogues were incredibly popular during the late 19th century, as were newspaper articles reporting on “foreign exploration.”
This tendency was not inevitable, and it certainly did not develop without a degree of resistance. Better informed observers and clearer thinkers attempted to push back against these stereotypes and argued that the situation in China was vastly more nuanced than most discussions admitted. Still, the overtly racist writings of figures like Bayard Taylor (a celebrity explorer and one of the most popular authors of the era) ultimately won the day. Brewing economic conflict and a corrosive discourse empowered the worse demons of America’s nature, ultimately resulting in the Exclusion Acts and other measures which segregated Asians from the mainstream of the national life. This attitude would not be reevaluated until the post-WWII era.
It should be no surprise that the Japanese and the Chinese martial arts received a very different welcome in the west. Japanese Jujitsu and Judo had a number of important early supporters. These arts received glowing discussions in various publications; they were immortalized in the popular fiction of the day, and no less a figure than Theodore Roosevelt insisted on being tutored in the Japanese martial arts in the White House. His efforts to add them to the curriculum of the US Naval Academy were less successful, but by WWII it was not uncommon for departing GIs to make some effort to familiarize themselves with Judo. The return of these individuals ushered the Japanese martial arts into the mainstream of American popular culture.
It is simply untrue that the Chinese martial arts remained unknown or that their existence was “secret” until 1960s. Anyone who cared to investigate the matter and had access to a decent library (let alone the chance to visit Shanghai or Guangzhou) could have figured out the basics of the situation. Indeed, the “Boxer Rebellion” had proved to be a turning point in America’s political and psychological involvement with Asia. The famous “Open Door Policy” authored by the American Sinologist and diplomat William Woodville Rockhill grew out of this era.
Every newspaper and popular magazine in the country carried an extended series of articles on the “Boxers” from 1899-1901. Indeed, many previous missionary accounts and dictionaries discussed Chinese boxing, and certain western physicians were even turning to “Kung Fu” (or more accurately “Qigong” in modern parlance) to cure the ills of a rapidly industrializing nation during the first years of the 20th century. Entire tourist attractions (such as the floating war junks Ningpo and Whang-ho) were dedicated to selling a vision of Chinese martial violence to an eager public. Even children’s trading cards in the “Horrors of War” series showed Chinese soldiers fighting off the Japanese with both traditional boxing and Dadaos during the late 1930s.
This is not to say that most Americans, if directly asked, would not deny knowing anything about Chinese boxing. Rather, this is the paradox that needs to be explored. On the one hand they were surrounded by accounts of fanatic Chinese boxers, fierce pirates, Manchu princes, feats of archery and the ever present executioner’s sword. Yet most popular discussions seem to be incapable of classifying these activities within the same realm as Japanese arts like Judo, Jujitsu or Kendo. One thing seems to be clear, the modern conceptual category termed “traditional martial arts” is a much more recent (perhaps post-1960s) innovation that we generally accept.
This particular puzzle is larger than anything that can be resolved in a single blog post. Nevertheless, I suspect that the racial categories with which most people viewed the world conditioned their understanding of the traditional fighting systems of Japan and China. Chinese boxing was invisible to the western public precisely because it was reduced to a specific (often sociopathic) manifestation of an essentially inferior racial tendency. By definition these things could not really be a “skill,” instead they were malformed practices that one hoped would vanish along with other sorts of feudal superstition.
The Japanese, on the other hand, were viewed as nothing if not clever. Their innovations in the martial realm were “new’ and potentially interesting. Some western individuals even saw them as worthy of emulation. Yet racial beliefs about the Chinese made the study of their martial arts sub-rationally unthinkable for most readers following the progress of the Boxer Rebellion in the pages of the National Geographic, or visiting the weapons collection housed on the Ningpo a few decades later.
Two Accounts of the Chinese Martial Arts: Indigenous Tradition vs. Modernized Practice
Not every writer or visitor to Asia during the 19th century was fully beholden to the era’s more pernicious racial doctrines. Indeed, it is critical to realize that individuals retained a good deal of agency in the matter. The formation of the west’s foreign policy towards China (and even the enactment of the Exclusion Acts) was as much the result of political expediency and choice as anything else.
Again, an examination of period accounts of the Chinese martial arts helps to make this clear. These descriptions tend to reveal the author’s views on the question of China’s cultural and national strength. Whereas most readers simply assumed that China’s martial practices were de facto proof of its backwards barbarism, some authors (both American and Chinese) actually challenged this view.
The first of today’s accounts was produced by William Woodville Rockhill, perhaps the greatest of the American “China Hands.” His life story could not be contained with a single movie. I think that his many adventures on three continents would require at least a trilogy. After being forgotten for decades we are fortunate that younger readers (often motivated by his early explorations of Tiberian Buddhism) are starting to rediscover his remarkable career.
After the death of his father in Philadelphia prior to the Civil War, Rockhill’s mother (a women from wealthy background reduced to more modest means) set the course of her son’s life by moving the family to Paris. There he received a fine French education and gained a life-long interest in the Far East, including both China and Tibet. Rockhill graduated from the French military academy (where he studied with Renan) and enlisted as an officer in the French Foreign legion. After a full military career (including service in North Africa), he resigned his commission, retired to America and began the second phase of his life.
Rockhill managed to reconnect with a childhood sweetheart, married, and moved to New Mexico where he spent three years as a cattle rancher. The life of a cattle baron did not suit the former soldier. The business did not grow to meet expectations, but it didn’t falter either. What it did accomplish was to provide Rockhill with the solitude necessary to launch back into his childhood passion of exploring Asian languages and customs. Over the course of three years the autodidact somehow taught himself both Chinese and Tibetian.
Rockhill and his wife then returned to Europe and took up residence in Switzerland. Here he undertook translations of a number of Tibetan religious works as well as collaborating with Japanese scholars of Buddhism. After a few additional years he finally discovered an opportunity to travel to China by accepting an entry level position with the US Embassy in the Beijing.
Once there Rockhill threw himself into his language studies looking for teachers of both various dialects of Chinese and Tibetan. He was promoted, but his heart was never really in his diplomatic work. Instead (against the express wishes of his employers) he wanted to explore western China and Tibet. Eventually he quit his job and financed his own small expedition (on a shoestring budget) to do exactly that, becoming the first American to undertake a systematic exploration of Tibet.
Rockhill’s first journey in 1889 ended when he ran out of money and it became apparent that local officials would not allow him to enter Lhasa. Still, he returned with notebooks of valuable ethnographic and scientific data. The Smithsonian Institute began to publish this material and agreed to finance another modest expedition in 1891.
Rockhill’s second attempt also failed to reach Lhasa, but it hardly mattered. By the time that his new notebooks were published, his fame had spread everywhere else. He was presented with a gold medal by the Royal Geographic Society for his research, and he quickly became a favorite of Theodore Roosevelt’s administration. Even the President himself took a personal interest in Rockville’s career.
After that he was given a number of special postings within the diplomatic corps. In the immediate aftermath of the Boxer Uprising Rockville would personally craft America’s “Open Door” policy as an attempt to forestall the imperialist rush to carve China up into independent concessions (as had happened to Africa a few decades earlier) which all parties saw on the horizon. He later struck up a remarkable friendship with the 13th Dalia Lama which lasted for the rest of his life. At the end of his career he agreed to accept a posting with China’s new government.
This brief bio has only skimmed the surface of a remarkable life. Those wanting to read more about Rockhill would be well advised to find a copy of his recent biography (an older effort dating to the 1950s is also available) or this much shorter (though still comprehensive) article. Still, what we have reviewed is sufficient to introduce a short passage from his diaries, kept during his second journey into the Tibetan frontier in 1891. The following passage finds Rockhill renewing friendships outside the Kumbum Monastery as he enjoys the Lunar New Year celebrations and prepares to outfit his expedition for the next leg of the journey.
William Woodville Rockhill. 1894. Journey through Mongolia and Tibet, 1891 and 1892. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute. Pp. 68-70.
….In the evening the managers of the Hsia-sheng huei [The lads in every town and village of Chinese give these theatrical performances at this time of year, Hsiao sheng huei may be freely translated by “young men’s amateur theatrical company.”] came and invited me to the performance to be held on the square this evening and the two nights following. We were escorted to our seats by the managers carrying lanterns, and found sweets, water-melon seeds and samshu provided for us. The performance consisted of stilt-walking and masquerading, firing of crackers, etc., etc., the usual tame and slip-shod performance seen all over northern China, but which here, as elsewhere, seems to afford the audience great pleasure.
At a table near us were the likin office officials, and we vied with each other in liberality to the performers, each time they presented them a string of cash we gave two, and so it went on for an hour, till the play has cost both parties some fifteen to twenty tiao, much to the delight of the managers and the disgust of the likin people who had not anticipated anyone trying to outdo them in generosity…..
February 14.—The fête is over and most of the visitors have gone. I also will soon be ready to leave, for I have already bought at least half of my outfit, including four stout ponies, for 70 taels. Saddles (of the His-fan type) are being got ready for them, leather bags for tsamba, flour, rice, etc., have also been bought and filled, and if the money I am expecting from Lan-chou arrives. I can start for Tibet three or four days after receiving it.
The inn-keeper and a number of persons got up for my benefit a Kuan-wu, a fencing, wrestling, single-stick, double sword, spear performance, which was really very good. The single stick and quarter-staff exercises were capital, and an old fellow of nearly sixty (an ex pao-piao-ti or “insurance-against brigand’s-attack-agent”) went through some marvelously agile stick and savate exercises, but his son was the hero of the entertainment.
Our second account was recorded nearly 30 years after Rockhill’s expedition. Much has happened in this time. China is a different place. As one might expect this difference is the most apparent in large urban centers like Shanghai. Yet developments within the martial arts community also illustrate not just the material but also the cultural and social transformation that was then underway.
The following account was published in Millard’s Review of the Far East (1917-1922). Thomas Franklin Fairfax Millard has been called the “founding father of American Journalism in China.” This title should not simply be taken to mean that he was an American, or that his papers had American owners. Rather he attempted to introduce a uniquely American style of journalism (evident in the example of period publication like the anti-imperialist Nation or the New Republic).
Millard’s various projects (including the creation of The China Press, possibly the largest foreign language newspaper in Shanghai in its day) had a clear progressive and anti-imperialist bent. In modern terms one might say that he engaged in “advocacy journalism” promoting the new Republic (he always published a weekly interview with Sun Yat Sen), Chinese nationalism and other progressive causes. His papers carried reports on, and articles by, “May 4th Intellectuals” and helped to both popularize and promote discussion of this movement.
Millard’s papers also broke with the conventions of his day by prominently featuring Chinese events and news in his reporting. Rather than simply focusing on events in the expatriate community and world at large (as many older missionary papers had) Millard actively attempted to create a greater sense of civic awareness by sharing news between what had been highly segregated communities.
The following article, which ran in the 1920 November 17th edition of his Review, is a good example of this tendency. Here we see Hin T. Wong (who wrote a regular column on events in Fujian and Guangdong provinces) reporting on a festival to celebrate the Jingwu (sometimes “Chin woo” or “Pure Martial”) Association’s 10th anniversary in Shanghai.
Of course the Jingwu Association was a critical player in crafting a new, more modern, identity for the Chinese martial arts in the first decades of the 20th century. Both Andrew Morris and Brian Kennedy have addressed this organization in depth, as have multiple posts here at Kung Fu Tea. In this report Wong describes the events of the two day celebration, hints at the future (such as the creation of a Jingwu “model village”) and takes an opportunity to editorialize on the changing role of the Chinese martial arts and Jingwu’s plan to promote them as a means of strengthening the nation. Given the importance of this movement, it is utterly fascinating to find a contemporary English language account attempting to promote the organization and its goals within Shanghai’s international community.
Hin T. Wong. 1920. “The New Development of Athletics in China.” Millard’s Review of the Far East. Shanghai, November 17th, Vol. XIV No. 13. Pp. 696-700.
“The New Development of Athletics in China”
By H. T. Wong
The tenth anniversary of China’s unique athletics organization, the “Chin Woo” Association, was celebrated recently by its members in their large, newly-opened Recreation Park on Baikal Road, Shanghai. The program provided for an exhibition of two days: the first day’s performances were held on October 30, and those for the second day were, on account of bad weather, delayed until November 7. The huge crowd of spectators—some 20,000—who turned out to witness the exhibition proved that the celebration was a great success.
The large shield-shaped gate—the shield being the badge of the Association—was decorated with flowers while strings of flags were flown over and around the Association grounds. Units of the Association’s own military battalion stood guard at the entrance and maintained peace and order inside.
There were three platforms where Chinese boxing and fencing, music, Chinese and foreign plays, dancing, etc., were staged to the great amusement of the guests.
One of the most remarkable features of the exhibition was the demonstration of Chinese boxing and fencing by the female members of the Association. Apart from its physical benefits to the females themselves, this activity of our “weaker sex” ought to serve as a call to an awakening, if not a warning to, our young men who have all this while been considering themselves physical superiors to our women. It is said that some of the girl members of the Association have decided that a knowledge of Chinese boxing shall be an essential qualification of their future husbands!
The male members rendered a series of boxing and fencing exercises showing how the curious weapons displayed on the platform were wielded in old-time warfare. The most interesting part of their exhibition was the fight between members clad in modern military uniform and armed with rifles with fixed bayonets an sabers, in which was demonstrated the possibilities of applying this Chinese art in modern warfare.
The military parade, the enjoyable musical entertainments, foreign and Chinese, dancing by girl students, and the funny plays completed the success of the program.
In watching the splendid success of the Association, one is led to look back to the beginning of the organization ten years ago. Then, it was established in a temporary mat-shed near the bridge beyond the Shanghai-Nanking Railways station. There its first members repaired to take their lessons at 5 o’clock every morning despite the heat of summer and snow of winter. The Association owes its existence to Mr. Ho Yuan Cha, the Chinese boxing master of the North, whose aim was to revive his almost dying art. His untimely death cut short his career, but the spark he had kindled was by no means put out: rather should we say that it had burnt the more deeper into the hearts of our young men. For his pupils kept on their daily practice with great perseverance and their efforts have brought the Association to its present magnitude.
Chinese boxing is one of our oldest arts. Our numerous legends tell us of its practical usefulness in self-defense during the days of bandits and outlaws. That such a valuable branch of learning which, if developed in a western country, would have certainly been considered a great national asset, should become almost lost to the Chinese people is surely regrettable. This may be attributed to a mistaken conception that “The pen is mightier than the sword.” Things literary “Wen,” were so much favored that things martial, “Wu,” had come to be looked upon with contempt. The status of the soldier was considered to be the lowest in society and there is an old saying among us that “as good iron will not become nails, so good men will not become soldiers.” Under such unpopularity, the martial spirit of the people became gradually stupefied and the art of boxing was regarded as a disgraceful pursuit. It was even considered dangerous because unprincipled persons with some knowledge of this art might become so uncontrollable as to cause fatalities in their quarrels that their knowledge would be a menace to society. Parents therefore sought to restrain their children from practicing this art and we have another saying that “if you have a vengeance of three generations on anyone, induce his son to practice “Wu,” or boxing.” The idea was to involve the enemy in fatal lawsuits through the quarrels of his offspring!
A further blow was given to this art by the Boxer uprising after which persons have knowledge of boxing would not dare to acknowledge it. With but a small number of men left who possessed this knowledge, the spread of the art was still further handicapped by the practice of its masters in keeping certain important secrets from their pupils for fear that they might become uncontrollable. When these maters died, the secrets died with them. This is responsible for much regrettable loss in art.
The members of the “Chin Woo” Association are seeking to dispel all such misunderstandings in order to popularize the art. The board of directors is composed of progressive merchants and vocational men whose perseverance in their daily practice and unselfish efforts is promoting public welfare have become a model for the rest of the members. Despite their knowledge of this “dangerous” art, the members are trained to refrain from unnecessarily applying it on peaceful citizens outside.
It is the aim of the Association to make strong and healthy citizens of our youths and to keep them from acquiring the bad habits of society by rousing their interest in athletics and training them to respect themselves. The curriculum of the Association comprises Chinese boxing and fencing, which is regularly taught every day to the members in the morning before they go to the office and in the evening when they have leisure; military drill—Chinese and foreign–; Chinese and foreign music; drawing and painting; Photography, in which one of its members has made an invention and secured a patent in the United States; public speaking in mandarin; an evening school for teaching of English and Chinese; and modern gymnastics and recreation. The daily practice of boxing has proved beyond the slightest doubt to be most beneficial to health.
The Association is planning a “Chin Woo” village which is intended to be model for China. Branches of the Association have been established in various parts of the country and every-where the organization stands unique because it combines things, “Wu” or Martial with things, “Wen” or Literary.
Shanghai, November 13, 1920.
Conclusion: What Could Have Been
These two accounts make for an interesting pair. Both were written by individuals who had great faith in China’s national development and strength. They also reflect the thoughts of authors who held more “progressive” viewpoints by the standards of their day.
On a more subtle level, it is also interesting to note that in these accounts the martial arts are being exhibited as part of a community celebration. In both cases they are also heavily associated with commerce. This may take the form of a gathering of caravan merchants (in the case of Rockhill) or the heavily advertised passages of the Millard’s Review of the Far East (which in addition to the news seems to be determined to sell its readers everything from Palmolive soap to the latest cooperative banking schemes.) And while the martial arts and traditional theater are presented as distinct activities in both accounts, they appear together sharing the same stage (in the case of the Jingwu gala quite literally).
In both passages the martial arts seem to share a dual function. On the one hand they are a demonstration of excellence in skill. Yet at the same time they are also an enactment of community, a way of producing identity. Their protective powers seem to derive from a unique combination of both of these functions.
There are also profound differences between these two accounts. They point to the fundamental social transformations that have taken place over the 30 years that separate them, as well as how this has come to be reflected in China’s (more progressive) martial arts community. In the first account we have a foreign observer traveling deep into the interior to retrieve ethnographic accounts for an audience that is hungry to know what ancient Chinese and Tibetan culture “really” was.
In the second case we have a Chinese author approaching a largely foreign audience in their own language. He speaks for himself and on his own terms. Now the martial arts are presented not as something ancient, but rather as an innovation.
To be sure, they are still seen as symbolic of the past and the guardians of its treasures. Yet for Wong, Jingwu occupies a very different conceptual space. His martial arts exist in a separate world from that which Rockhill described. Whereas the foreign observer spoke of traditional practice, the Chinese reporter assumes the role of teacher and speaks instead of the future.
The interplay between these two accounts once again illustrates the many possible ways in which the Chinese martial arts could have come to be viewed by the American public. Accounts such as these were out there and available for those with the interest and resources to find them (especially individuals within the expatriate publishing and academic communities). Yet they rather consistently lost to more sensational and racially “essentialist” voices in the marketplace of ideas.
The public could not perceive progressive and modern (or even traditional and skillful) Chinese “martial arts” as such an idea rested on more fundamental concepts that had not yet entered into the popular imagination. As the old academic expression goes, “There is no ‘data’ independent of ‘theory’.” Still, when reading back through these excerpts it is fun to imagine what the modern martial arts scene would be like today if Kung Fu had been “discovered” in 1900 or 1920.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.