Butterfly Swords and Long Poles: A Glimpse into Singapore’s 19th Century Martial Landscape

19th century Chinese painting.  This image is part of a larger set that shows scenes ofa gentry led militia in training.  Note the individual in the foreground with long pointed hudiedao.  Special thanks to Gavin Gaving Nugent (www.swordsantiqueweapons.com/) for sharing these images.
19th century Chinese painting. This image is part of a larger set that shows scenes of a gentry led militia in training. Note the individual in the foreground with long pointed hudiedao. Special thanks to Gavin Gaving Nugent (www.swordsantiqueweapons.com/) for sharing these images.

Introduction: The Weapons of Wing Chun

From time to time I am asked why Wing Chun teaches only two weapons. For those unfamiliar with the system these are the long single-tailed fighting pole, favored by a number of southern Chinese styles, and the butterfly swords. Most of Guangdong’s more popular styles have extensive arsenals. The straight sword (jian) and broadsword (dao) are commonly seen throughout the region as are the trident, iron ruler, spear, fighting chain and rattan shield.

Such a question may well be impossible to answer. One suspects that many of the explanations that are given are basically post-hoc justifications. It could be that the focus on only two weapons reflects the style’s dedication to “parsimony” and its “concept” rather than “technique-based” approach to fighting. Or this could all simply be a matter of coincidence. If you examine the historical record it is not difficult to locate accounts of Republic period Wing Chun enthusiasts who took an interest in a more diverse set of weapons.

Still, there is something undeniably unique about the pole and double swords. While arts like Hung Gar, White Crane and Choy Li Fut teach a greater number of forms, these two are often the first weapons actually introduced to students.

There is also a longstanding tradition (which one can see in the written literature on the Chinese martial arts as far back as the Ming) justifying the long pole’s special place in military training. It was favored by instructors as it could both physically strengthen students and introduce them to techniques that would aid their study of other weapons.

Meir Shahar has argued that it was this idea, rather than any Buddhist prohibition on bladed weapons, that explained the Shaolin Temple’s specialization in cudgel fighting throughout the Ming era. Thus there may be concrete historical reasons why these particular instruments came to be favored as the foundation of 19th century southern weapons training.

We have already seen that the pole and the hudiedao (butterfly swords) came to constitute the core of Guangdong’s 19th century training for gentry led militias and other paramilitary groups. These forces cannot be dismissed as peripheral to the area’s history. They carried out a great deal of the actual fighting that occurred during the Opium Wars and the Red Turban Revolt.

The provincial government was also extensively involved in financing and procuring the arms that these groups used. While some authors have dismissed the hudiedao as an eccentric toy for martial artists, in fact these weapons were critical to southern China’s military identity throughout the 19th century.

This might be one way of understanding modern Wing Chun’s parsimony in the realm of weaponry. The forms it taught would allow a martial artist from the Pearl River Delta region to pick up and competently use the two weapons that they were most likely to be given in the case of a community crisis. Other weapons, such as spears or daos, were (rightly or wrongly) considered close substitutes.

Yet when we look at the martial arts as they developed during the final years of the Qing and Republic periods, we are primarily discussing civilian fighting traditions which were taught in a non-military context. Do we have any witnesses to the use of these specific weapons in a civil setting? How common were they compared to other traditional weapons which were available in Chinese communities during the middle of the 19th century?

Another wood block print from the "Nobel Art of Self-Defense."  Notice the long, narrow, pointed hudiedao and clearly illustrated D-guards.  Also note that the posture of this individual is identical to the figure in the first painting.
A wood block print from the “Nobel Art of Self-Defense.” Notice the long, narrow, pointed hudiedao and clearly illustrated D-guards. Also note that the posture of this individual is identical to the figure in the first painting.

J. D. Vaughan: Soldier, Police Officer, Lawyer, Writer and Community Organizer
Jonas Daniel Vaughan (1825 – 1891) was a remarkably multifaceted individual.  Born in India he followed his father into service with the British East India Company. Vaughan first saw combat as a young sailor in 1842 during the Opium Wars. After that he was posted to Singapore where he took part in multiple military campaigns, including one directed against a local pirate stronghold.

Governor Butterworth personally convinced Vaughan to take up residence in the area and he was soon serving as a member of law enforcement in Penang. In addition to his normal duties Vaughan was responsible for creating a system of armed local citizens responsible for repulsing the bandit raids that had become a problem in the region. Later he was moved to Singapore where he again served with law enforcement, and eventually as an elected member of the municipal council.

Vaughan became extremely active in both the areas of community organization and social affairs. His interests focused on the local chapter of the Masons (which he helped to get off the ground), charitable works and community theater (where he was remembered as a very gifted comedic actor).

Vaughan’s experience with the police and politics led to an interest in law. He traveled to England to study the subject and passed the bar in 1869. He was then admitted to the Singapore Bar where he entered private practice. His mastery of the Malay language and naval experience made him a popular lawyer. While one might not get this impression from reading the work that we are about to discuss, at the time he was noted for being one of the most sympathetic local officials towards the Malay community.

In addition to his community and legal work, Vaughan was also an amateur scholar. His interests included astronomy, meteorology and the social study of the region’s various communities. He authored written works on both the Malay and Chinese communities as they existed between roughly the 1850s and the 1870s. Of course this is a period of great interest to students of Chinese martial studies as many of the styles that we are familiar with today began to rise in prominence during the late 19th century.

In today’s post we will examine a brief passage from Vaughan’s monograph Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements (1879). This work can be thought of as a proto-ethnography of the area’s Chinese community compiled from the author’s decades of experience working with local merchants, criminals, courts and community leaders.

What the work lacks in internal organization it makes up in breadth. While short (one could read it in a day) it covers topics as diverse as marriage customs, the political economy of immigration, a census of the local Chinese temples (complete with a discussion of their various services), physical culture, fashion, the varieties of crime and a number of thoughts on the ultimate origins of social violence within the Chinese community.

Vaughan’s work is best remembered for its descriptions of the Triads, Clan Associations and Guilds that comprised the community’s civil and associational life. He tended to view the Chinese secret societies through the lens of his own experience with western Masonry. This approach led him to a number of flawed conclusions. Still, his description of the various groups and their ceremonies has proved to be an important source of information for later scholars including Murray, Ownby and ter Haar. We will be encountering more of this work in future discussions of these organizations.

What I find most interesting in Vaughan’s is his many small asides about the nature of identity (particularly regional and clan based associations) in an era before the rise of anything like what we would now consider to be “modern” Chinese nationalism. While reviewing his work for his insights on this topic (and its relationship with social violence) I stumbled upon the following passage. It speaks directly to the question of weaponry in the southern kung fu systems outlined in the introduction:

“The Chinese in the Straits have no particular arms or weapons. The one in common use is a sharp pointed pole sometimes tipped in iron about eight feet long resembling the ordinary boarding-pike. It is used very skillfully both for offense and defense and has the advantage of keeping the enemy at a respectable distance. It is the usual weapon used in street fights.

Another dangerous weapon is the trident. This is sometimes used in riots but is not in common use.

The double sword is another weapon that is used skillfully. The two swords are carried in one sheath and whilst one is used for attack the other is held in the left hand and serves as a defensive weapon. Firearms are seldom resorted to.

As a rule these people are of peaceful inclination, and do not keep weapons in their houses. Even in isolated places in the country hundreds of houses may be found without a weapon of any kind. In cases of emergency the carrying pole which nearly every laborer possesses, proves a lethal weapon in the hands of a powerful man.”

Jonas Daniel Vaughan. 1879. Manners and Customs of the Chinese of the Straits Settlements. Singapore: The Mission Press. pp. 39-40

A very interesting painting from the previous series.  Note that this one shows individuals with clearly rendered Hudiedao, Shuang Jian and Shuang Dao, suggesting the practical use of all three weapons.  Special thanks to Gavin Nugent  (www.swordsantiqueweapons.com/) for agreeing to share this image.
A very interesting painting from the previous series. Note that this one shows individuals with clearly rendered Hudiedao, Shuang Jian and Shuang Dao, suggesting the practical use of all three weapons. Special thanks to Gavin Nugent (www.swordsantiqueweapons.com/) for agreeing to share this image.

Conclusion: The Pole and Hudiedao in Singapore

One of the most interesting aspects of this particular passage is its location in the author’s overall discussion. Rather than grouping his thoughts on violence into a single chapter, Vaughan sprinkles them liberally throughout his book. While always at pains to emphasize the Chinese community’s essentially peaceful nature, the end result can actually be somewhat disconcerting. It seems that the unwary reader is constantly encountering a description of a riot, murderous bandit raid or street attack in the most unexpected places.

The passage on arms was not attached to any of these discussions. Rather than occurring in the context of an extended meditation on clan violence, rural banditry or secret society uprisings (all topics Vaughan addresses at length), it pops up in the middle of a chapter on Chinese games and pastimes. More specifically, one can find it wedged between a longer discussion of kite-flying and a detailed digression on chess. Its proximate inspiration seems to have been the author’s observation on the lack of interest in athletics among the area’s Chinese immigrants in comparison to either ethnically Chinese individuals born in Malaysia or Europeans.

While Vaughan never directly addresses the “martial arts” (indeed, I have yet see an author from this time period actually use the phrase), his placement of the long pole and hudiedao in a section on games and pastimes is quite suggestive. While such weapons could show up in street violence, they appear to have also occupied other categories of social meaning. While he offers no hints as to how it happens, his repeated reference to their “skillful use” suggests that at least some individuals spent a great deal of time practicing with these weapons.

One of the things that I found most interesting about this account is the ease with which the long-pole could be transformed into a pike. When considering the frequent thrusts of the “Six and Half Point Pole” form I (and probably every other student who has ever trained in it) have wondered if it was originally intended to function as a platform of both spear and pole training. Vaughan’s observation seems to suggest that southern pole culture acknowledged this flexibility, often with real world consequences. His description of the carriage and use of the hudiedao also fits with other period accounts that we have previously discussed.

While brief, Vaughan’s unexpected aside on local weaponry confirms the importance of the pole and the hudiedao in civilian, rather than strictly militia based, weapons training during the 1850s-1870s. Wing Chun (and many of the other southern arts) likely focused on these weapons precisely because they are a product of the social environment that Vaughan describes. His account, while short, is invaluable as it opens a window onto this world unmediated by the creative imaginations of China’s later martial arts reformers.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (7): Selling Swords and Printed Martial Arts Training Manuals in a 19th century Guangzhou Market.


3 Comments Add yours

  1. Sean C. Ledig says:

    Great article. I do have another explanation for Wing Chun’s choices of weapons.

    I’m a Wing Chun practitioner who’s been swapping knowledge with a student and instructor of Hung Gar and Yau Kung Mun. My training partner is also retired U.S. Navy with a great love for the sea and extensive knowledge of nautical history and lore. He tends to view things through a sailor’s eyes.

    His speculation is that Wing Chun developed the way it did because it was practiced by the Red Boat Opera Troupe. To him, it is a great art for maritime protection.

    Consider the weapons: Long poles were used to push boats through shallow water and canals. Sailors were already quite strong and adept from using the poles for their natural purpose. But it also came in handy for fending off river pirates as you could strike them with the pole before they could board your craft.

    Meanwhile, the butterfly swords correspond to the western cutlass, a short, heavy, edged weapon for fighting in the confines of the ship’s deck and cabins after you’ve been boarded. The empty hand techniques of Wing Chun are also better suited to such environs than a long-range art, like Chang Chuan.

    This is all speculation, but it’s always made sense to me.

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