A vintage French Postcard. Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A vintage French Postcard. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


The back of the previous postcard.  Source: Author's personal collection.
The back of the previous postcard. Source: Author’s personal collection.







I recently discussed an account of the Chinese martial arts in late 19th century which was provided by the American diplomat, explorer, scientist and scholar William Woodvile Rockhill. While buying supplies for an upcoming expedition through western China and Tibet he recoded the following note in his journal:



“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.”
William Woodville Rockhill. 1894. Journey through Mongolia and Tibet, 1891 and 1892. Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institute. pp. 70



In our previous post we discussed both Rockhill’s many accomplishments as well as a number of aspects of this account. I would like to begin today’s discussion by drawing the reader’s attention to a slightly different question. In the last line of his journal entry he attempts to describe this exhibition of the traditional Chinese martial arts as a “savate” display. Why?

We have previously noted that the term “martial art” was not in general use for most of the 19th century. When it was employed it was usually not used in conjunction with a range of traditional Asian hand combat methods that it is applied to today. Indeed, writers from this period do not appear to have had a single conceptual category that encompassed everything which modern readers might group into a mental category labeled “traditional martial art.” A variety of other terms were employed. These tended to focus on more specific categories of activity such as military service (drill), public performance (juggling/opera) or civil fighting (the “noble art of self-defence.”)

None of these labels perfectly fit the world of the traditional Chinese fighting systems. In some accounts you can almost feel the authors reaching for a vocabulary to describe the complex of things that they were observing. Given this context, was it all significant that Rochkill characterized these systems as a type of “single-stick” and “Savate” exercise?

I suspect that in this instance he chose his words very carefully. Readers may recall that Rockhill, while an American citizen, was raised and educated in France during the second half of the 19th century. After graduating from school he enlisted in the precursor of the French Foreign Legion where he served as an officer for years in both Europe and North Africa. This is significant as it put him in France (specifically in the French military) during the time at which this indigenous form of European kickboxing was reaching the apex of its popularity. Indeed, Savate was being lionized in novels, newspapers and public discussions. It was held up as a form of self-defense, a type of physical training and even a military hand-to-hand combat system.

Many foreign observers of the traditional Chinese fighting systems during the 19th century found them to be perplexing and of dubious value.  By linking them with Savate, Rockhill may have been attempting to impress upon his readers their efficiency and value. He would have had years of training in this fighting system while in French schools and the military. Not only were his views of the Chinese martial arts pretty generous for the period in which he wrote, but his own background in Savate likely made him an exceptionally skilled observer.



French Boxing aboard a ship.  Vintage postcard.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
French Boxing aboard a ship. Vintage postcard. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.





Savate Training in the French Military



Most of the articles on this blog focus on the Chinese hand combat systems, but I have wanted to write something on traditional European martial arts for some time. I recently found an opportunity to do so after running across a couple of vintage postcards. Both show groups of military men training in French Boxing during the first decade of the 20th century.

The first displays a group of soldiers training at a military school in Rambouillet sometime prior to 1906. It is particularly interesting as the back of this postcard actually has a message which implies something about how Savate was viewed in French society at this point in time. It reads simply:


“Dear Grandpa, I’m studying to be a cashier. To be a good cashier you have to know “how to kick high” (lit. “lift your foot” i.e. show initiative and determination). Your little Louise.” [Special thanks to Prof. Daniel Mroz for providing the translation.]


The next example shows a group of sailors practicing on the deck of a ship. A precursor of modern French Boxing called “Chausson” is said to have been popular with French sailors in Marseilles and was later adopted by the French Navy. This style of kickboxing featured higher kicks and open hand slaps rather than punches.

These facts have been expanded upon to introduce a nautical element into the modern mythology of French Boxing. Some commentators claim that these arts were actually shaped by their origins on the cramped spaces of a ship. They assert that the hands were left open so that they could steady a sailor on the deck of a pitching ship. Of course it could also be that punching someone in the face with a closed fist without boxing gloves is not always a great idea (ergo the frequency with which a wide variety of global fighting systems use open hand strikes). Such traditions will of course sound vaguely familiar to students of the southern Chinese martial arts, which are also sometimes said to have been shaped by their nautical precursors.

The history of Savate is a fascinating subject which would require more than a single blog post to fully explore. Briefly, the ultimate origin of this fighting system is not well understood. We do know that early in the 19th century domestic French styles of cane (or staff) fighting and kick-boxing came back into vogue among the poorer elements of French society in both the capital and the provinces. These practices were taught on the street and were oriented towards self-defense rather than competition. They also appear to have focused on kicking and open hand slaps, rather than the sorts of punching that was becoming common in English boxing.

By the 1830s wealthy French individuals became increasingly interested in these practices. This may have been due to an increased need for self-defense in an increasingly violent environment, or it could have been a reaction to the banning of dueling.

At the same time a number of French writers (Balzac, Dumas and Gautier) began to include hair-raising accounts of Savate duels in their works. This burst of high profile publicity had the paradoxical effect of creating a media driven image of the emerging fighting system which on the one hand made them vastly more attractive to middle class, educated, students. Yet at the same time it also romanticized their connections with violence and seedier aspects of French society. This increased social and official suspicion of these activities during a critical point in their development. It may have also affected the subsequent direction of French Boxing’s evolution.

By the middle of the 19th century a number of distinct approaches to Savate had emerged within civilian society. These included an acrobat version of the art (with spectacular leaps and spins) that was performed for audiences in music halls, a gritty self-defense form using a wide variety of practical techniques, and lastly an “academic” approach to the system taught in formal schools that focused on the development of technical ability and a point fighting system similar to that used in European fencing.

It should come as no surprise that most of the best sources on the historical evolution of Savate are in French (see for instance Jean-Francois Loudcher. 2000. Histoire de la savate, du chausson et de la boxe francaise: d’une pratique populaire a un sport de combat [History of Savate, Chausson, and French Boxing: From Popular Practice to Combat Sport.] Paris:L’Harmattan.] In addition to the Wikipedia page, English language readers will probably want to check out this article by R. W. Smith written for the Electronic Journal of the Martial Arts. Perhaps the best source that I found was the article (also by Jean-Francois Loudcher) included in Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth’s Martial Arts of the World: An Encyclopedia of History and Innovation, Vol 1. (2010) pp. 256-263. It is especially helpful when read in conjunction with the article on “Canne de Combat” (pp. 213-217) in the same volume.

These sources all focus on the evolution of Savate as a civilian combat sport and fitness practice. Yet by the middle of the 19th century it was also being taught in the French military. During the 1870s the government mandated its practice by all soldiers and even introduced it into the national school curriculum.

This association proved to be longstanding, with Savate and cane fighting enjoying a renaissance in the military during WWI (when soldiers discovered that such skills were vital for trench raiding). Ironically it was at about the same time that French Boxing started to seriously decline in popularity in civilian circles. Given the number of men who served in the French military during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, it must have been a major force in the spread of Savate.

I have not had a great deal of success in finding historical discussions of the military side of the Savate story. Still, it is interesting to note that postcards and photographs like those featured in this post are some of the more common period images of French Boxing that one is likely to encounter. 19th century novels and newspapers also include a number of discussions of Savate training within the military. These can even be found in English language sources. Consider the following account of Savate training in a small group setting not unlike those shown above:



“Mr John MacMullen, a well-known New Yorker writes the following lively and interesting picture of the French Army to the “Evening Post,” and although it is somewhat minute upon one or two points sufficiently familiar to military readers, it is richly worth copying entire:

The French army is certainly one of the best developed bodies of men that the world has ever seen. Formed almost entirely of conscripts, the sons of honest families, it draws its strength from the best blood of the nation. For seven years they are kept circulating through France, except when each regiment takes it turn in Algiers. Thus the entire country is known to the entire army, from the thronged capital to the most quiet provincial town. The ideas of the most ignorant are enlarged, their minds expanded, as they are drawn away and the sons of the poorest villagers enjoy the pleasures and reap the profits of travel.

Each individual of this mass is taught to walk, to stand, to run, to jump, to swim, to climb, to handle the small sword and the broadsword, to manage the musket and the bayonet, with such skill as not only to slay his enemy far off or near at hand, but to protect himself against the long sword of the trooper, or even the far-reaching and more formidable lance.

Paris is the center of this system, and having one day obtained the necessary permit, I had an opportunity of seeing how sedulously this training is attended to. There were not more than a half a dozen soldiers exercised at this time, but it must be remembered that those who show most fitness for the task are chosen and drilled most thoroughly, so that in their turn they may become teachers in their several regiments….

In the recent accounts of the Zouaves we are told that they also employ in battle la savate, or the art of kicking. Having often heard of this, I one day asked our teacher in the gymnasium at Paris, if he knew it.

“Oh! Yes.”
“Well give us a specimen of it.”
“Very well, place yourself in position as a boxer.”

I did so and he advanced towards me with his hands a little out from his sides, like a wrestler ready to take hold in any way.

“Now I can kick you on your forward leg, and break the bone or hurt you. While you are disturbed by that, or, in case you draw it back, I can raise my foot to your stomach or your chin.”
“Well suppose you should kick at my chin, I would catch your foot. Then what would you do?”
“Well, try it.”

He kicked and I caught his foot, but while I held it firmly he turned; threw both hands upon the ground to support his body, and instantaneously brought his other foot so near my nose that I let go of his foot in moment.

“That is very clever. Is there any parry to that?”
“Oh! Yes. It is very simple. You do what I did and I will show you.”

I kicked; he caught my foot; I turned, threw myself on my hands, and thought of course to kick him with my other foot; but he simply put one foot firmly against the thigh of my other leg, and I was powerless. There was in his movements also this same startling rapidity. The kicks were like flashes of lightening, and the hands constantly ready from a grapple or a blow. From what I saw I have a most respectful dislike to la savate, or, as we would say in English, the Old Shoe.

It is impossible to cultivate the body to any great extent without also thereby cultivating the mind. Quick and intelligent action of the brain. A manly self-respect grows with the consciousness of individual power, and this feeling is fostered by the general regulations of the army; no French soldier is ever struck; his person is sacred from all blows. An amusing story about this was once told me by an ex-soldier…”
John MacMullen. 1859. “Pictures of the French Army.” Military Gazette. Vol. 2 No. 16, August 15th, New York. P. 250-251.



Another vintage postcard showing French Boxing instruction in a military setting.  Source: Wikimedia.
Another vintage postcard showing French Boxing instruction in a military setting. Source: Wikimedia.







It is actually quite revealing that Rockhill, a product of the French educational system and a veteran of its military, should have identified Chinese boxing as a type of “Savate.” There seems to have been a greater abundance of information on French Boxing available in the English language during the 19th century compared to discussions of the Chinese arts. One wonders whether the public would have expressed more interest in the Chinese fighting systems if Rockhill’s terminology (and enthusiasm) had caught on with other writers.

Of course French Boxing is a fascinating subject for students of Martial Arts Studies in its right. Many of the areas of theory that have been developed in relation to the development of the Asian arts in the 19th century are clearly present here as well. For instance, the publishing industry played a key role in defining the public image of these fighting systems in both the East and the West. Likewise the specific body techniques of “French Boxing” became the locus for negotiating a specific type of identity as French nationalism took shape in an era defined by a dual rivalry with the UK and Germany. Indeed, it seems that practically every description of Savate published in the 19th century included an implicit or explicit comparison with “English” Boxing. The story of Savate is one of social conflict where the government took a strong hand in regulating the dangers that it saw arising from an unpredictable society. This also had a critical impact on evolution of Savate.

One can even detect in the previous account a certain discourse on the power of hand combat to encourage self-cultivation and increased spiritual health. This is remarkably similar to the sorts of assertions that would be made about karate and kung fu close to a hundred years later. It would fascinating to look more closely at these ideas to determine whether a similar movement from “radical/social/political” to “commercialized/personal/spiritual” emancipation can be seen in discussions Savate during the 19th century.

These parallels might make for fascinating comparative analysis. The inclusion of a very different sort of actor (an industrialized western nation) in our case studies has the potential to sharpen our thinking on a number of critical issues.

In some cases the parallels are uncanny (such as the role of novels in the early promotion of the fighting arts). In others, it is the differences that stand out more. Given that both Savate and the modern Chinese arts started to come together in the early 19th century, why did these practices explode in popularity in China during exactly the same time period (1920s-1940s) that they nearly died in France? What role did government regulation, war, demographic change and culture play in all of this? Students of Martial Arts Studies may discover a wealth of answers in these questions.






If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  The Value of a Comparative Case: Jean-Marc de Grave discusses “The Training of Perception in Javanese Martial Arts.”