Woodcarvings found in Cháozhōu, the closest city to Phoenix Village
Woodcarvings found in Cháozhōu, the closest city to Phoenix Village.  Photo by Polar1.  Source: Wikipedia (CC).



Introduction: Village Life in the Urban Imagination

In 1925 Teachers College of Columbia University published the first comprehensive modern sociological study of village life in Southern China. The topic itself was not new. As Virgil K. Ho has pointed out, Chinese, Japanese and Western intellectuals spent much of the 1920s-1930s attempting to diagnose the pathologies of rural Chinese life.

This was a period when China’s social values shifted in a decidedly urban direction. Increasingly scholars pointed to the poor, uneducated, superstitious and unhygienic countryside as the ultimate root cause of China’s failure to rise to the challenges of modernity. Many papers bemoaning the state of these rural districts were published.

As Ho notes, most of these were written from a comfortable distance by scholars who had spent very little time in the countryside. And many of those who visited their research areas failed to grasp the nature of the changes that were then underway. Much of this early literature simply reflects the social and urban prejudices of the thinkers that produced it.

This is precisely what makes Country Life in South China: The Sociology of Familism by Daniel Harrison Kulp II so important. Published in 1925 this study of Phoenix Village in north-eastern Guangdong was one of the earliest comprehensive sociological studies of a rural southern Chinese community ever produced. The author (a professor of Sociology at both Teachers College in New York City and Shanghai College) had the good fortune to work with no fewer than three native informants from the village who had left to pursue their own educations in other cities where they were subsequently introduced to the modern social sciences.

One of these informants returned to his home village to undertake detailed field work in 1918 and 1919, and Kulp himself spent the summer of 1923 conducting his own investigations and interviews. In short, this brief study is the product of an unusually well prepared research team comprised of both insiders and outsiders who had a number of years to prepare what turned out to be the first “scientific” study of village life in rural southern China. Their findings directly called into question many of the dire and politicized images of country life that were then in circulation.

Kulp and his team were always careful to point out that they were undertaking a detailed investigation of a single village; hence one should be wary of drawing broad generalizations. Still, this was in many respects a very average village. Located two hours up-stream from Cháozhōu (Shantou being the regional trade hub further to the south) Phoenix Village was a stable, if not particularly prosperous, single-surname community of about 650 residents.

While the area is now best known for its involvement with the tea industry, at the time the major agricultural products were fruit trees, sugar cane and vegetables. In truth the area had been in slow decline since the 1911 revolution. The village had produced a number of scholars and degree winners, but all of this meant little in the face of education reform. The impact of these reforms on the village schools was one of the major focuses of Kulp’s research.

Still, readers looking for stories of heart-rending poverty, drug abuse and rural superstition (what most discussions of the countryside during the 1920s seem to have focused on) were bound to be disappointed. While Kulp pointed out the obvious failures of public hygiene, flood control and education policy where he found them, on balance what he described was a remarkably cohesive, orderly and hard-working community with a strong sense of its own identity. Anyone looking for an explanation of China’s “failure to modernize” would have to look elsewhere.

As the title of this work might lead one to suspect, Kulp was very interested in the nature of the lineage system and its interaction with other social, religious and political structures. Much of his book is dedicated to an explanation of how the various lineage segments of the research area actually formed the basic building blocks of local community life. Nevertheless, he notes that family based organizations, by their very nature, cannot fully satisfy everyone’s wishes for security, economic advancement and individual status attainment. To aid in these goals communities feature a number of “voluntary associations.”

Phoenix Village, while quite small, managed to support six such groups. The most common were Mutual Aid Societies which poorer families formed to pool their resources and raise cash. During the period of their field research the community also featured two Parental-Burial Associations, a sugar making cooperative, an irrigation association, a music club and a boxing association.

The discussion of this boxing association is the earliest contemporary social scientific contribution to the literature on the Chinese martial arts that I am aware of. While one can certainly find other observations on Chinese boxing, I do not know of any earlier field work, undertaken by professional scholars, which explicitly sought to understand the social function of the Chinese martial arts and to place them within the framework of village life. Kulp’s discussion provides us with a critical body of observation regarding the nature and social practice of rural boxing during the Republic Period.

That is the good news. The bad news is that Kulp didn’t actually have a lot of data to work with when discussing this particular association. While boxing was a popular past-time for certain individuals, and they were constantly starting (or resurrecting) clubs to provide a social space for their practice, these efforts almost always ended in failure. When Kulp arrived in 1923 the village was once again without a Boxing Association, even though (as his study makes clear) the martial arts where still an important part of how people discussed village life.

Why was this? Given that boxing was one of the very few socially approved recreational actives for adult males, and it had a notable local following, why couldn’t Phoenix Village manage to keep its martial arts association open, even in the relatively calm years of the early 1920s? What do the struggles of this club reveal about the place of traditional boxing in rural life? More specifically, how did it interact with the social, political, economic and psychological forces that defined rural life?


The Phoenix Pagoda in Cháozhōu.  This photo was taken in 1870 by John Thomson.  Source: Wikipedia (cc).
The Phoenix Pagoda in Cháozhōu. This photo was taken in 1870 by John Thomson. Source: Wikipedia (cc).


The Sad State of Phoenix Village Boxing


Much of the first half of Kulp’s study is dedicated to a detailed study of the various layers of the extended family and clan kinship system. Indeed, these relationships formed the main pathways by which influence and resources were distributed within the community. In the second half of his work he then turned his attention to the village’s various voluntary associations.

I have transcribed the main description of the local boxing association found there. The initial discussion of this institution is relatively short, but readers should be aware that it builds on arguments that the author has been developing throughout the book. The real value of this account lies within its contextualization of a much broader overview of village life. While I will be discussing a few relevant points suggested by this passage in the final section of this post, interested readers will want to take the time to review Kulp’s study as it contains a wealth of information on related topics.


Still another type [of voluntary association] is the Boxing Club. Some villager who has a slight knowledge of Chinese Boxing suggests to a number of young men that a fund be raised to secure the services of an instructor and to rent a place for the “school of self-defense!” An entrance fee is proposed and, when on that basis enough money is collected to launch the school, an itinerant boxing instructor is employed and a suitable place rented. Usually the classes are held in an old school building or temple where the open paved court serves as an open-air gymnasium.

The instruction is given at night when the young men have [the] most leisure. After a few lessons in a series of body movements designed to dispose of an opponent, the pupil is initiated into the mysteries of thrusting, parrying, slashing, and warding with a variety of weapons popular in ancient warfare in China.

At first the movements are learned by mass imitation of the instructor; later they are perfected through practice with a sparring partner to develop experience, confidence and precision. When the sparring begins, and especially when the classes convene while the teacher is instructing in a neighboring village, some of the hardier members “get rough” and trouble arises. Each develops a drive for conquest rather than finesse and precision until the organization comes to a more or less sad ending.

In spite of repeated failures to keep alive such associations, enthusiasts of the sport every once in a while try to revive the club. The need of personal protection is generally recognized so that interest is easily aroused. At the present moment [1925], however, Phoenix Village possesses no such club, largely because of the disparate attitudes among the familist groups.

While the ostensible aim in organizing such a club is protective education through a cooperative bearing of the expenses, other objectives and functions readily appear upon analysis of the activities. Skill in boxing is of value for several reasons: it has already been emphasized (Chapter V) that the self-made leaders become particularly effective when they have the backing of a numerous family, but when a large number of their followers are trained in the art of attack and defense, then, indeed, does the leader become formidable and influential in village polity; every man is his own policeman and must be able to protect himself and his property against thieves. The physical exercise is very strenuous and builds up the physiques of the young participants at the same time that it provides fun.

The activities are thus both practical and recreational. The protective function meets practical crisis situations as they may arise for individual villagers while the recreative or expressive function offers release from some of the tensions of village monotony.

Daniel Harrison Kulp II. 1925. Country Life in South China: The Sociology of Familism, volume 1. New York City: Teacher’s College, Columbia University. pp. 207-207


Thinking about the Phoenix Village Boxing Club(s)

While the account is brief, Kulp offers his readers some very interesting information in this description. Note that while this is a single-surname village, the martial arts being practiced are not an arcane family style (as is often retrospectively imagined). Rather a school is established and an instructor from outside of the village is hired. While dues appear to have been paid by subscription rather than a set monthly fee (this was a general pattern seen in almost all of the voluntary associations Kulp studied) the club was basically a public undertaking and open to any male with an interest in boxing and enough money to cover the fees. Indeed, this sort of collective financing of martial arts instruction appears to have been common in rural Guangdong during the last two decades of the 19th century. As such the Phoenix Village boxing club of the 1920s is, in many respects, quite “traditional.”

Descriptions given in other sections of study seem to suggest that classes were generally held either in the semi-derelict Confucian school or in one of two sub-lineage temples located in the village.

Guessing who the students were is more difficult. It seems that the most prosperous and powerful elements of the village did not throw their support behind the boxing club. But the very poor would not have had the money to buy a subscription when the enterprise was being established. Thus it seems that most martial artists would have been younger males from middle or lower-middle peasant families.

It is also interesting to note that the teacher of the Boxing Club was always an outsider brought into the village for this purpose. One might suppose that such a small community might not be able to support a professional martial artist. In fact, Phoenix village actually had many gainfully employed specialists in violence. When discussing the presence of a number of opium/gambling houses in the business district of town Kulp observes:

“The gamblers listed refer to those who keep houses especially for gambling and opium smoking and make a living thereby. Their shops are located just on the northern end of the business section of the village. Being responsible for the good conduct of their patrons, they are men of physical strength, members of strong “branches” of the familist group. They always stand ready, with the assistance of men who specialized in boxing, to quell disorder or to prevent outside interference. Among these the village parasites are found. They pander to everyone in the gambling house and beg gifts from the winners.

(p. 93)”

Phoenix Village’s commercial street was a recent addition constructed by the clan elders as part of their ongoing rivalry with the larger and more prosperous Tan Village to south. After building the storefronts they discovered that few of their fellow clansmen were actually interested in occupying them, so almost all of the local stores were run by outside merchants who are not members of the village polity. One of the exceptions to this, however, is the gambling and opium houses. These are run by the major lineage groups that dominate the area.

Clearly there is a connection between boxing and these local industries, yet Kulp never pursues that line of questioning. We are simply left to wonder whether the village boxing class helped to provide muscle used by these lineage segments. Given that these more powerful families do not seem to have been active in supporting the maintenance of the club, one suspects probably not. If that was the case there may actually have been multiple institutions passing on the “art of self-defense” in town.

It is also interesting to note that Phoenix Village is unable to finance a full time martial arts instructor even when they can get the club going. Their instructors seem to be itinerant teachers providing instruction in a number of local villages. Indeed, the author claims that it is this lack of institutional organization and actual discipline that leads most commonly to the boxing club’s frequent demise. Without strong leadership the rivalries of village life cannot be kept at bay. This is the main drawback of a part-time instructor.

All of this is exacerbated by a lack of support or discipline coming from the village and clan leadership. While they seem to tolerate the occasional resurrection of the Boxing Club they do little to support or encourage it.

This is odd as security must have been a concern for these individuals. Kulp notes that the village had built a large house among its main fields to support its crop watching society during harvest season. That would seem to indicate that the normal sorts of banditry were not unknown in the region.

Still, there is the possibility that the Boxing Club itself could have been an even greater headache for the lineage leadership. The reason was simple. Voluntary associations such as this provided a way for individuals in the community to gain a type of seniority and respect that the clan elders did not control.

This sort of informal power could be a potent force within the village polity. When tied to schools of militarily skilled individuals within the village, and an even larger network of other such groups outside of the community’s boundaries, it is not hard to understand why the lineage segment leaders might be wary of the Boxing Club. Simply put, it was not at all clear that this sort of “self-improvement” was good for social stability.

This was a topic that Kulp devoted some thought to. He noted the uneasy that greeted the emergence of “natural leaders” in multiple places throughout his study. The most relevant discussion of the actual dangers of the martial arts can be found in the first half of his book:



The second division of leaders who occupy important places in village life on a basis of personal achievement, comprises those who have won their influence by sheer force of personality and cleverness. They have no historical social values to reinforce their status. But they possess unusual insight into human nature and the manner of its operation. They exercise foresight, eloquence and cunning. They are able to stir up or quiet a mob by suggestion and example. They suffer no responsibility to the local officials through the operation of customary law as do the scholars and elders, for these natural leaders are not formally recognized as leaders. They may be thought of as practical politicians.

These men may be good or bad for village welfare. If the formal and conventional leaders are wise, they utilize these men of talent as aids in the preservation of order and unity in the sib. But when the elders become mere figureheads or the scholars belong to small branch-families and lack wisdom and tact enough to secure their cooperation, they become dissatisfied, discontented and strive constantly to demonstrate the inefficiency of village leadership by stirring up trouble for the “old uncles” and the “book-worms.” When ill-feelings arise between branch-families, they are inclined to add fuel to the flames. Their behavior then threatens village unity and solidarity and constitutes a problem of importance in village polity.

Sometimes these same natural leaders take advantage of disputes with members of neighboring villages and strengthen hostile attitudes by effecting open quarrels with neighboring groups. Such action arouses discussion within each group involved; it thus stimulates opinion in Phoenix Village and also furthers unity and solidarity when the village members draw together in the defense of their kin and their village pride. Nevertheless, behavior of this kind worries the recognized leaders because of the complications that might arise with the officials of the district.

The possibility of such inter-village altercations and conflicts increases in proportion to the outreach for personal aid to people of other groups rather than to the leaders of Phoenix Village. Where the interest of the person who has thus sought external aid lies with the other group, the whole situation becomes greatly complicated. Then the person may involve the aid of his own moiety to support him and this neighbors against other sections of Phoenix Village. In such cases, which fortunately tend to be rare, the natural leader disrupts village unity and cooperation.

“Natural Leaders” pp. 114-115 in Chapter V, “VILLAGE POLITY”



Kulp would seem to suggest that this is where we should look to find the ultimate source of the Boxing Club’s fragility. The martial arts functioned as an alternate pathway to political legitimacy within village life. As such their presence posed an existential challenge to the entrenched leadership within the clan system. This suggests that the martial arts would only enjoy sustained community support in times of acute need or threat. When the environment was fairly benign (as it was between 1918 and 1925) they were simply seen as an unwarranted risk. The association was allowed to languish.

There is also another possibility that should be considered. It might be the case that the researchers’ expectations for what a Boxing Club should look like were overly inflated to begin with. Given that most of the individuals in this village were involved in intensive agriculture, it is unlikely that village boxing would ever be a year round activity even with the best community support and the most active club.

I was struck by the modular nature of the teaching that was described. A few weeks on forms, followed by a few weeks of weapons and sparring before the instructor moved on to his next job. This actually sounds a lot like the sort of boxing curriculum that might be developed to fill the slow months of an agricultural calendar. It could be easily abandoned and then be picked up again next year.

The other possibility that Kulp did not consider was that the local boxing club developed no real group leadership because none was necessary for what was essentially a seasonal activity. The occasional hiring of an outside instructor might better be imagined as a seminar or “refresher course,” rather than the expected order of things.

Another example of traditional woodcarving in Cháozhōu.  Kulp has a section in his book where he discusses thee regional tradition of this sort of carving.  Photo by polar1.  Source: Wikimedia (CC).
Another example of traditional woodcarving in Cháozhōu. Kulp has a section in his book where he discusses the regional tradition of this sort of carving. Photo by polar1. Source: Wikimedia (CC).


In Kulp’s analysis all voluntary associations existed because they fulfilled needs and wants that could not be satisfied by the natural and extended family. These fall into four different categories. Individuals join clubs and groups because they seek greater security, economic prosperity, acknowledgement of individual social status and new opportunities for recreation.

Of all of the groups that the author examined, the Boxing Club is the most interesting as it so clearly addressed each of these specific issues. The martial arts promised physical security, they might become a source of employment outside the village (or even in a local opium house), they allowed marginal males to seek status outside their lineage groups and they were a way of breaking up the monotony of daily village life.

Kulp reminds us that we should not neglect this last point. In addition to their economic and social functions, traditional boxing was an important way of promoting psychological well-being in the midst of a community that frowned on individual expression and recreation. While discussing the village schools he reminds us:

Parents may be seen fondling infants or small children in a play spirit and mothers frequently amuse themselves with the natural playfulness of such, but when the school-age is reached, life is supposed to proceed on a work-level and play is ruled out. Only occasionally do parents encourage play, in which cases one finds a recurrence of the hiatus between theoretical attitudes and practical behavior, and of the conflict between conventionality and personality.

The only formal and approved recreational education beyond the physical [military] drill [taught at the local public school], is given in the Music Club and in the Boxing Club. The number of boys privileged to enjoy such education for a wholesome use of leisure is relatively limited. For this reason, such education is highly prized by village lads. (p. 258-259)

In the final analysis Kulp’s study of Phoenix Village, while theoretically dated in many key respects, provides an invaluable statement on the importance and complexity of the martial arts within rural life. These activities were popular because they filled a wide variety of personal, social and material needs. They were a source of recreation, sociality, advancement and security.

It was their very ability to offer these goods independent of the wishes of the clan and community leadership that complicated their relationship with “good society.” Further, by grooming “natural leaders” who were part of networks that extended beyond the village boundaries they could, and in some cases actually did, encourage feuding and other forms of social instability.

At first glance one might guess that the inability to sustain the local boxing club meant that the martial arts were of no particular importance in this part of southern China during the 1920s. Yet the more detailed picture of village life painted by Kulp’s study indicates just the opposite. It was the potential of these social institutions to become “too effective” that probably led to a cultivated lack of support in Phoenix Village. This unease speaks volumes about the potential social power of the Chinese martial arts in this environment.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Sugong: Nick Hurst Explores South East Asia’s Shaolin Kung Fu Tradition.