Stories of skilled female warriors have a long history in China. The legend of the Maiden of Yue illustrates these ancient roots. Yet it was during the final decades of the Qing dynasty that the female martial artist really came into her own as a literary type. Vernacular operas, public storytellers, short stories and a new generation of martial arts novels all featured accounts of amazing women who managed to rescue their hapless husbands and conduct business on their own.
During the Republic period this trend accelerated. A few hand combat styles, including White Crane, Wing Chun and Chuka Shaolin, even told creation stories that centered on the exploits of female martial artists. Images produced during this period have been adapted, repackaged and used in more recent Kung Fu films. These myths still help to define the Chinese martial arts in the public imagination today. But is there any truth behind these late Qing and Republic era legends? Historians including Henning and Lorge have suggested that female martial artists were probably exceedingly rare in real life. Social practices such as footbinding, strong taboos against mixed-sex physical contact and the general tendency to exclude women from the public realm would have made hand combat training difficult.
On a more subtle level, one must stop to wonder what social purpose this training might have had. While I am sure that certain individuals in the 19th century enjoyed or took a measure of personal satisfaction in their hand combat training, these arts were not yet seen as the recreational activities that they would become. Instead they were linked to certain economic, social or ritual functions. One might study boxing to get a job as a security guard, to work in an opera troop or to be recruited as a minor officer in the local Yamen or salt shop. Yet these roles were not open to women. So why might women study the martial arts?
Self-defense was an issue. We have already seen that women sometimes fought during southern China’s early 19th century piracy crisis. Indeed, the folklore of certain southern Chinese styles (boat boxing) sometimes mentions that the wives of fishermen were forced to take up the practice to defend themselves against small groups of local pirates.
In the following post we will look at another, better documented, case of a female boxer who lived in Guangzhou during the first half of the 19th century. In addition to testifying of the existence of at least a few such individuals, this particular example is useful as it suggests something about where such individuals were most likely to be seen in southern Chinese society.
Gambling and the Chinese Martial Arts
One of my research goals has been to better understand the role of the martial arts in the everyday marketplaces and commercial spaces that made up life in southern China. When talking about the social impact of the martial arts we tend to think of the military, village militias or the hiring of civilian mercenaries (often called “braves”) from among the many underemployed and unmarried young men in the region.
While important, these sorts of discussions overlook just how deeply entrenched the martial arts were within even seemingly unrelated sectors of the economy. For instance, while not all villages had a formal militia, almost all of them appear to have had “crop watching societies” made up of you men (often martial artists) tasked with guarding the fields prior to harvest.
In an era before modern banking, pawn shops were a critical source of liquidity in the local economy. In the Pearl River Delta region these buildings tended to look a bit like castles. They were multiple stories high and designed to sustain themselves during a local uprising or siege. Needless to say, a castle is useless without guards, and pawnshop owners also employed boxers as part of their business strategy.
During the later Republic period other sorts of firms also hired martial artists as a way of solving disputes between (and enforcing their will upon) workers. Obviously the narcotics trade was another place that one tended to run into individuals with a background in the martial arts. Yet one could say the same for both the legal and extra-legal aspect of the salt market.
Gambling was also an important industry throughout southern China. While technically illegal it was often allowed to exist in return for bribes and occasional “tax payments.” Gambling establishment also discovered that hiring martial artists was simply part of the cost of doing business.
These individuals acted as both bouncers and enforcers. Their primary job was to maintain order within the gambling house itself, but they also took on other tasks such as collecting debts and fending off rival interests. Recently we examined a sociological account of traditional boxing in Phoenix Village, in northeast Guangdong. According to this study the towns professional martial artists were all employed by its two rival gambling houses, rather than by the village boxing club itself. Interestingly the club always had to look outside of the community boundaries to find suitable instructors.
In 1835 James Holman (1786 – 1857) published a travelogue titled A Voyage Round the World. This work was remarkable for two reasons. First, it provided readers with an early glimpse of Holman’s travels to China and other point in the Far East during 1830. Part of his discussion of life in Canton included a joint description of the region’s gambling and boxing traditions, as the two subjects could hardly be separated. The second remarkable aspect of this work was the author himself. James Holman was a solo traveler who visited more places in the world than any other individual until the post-WWII era. He was also totally blind and suffered from chronic pain. As a younger man he had enlisted in the Royal Navy and was eventually made a lieutenant. But in 1810, at the age of 25 he lost his sight secondary to a disease acquired while serving on the Guerriere.
The young sailor was then appointed to the Naval Knights of Windsor, granting him lifetime care in Windsor Castle. But he found that hospital life did not suit him, and the thrill of travel helped him to better cope with his condition. In an era when the blind were generally imagined as helpless, Holman’s travelogues caused a public sensation. In an era when few people could travel, he walked across most of Russia, visited Africa, did the grand tour of the continent, explored Australia and sailed to China. His various publications brought detailed discussions of each of these places into countless libraries, dens and living rooms around the English speaking world.
Unfortunately Holman’s account of China is slightly two dimensional and not all that different from other short travelogues that were published in the 1830s-1840s. Much of this was not his fault. China was still a closed country for most westerners. Citizens of the UK were only allowed to visit the “factories” of Canton during the trade season and their movements were heavily restricted. Under most circumstances they could not even enter the city proper. Needless to say, long excursions into the countryside were forbidden. Even the most inquiring visitors to southern China during the early 19th century quickly discovered that there was not that much to explore.
After first stopping in Macao Holman arrived in Guangzhou in the middle of September (1830) and stayed until December 20th. During these three months he explored much of what was available. He took various excursions to Whampoa and other islands in the region. Accompanied by western merchants he visited the gardens and homes of some of the better known Hong merchants. Holman walked the small market streets located between the factories and the city wall. He even had a chance to meet Nathan Dunn (then in the process of retiring) and received an early tour of his incredibly important “Chinese Museum.” This project would do much to educate the western public about life in the Celestial Empire.
Still, Holman does not seem to have developed any special empathy for the Chinese people. While he notes a number of clever inventions and admirable aspects of Chinese life, the overall image that he communicates to his reader is of a people who are cruel and cowardly in turns. He is at pains to explain why the foreign factories need more support. Yet he spends very little energy attempting to understand the minor crises that he witnessed from the perspective of the Chinese government, the local citizens, or even the Hong merchants. By the end of his account it appears that Holman never managed to establish any personal relationship of significance with the Chinese inhabitants of the region. In that sense his writings (republished in 1840 under the title Travels in China, New Zealand, New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land, Cape Horn, Etc. Etc.), come from a fundamentally different place than Nathan Dunn’s Chinese Museum.
Nevertheless, it is important to note that Holman is responsible for introducing one of the first extended discussions of the Chinese martial arts into the English language literature. This 1835 account also manages to socially situate these practices within the world of professional gambling and introduce us to a venerable female boxer named Fei Ching Po:
“Gambling in China is carried to an unexpected extent; and has obtained so firm a footing, and spread so widely among the people, that the laws enacted for its suppression are attended with results deplorably futile. The universality of this destructive vice, a peculiar characteristic of which is to gain strength, and influence, in proportion to the ill success of its votaries, may account in a great measure for the dishonest and shuffling habits of the people in all commercial transactions in which they are engaged. The general existence of a propensity, so calculated to destroy all the better feelings of humanity, leaves us to regret the misery it occasions, while we hail it as a landmark in our survey of the moral character of the people. The canaille in the streets commonly convert their petty purchases at the small stalls into mere games of hazard, risking the whole amount of the stake for the chance of increasing the quantity of the article which they desire to obtain.
But the vice is not confined to the lower orders: the keepers of gaming-houses in Canton are frequently individuals of rank and property, who enter into alliances to entrap the unwary, and inveigle young men of property into a love of play. Instances are to be of the gentler sex becoming members of such establishments, and sharers in the intolerable plunder they produce. The penal liabilities are the confiscation of all the property found in a gaming-house as well as the house itself, and the punishment of eighty blows to be inflicted on all who play for either money or goods. To play for food or liquors is not considered an offense.
Not long since, the names of some noted gamesters were published and held up for general observation; more with a view to caution the simple than to disgrace the offenders. Amongst them we find the cognomen of Fei-ching-po, who is described as a fat old lady, seventy years of age, in robust health, and a scientific boxer. She retained in her service several pugilists, who attended her as bullies.
Other names are given of persons, with whom the art of self-defense, (with them, doubtless, more frequently the art of offense,) is held in great requisition. This “science” is universally taught and practiced in China, although the local governments do not give it their sanction. They have no pitched battles, but they frequently put forth pamphlets, in which the necessary instructions are given, clothed in terms of the most fanciful descriptions.
The first lesson consist of the learner’s winding his tail tight around his head; stripping himself to the buff; putting his right foot foremost, and thrusting his right fist with all his force against a bag of sand, suspended for the purpose. He is to change his hands and feet alternately and continue punishing the bag of sand for hours together. This is termed by the “Fancy” –“Thumping down walls and overturning parapets.”
The second lesson is called “A golden dragon thrusting out its claws,” which is performed in the following manner: the pugilist grasps in each hand a heavy stone, wrought into the form of a Chinese lock, these he practices thrusting out at his arm’s length, right and left alternately, until fatigue obliges him to discontinue the operation. These are succeeded by other feats, whose titles are equally figurative and appropriate; such as “A crow stretching out his wings. –A dragon issuing forth from his den.—A drunken Chinaman knocking at your door.—A sphinx spreading her wings.—A hungry tiger seizing a lamb.—A hawk clawing a sparrow.—A crane and a muscle reciprocally embarrassed:”—terms, which, it must be acknowledged, would not have disgraced the age of gladiators.”
James Holman. 1840. Travels in China, New Zealand, New South Wales, Van Diemen’s Land, Cape Horn, Etc. Etc. London: George Routledge. pp. 219-222. Note that an identical account can be found in James Holman. 1835. A Voyage Round the World. London: Smith, Elder, and Co.
Boxing and the Life of Fei Ching Po
The first question that must be asked upon reading this account is how Holman came to be acquainted with Fei Ching Po, and what he actually managed to observe about the world of Chinese boxing. Given the restrictions placed on his movement, it seems unlikely that he could have gained much firsthand knowledge of these facts. Of course a later account from the 1870s confirmed that short boxing manuals or pamphlets were still being sold in the area’s markets. For some readers Holman’s account of the Chinese martial arts and their early training manuals might sound a little too familiar. In the June 1830 edition of the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register we find the following account:
“Pugilism in China.—The art of self-defense is regularly taught in China. It is much practiced, although not countenanced by the local governments. In the penal code, nothing appears concerning it. Tracts are printed which would, in all probability, accompanied by their wood-cuts, amuse the fancy in England. The Chinese have no pitch battles that we ever heard of; but we have seen a pamphlet on the subject of boxing, cudgeling, and sword-exercise, in which there are many fanciful terms. The first lesson, for a Chinese boxer, consists of winding his long tail tight around this head, stripping himself to the buff, then placing his right foot foremost, and with all his might giving a heavy thrust with his right fist against a bag suspended for the purpose. He is directed to change hands and feet alternately, restraining his breath and boxing the bag of sand right and left, for hours. This exercise the fancy call “thumping down walls and overturning parapets.” In the second lesson, the pugilist grasps in each hand a “stone lock,” i.e., a heavy mass of stone worked into the form of a Chinese lock. Then, being stripped and tail arranged as before, he practices thrusting out at a man’s length these weights, right and left, till he is tired. Hi is to change feet and hands at the same time. This lesson is called “a golden dragon thrusting out his claws.” Next comes “a crow stretching his wings—a dragon issuing forth from his den—a drunken Chinaman knocking at your door—a sphinx spreading her wings—a hungry tiger seizing a lamb—a hawk clawing a sparrow—a crane and a muscle reciprocally embraced,” with various other specimens or fanciful nomenclature for divers feats of the pugilistic art. –Canton Reg., June 18.”
Holman adjusted the article’s introduction and conclusion, but he simply borrowed the rest of the account word for word. Apparently this piece was first published in the June 18th edition of the Canton Register. This publication, first established in 1827 by William Wightman Wood and James Matheson, was one of China’s first English language newspapers and a fixture of life in the factories. Many of its articles focused on commercial matters within the expatriate community. It also covered certain local events, gossip and political developments in Guangzhou.
Holman’s writings on China can be roughly divided in two. His first few chapters appear to be compiled from the pages of his personal journals and relate events that he was actually involved with. The following chapters provide explanations of life in China drawn freely from a variety of secondary sources. His discussion of boxing falls into this later genera. Given that Holman was turning to the pages of the Canton Register to provide local color, does this source have anything more to suggest about the life of Fei Ching Po and her connection with either gambling or the martial arts?
It turns out that Mrs. Fei appears to have been a well-known figure in the first two decades of the 19th century. I have been able to locate two other appearances that she made in the same paper.
Canton Register. Vol 1 No 15 – Saturday 12th April 1828
“There is a type of Cantonese person that never stops gambling. They meet in flower boats or houses. Occasionally they are people of family or literary rank and of some property. They form partnerships and inveigle the sons of rich men to play. To inspire confidence they wear large gold bangles on their wrists. There are several notable gamblers in the vicinity of the factories of whom:
-Cheung Heem is a 50 years old literary doctor.
-Fei Ching Po is a fat 70 year old woman in robust health who is a good pugilist. She has a group of pugilists around her who act as her bullies. Many years ago a tea merchant saved her from prostitution and left her some money when he died. This was the capital she used to start her gambling house. She is helped by policemen and other swindlers whom she pays liberally. She lives on Honam Island and has a fortune of over $100,000. She is a friend of a Hong merchant’s wife (Poon Ki Qua’s) who has consented to be the adopted mother (Kai Ma) of Fei’s ‘adopted’ son. -Hung Kwai Sze is both a smuggler and a gambler.
-Fei Chuk is shamelessly involved in gambling and kindred vices.
The Law of China is that anyone gambling for money or goods shall get 80 blows and the property in the gambling house will be seized and confiscated. Those who keep gambling houses get the same punishment.”
It is clear now where Holman learned of both Mrs. Fei and China’s laws regarding gambling. More importantly, we have learned something about her life history and social background. Young girls could end up in prostitution in many ways. Some were sold by their parents, others were kidnapped and then forced into prostitution (according to an account in the Register the local magistrate had recently issued an edict on this specific practice). She probably ended up as a concubine of a tea merchant, and from there was able to establish her fortune. Unfortunately the account gives no indication of when she became a boxer, but we do get an indication of how we she managed to run her gambling establishment in the open. After all, if the expatriates of the foreign factories knew about Fei Ching Po, it’s a good bet that everyone else did as well.
Unfortunately Mrs. Fei’s plans for social advancement were cut short when she became entangled with the son of a local magistrate. Two years later (just months before Holman arrival in the area) we find the following account:
Canton Register Vol 3 No 13 – Saturday 3rd July 1830
“Mrs Fei Ching Po is 67 years old. She is the widow of a tea merchant who died young and left her in poverty. Her daughter sold a small house and gave Mrs Fei the proceeds for her livelihood. The old woman used this gift to rent a house and set it up as a posh gambling den for men and women. She bribed the police and very soon had a distinguished clientele and an increasing fortune. Recently the son of the Poon Yu magistrate Hu started visiting her tables and on one night lost $1,000. He became angry and left but returned later to try and win back his loss. Mrs Fei counselled him not to bet more, fearing the matter might get out of hand. Young Hu laid a plot to entrap Mrs Fei but when he revealed her business to his father, it backfired under questioning, and the true story came out. Now Mrs. Fei is in prison and none of her friends can help her.”
Notice that some of the biographical details have shifted over the foregoing two years. The age provided in this account would place her birth sometime around 1763. Her husband’s fortunes have also been reduced in this story, and it was a filial daughter who instead provided the capital to start her business.
Unfortunately this account makes no mention of her reputation as a martial artist or hired muscle. It does however provide a betrayal narrative that reads like it is straight out of a Kung Fu movie. After losing a large sum of money at the gaming tables the son of the magistrate of Poon Yu (an area that should be familiar to Wing Chun history buffs) attempts to frame her for a crime. The entire story comes out in the end, with the magistrate being humiliated and Mrs. Fei headed to jail to face her 80 blows. After 1830 we hear no more about Mrs Fei.
This very public incident had important repercussions. Two weeks later we find the following notice:
Vol 3 No 14 – Saturday 17th July 1830
The Viceroy has unequivocally instructed the magistrates to oppose gaming houses. They have set about a suppression and all are temporarily closed. This diversion of their manpower has permitted some 40 daring robberies to occur at the same time. Both the Nam Hoi and Poon Yu magistrates are consequently threatened with a report of incompetency to the Emperor.
Recently a consignment of Imperial treasure was robbed at the north gate of the city and the guards did nothing. The matter is being hushed-up and the Viceroy is searching for a replacement supply of silver to send.
This is not the end of the story. A well-known bandit (who was receiving protection from the local government) turned out to be responsible for many of the robberies. Nor was the Viceroy particularly happy when this was uncovered. But delving into his story would take us too far afield. It is also interesting to note that while Holman had access to the Canton Register, he apparently never learned how the story of his female boxer ended.
What can we say about Fei Ching Po? In terms of her biographical details it seems that she was born around 1763 and (barring exceptional luck) probably didn’t survive much past her arrest in 1830. Multiple authors have noted that during the Qing dynasty the martial arts functioned as a means of advancement for young men of talent with no prospects. It seems that this same narrative applies to Mrs. Fei’s life as well.
In fact, the most striking thing about her story is the social mobility that we see. Possibly taken as a prostitute while still a child, she eventually improved her status through marriage and the good fortune of her children. Gambling was one of the few businesses open to a women of her background, and her prior reputation as a martial artist would have served her well in this world. It is sad that we do not know more about her introduction to hand combat.
Still, this outline of her life story is valuable for what it suggests about the place of these skills in the more plebeian reaches of southern Chinese life. Her story is also valuable for what it demonstrates about the interplay of the various 19th century newspaper accounts, journals and ultimately Holman’s widely read travelogues. Within this web of borrowed sources we see the emergence of one of the earliest discourses on the Chinese martial arts to be found in the west.
It is fascinating to realize that in 1830 we already had accounts of commercially printed kung fu manuals, strength training techniques and female boxers. Yet the generally hostile attitude of these authors towards the Chinese and Chinese culture quickly turned the conversation in other directions. This again serves to remind us that the long delayed “discovery” of the Chinese martial arts in the west had nothing to do with their supposed secrecy. It was much more a reflection of what we were actually willing to see and accept. After all, this stuff had been in the newspapers for 130 years.
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