Chinese fighters with spears.  Northern China, 1930s.  Original photographer unkown.  Source:  The private album of a Japanese soldier.
Chinese fighters with spears. Northern China, 1930s. Original photographer unkown. Source: The private album of a Japanese soldier.



Through a Lens Darkly


In this occasional series I turn to photographs, postcards, slides or other forms of ephemera both as a source of information about the Chinese martial arts and as a witness to the many functions that they have served in popular culture over the decades. These sources, rarely preserved in official collections and often ignored by students of the historical record, can yield fascinating insights into both past practices and the evolution of current beliefs and identities. In fact, some of my more interesting discoveries have come from delving deeply into this material.  Yet almost by definition these images are fragmented, difficult to interpret and present only a single dimension of the moment in time which they capture. When properly understood these shards of culture lead us to ask better questions rather than providing simple answers.

This is what I was attempting to capture when I first titled this series “Through a Lens Darkly.” Within them we see an image of the past, but it is always fuzzy and distorted. And sometimes the nature of these distortions are even more revealing than the ostensible subject of the image.

However, in the case of today’s post the title can also be read more literally. Each of these pictures really is a bit distorted, both by watermarks and the quality of the scans. For the most part this series has focused on widely disseminated images, those that are already in the public domain, or photographs and postcards drawn from my own personal collection.

Each of today’s images is a little different. They are all examples of photos that I have bid on in auctions over the years and not won. As such I only have the modified copies of the images made publicly available by the original sellers, and I cannot provide higher quality scans. Still, the subject matter in each of these is rare enough to be worth sharing anyway.  I suspect that students of the Republic era martial arts, or those interested in the growth of various sorts of militia movements seen in northern China, will find these to be quite educational.



Japanese soldiers with captured Chinese spears and other weapons.  Original photographer unkown.  Source: Photo album of a Japanese soldier.
Japanese soldiers with captured Chinese spears and other weapons. Original photographer unknown. Source: Photo album of a Japanese soldier.


Spears, Spears and more Spears
One of the challenges that I have faced when researching the spread of the Red Spear movement (see here, here and here) is that we don’t have many contemporary images of these groups. Given the hundreds of thousands of individuals caught up in these movements, and how important they were to the social organization of rural northern China for more than a decade, this has always struck me as somewhat surprising. Then again, even the number of contemporary press reports in major newspapers (e.g., the sorts that you might find in a university library collection), are less than one might think.

When you do happen across spear wielding militia members is also quite hard to say which organization they belong to with much certainty. The Chinese historian Tai Hsuan-chih (whose father helped to sponsor one of these groups back in the 1920s) reminds us that the term “Red Spear” itself became something of a catch all for the many small movements and chapters (including the “Yellow Spears,” the “Big Swords,” the “Iron Gate” and the “Spirit Soldiers”) all sharing a similar spiritual/martial technology and all spreading across northern China at roughly the same time. So while we are referring to these individuals as “Red Spears” in the current post, we should remember that they may have represented a variety of groups often bound together through complex alliances, tensions and open feuds.

In general these groups seem to have been organized and supported by local landlords. In many ways they can be thought of as a new type of local militia (drawn strictly from the ranks of landowning peasants) that coalesced as a reaction to the fall of the Qing dynasty and the generalized social disorder of the Warlord era. Most of these groups were founded with the express purpose of fighting and deterring the ever growing armies of local bandits that were starting to threaten the very fabric of agricultural life in northern China.

Over time the political entanglements of these groups became more complex. After the Northern Campaign they fought to keep tax collectors from both the Republic and the remaining Warlords at bay. Later they would be used by local elites in settling inter-village feuds over limited resources, and even resisting the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s and 1940s.  More than anything else these groups became a focal point of violent resistance against the various outside forces attempting to penetrate northern China’s countryside in the middle years of the 20th century.

In fact, we owe each of the images in this post to the Japanese. It was not uncommon for Japanese soldiers to collect albums comprised of postcards, commercially produced photos, and snap-shots taken in the field. Given the martial arts training that many of these individuals had received during their secondary education, it seems that at least some developed a certain level of interest in Chinese hand combat traditions and avidly collected images of boxers, dadaos and other traditional weapons that were encountered over the course of their occupation. We have already seen a few such examples of this genera here and here.

It goes without saying that these images are far from neutral records and that they record as much about the underlying beliefs of the Japanese soldiers as they do the practices of the Chinese people. Still, some of the images from the following collection seem to be particularly helpful for those of us trying to get a sense of what the Red Spears might actually have looked like when the Japanese began to encounter them in the late 1930s.

The first image is probably the most valuable as it actually shows a Chinese unit armed with traditional spears. Again, we don’t really know which exact force this group represents but their youth, mismatched clothing and the rough nature of their weapons was probably pretty typical for what one might have encountered in most village militias across the region.

The second image in this series focuses instead on a group of Japanese soldiers. They are seen posing with what appears to be a few dozen weapons confiscated from Chinese militias or irregular troops. This image in particular is a valuable reminder of the fact that the “Red Spears” carried more than just spears.

The spear has always held a special place within the Chinese martial arts. Given its deadly deficiency, and the ease with which it can be mass produced, its hardly surprising that so many of these village militia organizations would have chosen the spear as their primary weapon. Yet the bandits in the hills were often armed with modern rifles, and the troops of the Warlord and Republic armies carried both box magazine rifles and machine guns. Nor did the Red Spears have any compunction about adopting and fighting with these more contemporary weapons when they became available.

I like this image because it probably represents a pretty decent cross-section of what sorts of weapons were seen in inter-community violence from the 1920s-1940s. On the one hand we have a large group of exceptionally sturdy spears. Most of the poles appear to be natural trunks that have had minimal work. The blades of these weapons are heavy and feature long cutting surfaces.

In addition to the spears we see a large number of rifles. Some are caplock models form the 1860s (possibly British Sniders?). But others appear to be modern box-magazine rifles roughly equivalent to what the Japanese soldiers themselves were carrying. In front of all of this is a notably small pile of rifle cartridges on stripper clips (certainly less ammunition than you would want if you were about to take on the Japanese Army) and a couple of sub-machine guns.

Readers will want to pay special attention to the large spear head featured on the far left of the image. This point is exceptionally long and elegantly shaped. I think that it would occupy pride of place in any collection of 20th century Chinese traditional weapons.

A Japanese postcard showing captured Chinese spears, a hat and battle flag.  Source: Vintage postcard circa 1940s.
A Japanese postcard showing captured Chinese spears, a hat and battle flag. Source: Vintage postcard circa 1940s.



The Red Spears represent a fascinating and under-studied chapter in the history of the modern Chinese martial arts. While we do not have as many images of this movement as we may want from their earlier period of activity in the 1920s, Japanese soldiers, for their own reasons, seemed intent on documenting and sending home photographs of some of the civilian forces that they met in Northern China. Undoubtedly these images were selected because they played into (and reinforced) preexisting beliefs about the nature of their opposition and the dangers of their assignment in Northern China.

Yet how did these encounters appear from the perspective of the Red Spear militia members themselves? While a topic too broad for a single blog post, I would like to close with a single account revealing a different side of these encounters. Consider the following story related by a Nationalist soldier who witnessed Red Spear maneuvers against the invading Japanese in northern Anhui Province during 1938.

“As one of their teachers was in the middle of his talk, suddenly the sound of enemy planes could be heard overhead. Hearing the noise the peasants showed signs of discomfort. However one of their chiefs immediately jumped on the speaker’s platform yelling “Holy Water! Holy Water!” Someone who had already been stationed in front of the platform with a bucket of drinking water now knelt down and offered a bowl of water to the chief. Simultaneously, a representative from each of the dozen or so chapters rushed forward to take a bowl back to his respective group. Under instruction from the chief, each person drank a sip of “Holy Water.” Then all three to four thousand of them knelt, closed their eyes, and began to mumble their magical phrases. When the incantation was over, thy jumped up as if awakening from a dream. Their breathing was forced, their eyes bloodshot, their gaze unswerving, and their muscles tense—as though gripped by madness.

The silence was deafening. Each member grasped his red-tasseled spear planted firmly like a tree. The light breeze set the tassels to fluttering, creating an even more awesome spectacle.

Fortunately the enemy planes seem to have had some other destination in mind. Nine in a row, they flew off towards the northeast in apparent oblivion to the red glow beneath. The danger over, one of the teachers happily explained that they had been chanting a “block hole charm” which had worked to stop up the barrels of the Japanese guns, ensuring that no bullets could shoot forth.” (Perry 192-193).






If you enjoyed these images you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (8): Butterfly Swords, Dadaos and the Local Militias of Guangdong, 1840 vs. 1940.