Trade, both international and domestic, have shaped both life and martial culture in southern China.  Honk Kong jade market. (Hat tip to my dad who took this picture).
***For today’s post we are headed back to the archives.  I am becoming more interested in the ways that the traditional martial arts have been promoted by the Chinese government as a means of generating “soft power” within the realm of public diplomacy and “national branding.”  Even more interesting is the leading (and sometimes competing) roles played by provincial and municipal bodies (as well as NGOs) in these efforts.   I have been reviewing the theoretical literature on these topics and its something that we will be exploring in greater detail in the future.   But for now it might be helpful to review some of our initial efforts in understanding the growing prominence and nature of “Kung Fu Diplomacy.”***

Introduction: Hong Kong, Regionalism and the Martial Arts


It is hard to think of any state with such robust and diverse group of regional identities as China’s. Much of my research is focused on the development of the martial arts as part of Southern China’s popular culture and its response to the pressures of imperialism and globalization. I am always interested in coming across older accounts of the Pearl River Delta region and have often been struck by the consistency that can be seen in these descriptions going back at least as far as the end of Ming dynasty.

Prior to that things look notably different. Who knew that Guangzhou had both an Arab quarter and Christian churches in the middle ages? Yet by the start of the Qing many of the region’s most notable modern characteristics have already cemented themselves in the public consciousness. These include the centrality of vigorous regional trade to the local economy, the social power of the area’s larger (quasi-corporate) lineage associations, many of the unique aspects of both Cantonese language and theater, and of course a certain regional reputation for the love of the martial arts and gangsterism.

Of course it would be a mistake to assume that these characteristics are set in stone and nothing changes from one decade to the next. The very nature of local identity guarantees that it will need to be reinvented in each new generation. For one thing the context that shapes the relationship between these different practices is constantly evolving. Some elements will stay the same, others will be discarded. Just as importantly, those elements that remain will be subject to pressures from multiple interest groups, each intent on capturing these powerful public symbols as they seek to expand their influence in the region. Some of these players may represent broadly based social forces, but more often it is social elites to take the lead in promoting certain visions of identity while others are allowed (or even encouraged) to fall by the wayside.

Nowhere in modern China are these conversations about the nature and value of local identity being heard more loudly than in Hong Kong. That in itself is somewhat surprising as regional and provincial identity has been a hot topic throughout China as a whole for at least a decade. Starting in the late 1990s all sorts of local municipalities began to actively promote efforts to build their local, regional or provincial identity.

At the same time similar conversations dominated the public square in Hong Kong. Most commentators pointed to the quickly approaching hand over of the territory to the People’s Republic of China as the proximate cause for this sudden interest in the question of local history and identity. After all, the residents of Hong Kong had been notoriously unsentimental about their own history for much of the Cold War and had steadfastly refused to build anything like a shared civic identity for most of this period. Anxiety about the coming handover certainly shaped much of this conversation, and fears about the city’s future continue to drive public discussions to this day. Yet what is often forgotten is that Hong Kong’s rediscovery of their local heritage was in reality just one aspect of a much broader trend that was sweeping across literally every province in China. It seems that everyone was suddenly been overtaken with the same urgent need to discover their own local identity.

The traditional Chinese martial arts have benefited from this revived interest in local history. Given the nature of hand combat instruction, these arts were traditionally highly localized. Even styles like Taijiquan, which managed to develop a following around the nation during the Republic period, still have a tendency to develop geographically centered “lineages” rather than remaining truly “national” in scope. As provincial governments looked for elements of local culture that could be popularized, marketed and might attract tourists from other areas, the traditional martial arts found themselves on the front lines of a commercial war. A city’s favorite style could claim to be unique and quintessentially Chinese at the same time.

The Shaolin Temple is currently the largest tourist attraction in Henan province and accounts for a substantial chunk for the capital that the local government has managed to attract. In the southern part of China a number of provinces and counties have attempted to replicate this success by “discovering” the ruins of the southern Shaolin Temple within their own jurisdictions. And who could forget Douglas Wile’s ascorbic account of the discovery of “Wudang Taiji” just as the province decided that it needed an additional tourist attraction and source of local pride.

These comparatively well-known examples all revolved around attempts to create (or repurpose) highly visible localities for the promotion of both local identity and tourism. More frequently local elites have found themselves attempting to cultivate and promote “intangible elements” of an area’s culture or history in an attempt to argue that they too are the guardians of a local identity that is worth investing in.

This focus on elements of “intangible local heritage” has been especially important in Hong Kong and the highly urbanized areas of coastal China. Most the area’s architectural heritage has long since been plowed under to make way for vast expanses of factories, shopping malls, highways and apartment blocks. Flat land has always been a scarce commodity in the highly populated regions of southern China. As such we should not be surprised to see the areas residents have turned instead to local practices and institutions to act as the embodiment of “local identity.”

The city of Hong Kong recently took some steps towards codifying this trend when they released a list of 480 elements of its “intangible local heritage” that the government wished to acknowledge and preserve. The entire list can be viewed here and it makes for fascinating reading.  Linguistic, cultural and religious practices are well accounted for. Specialized local forms of knowledge and skills (such as regional cooking styles) are also a mainstay of this discussion of regional culture.


Bruce Lee remains an important icon in Hong Kong, fueling demand for some sort of permanent museum.


Interestingly the martial arts are also well represented in this discussion. In fact, no fewer than 35 slots on the list were dedicated to hand combat practices. These arts ranged from the nationally popular and well known, such as Taijiquan, to the much more regional, including Hung Gar and Choy Li Fut. I was also struck by the fact that multiple styles, including both Wing Chun and Hung Gar, were also represented by a number of competing lineages. Other arts, such as White Crane and Taijiquan, who have very well-known sub-styles or lineages, only received a single more global notice.


360 Tai Shing Pek Kwar Moon Style (Monkey and Axe Hammer Style) – wushu
361 Tai Chi Chuan
366 Northern Shaolin Tay Tong Pak Kar
367 Weng Chun Fist [Note to readers: this is not the same style as Wing Chun, but its probably related.]
370 Pak Hok Pai (White Crane) Fist
371 Southern Shaolin Ng Cho Kun (Five Ancestors Fist) Tiebigong (Iron Arm Skill)
372 Hung Gar Kuen Style
373-377 Lam Family Hung Kyun; Kung Chi Fuk Fu Fist; Fu Hok Seung Ying Fist; Dan Tau Kwan; Tit Sin Fist
378 Fu Style Bagua Quan (Fu Style Eight Trigrams Fist)
379 Hua Yue Xin Yi Liu He Ba Fa Chuan (Six Harmonies Eight Methods Boxing)
380 Wing Chun Fist
381- 383 Pao Fa Lien Wing Chun; Snake Crane Wing Chun; Yip Man Wing Chun
384 Cangzhou Wushu
387 Choi Lee Fat Fist
390 Lung Ying Fist (Dragon Sign Fist)
391 Tanglangquan (Northern Praying Mantis)
392 – 395 Its [Northern Mantis’] variations


Students interested in Hong Kong and Southern Chinese identity will have no trouble adapting this list to all sorts of ongoing discussions. Yet I would argue that it might also make some critical contributions to our understanding of the nature and development of current Chinese regionalism as a whole. Even a cursory examination of the preceding list will present us with a number of paradoxes. These in turn suggest some of the ways that Chinese martial studies might contribute to larger debates on globalization and regional identity.

One of the first things that we might want to note about the foregoing list is its sheer length. It would certainly have been possible to create a list of martial arts styles or lineages that originated in or around Hong Kong, but that collection of styles would have been much shorter and more esoteric. Instead it is interesting to note that most of the styles of this list were not only developed outside of the borders of the city, but many were not even created in Guangdong province. For instance White Crane originated, and remains most popular within, Fujian province. I suspect that Northern Mantis was first brought to the area by the instructors of the Jingwu Association in the 1920s. And it goes without saying that the roots of modern Taijiquan lay very firmly in the northern half of the country.

Nor is the martial arts section of this list the only area that exhibits these same puzzles. Indian and Nepalese cultural elements are honored along with Chinese ones. Further, many of the local Chinese practices that are honored are seen throughout the southern China geographic region and not just in the immediate area around Hong Kong? How does this sort of radically contingent view of local identity, based very much in the city’s history of regional trade, colonialism and an ongoing debate about the nature of its Chinese identity, fit with what we see being discussed in other parts of the literature?

The short answer is not very well. In fact, the ways in which local identity is being constructed in Hong Kong challenges many of the basic assumptions about what is driving the process of regionalism that are seen throughout the social scientific literature. This disjoint becomes especially apparent when we consider the martial arts styles included on the recent list, and the use of hand combat schools in establishing local identity more generally.


The Rise of China’s New Regionalism


The disciplines of Political Science, International Political Economy, Sociology, Economics, Cultural Geography, History and Anthropology have all devoted substantial resources to the growing importance of regional identity in the previous decades. This ascent is all the more interesting as students of nationalism and sociologists of the “modernization hypothesis” school had long expected that these sorts of identities would wane and disappear in the current era. Given the centrality of the state in creating the institutions that structure most elements of daily life in the modern world, it was simply assumed that citizens would increasingly turn their loyalty towards the nation while regional ties, languages and religious communities were allowed to atrophy.

One must state at the outset that not all regional or local identities have prospered under the current round of globalization. Yet by in large these intermediary institutions and identities have defied their critics and actually grown more powerful and relevant in a number of areas of the world including both Europe and China. How then can we explain this marked resurgence in regional identity?

When considering the case of China there is an additional factor to consider. Not all of the local identities that have been growing in relevance are equally “organic.” Individual cities such as Hong Kong, Shanghai and even Foshan have certainly seen a strengthening of local identity. Yet much of this process has been going on at the provincial level.

This actually presents us with something of a paradox as many of China’s provinces are actually very diverse administrative units. They have not always shared a single culture, social history or even language. Yet increasingly we are hearing discussions of “Shanxi’s local culture,” or “Shandong’s unique identity.”

What are we to make of these claims? When Joseph Esherick wrote his pioneering history on the Boxer Uprising in Shandong he found the province to be so heterogeneous that it was necessary to split it into three separate units each with its own social, economic and geographic realities. When addressing the events of the end of the 19th century he found it impossible to speak intelligibly about “Shandong’s provincial identity.” Such a thing did not actually exist in the singular tense. How then should we understand the more recent conversation about provincial identities?

Tim Oakes, a cultural geographer, attempted to tackle this question in an article titled “China’s Provincial Identities: Reviving Regionalism and Reinventing “Chineseness”,” published in the Journal of Asian Studies Vol. 59, No. 3 (August). 2000. : 667-692. Oaks began by asserting that while China has a long and rich history of producing regional identities, these were usually not centered at the level of the provincial administrative units. Instead it was smaller economic subsystems and even individual municipalities that tended to be viewed as the appropriate unit for identity formation.

Oakes ultimately sees the rise of the new Chinese regionalism as being a product of two forces. The first of these was the move towards increased decentralization within the PRC during the 1990s. This forced local leaders to adopt a level of autonomy, and competition between provinces, that would not have been tolerated during the Maoist era. Secondly, the opening of China to global capital markets presented many of these leaders with both a challenge and an opportunity. They quickly realized that in order to get promoted they needed to demonstrate that they could encourage economic growth and development. This in turn required making their administrative units an inviting destination for international capital hoping to form domestic partnerships with Chinese firms to gain access to the state’s vast consumer markets.

For the coastal region this was not all that difficult. The nation’s manufacturing infrastructure was already located in these areas, as were large numbers of low wage workers. The fact that the region also had many deep ports and was situated on historically important trans-pacific shipping routes only helped. With the creation of numerous special trade zones throughout the decade the area quickly established itself as the premier destination for global FDI (foreign direct investment dollars).

Not all of China’s provincial leaders were so geographically blessed, and yet their own career advancement depended upon them encouraging the same sort of economic miracle. They too create special economic zones. Yet how do you encourage any sort of investment in China’s interior provinces? These areas are far from global transportation hubs and were better known for their grinding poverty and underdevelopment than anything else.

In his article Oakes demonstrates how a number of these leaders attempted to promote specific regional identities in an attempt to both boost the morale of their citizens while making themselves more attractive targets for global financial investment. Often this meant adopting a single city’s historical reputation for “frugality” or “entrepreneurial spirit,” and then attempting to write that onto the province as a whole.

In other cases local leaders attempted to reframe their lack of development as an “unspoiled environment” to attract tourists fleeing the polluted and congested cities further to the East. Minority communities were often reimagined as “living fossils” which preserved archaic elements of a once great Chinese cultural tradition that had been lost in the more developed areas.

The great paradox of these provincial identities is that they had to latch onto to marketable elements that were simultaneously perceived as being unique, available nowhere else, and yet at the same time were somehow “quintessentially Chinese,” and so of general interest. These commoditized elements of local culture thus provide a tool that individual populations can use to assert their value (arguing for a greater share of the collective resources) within the larger state.

Whether the “capital investments” that they hope to attract are electronics factories or newly enriched tourists from Beijing and Shanghai, Oakes argues that the rise of local identities is driven forward almost totally by the demands of global capital. In the past political economists often assumed that globalization would lead to a flattening of local culture as each successive area was turned into an identical unit for the production and consumption of some universally desirable set of goods. In large part that has not happened. Instead global businesses have learned that is much easier and more profitable to use the contours of local society to promote their sales. Rather than creating a demand for their product from the ground up, it is more profitable to exploit preexisting regional institutions and practices.

Alternatively, having a “local identity” that is favorable to business and investment (perhaps because of the stability of society, the disciplined and educated workforce or social norms that create a marketplace of mythic “Confucian merchants”) can be a deciding factor when attracting FDI. Thus the great advantage of the provinces as a locus for identity creation was that most of them were basically empty administrative units to begin with. Local leaders are free to look within their borders for those elements that will be the most advantageous in the current situation and to cultivate them. Of course this same process will deemphasize and obscure many of the other much more authentic local markers of identity that typically occur at the municipal level which were not selected for promotion to a global audience.


The home of Wing Chun as we like to imagine it.  The Cantonese Opera stage on the grounds of Foshan's Ancestral Temple.


This trend is particularly noticeable in the world of martial arts tourism.  Foshan has recently rebuilt much of its urban core to increase the residential standard of living and make the area a more desirable destination for martial arts tourists. Many of the individuals coming to the city today are Wing Chun students, so that is what has received the most attention and development dollars. Yet Wing Chun was a relatively small style in the 1930s and many of the other regionally important styles that actually defined the area’s martial identity are being forgotten. Last I heard the city’s truly unique and historic Jinwu Association hall had fallen into serious disrepair with no plans on the book to preserve it. Oakes paper is helpful as it reminds us that this is not an isolated problem. Ironically it is the rush to promote and preserve one vision of an area’s regional culture and identity that often fundamentally imperils and transforms it.

Oakes concludes by noting that the current process of elite led identity formation is often highly strategic. We have already seen how this can suppress elements of local culture that are not seen as being useful to their goals. Yet it can also be a threat to the idea of “regional identities.” Indeed, historically regional identities that followed certain linguistic, geographic or economic zones were often much more important than the purely administrative identities that bisected them. For instance, coastal southern China was held together by a dense network of ports and regional trade relationships that stretched from Vietnam to the coast of Taiwan, and at times even included Okinawa. It would not be an exaggeration to say that merchant sailors in Guangdong and Fujian probably had more in common with each other than farmers living much closer together along the east and west branch of the Pearl River in Guangdong.

These sorts of regional relationships are critical to understanding the historical development of Chinese popular culture. Yet in the current era they do not serve the purposes of political elites who are trying to attract investment in their province while deterring it from going to neighbors. Oakes concludes that the new identities that Chinese elites are creating all share three common characteristics. First, they enclose provinces treating them as a unique world with very little acknowledgement of their interaction with historically important regional networks. Second, they attempt to establish a sense of stable and authentic “Chineseness” both to erase the memory of the country’s chaotic past and as a way for reinforcing identity in a rapidly changing economy. Lastly they promote certain elements of local folk culture to the provincial level in an attempt to attract capital or to develop commercial opportunities.

Oakes claims that this wholesale creation of basically artificial provincial identities is a result of Beijing’s attempts to decentralize the process of governance as a way to deal with the classic pitfall’s of a socialist command economy. This has forced local leaders to marshal what cultural and social resources they have at their disposal to solve the problems of fiscal solvency and the promotion of economic growth. Further, the zero-sum nature of FDI diversion ensured that when this strategy proved to be successful in a few area’s it would quickly be adopted across China’s competitive landscape.

Just as seemingly every province has now set aside a group of “special economic zones” to help promote growth, they have also constructed a vision of regional identity to both attract capital and to strengthen their negotiating position with the state center by emphasizing their “Chineseness.” Rather than China’s local identities being a product of the historic state building process, they are instead a decontextualized accumulation of strategically and commercially useful signs.


Young adults packed into the Apple Store in the International Finance Center Mall, Hong Kong 2012.


Conclusion: Hong Kong’s Intangible Cultural Heritage Reconsidered


Given China’s vast size Oakes confined his investigation of the emergence of provincial identities within the state’s interior region. He did not consider how the same process might function in the more developed coastal areas or in the “greater Chinese” cultural sphere including Hong Kong and Taiwan. This is precisely what makes the recent statement by Hong Kong’s government so interesting. Many of the propositions about the interplay between global economic pressure and the formation of local identity seen in this article are basically accepted as “common sense” in the social scientific literature. And as Oakes illustrates, it is not hard to find a number of cases and fit this understanding of the process fairly well. Thus the recent study by Hong Kong provides us with a new observation to test Oakes’ theory of regional identity formation that is separate from the body of historical insight that he drew on in the formulation on his hypothesis.

When we attempt to apply his strategic understanding of regional identity formation to events in Hong Kong, problems quickly begin to appear. To begin with it is worth noting that Hong Kong is just as dependent as every other region in China on FDI flows to insure the growth and proper functioning of its economy. In fact, the liberalization and rapid development of other areas on the mainland have diverted global capital flows away from Hong Kong raising long-term questions about what the financial future of this city will be. One would expect that the area’s administration would be totally committed to making themselves as attractive to global capital flows as possible, and Oakes suggests that this would lead them to cultivate and advertise a certain type of “local identity.”

Unfortunately there is little correspondence between this most recent construction of local identity and the set of predictions that Oakes gave us. You can see this clearly in the selection of martial arts included in the report. Yes some very local favorites including Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut make the list. But so do broader regional arts originally hailing from Fujian province such as White Crane and Hung Gar. As a matter of fact, Hong Kong’s historic connection to the south China regional trade route is memorialized not just here but in multiple places throughout the list. Many elements of Fujianese language and culture are remembered for the contributions to Hong Kong’s development.

Far from being decontextualized and ahistorical, one cannot help but feel that this list was written with a keen eye towards the historical processes that helped shape the region, even if that meant acknowledging cultural elements from other regions or even the Indian subcontinent. In this list we see a different vision of how regional identity forms. One suspects that many elements were included specifically to represent (or in response to lobbying efforts by) the many diverse constituencies that comprise the modern city of Hong Kong.

This reminds us of a critical truth. Elite action can only take one so far. Actual identity only arises when it is enacted by local communities as such, and they will also have their own vision of themselves. It seems to me that most local identities are not as strategic as Oakes claims. His results are skewed as he only considered a subset of mostly previously empty provincial identities. Yet when one starts to look at other levels of analysis, such as leading cities, or regions of the country (including the coastal south), things start to become more complicated. Indeed, one of the really interesting things about China right now is the mix of different levels and types of identity that seem to be in play.

In these other arena’s political leaders do not have the only voice. In the current era there is also a rich history of media representation that one must contend with. In fact, much of the martial arts contribution to regional identity formation is actually derived from media representations of these arts rather than their actual practice. Relatively few people actually practice the martial arts, yet everyone sees TV programs, novels, operas or films glorifying them.

Bowman has pointed out, the logic that drives this sort of discourse is often quite distinct from the political and economic concerns that Oakes addresses. As such it is not clear that we can automatically expect that the media’s representations of these arts will conform to the expectations of either political economists or post-colonial theorists. To paraphrase Karl Marx, political leaders may be able to shift this discourse, but they cannot do so just as they please. The historical path dependencies which created the modern state continue to constrain the creativity of modern elites in ways that are not always obvious. This is just as true in the realm of popular culture as high politics.

Chinese martial studies has much to contribute to our ongoing investigations of the ways in which regional and local identities form in the current global era. These practices have traditionally flourished at the local level, yet increasingly they are being called upon to help to ensure the cultural purity of their students and as well as to negotiate their value with the center.

One of the most valuable aspects of this discussion has been the reminder that like the martial arts, regional identities never exist in isolation. In the modern era they emerged as a response to the rise of the national identity. By seeking to create a local identity individuals created for themselves a space to negotiate their relationship both with the state and the demands of the global system. Far from being a throwback to an ideal and Orientalized past, the invocation of the martial arts in these discussions demonstrates their ongoing value as vehicles for both individual and community expression in modern global world.




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Imagining the Martial Arts: Hand Combat Training as a Tool of the Nation.