Tigers have long been a symbol of martial values in Chinese culture. Many martial arts styles make use of tiger-based symbolism. This symbolism may reflect the tiger’s long association with the imperial military. Warrior figures wearing tiger skins or hoods are attested in Chinese art from at least the time of the Sui Dynasty (AD581-618) if not earlier. More recently, various troops of the Qing dynasty made symbolic use of tiger imagery, both in their uniforms and weapons.
Nor was this bit of zoomorphic trivia lost on China’s western observers during the 19th and early 20th century. While China remained a closed country through the middle of the 19th century, and relatively few individuals had the opportunity to actually travel to its ports, images of “Tiger Soldiers” enjoyed a prominent place in the western images of the mythic land of the Celestial Empire from the final years of the 18th century until roughly the era of the Boxer Uprising.
Why? How did a small set of images of a single class of soldier come to so dominate the western imagination of China and her military?
Recently I have been thinking about the history and nature of “Kung Fu Diplomacy.” By this I mean the various ways in which the government has attempted to deploy the image of the traditional martial arts as an active intervention in the way that the global public views the rising prominence of the Chinese state. This is only one small aspect of China’s overarching public diplomacy strategy, and we would do well to remember that in the current era all governments engage in this sort of “national brand building.” To the extent that it creates genuine cultural understanding and dissipates irrational fears, such efforts probably have a stabilizing effect on the global political discourse.
All of which is to say, we should not be surprised by the number of martial arts demonstrations that are hosted every year by “Confucius Institutes” around the world. Given my academic background in International Relations I find this (somewhat paradoxical) use of the traditional fighting arts in the constructing a “peaceful” image of a rising super power to be fascinating.
Many questions remain as to how and when different public diplomacy strategies are likely to be most successful. For instance, are these efforts most likely to yield fruit when they are tightly coordinated by a single government agency (allowing one to stay on message)? Or do they stand the best chance of success when individual actors in civil society (who may have a better sense of what domestic and foreign audiences want) are allowed to take the lead? And what happens when you find yourself attempting to counteract a powerful and much less complimentary set of narratives that are already popular abroad? How does the new narrative edit, augment or replace the old one?
This last question should be of particular interest to students of martial arts studies. Long before the Chinese government began to officially promote Wushu abroad, individual actors within both Chinese society and the diaspora had taken up this task. Likewise, some foreign observers, writers, artists and activists had also seized on certain key symbols to argue that Chinese culture was both simultaneously backwards and threatening. Its predilection towards violence, in addition to the problem of low-cost labor, required its active exclusion from western political and social life.
When Bruce Lee and the various pioneers of the Chinese martial arts began to appear in the middle of the 20th century they were not working with a blank canvas. Instead they were forced to confront, transform and co-opt a number of images that were already firmly planted in the public imagination. The architects of “Kung Fu Diplomacy” face a similar task to today. On the one hand they seek to use the traditional martial arts to create a favorable and non-threatening image. Yet the symbols that they employ already have a long and complex genealogy. For instance, every child who has ever watched Saturday morning cartoons already knows that in Kung Fu there is a “Tiger style.” And it turns out that impressionable western youth have “known” this (or something similar) for a very long time…
The Emergence of the Tiger Soldier
Who first introduced the image of the Chinese martial tiger to the West? Chinese soldiers and martial artists had been painting tiger faces on wicker shields (often carried on their ships) for a very long time. Early missionary accounts and dictionary entries indicate that European visitors to Guangzhou and the Pearl River Delta had been familiar with this imagery since their first arrival. Yet it does not appear that these early explorers were responsible to importing this image onto the western popular imagination.
For that we must turn to William Alexander (10 April 1767 – 23 July 1816). A British artist and noted watercolorist, Alexander supported himself for more than a decade by selling engravings of daily life in China. His works (which range in date from the final decade of the 18th century to the first of the 19th) emerged at a time when the western public still held a highly romantic and positive view of China.
This feeling of good will would sour with the Opium Wars. It then turned to mocking derision following China many military defeats in the second half of the 19th century. Yet Alexander’s images of Chinese life had a profound impact prior to this major realignment in public opinion. They set the foundation for how China would be visualized for much of the 19th century, and some of his illustrations (especially those of soldiers holding traditional and outdated weapons) were reprinted for decades.
Alexander’s images are interesting to historians for another reason as well. Unlike most commercial illustrators in Europe during the early 19th century, he was one of the few westerners to have traveled extensively throughout the interior of China. In 1792 he was appointed as the junior artist to accompany the Earl of Macartney’s diplomatic mission to China. While this embassy ultimately failed to establish permanent diplomatic relations or a more open trade system, it did provide a small number of western diplomats with invaluable insights into Chinese life and government.
Alexander made extensive sketches throughout the trip and he also recorded his observations in detailed journals. He was fascinated by the sights, textures and details of daily of life. His work has provided historians with a rich record of the sorts of details that more official histories generally omit.
After returning to the UK Alexander began to turn his sketches and water colors into engravings for various publications and direct sales to the public. These were often augmented with notes from his journals helping to contextualize the scenes. Many of his early works feature richly illustrated backgrounds.
As time progressed Alexander began to cut and paste figures from sketches into new scenes. The illustrated backgrounds began to disappear and (perhaps under the influence of the increasingly popular export painting coming out of Guangzhou and Foshan) his illustrations increasingly stood isolated in a decontextualized space. While still aesthetically pleasing (he was after all an artist), historians are most likely to find Alexander’s earlier works to be the most interesting.
Perhaps his masterpiece was the 1805 bound volume Costumes of China. His first five illustrations appealed directly his audience’s curiosity (and orientalist fantasies) about the mysterious Middle Kingdom. Here we see pictures of a prosperous peasant family, a pagoda (a very popular symbol due to its appearance on Willow Ware porcelain) and a picturesque sailing vessel.
This initial set of illustrations is surrounded by two more martial images. The first is of a military official carrying both a bow and a sword. The latter is a now iconic picture of a Tiger Soldier, one that was reproduced literally dozens of times over the coming decades. Alexander included the following description with his illustration:
A CHINESE SOLDIER OF INFANTRY,
Or Tiger of War.
THE dress of the Chinese is generally loose; the soldiers of this part of the army, with few exceptions, are the only natives whose close habit discovers the formation of the limbs.
The general uniform of the Chinese troops is cumbrous and inconvenient; this of the Tiger of War, is much better adapted for military action.
The Missionaries have denominated them TIGERS OF WAR, from their dress, which has some resemblance to that animal; being striped, and having ears on the cap.
They are armed with a scimitar of rude workmanship, and a shield of wicker or basket-work, so well manufactured, as to resist the heaviest blow from a sword. On it is painted the face of an imaginary monster, which (like that of Medusa) is supposed to possess the power of petrifying the beholder.
At a distance is seen a Military Post, with the Imperial flag, which is yellow, hoisted near it.
William Alexander. 1805. The Costumes of China: Illustrated in 48 Coloured Engravings. London: William Miller, Albemarle Street. page 6.
This soldier’s costume is brightly colored and stripped. His hood has the ears that were noted by so many western observers. The uniform lacks a tail, which is sometimes described, but its presence is almost suggested by the sword’s scabbard. Of special interest in the highly detailed image of the wicker shield which also shares the tiger motif. Alexander’s account, which received mass circulation in its various reprints, also introduces the western reading public to the theory that the “Tigers of War” were (among other things) an exercise in psychological warfare.
While this is by far William Alexander’s best known image of a Tiger Soldier, it was not his first. In an earlier 1796 illustration titled “A Chinese Military Post” he illustrated a (possibly composite) scene of military training in Qing dynasty. Five soldiers and a standard bearer occupy the piece’s foreground. But if the viewer looks off to the left two Tiger Soldiers sparring with sabers and wicker shields can clearly be seen. In the same year Alexander also published a more detailed technical study of common Chinese weapons which included a tiger shield.
It is interesting to note what Alexander does not say about these soldiers. There is no hint of the ridicule that would come to dominate later accounts. Of course in 1792 sabers were still a critical element of the European battlefield. Instead his only comment was that the Tiger uniforms were actually better fitting and more practical than the garb that many other soldiers received.
A comprehensive discussion of every subsequent appearance of Tiger Soldiers in the western press over the next century would be a substantial undertaking, though it might make for a fascinating book chapter. What is important to note is that following Alexander, these figures became an increasingly common theme in the western imagination of the Chinese military. While their symbolic meaning would take on a variety of connotations over the years, the basic visual image continued to follow the pattern first laid down by Alexander in the opening years of the 19th century. One wonders if, on some psychological level, the subsequent scorn directed at accounts of the Tiger Soldiers was not overcompensation for the earlier habit of romanticizing every aspect of Chinese life?
One can begin to see this process unfold in the following quote. William Alexander can be classified as an early pioneer of the travelogue literature that dominated so much of the reading public’s taste in the 19th century. By contrast the Scottish writer Charles Macfarlane (1799–1858) exemplified important trends in the maturing genera.
Known both for his novels and non-fiction descriptions of far off lands, Macfarlane spent much of his life away from the United Kingdom. Like other gentlemen of his generation he toured Europe. Being of a more adventurous mindset he also traveled to Turkey at multiple points in his life. I can find no evidence that Macfarlane ever made the trip to Asia, but that did not stop the now well established writer from producing books on life in both Japan and China. Once again, Tiger Soldiers were a topic of conversation.
“The soldiers are commonly called the imperial tigers or the celestial tigers. They bear on their shields, caps, or in the front of their dress, representations of all sorts of ferocious animals; but the figure of the tiger is the one most generally in use; and hence the nickname. All this appears ridiculous enough, and yet absurdities of the same sort are still allowed to exist among us. In our military uniforms we see tigers, lions, and other animals; and all that foppery of fur chaps, schabraques, and man-millinery, which disfigures our grenadiers and hussars, seems to deprive us of the right of laughing at the Chinese tigers.
Some European troops have even borrowed another military detail from the Chinese; at least the Spaniards pretend that in former times the Portuguese inserted into their general orders this laughable injunction, “Present a fierce face to the enemy!” and that the Portuguese soldiers always went into battle with a savage countenance, making warlike gesticulations, and showing their teeth to the foe. At the present day, the poor, tame, spiritless tigers of the Middle Kingdom, when they can be made to face an enemy at all, put on a fearful expression, make terrible gestures and grimaces, and set up a yell like that of the monsters of the forest and jungle.”
Charles Macfarlane. 1853. The Chinese Revolution: with details of the habits, manners, and customs of China and the Chinese. London: George Routledge and Co. pp. 55-56.
The first thing that should become evident after reviewing these passages is the extent to which 19th century travel writing was a self-reflective process. The outbreak of the Taping Rebellion had spurred a new round of popular interest in Chinese life. Indeed, one can detect some interesting resonances with Thomas Taylor Meadows’s 1856 work The Chinese and their Rebellions, in these passages. Of course Meadows had extensive on the ground experience in China as he had worked there for a number of years and even developed his own intelligence operation.
Still, one suspects that Macfarlane’s lack of first-hand information may not have been as much of an impediment as it first appears. Rather than finding the “truth” about the Chinese state or society, passages such as this one appear to be exercises in the construction of British nationalism through the lens of national comparison. Thus the rising tide of nationalism, and the demand for comparisons that it always seems to generate, might be another reason for the 19th century’s disillusionment with China.
In these passages Macfarlane picks up on the fact that tigers were sometimes used as a more general metaphor for Chinese troops. Indeed, missionary dictionaries published in the early 19th century note this same fact. Yet the reference to tiger inspired shields, caps and uniforms suggest that the following passages may also be seen as including the “Tiger Soldiers.” Indeed, that is likely how Macfarlane’s readers would have taken them.
While such animal imagery is held out for ridicule, the author makes it clear that European military forces were in no way immune to these same charges. More interesting to me is the description of various sorts of pantomime being employed in battle in an attempt to scare the enemy. Both Meadows and other British officers involved in the Opium Wars reported this same sort of behavior. One wonders to what extent it shares a common root with animal forms in the modern martial arts.
Macfarlane’s exploration of comparative-animal symbolism in no way exhausted the public’s curiosity on the subject. I recently ran across a pair of engravings from the November 11, 1876 issue of Harper’s Weekly (p. 923) that nicely illustrated the evolving western attitude towards China and its perceived military weakness during the era of the “Unequal Treaties.” Any respect that had been present in earlier treatments had now given way to loud derision. It should be noted that this article was published six years after the 1870 Naturalization Act (barring Chinese individuals from obtaining US citizenship) and six years prior to the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
The article which accompanies the two part illustration reads in part:
“…though a very simple sword exercise, keeping time to a melancholy sounding bugle, and at each note uttering a most horrible yell. Then follows the most extraordinary sight represented in the second drawing. At the sound of a drum the whole body of tigers puts their heads on the ground, and, with another terrific yell, roll over like acrobats, retaining in their hands both sword and shield. In a second they are on their legs again, and the acrobatic performance is repeated. Just what the object of this most astonishing maneuver may be our artist declares himself unable to ascertain, but the amazement of an enemy on beholding it may easily be imagined.
The testimony already given in regard to the inefficiency of the Chinese army is corroborated by the Marquis de Moges, who says that ‘two regiments of Zouaves and two of chasseurs would suffice to conquer all of China. There is not’ he continues, ‘a corps in the empire that could stand fast under a bayonet charge. The sight of a body of men marching coolly and resolutely up to them is so alien to their nature, so utterly incomprehensible and terrible, that all courage deserts them, and it is ten to one if they do not immediately take to their heels.”
Obviously the “before and after” illustration of the Chinese unit’s “acrobatic” performance is the most interesting aspect of this particular report. I do not think that I have ever run across anything quite like this before, and it must have made a powerful (and less than positive) effect on the readers. Once again, Chinese soldiers are referred to as Tigers in the metaphorical sense. Whatever meaning this appellation may have originally carried has now been replaced with irony as this report suggest that these men actually represent everything that tigers are NOT. Their shields are shown to be decorated, but no details are identifiable. This training is once again being brought to the reader for the explicit purpose of contrasting it with the simple utility of a western bayonet charge.”
In 1899 Mrs. Archibald Little (1838–1908) opened another front again China’s Tiger Soldiers. On the one hand her account indicates that infantry dressed in the Tiger uniform was still very much present in the military’s organizational flow chart. On the other hand she goes on to deny that they actually exist at all, except perhaps as an accounting expediency in China’s notoriously corrupt military.
Mrs. Little, the wife of merchant, lived and wrote in China for most of her adult life. She was probably best known for her novels (including A Marriage in China, 1899), journalism and activism. Recounting an episode from her own travels in 1899 she writes:
“At Ichang, a thousand miles up the river Yangtse, there is a regiment of soldiers dressed as tigers; but I never could persuade any of the foreign officials to escort me to see them maneuver, the European opinion being that not even the presence of an inspecting general would awe the Tiger Soldiers sufficiently to make it safe to take a foreign lady to see them.
I was told that the Tigers were not really soldiers at all, but that some officers drew pay for them as if they existed; and then when the General came to inspect, all the beggars and riff-raff of the city put on the Tiger uniform over their rags, turned out in so disorderly a condition that even their officers were afraid of them. And so it turned out that, except from a passing steamer, I never saw Chinese soldiers drill till I did so at Woosung, the new Treaty Port, and the junction of the Whangpoo, on which Shanghai is situated, with the Great River Yangtse.”
Archibald Little. 1899. Intimate China: The Chinese as I have seen them. London: Hutchinson & Co. pp. 269-270
What follows is a page long description of Mrs. Little’s observation of military drills near Shanghai. In sharp contrast to the previous paragraph, she observed that these soldiers were well armed, skilled with both rifle and lance, well disciplined and very professional. Aside from some leaping about with lances in the middle of their drill she reported nothing off-putting about their performance. Unfortunately for us they apparently had no tigers in their ranks.
This then returns our attention to her earlier account of the phantom tiger unit. Numerous other sources attest to corrupt officers pocketing the paychecks of ghost soldiers. Indeed, the Chinese government itself was well aware of the problem and this was one of the reasons why it was reluctant to hire militia units. They (or more properly their commanders) tended to be particularly prone to this sort of corruption.
The other very interesting thing about this account is the realization that the individuals who manned this unit (to the extent that it existed) were thought to be locally recruited civilians. Of course to do an even passable job one strongly suspects that many of these Tiger Soldiers would have been martial artists recruited as “braves” to stiffen the unit on an “as needed” basis. Of course swords and shields would have been weapons well suited to local martial artists, though Mrs. Archibald’s report suggests that the unit’s discipline left something to be desired.
Our final account of “Tiger Soldiers” is provided by Wilbur J. Chamberlin (1866-1901) a reporter best known for his work on the Boxer Uprising, who died at the tragically young age of 35. Chamberlin was a career journalist and who spent the last decade of his life working for the New York Sun. In a period not generally remembered for its nuanced public discussion of Chinese politics, his reporting was unique as it argued that aggressive missionary work and the actions of foreign soldiers (among other factors) had set the stage for the tragic events which followed. Most modern readings of the Boxer Uprising now share this same basic conclusion.
Of course the Boxer Uprising was also a watershed event in the development of the Chinese martial arts. As I have argued elsewhere, it was the moment when most Chinese reformers turned their backs on the traditional fighting arts (which they blamed for the crushing reparations that the country was forced to bear). Increasingly they viewed these practices as too superstitious, backwards and inefficient to have any place in the new China. Put slightly differently, China’s martial arts reformers would spend much of the first half of the 20th century attempting to overcome the legacy of the Boxer Uprising.
So how did the legacy of the Tiger Soldiers fare in this post-Boxer environment?
“This morning I was going through the Imperial City when I saw a Chinaman dressed in a garment that looked like a tiger-skin, and thereby hangs a tale—a tail, by the way, hung from the garment. The fellow was sufficiently interesting for me to inquire about, and I found he was one the Imperial Army. He belonged to the Tiger Brigade. Now don’t laugh and I’ll tell you about it.
It seems that the Chinese have an idea that noise is a frightful thing. You really wouldn’t think that this was true if you were in Peking a moment and listened to the din, or spent a minute or two watching the progress of a conversation between two Chinamen, or, particularly, two Chinese women. But it is a fact. And if noise can be associated with an object of which the ordinary man is afraid, so much the better. The ordinary man, of course, is afraid of a tiger, so what could be better than brigade of tigers to strike terror to the hearts of your enemies. Now tigers are plentiful in this benighted country, but they are not so easily caught nor are they easily trained, so handling as many as a thousand of them would be exceedingly interesting, if not dangerous. Real tigers are really not necessary. If you can make your enemy believe you have thousand trained tigers coming to devour him, that is just as good as if you had the tigers, and that is the secret of the Tiger Brigade.
The Chinese have not a thousand, but several thousand, of these tiger soldiers. They make uniforms for them of bright yellow cloth and on this they paint the black stripes in imitation of the tiger’s skin. They sew on a striped tail and the tiger soldier is ready to go forth to battle. In war times the brigade is put right to the front of the army. When the army gets near to the enemy—near enough to see plainly—the tiger soldiers drop on their hands and knees and begin to roar as loudly as their lungs will let them. If the imagination of the enemy is good and strong, like that of a Journal reporter, he immediately sees several thousand ferocious tigers advancing upon him to devour him and he runs as if Old Nick himself were after him. Now what do you think of that for an idea in the year of our Lord 1900? It is not much wonder, is it, that anybody who wants to can step in and whip China, or that she is almost powerless to resist any attack that can be made on her. Yet there are people living who talk about the “the yellow peril” and the invasion and over-running of Europe by it—the peril being the Chinese who use Tiger Brigades! The longer we live the more we learn.”
“Peking, China, Friday, December 14th 1900.” Wilbur J. Chamberlin. 1904. Ordered to China: Letters of Wilbur J. Chamberlin. London: Methuen & Co. 195-196.
As should be evident from the preceding passages, the author is not writing here strictly in his role as a journalist. While Chamberlin aspired to write serious books, his short life foreclosed that possibility. The one work that was published before his death was a book of letters. One suspects that this account of the “Tiger Soldiers” may have been included as an elaborate pretext for making a jab at the reporters of the Journal. Still, it indicates a continuing interest in the appearance and behavior of Tiger Soldiers more than 100 years after their first appearance in the popular literature.
Unfortunately in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising these troops with their acrobat skills and culturally specific imagery seem more antiquated than ever. As Chamberlin illustrates, in the western mind they have come to represent everything that is wrong with China’s approach to global competition.
This essay began with the observation that the traditional martial arts have become an element of China’s public diplomacy strategy. Yet no attempt at fashioning a “national brand” happens in a vacuum. Many players have a hand in this game. Nor are the basic signs and symbols of cultural diplomacy blank pages upon which any meaning can be written.
While animal symbolism is a beloved aspect of the modern Chinese martial arts, some of these associations (particularly those linking tigers to Chinese martial values) have been under discussion in the west for literally hundreds of years. By the first decade of the 19th century tigers were already linked to an increasingly antiquated symbolic complex of traditional weapons, psychological warfare, acrobatic combat and animal pantomime within the western imagination.
It is worth stating, for the record, that the one thing that we have not learned much about in this essay is the reality of the “Tiger Soldiers.” Who were they? What unique functions did they perform? How were they trained? What were their lives actually like?
These are questions that must be left to actual military historians. Instead the quotes and images provided here demonstrated both the ongoing presence and subtle evolution of these symbols within western popular culture over the course of a century. Indeed, the public’s judgement of the Tiger Soldier seems to closely track the military fortunes of the Chinese empire as a whole.
This suggests a simple answer to an important question. Why were western individuals so keen to pick up the Japanese martial arts (Jujitsu and Judo were already known in the west by the time of Chamberlin’s concluding observation) while the Chinese martial arts had to wait for the 1970s to begin to gain any serious recognition? There seems to be no thought in these reports that the strange acrobatic maneuvers reported by various observers might constitute a distinct body of worthwhile martial practice. Yet at roughly the same time western newspapers were reporting on Judo its links to the successes of the Japanese military.
It seems that for the reading public conquest on the battlefield revealed a nation’s true “character.” The victory of the Japanese over the Chinese and Russians exposed traits worth emulating. This, in turn, led to the hope that the techniques and values of Japanese hand combat could be taught and commercially appropriated.
China’s long string of defeats instead suggested that its traditional combat methods were more akin to a vice to be overcome, rather than something to be emulated. To the extent that they were seen as an extension of the country’s national character, they were not even something that could be taught. With the exception of a handful of police and military personal who had worked in China, I suspect that it didn’t really occur to most Western observers that China even possessed a system of “martial arts” until the second half of the 20th century. Despite persistent efforts by some individuals to promote or publicize this fact, “the eye cannot see what the mind does not know.”
All of this suggests two important conclusions which must be accounted for in our future explorations of “Kung Fu Diplomacy.” First, the role of social and media actors (basically non-governmental agents) cannot be ignored in understanding the formation of cultural capital. Some of the most important of these agents may even be located with the target’s society.
Secondly, exogenous shocks or events on the international stage (such as the Opium War and the Boxer Uprising) will always impact how these symbols are perceived. The good news is that through hard work a more positive public image of the Chinese martial arts and its use of animal imagery could be constructed. Yet since each of these symbols contains many layers of historically and psychologically accumulated meaning, the potential for unpredictability remains ever present. Cultural meaning is never as stable or predictable as the architects of public diplomacy campaigns might like.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: 1928: The Danger of Telling a Single Story about the Chinese Martial Arts