The Creation of Beijing’s Police
Given that this is a holiday weekend, what follows is brief but topical. Labor Day is an ideal time to look back and remember some of the hard working individuals who helped to both promote the practice of the martial arts and contributed to the construction of their image in the collective imagination. Unfortunately the contributions of police organizations in the development of the Chinese martial arts is often overlooked.
In this post I would like to take a closer look at a couple of images recording specific moments in the building of modern law enforcement institutions in early 20th century China. New methods of “scientific” police work were adopted first in Beijing, and soon spread to other major cities, following the destruction and massive social disruption that accompanied the Boxer Rebellion.
Initially each of the foreign powers involved in this dispute was responsible for establishing some form of law enforcement in their respective occupation zones. For the most part this does not seem to have been viewed as a high priority, though certain countries (notably the UK and Russia) had previously raised private military, paramilitary and law enforcement organizations of their own. Some of these had even fought on their behalf during the Uprising.
In the aftermath of the fighting, many western powers where simply content to hire displaced soldiers and other individuals off of the street to act as rudimentary police officers. The Japanese took a different approach. Having just completed a major round of law enforcement reforms of their own (based largely on French and Prussian models) they were eager to demonstrate the advantages of the new “Japanese model.” In little time they managed to establish a highly professional force and created a law enforcement academy. Their efforts later became the foundation for Beijing’s first modern municipal police department.
Prior to this time law enforcement in the city had been left to groups of soldiers which were specifically assigned to the area (and periodically rotated out in a mostly futile effort to prevent corruption) as well as local guards units, yamen officials and their personal. Nevertheless, both of these forces, the older Qing troops and the modern Japanese inspired civilian police units, had at least one thing in common. They shared an apparent devotion to the sword as a central tool of law enforcement.
It is not particularly challenging to find pictures of law enforcement agents, or members of para-military groups, armed with swords and walking the streets of China’s cities. I suspect that these images would have been familiar to at least some western readers curious about the state of urban life in China during the early 20th century. Perhaps the most common of these images were the grisly postcards and tourist photos depicting judicial executions, usually by decapitation with a sword. Yet Western consumers also had the opportunity to purchase magic lantern and stereo-view slides showing Chinese law enforcement officers displaying long and heavy blades for inspection. Both of the images reviewed in today’s post fall into this later category.
It should go without saying that these were not the only weapons that police officers in cities like Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou carried. A great many other officers were issued clubs (some in the form of long walking sticks) and police departments certainly had access to modern firearms. Indeed, images of patrolmen walking the streets with rifles in the early Republic era are also pretty common. But there can be no doubt that the sword retained a special cache.
Perhaps it would be worthwhile to stop and consider the reasons why. These may suggest something about the nature of the ongoing relationship between Chinese law enforcement agencies and the traditional martial arts during the early 20th century.
To begin with, many of the law enforcement officers that one encountered during the final years of the Qing or the early Republic period were former Manchu Bannermen or displaced soldiers. The aftermath of the Boxer Uprising led to unemployment among soldiers, and the termination of the Bannermen’s stipends in 1905 forced both groups to look to the new law enforcement organization as a potential means of employment and a way to regain some lost social status.
Sabers have never struck me as the most effective law enforcement tool. But in purely practical terms they existed in abundance, and practically everyone being hired into the new police forces was already trained in their use.
There is also another issue to consider. Many Chinese law enforcement reformers looked directly to the Japanese model for both inspiration and technical guidance. As we have already seen, fencing (or Kendo) was an important part of both the development and subsequent ideology of Meiji era law enforcement in Japan. Indeed, the Japanese exhibited just as much enthusiasm for the sword as a tool of law enforcement as the Chinese. I am thus forced to wonder if at least some of the embrace and retention of the sword among Chinese law enforcement personal stemmed from their initially close reliance on Japanese organizational and training methods.
Were these swords ever used in self-defense or the apprehension of criminals? Newspaper articles, court cases and eyewitness accounts from the period all indicate that it was not uncommon for a police officer’s sword to be unsheathed. Consider the following:
Police Violence and Moral Theater
Given the degree of discretion intrinsic to the role of mediator and buffer, a policeman might abuse his power. Police brutality was a particular feature, as we have seen, of the relationship between policemen and rickshaw pullers. An extreme example took place one afternoon in February 1925 when a policeman accosted a rickshaw man who had just dropped off a fare. The policeman shouted, “Get the fuck out of here fast. Don’t you know you are blocking traffic?” The puller, who was still trying to catch his breath, replied angrily, “Let me tell you something. You don’t scare me, I’ve done police work myself. I was a policeman for three years. I know the regulations. I parked my rickshaw on the proper side of the road. How is that blocking traffic?” The quarrel between the two became heated and a crowd gathered to watch. But, as the newspaper account of the incident lamented, the bystanders “looked on without even lifting a finger.” Finally, in anger, the rickshaw man turned to grope in his rickshaw for a club he kept there. As he did, the policeman drew and raised his sword. When the rickshaw man whirled around, club in hand, the policeman struck the puller in the temple with his blade. The rickshaw man fell bleeding to the ground and died almost instantly. Horrified by what they had witnessed, the crowd turned and fled, with people crying out that a policeman had killed someone. A nearby patrolman and his sergeant heard the commotion and hurried to the scene, where they arrested the policeman. The local prosecutor’s office could not immediately identify the dead man. But the department announced that it would supply a coffin and pay the costs of the puller’s funeral.
A rough sort of justice, or injustice, sometimes prevailed on Beijing’s streets. Policemen with clubs or swords at their waists faced rickshaw men who kept clubs in the trunks of their vehicles, groups of laborers willing to fight as a gangs if provoked, students who fought for the right to present their views in public, the occasional common criminal armed with gun or knife, and most threatening of all, bands of armed soldiers accompanying sojourning militarists. On the other hand, the streets and public spaces of Beijing could also provide a congenial environment for confrontations in which policemen, willingly or not, played a central, mediating role. The success of the police depended, in part, on their ability to incorporate elements of moral showmanship into the actions they took. In Erving Goffman’s terms, the policeman was called upon to devote considerable energy to “dramatizing” the role he played so as to “manage the impressions” he made on both miscreants and audience. Since spectators and the accused were bound to have a strong sense of how a policeman as mediator or junzi manqué ought to behave, the patrolman filled a role “socialized” or “idealized” by public expectations. Policemen who misbehaved, stood mute, or said the wrong things risked becoming villains in these set piece social dramas.
…Police reformers in Beijing used the myth of government as a moral project, and policemen as junzi, to establish a police presence in the city with minimal reliance on coercion and a maximum appeal to residents for active cooperation in maintaining social peace. A policeman completing a training program of only a few months could hardly replicate a lifetime of self-cultivation by a scholar-official. On the other hand, even in dilute form, the Confucianist mentality, with its inclination to scold, meddle, and mediate, inspired effective police work. (Strand, 82-83).
The Sword as Moral Theater
David Strand’s work Rickshaw Beijing: City People and Politics in the 1920s (University of California Press, 1993) is exactly the sort of book that I like. It provides a focused social history of few groups in order to create a new lens for understanding a turbulent and important time in Chinese history. As the title of this work suggests, Rickshaw pullers are the major focus of the study. Yet Strand also has an important story to tell about the evolution and social function of Beijing’s modern police institutions.
As the previous quote notes, Beijing could be a difficult, even perilous, environment for law enforcement. The actions of police officers were often determined as much by the social expectations of the always present crowds as they were the logic of the situation at hand. This suggests that perhaps the swords of these patrolmen can also be understood as part of an ongoing social drama rather than as a simple budgetary expediency. Perhaps the sword was retained and displayed by law enforcement, at least up through the 1940s, because of its unique meaning in the social dramas of order and disorder explored by Strand above.
This also has potentially important implications for the ongoing relationship between law enforcement organizations and martial arts teachers during this period. With one or two exceptions I have yet to explore this relationship as deeply as I would like. Certainly police academies were important employers of martial arts teachers. Nor is it difficult to come up with a purely tactical explanation of this. Such organizations still rely on hand to hand combat training in the execution of their jobs. Yet one wonders what role social expectations played in the maintenance of these relationships in the 1920s and 1930s. Indeed, law enforcement’s engagement with the traditional martial arts actually seems to have increased as the first half of the 20th century wore on. More importantly, what do these shifts suggest about the public perception of the martial arts at that moment in time?
Chinese law enforcement officers were often recognized by their swords. Yet the most important function performed by these weapons may have been to make real the relationship between the existing moral order (as imagined by society) and the new set of political institutions which were being rapidly developed by successive governments during this period. It may be that the sword survived so long into the age of the rifle and the handgun precisely because of what it implied about those who carried it.
If you ejoyed this post you might also want to read: Ip Man and the Roots of Wing Chun’s “Multiple Attacker” Principle, Part 1