While many of the vintage images introduced in this series have focused on martial themes, characters or weapons, few of them have attempted to reveal scenes of martial artists simply practicing their craft. And the vast majority of early postcards and photos of Chinese boxers which do exist focus on marketplace demonstrations rather than the actual training or use of the martial arts. That is what makes today’s image so important. Its one of the few postcards that I have come across that purports to show Chinese hand combat practitioners engaged in training (or possibly a match). It is also interesting as it is one of very few such images that I have encountered more than once, suggesting that this may have been among the more popular and widely spread representations of Chinese boxers available to either tourists or interested parties in the west. But what exactly is this a picture of?
The first version of this postcard that I came across was actually labeled the “Chinese Challenge.” It bore an image of two gentlemen, holding swords, engaged in some sort of activity while staring intently at one another. A third individual, possible a referee or some sort of by-standard, was sees standing between the two of them, intervening in the action. The postcard itself offers few contextual clues as to how we are supposed to interpret the scene. Its clear that this was a posed image taken in a photographer’s studio, rather than a candid shot taken on “the street.” Notice for instance the carpet and uniform backdrop behind the combatants.
We have a few clues that might shed some additional light on the origins of this photo. On the back of the photo we see a note that it was edited by “Kingshill.” The Kingshill Publishing Company was located in Shanghai and produced a large number of postcards from approximately 1900-1940. Some of these cards are marked “Kingshill Publishing Company,” others “Edited by Kingshill” and still others are simply unlabeled. In a few cases these cards also bore one or two dragon stamps on the front of the image that were specific to this company and may have acted as an informal trademark.
The vast majority of cards distributed by Kingshill focused on scenes showing city life and the landscape around Shanghai. Martial themes were not particularly common. In fact, this is the only such image that I have run across by this publisher. Kingshill seems to have produced a series of images showing various urban trades (barbers, tinkers, shoe repair men. etc.) in the early 1900s. While these cards went to some lengths to present a “natural” scene, most were actually photographed in a studio. I personally suspect that this image was produced as part of this larger series. If so it suggests something about how the tourists and expats who originally purchased these cards viewed the city’s various martial artists.
The fact that all of these images were produced within a studio immediately calls into question their value as historical documents relating to the actual practice of the Chinese martial arts. Photographers owned larger numbers of props and costumes (including exotic looking weapons) and it was not uncommon for them to simply hire local individuals to act as models for shots that they composed themselves. In these cases market demand, rather than a detailed appreciation for history, likely determined the nature of the final photograph. This makes it impossible to guess whether the individuals in the present image are actually martial artists at all.
Their weapons were real enough. The individual on the left is armed with jian. When looking at an expanded section of that image we can even get a sense of the richly ornamented hilt of this weapon. The fencer on the left, however, is armed with a dao. Its more difficult to discern the details of his weapon due to the angle that he is holding it. Yet its flat pommel, distinctive guard and rather narrow blade are all visible.
Perhaps the single oddest aspect of this photograph is the posture of the two fighters. Both have placed their “weak” (or unarmed) hand on their hip. This posture is much more commonly seen in western swordplay than anything I am familiar with in the Chinese martial arts. Western students might put a hand behind the back or on the hip for a variety of reasons. Most obviously it reduced the chances of the weak armed being cut in the engagement, while also forcing the corresponding shoulder back and thus narrowing the profile of the target presented to the opponent. In contrast many Chinese schools seem to favor holding the weak hand high, using it for balance, and sometimes even having both hands forwards.
I am not enough of an expert to declare that no Chinese school of jian or dao work ever adopted the posture seen above. Yet given the overall composition of the image one strongly suspect that the photographer who supplied the weapons to the models also posed them in a manner that he suspected would appeal to western consumers. Thus this image may actually present a hybrid of authentic Chinese weapons combined with western expectations of what “proper fencers” should look like.
Dating the Image
Given the hair styles of the individuals in the image, it is clear that this photo was taken sometime prior to 1911. But is it possible to say more than that? While mailing and trade cards were produced and collected from about the 1880s onward, true postcards bearing a photographic image on one side did not really become popular until about 1900. We also know that many of Kingshill’s subjects were found in the Shanghai area. So at minimum we strongly suspect that this card was produced and marketed in Shanghai sometime between 1900 and 1911. But can we be more specific than that?
To date a postcard more accurately it necessary to turn it over and look at the back. This effort already revealed the card’s publisher and likely place of origin. Of course stamps and postal cancellation marks can offer up a wealth of detailed information, including the exact date that a card was sent (almost always within in a year of its sale), where it was sent from, and the identity of its intended audience. Sometimes one even gets lucky and finds some first-handed commentary on the card’s subject.
Martial arts related postcards are not my only interest. Occasionally I collect vintage Christmas images and I have often been struck by how much social data rests on the backs of these cards. Yet this same pattern does not seem to hold with the images of Chinese martial artists that I have been sharing on this blog. Almost none of the postcards that we have been discussing here have ever been mailed. And those that have been sent have often “lost” their stamps, and hence dates. Why is this?
When looking at the backs of these unused postcards its not uncommon to discover that they were at one point glued or fitted into scrap books or photo albums. So while almost all Christmas postcards were bought to be used, it seems that many examples featuring Chinese themes were purchased by tourists as souvenirs, and hence were never actually intended to be mailed. Instead they illustrated journals and filled out scrapbooks. As a result they have survived in relatively great numbers, but without any postal data that might help in dating them. And it seems that stamp collectors, interested in exotic Chinese specimens, also relieved a number of these cards of their stamps at some point in time.
So how else might we attempt to date a vintage Chinese postcard? Recently I had the good fortune of discovering a second, slightly different, edition of the same image that helped to provide another piece of the puzzle. At first glance this card appears to be a later modification of the initial image. It shows the three figures in a smaller offset circle to the left side of the card’s front. One suspects that the scene is supposed to be reminiscent of a moon gate. The title of the scene is also slightly different. What was once a “challenge” is now labeled as an example of “Chinese Fencing.” In this new context one wonders if the individual in the center is supposed to be seen as a fencing master working with two of his students. In this case we might now be looking at one of the only vintage images that I have come across purporting to record a moment of martial instruction. While most of the background has been cropped out, we can still tell by the carpeting that this is the same studio shot discussed above.
Yet this card’s most valuable assets can only be seen once we turn it over. Readers should notice a number of differences between the versos of these two postcards. To begin with, “Chinese Fencing” has an undivided back, with instructions that only the recipient’s address is to be recorded on the backside of the card. Suddenly the offset image on the front makes sense. That is where the sender was expected to record his or her message. In contrast the card labeled “Chinese Challenge” looks much more familiar. It has a divided back with the right side being reserved for an address and the left for a short message.
Many of the first postcards produced featured an undivided back and restricted the inclusion of a message on that side of the card. This format was adopted by the US and other Western countries in 1901 and was used continuously up through March of 1907. After that the major Western postal carriers changed their regulations regarding postcards. They then adopted the split back, which has continued in use up until the present. These early split back postcards were often manufactured by German printers to very high standards. But after the outbreak of WWI much of this production shifted to American printers. They tended to leave a white border around the card’s image in an effort to save ink.
With these facts in mind we can now say something more definitive about the production dates of these two postcards. The “Chinese Fencing” card is (somewhat ironically) the older of the two. It was produced in Shanghai sometime between the spring of 1901 and 1907. Given the popularity of themes dealing with the Boxer Uprising in these years one might guess that it was likely printed closer to the start of this period than the end. Yet this image appears to have been fairly popular. Sometime between 1907 and 1914 it went through another print run (probably in Germany). At this point the format of the card was modified given the expectation that a message would now be included on the back rather than the front. It was now possible for the publisher to use the complete image rather than just part of it.
This suggests that the picture used was taken sometime in the years following the Boxer Rebellion and was in the possession of “Kingshill” who subsequently reused it in a number of cards. It was not unusual for stock images to be recycled in this way. In fact, cards showing martial artists from the 1910s-1920s seem to have been reprinted with some frequency up through the 1940s. While these were never the most common themes seen in collections of Chinese ephemera, they have exhibited a surprising degree of “staying power.” No doubt this is because they reflected western preconceptions about the nature of Chinese boxing more than they accurately represented the rapidly changing opinions on such topics found within Chinese society during the late Qing and Republic eras.
If you enjoyed these images you might also want to read: Collecting Chinese Swords and other Weapons in late 19th Century Xiamen (Amoy)
November 23, 2015 at 1:30 pm
If I saw the thumb and first finger extended up onto the ornate section of the jian instead of the “death grip” that both seem to have, I would think they were not just people asked to hold swords for a photo. But, that would be just a guess.