Spirit possession is a fascinating but rarely discussed aspect of the traditional Chinese martial arts. Reformers in the field of physical culture spent much of the 20th century attempting to erase the national embarrassment of the Boxer Uprising in which young martial artists who practiced a type of “spirit boxing” were seen as having jeopardized the physical security and financial health of the state. Elite opinion turned sharply against all of the traditional martial arts in the wake of this uprising. As subsequent generations of reformers attempted to rehabilitate the public perception of these practices they went to lengths to strip out anything that seemed to be too feudal, parochial or superstitious. Indeed, the “traditional” arts that most of us practice today are in large part the product of these 20th century “modernization” and “rehabilitation” efforts. Which is to say, its not entirely a coincidence that we hear so little about spirit possession techniques. While such practices still exist in some area’s (and may more commonly be seen in temple procession troupes), they have undergone a process of cultural marginalization for much of the last century.
Perhaps this is why spirit boxing always generates such interest when accounts of its various techniques rise to the surface. The Red Spear movement in Northern China came to prominence during the 1920s and 1930s in large part on the strength of its esoteric magical practices. As a result of this and a few related incidents, most discussions of spirit boxing continues to focus on the lives of relatively impoverished (and physically insecure) northern peasants during the late 19th and early 20th century.
Yet spirit possession techniques were never confined only to a single geographic region. Their exponents could also be found in parts of Southern China and even Hong Kong. Daniel Amos has published a fine ethnographic study of a contemporary spirit possession cult titled “Spirit Boxing in Hong Kong: Two Observers, Native and Foreign” along with Ma Kai Sun (Journal of Asian Martial Arts, Vol. 8 No. 4 (1999): 32 pages). Readers interested in learning more about the subject may wish to start there. Fortunately this is not the only account of such groups that students have access too. The following newspaper story offers another view of these practices, as they were practiced in the villages of the New Territories 50 years earlier.
A few words about the source of this account may be in order. It was originally published in The Hong Kong Daily Press on October 31, 1922. This paper ran from the 1860s to the early 1940s and was one of the major English language media outlets to serve the city. Discussions of the traditional Chinese martial arts were not unheard of in the local foreign language press, but they were also not all that common. In this case the occasion for the story seems to have been an upcoming party at the Government House in the first week of November, which was expected to feature a traditional martial arts performance.
I have yet to track down an account of the event in question, but given the political and social activism of the Jingwu Athletic Association in Southern China during the early years of the 1920s, one rather strongly suspects that they were to be the guest at the government gala. If this was the case than we can be relatively certain that spirit possession was not on the party agenda as it would have been antithetical to the reformist aims of this group (and most other ones of the period).
In an attempt to edify the reading public a reporter from the paper interviewed a local Chinese authority on the subject of traditional boxing. Unfortunately the article lists neither the name of the reporter or source. This seems to be a fairly common editorial practice during the period. Yet it was the Chinese expert who appears to have steered the interview away from more recent developments in the martial arts, towards the remembrances of his youth. After a brief historical discussion which situates the Chinese martial arts both in dynastic history and in relation to their better known cousin’s in Japan (Judo and Jujitsu), the discussion settles on local spirit boxing traditions among the village youth of the New Territories.
The account ends abruptly, leading one to suspect that a longer piece was paired down to fit a set number of inches of “column length” (another common editorial practice.) There are also a few places in which the electronic scans of the article could not be transcribed with confidence. These have been marked with brackets [ ]. Yet for all of that, this short article contains a number of interesting details pertaining not just to the rituals of a local spirit boxing technique, but also as to how the traditional Chinese martial arts were discussed and understood by social elites in southern China during the Republic period. The history, social anxiety and even vocabulary in this piece is worthy of further consideration.
CHINESE BOXING AND FENCING.
HISTORY OF THE ART
In view of the fact that the Garden Fete at Government House on November 4th is to include an exhibition of Chinese Boxing and Fencing, many of our readers will probably be interested to know something of this art as practiced in ancient and modern times. The following account has been supplied by a local Chinese scholar of no mean repute:-
The art of Kei Kik, includes dexterity in wielding sword, spear and knife as well as skill in the use of fists and feet. This peculiarly Chinese form of what we may call Chinese boxing and fencing has a history dating back to the period of the “Waring States,” some three centuries before the Christian Era. It was developed in the succeeding dynasties of Ts’un and Hon. A certain Ts’ai Man is commemorated in the history of the Hon Dynasty as being a famous exponent of the art, and the men of the Ts’ai State are said to have greatly esteemed such skill. In the province of Ho Nan is an ancient temple called Shin [Lam Tsz ?] whose priests and acolytes in days gone by were continually engaged in exercises of this nature. Thirteen of them won fame as “boxers and fencers” when they helped the Emperor T’ai Tsang of the T’ang dynasty to subdue the rebellious Wong Shai-ch’ang in the early part of the 7th Century, and established a traditional “School” of the art known as the “Shin Lam P’ai.”
It is clear that in those days a real military value was attached to skill in Kei Kik, but later with the development of firearms, the art became neglected as a practical field of martial endeavor. Transplanted to Japan, however, it doubtless became the historical parent of Judo or Jujutsu.
But although the Chinese expert may have lost his military importance, the practice of the art has persisted, partly, perhaps as a form of self-culture and partly as a pastime for boys and men. In very recent Republican days indeed there are not warning signs that the practice has been deliberately recognized as tending to stimulate a militaristic spirit, but this is not the place to touch on certain modern aspects of Chinese social life.
The writer has pleasant recollections of many a spirited exhibition of “boxing” given by village boys in the New Territories. In certain villages there between the 10th day of the 7th moon and the 9th day of the moon, performances of “Stupefying the Toad” take place. Three or four boys lie face downward on the ground while others sit round them and chant the refrain:-
Little Toads and King Toads.
Into the Lotus-Pond
In they go.
Break the branches, break the reed,
There come the Toads? I don’t know.
Jumping on the toad-throne to  their books.
What the meaning of this nursery rhyme is the writer cannot say, but the chant invokes the spirits of ancient fighting men, ancient masters of boxing and fencing, and it must be kept up till the boys lying face downwards become, as if they were mesmerized. Their “heart goes,” and passes beneath the earth by way of the Fairy Bridge. When the heart has gone, the invoked spirit enters, the symptom being a coldness of the feet and a violent trembling of the body. The master of the ceremonies thereupon cries out “Master, up and perform!” If he did not call this out, no medium would ever get up. He must on no account utter the boys’ real names, as this would at once restore them to consciousness. The assumption throughout is that each medium becomes “mung” or stupefied, and that all his actions when in this state are involuntary, dictated by the spirit of the dead master. Jumping up, then, they proceed to box with fists and feet. After a minute of this they are told to sit, and then they may smoke but on no account drink tea. Then, still sitting, they sing a song, some ancient song that their dead masters used to sing, and then they perform a kind of sword-stick exercise with long thin bamboo poles. On one occasion one boy accidentally banged another on the head, and the instant reproach sounded extremely like an everyday exclamation of a Yung Tsai of the Old Market, and not at all like the grave utterance of an ancient boxing-master.
Finally, their real names are cried in a loud voice, and the mesmerized boys awake. The role of medium is said to be very exhausting and only possible for those with [yin ?]; eyes expressive of the female principle or passivity.
Further Notes on Toads and Martial Spirit Possession Games
Students of Chinese folklore may already be familiar with some variant of this activity, often associated with boys and the Moon festival in Guangdong province. Compare the above account to the much earlier one published in the 1887 edition of the China Review (Volume 15) on page 123:
Mai Sin Mesmerizing
From the 1st to the 20th of the eight month the Chinese in the Kwong-tung province have a custom of putting lads into a mesmeric or clairvoyant state in which they perform feats of skill with swords, spears, iron bars, and shields in mimic fight, while supposed to be possessed by the spirits of long-deceased famous fencing masters.
On these occasions sever big lads lie on the ground in a row, either in-doors or out, and men wave lighted incense sticks over them, while they repeatedly chant the following incantation accompanied by the beating of gongs.
“Ye little toads* and king toads,
Descend, ye proud, to cool abodes!
Arrive at our cool rooms we bow,
Change hands and enter cool rooms!”
As the lads become or pretend to become possessed, they rise and are assisted to seats, where they are asked then, the sze fu’s lottery surnames and honoured names, whence they come, how many there are, if they will please take a drink of tea. They give the names of renowned performers of the past and say they come from Canton, or some distant place. When they are as many in a state of clairvoyance as each says had left, they are put to perform with swords, etc., to the amusement and wonder of the numerous on-lookers, who all seem to believe the lads are really the mediums of supernatural agents, or else, they say, they could not perform as they do, as they have never been taught.
*In Chinese legends the toad k’am eh’ii or shim ch’ii is reckoned one of the animals that inhabit the moon; as this performance takes place during the time of the bright mid-autumn moon it is only natural it should be appealed to for assistance at the ceremony.
It is interesting to read these two reports side by side. While some details of the incantations have changed, and others have been totally flipped, its clear that this same basic game enjoyed quite a bit of popularity in southern China. I thought that the later account’s explanation of the importance of toad imagery in spirit possession exercises was particularly helpful. Yet this game did not always take on a martial character.
The anthropologist and folklorist Chao Wei-pang also recorded this game as one of many played at mid-autumn festival in Guangdong (see “Games at the Mid-Autumn Festival in Kunagtung”) while doing research in the 1920s. In reading through the paper its remarkable to note how many of these popular games involve magic and spirit possession. Apparently this festival was thought to be an especially auspicious time for such activities. And a number of the exercises that men might take part in could lead to episodes of Spirit Boxing. Yet the variant of the spirit possession ritual via toad that Chao presents, while still viscerally physical in nature, is not seen as directly martial (pages 10-11):
14. Encircling a Toad
This game is played in a similar way as the above in Ch’ao-chou but only by boys. When the boy standing in the center is unconscious, he tries to find a cave and creep into it. In Canton this came is called Mu Ch’in-ch’u or ‘Bewitching a Toad.” It is played there is a different way. A boy is Chosen to be the Toad King. He lies prostate on the ground; while others hold sticks of incense and repeat the following spell:
“Toad’s eff, toad’s child.
This evening the Great King comes to invite you.
He buys a fire basket and fir Branches.”
Having been bewitched, the boy jumps about like a real toad. He Sometimes even injures his head butting accidentally against a wall. He is stopped by sprinkling water on his head.
Once again, we appear to be seeing another variant of the same basic activity. Yet in this case the spirit of the toad no longer assists one in channeling a great boxer of ages past, but rather it imparts its own unique physical abilities onto its medium. This is especially interesting as Chao next mentions a basically identical game in which monkeys are instead invoked. Needless to say, pictographic monkey styles of boxing have always been very popular throughout the recorded history of the Chinese martial arts.
These account, while far from exhaustive, do help to remind us of a few vital facts. First, spirit boxing has a long and well established history in Southern China, just as it does in the North. While most martial arts organizations attempted to move away from these practices in the Republic period they remained popular in the countryside because they were deeply embedded in fabric of local popular culture. Lastly, these practices were widespread enough that they continued to influence the way that many individuals described the traditional martial arts even after the rise of later reform movements (such as the Jingwu Association).
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Acquiring “Dark Powers” in the Southern Mantis Tradition: D. S. Farrer Examines the role of animals in the Chinese martial arts.