Ephemera, such as postcards, tourist snapshots and newspaper accounts are an important (if often overlooked) source of information regarding the traditional Chinese martial arts. While a number of printed manuals and detailed philosophical discussions do exist from the period of the 1920s onward, I am always surprised at how difficult it is to find period accounts of a set of practices and organizations that have done so much to shape our modern perception of Chinese identity. When rediscovered, ephemera is fascinating precisely because it suggests something about the individuals who consumed it as well as offering a few nuggets of information regarding the social place of the practices that they report.
A Marketplace Demonstration of Heroic Kung Fu
The main image for today’s post is no exception. It records a fascinating snapshot of the modern evolution of the traditional Chinese martial arts. But which moment is it?
I first acquired this image in the from of a vintage photograph taken form a tourist’s travel album. Unfortunately, as is often the case, a dealer had already broken up the individual collection and was selling off the photos one at a time. While a common sales strategy this is regrettable as it deprives students of the opportunity to use the rest of the album to contextualize, and hopefully identify, the scene that we are interested in.
The photograph itself measures 3.5 by 5.5 inches and is in generally good condition. Its surface has been scratched in a few places and the scene is generally a bit overexposed. It was probably taken on a bright and sunny day.
The backside of the photo has no labels but does show signs that it was once pasted onto a scrapbook page. Images like this were often printed in large numbers by local photographers for sales to tourists and travelers. Unfortunately, the lack of studio marks means that we have no idea where the image was taken or by whom.
The label under which the photo was sold has also been singularly unhelpful. When it was first auctioned the photograph was said to show two martial artists training in Hong Kong during the 1940s.
Given the arid look of the landscape and the fortress walls in the background, I suspect that this is unlikely. The image was probably taken in Northern China at any point between the late 1920s and the 1940s. When I first saw this image my gut instinct was to date it to some point in the 1930s.
But again, what exactly is this a picture of?
At first glance we are meant to see a recording of a typical marketplace martial arts performance. As we have argued elsewhere, these were a critical element of China’s hand combat subculture and were the places where non-practitioners were most likely to actually see and be exposed to these systems. That may also help to explain (in part) the low esteem in which many ordinary citizens held the tradition martial arts at this point in time.
Yet upon closer inspection we immediately notice that the image has actually been rather extensively staged. To create a sense of “activity” the cameraman stood close to his subjects, requiring that they stand close to one another. A good swing from the sword held by the man on the left could take off the near child’s leg at the hip. Likewise, the sharpened tip of the spear held by this child is positioned only a few inches away from a spectator’s spleen. While this shot successfully conveys a feeling of drama and action, it is not an example of spontaneous “street photography.” Rather it is an attempt to convey the photographer’s impression of a dynamic and quickly moving hand combat demonstration.
The most interesting element of this photograph is probably the matching hooked swords held by the instructor of the two young fighters. This weapon, referred to by a number of names including the Shuang Gau, or “tiger head hook swords,” is rarely seen in antique collections. Nor, for that matter, is much known about its development and use.
While commonly employed by modern martial arts practitioners today, there are only a limited number of antique examples available for study. Most of these date to either the late 19th or early 20th century. Nor are there any clear literary, military or artistic references to this weapon prior to the late 19th century. As such we can safely assume that these weapons were developed and popularized by civilian martial artists in Northern China during the late Qing revival of interest in boxing. In fact, the creation of such esoteric weapons and accompanying oral traditions may suggest something important about the fundamental nature of this movement.
This is not to suggest that these swords are not “real” weapons. They most certainly were.
While they were never issued by the military, reliable reports from those who have handled well-made period examples suggest that they could have been quite deadly in skilled hands. By the Republic period these weapons were being used in a few Northern styles including Seven Star Mantis. They later made their way south and were adopted into the Choy Li Fut system. Still, their appearance in this relatively early photograph further suggests a northern location.
Conclusion: Efficacy and Entertainment in Republic Era Martial Arts
It may also be of some interest to note that the very first photo published in this series also featured a martial artist wielding a pair of tiger head hook swords. Both of these images captured this rare weapon’s appearance as one element of a larger public performance. They collectively suggests an element of theatricality and possibly the ultimate reason why these swords began to spread throughout the Chinese martial arts world during the Republic period.
As D. S. Farrer reminds us, the martial arts are by their very nature social activities mediated by cultural forms. If this was not the case they could not be taught by one generation to the next. Yet this fundamental truth also suggests that every aspect of these systems, including their weapons, will include elements of “efficacy” and “entertainment.” Nor is it ultimately possible to disentangle these elements as an increase on one side of the equation leads to new possibilities opening up for the other.
The sudden appearance of the Shuang Gau in both the training halls and performance stages of Northern China suggests something about the fundamental trends that were driving innovation within the Northern martial arts during the Republic period. These photographs and postcards are valuable historical documents precisely because they grant insights into how both of these elements, the practical and the symbolic, were being framed for the audience at a specific moment in time.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: London, 1851: Kung Fu in the Age of Steam-Punk