Secrecy vs. Advertising in the Chinese Martial Arts
I recently reviewed Charles Russo’s excellent work, Striking Distance, which discussed the spread of the Chinese martial arts on the West Coast of the United States during the middle of the 20th century. It is a great contribution to the ongoing discussion of the history of these fighting systems, and anyone who is unfamiliar with it will want to check it out.
In this post I would like to offer a slightly different perspective on a theme that arose repeatedly throughout Russo’s study. How should we think of the supposed secrecy that surrounded the Chinese martial arts in the West prior to the late 1960s? This is a topic that Russo treats with a fair amount of nuance.
To begin with, some pretty prominent teachers actually taught western students prior to the “lifting of the ban”, and even those who did not personally do so (such as Lau Bun) had senior students of their own that were more than willing to take up the torch. Nor is it really clear how many western students were petitioning these masters for Kung Fu instruction during the 1950s. It must be remembered that the Chinese martial arts were a pretty esoteric subject at that point, and not even as popular within their own community as they would become in later decades. It may have been very easy to enforce a “teaching ban” in an era when practically no one was asking to be taught.
Even worse, an over-emphasis on the supposed secrecy of the Chinese martial arts has had some perverse effects on how we discuss them. As Paul Bowman (among others) has noted, when we emphasize the “ban” on outsiders the end result is to throw the charge of racism back on the Chinese-American community when in fact they were the ones who were subjected to vast amounts of actual (not imagined) discrimination.
Still, Russo reminds us that we cannot simply dismiss these norms out of hand. While some Chinese teachers were willing to violate them, they also report being the victims of various sorts of pressures, ranging from economic to actual threats of violence. After numerous interviews he concluded that there was no reason to doubt the accounts of actual teachers reporting these attitudes within their own community. Still, by the early 1970s the flood gates were open. So possible range of years in which a ban could have seriously restricted the economic freedom of large numbers of potential students and teachers is actually pretty limited.
All of this is very interesting, but it is well worth remembering that the Tong associations of either San Francisco or New York did not monopolize access to, or the public discussion of, these fighting systems. In the grand scheme of the globalization of the Chinese martial arts they were rather minor players who had more influence over members of their own community than the various masters who started to emigrate directly from China to the west throughout the 20th century (Zheng Manqing being a prime example). While they may have preferred that traditional hand combat methods not be taught, or even discussed, with outsiders, other groups had very different plans.
By the second and third decades of the 20th century various thinkers in China realized that the martial arts could be employed as important tools of state building and nationalism. Many of these efforts drew inspiration from the Japanese use of Budo culture in these same roles decades earlier. And once the TCMA began to be reimagined as tools of the state, they immediately became part of China’s growing “public diplomacy” efforts.
In an earlier time public diplomacy was often referred to as “propaganda.” This typically refers to coordinated media programs designed to influence the thoughts and feelings of the citizens of other countries so that they are more favorably disposed to one’s goals or preferred policy outcomes. Such efforts can take a variety of forms, and they can be led either directly by state actors or individuals in the private sector.
During the Second World War the term propaganda was seriously discredited and left with only negative connotations. It fell into disuse, except as a slur. Political scientists and policy makers today are more likely to speak of “public diplomacy” or “national brand management.” Still, the basic idea is much the same.
Nor is public diplomacy necessarily a bad thing. It is hard to think of how it is even possible to address certain pressing problems within the international system, from deterring the spread of radical religious identities to building a consensus to fight climate change, without the skillful use of public diplomacy. It is one of the very basic implements of diplomacy and statecraft that every country has in their toolbox.
As Chinese policy makers observed the West’s fascination with Japanese martial arts such as judo and kendo they quickly realized that their own fighting systems could play an important role in shaping how China was perceived by the global public. After all, the West was looking to the Budo arts to try and understand how the Japanese “national character” had contributed to their surprising military and economic rise. Essays on judo and kendo were surprisingly common in the early 20th century, and a fair number of individuals were deciding to try these practices out for themselves.
In contrast, the Western public tended to view the Chinese as politically disorganized, economically backward, socially insular and physically weak. This was the climate in which the image of China as the “Sick Man of East Asia” began to circulate.
By promoting a streamlined and revitalized system of martial arts training certain policy makers hoped not just to rebuild the domestic body politic, but also to influence how China was perceived on the international stage. If the new Republic wished to receive any assistance in its struggle against Japanese imperialism and later communism, it was necessary to demonstrate both that the state was unified and that the people possessed the will to resist oppression. The discussion of China’s proud martial arts heritage, and recent efforts to revive and modernize it, could accomplish both of these tasks at the same time.
In a recent post we looked at newsreels from the 1920s and 1930s in which the Western movie-going public was exposed to these exact messages. It was also interesting to see how the discussion of the Chinese fighting arts differed from contemporary discussions of Japanese systems.
This post looks at an even earlier example of the use of the Chinese martial arts in Republic era public diplomacy. During the spring of 1920 Rodney Gilbert wrote an essay titled “China, Parent of Jiu-Jitsu” for the aptly named Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information. Later that summer the essay was reprinted in various formats in a number of sources including the North China News in Shanghai (a paper for which Gilbert), the Mid-Pacific Magazine (Volume 20, Number 5), The Literary Digest (May 29th) and the Far East Republic.
Gilbert was a classic example of a unique sort of adventurer that was drawn to China during the Republic period. He appeared on the other side of the Pacific flat broke with the intention of becoming a pharmaceutical salesman, but he quickly found his calling in journalism. Gilbert lived in China for decades becoming one of the media’s “old China hands.” He wrote for a number of papers and eventually ended up having relationships with such prestigious institutions as the Columbia University School of Journalism.
However, a closer look at this writing quickly reveals that Gilbert was very conservative. He is best remembered for his many attacks on communism. Gilbert also played a role in American and Chinese public diplomacy efforts, writing pieces that supported the Republic’s government in an attempt to create sympathy among American readers. During this period he was in frequent contact with political and social leaders, as well as the OSS (the precursor of the CIA). Nor were communists his only target. He also wrote a number of pieces supporting the Chinese government against Japanese aggression.
The longest and most complete versions of this article (which I have so far been able to locate) appears to be the one published by the Far East Republic, quoted verbatim from the Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information. I have not been able to find a lot of information on this later publication. Apparently it only ran for a few years, and its goal was to print English language articles designed to educate and encourage support for the Chinese government among Western readers. The profile of many of its contributors seems to have been similar to Gilbert’s. Again, many of them were notably conservative writers with connections to various figures in both the Chinese and western policy establishments.
This particular essay is quite interesting and a few individuals have already commented on versions of it. Joseph Svinth reprinted a shortened commentary on the piece as published in the Literary Journal (May, 1920) in the Electronic Journal of Martial Arts Studies (EJMAS) in 1999 Acevedo quoted extensively from Svinth’s version in his own blog post titled “Ma Liang – Chinese Martial Arts Modernizer, Warlord and Traitor.”
Rehabilitating Ma’s image after his notorious crackdown on student protestors seems to have been one of the specific goals of Gilbert’s commission. Nor should we overlook the fact that Ma himself had just published his groundbreaking, four volume, “New Martial Arts of China” prior to the release of this article. Gilbert obliquely notes the release of these books before pointing out that various western military men had examined Ma’s methods and declared that there was nothing here that could not be adopted by Occidental armies wishing to brush up their own training.
All of this should remind us that when we approach this article we are looking at a piece of public diplomacy, emerging from a specific time and place, with a very specific policy agenda. This is not a work of disinterested journalism or the product of a trained anthropologist. In fact, one rather strongly suspects that it was General Ma himself who commissioned the Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information to promote both his book and military training system while knocking the Japanese down a peg. Given his important but colorful place in modern martial arts history, this is an important possibility to consider.
Even more critical is to remember that at the same time that the “Old Tong Code of Silence” may have been in full force in certain neighborhoods in the US, vastly larger forces were mobilizing around the idea of promoting the Chinese martial arts on the global stage. Figures like Ma were well aware of the profound effects of Judo on the Western discussion of Japan, and they sought to promote the Chinese martial arts to boost both their own national image and policy goals abroad.
Perhaps the apex of these efforts would be achieved during the 1936 Olympic Games when Taijiquan was demonstrated to a receptive global audience. But that should not be understood as a unique event. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s there was a steady drip of English language articles, books, demonstrations and newsreels all attempting to bring a more favorable vision of the TCMA into Western discussions of Chinese society. Rather than focusing on a so called “code of silence,” the more interesting question might be to ask why these liberalizing efforts failed to gain greater traction, and how they came to be so totally forgotten. Yet that is the topic of another post.
When reviewing Gilbert’s discussion of Chinese martial arts readers may want to keep two questions in mind. First, did he actually witness the event that he reports here? While it is generally assumed that the answer must be yes, I can’t help but notice that Gilbert never actually claims such in his article. Rather the entire discussion is phrased in terms of what a theoretical visitor might see if he were able to take in Ma’s (rightly famous) demonstration. Nor does Gilbert make any claim to expertise in the Chinese martial arts beyond what he has seen on the opera stage.
Secondly, note the rhetorical skill with which Gilbert makes an important two part move. First, he asserts the uniqueness of the Chinese martial arts and their (historically grounded) superiority to similar Japanese systems. It is this deep connection to the nation’s history that makes them (and subsequently Ma’s leadership) uniquely well suited for the simple Chinese people, turning “loutish coolies” into modern disciplined soldiers. Yet at the same time, the deep truths behind these practices are seen to be perfectly compatible with western norms of progress and efficiency. As a result, it is the western readers and military officers who can immediately identify the actual value in Ma’s program, while a reluctant Chinese nation is only now being convinced to embrace what was best about their past. It is the Chinese people who are surprised by Ma’s success, but not the western public.
While Gilbert’s readers reside outside this system of bodily practice, the author succeeds in creating a sense of belonging to an “insider” community based on the assumption of shared norms. In that way readers may be convinced of the value of the martial arts as well as Ma’s heroic leadership. This dual move also serves to legitimate China’s place in the global community of nations. It is seen to have a unique cultural heritage which is, nevertheless, of universal value. It is exactly this claim which would propel the rise of so many Asian martial arts during the second half of the 20th century.
By Rodney Gilbert
The Far East Republic: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Republic of China. Vol. 2 No. 11 (August) 1920. Pp 230-232.
About 15 year ago the study of the Japanese system of self-defense generally known as jiu-jitsu became popular in Occidental countries. Japanese Professors of the art were permanently retained; some Europeans and Americans came to the Far East to take postgraduate courses in Japan, and the impression they gave was that jiu-jitsu was very much more than a system of wrestling tricks, and that it involved a profound knowledge of the human anatomy. The writer does not remember that while jiu-jitsu received all this advertising abroad, it was ever mentioned that it was not native to Japan but, like so much else in Japan, had been originally borrowed from China. That the system of wrestling which is parent to jiu-jitsu is still cultivated in China, and is now widely taught, only recently became known to the writer, and though many other may be fully aware of this, it is probably not commonly known that the Chinese professors of the art claim that the Japanese system of self-defence is incomplete and that the old Chinese science of self-defence is still superior.
Gen. Ma Liang, Enthusiast
The most ardent living patron of physical training along old Chinese lines is the Commander of the 2nd Division of the Frontier Defence army and of the 47th Mixed Brigade, General Ma Liang, now Occupational Commissioner at Tsinanfu. Among foreign newspaper readers General Ma Liang is probably best known through his conflict with the student demonstrators in Tsinan last spring when he was given a great deal of adverse advertising and was reported to have made many speeches, which seemed to anyone familiar with the man’s character utterly inconsistent with the whole trend of his ideas.
To old residents of North China, he has been known for many years as an instructor in various military schools. For a time in 1912 he was acting President of the Peking Government University. Nearly every prominent military man in North China has been associated with him at one time or another and he has many staunch friends. But for some reason it does not seem to be generally known in either foreign or Chinese circles that for 18 years General Ma has been working upon a revival of ancient Chinese military training; that he has trained more than 30,000 students in his revivified science and has introduced his system of physical culture into so many branches of the army that more than 300,000 soldiers are indirectly his pupils in a system of physical training designed to school them in self-defence.
The value of the work which General Ma has done can never be appreciated until one has seen a corps of his students going through their exercises. The foreigner in China usually has the impression that the Chinese take no interest in physical culture and that they would much rather be spectators of exhibitions of physical prowess than participate in any sort of sports. Perhaps it is because General Ma’s system of training is indigenous and is hallowed by ancient traditions that the Chinese take so kindly to it, but whatever the reason, General Ma’s pupils do take up thir [sic] work with a vim and enthusiasm which would astonish any foreigner who has preconceived notions of the Chinese aversion to rough sports.
The Biggest Thrill on Record.
The writer has witnessed the sports of many peoples, has been in the audiences of all the great circuses and Wild West shows, and is familiar with all the Occidental sports from boxing to lacrosse, but he has never seen a performance in which more skill and agility were shown or an exhibition of rougher horse-play than that which is provided by the men who drill in Tsinan under General Ma Ling’s personal supervision.
The dramatic features of the performance, like all Chinese affairs of the kind, are perfect. One feels throughout that no feature of the drill was ever designed without having the spectator in mind. To the European, this detracts a little from the performance and is bound to get the impression that the training is more showy than practical, and while much is done that is exceedingly graceful and requires much agility, it is much better adapted to the theatre than to the actual field of combat. The Chinese of course never get this impression.
Almost every foreigner who is interested in Chinese affairs has seen displays of sword manipulation in the theatre. The hero of the piece rushes out with a glittering blade in each hand, slashes the air with them in all directions, does all manner of wonderful acrobatics which frequently force him to turn his unprotected back to the enemy, and one’s Chinese friends explain in an impressed tone after it is all over, that this paragon of agility was fighting fifty enemies. It would be very unjust to General Ma, indeed, to give the impression that this whole performance is of this character, but there is enough of it introduced to make the Chinese spectators gasp and to make any foreign witnesses who have seen real broadsword contests smile. If one views the whole performance as nothing more than a show, an entertainment, he is bound to confess it is one of the best he has ever seen, and that most of the acrobats and swordsmen in Chinese theaters are amateurs compared with General Ma’s soldiers, everyone of whom is thoroughly drilled in the various arts of which samples are given during the performance.
Stage and Properties.
The show begins gently and placidly with a drill in calisthenics and comes to a climax in a whirlwind of violence in which the performers are groups of sun-blackened over-muscled men of terrific strength and agility, none of whom one would care to meet in the dark. The drill-ground is a small court in which the earth has been rolled hard and from which every pebbled and fragment of stone has been carefully picked. Along the wall there is rack of antique Chinese weapons, straight swords, curved swords, lances, halberds, quarter-staves, clubs linked together like flails and many other weapons for which we have no name. At the south end of the court there is a number of large stone dumb-bells, piles of granite paving stones and little heaps of bricks and tiles which serve an astonishing purpose at the end of the show.
The audience sits under a pavilion at the north end of the court and after tea and cigarettes have been served, a group of students from the training school, which is now supplying instructors in physical culture to the schools in the army of many provenances, file through a gate in the south end of the court and do their calisthenics.
We Occidentals have gone pretty thoroughly into calisthenics, but the Chinese have contrived to devise a system of movements which has little in common with anything one sees in Western gymnasiums. It seems designed to develop suppleness and double-jointedness rather than muscular strength. This is very hard to describe, but if one can imagine a system of drill for a class of would-be contortionists, he will have some understanding of the peculiarities of this system. In a remote city in Shensi, the writer once saw a soldier with his foot on the parapet of the city wall, apparently making a violent effort to make his knee joint bend the wrong way. He explained that he was preparing his leg muscles against possible strain and this seems to be the basis of Chinese calisthenics. The muscles are twisted and the joints are strained by every movement and the result is that the boys are remarkably lithe and tough, rather than much developed.
Quarter-Staff for the Million.
Following the calisthenics comes a sword drill with straight swords, and following this there is a drill in the use of a quarter staff about six feet long. At this point in the performance, General Ma will explain to his friends and guests, that in this drill he has devised something which will rejuvenate China and give every man, woman and child not only a good physique, but also self-reliance. He points out that the Chinese people are poor and that they cannot all possess firearms and be skilled in their use, but that a man with a good-sized club who knows how to use it, can take care of himself almost anywhere and that its constant use will give him and excellent physique. As he says, almost anyone, no matter how poor, can procure a club, and his training in the use of a club will give a man strength and self-reliance; that if everyone in China could be persuaded to go through this simple training the people would be much more vigorous and aggressive, mentally as well as physically.
As this is a plea which is advanced for drills and gymnasiums of all sorts in every country in which it is vogue, there is nothing novel in the theory to the Occidental, but among the Chinese General Ma’s arguments for universal physical training are probably more unique and somewhat radical. He declares that the Chinese are too drowsy; that they sleep too much, sit too much and eat too much and that anything which would make them more active physically and more self-reliant in their personal encounters with one another would make them more aggressive and confident as a nation.
The quarter-staff drill is a little more strenuous than calisthenics. It is followed by exhibitions of boxing in which kicking also plays a part, and which, while it is apparently staged simply as an exhibition of agility and muscular control, involves some pretty hard slapping and kicking. The men dive about the courtyard, landing upon the hard ground in all possible attitudes, roll over lightly, and bound to their feet. It does not seem to do the least harm to one of these acrobats to slide a few yards along the hard earth on his face, and a vigorous kick in the jaw simply starts one of the boxers on a series of back somersaults which he concludes with a bow and a smile.
Wrestling Fast and Furious.
After this comes the wrestling which is fast and furious and which is very evidently no child’s play. General Ma shows the keenest interest in this and impresses his friends with the fact that it is much more completely developed than the “small part” which the Japanese have borrowed. To the foreigner it would certainly seem the most business-like and most useful part of the whole performance.
The men strip to the waist and put on short, closely quilted canvas jackets which are belted with long sashes. The play is too fast and furious for a spectator to understand the rules clearly. It would seem that all grips are taken upon the canvas jacket, tripping is apparently permissible and while the spectators sometime protest against leg-holds, some of the wrestlers resorted to this. A man is thrown when he loses his balance and immediately releases his hold upon the adversary. In most cases, however he does not go down gently, and some of the throws are so violent that the thud of the defeated one’s body resounds throughout the courtyard.
In this phase of the drill the Japanese are of course intensely interested. General Ma says that thousands of Japanese officers and men have come at one time or another to see the performance, and, according to credible witnesses, one or two of the best wrestlers have thrown every jiu jitsu champion whom the Japanese have been able to bring to Tsinan.
The Spectator Gasps.
Highly dramatic combats with lances and swords follows the wrestling and while it is certain that the men purposefully miss one another in their lunges and slashes, they miss by so narrow a margin that the spectator is out of his seat throughout most of the contest.
After these artists come the strong men, as highly developed as any whom we are accustomed to see in the Occident. One man takes a dumb-bell weighting 266 popnds [sic], tosses it in the air catches it on his upturned forearms tosses it again, catches it in one hand, rests it upon his head and then twirls it about his neck, shoulders and waist. Another lies upon his back, supports dumb-bells weighting 540 pounds on his feet and hands and upon these a pyramid of nine men is built. A number of lesser lights perform with lesser dumb-bells, then a man rushes to the front, two others toss a granite paving stone four inches thick on his back and it cracks with a sledge hammer.
This is a signal for a general furor of tile and brick breaking among the acrobats. They break bricks in their hands, break them over their arms, over the backs of their necks, and over each other’s faces. One man leans over balances six bricks on the side of his face, while another smashes them all with a seventh. A man with half a dozen tiles in each hand will clip them over his neighbor’s ears and break them all. Finally in the midst of this whirlwind of destruction, one round-headed devotee drops on his knees, puts half a brick on top of his head upon which a huge slab of granite is balanced which is then shattered with a sledge hammer. The show is then over.
Silk from a Sow’s Ear.
This is an exemplification of what General Ma is his book describes as “The Chinese New Military Art.” In this age of tanks, aeroplanes, ponderous artillery and poison gas, the layman is probably puzzled to understand what such a show as that which I have superficially described, has to do with military science. Military people know, however, that the physical fitness and spirit of the man engaged in modern conflict are still more important than the machinery used. The layman sees in General Ma’s drill nothing but a highly diverting circus, but the military man sees in it a system of mental and muscular training which takes a loutish and stupid coolie and makes of him an alert, sensitive, highly disciplined man who can be readily trained in the use of any weapon and is prepared to undertake any amount of training, fatigue and hardship.
Military men who have seen the show have told the writer that there is scarcely any feature of it which could not be adapted to Occidental uses, and they all agree that if such a system of physical training were introduced in the Chinese schools it would tremendously enhance the value of the Chinese male population as military ma-[le population as military material.] [sic].
(By Rodney Gilbert in Bulletin of the Chinese Bureau of Public Information.)
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Research Notes: Foreign Attitudes towards Kung Fu in Colonial Hong Kong