Introduction: The Architects of Kung Fu Diplomacy
I recently had the opportunity to examine a very interesting series of magazine articles, produced in 1920, discussing the efforts of the (in)famous General Ma Liang to promote the study of the traditional martial arts throughout both the Chinese military and state. The most important thing about these articles was that they were all published in English, and distributed via a coordinated public diplomacy effort, at a time when it is generally assumed that the Western reading public knew nothing about the Chinese martial arts.
Indeed, a certain line of popular thought holds that prior to 1960s the leaders of the martial arts community went to lengths to avoid teaching, or even discussion, their art in the presence of “foreigners.” The fact that these hand combat systems were being actively promoted in the Western press in an attempt to sway public opinion about Chinese society should be a valuable reminder that there were actually multiple competing discourses surrounding the martial arts in the pre-WWII period. Not all of them shared the same goals.
Given how little recognition these efforts typically receive I thought that it might be helpful to provide a few profiles of some of the key players in early attempts to interpret and present the Chinese martial arts to international audiences. The Republic period offers a number of possibilities, but none of them were as energetic as Dr. Chu Minyi. While his career in the Chinese martial arts was actually rather brief, he had an out-sized impact on the global perception of these fighting systems (and Taijiquan in particular) prior to WWII.
Chu’s life was one of adventure and even intrigue. He was an exceptionally intelligent individual who enjoyed a varied academic career followed by a stint in the Nationalist government. These are the achievements that he is normally remembered for. The last time I checked, his Wikipedia page focused exclusively on these aspects of his career and did not even mention his work as a tireless promoter of the Chinese martial arts.
Andrew Morris has chronicled much of this other thread of Chu’s story in his excellent Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sports and Physical Culture in Republican China (California UP, 2004). Still, in his single chapter section devoted to guoshu he was only able to hit some of the highlights of Chu’s short but spectacular involvement with the martial arts.
Additional information on Chu’s approach to the martial arts can be gleaned directly from the pages of the many of martial arts manuals that were published during the late 1920s and 1930s. Chu published manuals on Wu style Taiji, as well as his own innovations, in 1929, 1931 and 1933. Obviously these are all important texts.
Yet even more interesting in some respects was his involvement with other people’s writings. His name appears (or is shamelessly dropped) widely in manuals produced during this period. Chu was often called upon to provide inscriptions and gifts of calligraphy that would grace the front-matter of new works. He actually produced enough of these over the 1930s that it seems possible to observe a subtle evolution in his style of calligraphy.
More important were the prefaces that he wrote for (among others) Wu Zhiqing’s 1931 text on the Zhao school cannon fist method and Wu Tunan’s 1934 manual of taiji saber practice. It is from these sources, the basic outlines of his political career and Morris’ discussion of his involvement with the Guoshu movement that the following biographical sketch has been assembled.
Still, some words of caution are in order. While this account attempts to combine multiple aspects of a life which are normally treated in isolation, it is far from complete. I have a number of outstanding questions about Chu’s personal life and his inner motivations. He has also been discussed in a number of works of political history that still require additional research. Lastly, some of his most interesting publications are now quite rare and I have not yet been able to locate copies of all of them. As such this “sketch” must remain just that. It is only the first few steps in exploring a remarkable (and tragic) life.
Chu Minyi was born into a gentry family living in the Wuxing district of Zhejiang province in 1884. His father was a distinguished physician and was able to provide his son with a fine education. During the concluding decades of the Qing dynasty (for the sons of rich families) this often meant cutting short a strictly Confucian education so that promising students could be sent to schools in Japan, Hong Kong or the West. This exposure to western learning became a hallmark of the rising “new gentry” class and would create many of the reformers that drove the early stages of China’s nationalist revolution and period of rapid reforms.
In 1903 (at the age of 19) Chu was sent by his family on the first of many foreign expeditions. Initially he traveled to Japan where he studied both economics and politics. Later he traveled to Singapore, joined a revolutionary chapter of the Tongmenghui, and then he and the fiery Zheng Jingjiang (who would go on to become one of the “Four Elders of the KMT”) went on to France. There they joined a group of Chinese anarchist supporting revolutionary causes in the home country.
Chu proved to be not only intellectually but also politically energetic. In 1911 he returned briefly to Shanghai, where he took up a leadership position in the Tongmenghui in support of the revolution. Unfortunately he quarreled with Song Jiaoren and soon left once more for Europe. There he followed in his father’s footsteps and earned degrees in both medicine and pharmacology.
In 1915 Chu rushed to China, this time to resist Yuan Shika’s attempt to establish a new Chinese empire. Yet once again the political conditions were not ripe for relocation and he returned to Europe. In 1921 he took up the position of Vice President of the Institut Franco-Chinois of the University of Lyons. A year later he moved on to the University of Strasbourg where, in 1925, he earned his doctorate.
In 1925, following the death of Sun Yat Sen, Chu finally made a more permanent relocation to China. He settled in Guangzhou and was subsequently named as a member of the KMT’s Educational Commission. He also assumed an important academic post as the head of the Guangdong University’s medical school. At the age of 41 Chu had finally returned “home.” But that does not mean that he was content to sit still.
The Taijiquan Years
In much of his later writing Chu would describe himself as a “Taiji addict.” No doubt this was a vivid image at a time when opium and heroin addiction were crippling public health epidemics in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. He practiced his beloved art daily, and (as his many shirtless pictures attest) Chu kept himself in top physical shape.
In some of his biographical writings he mentions that he was always physically active, and studied various forms of calisthenics while in Europe. Yet I have seen nothing in his life history to suggest that he studied the martial arts while on his long educational sojourn. This Western educational background would have a profound impact on Chu. Throughout the rest of his career he would seek to place both “national strengthening” efforts and martial arts on a firm scientific footing.
After 1925 Chu’s life work took on a different character. Politics and a growing obsession with the martial arts came to replace his earlier academic appointments.
This transformation began when Chu boarded a train headed for Shanghai. There he met with the renowned Taijiquan teacher (and founder of the Wu-style) Wu Jianquan. Apparently Wu agreed to teach the young official and even allowed him to photograph each of the postures in his form for future study. And study them he did, as well as the teaching of Wang Zhiqun and Wu Zizhen after returning to his post in Guangdong. When he eventually returned to Shanghai he resumed his studies with Xu Zhiyi, a disciple of Wu Jianquan.
This period of intensive instruction lasted until approximately 1929. Chu’s relatively late start in life, and short period of instruction, should serve as an inspiration for “non-traditional” martial arts students everywhere.
Of course this was also a dynamic period in the development of the Chinese martial arts. When Chu arrived in China the Jingwu Association was just past the height of its fame and doing much to promote the martial arts as a form of physical cultivation suitable to the growing urban middle class. Purged of its superstitious and feudal associations it was capable of strengthening both the psyche of the people as well as their bodies leading, in their own words, to “national salvation.” As both an ardent nationalist and physical fitness enthusiast this message must have been deeply appealing to Chu.
Financial difficulties soon halted the rise of the Jingwu Association, but its lessons had been learned. The KMT quickly moved to establish its own national martial arts program under the banner of the Central Guoshu Institute. Chu saw in this move a chance to combine his love of physical culture with a winning political cause. He was quick to jump on the Guoshu bandwagon.
In the December 1928 issue of the Educational Review, in an article titled “Central Committee Member Chu Min Yi’s Great Hopes for the Guoshu: Presenting Glad Tidings to All of Humanity” he laid out his opening salvo (p. 3-4).
“We know that Chinese Boxing Styles are the finest of all he guoshu and provide even healthy physical development. We can scientize them now, using methods of science to do this research—but how do we do it? It requires paying attention to mechanics and psychology, looking into physiology and hygiene, setting down rules and methods, and explaining them with sound theory….
Our goals in working to promote guoshu are to gather together all those who excel in martial arts and all of the finest points of martial arts. Then we can give this organized, systematized, scholarly, and methodological guoshu to all the people of the world…spreading Chinese guoshu to the entire world will mean glad tidings for humanity.” (Translation quoted from Morris, p. 22).
This succinct statement outlined the path that Chu would follow over the next decade. When discussing this period authors generally focus on the topics covered in his first paragraph, the reform, modernization and “scientization” of the traditional martial arts to make them a strong tool to support the state in its revolutionary struggles. This was, after all, the critical struggle facing the guoshu establishment. Declarations of “taking the Chinese martial arts to the world” are often seen as elaborate rhetorical flourishes, placed in texts such as this more for the psychological benefit of Chinese readers than foreign ones.
I would like to suggest that it may be time to start taking the second half of Chu’s statement just as seriously as the first. It is true that Republic era reformers failed to make the Chinese martial arts popular in the West prior to the outbreak of WWII. They also failed to bring the unity and rationalism that they sought to impose on their own hand combat community. Yet both of these efforts are important for what they suggest about the ways that certain individuals in the KMT sought to use the martial arts as a tool of statecraft.
Specifically, the nature of any sort of nationalist discourse is such that it will always reach at least two audiences, one domestic and the other global. Policy makers may try and isolate these two realms, to control the flow of information between them. Yet information always leaks.
More adept leaders realize this and try to use this property of strategically motivated speech to their advantage. This is done by crafting statements that both bolster the unity of the body politic domestically while increasing the respect (or fear) that the state garners in the international realm.
The political scientist Robert Putnam famously characterized this paradox of strategic communication within the international realm through the metaphor of a “two level chess game.” Being a policy leader is difficult as you face at least two related, but different, simultaneous games, the domestic and the international one.
These can be envisioned as two differently configured chess boards. Yet as a policy maker you only have a single set of pieces that appear on both boards. The challenge of strategic speech (and action) is to come up with a single move that maximizes your outcomes (or minimizes losses) across a variety of opponents at the same time.
Martial Arts reformers such as Chu would have been intimately familiar with the basic logic of Putnam’s paradox. They would also have known that, properly played, this situation could strengthen the hand of the traditional martial arts within Chinese society. After all, the Japanese cultivation of Budo had proved to be a masterstroke of strategic communication. On the one hand it had helped to unify domestic society and strengthen the state. Yet it had also proved to be a powerful international symbol of Japanese strength, uniqueness and legitimacy as a rising power in the realm of global politics.
Chu would have known from first hand observation that Westerns looked to arts like Judo and Kendo in an attempt to understand the Japanese “national character.” By in large they liked what they saw during the 1920s and early 1930s. And in an increasingly interconnected world no country could afford to ignore the imperatives of global public diplomacy.
This was especially true if China wished to gain western support in fending off Japanese imperialist claims. Demonstrating that the people had the physical strength and spiritual will to resist these efforts was critical to China’s public diplomacy. Thus the guoshu effort was never simply domestic in nature. It derived much of its potential value from the fact that Chinese policy makers expected that their efforts would be observed and commented upon by other states in the international system.
This strategy required real effort, and a fundamental rethink of what the Chinese martial arts should be. In a previous era, when they had functioned largely as a means of ensuring one’s economic prospects as a soldier, guard, opera performer, bandit, pharmacist or the like, secrecy made a good deal of economic sense. The monetary benefits of a skill were linked to their scarcity, and they accrued to an individual. In an era when most martial arts methods did not even have names, the emphasis was on either local defense or personal attainment and prestige.
Nor did these considerations magically disappear within the folk martial arts sector at the dawning of the Republic. For Chu and other reformers these older attitudes were a real danger. In their view a martial art did not belong to a single teacher or small lineage organization. They were rightly understood as the property of the nation as a whole. To keep them secret was both to rob your neighbor and flirt with disaster should a master die before properly training a successor.
Throughout the writings of the guoshu period there is a palatable feeling of horror that dominates these discussions of secrecy. It is certainly evident in Chu’s own writings during the 1930s. I suspect that this sentiment is a natural result of a shift in perspective in which the martial arts are transformed from a type of private to community property. The fact that this debate went on for as long as it did would suggest that ultimately the guoshu reformers were not very successful in bringing the folk martial arts community to heel. But that is a topic for a different post.
Chu’s next major text was released in 1929. It was a full length training manual titled “Taiji Boxing Photographed.” The text began with a guest preface and an introduction by the author.
Chu’s introduction to this work is uncharacteristically partisan. He harshly attacks the various forms of Shaolin Kung Fu that were then popular and emphasizes his personal achievements with Taiji’s training methods. This introduction is short and it stands out as it so visibly contrasts with his later writings.
In later efforts Chu would go to lengths to disavow Kung Fu’s traditional rivalries and argue for the centrality of national strengthening over personal attainment. As such his 1929 document seems to be a transitional piece, still reflecting an enthusiasm for Wu style Taijiquan that has not yet been subordinated to the demands of the nation and the masses.
Other tensions are also apparent in this early document. In addition to important photographs of Wu Zhiqing, this manual starts with a reprint of the corpus of Later Imperial texts commonly called the “Taiji Classics.” These sit in dynamic contrast with the final section of the text in which Chu demonstrates the construction and use of a number of special machines that he has created for the express purposes of practicing the more tactile aspects of Taijiquan in the absence of a training partner. These devices include a heavy ball suspended from elastic cords and a free spinning horizontal bar likewise suspended from the interior of a square metal frame.
Chu is quick to point out that these “scientific” devices are in no way superior to the assistance of a skilled training partner. Yet he goes to great lengths to discuss their value in “modern” training situations. After all, what mechanical devices lack in psychological intent they make up for in the ability to mass produce an identical experience that can be experienced by a wide range of students in a number of locations. Each of these students, working on identical machines, is free to imagining their fellows engaged in the modern, scientific, and solidly bourgeois study of China’s new Guoshu arts. While these may be grounded in the country’s ancient cultural heritage, Morris notes that Chu consistently goes to lengths to reimagine the martial arts as something only accessible to China’s educated middle class.
Shortly after the publication of this first manual Chu’s official responsibilities found him on a ship returning to Europe. In 1930 he headed up China’s educational display at the “International Exhibition” in Liège. This proved to be an important trip for Chu. He brought a number of his Taiji balls so that he could demonstrate their use in the traditional martial arts and physical training to a foreign audience. In doing so he hoped to prove that China had both a uniquely ancient system of physical education, but one that could be rationalized, taught and reproduced through mechanical and scientific means.
While on the ship he reports that he also turned his mind to the problem of bringing Taiji to the masses. Like other reformers during the period he noted the difficulties in teaching a form as long and complicated as those typically seen in the Yang and Wu styles to casual students. They took too long to learn and, worse yet, were too easily forgotten.
Like other figures (including Zheng Manqing) Chu responded by creating his own short form. This, when combined with other concepts and movements, formed the basis of Chu’s “Tai Chi Calisthenics,” perhaps his most important contribution to the martial arts of the 1930s and 1940s.
After returning to China in 1931 his initial manual on Tai Chi Calisthenics was published, and then expanded and rereleased in 1933. Andrew Morris notes that in the same year he had his exercises translated into English and French so that they would be more accessible to a global audience. He even dropped the somewhat intimidating term “Tai Chi” from their titled and renamed them simply “circular exercises” for the benefit of Western readers (pp. 226-227). These translated exercises were then presented to a global audience at the Belgian Centennial Exhibition.
Chu’s evolving stance on the martial arts was also captured in the 1931 preface that he contributed to Wu Zhiqing’s manual on Zhao School boxing. Note for instance that his previous disdain for Shaolin boxing has been replaced with a new sense of ecumenical brotherhood…as long as all sides agreed to turn their secrets over to the nation. After all, Chu reasons, China is entering a dangerous period of national competition, and the martial arts have a role to play in these struggles.
“Chinese martial arts can be roughly classified into two branches: Wudang and Shaolin, commonly known as internal training and external training. Although they are different in origin and development, their aim of bringing strength and health to the body is the same. Therefore we should not be biased toward one or the other, but should instead advocate both. Sectarianism is the biggest hindrance to learning and development, and it is unfortunate that colleagues within the martial arts world will often use it to try and one-up each other, which rarely leads to progress. But worst of all are the naive and stubborn who keep their treasure for themselves and are not willing to reveal what they have learned nor freely teach it to others. Although they may have an amazing skill, every bit of it will be lost forever unless they can be generous enough to share what they have….
The way of survival is that the superior succeed and the inferior perish, the stronger animals devouring the weaker. It is entirely a matter of national determination as to whether we will ascend to become one of the strong and prosperous nations. Our rise or fall as a nation is simply a matter of whether or not we strengthen the people as a whole. To achieve this, we must first of all pay particular attention to physical education. Martial arts are the special treasure of our nation, truly the highest form of physical education, and they are a far more economical use of our time and money than exercises such as Western calisthenics. If we encourage capacity to engage in martial arts, then it will not be that they cannot be popularized…..”
Chu was relentless in promoting his new training regime and he seized any platform that he could to demonstrate his system. Perhaps his finest domestic performance came in 1933 when he borrowed and trained 2,000 local school children who demonstrated these methods (led by Chu himself) at the National Games in Nanjing.
In 1934 Wu Tunan’s Wu Style Taiji Saber was released complete with a preface contributed by Chu Minyi. Again, the entire thing is important, but for our purposes the most interesting aspect of his discussion is the single minded focus on the national, rather than individual, nature of the Chinese martial arts. It was this corporate responsibility that demanded a “rational and scientific” approach to reforming the Chinese martial arts. Anything short of this was simply national suicide:
“Therefore we nowadays should strive to rectify these mistakes of previous generations. It is inappropriate to only use martial arts as a way to gain individual health and happiness. We should instead have a deep concern for the well-being of the group, and we should look upon martial arts as a means of more efficiently strengthening our people, thus we should humbly do our utmost to popularize these arts. We especially should meticulously study them, arranging everything about them to make them systematic and organized, then compile them into specialized books to be widely circulated, sometimes even coming up new methods that are more convenient to learn if we have to. In order to be able to make progress in carrying this out, we will, all of my comrades, have to work hard together.”
A dedication to publishing as a way of demonstrating the new-found middle class “respectability” of the martial arts was a hallmark of the entire Republic period. Chu seems to have been especially active in this area, but he was not wedded to the medium of the printed word. Rather, he adopted the most modern means that he had at his disposal to spread the gospel of Taijiquan as well as his own Tai Chi Calisthenics.
In 1935, in conjunction with the Venus Film Company, Chu commissioned the production of a newsreel showing him demonstrating various aspects of Chinese traditional physical culture. This included Taijiquan, Tai Chi Calisthenics, his training devices as well as traditional archery and even shuttlecock. His stated purpose in making the film was to have something to show when he traveled abroad that would illustrate the martial arts.
I suspect that multiple versions of the film were eventually produced. A 1937 Chinese language copy was printed for domestic consumption and it likely contains the earliest visual record of Wu style Taijiquan. Andrew Morris, on the other hand, reports that Chu had a German language version made which was shipped to Europe and entered into the 1936 Olympic Sports and Physical Education Film Contest where it was displayed for western audiences (p. 227).
Indeed, the 1936 Olympics, held in Berlin, were a critical event in the history of China’s Kung Fu diplomacy. While their Olympic team turned in a lackluster performance on the playing fields, Chu had something special planned for the closing ceremonies. There his team of handpicked martial artists performed an hour long demonstration of the traditional Chinese fighting arts. Their efforts were greeted with enthusiasm by a crowd of 30,000 onlookers. The event included demonstrations of Taijiquan and weapons work, but it was a Chu’s own Tai Chi Calisthenics that opened the performance.
In an attempt to explain to the public what they had just seen Chu Minyi also wrote a 28 page pamphlet as an official guide to Chinese delegation’s Guoshu performance. This is now a fairly rare piece of ephemera, and I have yet to locate a copy. But a description from an auction catalog, discovered by the Taijiquan writer Martin Boedicker, noted that the pamphlet contained identical texts written in English, French and German. Apparently Chu wanted to be sure that the wisdom of China’s traditional physical culture would reach as large a Western audience as possible.
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 had a profound effect on the remainder of Chu’s career. Initially he found himself trapped in Shanghai by the pitch battle fought over the city. When his brother-in-law, Wang Jingwei, formed the pro-Japanese Nanjing Nationalist Government Chu joined his administration and held a number of important positions. He spent much of 1940 and 1941 as its foreign minister attempting to negotiate the Axis power’s diplomatic recognition of the collaborationist government.
Chu used his new political platform to promote his training methods. These were subsequently declared the “citizens calisthenics” by the Nanjing government. Yet any such victories were short lived.
In August of 1945, after the Japanese surrender, Chu was arrested by Republic forces in Guangdong. In April of 1946 he was tried for treason and, despite some showings of public sympathy, was executed for his crimes against the state. Even his last moments illustrate the dynamic tensions that characterized his engagement with the martial arts. Morris reports that his final act was to perform a Taijiquan form before his astonished executioners, demonstrating the equanimity of the sages of old. Yet his officially recorded last words are a request that his body be donated to the local hospital to advance the cause of scientific medical research.
This biographical sketch is already longer than I intended. Unfortunately a number of critical questions remain. After living a life abroad why, at the age of 41, did Chu turn to the study of Taijiquan? And how did it become such an obsession?
Was this an attempt to emotionally or spiritually reconnect with the “essence of a nation” that he had fought for from a distance? Was it a calculated political decision to advance his career when it appeared that Guoshu would become an important element of KMT statecraft? And if the violent events of 1937 had not intervened, what other plans did Chu have for advancing the TCMA on a global stage?
Chu’s life would make a fascinating, if tragic, film. As we examine his various actions it becomes evident that, on a fundamental level, it is impossible to disentangle the domestic and the international discourses that surround the martial arts. They are tightly linked, both reinforcing the other. Chu understood this truth better than some others.
When Republic era martial arts reformers translated their materials into Western languages, or claimed a mandate to spread Kung Fu to a global community, rather than dismissing these statements as vacuous rhetorical flourishes, Chu Minyi’s career strongly suggests that perhaps we should take them at their word. Even a brief examination of his contributions reveals that the TCMA’s engagement with the global system is both older and more complex than many students have previously recognized.
If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (10): Chen Shichao and Chen Gongzhe: Creating the Jingwu Revolution