In a recent post discussing the portrayal of the Asian martial arts in early 20th century Western newsreels, I called for a “media archeology” of the early imagery surrounding these fighting systems. The following post comments upon two examples taken from my collection of vintage postcards to better illustrate how ephemera can help us to uncover details of the now forgotten discourses that shaped both the popular culture of that era, and by extension our own.
On the surface the two images that we will be discussing share many similarities. Both are dominated by a single male figure, center frame, wielding a Niuweidao (ox-tailed saber) of the sort that has been popular with civilian martial artists from the late 19th century onward. It was actually the strong, iconic, images of these swords that first drew me to these postcards.
In both cases the sword is used as a visual shorthand to convey a specific emotion. The same can be said for the feeling of physical motion conveyed by the two swordsmen. Lastly, we should note that neither gentleman is described by the card’s publisher as a “martial artist.”
Nevertheless, our swordsmen have distinct stories to tell.
These images were used to support and spread very different discourses about the Chinese martial arts. And all of this was happening at a time when that topic is generally considered to have been invisible in the West. Yet how exactly did the stories of these two swordsmen diverge? To answer that we will need to know a little more about these postcards as physical objects.
“Well Known Sword Juggler in Shanghai City”
Before analyzing the image at the top of this post I would like to revisit another postcard to establish a starting point for the following discussion. It is titled a “Well Known Juggler in Shanghai City.” At one time this was one of the most iconic images of the Chinese martial arts available to Western consumers. I come across about one copy of this postcard a year indicating that it must have been very popular and widely distributed. I don’t think that I have ever seen a postmarked copy of one of these cards. It may have survived in such great quantities precisely because people saved the striking photo in their scrapbooks.
There are two ways of thinking about the age of any postcard. First, we can consider the image itself. Here we have a photograph produced sometime between the late 19th century and 1911. Given the hair style worn by the martial artist, it could not have been produced after the advent of the Republic.
In short, this is a classic image of a late Qing street performer of the sort that is so often remembered with varying levels of derision by modern Chinese martial artists. The photograph itself emphasizes the urban (and filthy) nature of his surroundings. The subject is skinny with pronounced ribs. Yet he also embodies a sort of dangerous, exuberant energy. While the customers receiving this card probably would not have been able to identify his stance, it is clear that he is dedicated to his plan of attack.
The production of the card as a physical object probably coincided closely with the capture of this photograph. The type of split back used on the card strongly suggest that it was printed in Germany (it bears the VDK trademark) sometime between 1907 and 1914 and was intended for export to a variety of Western countries. The card also indicates that it was sold through Kuhn & Komor, a well-known multinational firm specializing in the sale of exotic luxury goods with its headquarters in Shanghai. WWI effectively ended Germany’s global dominance of the postcard industry so we can conclude, with a fair degree of precision, what this card was produced sometime after 1907, but prior to 1914.
The next set of images is labeled “Chinese Sword Dance” (A3-A4). This title is the first thing that we should consider. While “juggling” is a type of vulgar street performance, “dance” (especially early 20th century national folk dances) had a different level of respectability.
Though the weapon held by this martial artist is nearly identical to what we saw before, nearly everything else has changed. While more difficult to date this photo was probably taken in the 1930s. Note that a neat western haircut and polished flair has replaced the traditional queue. All of this suggests that we are now in the era of the ethno-nationalist (and statist) Guoshu movement.
The setting of the photo is also important. Here we see a martial artist in a rural area, performing his ancient national “folk dance” upon a set of stairs that look like a relic of the past. While the first image radiates a feeling of raw power mixed with the sort of anxiety that comes from living on the street, this photo cultivates a serene and relaxed atmosphere.
Like the first martial artist, this one is also in motion. Yet he seems ready to “bend” and twist rather than lash out. We are left with the clear impression of a well fed and well clothed country gentleman. While youth dominates the first frame it is difficult to read the age of the second martial artist. He seems neither particularly young nor old.
Identifying the circumstances under which this postcard was produced is more challenging. The image at the top of this essay is the third (A3) in a series of unknown length. I found another image online showing the next card in the series (A4) but I have not been able to locate any others.
An examination of the back of this card shows that it was printed in Japan, but there is no indication of who the publisher was. It also appears that this card was produced for export to a global market. Under a magnifying class you can see the pixelation in this image indicating that it is not a true reproduction of a photograph. Instead it is a lithograph image reproduced via the photochrome process. This production technique was invented in 1939, and it seems unlikely that Japan would have been exporting many postcards during WWII. So the late 1940s to 1950s (or possibly later) is a better guess.
Also note that there were production issues with these cards. The cheap dyes used in reproducing this image are starting to fade, and all of the copies of this card (A3) that I have seen have identical scratches on the image. Again, all of this points to a cheaply produced, post-WWII postcard. For sheer quality it is actually hard to do better than the pre-WWI German examples.
Two Swordsmen, Two Discourses
While we may be tempted to commence our analysis with the martial artists themselves, perhaps we would get better traction on the evolving discourse surrounding the traditional Chinese martial art by considering the backgrounds and labels that frame these images. Once again, in neither case are we dealing with the “martial arts,” a term that was increasingly applied to Japanese fighting systems by the 1950s.
The first image is urban in nature. Not only is the subject found on the street, but he is labeled as a juggler from “Shanghai,” not China. One suspects that it was the sprawling and dangerous metropolis itself that was the star of this image. Martial arts demonstrations were just one of the many sights that tourists could observe on the city’s streets.
This is actually somewhat ironic as in the late Qing the practice of the martial arts was overwhelmingly identified with rural areas. Much of the derision aimed at professional marketplace martial artists had do with the fact that they were vagabonds who had abandoned their villages for a life of (supposed) hedonism and easy money on the streets of the big city.
The largely Confucian ire directed at these individuals was only partially based on the martial nature of their practice. It also had its roots in the deep suspicion of the city and the types of people who flocked there (especially to the entertainment districts). The boxing societies of rural youth relocating to urban factories, or the crowds that gathered to watch transient street performers, seemed indicative of the local disorder that made China at once colorful and somewhat backwards in the eyes of many reformers.
Given the nature of the product, a postcard does not have to fully establish any of these discourses, or even attempt to add nuance to them. They are basically a type of “kitsch,” rather than art. Like all forms of kitsch, postcards draw on iconic images to trigger pre-existing culturally conditioned responses.
In this case the process seems to have translated indigenous Chinese cultural anxieties about martial artists in a fairly straightforward way. Western tourists were only too eager to be drawn in by the spectacles that they saw on the street, and to find in them an encounter with a dangerous and exotic “oriental other.”
The martial arts reformers of the 1920s and 1930s worked hard to re-imagine these fighting systems. They published books to combat the (somewhat overstated) image of illiteracy that dogged them. Whereas the martial arts had once been most strongly associated with local culture and specific regions (such as “Shanghai”), they sought to re-brand them as carriers of China’s “ancient national heritage” and thus rightly the property of all.
They reformed the ways in which these arts were taught and classes were structured. All of this was done in an effort to make them more accessible to working professionals with nine to five jobs. Lastly, as Republican era popular culture increasingly turned against traditional rural values, and instead came to re-imagine urban areas as China’s future, they worked to promote these systems in cities across the country.
In truth these reformers never managed to stamp out the older, more regionally focused, martial arts culture. Yet they did succeed in laying down a new stratum of social discourse that partially obscured it. For an increasing number of Chinese citizens after 1920, the martial arts would become respectable objects of study, capable of improving health, teaching discipline and unlocking the paradox of China’s once and future national identity.
The amazing thing about this second set of postcards (A3-A4) is the degree to which they highlights every one of these points. This is an image of a cultured martial artist with time to spare for self-improvement. He is the very embodiment of middle class prosperity.
Yet he also represents the modern man who seeks to find balance with (and build upon) the past. His “dance” is proudly proclaimed to be a national, rather than a regional, art. The twisting movements suggest strength wrapped in softness.
While he stands in a rural area, it is not the type of countryside that gave Republic era social commentator heartburn. Rather than declining agriculture and poverty we instead see ancient steps, a relic of China’s past, sanitized and devoid of any “distracting” modern elements. By acting as the backdrop for this set of images, we are assured that the new national arts (guoshu) are capable of cleansing and restoring the country as a whole. The urban values of progressive enlightenment will soon become “Chinese” values. This is a rural countryside yes, but one that has been pacified and colonized by indigenous dreams of an “Orientalized past.” The martial arts now act as a gateway for the physical experience of this cultural construct.
Conclusion: A Picture’s Journey to the West
While these may have been the dominant discourses running though the minds of the martial artists and cameraman in the 1930s, when this image was first produced, how might it have been translated by Western consumers in the late 1940s or 1950s?
Given the events of WWII the Chinese, who had once been viewed with a great deal of suspicion in American cities, were quickly being recast as “model minorities.” Discussions of Chinese history and philosophy became popular during the 1950s as the currents of the Western counter-cultural movement found an easy ally in the self-Orientalizing discourse that had also come to dominate much of the discussion of the traditional martial arts in the previous decades. If anything these trends accelerated after the liberation of the mainland in 1949 as western populations (with the encouragement of the KMT in Taiwan) found new reasons to wax nostalgic for the loss of traditional Chinese culture.
These simple postcards bear visual testimony to the sorts of popular discourses that existed, both in China and abroad, about the traditional martial arts in the first half of the 20th century. Better yet, when set in a series they suggest something about how these discourses evolved over time (from the early to late Republic), and the ways that they may have been translated by the foreign audiences. While much was undoubtedly lost in the process, certain key symbols did convey. Any viewer of these postcards can see the martial arts becoming less threatening, poor and parochial. Instead they are re-imagined as relaxed, cultural in nature and national in origin.
The basic outlines of this transformation would have been immediately recognizable to any of China’s many martial arts reformers. This subtle shift in imagery also constitutes the prehistory that makes the later, post-1960s, explosion of interest in the Chinese martial arts possible. A media archeology of these discourses suggest that they have deeper roots, and more complicated entanglements, than might at first be apparent.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to see: Ming Tales of Female Warriors: Searching for the Origins of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.