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Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Weapons

The Chinese Repeating Crossbow, Double Swords and the “Oriental Obscene”

A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals. Unknown Photographer.

A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals. Unknown Photographer.





Introduction: J. G. Wood and the Popularization of the “Oriental Obscene.”


The following post introduces a few accounts of the Chinese (and other Asian) martial practices taken from a book first published in the United Kingdom during the 1860s.  When discussing sources such as these I find that there is a tendency to dwell on the rediscovery of “the first” account of some sort of behavior or art.   In this case I am very happy to say that the Rev. J G. Wood broke no new ground.  That is precisely what makes his early, and often overlooked, accounts so interesting to students of martial arts studies.

Wood was deeply interested in natural history, and he dedicated much of his life to researching, studying and writing about the varieties of biological and social life.  Born in London in 1827, and educated as a member of the clergy (at Oxford), he gained a fair amount of fame in his lifetime for his writings and innovative lectures on the natural world.  Yet Wood was not really a research scientist.  Instead he excelled as a popularizer of scientific thought.   While Wood was never the first person to write on some new topic, he was often the second.  And what he wrote entered the public discussion.

These facts are easily confirmed.  Wood’s books were best sellers during his lifetime and went through many editions.  They also managed to be referenced in the popular culture of their day.  Both Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Mark Twain cited or referenced Wood’s encyclopedic collections in their own works of popular fiction.

While Wood seems to have been preoccupied with the natural sciences, on a few occasions he did venture into the field of traveler’s tales and ethnographic accounts.  This is not surprising as by the second half of the 20th century travelogues had become one of the most popular genera of popular literature throughout the West.  Thus it would not be unusual for a professional author with a penchant for collecting to try his hand at such a profitable game.  Wood’s most popular (and frequently reprinted) effort in this area was the two-volume set The Uncivilized Races, or Natural History of Man (1868).

Readers should note, however, that Wood was not a global explorer.  After becoming a professional lecturer late in life he did have the opportunity to visit North America on a number of lecture tours.  Yet he did not directly observed most of the societies he discussed in The Uncivilized Races.  Like Frazer and Durkheim, he conducted his ethnographic research in the library.  In the social realm, as in the natural, Wood popularized preexisting discourses rather than creating them.

This is precisely what makes him so useful to us.  The problem with spending huge amounts of effort to locate the lost and forgotten “very first account” of some obscure practice is that it was so often ignored by its intended audience.  That is precisely why these things are so hard to find.  The same forces that make them obscure today often limited their relevance even to their contemporaries.

Yet if we want to know what the general level of understanding of Chinese, Japanese and Indian martial practice was during the middle of the 19th century, Wood is a good place to start.  And if we are interested in the ways in which the Western public imagined these practices and their connection to social violence during the 1860s, he is invaluable.  While far from groundbreaking his volume reminds us of the sorts of accounts that would have been available to a curious reader able to gain entrance to a fair sized library during the second half of the 19th century.  And there is more there than one might think.

This brings us to the content of Wood’s collection.  In this post I have excerpted a single section of his discussion of warfare in 19th century China as it will be of the greatest interest to readers of Kung Fu Tea.  Yet Wood also reported accounts of the martial and military arts (broadly defined) of the Manchu, Japanese and Indian peoples as well.  As such this volume presents us with an opportunity to observe the ways that these discourses were starting to diverge in the 1860s.

Wood’s Chinese chapter seems to be driven by his own preoccupation with weapons and weapon collecting.  After a discussion of Chinese field artillery and siege guns (omitted from my post as it is mostly of interest to military historians) he turns to a discussion of more familiar topics.  These include one of the most detailed period discussions of the Chinese repeating crossbow I have ever seen (a weapon that Wood had obvious admiration for and found to be totally ingenious in its operation and simplicity), the types of swords and double swords seen in public sword dancing displays, and finally the use of extreme means of torture and execution by the Chinese judicial system.

I have always been fascinated by the repeating crossbow, and so I was happy to run across Wood’s assessment of the weapon’s design and capabilities.  And it is fascinating (though not unprecedented) that a resident of the UK could speak with confidence about the sorts of Kung Fu displays that they had observed in their home country during the middle of the 19th century. I did, however, omit most of the discussion of torture and execution that takes up the majority of this chapter.

On the one hand this material is not terribly relevant to how we define the martial arts today.  Yet I did include the introduction to the section because it appears to have been very relevant to how Wood and others understood the parameters and meaning of social violence within China during the 1860s and 1870s.  While at one point the author finds himself making a mental equivalence between the practice of a Chinese sword dancer and western fencer (speculating that the later would likely get the better of the former), it is clear that for the most part he did not view the Western and Chinese realms of the “martial arts” to be equivalent.

When discussing the military (and recreational) practices of Europe, Wood, like any good child of the enlightenment, emphasized rationality and efficiency.  Yet when discussing the Chinese (and to a lesser extent other Asian nations) the physical practice of these arts could not be separated from the cultural and psychological impulse towards cruelty and actual sadism that he saw throughout society.  His readers are burdened with oddly personalized stories of graphic tortures and executions in an attempt to raise a level of sympathy for the Chinese people.

Yet they are informed, in almost the same breath, that these same long suffering victims are primed to unleash similar cruelties on their own vanquished enemies.  Like others in his generation Wood built an image of China’s national character (as well as its fighting arts) grounded in a culturally conditioned impulse towards cruelty.

Such account only became more common in the popular literature with the rise in anti-Christian violence and the approach of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1900).  By this era there is often a sharp divide in how the Chinese and Japanese martial arts are discussed in Western texts.  While the Chinese arts are still imagined as the preview of dirty market place performers, religious fanatics and sadistic jailers, judo and kendo are held up as important cultural accomplishments and a key to understanding the Japanese miracle.

Importantly no such tendency is yet evident in Wood’s work.  Published in the 1860s (and relying on accounts that were even older), the Samurai are still very much a living presence in Wood’s vision of Japan, and this does nothing good for his opinion of that country’s martial arts.  Wood seems to have adopted the popular late Tokugawa civilian opinion of the Samurai class which saw them only as a repository of derelict and dangerous individuals who, more often than not, contribute little to the actual support of society.

Wood notes with some relish the similarities between urban, low ranking, Samurai and the Western tradition of “swashbucklers.”  He dwells on scenes of Japanese swordsmen testing their blades of stay dogs, leaving dismembered and disabled animals in their wake.  Nor would it have been hard to find Japanese merchants or artisans who would have agreed with Wood’s critique of the moral development of the samurai.  It seems that the real (notably unromantic) Samurai needed to vanish before either Japanese or Western society could develop an acute case of nostalgia for their martial pursuits.

Wood’s accounts of both the Chinese and Japanese military classes focused on powerful symbols of cruelty and disorder.  While he discussed instances of Chinese sword dancing, and the precursors of modern Japanese Kendo and Sumo wrestling, these activities seem to have been viewed as ultimately extensions of pathological cultural processes.  The Western reading public knew about them.  Even by the 1860s they had entered some level of popular discourse.  But they were not yet seen as the sorts of practices that anyone would want to make a Sunday afternoon hobby of.

Sylvia Shin Huey Chong may be of some help in thinking about Wood and what his work suggests about the place of the Japanese and Chinese martial practices (and violence more generally) in 19th century popular thought.  In a book titled The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era, she puts forth an analysis of popular media in the 1980s that argued that the image of Asians as both the perpetrators and victims of horrific acts of violence and brutality reflected the psychological state of a country dealing with the fallout of a war of imperialist aggression in an era when Asians were becoming an ever more visible aspect of America’s social landscape.

While reading Wood I was struck by this same dual portrayal of Chinese citizens as both victims of unimaginable violence and incorrigible sadists.  Further, these accounts also emerged in the wake of a number of imperialist wars in Asia, and at a time when China was increasingly becoming a central hub in the global trade network (indeed, that was the root cause of the Opium Wars).

Obviously there are many aspects of Chong’s carefully argued critique that are unique to the post-Vietnam American experience.  Still, her basic insights may help us to make sense of some of the most puzzling, and troubling, aspects of Wood’s treatment of Asian martial practices.  Ultimately the obsession with judicial violence in accounts like his may suggest more about social state of 19th century Europe than China itself.  Nor would these attitudes disappear quickly.  They would linger and in some cases be reinforced by the conflicts of the 20th century.  The reemergence of these attitudes (commented on by Chong and others) followed a well-worth pathway in Western popular culture.
Repeating Crossbow

Chinese Warfare


“The most characteristic Chinese weapon with which I am acquainted is the repeating crossbow (shown on page 1425), which, by simply working a lever backward and forward, drops the arrows in succession in front of the string, draws the bow, shoots the missile, and supplies its place with another.  The particular weapon from which the drawings are taken was said to have been one of the many arms which were captured in the Peiho fort.

It is not at all easy to describe the working of this curious bow, but, with the aid of the illustration, I will try to make it intelligible.

The bow itself is made of three strong, separate pieces of bamboo, overlapping each other like the plates of a carriage-spring, which indeed it exactly resembles.  This is mounted on a stock, and, as the bow is intended for walled defense it is supported in the middle by a pivot.  So far, we have a simple crossbow; we have now to see how the repeating machinery is constructed.  Upon the upper surface of the stock lies an oblong box, which we will call the “slide.”  It is just wide enough to contain the arrows, and is open above so as to allow them to be dropped into it.  When in the slide, the arrows necessarily lie one above the other, and, in order to prevent them from being jerked out of the slide by the shock of the bowstring, the opening can be closed by a little wooden shutter which slides over it.

Through the lower part of the slide a transverse slit is cut, and the blow string is led through this cut, so that the string presses the slide upon the stock.  Now we come to the lever.  It is shaped like the Greek letter [illegible] the cross-piece forming the handle.  The lever is jointed to the stock by an iron pin or bolt, and to the slide by another bolt.  Now, if the lever be worked to and fro, the slide is pushed backward and forward along the stock, but without any other result.

Supposing that we wished to make the lever draw the bow, we have only to cut a notch in the under part of the slit through which the string is led.  As the slide passes along the stock, the string by its own pressure falls into the notch, and is drawn back, together with the slide, thus bending the bow.  Still, however much we may work the lever, the string will remain in the notch, and must therefore be thrown out by a kind of trigger.  This is self-acting, and is equally simple and ingenious.  Immediately under the notch which holds the string, a wooden peg plays loosely through a hold.   When the slide is thrust forward and the string falls into the notch, it pushes the peg out of the hole.  But when the lever and the slide are drawn backward to their full extent, the lower end of the peg strikes against the stock, so that it is forced violently through the hole, and pushes the string out of the notch.

We will now refer to the illustration.  Fig. 1 represents the bow as it appears after the lever and slide have been thrust forward, and the string has fallen into the notch.  Fig. 2 represents it as it appears when the lever has been brought back, and the string released.

A is the bow, made of three layers of male bamboo, the two outer being the longest.  B is the string.  This is made of very thick catgut, as is needed to withstand the amount of friction which it has to undergo, and the violent shock of the bow.  It is fastened in a wonderfully ingenious manner, by a “hitch” rather than a knot, so that it is drawn tighter in proportion to the tension.  It passes round the end of the bow, through a hole, and presses upon itself.

C shows the stock and D the slide.  E is the opening of the slide, through which the arrows are introduced into it, and it is shown as partially closed, by the little shutter f.  The lever is seen at G, together with the two pins which connect it with the stock and slide.  H shows the notch in the slide which receives the string.  I is the pivot on which the weapon rests, K is the handle, and L the place whence the arrows issue.

If the reader should have followed this description carefully, he will see that the only limit to the rapidity of fire is the quickness with which the lever can be worked to and fro.  As it is thrust forward, the string drops into its notch, the trigger-peg, the arrow is propelled, and another falls into its place.  If, therefore, a boy be kept at work supplying the slide with arrows, a constant stream of missiles can be poured from this weapon.

The arrows are very much like the “bolts” of the old English cross-bow.  They are armed with heavy steel heads, and are feathered in a very ingenious manner.  The feathers are so slight, that at first sight they appear as it they are mere black scratches on the shaft.  They are, however, feathers, projecting barely the fiftieth of an inch from the shaft, but being arranged in a slightly spiral form so as to catch the air and impart a rotary motion to the arrow.  By the side of the cross-bow on Figure 2 is seen a bundle of arrows.

The strength of the bow is very great, though not as great as I had been told.  It possesses but little powers of aim, and against a single and moving adversary would be useless.  But for the purpose for which it is designed, namely, a wall-piece which will put a series of missiles upon a body of men, it is a very efficient weapon, and can make itself felt even against the modern rifle.  The range of this bow is said to be four hundred yards, but I should think that its extreme effective range is at most from sixty to eighty wards, and that even in that case it would be almost entirely useless, except against large bodies of soldiers.


Chinese execution


Of swords the Chinese have an abundant variety.  Some are single-handed swords, and there is one device by which two swords are carried in the same sheath and are used one in each hand.  I have seen the two sword exercise performed, and can understand that, when opposed to any person not acquainted with the weapon, the Chinese swordsman would seem irresistible.  But in spite of the two swords, which fly about the wielder’s head like the sails of a mill, and the agility with which the Chinese fencer leaps about and presents first one side and then the other to this antagonist, I cannot think but that any ordinary fencer would be able to keep himself out of reach, and also to get in his point, in spite of the whirling blades of the adversary.

Two-handed swords are much used.  One of these weapons in my collection is five feet six inches in length, and weighs rather more than four pounds and a quarter.  The blade is three feet in length and two inches in width.  The thickness of metal at the hilt is a quarter of an inch near the hilt, diminishing slightly towards the point.  The whole of the blade has a very slight curve.  The handle is beautifully wrapped with narrow braid, so as to form an intricate pattern.

There is another weapon, the blade of which exactly resembles that of the two handed sword, but it is set at the end of a long handle some six or seven feet in length, so that, although it will inflict a fatal wound when it does strike an enemy, it is a most unmanageable implement, and must take so long for the bearer to recover himself, in case he misses his blow, that he would be quite at the mercy of an active antagonist.

Should they be victorious in battle, the Chinese are cruel conquerors, and are apt to inflict horrible tortures, not only upon their prisoners of war, but even upon the unoffending inhabitants of the vanquished land.  They carry this love for torture even into civil life, and display a horrible ingenuity in producing the greatest suffering with the least apparent mean of inflicting it.  For example, one of the ordinary punishments in China is the compulsory kneeling bare-legged on a coiled chain.  This does not sound particularly dreadful but the agony that is caused in indescribably, especially as two officers stand by the sufferer and prevent him from seeking even a transient relief by shifting his posture.  Broken crockery is sometimes substituted for the chain……”

J. G. Wood. 1876. The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries. Vol. II. Hartford: the J. B. Burr Publishing Co. Chapter, CLIV China—continued. Warfare.—Chinese Swords. pp. 1434-1435. (Originally published in 1868.)



If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read:  London, 1851: Kung Fu in the Age of Steam-Punk





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