“When the Nanjing Martial Arts Institute was opened, I was in Hankou [in eastern Hubei], where I noticed in a newspaper that they were dividing their curriculum into two schools – Wudang and Shaolin – and appointing specialists for each of them. For “Wudang” to be isolated like this in the promotion of our martial arts is really not a good idea, and so I sent a letter to a friend in Nanjing who was working at the Institute, discussing in detail the pros and cons….
Certain styles were passed down from certain people, but so long ago that it cannot be verified, unlike schools of painting and literature, for which there is no confusion. The categorizing of the two branches as Wudang and Shaolin has been made on the basis of ignoring the records of other martial arts. But whether or not what is being spread these days can actually be classified as Wudang or Shaolin, how could these two branches be able to comprise all of Chinese martial arts, including those that were transmitted by itinerant performers, or martial artists who taught their skills to make a living? In order to cater to our national habit of venerating ancient people, we have arbitrarily dragged forth ancient figures known to everyone, even to women and children, and assigned them the roles of founders of our arts simply for the sake of advertising.”
Xiang Kairan. 1929. “My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing.” Translation by Paul Brennan, July, 2016.
Recently Paul Brennan posted his new translation of a lengthy personal essay by Xiang Kairan titled “My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing.” I highly recommend that you read it. Written in 1929 and finally published in 1940, this essay provides an invaluable record of the world of Republic era martial artists. It is exactly the sort of document that makes the history of the Chinese martial arts such a fascinating subject.
Yet that is not what we will be discussing in this essay. Instead I would like to turn our attention to the life and career of its author, Xiang Kairan (1890-1957). Writing under the pen-name “Pingjiang Buxiaosheng” (which translates roughly to “an unworthy son of Pingjiang”), no less a source than the Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures has called him the “Father of [modern Chinese] martial arts fiction” (532). The acclaimed author Jin Yong has cited him as an early influence, and since about 2010 there has been a growing awareness of his many contributions to the development of popular literature (particularly with regard to the refashioning of the idea of the “Rivers and Lakes”) by scholars in both China and the West.
Once again, this is not the only realm in which Xiang has made critical contributions. My initial plan upon reading’s Paul’s new translation of his seminal essay was to write a post looking at the influence of the 1928 martial arts film “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” on modern martial arts cinema. It would be hard to overstate the importance of this film in Republic era popular culture.
An immediate success it spawned no fewer than 18 sequels in a period of less than three years. Collectively these movies created a new genre while launching a “Kung Fu craze” on the same scale of Jet Li’s later Shaolin Temple. The sudden popularity of these stories was so great that in 1931 a government censorship board actually banned the production of new Wuxia films, effectively creating a niche in which Hong Kong film makers would eventually find great success.
The first, wildly popular, installment of this film series was based on Xiang’s 1923 novel Stories of Marvelous Knights of the Rivers and Lakes. Nor was that his only breakout novel. In 1923 he also published Stories of Righteous Heroes, a collection of chapters exploring the life and world of Huo Yuanjia, the titular founder of the Jingwu or Pure Martial Society.
The success of this second novel propelled the rapidly expanding Jingwu Association further into the spotlight. While Marvelous Knights was set in a timeless realm characterized by competing schools of wandering heroes and shamans wielding amazing magical powers, the stories of Heroes were markedly different. They folded themselves seamlessly into a contemporary setting and introduced readers to the sorts of lineage disputes and rivalries that actually characterized the Chinese hand combat community. This feeling of authenticity is so convincing that a number of readers have been tempted to accept his fictional novel as a historical record. This other, more grounded, school of story-telling would go on to influence the development of the “Kung Fu” (as opposed to “Wuxia”) school of Hong Kong film making.
In short, through his innovations in how martial arts stories were told, both on the page and secondarily on screen, Xiang either created or popularized much of what we now take for granted as the public image of the Chinese martial arts. His contributions to mediatized martial arts discourses in both the East and West easily deserve posts of their own. But they too will need to wait for another day.
Less known is that fact that Xiang himself was both a talented and dedicated practitioner of the martial arts. Throughout the course of his life he studied many styles including jujitsu, Japanese swordsmanship, the external schools of the traditional Chinese martial arts, and multiple styles of Taijiquan. Xiang helped to establish, promote and organize multiple martial arts clubs and organizations. He discussed some of these efforts in various personal essays and newspaper articles. At the time of his death he was even working on a longer volume on the history of the Chinese martial arts that, unfortunately, was never finished.
Xiang thus presents students of martial arts studies with a rare opportunity. Within his body of writings we have an chance to see how the evolving practice of the martial arts in the Republic era directly influenced the sorts of publishing and media discourses that were growing up around them. Far from these being totally disconnected spheres; at least some martial artists were helping to shape the larger discussions of these styles in the realm of popular entertainment.
It has been noted that recent attempts to reevaluate Xiang’s significance tend to focus on either the contributions that he made to the developments of modern Wuxia novels or his martial arts interest. But there are yet more elements of his life that may deserve our close consideration.
In her recent doctoral dissertation, Fairy Tales for Adults: Imagination, Literary Autonomy, and Modern Chinese Martial Arts Fiction, 1895-1945 (2016, UCLA) Lujing Ma Eisenman has noted that it is almost impossible to fully grasp Xiang’s martial or literary activities without contextualizing them within the larger framework of his political (and occasionally military) activities. Indeed, his discussion of the “Rivers and Lakes” of martial arts fiction as a “stateless realm” was deeply informed by the events of the Warlord era. Such a realization may even change the way that we think about his involvement with the Guoshu movement and other martial arts activities.
In short there are literally dozens of posts that could be written about Xiang Kairan’s contributions to our modern understanding of the martial arts. Yet he is rarely discussed outside of literary circles. In the remainder of this post I will provide a brief biographical sketch of his literary, martial and political careers. Hopefully this information will inspire and facilitate future research on an important, but often forgotten, modern Chinese martial artist.
Life of Xiang Kairan
Xiang Kairan was born to a wealthy family in Pinjiang, Hunan Province in 1890. Given his family’s social status he received a traditional Confucian education. Later he was sent to the provincial capital where he studied at the “Hunan Industrial School.” It seems likely that he was first introduced to the martial arts in childhood.
His childhood was also marked by signs of growing political activism. Sometime around 1905 he was expelled from school for taking part in a student demonstration against the provincial government. The radical dissident Chen Tianhua had killed himself while living in Japan in an effort to raise awareness for his causes and the provincial government attempted to refuse the revolutionary a “martyr’s funeral.” This event also seems to have set the pattern for Xiang ending up on the losing side of what could become costly causes.
Due to his family’s wealth and social status this was not the end of Xiang’s education. Like other members of the New Gentry he was sent to Japan to also receive a modern and international education. It is unclear what he studies on his first trip to Japan. Later he would publish a supposed expose of the lifestyles of elite Chinese students abroad. Like much of his writing, this first novel collapses the narrative space between representations of reality and pure fiction. Thus it’s a little difficult to read his accounts of this period as biography.
His growing interest in the martial arts during this period are another matter. In a separate essay Xiang reports that while in Japan he was visited by a friend from back home in 1907. This account likely refers to Wang Zhiquan. Wang discussed the various boxing styles of Northern China sparking what would become Xiang’s long running fascination with the theory of Taijiquan. Unfortunately Wang could not yet demonstrate the art. Undeterred Xiang went on to study much of what was available locally. It was during this period that his personal identity as a martial artist appears to have solidified.
His interest in the martial arts continued after his return to China. In 1913 Xiang reports meeting Li Cunyi’s students Ye Yunbiao and Hao Haiping. He states that they exposed him to Xingyi and Bagua, but could not satisfy his desire to learn more about Taijiquan. It was during this time that Xiang helped to co-found the “National Skills Association” in Changsha. To put this timeline in context it might be helpful to remember that Sun Lutang published his well-known manuals on Xingyi and Bagua in 1915 and 1916, but his major work on Taiji did not come out until 1921.
1916 saw Xiang set out on his next (more dangerous) political adventure. Immediately after his home province withdrew from the Republic he joined Hunan’s military forces in an effort to personally repel Yuan Shikai’s monarchist troops. Unfortunately Hunan’s forces were defeated leaving Xiang in a difficult position. At this point he decided to return to Japan, this time to study law.
This second period of study, while productive, was also brief. Sometime during 1917 Xiang returned to China and settled in Shanghai. He would spend much of the next decade in this city. His adopted home was the cultural hub of the country and it seems to have fed both Xiang’s desire to write as well as his legendary work ethic. Many of his most famous novels, essays and articles were completed during this decade.
In 1923 Xiang published what were probably his two most important novels, Stories of Marvelous Knights of the Rivers and Lakes and Stories of Righteous Heroes. The later helped to define and spread the myth of Huo Yunjia and pioneered a more modern and realistic way of discussing martial artists in fiction. The earlier book was focused on Wuxia stories and magic. It is often credited with bringing forth the modern literary notion of the “land of Rivers and Lakes.” Both of these works have proved critical in shaping the way that the martial arts are positioned and used by the entertainment industry today.
This decade was fruitful in other ways as well. In 1925 Chen Weiming moved to Shanghai and established the now famous “Achieving Softness Boxing Society.” Xiang, who had spent the better part of two decades trying to learn about Taijiquan immediately became a student. But as the old adage goes, when it rains it pours.
Wang Zhiqun, now a disciple of Wu Jianquan, and teacher within his Taijiquan lineage, moved to Shanghai a few months later. After reuniting with his old student and friend Wang actually ended up moving in Xiang. It seems that at this point Xiang focused most of his day to day Taiji study on Wang. By May of 1925 he was finally able to begin to practice the Taiji solo set.
Two years later the demands of political activism again intervened, shaping both Xiang’s literary and martial destiny. In 1927 he broke from his studies and ended his work on the serialized production of Marvelous Knights so that he could return to Hunan as a military secretary in the Army of Tang Shengzhi.
This is not the proper time to delve into the details of the Northern Expedition and the various Warlord conflicts that were consuming much of the country. But it is interesting to note that it was during this period, immediately following his exit from Shanghai, that Xiang’s novels achieved their greatest popularity and cultural impact.
As Lujing Ma Eisenman has noted, his concept of the “Rivers and Lakes” as a society that existed in the absence of a state, and the sorts of conflicts that could grip and order such a space, resonated with readers who saw in his novels a discussion of China’s stateless nature during the Warlord era. It was also not a coincidence that “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” whose screenplay was based on one of his most popular stories, also came out in 1928, touching off a new round of “Kung Fu fever.”
In his personal essays Xiang provides some interesting commentary on how the political machinations of the times impacted the world of real martial artists. He noted for instance that after the government was moved to Nanjing, the city of Beijing fell into a deep economic depression. It became impossible for many martial arts teachers to make a living. And with the establishment of the new Guoshu system, many of them moved south, abandoning the old capital.
This pattern of out-migration, in conjunction with the new Guoshu Academy that was promoting the “Wudang arts,” meant that after 1928 Taijiquan became increasingly popular in both Nanjing and Shanghai. Yet in the same year a mini-scandal erupted when the various exponents of this style did poorly in the first government sponsored martial arts examinations, losing many matches to the supposedly inferior “external styles.” In fact, the essay that Xiang undertook in 1929 (and Paul Brennan recently translated) was explicitly apologetic in nature, attempting to both re-situate the art and examine what had gone wrong prior to this tournament.
Following the ultimate defeat of his military unit, Xiang took the opportunity to travel around much of Northern China for a year. Later in 1930 he returned to Shanghai where he remained until 1932. Yet given the economic success of his various writings his attention drifted to other interests. Xiang decided to return to Hunan where he would dedicate himself to the promotion of the Guoshu system and the teaching of the traditional martial arts.
This would not be the quiet retirement that he had hoped for. Following the 1938 invasion General Liao Lei invited Xiang to join his anti-Japanese troops. He was subsequently stationed in Anhui province, where he would remain for the next nine years.
In 1946, with the resumption of the Chinese civil war, Xiang embarked on another major writing project. This was titled An Unofficial History of Chinese Revolution. In 1948 he was finally able to return to Hunan province and became a member of the Provincial Parliament under Governor Cheng Quian. This was followed soon after by his surrender to Communist forces in the region.
The following year (1950) saw the publication of Chinese Revolution. For various reasons the book did not sell well. Given his numerous recent reversals of fortune Xiang was left destitute. I have seen at least one account suggest that during the early 1950s he left his family and took up the life of a Buddhist monk.
Whatever his economic circumstances, Xiang’s interest in the martial arts continued unabated. In 1955 he composed another personal essay (also translated by Paul Brennan) titled “On Studying Taiji’s Pushing Hands.” Unfortunately this would not be published until his novels began to be reprinted in the 1980s.
Two years later, at the suggestion of a regional official, he began what would have been his final major work. It was tentatively titled A History of Chinese Martial Arts. It was never completed. Like other martial artists, Xiang became a target of the anti-rightest campaigns that were launched that year. He died of a brain hemorrhage with his major statement on his beloved art left unfinished.
The need for an interdisciplinary approach to Chinese martial studies.
It is a tragedy that a figure who had seen so much of the modern history of the Chinese martial arts was not able to leave a complete record of his thoughts. Still, we must be grateful for the many novels, stories and essays that he left behind. Within these works we have an unique opportunity to observe not just the development the modern cultural discourses that surround the Chinese martial arts, but to see the ways in which these were shaped by both the realities of publishing markets and trends in the development of the arts themselves.
In many of his writings Xiang is concerned with the fate of old things in a new world. How does transmission work? How are Hunan’s folktales of the supernatural and strange to be passed on? How can the intricate theories of Taijiquan be transmitted in an era that privileges market transactions over long-term human relationships?
His stories speak directly to these concerns. In them we see the rare emergence of a mind that can value the past without romanticizing it. We see an individual who realizes that both publishing and the martial arts must evolve and is willing to engage in a hard discussion of the values at stake.
Perhaps the most important realization to emerge from the recent wave of scholarship on Xiang is an appreciation for the complexity of the world of “River and Lakes” which he created in his fiction. His readers found it to be entertaining not simply because of its escapist qualities, but rather because it so accurately reflected the stateless society that China became for much of the 1920s and 1930s. Perhaps his greatest contribution was the argument that the martial arts, far from being the backward looking superstition that the May 4th reformers feared, could provide the tools that society needed to formulate its own vision of Chinese modernity in the face of an ongoing crisis.
Yet as Lujing Ma Eisenman has noted, it is difficult to see how Xiang presented these ideas, or his audience read them, if we ignore the political and activist context from which these stories emerged. Indeed, Xiang Kairan’s career is an excellent illustration of why Chinese martial studies must proceed as an interdisciplinary exercise. It is impossible to understand the social function of the Chinese martial arts today if we ignore the media driven discourses that surround them. Yet his career suggests that these discourses interacted with the changing nature of martial arts practice in complex way. Lastly, all of this was shaped by the unfolding logic and trauma of the Warlord era.
If we examine only a single dimension of his legacy Xiang appears to be a curiosity, a historical footnote. He is a forgotten commercial novelist, a wealthy “Kung Fu bum,” an unlucky military adventurer. It is only when we put these images together that his true importance comes into focus. Yes, the Chinese art would have continued to exist without him, but our popular (and subconscious) notions of them would be very different.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (8): Gu Ruzhang-Northern Shaolin Master and Southward Bound Tiger.