Source: Steel & Cotton.





In a recent post we explored the life and career of Xiang Kairan (1890-1957), a seminal figure in the creation of the modern, media driven image, of the traditional Chinese martial arts.  Born to a wealthy family, and educated in both China and Japan, Xiang cemented his identity as a martial artist while a student living abroad.  In the West he is most frequently remembered as the author who inspired the screen play for the lost 1928 movie “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.”  This turned out to be a genre defining film that did much to establish the modern Wuxia story.

In China Xiang Kairan is most frequently remembered as a novelist.  Critics have called him the “father of Chinese martial arts fiction.”  He did much to reshape the world of “Rivers and Lakes” that later authors (such as Jin Yong) would fill with their own characters and stories.  Less frequently remembered is the fact that Xiang was also very politically active and became personally involved in some of the major military conflicts of the warlord era.  Indeed, it might be a mistake to ignore his more practical background when considering the nature of his writing.

In this “Research Note” I would like to take a closer look at some of Xiang’s writing that stem from yet another facet of his rich and varied career.  It is sometimes forgotten that this novelist and erstwhile adventurer was also a dedicated martial artist.  Xiang Kairan committed much of his free time to the study, teaching and promotion of China’s various hand combat systems.

As a young man he reports practicing various external styles, as well as Japanese swordsmanship and jujitsu (both facilitated by his overseas study).  Later in life it was Taijiquan that dominated his affections, and he studied with teachers from the Yang, Wu and Chen styles.  Xiang was also an institution builder.  He created and supported many societies dedicated to the promotion of the TCMA in Hunan, his home province.  He was also a staunch supporter of the new Guoshu program.

Xiang Kairan’s literary genius stemmed from the fact that he was a keen social observer.  In addition to studying the martial arts he closely observed the lives, struggles and conflicts of the individuals who promoted them.  Indeed, one might go so far as to say that he took a professional interest in the gossip, folklore and myths that surrounded these fighting systems.  His wuxia novels reflected in turn the rich supernatural folklore that was popular in Hunan’s boxing community, as well as the more grounded lineage politics, economic rivalries and personality clashes that defined mundane life.  This was the material that embroidered his most famous novels providing them with a sense of vitality that readers found intoxicating.

Yet Xiang Kairan does not appear to have been a fabulist.  This impression sometimes emerges, but it seems to be mostly the result of individuals attempting to read his explicitly fictional novels (including those that discussed actual historical figures such as Huo Yuanjia) as works of contemporary journalism.  Rather than being examples of biography, his more grounded novels have a relationship to the individuals that inspired them similar to Hemingway’s The Sun Also Rises (1926).  Indeed, the two authors were contemporaries.

A different picture of Xiang Kairan’s engagement with the martial arts emerges when we look at his personal essays on these subjects.  Paul Brennan has recently translated two of these (dating to the late 1920s and early 1950s) which are both worthy of careful study.

The immediate purpose of both of these essays is to comment on certain aspects of the training and practice of Taijiquan.  That was a subject of great personal interest for the author.  Further, the disappointing performance of some Taijiquan practitioners at the first Guoshu martial arts examination in 1928 (where the newly popularized style seemed incapable of defeating fighters from the supposedly “less sophisticated” external styles) provided Xian with a platform to explore problems with how the art was being taught and practiced.


As his literary critics were only too happy to note, Xiang Kairan’s prose are not tightly focused.  Instead he often circled his subjects and frequently finds himself exploring seemingly unconnected side streets.  A typical assessment of his flaws as an author is seen in the following review, “Buxiaosheng’s [Xiang’s pen-name] works are heavily influenced by Hunan folklore.  He writes realistically about gods and spirits, and his stories are well-plotted, making them worth reading.  But they are flawed by his lack of attention to structure, seeming to be writing with his fingers instead of his brain, the words pouring out in an often repetitive and at times incoherent torrent.”

At first glance his lengthy 1929 personal essay “My Experience of Taiji Boxing” would seem to confirm this critic’s judgement.  Yet after reading the piece through a few times I suspect that, while indirect in style, a single coherent argument does run through this piece.  In the wake of the rapid growth of interest in Taijiquan during the 1920s, and then its unexpected reversal of fortunes in 1928, Xiang Kairan seeks to offer a broadly based critique of some of the dominant trends that he has seen in the practice of the Chinese martial arts during the 1920s.

Many of his discussions are technical in nature and of the most interest to other Taijiquan players.  Some touch on social and cultural themes.  The new Guoshu system also comes in for critical analysis.  Yet in other passages Xiang Kairan turns his attention to the economic markets that have evolved to monetize the spread of the traditional martial arts.

Given my own prior research I find his observations on these two final topics to be especially interesting.  The overall impression that arises from a reading of Xiang is that we are dealing with an individual who possesses genuine antiquarian interests, yet knows his source materials well enough that he is deeply suspicious of attempts to venerate the past.  While his basic values are very different from many of the May 4th reformers (who viciously criticized his martial arts novels), he nevertheless shares a certain faith in the tools of modernity.

Plum Flower Maiden Dancing from Pole to Pole. Circa 1880. Source: Wikimedia (though I believe that Stanley Henning was the first person to publish this image in his essay for Green and Svinth.)
Plum Flower Maiden Dancing from Pole to Pole. Circa 1880. Source: Wikimedia (though I believe that Stanley Henning was the first person to publish this image in his essay for Green and Svinth.)


Likewise, Xiang Kairan was no stranger to the economic marketplace.  He understood what readers wanted and grew wealthy through his ability to produce commercially successful novels.  One would suspect that at least some of his contemporary fame was based on the success of his publishers in advertising his work.

Xiang understood the power of markets and the necessity of advertising, yet he was suspicious of their impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  For someone who made a living by selling martial arts myths, he was disturbed by the easy with which martial arts instructors seemed concoct their own founding legends.  While he acknowledged the power of markets, he also foresaw their ability warp a message in transmission.

Transmission, it seems, was one of Xiang Kairan’s primary concerns.  How does one tell old stories in new ways?  How are the hand combat traditions of the imperial era to be understood and transmitted as today’s “national arts?” These are questions with no easy answers.

What follows are four excerpts selected from Paul Brennan’s translation of Xiang Kairan’s 1929 essay that deal with these issues.  The first of them speaks to the problem of transmission in an almost epistemological sense.  In the current era, how much authority can we allow to “appeals to authority” versus knowledge that has been developed by personal experience?  Decades later, Bruce Lee would transmit a certain portion of this debate to North America, yet its roots stretch back to the 1920s if not before.

The second passage examines the question of “fantastic transmission,” this time tying its growing popularity directly to the growing competition within the martial arts marketplace.  Again, one might think of this as a topic that Xiang would have some first-hand knowledge of giving the startling success of his supernaturally inflected works of fiction.

The third excerpt is the one that I find the most personally interesting.  In it Xian seeks to contrast the various ways in which the TCMA have been transmitted in northern and southern China.  His basic claim is that while transmission in the North has been deeply embedded in personal relationships, arts in the south are much more likely to be passed on through commercially mediated relationships in which students act as consumers rather than disciples.  This, he maintains, has had a critical impact on the recent development of the arts in these two regions.

While advanced as a rant, there is actually much merit to his basic observation.  As Jon Neilson and I argued in our book, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts, the southern martial marketplace was much more developed than its northern counterpart, and it emerged at an earlier point in time.  While the relative benefit of one system versus the other is actually a highly subject question, Xian is correct in his assessment that market forces impacted the way that these arts were transmitted.

Obviously he was more familiar with Shanghai than Foshan or Hong Kong, but it is hard not to think of Ip Man’s career as we read of the real estate woes that beset the teachers of the Southern martial arts (forced to move from one rented location to another every few months), or the role of frequent challenge fights in determining one’s success in a marketplace that is both economically and physically competitive.  This account is useful precisely because it helps to situate prominent southern masters within a broader social context.

In the final quote Xiang Kairan again returns to the topic of mythmaking and market-based competition, this time within the newly established Guoshu movement.  He notes with some accuracy the inherent contradiction in claiming on the one hand to seek to unify a singular set of “national arts” while at the same time employing divisive, and entirely ahistorical, categories (in this case Shaolin vs. Wudang) to do so.

A typical economic market succeeds when competition allows for a range of goods and services to be offered to consumers at an efficient price.  Yet national culture does not necessarily benefit from fierce competition in the same way that other goods might.

Xiang implies that in this case value is maximized by sharing a certain set of identities and beliefs as widely as possible within a given community.  Such has always been the nature of the nation building project, and the Guoshu movement took this mission on as its own.  Hence its horror of the pervasive factionalization and regionalism of the traditional Chinese hand combat systems.  In this final excerpt Xiang notes that competition, and the need for advertising, might also promote this undesirable outcome through the mechanism of ongoing product-differentiation.

Xiang Kairan’s 1929 personal essay offers a remarkable window into the state of the Republic era martial arts, as well as the mindset and values of those reformers who sought to promote the new Guoshu system.  Far from being disturbed by the somewhat lateral style of his writing, students of social history should be grateful for his keen skills of social observation.  Like all great stories, his account of the Republic era martial arts contains a multitude of layers.


Xiang Kairan
Xiang Kairan


Excerpts from Xiang Kairan, “My Experience of Taiji Boxing,” 1929.  Translation by Paul Brennan


Venerating the Ancient vs. Experience Based Practice in the TCMA


It is the habit of the people of our nation to delight in venerating our forefathers and sneering at our contemporaries. Because of this, although the martial arts world is replete with creative and talented people, what they have invented and developed we do not dare to accept. Instead we always put our trust in ancient people who have passed things down secretly within their families, or who have received instructions in a dream. To find this type of situation in books and records is not rare at all.

As for the boxing art that Zhang Sanfeng passed down, how could we know that he did not create it himself? Though there is insufficient evidence to support the idea, it is believed that he received his art in a dream from the “Dark Warrior” Emperor. People nowadays practice martial arts from dawn to dusk for years or even decades and still find it difficult to achieve the level they wish. Zhang Sanfeng received his art from a spirit in a dream, and then immediately used it to defeat bandits. Is there really such a difference of intelligence and ability between ancient and modern people? Zhang Sanfeng taught his art to Song Yuanqiao, Zhang Songxi, and seven others, but no detailed records of his techniques were passed down.

Within Huang Baijia’s Boxing Methods of the Internal School, there is the five-word secret: “focused, potent, expedient, sticky, precise”. There are also secrets within Secrets of the Shaolin Boxing Arts by a certain venerable monk [including another and somewhat similar five-word secret: 印、擒、側、緊、切 “sealing, grabbing, slanting, tensing, cutting”]. The most popular boxing art is now Taiji, but these five words have not been taught as part of it.

I think that boxing arts should use refined principles and tested techniques, and that the criteria should be that they do not violate the principles of physiology or mechanics. There is no need to make strained interpretations or trust the hyperbole of ancient people. Just because a tailor might bow to his statue of the Yellow Emperor or a carpenter has a shrine to his patron saint Lu Ban, there is no reason to think that actually means anything.



Fantastic Transmission, Lost Lineages and Economic Competition



There are so very many styles of our boxing arts. Throughout the whole nation, there are dozens within a single province, even within a single county. This being the case in the boxing arts world, there ought to be a great many talented people, and who are thus producing a lot of ability in others. I have carefully studied the results and have to come to know that in this spreading of all sorts of boxing arts, it is by no means a sure thing that they are being taught by competent people. Many are simply relying on the fame of their teacher.

Within the last two or three decades, they have disseminated dozens of boxing arts. Even though they proclaim their art has been passed down from some ancient figure, such as Yue Fei or Damo, there are also some who claim it to be from Sun Wukong or the Maitreya Buddha. All their techniques are in fact more similar than they are unique, and within any solo set, there are only a few techniques that conform to boxing principles and have practical function. Why would these teachers go to so much trouble to create such a variety of postures? Simply to solicit customers!

Working class patrons of a stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels. This 1948 AP photo illustrates the importance of heroic martial arts tales in southern China, even for individuals with limited literacy.
Working class patrons of a stall selling sequentially illustrated martial arts novels. This 1948 AP photo illustrates the importance of heroic martial arts tales in southern China, even for individuals with limited literacy.


Northern vs. Southern Boxing


“To learn a boxing art in the north, you do obeisance to a teacher and study with him for an indefinite period. Those who are devoted may engage a teacher to live in their home or they might leave home to live in the teacher’s house. To put in three to five years of continuous training is quite common.

In the south, it is often more limited. You can either engage a teacher to live in your home or you can learn from a teacher who has reserved a warehouse space to teach students, holding the space for thirty or forty days, fifty days at the most. Once the time has expired, the students all disperse, and if you wish to continue training, another space has to be reserved.

The students enter the space on the first day, disperse on the last day, and in the meantime they have to train hard day and night with the goal of being able to apply the art once they leave the building. After going through two or three of these warehouse sessions, if you are still not able to defeat ruffians, then your teacher will fall into disrepute.

In the case of Taiji Boxing, it is really not possible to calculate how many days it will take to get results. For other boxing arts with highly refined principles and very detailed techniques, it is just as difficult for foundation and function to be completed within the space of a hundred days.

It is always the case that among practitioners of boxing arts, many of them are crude individuals who would not understand this point. If after two or three sessions of warehouse training, they are still unable to defeat opponents, they do not find the fault in the teacher’s skill level not being high enough, and instead assume the teacher is holding back some of the transmission.

When teachers expect their students to get results according to a schedule, the genuine art gets put aside in favor of a few select techniques, then it gets distorted into the superficial movements of itinerant performers, until a solo set becomes created that is steeped in the common superstitious traditions of ancient people.

When the postures are simple and easy to practice, people with decent intelligence can learn it in just over a week. After a mere half month of instruction, they leave the warehouse with what they have gained and are surprised by their ability to beat up ruffians, the teacher’s fame consequently rises, and they continue to practice for a number of days. But people who tire of old things and always want new things will not continue to practice after about a year unless changes are made to the set.”



The Nexus of Lineage Myths and Advertising within Guoshu


“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.

While I have nothing against division of skills, for divisions create competition, and competition produces progress, this is not true in the case of martial arts. Whichever of our nation’s martial arts, too few records have been passed down, the arts have been passed through too many hands over time, and students are hardly ever able to understand the literature.

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 advertizing.

In the south there is a Qi Family Boxing, said to be passed down from the “Sage Equal to Heaven” [Qi Tian Dasheng – one of the names for Sun Wukong, the mythical Monkey King]. There is also a Maitreya Boxing, said to be passed down by the Maitreya Buddha [which would presumably have involved another tutorial in a dream]. These are far more ridiculous claims than that of Shaolin being passed down from Damo.

When people have received their knowledge through actual instruction, and are not using it as a means for making a living through either performing or teaching, their great respect for their art is not unreasonable. What is reproachable is when people contentiously pledge their lives to their “tradition”, for by this means, all the schools and styles become jealous of each other and hate each other. After a thousand centuries, there is no telling how much trouble would be caused by such behavior, or how many lives would have been ruined.

Such people have a limited knowledge, as well as a mentality of taking advantage of their forefathers in order to advertise themselves, a flaunting that cannot be admonished enough. And we can only blame gentlemen such as Zhang [Zhijiang] and Li [Jinglin] for having the ambition of promoting martial arts without also thinking of doing away with the vice of schools factionalizing.





If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun (Part 2 of 3)