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A late Qing military official and his personal guards. Norther China. Source: Vintage Russian Postcard, Personal Collection.




Wushu Comes to America



Today’s post has two goals.  The more important of these is an announcement.  But first I hope to draw you into a discussion on my next book project.

With the daily news of territorial tensions in the South China Sea, or squabbles over trade policy, it is easy to lose sight of how much Chinese-American relations have improved over the last three decades.  In 1970 our countries were physically, economically and socially isolated in ways that readers born after the end of the Cold War will have a difficult time imagining.

These preceding decades of isolation are what made the slowly building wave of bilateral cultural exchanges between 1971 and 1974 so exciting.  Often referred to by historians as the era of “Ping-Pong Diplomacy” (so named because of the initial exchange of Ping-Pong teams in 1971 and 1972), these instances of cultural exchange helped to lay the groundwork for the future thaw in the US-Chinese relationship.  They did so by building institutions that could support future cooperation, as well as creating a level of domestic political demand for a new policy direction.

After decades of isolation the Chinese state was particularly interested in promoting a new public image in the West.  They wanted to demonstrate the accomplishments of their “New Society.”  To do this they would prove to American audiences that China was a thoroughly modern society with vastly improved standards of living, healthcare and education.

The New (post-1949) China would also be shown to be a remarkably stable society, free of crime and disorder.  As a country they were capable of drawing the best from their culture’s past, yet had no time for counter-revolutionary “traditions.”  And despite rumors to the contrary, theirs was not a militaristic society.  They meant their neighbors no harm and looked forward to a period of increasing cooperation on both economic and political issues.  These were the core messages that Chinese diplomats wished the Western public to absorb.

And so the Chinese government (building on the prior success of the Ping Pong teams) staged a series of martial arts demonstrations.  On a fine day towards the end of June in 1974 such luminaries as Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon gathered on the White House Lawn for a display of fighting prowess, embodied most memorably in the form of a diminutive, 11 year old, Jet Li.

Yet these events were not for the exclusive entertainment of the elite.  The American public was invited to a series of much larger, and more dynamic, wushu performances staged in theaters on the East and West coasts.  The lucky cities hosting performances included Honolulu, San Francisco, Washington DC (where the main exhibition was actually held at the John F. Kennedy Center), and a Fourth of July bash staged in New York City.  A number of less formal demonstrations were also held during the troupe’s month long tour of the US.  All of these performances included ballet-like displays of individual Wushu forms, energetic demonstrations of self-defense skills, and dazzling exhibitions of China’s many exotic weapons.

Each of these performances was also intended to educate the American public about the “New China.”  The Chinese government was acutely aware of the Kung Fu fever that Bruce Lee had unleashed only 10 months earlier with the release of “Enter the Dragon.”  In their various interviews they went to great lengths to differentiate modern, socialist, Wushu (which was “good”) from feudal, superstitious and violent Kung Fu practices that were “bad,” no matter how popular they might be.

In a remarkable example of official double-speak, recorded by an intrepid reporter from Black Belt Magazine, an official from the Wushu team insisted that their practice was a vital element of China’s cultural heritage that was at least 3,000 years old.  Hence it was important to share this art with the world.

Yet he also reassured the reporter that all signs of China’s traditional feudal culture had been thoroughly expunged from modern Wushu by a benevolent and wise government.  When asked directly what could possibly be left of a “cultural tradition” once the past has been systematically removed, the answer came in a jumble of Maoist slogans.  Rarely has the invented nature of the Chinese martial arts ever been discussed in more direct or triumphant terms.

Still, the question must be asked.  Why Wushu?  How exactly does a display of lightning fast sword work demonstrate a country’s “modern nature” and “peaceful intentions” upon the global stage?

The Chinese delegation was well aware that the nature of their martial presentation might be misconstrued, especially in America’s much more rough-and-tumble hand combat landscape.  Their officials argued at length why sparring, or any type of fighting within the martial arts, was counterproductive and unnecessary.  It should be noted that the powers that govern Wushu would later change their minds on this point, but in 1974 their insistence on the non-combative nature of the true Chinese martial arts was emphatic.  There are even suggestions (made within the pages of Black Belt) that the Chinese delegation succeeded in limiting the photography of events and restricted press access in an attempt to control the sorts of images that the tour might generate in the American media, lest the public get the “wrong idea” about the Chinese martial arts.

These efforts may have paid off in unexpected, and not entirely satisfactory, ways.  While the tour did an admirable job of furthering the divide between “traditional” kung fu and “modern” wushu within the Western martial arts world, it seems to have created little interest among the American people as a whole.  Indeed, compared to the earlier chapters of “Ping Pong diplomacy” it received only light coverage in the press.

Local papers reported that the event venues of all of the shows were packed, but often it was the urban Chinese-American community (rather than newly suburbanized population) that was coming to see the exclusively East and West coast shows.  A few papers carried images of Kissinger or Nixon meeting members of the delegation in Washington (usually the children).  But the sort of visually dramatic images of flashing spears and slashing swords that we have subsequently come to associate with Wushu were notably absent.  The editorial pages of Black Belt felt that the entire affair ended up being a wasted opportunity.  Indeed, the magazine did not even bother to report on the Beijing Wushu Team’s later performance in New York City or its historic meeting with a sitting president in Washington DC.

Heavy handed messaging may not have been the only challenge that the tour faced.  Simply put, the forces of history seem to have been arrayed against this event.   In the spring and early summer of 1974 Americans were spending a lot of time discussing the Nixon White House, but it was not the President’s diplomatic schedule that was making headlines.

Instead the public was following the rapidly escalating Watergate scandal.  On May 9th the Senate had opened historic, highly publicized, hearings.  On July 27th it brought three articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon.  While the June-July1974 Wushu tour is occasionally mentioned by those interested in the history of the Chinese martial arts, and Jet Li (now a celebrity on both sides of the Pacific) has discussed his experiences in subsequent interviews, perhaps we can forgive a distracted public for letting this event slip down the memory hole.   What should have been a historic moment is now merely a footnote.

The political messaging surrounding the tour was in direct opposition to the growing popular discourse on the Chinese martial arts which arose in the wake of Bruce Lee.  And while some reporters (including those who wrote for the New York Times) were notably relieved to discover a more refined, less violent, vision of the TCMA, questions remained as to how Wushu related to China’s ancient (and by all accounts disavowed) traditions.  In any case, this instance of public diplomacy seems fated to have been swallowed by the shadows of the final weeks of the Nixon presidency.

Still, the 1974 visit of the Beijing Wushu Team raises important questions.  Under what circumstances can “soft power,” and other forms of cultural influence, make a positive contribution to a country’s image?  Can government institutions play an effective role in promoting their popular culture abroad, or is this the sort of thing that is better left to “civil society” with its better knowledge about local market conditions?  Lastly, why has so much of the history of the Chinese martial arts in America been forgotten, both by the general public but also within the martial arts community?  What role do strategic decisions about memory and forgetting play in the construction of the Western image of the Asian fighting arts?


Jet Li greets President Richard Nixon on the front lawn of the White House. Source: Nixon Presidential Library.
Jet Li greets President Richard Nixon on the front lawn of the White House. Source: Nixon Presidential Library.


The Announcement


I am happy to announce that on September 1st I accepted an appointment as a Visiting Scholar in the East Asia Program at Cornell University.  This is a dynamic community that I look forward to getting to know over the coming semesters.  With their support I am beginning a new book project provisionally titled, “Kung Fu Diplomacy: Soft Power, Martial Arts and the Development of China’s Global Brand.”

In this work I aim to delve more deeply into some of the issues introduced above.  China’s traditional culture has become an important “soft power” resource in recent decades as that state seeks to expand its economic and political influence throughout the international system, while at the same time reassuring global citizens that its intentions are purely peaceful.   To this end the Chinese government has developed a sophisticated infrastructure of offices and organizations dedicated to promoting its cultural and public diplomacy efforts.  In addition to fine arts and language study, the spread of traditional hand combat systems has become an increasingly important element of efforts to maintain a carefully curated image on the global stage.

Yet what sort of image is the Chinese government hoping to project?  As this research project will show, at various points in the 20th and 21st century the TCMA have been called upon to support very different visions of the “New China.”   Nor has China’s various governments had a totally free hand in this realm.  Independent educators, reformers, fighters and entertainers have played critical roles in the promotion of the Chinese martial arts at home and abroad.

Sometimes these efforts have been a boon to the state’s efforts.  At other times their visions have clashed.  This work seeks to understand what role the martial arts have played in the construction of China’s “national brand”, as well as the possibilities and limits of both public diplomacy and soft power in the current global environment.

By its very nature this volume will be interdisciplinary.  Diplomatic studies draw heavily on the fields of political science and history, as well as the lived experience of practitioners in the field.  Students of international relations will find within this volume a detailed longitudinal case study that will advance the state of the rapidly expanding literature on public diplomacy and soft power.  It will also shed light on the evolution of China’s diplomatic strategies throughout the 20th century.  While most existing studies of public diplomacy and soft power focus on the United State, this effort examines the challenges and opportunities facing non-Western powers.

Students of martial arts studies will also find much of interest within the pages of this proposed volume.  Many discussions of the popularization of the TCMA in the West seem to begin with Bruce Lee and end with the failure of Wushu to appear in an official capacity at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing.  In contrast this volume will seek to paint a more complete picture of the engagement between these fighting systems and Western culture dating back to the first years of the 1900s.

Rather than examining only the moments when the Chinese martial arts gained traction with the Western public, this study will delve into a number of less remembered, or totally forgotten, episodes.  Only by rediscovering instances of failed engagement can we gain both a better understanding of the history of these fighting systems, as well as insight into the specific social work that they have accomplished at various moments in history.   This process will also underscore the radically historically contingent nature of the modern Chinese martial arts, and suggest some of the other ways that they could have (or may yet) develop.

Former American Secretary of State (and the man who engennered Nixon's "Opening to China" as National Security Advisor) Henry Kissinger visits the Shaolin Temple.
Former American Secretary of State (and the man who engineered Nixon’s “Opening to China” as National Security Advisor) Henry Kissinger visits the Shaolin Temple.  It seems that Kung Fu Diplomacy lives on.




Regular readers of Kung Fu Tea will already be well aware of my interest in the political aspects of martial arts studies.  Indeed, the changing political situation in Southern China ended up being a critical variable in my social history of Wing Chun (co-authored with Jon Nielson).

As a scholar of international relations I find the frequent appearance of the Asian Martial Arts in the realm of diplomacy particularly fascinating.  I am greatly pleased that Cornell’s East Asia Program also saw some potential within this research project.  I have even been surprised to discover that a number of its members are fellow martial artists!

As I delve more deeply into this new project, readers can expect to see these and related topics reflected in my blogging.  The sorts of materials that I am reading on a daily basis will have an impact on what I write.  For me blogging has always been a byproduct of reading.

And there is so much to read!  In a single afternoon of going through English language newspapers published in Shanghai in the 1920s I found more news stories than I could research and write about in a month.  To the best of my knowledge none of this material had ever been explored in either the academic (or popular) English language literature on the TCMA.  Much of it will be useful in building a more detailed understanding of how Western engagement with the TCMA evolved over the course of the last century.

Once again, I would like to thank the East Asia Program, as well as Prof. T.J. Hinrichs (my faculty sponsor at Cornell) for providing me with access to such rich collections and a dynamic scholarly community.  While book proposals, like military strategies, rarely emerge unscathed from their first contact with “the enemy,” this new project should be of value to anyone wishing for a fuller account of the history of the Chinese martial arts, or the ways in which their spread has influenced China’s image (and soft power) on the global stage.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  What is a lineage? Rethinking our (Dangerous) Relationship with History