Through a Lens Darkly (40): Butterfly Swords and Tong Wars in North America

Weapons seized by the NYPD and photographed for a 1922 report on violence in Chinatown. Source: NYPD Public Records/Vice.com.
Weapons seized by the NYPD and photographed for a 1922 report on violence in Chinatown. Source: NYPD Public Records/Vice.com.

 

 

The Yin and the Yang of the Hudiedao


Earlier this year I had the opportunity to participate in a day-long seminar on the Wing Chun swords taught by Sifu John Crescione. This was a great experience that provided many students with an introduction to this iconic weapon. Such events, by necessity, tend to be packed with information, activity and new faces. It is always a challenge to select a single high-point. Yet I think that for some of the students such a moment might have come just before we broke for lunch.

One of the themes that Sifu Crescione emphasized was the importance of knowing your weapon. At this point in time there doesn’t seem to be any single standard pattern for the construction of the double swords used within Wing Chun, let alone across all of the southern Chinese martial arts. While these weapons all have enough points of resemblance to be identifiable, elements such as blade length, shape and handling characteristics vary immensely. Some swords are optimized for chopping and slashing while others seem to be better suited to stabbing. The form used within Wing Chun contains a wide range of techniques, but it is up to the practitioner to select the most appropriate ones for any given situation and set of blades.

Nor does this concern apply only to recently produced weapons. As I noted in my previous history of the butterfly swords, a huge amount of variation can be seen in the size and shapes of swords that were produced in 19th and early 20th century in Southern China. To demonstrate this Sifu Crescione had brought a set of late Qing era blades to the seminar. I also brought a pair of knives from my collection which date to approximately the same era. Both sets of knives were longer (and heavier) than most modern examples and possessed distinct tips.

It was fascinating to watch the other students crowd around, eager to get a glimpse, and then handle, these antique blades. Such relics are not frequently encountered by students today. There was a feeling of reverence in the room. The Butterfly Swords have taken on a near legendary status within the practice of our art. Instruction in this weapon is often reserved for only the most advanced students.

The knives have become a symbol of martial attainment. Mastery of these blades is seen as the culmination of years of dedicated practice. This may help to explain why so many organizations have included these swords in their school’s logo.

Nor am I immune to the romance of the blade. After some discussion with the publisher it was decided that the butterfly swords should grace the cover of our book on the history of Wing Chun and Southern Chinese Martial Arts. I must admit that I was elated when I received the news.

Still, it is not clear that any of the meanings that modern martial artists attribute to these weapons have much intrinsic value. Many of these students might be surprised, if not a bit scandalized, to see how these same weapons were perceived at various points in the past.

Far from being the epitome of martial excellence, in the 1840s the hudiedao were a standard issue weapon stocked for use by the quickly trained (and poorly equipped) militia companies of the Pearl River Delta. These weapons were produced by the tens of thousands and issued to troops who tended to carry them as side-arms (their main weapons being the musket, spear or pole). While never issued to the “official” Green Standard Army troops, local gentry seem to have appreciated the fact that these blades could be made cheaply and new recruits (more used to village boxing than formal military drill) could be trained in their use.

Ships crews and private security guards were also issued these weapons for the same basic reasons. That probably helps to explain their association with pirates, traveling opera companies and other elements of southern China’s rich nautical lore. During the 1840s and 1850s these short, guarded, double swords seem to have carried a different, more plebeian, set of symbolic associations.

Nor was southern China the only place where the public encountered such swords. For better or worse butterfly swords also appeared in publications, museum displays and public demonstration in the West throughout the 19th century. Once again, they carried with them a set of connotations quite distinct from those admired by modern Kung Fu students.

Rather than being a marker of self-discipline and martial excellence, these swords were most often associated with the periodic breakouts of violence that rocked both the East and West Coast Chinatowns. Whereas British military observers in the 1840s had found the Chinese use of these swords to be paradoxical and quaint, American audiences viewed them as symbols of everything that was untrustworthy and dangerous about the nation’s steadily growing Chinese population. In many ways the spread of the image of the butterfly sword went hand in hand with the spread of the Yellow Panic and the news coverage that supported it.

 

Butterfly Swords in the Roaring 1920s

 

 

This point was driven home for me as I read some of the publicity releases for a new book titled Tong Wars: The Untold Story of Vice, Money and Murder in New York’s Chinatown by Scott D. Seligman (Penguin 2016). Given this volume’s discussion of community violence in the Chinese diaspora community during the 19th and early 20th centuries it has earned a spot on my “to read” pile. Even more interesting were some of the publicity photos that were distributed to the press and other media outlets.

Perhaps the most exciting of these can be seen at the top of this post. Taken from the archives of the New York City Police Department this image was apparently included in a 1922 report detailing the ongoing problem of violence in Chinatown. It shows a large group of weapons (and other contraband material) that had been captured by police.

Some of this material is what one would expect to see being carried by any well-outfitted gangster during the 1920s. I counted 16 revolvers in this picture and at least one automatic handgun in addition to holsters and ammunition. Yet more traditional weapons were also well represented. Within the haul there were two (quite nice) sets of butterfly swords as well as other daggers. These particular Tong members also seem to have had an affinity for brass knuckles, having accumulated at least five sets.

I have yet to read Seligman’s book, so I can’t say if his narrative contains a more detailed backstory for this particular photograph. But I did notice the following quote in a publicity interview that he did for Vice.

“Vice: How did the violence evolve from meat cleavers to pistols to bombs?

Segliman: It was a slow process, but it escalated as weapons got more sophisticated and capable of taking out more people at a time. In the late 1800s, they were mostly using cleavers and knives; by 1900, Chinatown saw a large influx of revolvers. Explosives were only used once or twice later in the game—about 1912—and they fortunately did more damage to property than to people.” (Read More Here)

What struck me about this quote was the sense of nostalgia for a previous period of violence. Needless to say, we hear a lot of this in traditional martial arts circles.

On a purely philosophical level I am not sure that being beaten to death or stabbed is preferable to being shot. Nor, historically speaking does there seem to have been a golden, pre-gun, era in modern Chinese violence. As I pointed out in a previous post looking at violence in the San Francisco Chinese community of the 1870s, the police seem to have been confiscating firearms from that neighborhood’s criminals at about the same rate as they were being taken off the streets in the rest of the city. While it is undoubtedly true that violence in NY escalated after 1900, I doubt that the primary factors behind that were exclusively technological in nature.

The other thing that struck me about the 1922 photograph was how similar it was to other images that police and government officials had been producing across the country for at least 50 years. Indeed, given the qualitative change in the level of violence, what is surprising is that the weapons look so similar.

 

Chinese Highbinders and Weapons in San Francisco. Harper's Weekly, Feb. 13th, 1886. .
Chinese Highbinders and Weapons in San Francisco. Harper’s Weekly, Feb. 13th, 1886.

 

Readers might recall that in 1886 Harper’s Weekly ran a lengthy piece profiling the “Highbinders” of the Bay Area. This included engravings showing the various types of arms that had been confiscated from these groups including knives, handguns and butterfly swords. The author of the piece went on to include a chilling description of their use:

“The weapons of the Highbinder are all brought from China, with the exception of the hatchet and the pistol. The illustration shows a collection of Chinese knives and swords taken from criminals, and now in the possession of the San Francisco police. The murderous weapon is what is called the double sword. Two swords, each about two feet long, are worn in a single scabbard. A Chinese draws these, one in each hand, and chops his way through a crowd of enemies. Only one side is sharpened, but the blade, like that of all the Chinese knives, is ground to a razor edge. An effective weapon at close quarters is the two-edged knife, usually worn in a leather sheath. The handle is of brass, generally richly ornamented, while the blade is of the finest steel. Most of the assassinations in Chinatown have been committed with this weapon, one blow being sufficient to ensure a mortal wound. The cleaver used by the Highbinders is smaller and lighter than the ordinary butcher’s cleaver. The iron club, about a foot and a half long, is enclosed in a sheath, and worn at the side like a sword. Another weapon is a curious sword with a large guard for the hand. The hatchet is usually of American make, but ground as sharp as a razor.”

(Feb 13, 1886. Harper’s Weekly. P. 103).

While never the deadliest weapon in the Tong arsenal, the American press certainly seems to have considered the Butterfly Sword to be the most distinctive. Some accounts seem to have gone beyond the purely tactical value of this weapon and to have associated it with obscure, esoteric and threatening aspects of the Chinese American Experience. Of course the Tongs themselves often stood in for all of these qualities in late 19th century “Yellow Peril” literature.

 

The San Francisco Call, 1898.
The San Francisco Call, 1898.

 

Consider the cover of an 1898 edition of the The San Francisco Call. The paper ran an expose on the initiations conducted by the area’s Chinese secret societies. The main illustration showed a number of tong members, butterfly swords in hand, swearing to destroy the Qing and restore the Ming.

Another evidence photo, produced around 1900 and included in a government report, also shows a typical assortment of weapons carried by Chinese criminals and Tong members. Among the various knives (one of which is clearly Japanese) we also find a pair of bar maces, a revolver and set of hudiedao. It appears to be almost identical in size and shape to the examples that the New York police department would confiscate one generation latter.

Chinese Highbinder weapons collected by H. H. North, U. S. Commission of Immigration, forwarded to Bureau of Immigration, Washington D. C., about 1900. Note the coexistence of hudiedao (butterfly swords), guns and knives all in the same raid. This collection of weapons is identical to what might have been found from the 1860s onward. Courtesy the digital collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.
Chinese Highbinder weapons collected by H. H. North, U. S. Commission of Immigration, forwarded to Bureau of Immigration, Washington D. C., about 1900.
Courtesy the digital collection of the Bancroft Library, UC Berkley.

 

 

An Evolving Symbol of Chinese Identity in the West

 

The 1922 NYPD photograph is interesting precisely because it suggests that while levels of violence may have escalated and fallen off in rhythmic patterns, firearms and more traditional weapons continued to co-existing for a surprising length of time. The number of handguns in the community escalated but butterfly swords did not disappear. And if this photo is a representative sample, knuckledusters seem to have grown in popularity. That would be a good sign that someone was still expecting hand-to-hand encounters.

The one thing that is absent from any of these photos or discussions, however, is the martial arts. While elements of the American public were certainly aware of these swords, they were not imagined as the training tools of skilled practitioners of martial arts, or even as an element of Chinese cultural heritage. Of course this was exactly how Samurai swords came to be seen in the first few decades of the 20th century. Instead these weapons were imagined as the cutting edge of a violent and subversive force in American life.

I suspect that the popular discourse linking obscure Chinese fighting methods to criminal groups was a powerful force in impeding the transnational transmission of these arts in the first half of the 20th century. It was not until Chinese-Americans came to be reimagined as a “model minority” in the post WWII era that immigration policies would be relaxed and the stage set for Bruce Lee to unleash a Kung Fu Fever in the 1970s.

The hudiedao are a fascinating topic of study precisely because they have seen it all. First associated in the western mind with humble militia troops and later with criminal groups, for many people butterfly swords represented the backwards and dangerous elements of Chinese society. In the current era this same object has been reinterpreted as a relic of a “more civilized” time in which persistent effort led to martial mastery and self-transformation. It is hard to say that one of these visions is more intrinsically “true” than the others, but this unfolding discourse may hold important keys to the meaning and spread of the Chinese martial arts in the West.  As a result we must be careful not to inappropriately project our reading of these symbols onto the past.

 

oOo

 

If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  Tools of the Trade: The Use of Firearms and Traditional Weapons among the Tongs of San Francisco, 1877-1878.

 

oOo

7 Comments Add yours

  1. Joseph Svinth says:

    Violence in Seattle’s Chinese community, 1900-1940 http://www.brianpaciotti.com/Chinese%20Homicide%2011%2029%2003.pdf

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thanks Joe. I just skimmed the first couple of pages of that paper, but it looks like it will be a good resource. I appreciate the link!

  2. John Crescione,DC,DICS says:

    Thanks for mentioning me Ben !-the pictures of the Knives that are hanging to the far right are the ones that Moy Yat sifu emphasizes as the “correct blades” for Wing Chun. But as we discussed-the blade has to agree with the form.So for his form,those are the right blades.-Best wishes-Dr. John Crescione

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thank you for inviting me to your seminar! That is the funny thing about blogging. You never really know when some event will pop back up to the surface. I hope all is going well downstate.

  3. Jonathan spiral says:

    Thank you Ben, Very interesting & informative.

    All the best,

    Spiral

    1. benjudkins says:

      Thanks Spiral. It was nice to see that you had dropped by.

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