Research Notes: Han Xing Qiao Opens the “Internal Arts” to the West, 1934

Jiang'an Temple in Shanghai, late 19th century.  Source:
Jiang’an Temple in Shanghai, late 19th century. Note that by 1934 the area around this structure was substantially more developed. Source: http://www.virtualshanghai.net

 

 

 

 

Introduction

 

On February 21, 1934, the North China Herald (the most popular English language newspaper published in China at the time) ran a remarkable article and interview titled the “Chinese Art of Boxing.”  The piece is based on a school visit with the now famous Yiquan instructor Han Xing Qiao (1909-2004), who was then teaching in Shanghai.  While Han’s equally well known brother was present for the demonstration, it seems that only Han Xing Qiao spoke with reporter.

The resulting article, transcribed below, is significant in a number of respects.  I am surprised that I have not seen it discussed previously in the literature on the history of the Chinese martial arts.  Of course I am not a student of Yiquan, and I may have missed discussions of this piece within that community of practitioners.

Given the importance of Han Xing Qiao in the early history of Yiquan, there can be no doubt that some readers will find this discussion of his teaching and philosophy during the early 1930s quite interesting.  Yet this interview is also important for students of martial arts history as a whole.  While short notices about “Chinese boxing” were not that uncommon in the English language press, features of this length and level of detail were rare.  When read within the context of other developments during the early 1930s (the reforms of the Guoshu movement, the promotion of the martial arts by various generals and warlords, the development of popular Wuxia fiction, etc…) it helps to paint a more complete picture of Republic era attitudes within the martial arts community.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this particular newspaper article is that it exists at all.  Modern students tend to regard traditional Chinese martial artists from the 1930s as highly secretive individuals who left few (if any) written accounts.  Nor are they imagined as having had much to do with foreign reporters.

Recent finds are calling each of these assumptions into question. While holding “family secrets” in some areas, many traditional teachers were well aware of the necessity of promoting their schools, styles and even philosophical understanding of the traditional martial arts.  Indeed, this was a decade in which the nature of the Chinese martial arts were being contested on a number of fronts.

Some May 4th intellectuals saw traditional practices such as wrestling, archery and boxing as having no place in “modern China.”  Other reformers wanted to rework the traditional martial arts so that they could better act as vehicles for promoting nationalism and loyalty to the ruling KMT.  Yet, as the following article reminds us, approaches that emphasized the linkages (whether real or invented) of these arts with “traditional culture” also proved popular in the marketplace of ideas.

By the 1930s outreach to English speaking audiences was becoming an increasingly common aspect of the public discussion of the Chinese martial arts.  We have already seen that the Jingwu Association published some English language summaries of their work during the 1920s.  This organization’s efforts often received positive coverage in the foreign language press. Later reporters seemed to have been equally enamored with the reforms of the Guoshu movement and attempts to bring out the more “practical” side of these Chinese fighting systems, much as the Japanese had done.

Indeed, the growing international stature of Judo cast a long shadow over all of these efforts.  It is clear that martial artists in China were well aware that Kano’s style was receiving favorable press abroad.  A surprising number of Westerns were even starting to adopt these practices.  They also noted that this led to a certain admiration for Japanese culture in the West at exactly the same time that this state was beginning to make aggressive moves in China.

When seen in this context early efforts to reach out to the foreign press begin to make more sense.  By pointing to the supposedly continental origins of the Japanese fighting arts, Chinese reformers hoped to appropriate some of the growing respect (both tactical and cultural) that arts like Judo and Kendo were quickly amassing.  If they could also argue that the Japanese approach was comparatively unsophisticated, and less effective than their own, so much the better.  All of this would aid ongoing efforts in the realm of cultural diplomacy.

Many teachers also seem to have calculated that the respect of foreign audiences for their systems would yield increased legitimacy at home.  There were, after all, very good reasons why Chu Minyi worked so hard to get his unique approach to Taijiquan demonstrated at the 1936 Olympics.  Readers may recall that he even had foreign language booklets printed to explain it all to a multi-lingual international audience.

History seems to bear this theory out.  In 1930 Wing Chun was a distinctly regional art confined to a few areas of the Pearl River Delta region.  Now, decades after Bruce Lee (and more recently Ip Man) spread its fame to the West, it can be found all over China. The trans-national and trans-local nature of martial arts communities suggests that this sort of outreach can be extremely effective in shaping local perceptions of one’s practice.  The present article, which attempts to win cultural and intellectual respectability for the TCMA among a global audience, might be understood as an early step along this path.

In addition to these broader concerns, readers may want to meditate upon three issues as they work their way through this article.  First, consider the various comparisons that are drawn between Han’s “esoteric” practices and both the Japanese approach to martial arts (e.g., their overly masculine approach wrongly limits the instruction of female students), and the way that these teachings have subsequently been passed on to Western students.  While this material may be the least interesting to those focused specifically on the career of Han Xing Qiao, it is probably the most important aspect of the article from the standpoint of cultural diplomacy.

Second, readers should take note of the argument that the martial arts are fundamentally a form of moving meditation.  As students learn to gain an uncanny degree of control over the body (in essence “transcending” the physical self) they will likewise shatter the normal bounds of consciousness.  Spectacular physical performances are taken as an outward sign of an inner emotional and mental transformation.  Again, this type of discussion makes an interesting contrast with much of the material being produced by other reformers during the 1930s.  They often argued for a focus on community and national (rather than personal) transformation.

Lastly, consider the rhetorical tension that emerges when both western science and traditional Daoism are advanced as markers of the legitimacy of Han’s practice.  On the one hand, Western readers are greeted by all of the traditional trappings of Orientalism.  We are told of the otherworldly monks and the “thousand year old Buddha” before any discussion of the actual martial arts can begin.  Readers are then informed of the Daoist nature of this project.  Yet in practically the same breath, they are assured that not only are these (self-described) esoteric practices “not religious,” but that they are congruent with a modern and “scientific” world view.

In this article we see both “science” and “Daoism” being employed as ideological symbols rather than purely descriptive terms.  Such passages are more interested in shaping the reader’s views of Mr. Han’s wushu (and Chinese identity as a whole) rather than offering an objective exploration of its origins and nature.  Still, the odd combination of the timeless and culturally specific, mixed with the modern and universally accessible, speaks strongly to the growing association of the traditional martial arts with notions of national identity and cultural heritage during the Republic period.

Undoubtedly there are other themes and topics of interest that can be pulled out of this article.  What I find most significant are the ways that it seeks to shape and present its argument about the true nature of the Chinese martial arts to the readers.  Nor can we ignore the fact that by the 1930s foreign language publications were increasingly being drawn into these debates.
 

The bronze Buddha of the Jing'an temple, Shanghai.
The bronze Buddha of the Jing’an temple, Shanghai.

 

CHINESE ART OF BOXING

 

Bubbling Well Temple the Scene of a Teacher’s Activities

Special to the “N. C. Herald.”

Shanghai.

 

Noise and bustle on Bubbling Well Road have little meaning in Tsing An Tse, the red-walled temple that broods at the corner of Bubbling Well and Hart Roads, for its monks are about their own affairs, forgetful even of the “bubbling well” now in the centre of the road, which once had real significance, and sent its slow fermentations up into the quiet sunlight of the temple court.  All is changed outwardly.  Inside the ruddy walls, the Buddha who has received kowtows for nearly a thousand years, gazes imperturbably out over a small court where Wu Hsu [wushu] is taught daily.

At first thought, there is no reason for surprise in the fact that the ancient science of physical training developed in China to give its disciples an uncanny control over every muscle and nerve in their bodies, should go on under the very eyes of Buddha.  Only when it is revealed that the “shadow boxing” in this case is founded upon Taoist principles, does it seem remarkable that it should be taught within the confines of a Buddhist retreat.

In Japan, a similar science of physical control flourishes under the name of jiu-jitsu and is, in its most metaphysical form, expounded on the Buddhist doctrine.  However, with no little encouragement, Han Hsing-chao [Han Xing Qiao], Chinese exponent of Wu Hsu, observes that some hundreds of years ago, the Japanese imported Chinese masters of the art, and having learned it, applied it in most departments of the army, carrying it eventually to various nations of the West where as “jiu-jitsu” it has been utilized by police departments to subdue desperadoes.  Cleaver grips, twisted arms, a sudden blow behind the knee, and the victim of jiu-jitsu is quite helpless in the hands of his adversary.  The science aims to teach its disciples how to take advantage of the blind, untutored force of their opponents, and with little energy, to triumph in physical combat.  In fact, it is said that the stronger the adversary and the more furious his attack, the easier his conquest by the swift and light-footed jiu-jitsu artist.  Certainly the police of New York City have, on more than one occasion, collared racketeers with a little use of the science as taught by Japan

 

Mastery Over the Body

 

The Chinese root of this gentle form of boxing, however, has far more significance in battle.  Mr. Han, a devote of Wu Hsu for the past six years, has followed in the steps of his father, an apt pupil of the famous master, Chang Yao-tung, advocate of the esoteric, or innermost phase of complete mastery over the body.  His followers look upon Wu Hsu, with its magic holds, and its brilliant coups in combat as rightly applied in defence only, and even more correctly directed towards the sole goal of achieving perfect health and spiritual enlightenment in a normal, healthy programme of exercise and physical training scientifically planned.

 

Valuable Attainment

 

Mr. Han regards the form of Wu Hsu taught to the world at large and hailed abroad as most valuable as simply a first step towards a far more valuable attainment than the subjugation of law-breakers.

“My brother and I teach only the esoteric form of Wu Hsu,” he remarks amiably, a smile twitching the corners of his mouth, “It is founded upon the principle of proper breathing.  The Japanese deny it to their women, except in very rare instances.  We do not, for women have a right to enjoy health and the mastery of themselves.  The Japanese use their training in competition.  We teach the individual to master himself and his own body.  There is no need for actual physical combat, for that encourages a spirit of aggression which is very unnecessary.  You can very easily tell from your student’s lightness, from his motions, and his form in action whether or not he would triumph if he were pitted against the man besides him.

Aggression is not wise.  It is the form of the science that is all-important.  And, of course, it is based upon Taoist principles as we teach it.  We do not give lessons in the insignificant exoteric steps.  We teach only the inward science of self-control.”

A question regarding the tolerance of the monks whose chants to Buddha rise regularly, elicited a naïve explanation by the advocate of Wu Hsu on a Taoist foundation.  “Religion is too deep a subject for us to teach,” said Mr. Han, “and so we merely explain the application of Taoist law.  It has nothing to do with religion.  That is what the monks teach.”

Unquestionably, a plunge into something very like metaphysics was next if one was to differentiate between the “outer” and the “inner” aspects of Wu Hsu, perhaps best described as a fascinating form of boxing. Here Mr. Han became fluent.  He was eager to describe the benefits of embarking upon a scientific conquest of one’s own actions, and as he spoke, it became increasingly apparent that esoteric Wu Hsu might possibly result in an entirely new outlook on life.  In so many words, the youthful speaker stated that the candidate for training must rebuild himself physically, and in the process, his character!

The "Bubbling Well" located near the Jing'an Temple.  Circa 1930s.  Source:
The “Bubbling Well” located near the Jing’an Temple. Circa 1930s. Source:http://www.virtualshanghai.net

 

Active Meditation

 

“You see,” he observed, “the esoteric science we teach differs not in all its purpose from the meditations of the Buddhist or the Taoist who fixes his gaze inward, remaining near perfectly motionless.  We simply teach an active meditation.”  That paradox stated in full seriousness, clinched the matter.  An excursion into philosophical explanations was imperative!

“It is very simple,” promised Mr. Han. “There are three steps of the esoteric training.”  The first, cruder in motion and more strenuous than more advanced forms, is primarily concerned with hardening the bones of your body to their true strength.  The next step is entirely concerned with training the muscles of the body, until they are soft and flexible, and instantly responsive to your will.  The third and last step, is a lightening of the physical boy through breathing, by this time scientifically established to coordinate with your actions.  Moreover, [“]your nerves become assets, and not handicaps.” he pronounced, casting an appraising look at his interviewer.

During the extended period of training, the concentration upon proper breathing results in a noticeable development of the solar plexus.  It is declared that a glance at the candidate’s solar plexus will unfailing reveal the stage of his advancement in body-control.  “This is because Wu Hsu is founded upon the belief that the fires of life are centered in the solar plexus, and only when they are wisely and consciously developed, does the solar plexus register development,” revealed Mr. Han.

 

No Restrictions

 

Strangely enough, no dietary laws are enforced, nor is smoking considered a handicap.  Those are matters of individual taste.  Regularity in one’s daily habits, alone, is enough to accomplish results in Wu Hsu.  It would seem, if Mr. Han’s philosophy is to be credited, that Wu Hsu training is a first rate insurance against disease, infectious or organic.  He relates, without any apparent sense of voicing a miraculous fact, that heart trouble, rheumatism, chest infections, and all varieties of ills yield readily to the science which he claims, “purifies the blood and the whole body.”  The initiate of Wu Hsu should never be ill.

When one has gone through the motions of Wu Hsu, practicing them until they become all but subconscious as regards their form, one suddenly pierces the veil of material restriction that limits one’s sense of power.  Surely, the science imparts an agility and lightness hitherto associated only with such dancers of Pavlowa, Nijinsky, and Mordkin, if the testimony of one’s eyes can be believed.  So swift and lightning-like are the dartings, parryings and leapings of the brothers Han that the eye is baffled more than once in its attempt to follow their cavortings.  Speed and the ability to thwart an adversary are mere steps on the way to the ultimate goal.

Mr. Han was concise on this point.  “Your mind is then no longer murky, dull, confused, or slow,” he declared.  “It suddenly becomes clear and keen.  Like the ones who achieve true vision through meditation, your mind is released from bondage that is, after all, self-imposed.  You do not have to think,-you know!” (Blessed state!) “After you have taken the first step towards inward being, your movements are sure and certain as never before, and so like the flight of a bullet is your speed that you seem invisible to your adversary.  Dependent upon his own limited senses to follow you, he is stupefied!”

The temple courtyard today.
The temple courtyard today.

 

Masters of Themselves

 

Deprecating the material application of a noble principle as unfair to the uninitiated, even in sport, Mr. Han admits that it is being used by soldiery in China, Japan, and other parts of the world.  But, because it [is] unworthy in man to harm his fellows, it is wisest and best to achieve without combat, striving for the illumination of mind that spells freedom to the individual.  He is an insignificant disciple of the art of perfect physical mastery, only, stated Mr. Han, continuing with the information that real masters of Wu Hsu are teaching at the Temple of Fire in Peking.  They are not monks, he hastens to assure his visitor.  They are masters of themselves, physically, and one would gather, emotionally and mentally.

They are past sixty, many of them, it is said, and yet they may be seen bounding away from imaginary competitors like pieces of down tossed by a breeze, dazzling the eye with their brilliant and effortless agility.  They have followed through the mystical maze of active meditation, and have attained illumination through essaying its intricacies.

Meanwhile, longing to study further, and delve deeper into the mystery of “principle” and “power,” the brothers Han pursued their business of teaching Wu Hsu within the walls of Tsing An Tse.  Bright and early every morning, they marshal their classes of youngsters before them, watching alertly for the feather-lightness, the sure confidence and lightening-speed, and that far-away, penetrating expression that betrays one who has pierced the veil of constricted thought.  That one will have the power to see with crystal clarity-but to see what?  The mystery remains serenely locked in those minds which have, through perfect physical control, discovered hyper-consciousness, and with it, the “key” unlocking the fires of life slumbering placidly in the solar plexus of the average mortal if the Brothers Han can be believed.

oOo

 
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Cheung Lai Chuen, Creator of Pak Mei

 

oOo

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