china Opera Monkey King


Conventional Wisdom and its Discontents


Conventional wisdom holds that Bruce Lee represents the earliest opening of the mysteries of the Chinese martial arts in the West.  While others may have taught an Occidental student or two prior to him, it was the flood of interest that his TV roles and films unleashed that was responsible for making “Kung Fu” a household term.

It is not hard to defend this view.  While individual researchers may point to the occasional exception, such aberrations do not constitute a trend. A review of the pages of Blackbelt Magazine during the early 1970s reveals that whether individuals loved or hated Lee (and he did tend to be a polarizing figure), no one doubted the scale of the transformation that his “Kung Fu fever” unleashed on the Western martial arts community.

But there is a problem with “conventional wisdom.”  It is pre-theoretical, and at times even pre-conceptual.  It sounds reasonable and convincing, and so we often accept its findings as “obvious” without giving them a second thought.  Only later do nagging doubts arise, and we find ourselves wondering what exactly we know.

“Common sense” and “simple observation” seem to present pure facts that tell us something important about the world.  Yet can data ever exist independently of theory?  Can you know that an observation is significant without, on some level, already having a theory in your head that tells you why it must be so?

The issue with “conventional wisdom” is that it so often validates and reinforces our subconscious beliefs about the way the world works without ever allowing us to critically interrogate these notions.  So let us reconsider the notion that “Bruce Lee was the first individual to popularize the Chinese martial arts in the West.”

For the purposes of brevity we will begin by bracketing Lee himself and simply assume that we all know who he is, or could at least identify him on one of his many magazine covers.  Actually delving more deeply into the social meaning and conceptual construction of “Bruce Lee” would be an immensely interesting exercise.  But I will leave that to Paul Bowman and others who have thought more deeply on the subject.

Instead I would like to ask about the second part of this equation, “the Chinese martial arts.”  Are we confident that we can always identify them?  Do we understand their immense varieties, or the social work that they have done?  Can I know the “real martial arts” when I see them?

I suspect that the answer to these questions must almost certainly be “no.”  Note for instance that Western readers during the later 19th and first half of the 20th century seem to have had a truly uncanny knack for forgetting all about these fighting systems within a few years (or even months) of having been introduced to them.  This is all the more interesting given the strong hold that Japanese practices like Judo and Kendo exercised on the western imagination at approximate the same time.

To name just a handful of such examples, in 1900 the Yihi Spirit Boxers lent their name to a violent anti-Western uprising that terrorized the front pages of newspapers around the world.  Two decades later newspaper men found themselves compelled to write breathless articles when they once again rediscovered that the Chinese had a system of unarmed boxing and gymnastics which was being integrated into school curriculums.  And yet the sudden emergence of “Big Sword Troops” in the newsreels of the 1930s and 1940s once again came as a surprise to American audiences. And all of that had faded from the popular imagination by the time Bruce Lee donned his Kato suit and kicked his way onto the small screen.  In light of his performance Americans were once again astounded to discover that China had produced an entire genre of martial arts.

Or consider the following report, published in the pages of the North China Herald, but also distributed via Reuters.




Well-known Actor Conducts Class at School, Peking, Mar. 3.

Mr. Cheng Yen-chiu, one of the most famous female impersonators in China, who went to Europe in the winter of 1931 to study dramatic art, is at present teaching Chinese boxing in a school at Geneva, according to private advices received here.

Mr. Cheng left Berlin for Geneva early in January.  One day when he was practicing Chinese boxing alone in his hotel, a Swiss friend came and saw it.  The news soon reached the president of a local school who called on Mr. Cheng and invited him to conduct a class on Chinese boxing in his school.  Mr. Cheng at first declined but was finally prevailed upon to give instruction for one month.

The class opened on January 24 when there was a large attendance of students and their parents.  Mr. Cheng gave an exhibition which was much appreciated by those present.  It is stated that he will return to China shortly. –Reuter.


“CHINESE BOXING AT GENEVA.” 1933. The North-China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941), Mar 08, p. 373.


There are a number of things that make this short account remarkable.  To begin with, we must consider the year when it was written.  While various factions debate which Chinese teacher first opened their door to Western students in North America, pretty much everyone accepts that we are discussing a post-war phenomenon dating to the 1950s or 1960s.  Here we have a clear example of a Chinese martial arts class being taught (as an official school function!) during the 1930s.  As such it predates the earliest such classes in the United States by a generation.  And all of this is happening in Switzerland, not generally known for its large ethnic Chinese community.

It is also interesting to think a little more deeply about the role of Mr. Cheng Yen-chiu in all of this.  While one must often take the claims of fame in pieces such as this with a grain of salt, in the present case the author does not exaggerate. Cheng Yen-chiu did achieve a large degree of celebrity throughout the course of his career.  Prior to the Second World War, opera was still the single most popular form of public entertainment in China (though even by the 1930s the coming ascendancy of film was on the horizon).

Critics of the time noted that Mr. Cheng Yen-chiu was among the most sought-after actors for female parts in romantic stories.  In fact, some critics ranked him as the second greatest living actor in all of Beijing Opera.  He was a recognizable celebrity in the capital, and accounts of his performances were often in the newspaper.

Mr. Cheng Yen-chiu was so well known that he even received a small measure of recognition in the Western press. Readers interested in learning more about his career would do well to track down the writings of the Chinese-American journalist Flora Belle Jan, who (while living in Beijing) published regular columns on the city’s opera scene.   A number of these reviewed Cheng’s plays during the 1940s.  These articles are particularly interesting as they offer translated summaries of the librettos and notes on the details of various performancesLife magazine, when reporting on US forces entered Beijing at the end of WWII to accept the Japanese surrender, even mentioned Cheng’s radio addresses celebrating the freedom of the city.

It appears that like other opera celebrities, Cheng traveled and toured widely.  Yet he also studied Western modes of performance and made non-Chinese contacts.  It was this that led to his invitation to teach Chinese boxing in Geneva.




But Could they Fight?


Did Beijing Opera performers of the 1930s actually know “real” martial arts?  Cheng’s performances seem to have focused on romantic roles and songs.  That is not to say that he never played martial roles, but I have not run across a specific account of one.  And even if a performer did use the martial arts as part of their performance or training, can that actually be counted as a “real” martial art?  After all, the entire point of fighting on stage is to make sure that one’s movements are very easily seen while NOT making contact with the other actors.

Such objections lead to deeper questions about how exactly Chinese performers were trained, how they thought about the martial arts, and what Cheng imagined he was doing when he agreed to run a month long training class for a group of Swiss children?  This is not an easy line of inquiry as it requires us to reconstruct the social history of other people’s moral imagination (to borrow Clifford Geertz’s terminology).  Yet it is potentially fruitful for understanding some of the reasons behind the difficulties that the Chinese martial arts had in establishing themselves within Western consciousness.

Cheng would most likely have entered opera training as a very young child in the closing years of the Qing dynasty.  Martial arts training, among other disciplines (singing, music), was part of the basic education given to all of the children adopted or sold into servitude with an opera company.  Such training was very harsh and it was intended to fundamentally transform a potential actor’s bodily habits.  Around puberty the apprentice actors were moved into the roles that they would specialize in throughout the rest of their careers.  Cheng’s performances probably included very little martial work on stage.  Yet we know from this account that he maintained his personal practice of the martial arts.

The Wing Chun myth explicitly links the creation of this (now quite popular) system to a group of traveling opera performers.  As such most of my Kung Fu brothers have little trouble with the idea that certain fighting techniques and concepts could have been passed on in performance circles.  But this same acceptance is not shared in all quarters.  It seems that whenever this topic is brought up someone always incredulously asks, “But could opera performers really fight?”

The answer is probably yes.  Opera performers, even when quite famous, remained low status individuals in the eyes of the law during the Qing dynasty.  And they spent much of their careers traveling dangerous roads and rivers from one village to the next.  As such one would have to be a fool not to take certain aspects of your martial training quite seriously.

Yet why do we insist on asking this question?  Does it help us to understand anything about Cheng’s 1933 class?  Until we find a journal account, or a set of letters, detailing this class it is probably impossible to know exactly what Cheng taught the Swiss children.  But I think that we can make some safe, educated, guesses as to what he did not do.

First, he almost surely favored his European students with much more kindness (and fewer beatings) than how he would have been introduced to the martial arts.  Whatever the parents of Geneva were hoping that their children would learn during their month with Chinese boxing, it was probably not the notable degree of sadism involved in daily opera training.  Nor, for that matter, was he going to teach these kids “real-world self-defense techniques” of the kind that one might need when explaining to local gangsters that you were going to “pay a toll” to cross the street.  So what else might he have taught?

As someone who was actively practicing the martial arts in the 1930s Cheng would have had other, much more suitable, pedagogical models to draw from.  The Jingwu Association spent much of the 1920s insinuating their teachers into the physical education departments of elementary and middle schools up and down China’s east coast.  By 1933 the Central Guoshu Institute had done the same thing.  Both Chinese and English language newspapers ran frequent articles on the various efforts to use the martial arts in educational reform.  Occasionally they even reported on the displays and tournaments held at local schools.

If one was forced to guess, it was most likely this vision of the martial arts as a form of rationalized gymnastics training, suitable for middle class children, which found its way into Cheng’s classroom.  His instructional methods in Europe were doubtless different from the training he received.  And his techniques probably had little to do with the sorts of boxing and fencing that martial arts instructors were introducing to the Nationalist military during the 1930s.  Yet given the growing popularity of these approaches to the martial arts within many Chinese schools, one would be hard pressed to question the authenticity (or wisdom) of such a choice.  The first rule of teaching, like writing, is to know one’s audience.



The Martial Arts as a Blurred Genera


I was recently reading a short (forthcoming) essay by Colin P. McGuire in which he was commenting on a new edited volume on the fighting systems of Indonesia and their music.   Colin as is a great person to address this topic as he is both a student of ethno-musicology and martial arts studies.

He pointed out that one must only watch so many Youtube videos of practices like Capoeira in Brazil, wedding Silat in Indonesia or village Kung Fu in Southern Chinese festivals, to realize that music, martial arts and public performance are not three distinct things that keep coincidentally coming together.  In many cases are simply three recognizable aspects of the same thing.  Many individuals are resistant to the notion that traditional music and performance can be an intrinsic part of Silat (or Kung Fu), and yet Silat can, at the same time, be a “real” martial art.  Or from a more academic standpoint, can the study of such seemingly disparate fields be integrated?  To ease this transition in perception Colin suggested the usefulness of Clifford Geertz’s metaphor of the “blurred genre.”

The immediate problem in applying such a framework is that Geertz himself was not attempting to use it to understand anything about the techniques that he had encountered during his fieldwork.  Rather, his essay was concerned with the radical transformation that was afoot in the social sciences during the 1980s.  Over the course of that decade these disciplines would shed their mechanistic world views in favor of theories based on the metaphors of games (formal mathematical methods), the stage (Victor Turner’s work on social drama and new types of ethnography) and the text (deconstruction and critical theory).  In short, what become blurred was the boundaries between the humanities and the social sciences.  It was evident, even then, that neither branch of thought would emerge unchanged from this encounter.

Still, I think that there is something to be said for applying this model to our understanding of hand combat systems.  The Chinese martial arts always exist as a “blurred genre” precisely because those who practice and study them strive to find (or create) some sort of social meaning that frames and makes sense of the violence that they promise.

In our attempt to escape the banality of bruised flesh and broken bones we ask the martial arts to do social work.  On stage they are marshaled to provide morality tales in which order can be restored to the human realm.  In the classroom we turn to them to create students who are both physically and spiritually strengthened, yet humble.  In other areas we expect that they will impart hard-nosed military skills, unleash esoteric healing energies or awaken nationalist yearnings in previously apolitical peasants.

Before they were “martial arts,” a modern concept defined by western students, and assumed to be basically identical in all countries (China, Japan, the Philippines, Brazil, Russia, Mongolia, etc….), what existed were patterns of social behavior, belief and violence.  These went by many names and could be found throughout Chinese society.  The martial arts exist as “blurred genre” because they reflect the groups, practices and social tasks that shape and support them.

Rather than a single unified counterpart to Judo (itself a modern creation), visitors to China encountered marketplace sword dancers, Taoist gymnasts, acrobats, soldiers, gangsters, middle school students, opera stars and pharmacists, all of whom engaged in some sort of  martial practice.  Yet none of them were usually identified as martial artists in the way that we now use the term.  I suspect that Western audiences were forced to constantly “rediscover” the existence of Chinese martial practice as no single overarching category existed within the popular imagination that could unite (and also edit) these various practices.  No one had forcefully articulated the concept of a unified field of Chinese martial arts within the Western media.

This brings us back to Bruce Lee.  The notion of unified field of “Chinese martial arts” (or “Kung Fu”) as an analog to Japanese practices like Judo does not seem to stabilize in the English language until the 1950s and 1960s.  And even at that point there is competition as to which vision will win out.  Are the “Chinese martial arts” the self-defense systems of young toughs in Hong Kong, the elaborate sword dances promoted by the touring troupes from the PRC, or a medicalized and spiritualized notion of Taijiquan which resonated with Western counter-culture movements?

One suspects that what Bruce Lee actually accomplished was not so much to introduce the Chinese martial arts to the West.  Rather, after 100 years of conflicting visions and competing explanations, he provided a point of stabilization.  His TV appearances and movies brought a simplifying (but powerful) clarity to the issue.

Perhaps he was more successful than others in this regard because his writings and films forced a direct comparison between the Chinese Kung Fu (as he had learned it) and the Japanese martial arts.  Marketers have long known that a well-chosen rival, or a carefully developed comparison, is often the best way to establish a new brand.  Pepsi is “the choice of a new generation” precisely because its not Coke.  In dogmatically challenging the dominance of the Japanese arts in the West, Lee managed to create the illusion that we already knew what the Chinese martial arts were.  It’s a vision that a surprising number of people still carry with them today.

As this new paradigm established itself the earlier efforts of individuals like Sophia Delza or Cheng Yen-chiu to stabilize a different vision of the martial arts in the west faded.  They no longer fit the paradigm of “real martial arts,” and so they slipped from the public view (even if they continued to be remembered by specific students).  Indeed, it seems that much of what was once known about Chinese martial culture was forgotten (or simply not passed on), to make way for the new “conventional wisdom” of the 1970s.

Researching the social history of the martial arts, either in China or the West, begins (somewhat paradoxically) by acknowledging that we do not know what the martial arts actually were, or all of the purposes that they have served.  That knowledge is the goal of our research, not the starting point.  I do not subscribe to the position of total relativism, in which it is impossible for readers today to have any understanding of the martial arts as they existed in another cultural context.  Yet there will always be limits to our understanding, and we must strive to discover where they lay.  Rather than speaking in the broad generalizations, even our definitions of basic concepts must make explicit their claimed “scope” and “domain.”

After all, the term “martial art” is rarely used in Western sources to describe Chinese practices prior to the 1960s (or a little bit before).  And so we must cast a wider net in our empirical investigations. To discover Cheng Yen-chiu’s 1930s boxing class I had to begin by searching for information about the travels and meaning of Beijing opera in Europe, not the TCMA.  This is what is gained when we let go of the notion that the Chinese martial arts have ever been just one thing, and instead see them as a blurred genre.




If you enjoyed this article and would like to further explore the relationship between the TCMA and opera from a practitioners point of view see: Possible Origins: a Cultural history of Chinese Martial Arts, Theater and Religion by Scott Phillips.