Meeting the Boxer
I recently had the good fortune to meet one of my favorite Chinese Boxers. I had been stalking him for years.
This early 20th century postcard was probably purchased in Beijing and then mailed to Tianjin on February 5th, 1909. The card itself was published by J.H. Schaefer’s Kunstchromo, Amsterdam. While this firm used a number of Chinese images, I have never seen any others dealing with the same model or subject. Given that this postcard was printed in the Netherlands (or possibly Germany) it seems safe to assume that it was sold all over Europe.
This particular example also seems to have been fairly popular. Only a small proportion of the postcards printed in the early 20th century have survived. As a result, many of the images that circulated during that period are probably lost to history. Yet I have seen at least three different copies of this postcard come up for sale in on-line auctions over the last two years. As such, I suspect that it must have circulated in some quantity. From a social scientific standpoint this document is doubly interesting, not just because of the early 20th century image of the Chinese martial arts that it preserves, but also for what it suggests about the intended audience of such products.
The front of the postcard presents readers with a supposed image of a “young boxer” (named “Joung Ping Fou”) hard at work on his exercises. The card’s model appears to be a child and the sword that dominates the upper part of the frame seems to be both intimidating and comically large. The boy himself is dressed in what appears to be a military uniform of some type. The darker colored turban on his head and belt at his waist were almost certainly red. The boxer appears to be well fed and well clothed. Further, his stance is both stylized and vaguely “operatic.”
These are the facts that we can be certain of. Yet what meaning did this image convey to those who produced, mailed and received this piece of ephemera? And what subsequent impact may it have had on the Western understanding of the Chinese martial arts?
As we have seen throughout this series, such images always present complex interpretive problems. To deal with some of these issues I would like to briefly consider this postcard from three different perspectives.
While talking with Paul Bowman recently I noted that he used a metaphor which I thought readers of Kung Fu Tea might find helpful. He casually mentioned that rather than sticking too closely to any one intellectual tradition, he preferred to “use his theories like lenses.” When presented with a difficult interpretive problem he would move from one theory to another for much the same reason that an astronomer might switch eye pieces on a telescope. The different concerns and assumptions of each theory sometimes revealed something new that the others had missed.
I have certainly done the same thing in parts of my own writing (including the discussion of globalization in the Epilogue of my book on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts). Yet to more succinctly illustrate the possibilities of this approach I would try it here. If we were to examine this image through the lens of social history, religious studies and critical theory, what would we see? Given the brevity of this post what follows will be quick suggestions rather than fully formed theoretical arguments. Still, the exercise reveals some interesting possibilities for future consideration.
A Historical Reading
Any social historian worth their salt would probably begin by establishing both the setting and the players involved in the actual production of this document. While many similar images were staged in studios, this image appears to have been taken outdoors, probably in some sort of marketplace. We must also consider the question of timing. Given that the Boxer Uprising ended only in 1901, and the postcard itself must have been printed prior to 1909, that violent outburst becomes the major social event that frames and gives meaning to this postcard.
Still, it goes without saying that this image was not produced during the conflict itself. This is not an example of “war photography.” Esherick, in his landmark study of the event, noted that many of the Spirit Boxers were quite young, just as we see here. Yet the level of photographic technology at the time strongly suggests that this image was not casually snapped on a street corner. Rather, it must have been carefully (and patiently) composed.
Given his willingness to work with a Western photographer we can be fairly certain that the boy in question was not a violent anti-Christian radical. In fact, we know that in the aftermath of the conflict both local models and foreign photographers produced images exactly like this one to sell to a western public who wanted to see what the much feared “Boxers” had looked like. Other photographs produced in this genre featured scenes of battlefield destruction, or the execution of captured Boxers.
In short, while the image evokes the memory of anti-Western violence, the actual production and marketing of this postcard is an example of the degree to which both Chinese and western individuals were being drawn into the same global productive and commercial networks. Further, the selection of this model suggests an attempt to diminish the actual dangers of the recent uprising, as well as the military and cultural strength of the Chinese themselves, by mapping all of that onto the body of a single child. In the image of the young Boxer we see a country that is, paradoxically, both too “old” (superstitious, backwards) and too “young” (just undertaking the process of serious reforms) to stand on its own in the international system.
By reducing the Boxer Uprising to an item for commercial consumption, the reader is reassured of the legitimacy of the foreign presence in China, as well as the inevitability of that country’s defeat.
While not disagreeing with these basic conclusions, a student of Chinese religious history might note that this discussion of globalization and exploitation is not really capable of answering some of the more interesting questions about this image. Specifically, globalization might account for the existence of such an item, but can it explain the image’s content? If not, is the model in this image really complicit in nation’s exploitation? Or might he be using this exercise to appropriate certain symbols as aspects of his own identity?
On a technical level it seems certain that a professional photographer composed this shot. Just getting the lighting right in an outdoor environment must have been tricky. Yet one suspects that there are layers of meaning in this image that its Western recorder may not have been fully aware of. Why, when asked to portray a Boxer in training did the young model (probably a marketplace performer) choose this operatic pose? And what was the meaning of the costume that he wore?
Western observers noted at various points during the 19th century that Chinese rebels had a propensity to adapt red “turbans” and belts as their defacto uniform. Indeed, this same basic tendency was seen during the Boxer Uprising.
While discussing rebellions and secret society uprisings in Southern China Barend J. ter Haar notes:
“The use of a piece of cloth wrapped around the head or waist is also common amongst religious officiants, such as Daoist priests (especially those performing the vernacular rituals), shamans and mediums, and lay people engaged in religious activities. Strips of red paper are also attached to holy trees and rocks. It has been a common practice throughout Chinese history for rebels to wear a piece of red cloth around the head to indicate vital power. Red cloth or paper is a general indicator of divine power, undoubtedly derived from the reddish color of blood and the fact that blood was perceived to be a concentrated life force.” (Ritual & Mythology of the Chinese Triads, p. 116)
Thus the costume seen in this postcard is highly significant. The Boxer Uprising was fought, in large part, by young peasants who believed themselves to be shamanistically possessed by the gods and heroes of vernacular opera and ritual. All of this is captured in the image at hand.
Indeed, the large sword which seems to dominate the image may hold another clue to help us more fully interpret this scene. One of the more common gods encountered during the Boxer Uprising was Nezha, a hero discussed in the popular novel Canonization of the Gods. A dangerous child warrior, Nezha was said to be the protector of Beijing and was the chief of the eight thunder gods who guarded the city’s gates. Scott Phillips has noted that Nezha’s imagery seems to have had some impact on Baguazhang. This is particularly evident in its eclectic weapons (including the two headed spear, the hoop and very large ox-tail dao), all of which are associated with the iconography of the capital city’s mythic and popular protective deity (p. 49-50).
In short, the image used on this postcard evokes a rich complex of cultural symbols that were central to the popular culture of Beijing in the final years of the Qing dynasty. Some of these found expression in the violence of the Boxer uprising, and others lived on in the area’s operatic and martial traditions. Focusing only on the technical production of the image may cause us to miss much of what such a scene would have conveyed to a local audience in a city like Tianjin or Beijing.
The Boxers and the Oriental Obscene
Yet what marketplace was really driving the production of this image? And what other discourses and texts did these early images of the Boxer Uprising go on to influence? Did they set the stage for the development of Western images of the “dangerous Orient” throughout the 20th century?
A critical theorist interested in both the media and Western portrayals of the martial arts might look at this this (or other images) produced in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising and think immediately of Sylvia Chong’s The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Duke University Press 2012). Paul Bowman (in Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries, 2015) has already argued at length that her treatment of film in the wake of the Vietnam War is of general relevance to the field of martial arts studies.
I think that this and other postcards might be used to argue for an even broader relevance for her work. Chong is primarily interested in how the violence of the Vietnam War found its way onto the screen and into American popular culture during the 1970s and 1980s. Yet this was not the West’s first imperial misadventure in Asia. More specifically, one must wonder whether some of the cultural patterns and discourses that Chong notes were actually pioneered over the course of earlier conflicts (such as the American occupation of the Philippines, the “island hopping campaigns” of WWII or the Korean War).
Further, it is not clear that the basic logic of Chong’s psycho-analytical arguments must be limited to the realm of film. In particular, her treatment of three famous photographs, Eddie Adams’ Saigon Execution (1968), Ronald Haeberle’s My Lai Masssacre (1968) and Huynh Cong Ut’s Napalm Girl (1972) suggest possibilities for understanding how previous generations might have reacted to visual images of violence. The Boxer Rebellion is culturally significant in part because it was the first of imperialist campaign in Asia to leave behind a rich visual record as well as media accounts that both traumatized and titillated the Western reading public with their graphic descriptions of anti-Christian violence.
Consider again the age of the sword wielding martial artist in this postcard. Western newspaper readers surely would have noted the paradox that it was youth like this who were responsible for the murders of so many Christian women and children. And of course the vast majority of these victims were themselves Chinese.
The fact that the Western public understood the Boxer intervention as an easy (one might say inevitable) victory makes this case quite different from the post-Vietnam era. Many aspects of Chong’s discussion will not be applicable here. Still, the publication of images of violence inflicted on Chinese bodies for “the continuation of a larger tradition of racial sentimentalism or melodrama, in which the spectacle of the suffering racial other is staged for the moral uplift of a middle-class, white and often female audience” seems to suggest the existence of deeper discourse that did not begin with Vietnam. (p. 77)
The fear of a class of “Oriental others” who are, on the one hand, the victims of unspeakable violence, and yet threaten to bring that same destruction to the imperial center, is precisely the specter that haunted Sax Rohmer’s popular Fu Manchu novels. It is interesting to note that the “East-West” violence of the Boxer Uprising is invoked in those stories. Indeed, one wonders to what degree these images linking the Chinese people to racial prejudice and bizarre forms of violence, influenced the development of later cultural discourses during the 1970s and beyond.
Examined from three different theoretical perspectives, a single image can yield a wealth of meaning. Each of these approaches begins with its own basic assumptions. Further, each directed our attention towards a different set of issues.
I should caution that it would be a mistake to assume that all of these theories naturally coexist or that focus only on a single aspect of any problem. Indeed, the instability of meaning and identity that makes so many “critical theories” possible might cut directly against the basic methodological assumptions employed by an economist in her formal model of global trade and violence. When we employ a variety of theories, understanding where (and why) they clash is a vital part of the exercise.
And yet the exercise is often worthwhile. The present case reminds us that these fighting systems have always existed within, and contributed to, a media rich environment. Some of what we think of as quintessentially “modern” may be more “traditional” than we ever suspected.
If you enjoyed this post card you might also want to see: War Junks, Pirates and the Commercialization of Chinese Martial Culture