First, the Important Stuff
Is it possible to approach history without theory? I think not. It is the existence of some sort of preexisting story or framework of understanding that we carry around in our heads which tells us that some given source is relevant data in the first place. Nor are these sorts of “common sense” frameworks usually unbiased. I have always had a preference for making any project’s basic assumptions known. Then again, my basic training is in the social sciences rather than history, so there may also be disciplinary issues at play.
Theory has two related functions in the production of history. It is most obvious to the reader when it is used to interpret past events, or to make causal inferences. On a more fundamental level, theories also direct our empirical research. As they spin out new concepts or hypothesis they suggest what sorts of data we will need to find to explore or test these ideas. One of the things that a really good theory does is that it pushes one to look at totally new areas that may not have been previously associated with a subject like the martial arts in the public imagination. Purely inductive approaches run the risk of reinforcing the researchers existing biases as they just are not as often encouraged to look at these seemingly unrelated literatures for support.
For instance, if the Chinese martial arts are fundamentally a modern phenomenon (as my co-author and I have explored at length here), then their emergence overlaps a number of other important recent developments. One of the most obvious of these would have to be the emergence of a strong sense of Chinese nationalism. While nascent trends had been coalescing since the late 19th century, it was not until the 1911 revolution that modern nationalism became a hegemonic force in Chinese popular culture.
This is an important fact for students of martial arts studies to consider. It is probably not a coincidence that Ip Man’s own martial arts auto-biography contained an incident with strongly nationalist overtones set during precisely these years. By including the narrative of standing up to an Indian police officer in Hong Kong within his discussion of Wing Chun’s origins, he brought his art into contact with a dominant social force and made it more attractive to his later students in Hong Kong. They tended to be very sensitive to questions of identity and nationalism.
In a recent article Peter Lorge has put forward the fascinating thesis that the wide scale move from small scale teacher-student relationships (schools) to the emergence of named “styles” (Taijiquan, Bagua, Jingwu) within the TCMA, was also precipitated by early 20th century nationalism. This was yet another mechanism by which traditionally local practices could be made universal and unifying as the concept of the national identity became a central organizing thought in Chinese thought.
I would add that on a more granular level it was also a way in which martial arts teachers could exploit improving transportation and publishing markets to reach audiences on a “national scale” for the first time in the history of the martial arts. Such a feat was just not technically feasible during the Qing dynasty. Thus the history of the Chinese martial arts reinforces the theoretical observation that growth of national markets in information and discourses of national identity are closely linked.
Still, as Benedict Anderson noted, while nations might be thought of as “imagined communities”, they do not exist in pristine isolation. Rather, they are defined in relation to both one another and other sorts of identities. To claim the mantle of nationhood is to forge a unique identity. Yet it is also to enter a realm of conversation and competition with other socially constructed identities that are in many respects functionally identical to you own.
Anderson discussed at length the ways in which newspapers were critical to forging a sense of shared community and identity. Yet the literature on public diplomacy, soft power and national branding also suggests that these messages have played an important role in establishing China’s place in the international system when broadcasted to a larger global audience.
Thus, if the Chinese martial arts emerged and functioned as a critical early symbol of national identity, one naturally expects that concerted efforts should have existed to get this message out in an attempt to proactively define the newly emerging Chinese “brand.” Of course most popular discussions in the West today focused on the supposedly “closed,” “secretive” and excessively “traditional” nature of these fighting systems. “Everyone knows” that there were no serious efforts to spread knowledge about these martial arts prior to the 1960s.
Yet is that really the case? Or have we simply been deceived by that subconscious mental map of martial arts history that most of us carry in our heads? If we were to follow the suggestions of the public diplomacy literature and take a closer look at the sorts of English language messages coming from both the Chinese government and civic elites during the 1920s, 1930s and the 1940s, what would we actually find? In short, the real question for students of martial arts studies might not be why did we have to wait for the 1970s for knowledge of Kung Fu to spread. Rather, why in the 1970s did we in the West suddenly start to pay attention?
Now the Fun Stuff
Over the following months I hope to address both the theoretical and the empirical side of this discussion as my research progresses. Earlier this afternoon I reviewed a number of newspaper articles (ranging in date from the late Qing to the 1930s) that touched on the complex ways in which the martial arts have been used to explain the Chinese nation to the outside world at the same time that they were being internally coopted into debates over the multiple possible ways in which Chinese modernity might evolve.
Readers will no doubt be relieved to learn that I am not going to subject them to those pieces (at least not yet). Yet I also came across two notices that I thought might be even more interesting to those who follow Kung Fu Tea. While brief they speak directly to the nature of the Southern Chinese martial arts in Foshan and Guangzhou on the eve of the 1920s. They also suggest a certain level of awareness of the local hand combat scene on the part of foreign (English language reading) residents in the area.
A quick note regarding the source might also be helpful. While there were multiple efforts to establish an English language newspaper in Guangzhou during the 1910s and 1920s most of them never really got off the ground. It was too difficult to navigate both the commercial and political environment. The close proximity of Hong Kong suggested that it was often easier to print things in the British territory (without the creative input of Chinese censors) and distribute them throughout the region via the Pearl River.
The Canton Times, if relatively short lived, was more successful. It was founded in 1918 but I have not yet been able to establish what year it ceased production. While this newspaper was published in English it was owned by a Chinese firm, had its offices in Guangzhou and its editors were all Chinese. The Times catered to a dual audience. Obviously it served the needs of English speaking residents. But it also had a notable readership among Republican minded Chinese citizens. In fact, there are rumors that the paper’s political articles occasionally caused trouble.
In The Journalism of China (University of Minnesota Bulletin Volume 23 Number 34, 1922) Don D. Patterson reports that the paper had a daily circulation of 1,000 copies. By way of comparison the South China Morning Post had a circulation of 1,500 issues at the same time, and the now more widely regarded North China Herald only had 500 daily subscribers (page 70). Most university library catalogs that I have consulted only have digital copies of this paper for the years 1919-1920, yet Patterson seems to indicate that it was still up and running in 1922.
Our first point of interest was the leading item in the “General News” section for September 9th, 1919 (page 7).
National boxing is very popular in Fatshan city. It is reported that there are some eight national boxing schools which are directed by well-known national boxers. School fees are only from two to three dollars a month.
While brief there are a few items of note here. The first is that the term “National Boxing” is being used here. When reading later articles I had always assumed that this usage was a reference to the Guoshu label, but apparently it came into general usage earlier as a way to quickly distinguish Chinese and Western boxing traditions. Notice, however, that this usage conforms to our prior observation about the importance of issues like nationalism and global communication in the development of the early image of the Chinese martial arts.
It is also fascinating to receive another source of independent confirmation regarding the vitality of Foshan’s martial arts marketplace. Readers should also note that this account takes place just prior to the explosion of activity that will erupt during the early 1920s. That is when the Jingwu Association opened their branch in Foshan.
That brings us to our second story. The first Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Association was established in April of 1919. Our second news item, profiling one of the instructors, appeared in October of that same year.
A National Boxing Expert
Mr. Wong Chuen Sun, an instructor in the Canton Ching Wu Athletic Association, an organization promoting [the] national art of boxing, is very popular among his students. He teaches boxing as a means of promoting physical development, he says. When one is used to this form of daily exercise, according to Mr. Wong, he has to keep his whole body always in good condition; any inconsistent living on the part of the student, he will surely be found out by the others associating with him. In a word, one’s sin can be easily observed by a physical training instructor. Mr. Wong is noted for his art in exhibiting the iron whip, cross arm, and other old weapons of war. As a business man, Mr. Wong is connected with the Ye Woo Co., Chinese curios, porcelain, jade and old bronze wares shop, at 7, Sung Sing Street, Canton.
The Canton Times, Oct 22, 1919, page 8.
While brief this news item also provides us with a few new glimpses into the organization’s local chapter. To begin with, Wong Chuen Sun is not one of the early instructors in Guangzhou that I was already familiar with. (Though it may be possible that he is better known under a different name.)
Second, in keeping with Jingwu’s mission, Wong is portrayed more as a modern athlete than the keeper of an ancient esoteric tradition. While the article notes his expertise in traditional weapons, it is clearly focused more focused on the idea of an exercise and conditioning regime well suited to the new middle class.
This is evident in other ways as well. While we tend to imagine the martial arts masters of the 1920s as being very traditional in dress and bearing, Wong is shown wearing a dapper western suit. Nor is he apparently a full time martial arts instructor. Like his students he has a day job, either as an investor in, or as an employee of, a local fine arts company.
Of course the most interesting thing about this article is that we are reading it at all. It is important to note that within months of establishing itself in the area the local Jingwu branch was reaching out and making connections with English language publications. Nor is this a fluke. Rather, as my growing database of articles attests, it appears to have been part of a disciplined and well developed public relations campaign. Yet it is clear that the bulk of Jingwu’s membership would be subscribing to these papers.
When we approach articles like this through the lens of the emerging national discourse this paradox begins to come into focus. The promotion of a certain view of modern China abroad was likely always a core goal of certain martial arts reformers. This was a core, rather than a secondary, consideration. After all, what is the point of curing the diseases that afflict the body politic if you do not then go on to both inform and demonstrate to a global audience that you are no longer “the sick man of East Asia?” Only when we accept the essentially modern nature of the Chinese martial arts do its domestic and political implications become clear.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: The Invisibility of Kung Fu: Two Accounts of the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts