Certain events stand out in any historical treatment of the Chinese martial arts. The Boxer Uprising, the rapid popularization of Taijiquan and creation of the Jingwu Association in Shanghai all come to mind. Yet any discussion of events in the 1930s is dominated by the Nationalist (KMT) backed Guoshu (or “National Arts”) movement. This government sponsored reform program sought to rejuvenate and modernize China’s various systems of boxing, wrestling and fencing. Reformers claimed that in the proper hands these fighting systems could be the key to improving public health and hygiene, forging a more cohesive society, strengthening nationalism, creating a feeling of militarism among the Chinese people, and (last but not least) shoring up their support for the government and its ruling party.
The success of Japanese efforts to deploy Bushido as a training regime for the “body politic” suggested that these goals were not as outlandish as they might at first sound. Indeed, throughout the late Meiji period Kendo, Judo and a handful of other martial practices made important inroads in Japanese education, military and law enforcement structures. After their defeat of Russia, foreign observers increasingly expressed interest in the various ways that the Japanese martial arts reflected, or strengthened, the “national character.”
In an attempt to replicate this success, China’s government did much to promote its own fighting systems. Schools created boxing classes for children, and the government created physical education programs needed to train the huge numbers of necessary instructors. Various sorts of journals, newsletters and educational materials were published and circulated extolling the virtues of the new Guoshu system, and the need to move away from the secrecy, rivalry and feudal superstition that marred China’s traditional fighting art.
Perhaps the most visible aspect of the Guoshu movement was the creation of a network of local, provincial and national tournaments meant to standardize and raise the profile of the Chinese martial arts. The most important of these events were the periodic “National Examinations,” held only twice (1928 and 1933), in the capital.
Andrew Morris has discussed these events (and their challenges) in great detail in his study of Republic era Chinese sports, Marrow of the Nation. Likewise, in my own book on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts, I discuss at length the difficulty that national reformers had in disrupting the market driven growth of local martial arts movements. These were often much more “traditional” in character and more focused on local or regional identity.
While modern writers tend to look back on these National Examinations as great achievements, high water marks in the history of the Chinese martial arts, it is often forgotten that the Guoshu program was not without its weaknesses. Most local martial artists simply ignored the tournament network that the government had established. As Morris points out, the 1933 National Examination was scheduled to overlap the 1933 National Games because it’s organizers realized (quite correctly) that without the draw of this larger, and much more popular event, it would simply be impossible to attract enough fighters and spectators to hold a successful tournament.
None of this pessimism is evident in the following English language account of the event. The Shanghai based China Press, originally an American owned newspaper with strong pro-government leanings (often used as an outlet for public diplomacy discussions aimed at a global audience by the KMT) ran a lengthy piece attempting to introduce its western readers both the event and to the changing nature of the Chinese martial arts themselves.
While pointing to the continued vitality of China’s ancient martial arts, this article goes out of its way to demonstrate the degree to which they had been modernized and reformed. The reporter covering the 1933 event explained to readers the various weight classes used (just as in Western Boxing), the sorts of judges and referees who would present, expectations of sportsmanship, and even the use of modern safety gear in both boxing and weapons based tournaments.
All of this evidence of modernization is at the same time balanced against a revival of distinctly traditional elements. The entire idea of a “national examination” in the martial arts obviously harkens back to the late imperial period. Nor would the spectators neglect to notice that fights were staged on the traditional elevated platform favored by Chinese pugilists rather than western style rings. Yet all of this “tradition” was also observed by a small number of western spectators and reporters who duly reported their observations to the wider world.
As Andrew Morris has suggested, the message that international audiences were meant to draw from this seems clear. The martial arts, under the guidance of the KMT, had become truly “national arts.” They reflected the essence of China’s ancient culture. Yet they could also be “modern” and were fit for the type of universal sporting competition that signaled one’s acceptance on the global stage. Indeed, within three years of this event the Chinese martial arts would reach a much larger international audience when they were demonstrated at the closing ceremonies of the 1936 Olympics games in Berlin.
The following article offers us a glimpse into a famous and often discussed event. More importantly, it suggests the sorts of images that the KMT sought to project, not just nationally, but globally, with its martial arts program. Finally, readers should note the author’s concluding paragraph. While sportsmanship and modern safety gear are good, readers were to be left in doubt as to what this tournament signaled about the state of China’s “fighting spirit” as it headed into the tumultuous 1930s.
Chinese Pugilistic Artists Entertain Nanking Fans With Classy Exhibition of Skills
Contestants Clash In Broadsword, Quarter-Staff, Fencing, Spear Fighting, Halberd And Boxing Tournaments In Order to Pass Examination
By Teh-Chen T’ang
Nanking, Oct. 23.—After having jammed the Central Stadium to watch 2,200 athletes competing in all kinds of western sports for ten days, October 10 to October 20, Nankingites are now packing the public recreation ground to capacity to witness some 300 pugilistic artists, representing provinces, display their physical prowess at the Second National Boxing Examination, which opened last Friday, October 20.
Although the Central Government has enthusiastically aroused the interest of the public to engage in western sports, as evidenced by the success of the last National Track and Field Meet, Nanking is sparing no attention to preserve, as well as to promote, Chinese boxing, a form of athletics which has taken a deep root among Chinese long before soccer, basketball, track and field and the like were introduced.
It is with this in mind that the present examination is held, an elapse of five years since the first took place in the capital
Spectators Flock to See Battles
Equal fervor is shown on the part of the people over the affair. Ever since its opening, the stands have been filled up with spectators. They cheer wildly and applaud heartily over well-fought battles. Their enthusiasm proves Chinese boxing still holds its place among the common class despite the fact [that] western sports are gaining popularity.
The examination will be a seven day affair, ending October 27. The first five days will be devoted to physical contests while the last two days will be spent on written, or oral examination.
Six forms of competition are given at the examination. They are broadsword contests, spear fighting, quarter-staff, boxing, fencing, and halberd competition.
Written Test on the Last Day
Preliminary examinations for boxing were held the first two days. Yesterday the semi-finals for qualified boxers were held. Quarter-staff bouts were held today. Fencing, wrestling, spear fighting and the rest will be on the schedule through the rest of the week. The written test will take place in the afternoon of October 27. Party Principles, Chinese and the Origin of Chinese Boxing will be quizzed.
The number of representatives for each province is limited to 30. Only one entry is allowed for each contestant. If he fails to make the grade of 60 at the heat, he is eliminated.
Hunan, however, sends the largest contingent, the number being around 100. Other provinces, with the exception of Mongolia, Tiber, Kansu, and Chinghai, are represented with from 30 to 50 members. The aforementioned states sent none on account of financial and geographical difficulties.
Curious Rules Govern Boxing
As far as boxing itself is concerned, a round consists of two hits. The one who makes an attack on his opponent at the right spot is considered the winner of the round. He who leads in both rounds is the winner.
In a boxing match, no one is supposed to hit the eyes, throat, waist, kidney and other strategic places of his opponent. To remind the competitors of these regulations a hugh [sic] physiological diagram of a human body is hung on the north side of the ring locating those strategic spots.
Like pugilistic contests in America, participants are divided into five classes of weight. They are (1) heavyweight, above 182 pounds; (2) light-heavyweight, 165 to 182 pounds; (3) middleweight, 148 to 165 pounds; (4) light-middle weight, 132 to 148 pounds; and (5) light-weight, 132 pounds.
The ring, a rope arena in an octagonal shape, occupies 200 square feet and can accommodate over 500 persons. The ring is surrounded by stands, also erected octagonally, which can seat 30,000 people. On the north end are box seats reserved for government officials and honor guests.
2 Teams Fight At the Same Time
Contestants sit around the ring which is three feet above the ground. Two groups will be in action at the same time since the arena is big enough for two teams. A radio announcer looks after the roll call and other broadcasting duties.
For Occidentals interested in Oriental pugilistic art, the affair is well worth watching. When the writer visited the examination ground today, two groups of fighters were seen in action, boxers and quarter-staffers.
Outfits worn by pugilists will be most interesting to westerners. Instead of appearing on the ring with a pair of short pants and a pair of eight ounce gloves, they don themselves up with a baseball chest protector and a pair of soccer leg pads. Only ordinary cotton gloves are used.
Contestants are searched by referees before they start to fight. They are required to bow before the onlookers at the north box seats. Then they bow to each other instead of shaking hands as western boxers do. The one wearing a red band takes the east corner and the other with [a] yellow band the west.
There are two umpires for each match and three judges. One referee holds a red flag while the other a green one. A whistle and a waving of the green flag starts the fight. In case of a deadlock, the red-flag referee segregates the two combatants and the battle starts all over again. Each round takes about five minutes.
As soon as the winner has been decided upon by three judges, his right hand is raised as a sign of victory. The two contestants then bow before the box seats guests again, shake with each other with both hands and follow with a deep bow.
Quarter-Staff Artists Don Queer Costumes
Stick fighters will look even more queer to visitors. Each one wears a helmet like that seen on an American foot-ball field with a mask protecting his face. Front-protectors and shin-guards are also used. An ordinary pair of winter gloves with a thick piece of leather protecting the wrist is used.
At one end of the rod is fixed a ball of cloth. The point is dipped with red ink and red powder. The idea is that the one touched by the stick of the other will have a red mark and be known as the loser. The quarter-staffmen, too, have to go through the same friendly gestures.
The examination is not without its comical points. Two hot-headed boxers are often seen resorting to rough tactics sending right and left hooks to each other despite the warning of the referee. One sometimes wonders if it isn’t a genuine western prize fight as staged in Madison Square Garden! Some stick-wielders also fall in the same pitch and are seen landing the rod on each other’s head or sweeping the stick across the opponent’s shin.
Not a few have been slightly hurt since the examination was held. It proves Chinese boxing is just as dangerous as western boxing when seriously applied. Excellent performances usually bring forth cheers and applause from the crowd.
The China Press, Oct 26, 1933. p. 6
If you would like to see a contrasting image of the Chinese martial arts (also published in English language newspapers) during the 1930s see: “Research Notes: Han Xing Qiao Opens the “Internal Arts” to the West, 1934″