Vintage postcard showing a "Young Boxer" with sword.  Early 20th century.  Source: Authors personal collection.
Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.



Another Look at a “Young Boxer” – Martial Arts and National Humiliation in Early 20th Century China

By Benjamin Judkins and Doug Wile





Earlier this year I published an image of a “Young Boxer” found on a vintage postcard, mailed between Tianjin and Beijing in 1909.  This was used as a jumping off point for a short essay that attempted to illustrate how various theoretical approaches (in this case social history, religious studies and critical theory) could create contrasting and complimentary views of the same subject.  Because these theories have different underlying assumptions and associated methodological tool kits, each is capable of generating a different set of conclusions about the same image.  When faced with any question of sufficient complexity, students of martial arts studies might find it worthwhile to apply a series of lenses, rather than a single approach.  Of course this is only one possible way of conceptualizing “interdisciplinary work.”

Yet the benefits of such an exercise go beyond the ability to acquire additional theories.  Interdisciplinary work can be exciting because of the conversations that it stimulates.  These sometimes lead one in new and fruitful directions.

It is thus interesting to note that my previous post on the “Young Boxer” generated as much email correspondence between students of martial arts studies as any other post that I have published here at Kung Fu Tea.  Interestingly most of these messages did not attempt to weigh in on the three views (social history, critical theory and religious studies) presented before.  Led by Prof. Douglas Wile (author of the Lost Tai Chi Classics, among other important contributions to Chinese Martial Studies), they instead sought to open a conversation on linguistic based approaches to this image.

As we will see, the Chinese language inscriptions on this postcard may well generate more questions than answers.  Yet the issues that they raise are fascinating.  While I am not clear that we have totally resolved all of the puzzles surrounding this image, it opens a valuable window onto the public discussion of the traditional Chinese martial arts in the early 20th century, prior to their rehabilitation by various reformers and modernizers (including the Jingwu Association) in the 1910s.


What is this a case of?


In order to understand how this postcard managed to generate so much interest it might be helpful to compare it to a few other images that I have previously posted here at Kung Fu Tea.


A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.




"Well Known Sword Juggler n Shanghai City" Vintage postcard, 1907-1914.  Source: This particular scan from the digital collection of the NY Public library.  They managed to get a better reproduction that I could.
“Well Known Sword Juggler n Shanghai City” Vintage postcard, 1907-1914. Source: This particular scan from the digital collection of the NY Public library. They managed to get a better reproduction that I could.


Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.
Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.  The image dates to the final years of the Qing Dynasty.

In comparing these images readers will immediately note multiple similarities.  All of these photographs were taken prior to the 1911 revolution.  They all feature men with swords.  Indeed, an individual holding a sword (or less commonly a spear) was probably the dominant image of Chinese martial artists available to Western consumers prior to the 1960s.  Thus “Chinese Boxers” tended to be imagined quite differently from their Japanese counterparts (usually seen in their identical white Judo uniforms) during the first half of the 20th century.

Given the great variety of actual practices found within the Chinese martial arts, one might wonder how such a uniform set of images emerged.  Why do we have so few postcards featuring wrestling competitions, or middle class archery practice on university campuses?  The historical record informs us that these other sorts of things happened as well.

The nature of the medium itself may be partially to blame to this homogenizing effect.  Most postcards were shot in one of the few larger treaty ports or cities with a substantial Western presence.  Further, readers must remember that practically all of these images were produced for sale to Western (rather than Chinese) consumers.

Additionally, while huge numbers of unique images were marketed through early postcards, Thiriez notes that almost all of them (following the conventions of early photography) can be thought of as falling into one of only four genres.  The most popular category was “topography” in which prominent features of the landscape (including city walls, ancient monuments and tourist attractions) were documented.

Also important were “portrait” cards.  These tended to feature composed scenes of individuals (often women, occasionally prostitutes) or families.  It is interesting to note that with the exceptions of high officials and other important individuals, these images were almost always marketed in general terms (such as “Chinese family” of “Chinese beauty”).  This stripping of individual identity is also seen on most martial arts related postcards.

The remaining two genres of postcards seemed to work at cross purposes with each other.  The first warned its readers of the imminent disappearance of “old China,” while the second served to reassure them that such a thing could never happen.  As such, the first class of postcards focused on images of Western innovation and modernization within China.  Popular subjects seem to have included Christian Churches, industrial factories and newly paved streets lined with European style architecture.  Modern military units and naval vessels also make regular appearances.

This frank acknowledgement of the process of rapid change and urbanization in China was counteracted by the final, and probably most popular, genre of postcards.  These were images of “authentic” Chinese life and customs.  Of course how one understands “authenticity” is always something of an issue.  Almost all of these photos were taken in public spaces.  It appears that neither western photographers nor Chinese models had much interest in actually entering the domestic sphere of Chinese homes.  That would have violated an unspoken sense of propriety for both groups.

While early 19th century photographers often went to some lengths to capture detailed, almost ethnographically accurate, images, their later followers tended to be more sensational in taste.  Photographs were also reused for decades after their first production.  This can make dating postcards difficult and it certainly contributed to the West’s allochronistic view of China.  For better or worse, the Western public seemed to have an unending appetite for images of “traditional” Chinese barbers, dentists, grocers, farmers, beggars, soldiers, criminals, merchants and fortune tellers, all plying their trade (Thiriez 2004).

Almost all of the early postcards featuring Chinese martial artists fall into this last category.  There are some exceptions.  Hand painted images of martial artists often touched on different themes.  But they are a subject for a future post.  The images of Chinese Boxing that were produced for Western consumers tended to place these activities almost exclusively in the public arena and to focus on the sorts of activities and performances that were either deeply romanticized or an aspect of everyday market life.

When viewed in these terms, there is much about our image of the Young Boxer that is already well understood.  It clearly sits within a tradition of imagining Chinese martial artists (or more likely “sword dancers”) that early 20th century consumers would have readily understood.

Yet when compared to the images above (or the many additional examples posted previously at Kung Fu Tea), a few differences are also evident.  Whereas many postcards alluded to some aspect of China’s ancient and “unchanging” nature (either in terms of its landscape or the supposedly entrenched customs of its people), this card was specifically referencing the Boxer Rebellion.  At the time it was sent (1909) this was still a recent (and feared) event, rather than a matter of “timeless imagination.”  Indeed the, the Boxer Rebellion spawned its own cottage photography industry seeking to satisfy the appetites of curious western consumers.

Yet such postcards, printed in Europe and intended for Western audiences, were not labeled in Chinese.  Nor did they generally feature much Chinese linguistic content of any kind.  This image is an exception as it bears both a Chinese language label (along the left hand side) and an inscription (on the boy’s chest badge).  Almost none of the postcard’s intended consumers would have been able to read these lines.  And yet they may have a critical impact on how we understand the intentions of the individuals involved with the initial production of this photographic image.


Another image of the chest badge.


A Foolish Farmer


As I mentioned in my previous post, this particular postcard comes up at auction frequently enough that one suspects that it must have been fairly popular when it was first published in the early 20th century.  As such the vertical inscription on the left hand side of the image has been previously addressed.  Scott Rodell and Peter Dekker noted that it reads “Stupid Farmer Practicing Boxing.”  Douglas Wile concurred and read the same phrase as “Ignorant Peasant Practices Martial Arts.”

Given the financial ruin and national humiliation that the Boxer Rebellion unleashed on the state, the hostility of this title is not surprising.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Chinese martial arts probably came closer to actual extinction during the period that this card was produced than at any time since.  It would be another decade before the hard work of a group of nationally minded reformers would launch these fighting systems back into the national consciousness.

Yet for much of the first decade of the 20th century the rapidly urbanizing Chinese population took an increasingly hostile view towards anything related to the martial arts.  These fighting systems had traditionally been associated with poor youth from the countryside.  Rapidly unfolding processes of modernization shifted the center of social power decisively into the urban sphere.

Thus it seems likely that there is a double mockery embedded in this title.  In addition to taking a swipe at the despised legacy of the Boxer Rebellion, this postcard also appears to take aim that the ignorant, “backwards youth” of the countryside who have not yet been swept up in the unfolding process of urbanization and modernization.

More interesting is the inscription on the boy’s chest badge.  When first thinking about this postcard I simply ignored this inscription.  I had assumed that it would be uninteresting because of the way that most of these images were produced.

Rather than capturing subjects in their natural state, it was common for photographers (either in the street or working in their studios), to provide a variety of props to the individuals that they were photographing.  This might include stock weapons, costumes and furniture.

Further, when examining the boy’s ill-fitting uniform more closely it looked like it was made up of random bits of other cobbled together military uniforms.  As such it was unlikely to be of any significance to its intended audience.  Doug Wile, however, pointed out that there seemed to be something interesting about the boy’s badge.  Rather than simply being recycled costuming, of the sort often found in early studios, the photographer appears to have been attempting to broadcast a more pointed message.  But to who?

After blowing up and enhancing the photo to make it more legible, it was determined that the bottom most vertical line read “Yi He” (義合).   Wile noted that while this particular set of characters was not common, it was an early, previously attested, variant of name “Yi Hi Boxers” (or the Righteous and Harmonious Fist) typically written as 義和.  See for example the 1899 edition of the Wanguo gongbao and A. Henry Savage-Landor’s 1901 China and the Allies.

Of course this is the proper name of the spirit boxing movement that swept across northern China between 1899-1900.  Wile further speculates that a third character (團 or 拳) is hidden under the boy’s sash, completing the typical formulation of the movement’s name.


A Banner from the Boxer Uprising.  Source: Prof. Douglas Wile.
A Banner from the Boxer Uprising using the more commonly seen characters. Source: Prof. Douglas Wile.


The top two lines are almost certainly meant to be read as place names, noting where the boy’s “Boxer unit” originated.  Oddly it seems that neither of these places actually exist.

Prof. T. J. Hinrichs read the top line as “Ling” (or numinous) township.  Another friend at Cornell thought that it might be rendered “Saint township/county.”  In this case Wile was more circumspect noting that the first character of the name doesn’t appear in any of the standard dictionaries at his disposal.  But all readers seem to agree that this is meant to denote a fictitious place name.

The second line poses similar challenges.  It is not possible to make out all of the characters with the naked eye.  But with some magnification it appears to say “迷谷莊” (Maze Valley Village).  Wile notes that while the name “Maze Valley” is well attested in a number of places, none of them end with the “莊” character (Wile, personal correspondence).  Once again, this is a name that meant to seem real, but is almost certainly fictitious.  As my friend Xiao Rong put it, “such a place cannot exist.”

While looking at the magnified image I realized something else.  The script in question was entirely too legible.  If the boy were really wearing the badge one would expect that it would twist and turn in a natural fashion.  Instead it appears that photographer “whited out” the area and used a brush to paint these cryptic locations directly onto the badge.  One might guess that this was done at the same time that the inscription on the left hand side was added.  The trouble that was gone through to add this detail begs the question of motive.  Who modified this image?  Who was the intended audience?  And what messages were they expected to receive?




Or perhaps a different question might be a better place to start.  Given that Shandong and Zhili were full of villages that actually contributed “Boxer Bandits” (as the official reports of the day often referred to them), why were they not named?  After all, the one thing that seems certain about this image is that the individual who produced it was hostile to both the martial arts and rural life more generally.

On this point Wile notes:

“At the end of the day, the only explanation I can come up with for the two unattested place names is that they were deliberately invented “to protect the innocent,” so to speak, or in this case possibly to protect the guilty, or at least not point fingers or expose any real people…..” (Personal Correspondence)

One suspects that this photograph was not originally produced for a Western postcard at all.  If a western audience could read it, perhaps the message that they might have received was that despite the Boxer’s turn of the century setbacks, the Chinese Tiger still had its teeth.  Indeed, in a mere two years from the time this card was mailed the country would once again be swept up in the tide of revolution.

Nevertheless, the more likely intended audience of the image was Chinese.  In such case meeting the demands of an increasingly urbanized market, while avoiding the attention of the censors, was probably the original publisher’s key aim.

Clearly some questions still surround this image of a “Young Boxer.”  Yet the linguistic approach has made a unique contribution to revealing the origins and semiotic value of this photograph.  It has also provided us with a vivid reminder of the precarious existence of the traditional Chinese martial arts during the long decade between the close of the Boxer Rebellion and the Republic era revival and reinvention of their practice.  The association of these practices with nationalism and pride during the 1920s and 1930s was an accomplishment rather than a given.


A Note of Thanks

I must extend my sincere thanks to a number of individuals who contributed to the discussion of this image.  They include Douglas Wile, whose comments sparked this conversation, T. J. Hinrichs of Cornell University, William Brown of the University of Maryland, Xiao Rong of the University of Shenzhen, Scott Rodell and Peter Dekker.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Reforming the Chinese Martial Arts in the 1920s-1930s: The Role of Rapid Urbanization.