At the end of the last class at the “Central Martial Arts Academy” (the location where I am conducing my current research on lightsaber combat and the “hyper-real martial arts”) we all gathered for an impromptu class photo. Digital technology makes this a quick and easy process, especially compared to what was involved in producing such images a century ago. As such we do these group photos about once a month. Students enjoy posting these shots to their social media accounts, and I have found them to be a handy tool in visually tracking the schools progress over time. Every new class photo (as well as a number of other more candid images) is dutifully recorded in my field notes.
I am not the first such researcher to find such images helpful, and I am sure that I will not be the last. But thinking about the meaning of these photos and their place in the research process reminded me of some great photos that a very generous reader pointed me towards back in November. They will be the focus of today’s post
The history of the Asian martial arts is a fascinating subject. Yet one of the wrinkles that must be kept always in mind is that in many cases these fighting systems are acutely self-conscious about their identity as “traditional” practices and their place in history. I have long suspected that beyond the question of immediate goals (improved health, self-defense skills, etc…), many individuals have taken up the martial arts precisely because they want to commune with history. This has always been the allure of identifying with something larger than the self. They find meaning in their lives by placing themselves within (what Mircea Eliade might have identified as) “sacred time.”
The Chinese martial arts often rely on “lineage” not just as a means of ensuring the legitimacy of transmission (perhaps the context in which the concept is most frequently invoked in the West) but also the structure and good order of the current community (the nuances of which are more frequently observed in Chinese schools). Thus when individuals take photos with their teachers, or pose for class shots, they are not just recording history. They are creating and shaping it.
Yet contrary to universalism often found in Eliade’s work, not everyone seeks to live in the same imagined past. Photos can be helpful precisely because an analysis of their creation or content suggests the many competing visions of both the past and future that the Chinese martial arts have existed simultaneously.
Consider the date and setting of these pictures. All of them (and a number of others that I did not include here) currently reside in the digital collections of Yale’s Divinity School. The very first image records two senior female students at the martial arts club of Yenching University (in Beijing). This photo was taken in March of 1928, and is the only photo in this post that we can establish a definite date for.
The other two images record scenes from a similar student organization at Fukien Christian University (which was subsequently absorbed into Fujian Normal University). Unfortunately Yale’s archives do not include exact dates for either of these other photographs. But judging from the style of the clothing (Jingwu inspired uniforms and women in bloomers), one suspects that all of these photos were a product of the late 1920s.
That date should not be particularly surprising. The Chinese martial arts enjoyed something of a renaissance starting in the middle years of the 1920s. As a result many middle class high schools and universities rushed to offer martial arts instruction to their students.
The class photo is interesting on a number of counts. I assume that the three individuals on the far left of the back row are not students. They may be instructors or advisers for the club. That would leave 20 students in the club, three of whom are female. Interestingly, only the males have any type of official uniform.
Of course we do know that female participation in such programs was fairly common during the 1920s. The Jingwu Association campaigned hard to promote female involvement in the martial arts and they achieved a fair degree of success. Many of the newspaper accounts of public martial arts demonstrations during this decade note the typical inclusion of female athletes and performers. [link]
We have already reviewed a number of such accounts, and we will be hearing more about them in the coming months. As such the final picture in this set is particularly helpful. In an era when most newspaper articles did not include photographs, it shows four young women (at Fukien Christian University) performing a Jian routine as part of a public martial arts demonstration hosted at the university. I think that this image is particularly helpful as it gives us a good sense of the crowd that came to these events, and the general atmosphere of the day. Here we see society’s better elements turned out for a boxing demonstration.
In an earlier post I discussed the “dangers of telling only a single story” about a year in Chinese martial arts history. Ironically the year that I selected for that essay was 1928, the same year that at least one of the photos presented.
There is a tendency to discuss the Chinese martial arts in monolithic terms, to imagine it as a single entity reflecting a unified set of identities and values. Yet these photographs remind us of how distorting such simplifications can be. In reality there was no single accepted vision of what the Chinese were, or what they had been. Rather than discussing Chinese martial culture (in the singular), we really should begin to discuss Chinese martial cultures (in the plural).
Not only was there disagreement as to where the martial arts had come from, what their relationship with the state should be, and what lay in their future, these questions were publicly contested in the press. While much of the current academic discussion of the martial arts focuses on marginal individuals (Red spears militia men in the countryside, or struggling industrial workers in the cities), here we see yet another view of what the Chinese martial arts might have become.
This realization becomes particularly important when we begin to think about the early history of the Chinese martial arts in North America. Many accounts of the martial arts look at developments in the nation’s Chinatowns, typically New York or San Francisco. The economic and socially marginal nature of these communities is often stressed and the supposed secrecy of China’s martial artists is always part of the mix. Individuals like Bruce Lee (a later immigrant from China) and James Yimm Lee (an American by birth who moved his family to Oakland) are seen as the pioneers of change. Charlie Russo’s recent book (discussed here) does an excellent job of telling this aspect of the story.
Yet what these accounts forget is that there was an entire other world of Chinese martial arts in America, located within its Universities as colleges. While there may have been no legal immigration to the US during the 1920s, a great many university students came to the United States to study at some of the country’s most important institutions. And given the growing popularity of the martial arts among students in China, we should not be overly surprised to discover that some of these individuals were accomplished boxers by the time that they arrived.
Nor were they in any way restricted by the supposed codes of secrecy that ruled the early Chinatown schools. These elite university students were instead the product of the modern and expansive vision promoted by the reform movements such as the Jingwu Association or the Guoshu Association. At the same time that certain teachers were supposedly shunning contact with “foreign students”, reformers like Chu Minyi were working frantically to promote these practices on the Olympic stage before a global audience. Other reformers went out of their way to make sure that foreign reporters would always be invited to their events to ensure that English language articles on developments in the Chinese martial arts would appear in the next day’s newspapers.
In the future I hope to explore some of the ways that Chinese university students in the West attempted to use their mastery of the martial arts to shape and correct America’s vision of their home. Far from being hidden and secretive, these individuals went out of their way to organize public demonstrations, sometimes in consultation with Chinese diplomats. Kung Fu demonstrations were used to raise money for food and famine relief. At other points in time they were seen as a means of generating support for the Nationalist Party. Some of these individuals even wrote about the Chinese martial arts, often as a counterpoint to growing public interest in Japanese Judo. This was public and cultural diplomacy in the truest sense of the term.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about China’s university educated martial artists is the degree to which their efforts have been forgotten, both in China and the West. Indeed, one occasionally gets the impression that the Chinese martial arts were never publicly demonstrated in the West until the arrival of Bruce Lee or the public emergence of Lau Bun. This is a false historical narrative based on a narrow vision of the Chinese experience in America.
On a personal level I suspect that it also reflected the 1960s counter culture’s deep desire to discover something “new” and “exotic” as they attempted to look to the East to re-enchant their world. When married to the economy’s need to advertise new and exciting products, the combined result was a powerful incentive to erase even the recent past. Yet every new creation rests on a foundation inherited from the past. This small collection of photos helps us to peel back a few of these layers.
Special Thanks: I would like to thank Scott Harrington for first bringing this collection of photographs to my attention.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (4): Sun Lutang and the Invention of the “Traditional” Chinese Martial Arts (Part 1 of 3).