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Biography, Chinese Martial Studies, Martial Studies, Southern China

Recovering Alfred Lister: The Noble Art of Self-Defense in China (Part II)

Vintage photography, circa 1860-1900.  Photographer unknown.

Vintage photography, circa 1860-1900. Photographer unknown.

Introduction

This is the second half of our two part series on the life and writings of Alfred Lister.  A civil servant in Hong Kong during the second half of the 19th century, Lister provided his readers with some of the most detailed English language discussions of the Chinese martial arts to emerge during the 1870s.  In the first part of this post (see here) we reviewed the biographical details of Lister’s life, and looked at the initial emergence of his interest in the Chinese martial arts.  It can be argued that this was a natural outgrowth of his efforts to translate the various sorts of “street literature” that he found in Hong Kong’s many market stalls.  These initial efforts tended to be more “literary” in character and were published under Lister’s own name.

In today’s post we will turn our attention to Lister’s two major descriptive treatments of the Chinese martial arts. The first of these was a newspaper article, while the other was an essay in the China Review (one of his favorite publications).  Unfortunately both pieces were published anonymously, due both to their content (boxing of any type was not entirely respectable in the 1860s and 1870s), and because the second of these accounts included a number of sharp attacks on Lister’s colleagues in Hong Kong.  As such, our first challenge will be to look at the external and internal evidence necessary to address the question of authorship.  After that we will ask how these two new sources relate to the Lister’s emerging discourse on Chinese boxing.

Our efforts will be amply rewarded as it turns out that Lister was one of the most important 19th century observers of the Chinese martial arts. Both of these sources have been previously discussed on Kung Fu Tea, but in neither case did I attempt to identify an author.  The first of these actually predates Lister’s 1873 translation of “A-lan’s Pig” (discussed in part I) and may have been part of his background research on the nature of Chinese boxing while producing the translation of this Kung Fu laden opera.  On July of 1872 the North China Herald (a widely read English language newspaper) ran an anonymous article editorializing on a recent event titled simply “Chinese Boxing.”

If you have not yet done so please consider reading the first half of this essay. The discussion below follows directly upon what was already posted.

 

Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province.  Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip.  Source: Author's personal collection.

Image taken from a vintage french postcard showing soldiers gambling in Yunnan province. Note that the standing soldier on the left is holding a hudiedao in a reverse grip. Source: Author’s personal collection.

 

“Chinese Boxing” in the North China Herald.

 

There can be no doubt that this article was one of the most interesting 19th century statements by Western observers of the Chinese martial arts.  Those who have read Lister’s previous commentaries will notice a familiar ring in this author’s biting tones.  Anyone wishing to review the substance of his account (an examination of the social consequences of a death in a challenge match fought over a gambling debt) can do so here. Indeed, one suspects that it was the connection between marketplace gambling and boxing that propelled Lister’s pen as he worked on his translation of “A-lan’s Pig” (a story in which two such gentlemen play an important role).

For our current purposes it is necessary to review the story’s introduction, including a passage omitted from my previous discussions of the piece, in which the author tackles questions of translation and the social equivalence of Chinese and Western Boxing.

 

“If there is one particular rather than another in which we might least expect to find John Chinaman resemble John Bull, it is in the practice of boxing.  The meek celestial does get roused occasionally, but he usually declines a hand to hand encounter, unless impelled by the courage of despair.  He is generally credited with a keen appreciation of the advantages of running away, as compared with the treat of standing up to be knocked down, and is slow to claim the high privilege the ancients thought worthy to be allowed only to freemen, of being beaten to the consistency of a jelly.

How the race must rise in the estimation of foreigners, therefore, when we mention that the noble art of self-defence and legitimate aggressiveness flourished in China centuries probably before the “Fancy” ever formed a ring in that Britain which has come to be regarded as the home of boxing.  Of course, like everything else in China, the science has rather deteriorated than improved; its practice is rough; its laws unsystematized; its Professors are not patronized by royalty or nor petted by a sporting public; the institution is a vagabond one, but an institution none the less.

Professors of the art, called “fist-teachers,” offer their services to initiate their countrymen in the use of their “maulies,” and, in addition in throwing out their feet in a dexterous manner…

…Boxing clubs are kept up in country villages, where pugilists meet and contest the honours of the ring. Unfortunately, popular literature does not take cognizance of the little “mills” in which the Chinese boxer “may come up smiling after round the twenty-fifth,” nor are the referees, if there be any, correspondents of sporting papers, so that we are unable to tell whether the language is rich in such synonyms as “nob,” and “conk,” and “peepers,” and “potato-trap.”  But if boxers appreciate, as much as their foreign brethren, the advantages over an ignorant and admiring mob which the assumption of a peculiar knowledge gives, we may well suppose that, as they smoke their pipe and sip there tea, they talk over the prowess of the Soochow Slasher or the Chefoo Chicken in a terse and mystic phraseology, embellished with rude adjectives and eked out by expressive winks.” (emphasis added).

Even though there is no evidence that the two gamblers involved in the fatal fighter viewed their encounter as a sporting event, Lister again adopts “the Fancy” as his lens for both making sense of these events and explaining them to his reader. Points of similarity and difference are carefully noted.  Yet the author refers to these practices as “the noble art of self-defense”, a phrase without any real equivalent in the world of the 19th century Chinese martial arts, yet one that had become synonymous with English pugilism during this era.  Readers were left with no question as to the appropriate paradigm for interpreting these events.

The repeated, and always ironic, invocation of this specific phrase seems to be something of a hallmark of Lister’s writing on the topic.  Indeed, it is repeated (and even emphasized) in each of the four of the discussions of the Chinese martial arts that can be traced directly to him.  While other authors of the period made references to “Chinese boxing” in general, this longer formulation appears much more rarely.

Needless to say, by whatever name, the Chinese martial arts fared badly in Lister’s account.  The two gamblers manage to destroy (and in one case end) their lives through their ill-fated challenge match.  They appear almost as hapless as the characters in “A-lan’s Pig.”

What is interesting to note, however, is that their Western brethren do not come off much better.  Indeed, the author’s point is precisely that the difference in these pursuits is one of degree rather than kind.  In both cases he perceives similarly situated institutions in which a group of marginal individuals create a body of esoteric knowledge (and just as importantly, a specific language) that grants them the illusion of social standing.  Yet ultimately the idea of standing up to be “beaten to the consistency of a jelly” is just as foolish in a Western boxing ring as a Chinese marketplace.  Indeed, Lister’s extended exploration of Western boxing terminology ensures that his critique is aimed just as squarely at the former as the latter.

Reader’s should also note that the author of this account has evidently been searching the popular literature of southern China in hopes of coming across a sustained discussion of the hand combat community.  While he initially indicates that he found nothing, Lister’s luck seems to have changed sometime between the end of 1872 and 1874.

In 1874 Lister published what is probably the single most important period account of the Southern Chinese martial arts to appear during the 19th century.  His most comprehensive statement on the subject ran in The China Review (Vol. 3 No. 2), and was titled “The Noble Art of Self-Defense in China.”  Once again, it was Lister’s keen interest in popular literature that brought this work to light.

Like his earlier 1873 article in the same publication (“A Chinese Farce”), this work also purported to be a “direct translation” of a pamphlet or penny book that he had been acquired from a local book stall.  He notes that the publication in question was very inexpensive and contained a number of crudely executed woodcuts.  It promised its readers two lessons in unarmed boxing, three discussions of staff fighting, and seven more focusing on swords, shields and various polearms.

Perhaps the most important thing to note about this small work is the mere fact of its existence.  In Kennedy and Gao’s very informative reference work, they note the existence of a number of distinct genres of martial arts manuals during the late imperial and Republic period.  Lister’s fight book does not fit within any known category.  Specifically, they state that while hand copied manuscripts were circulated during the Qing era, printed manuals meant for commercial sale were not developed until the Republic era renaissance of interest in the traditional martial arts.

Yet Lister is clearly describing a printed martial arts manual (produced using wood blocks) decades before the end of the dynasty.  In fact, a close examination of the historical sources reveal at least one other Western observer encountered a similar book (with an additional emphasis on strength training), as early as 1830. Remarkably, not one of these pamphlets is known to have survived, which makes Lister’s detailed description of the book and its contents all the more important.

Modern historians will be disappointed to note that, while Lister reproduced a number of the original wood blocks prints, his “translation” of this text was even more of a transformation than what he offered readers of “A Chinese Farce.” After an extensive (and revealing) discussion of the social milieu from which this book arises, he informs his readers that:

“The title of the little pamphlet placed at the head of this paper is not in the least a free translation, but literal.  It is a fact that, for less than a penny, you buy at a stall in a Chinese street a brochure called, in so many words, The noble art of self-defence, and that the purchaser who is about to read it will be curiously reminded of whatever he may have heard of the slang of the ring at home, by phrases, not so literally exact as the above but quite sufficiently suggestive of “stand firm on your pins,” “pop in your left,” “hit straight from the shoulder,” and “let him have it in the bread-basket.”

Again, the substance of this work has previously been discussed elsewhere. Yet even the short paragraph above suggests much that must be considered.  We once again see the author’s interest in drawing an equivalence between the esoteric language of Western and Eastern boxing.  Whereas the existence of a shared mechanism of gaining legitimacy through language was suggested in the North China Herald article of 1872, now Lister claims to have found confirmation of his hypothesis in the popular martial arts literature itself.

Readers will also note that Lister has returned to once again meditate on “the noble art of self-defense.”   It is claimed (rather improbably) that this English language idiom is a literal translation of the book’s Chinese title.  Of course in the very next line this bold proclamation is qualified with the more modest, “in so many words.” This partial walking back actually suggests something other than “an exact translation” might be at play.

In this case Lister has done his readers the favor of including the characters of the text’s actual Chinese title (雄拳拆法)in the very first footnote of his article.  As one would probably expect, the actual title has little do with “self-defense,” noble or otherwise.

After examining the question Douglas Wile has concluded that perhaps a more accurate translation of the included characters might be “Tearing Down Techniques of Hero Boxing.”  He notes that first two characters 雄拳 would be something like “Hero Boxing” or “Martial Art of the Hero.”  “Hero Boxing” is a term that still exists within the region’s martial arts today.

拆法, the second set of characters, is a bit more mysterious.  Wile further wonders “if it could be a term for ‘martial arts’ in a local dialect, since the book seems to have been written for the “street.” 法 by itself can be as broad as style and as narrow as technique” (Personal correspondence).

The suggestion of a local connection is an interesting one.  A number of existing Choi Li Fut schools use the 雄拳construction (often with an additional modifier).  Further, at one point in his background discussion to the translation Lister offers the following description of a sparring exercise in which two local boxers were induced to wear western style boxing gloves:

“Anything more exquisitely ludicrous than a couple of Chinese induced to put on the gloves (after an example of their use from Englishman) I have never seen.  They cautiously backed on each other until the seats of their trousers almost touched, each one bending himself nearly double to avoid the imagined terrific blows his antagonist was aiming at his head, and at the same time striking vaguely round in what schoolboys call the Windmill fashion.”

After stripping the invectives from this account, one is left with the idea of deep stances and wide, swinging, straight armed blows.  Such a description is certainly reminiscent of Choy Li Fut, which was perhaps the most popular martial art throughout the Pearl River delta region at the time that Lister carried out his investigation.

Then again, the name of the first unarmed technique in the book, “The Hungry Tiger Seizes the Sheep” is also seen in modern Hung Gar. While I am not sure that Lister’s reconstruction of the technique is descriptively accurate, the illustration of figure B in the first wood cut does bear a certain resemblance to how the technique is still described today.

 

Wood block cuts illustrating unarmed Boxing form the "Nobel Art of Self Defense." (circa 1870).  Note that the individual on the left is striking a boney target (his opponent's face) with an open hand, where as the "figure A" on the left is now attacking a soft target with a closed fist.  This is generally good advice and it is still taught in the southern Chinese martial arts today.

Wood block cuts illustrating unarmed Boxing form the “Nobel Art of Self Defense.” (circa 1870). 

 

While it may not be possible to trace this small pamphlet to a specific school, the techniques which it lists are clearly present in the southern Chinese martial arts.  Readers may also note, for instance, the appearance of the area’s distinctive hudiedao in fig. VI, complete with handguards.

Given the importance of this text to our understanding of the Southern Chinese martial arts, resolving the question of authorship is particularly important.  Unlike the 1872 article on Chinese Boxing, this text is not totally anonymous.  It lists an author by the initials (or acronym) L.C.P.  In itself this is not unusual as many of the early entries in The China Review had authors who were equally cryptic.

When attempting to unravel this mystery modern students have two sources of evidence that they can draw on.  There are those clues that are found within the text, and those that come from outside of it.  In this case the external evidence is clearer so we will start there.

“The Noble Art of Self-Defence in China” was exciting enough that the article was not soon forgotten by its readers.  It was actually reprinted in at least two other cases that I have been able to identify.  Most notably, in 1884 The China Mail reprinted large sections of this article with its own (horrifyingly racist) introduction provided by the paper’s editor.  This same editor, when commenting on the piece, mentioned that it was originally written by Alfred Lister, and went on to list the positions that Lister was currently holding in Hong Kong’s government.  Given that Lister’s earlier comments on Chinese boxing were published under his own name (1870 and 1873), and his already noted penchant for translating a wide range of popular literature, this identification seems plausible.

In terms of textual evidence, there are a number of quirks that we could point to.  These including the author’s ongoing fascination with applying the idiomatic expression “the noble arts of self-defence” to Chinese hand combat, his sardonic habit of bequeathing upon his readers “literal translations” that were clearly anything but (“I my stand on fol-lol, I stake my reputation on fol-lol!”), and the repeated efforts to draw connections between Chinese and Western boxing not just on a social but also a linguistic level.

If that were not enough, “L.C.P.” seems to wink at his real identity in a number of places.  Any reader who actually went through the footnotes would quickly notice that Lister actually cites and draws on his own discussion of “A Chinese Farce” in the course of his translation of “The Noble Art of Self-Defense in China.”

So why the elaborate charade? In the 1870s it was acceptable for a civil servant, and trained translator, to employ his skills as a literary critic in the public discussion of scholarly works.  Yet it was probably less advisable to put one’s own name on such frivolous activities as publishing amateur poetry or investigating the various ways in which professional gamblers and actors spent their free time.

A close reading of this text suggests that there may have been other reasons as well.  To begin with, the expatriate community in Hong Kong was not that large during the 1870s, and Lister launched some stinging attacks against his colleagues and fellow residents in the opening pages of this article.  One of the more serious of these attacks was a direct rebuke to a fellow jurist in serving in the court system.  Lister also lampooned the frustrations and failures of a (probably well known) visiting VIP to replicate the feats of strength commonly practiced by Chinese soldiers.

One suspects that quite a few people would have been able to guess immediately at the real identity of the author of this article (particularly when specific statements made in court were being quoted).  Indeed, such politically ill-advised behavior may explain why the individual who wrote Lister’s anonymous obituary in 1890 observed that he was often alone and died with few friends.  Publishing under a creatively obscure acronym probably provided Lister enough of a fig leaf to go about his daily work.  And his connection to this work was just scandalous enough to allow the editor of The China Mail to take pleasure in outing him when he served as the colony’s treasurer.

 

Another wood block print from the "Nobel Art of Self-Defense."  Notice the long, narrow, pointed hudiedao and clearly illustrated D-guards.  Also note that the posture of this individual is identical to the figure in the first painting.

Another wood block print from the “Nobel Art of Self-Defense.” Notice the long, narrow, pointed hudiedao and clearly illustrated D-guards. Also note that the posture of this individual is identical to the figure in the first painting.

 

Assessing the Contribution

 

The evidence presented here suggests that between 1869 and 1874 Alfred Lister, in addition to his many duties within the Hong Kong Civil Service, undertook a proto-sociological study of the Chinese martial arts.  He produced at least four published statements (1870, 1872, 1873 and 1874) on the topic.  In two cases (1870 and 1873) he signed these with his own name.  And in two more (1872 and 1874) both external and internal evidence strongly suggest his authorship.

Lister was not overly sympathetic towards the Chinese martial arts, yet he made some important sociological observations.  He noted that the public performance of the martial arts was a form of marketplace entertainment associated with the selling of patent medicine.  These same arts were commonly found within gambling houses.  The arts that civilians did (while clearly not identical) were related in fundamental ways to the practices that soldiers cultivated in their garrison houses.  And finally, all of this was connected to the opera (a major institution within traditional Chinese society), in ways that modern historians are still struggling to understand.  As he noted in 1874:

“It is probably actors out of employ who make a precarious living by exhibiting, and professing to teach these tricks in the street.  Contemptable as they may seem to a man fresh from Oxford, it cannot be denied that they often exhibit surprising quickness, strength and agility.” (86)

Nor can we ignore the importance of Lister’s writings as a historical artifact.  In publishing a partial translation and transcription of “The Noble Art of Self-Defence in China” he preserved a surprisingly detailed record of a genre of popular writing on the Chinese martial arts that has survived nowhere else.  Indeed, this small text compliments and sits on the same level as the Bubishi (a hand written manuscript tradition that survived only in Okinawa) as witnesses to the nature of late 19th century southern Kung Fu.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Lister’s writing was his determination to make all of this accessible to the English language reading public, even if that meant arguing for unconventional methods of translation.  The fact that his works were reprinted by multiple outlets during the coming decades suggests the degree to which his descriptions gripped the public’s imagination.  What had not been done, prior to this series, was to publicly identify the full range of texts that Lister authored and to demonstrate how his understanding grew over time.

Lister’s discussion of Chinese boxing was not without serious flaws.  His finely tuned sense of “the ridiculous” often outstripped his ethnographic curiosity.  And while he correctly identified a number of the sectors of Chinese society that supported the martial arts (military, theater, medicine, gambling…) his inability to set aside his western categories of understanding meant that he was never able to identify core values or appreciate the identities that lay beyond these practices.

When comparing the Chinese martial arts to their supposed western counterparts Lister saw mainly their shortcomings. For him traditional hand combat would always remain an unscientific version of Western boxing or a backwards method of military training.  Lacking a general theory of the nature and purpose of the martial arts, he was ultimately unable to make sense of what he saw, even while he was forced to acknowledge the surprising strength and speed of specific boxers.

In the final analysis one is left to wonder what Lister would have learned about the Chinese martial arts if he had joined those soldiers from Canton as they practiced in front of their barracks, rather than simply observing them from a distance. Would practicing the Chinese martial arts have forced him to confront these deeper questions of meaning, culture and identity?  Or lacking a theoretical foundation, would these experiences simply have become another blind spot?

 
oOo

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  Butterfly Swords and Boxing: Exploring a Lost Southern Chinese Martial Arts Training Manual.

oOo

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