"Back to Weapons of Forefathers in War with Japanese." Vintage newspaper photograph. June 1937. Source: Author's private collection.
“Back to Weapons of Forefathers in War with Japanese.” Vintage newspaper photograph. June 1937. Source: Author’s private collection.

Wonder Woman with a Dadao



In China the realm of social violence, and the martial arts in particular, has been male dominated.  That does not mean that women never became a part of such activities.  After all, they played an increasingly high profile role in the martial realm from the early 1920s onward.  By the time that hostilities erupted between China and Japan in 1937, female martial artists and soldiers were often at the forefront of Western reporting on the conflict, if not the actual fighting.

Nevertheless, locating accounts of these individuals can be difficult.  It seems that within the resolutely patriarchal lineage societies of the martial arts the contributions (and even presence) of daughters, sisters and female students was less likely to be remembered.  Just as serious  an issue is our (in)ability to search through the mountains of historical data that remain.  While many stories have been forgotten, others are hidden in plain sight.

As is so often the case, finding the proper search terms (in both Chinese and English) is half the battle.  To investigate the past, even in one’s native language, is to engage in an act of “cultural translation.”  Ideas, associations, idioms and identities that made perfect sense 60 or 70 years ago might never occur to us today.  Worse yet, they can seem off-putting.

Here is a quick pro-tip.  If you are interested in unearthing accounts of female Chinese martial artists and soldiers during the 1930s-1940s, try searching for “amazons.”  One suspects that the release of the new Wonder Woman film (set during WWI) might refresh some of these linguistic associations within our modern popular consciousness.  Yet as the newspapers of the period will be quick to remind you, the Chinese also had a wide variety of “amazons.”

Students of cultural history and gender studies may find it interesting to note what sorts of activities and identities fell within this category.  I have seen female bandits, soldiers, rioters, politicians and suffragettes all referred to as “Chinese Amazons” by various newspaper reporters.  While at the first cut this may seem like an overly broad label, it is actually a very helpful way of understanding the connotations, connections and inflections that were associated with the idea of female martial artists during the Republic period.

Still, for our purposes, female martial artists and soldiers are the most interesting cases.  The image at the top of this essay is a scan of a eight by ten inch press photo dated June, 1937.  The photograph itself, marked with a wax pencil to increase the level of contrast and detail, is fascinating.  It shows a woman holding either a long handled dadao or a shorter pudao.  The weapon has a tightly braided cord handle with a ring at the bottom.  It is also possible to make out two holes in the spine.  Best of all, the back of the image retains its caption bearing a wealth of information.



HONG KONG, CHINA—Famous among the modern amazon warriors of the Chungshan district near Macao—where Chinese women guerillas are engaging in combat with the Japanese—is Miss Tam Tai-men, who has achieved fame through her skills with the famous Chinese broad sword against the Japanese invaders.  6-7-39

Readers may recall that a few years ago I interviewed Prof. Stephen Chan about his grandmother who was also a swordswoman and militia leader at this point in time (though her village was just outside of Guangzhou).  It is fascinating to find a picture of another female martial artist following a similar career path.  Yet from the perspective of my current research, what is most remarkable is not simply the existence of such women, but that their presence was being actively promoted in the Western press.

In the coming decades western martial artists would show a great deal of interest in the idea of Chinese “warrior women.”  Historically inclined discussions often debunk this as a simple misunderstanding (or naive acceptance) of Republic era folklore. But I think that we should also consider the possibility that this fascination was partially a result of fact that such “amazons” had been the public face of the Chinese war effort for the better part of two decades.

That observation suggests many other questions.  There is something about this photograph that feels not just heroic, but mythic.  I think that images like this resonated with the public because they tapped into fundamental symbolic structures (“myths” in the anthropological sense) which made cross-cultural communication (or at least empathy) possible.  Yet one suspects that they also promoted a entire range of political ideas and ideologies as well (or “myths” as the term is often encountered in cultural studies).

Indeed, everything about this photo, from the reference to taking up the “weapons of the forefathers”, to the almost stark image of a lone female warrior standing against an empty sky, seems calculated to raise awareness of, and interest in, China’s plight at the start of WWII.  Wartime reporting is never without an ideological slant. Indeed, that is a feature of this genre rather than a  bug.

Readers may also recall that Wonder Woman, perhaps the most successful “amazon warrior” of all time, first emerged to fight the Axis Powers on the pages of American comic books in 1941. One cannot help but suspect that the two streams of mythology that would have guided the audiences interpretation of this press photo probably shaped her creation and acceptance as well.

We can delve more deeply into what exactly these streams contained by reading the many articles that accompanied such photos.  I have transcribed a later example of one such piece that explores a slightly different aspect of the Chinese “amazon phenomenon.”  Rather than focusing on the lone warrior (or the improbable leader of a rebel band), this piece tracks the creation of a much larger, all female, fighting force organized as part of a regular military structure.

The story of how the unit came together, and what inspired individual women to enlist, is fascinating.  Yet once again, its hard not to see in these verbal images the creation of a very politically useful set of myths.  The first task facing the Chinese and their friends in the West in 1937 was to convince the American public that the Chinese people were both capable and willing to stand up to Japanese aggression.  The next task was to generate monetary contributions for the war effort.  Readers should note the various ways in which this article accomplishes both goals.

To a large extent these tasks are carried out by manipulating the image of “Chinese amazons.”  Women’s bodies are shown as the sites of both victimization and resistance.  In an effort to generate broad based public sympathy these female soldiers are notably de-sexualized.  Indeed, that task takes up a surprising amount of the author’s overall effort.  Clearly the idea of fighting amazons was somewhat threatening. As a result, great efforts were made to argue that contributions to the war effort would not be supporting anything “unsavory.”  And yet these women had to be seen as at least somewhat attractive to generate sympathy.  This article makes it clear that more than one battle was being fought with/over these women’s bodies.

By the end of the Second World War combat journalism and political propaganda had familiarized American audiences with the image of the Chinese amazon.  The public seems to have been fascinated by her ability to disrupt certain hierarchies in the pursuit of “universal values.”  Yet what exactly those values were, whether the Chinese martial arts were deeply conservative in character, or an aspect of the burgeoning post-war counter-culture movement, would be negotiated for decades to come.  Unsurprisingly many of these conversations continued to revolve around the feminine and the female in these fighting systems.





About three thousand of Kwangsi’s hardy womenfolk have laid aside the sickle and hoe for the big sword and Mauser rifle and joined their men in resisting the  Japanese penetration in the Southwest.

For 22 months of the war, China’s New Life Movement has carried extensive propagation of the significance of China’s unity to the rural districts.  China’s womanhood has been mobilized under Madame Chiang Kai-shek’s banner in all phases of war work-but in Kwangsai, a province famed for its fighting spirit, it has been the peasant women who have taken the initiative in rallying for the salvation of their country.

Not content with performing the mere domestic services connected with Kwangsi’s armies, they have formed a Women’s Regiment which has been drilled and disciplined under the leadership of Madame Pai Chung-his, wife of Kwangsi’s No. 2 General.

Recent reports from the Southwestern front state that the Women’s Regiment is participating in the defense of the Lingyang Railway in an effort to prevent the Japanese drive on Toishan, Yanping and Hoiping, rich towns in the West River delta and the native homes of many overseas Chinese in the United States and Canada.  Chinese overseas remittances contributed largely to the support of Kwangsi’s valiant army and its Women’s Regiment.

When their men first rallied to Kwangsi’s Commander-in-Chief, General Li Tsung-jen, and then followed him to Central and Northern China at the outbreak of hostilities, the more prominent among Kwangsi’s women, as in most other provinces, organized a Women’s Corp.  They were recruited for service behind the lines and for carrying on agriculture and industry at home.  In this respect, Kwangsi’s women earned the praise of Madam Chiang for their initiative and self-reliance.

But as the months rolled on, the war assumed a new significance for Kwangsi’s women.  The battles of Taierchwang and Hsuchow, in which General Li’s fifth group army won fame, swelled the number of widows and bereaved mothers and sisters in Kwangsi.  In increasing numbers, bands of sturdy women and workers presented themselves at the Group Army headquarters in Kweilin, demanding to be allowed to join their men in the ranks or to be allowed to fight the enemy to avenge the deaths of their male relatives.

It was in the latter part of 1937 that the first really militant sections of the Women’s Corp was formed.

At first it numbered about 700, composed mainly of land workers with muscles as hard as those of their menfolk through years of toil in their mountainous province; but as the spirit spread the ranks of the Women’s Regiment swelled with the recruitment of women from all walks of life-teachers, nurses, store assistants and even housewives.

Now the Women’s Regiment is reliably estimated to number 3,000.

“No stream lined beauties these,” said an executive of an American oil company when he recently returned from a tour of the Southwest, where he came into contact with the women soldiers.” “’amazons’ is rather a shop-soiled term, but it is the only one which describes them.

“Most of them are short and squat and of sturdy build…in appearance they are actually not unlike the Japanese soldiers.  They wear a uniform which is the exact counterpart of the men’s and throw a hand-grenade with the best of the men.

“In fact, I had no idea the detachment I saw was composed of women until I saw them at close quarters.”

“Their code of discipline is of a high order.  They live in the barracks when at their headquarters in Kweilin and are subject to the same military routine as the men.  As a rule they are detailed to rear positions, forming support and supply lines but vernacular reports received in Hong Kong tell of women fighters engaging in actual combat, side by side with the Kwangtung and Kwangsi troops in the West River sector.  They have suffered some casualties and a recent report from Shekki tells of some badly wounded being in hospital there.

Their moral discipline is also of the highest order.  Although they are not completely segregated from the men when at the front, maybe for long weeks of entrenchment, strict celibacy is maintained.

“There’ll be no call for a midwife in the Women’s Army.” Said the foreign oil man,  “The girls are loath to betray any sign of femininity.  I don’t suppose one of ‘em has known the taste of lipstick nor the feel of one of these slit gowns the slim Hong Kong girls wear.  But don’t get the idea that they are without attraction…they are bronzed and healthy, with perfect teeth and the merriest of smiles.

“They are paid about twenty Chinese dollars a month, but money doesn’t seem to trouble them much.  Given their ration of rice and vegetables and a place in the ranks, they are content…but what they hunger for most is a chance to take a smack at the enemy.”

“The vernacular papers in Hong Kong recently published a story of one of the wounded women soldiers. She was formerly a Kwangsi countrywoman.

“My husband has done me the greatest honor in my life by dying for China in the fight in the north.  I have his name and will continue his fight against the enemy till I die.” She said.

The China Critic (Shanghai; 1939-1946). Jun 8, 1939. P. 154




If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (15): Fei Ching Po – Professional Gambler and Female Martial Artist in Early 19th Century Guangzhou