Any traveler can attest that detours come in two forms. They all take a little longer, and most offer nothing but delay. Others can lead to fascinating discoveries. These often come in the form of local sandwich shops frequented by hipsters or a scenic overlook. This same principle applies regardless of whether one is on a purely geographical journey, or if you are traveling through time.
And it goes without saying that there is no better portal for time travel than the rare book collections at Cornell University.
That is where I found myself earlier this week. I was about to embark on a lengthy exploration of how Chinese martial artists were discussed in the Western press between the months of May and August in 1900. Historically informed readers will immediately recognize this as one of the most fluid periods in the Boxer Uprising. It was in the spring and early summer of 1900 that what had previously been a local disturbance between groups of marginal peasants in Shandong Province ignited like a wild fire across northern China and began to take on a much more menacing character. Newspapers across Europe and North America found themselves scrambling to explain to their readers what exactly a “Chinese boxer” was at the start of what turned out to be one of the great media spectacles of the early 20th century.
But before jumping into the fires of the Boxer Uprising I decided that I should wrap up one last loose end from my research for a previous chapter. In 1830 a Western magazine published a fascinating discussion of a mass produced Chinese martial art manual (printed with wooden blocks) that was then being sold in the markets around Guangzhou (previously discussed here). The editor of the magazine noted that their article was a reprint of a piece that had originally run on a specific date in The Canton Register.
I had never taken the time to track down the original version of the article before, but I decided that it would be a good idea to do so. While unlikely, it was possible that the original description would be more detailed. And an “easy” assignment such as this would be a good way to get to know the rare books collection.
Did I already mention the nature of detours?
It was with great excitement that I opened the bound volume of beautifully preserved, hand set, newspapers that one of the research librarians brought to the reading room. There is always a thrill when you work with a primary source document, particularly one that you know was handled by a figure that you have researched (in this case William Wightman Wood, the paper’s editor, who would later go on to help Dunn assemble his famous “China Museum.”)
That sense of “touching history” creates a real rush. And it is amazing how fast it can all come crashing down when you search the volume and realize that Wood didn’t print an issue of his newspaper on the date specified by the later editor (at least not in the year 1830)! Of course, this is exactly the reason why historians go back and look at original documents, rather than just relying on later reprints and inference. And scanning an entire years’ worth of shipping news and local gossip, was also a valuable reminder of how long doing your ‘due diligence’ can take.
I was faced with a choice, either start looking for the missing article in previous volumes of the newspaper, or slow down and take a closer look at 1830. Given that the volume was already in front of me, I opted for the latter. And it was fortunate that I did. While the Canton Register never devoted many column-inches of space to Chinese boxing (though the subject certainly came up from time to time), I found at least three short stories published in 1830 that provide some valuable texture and detail regarding the world that traditional martial artists inhabited following the pirate crisis of the early 19th century, and prior to the outbreak of the Opium Wars and the Red Turban Revolt in the middle of the century.
Each of these pieces is also interesting in that they address the question of who was imagined as “the villain” in situations where the martial arts might be employed. In the first case the problem was groups of armed ruffians engaged in daylight activities as diverse as extorting “alms” from wedding processions, to kidnapping children who would then be trafficked into slavery.
In the second instance the stakes were more existential in nature. This is a story about the “martial virtue” of individual officers when a case of cheating was uncovered in the military examination system. It is interesting to read about the case in question, and also the repercussions for those involved.
The third article returns to the world of crime. The opposition is no longer armed bands harassing individuals in public places. Rather, the new problem is cat burglars sneaking along the rooftops of a neighborhood and the utter inability of both the local magistrate and residents to do anything about it. This story is also particularly interesting as it reminds us that (Wong Fei Hong movies notwithstanding) there has never been a golden age of kung fu in which firearms did not exist. It is too often forgotten that it was the Chinese who invented gunpowder, and no, they did not only use it for fireworks.
Indeed, this notice turns out to be largely a story about how common firearms ownership was and the inability of local magistrates to do anything about it. By the end of the incident the official in question was reduced to reminding the people that, at least on paper, none of them owned firearms, and that he would greatly appreciate it if they only used their (non-existent) guns on actual night stalkers. The continual shooting at shadows was keeping the entire neighborhood up at night.
Beyond that, each of these accounts carries a certain undertone of dark humor. One suspects that this reflects Wood’s personality rather than the official Chinese proclamations that they were based on. Still, I think that each of these accounts is vastly improved if read in the voice of Cecil, the community radio announcer from “Welcome to Night Vale.” Taken as a set they help to enrich our understanding of the social environment that gave rise to the modern martial arts.
Wednesday, 3rd February 1830
Vol. 3 No. 3
A series of proclamations have been issued by the magistrate against vagabonds who form themselves into parties of THREE to FIVE, who arm themselves with swords and “iron clubs”—i.e., sticks of iron about a foot in length. Night and day, the Magistrates say, these vagabonds distress the peaceable inhabitants by putting them in bodily fear and extorting money; and sometimes by detaining people and extracting ransom.
Another proclamation is to interdict swearing in brothers—i.e., forming associated banditti by a solemn oath. This they say has long been a violation of the law; and “hundreds of thousands” have been punished for it; some by decollation; some by strangling; others by transportation. But still the mania continues. The law is disregarded, and death is not dreaded—a state of feeling the most detestable.
Another proclamation is against the harbourers of thieves and receivers of stolen property.
A fourth is against incendiaries who set fire to houses for the sake of plundering.
A fifth is against banditti who force farmers and fisherman on the coast, to take out a permit of personal security from them—paying out the same.
A sixth is against play-actors setting off large rockets, which have of late occasioned large fires and the deaths of many persons. For during the confusion, some are trampled to death, and some are burnt. As these plays in Canton are often on the banks of rivers it happens that numbers of people are drowned; and banditti who assemble at these religious plays, run away with women and children for the purpose of selling them. Mr. Hoo, the Pwan-Yu Magistrate says, that plays in Spring when playing to the Gods; and plays in Autumn when thanking them are allowed by law: But sending up large rockets is contrary hereto.
A seventh proclamation is against killing cattle used in agriculture. A man who kills his own buffalo is liable to a punishment of 80 blows, and wearing a wooden collar one month. Those who kill and sell beef are liable to the same punishment as those who steel cattle, i. e., to be punished with a hundred blows, and transported three thousand le.
The eighth and last proclamation in the series that comes to us, is one against sturdy beggars, who extort money at marriages and funerals. [Page 2.]
For the highest honors both civil and military, certain examinations take place in the presence of the Emperor. The other day Lew-Chaou-Lan of Shan-Tung Province exhibited in the Imperial presence and passed with success, till O-Ke-Wang re-examined the Candidates, when an imposition in the strength of the bow was detected. The Impostor is disallowed to exhibit again for one term, and the great officers who first passed him, as well as he who detected him, are delivered to a court of inquiry, the first to be punished and the second to be rewarded. [Page. 3]
Saturday, July 3rd 1830.
Vol. 3 no.13
FIRE ARMS. The Magistrate of the Namboy District lately gave permission to the inhabitants to fire upon thieves on the top of houses after dark. By an order which he has now just issued it appears that the permission has been abused, and that the inhabitants are disturbed by constant firing and popping all night.
The magistrate has therefore modified his former order, and declares fire arms to be by law illegal, and that nothing but the most urgent cases can excuse the use of them. He still permits the moderate use of them, when it is certain a man is a thief and they cannot catch him; but not to be firing off on every absurd suspicion, which rather aids the thieves than hinders them. [Page 1].
If you enjoyed these articles you might also want to read: Forgetting about the Gun: Firearms and the Development of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts.