I am interested in the frequent, seemingly unconscious, way in which the word “traditional” is appended to the name “martial arts” in modern speech and writing. One does not simply study “Japanese wrestling” or “Chinese physical culture.” From about the 1970s onward everyone became a student of the “traditional martial arts.” Like so many habits of language, this one requires interrogation and additional thought.
The use of the term “tradition” appears to obscure, often in strikingly ironic ways, the actual relationship between the development of many of these practices and the forces of modernity. Tradition is more of an aspirational category than a descriptive one. For Chinese or Japanese practitioners, such a term likely reinforces the idea of continual transmission in the service of some “national essence.” Students in the West are less likely to internalize the nationalist undertones associated with many of these arts, but instead derive other Orientalist fantasies from coming into contact with the “ancient” and “unchanging” East.
All of this is problematic on the descriptive level. Rather than a pure transmission from the “unknowable past,” what we actually see are stochastic leaps in both technical performance and somatic meaning as hand combat systems jump from one generation to the next. Yet even that observation tend to understate the actual nature of the situation.
It was not just that the martial arts evolved in time with the changes around them. In a variety of countries both reformers and practitioners seized upon these institutions as tools to systematically promote their vision of the ideal modernized and reformed nation state. Rather than preserving social traditions, the martial arts were often employed to attack vast fields of local practice in the hopes of preserving a few aspects of culture that reformers felt were particularly suited to success in the arena of global competition between nations that would define the 20th century.
The fact that we today so easily accept the term “traditional” testifies to the startling success of these efforts. As Ernest Renan taught us, the nation is defined by what we collectively agree to forget as well as what we remember. Nowhere is more clear than in an examination of the “traditional” martial arts.
Newspapers were an ideal medium for cultivating and spreading modernist discourses. Of course, they did not just circulate within a nation, a topic discussed by Benedict Anderson and others. At times the process of identity construction also required one to strategically reach out to a more global audience.
Consider the following article from the North China Herald, and English language newspaper published in Shanghai. This paper enjoyed a wide circulation within China and its articles were occasionally picked up by foreign newswire services as well. It is interesting to ask what it had to say about the Chinese martial arts as they reemerged as a topic of social and political conversations during the 1920s.
The following article is particularly instructive in this regard. Morris, Henning, Kennedy and Gao, among others, have all commented on the importance the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association in the promotion of women’s martial arts in China. And in 1920 the Pure Martial organization broke new ground by creating a Women’s Department to systematically promote these efforts. Indeed, much of Jingwu’s success was rooted in the fact that it reached groups of individuals (such as middle class women) who were previously excluded from any sort of martial arts or athletic training.
Two facts about the creation of this department are less well remembered. First, the promotion of female martial artists was not a continuation of any aspect of “traditional” Chinese social life. While there had certainly been female martial artists in the past (and I have written about a number of them on this blog), it must be remembered that such figures were relatively rare. Looking at their specific circumstances hints at the ways in which they were the exceptions that proved the rule. Jingwu’s enthusiastic embrace of female martial artists was just one part of its support of a larger feminist agenda which sought (with notable success) to fundamentally reshape critical elements of Chinese home and social life. This is a classic case of the martial arts used as an agent of social and political change rather than preservation.
Also lost in much of the current discussion is the fact that Jingwu went to notable lengths to make sure that their efforts were reported in both the foreign language and domestic press. As we read the following account a few points are worth noting. First, the event was staged at the Shanghai YMCA, a hub of progressive change. Second, it was hosted by the organization’s officer who had been tasked with the dissemination of English language material. Third, the organization went out of its way to make sure that reporters from English language newspapers, which catered to a global readership, would be present at the launch of the new department. Lastly, Jingwu specifically made its young female performers available for interviews.
This final point is particularly interesting. While period foreign language discussions of the Chinese martial arts are more common than is often thought, most of these (such as Alfred Lister’s efforts) were written from the perspective of the Western observer. Reports that include extensive interview material in which the martial artists themselves reflected on their own training and experience are rare. This fact makes the following article an important historical account.
Still, readers might note that the various answers provided by these girls stick close to Jingwu’s “talking points.” We may be tempted to wonder to what degree they reflect the speakers actual thoughts. Such an objection, while entirely reasonable, may miss a slightly larger point. Not only was Jingwu willing to promote training opportunities for female martial artists, they went a step further and used these individuals as the global face of the institution. Any foreign reader who doubted the modernity of “Chinese boxing” need look no further than Jingwu’s spokeswomen for a definitive answer.
Indeed, modernism, nationalism and global awareness suffuse this article. Conscious efforts are made to re-brand the martial arts and to place them among Western pursuits such as football and gymnastics. And while the grim military competition of the 1930s is still far off, young female students gush enthusiastically about how Chinese boxing has allowed them to work 15 hours a day, thus preparing the body politic for a new era of economic reform and market based struggle. Much of this same rhetoric would reemerge in the “Qigong Fever” of the 1990s as Chinese society again sought to accommodate itself to growing neo-liberalism.
“Tradition” is not the only idea that is taken for granted in current popular discussions of the Chinese martial arts. Another such category is “secrecy.” We are often sagely informed that prior to the coming of Bruce Lee (or some other pioneering teacher), the Chinese martial arts were a great secret. They were never discussed, demonstrated or taught to Westerners.
This article (and its many cousins) are useful in that they also help us to reframe such assertions. As Paul Bowman has noted, this statement has always been problematic as it tends to absolve whites in North America of any taint of racism while shifting such sentiments onto the Chinese community. But leaving aside the question of motivation, it is clear that on a purely descriptive level a great deal of qualification is needed. While it may have been the case that certain communities in the US (e.g., members of the New York or San Francisco Chinatowns) had little interest in publicly discussing the martial arts, it is equally true that some of the most important martial reform movements in the Republic period were devoting resources to this effort. The article below is a remnant of a concerted and savvy public relations campaign.
How better to burnish the modernist and scientific credentials of China’s newly reformed boxing systems than to win supporters in the West? Such a move would both improve China’s image abroad (allowing it to stand more evenly with Japan), while at the same time winning legitimacy for these efforts at home. Why they failed to catch on is an interesting question that will be explored in future posts. Yet frequently repeated assertions of the “traditional” and “secret” nature of these arts neglect the much of what was going on in China itself during this critical period.
CHINESE GIRL ATHLETES
Form and Fascination
“During the first month we girls took to physical culture, we felt as if we were as stiff as dried bamboos and could not move.”
Such was the opinion of a young member of the Ladies’ Department of the Chin Woo Athletic Association.
The formal inauguration of this Department was held at the Young Men’s Christian Association on Saturday afternoon and a very enjoyable programme was performed. About 80 girls took part in the exhibitions. Mr. S. S. Chow, English Secretary of the Club, presided over the gathering. More than 800 visitors were present.
It was extraordinarily fascinating to see these young girls come out and deliver addresses and give exhibitions of boxing. It showed that the girls of to-day are indeed different from the girls of twenty years ago. In those days few girls dared to show their faces in public. But nowadays….! The united dancing drill by three entire schools was excellent. The girls were thoroughly trained and the instructors deserve all the praise for the smart work the girls showed. One learns that the girls met on two occasions only to go through their practice together. To show that foreign drill and calisthenics are not neglected, there were also exhibitions of both these, to the great credit of the girls.
The Chinese boxing, however, was the feature of the day. Girls whose ages ranged from six to 30 took part in the display. With fists, feet, knives, swords, chains, clubs staves, and what-not, they attacked each other with the fury of men in actual battle. As in all exhibitions of Chinese boxing, the girls showed that they knew how to use their feet—and use them well. They kicked their dainty little feet over their heads in such a manner as would put foreign dancers to shame. They did somersaults on the floor and in the air quite as well as any of the menfolk. “Turning the wind” jump and the “double kick” were exhibited with much grace and neatness. When two of the girls got together in a wrestling match, they went at it heart and soul. They were in some respects superior to the men. They fought in the same manner as the men and chopped “with the strength of nine.”
Stronger and Prettier
“What methods of physical culture do you use most?” a representative of the “North-China Daily News” asked a member of the Club. “We put Chinese Kung-fu or boxing first,” was the immediate reply.
“How did you feel after taking exercise?”—“During the first month we girls took to physical culture we felt as if we were as stiff as bamboos and could not move. Instead of remaining stiff and weak as we were before taking exercise we gradually began to grow strong, muscular, less fat, more active, and in all we found that we were more efficient. We could eat more and sleep more soundly. We can study harder, and can work for 15 or 16 hours a day without feeling the least tired. Don’t you think that proves that the exercise in beneficial to use?
“And another thing,” the speaker added rather shyly, “we find that we are prettier and our beauty increases as time goes on. We do not have to suffer growing old. Our bodily form and our style of walking or sitting are much improved.
“As I have just said we emphasize Chinese boxing, from the smallest to the oldest and strongest. We can play football as well as any of you men.
“Yes, it is stiff in the beginning and no real progress can actually be made until after a year or so.”
“Why do you like Chinese boxing?”—“Because we find that in using the Chinese methods of boxing and the old-fashioned Chinese swords and other implements of warfare, every one of our muscles is brought into force.”
“Do you have any forms of foreign exercise?”—“Yes. We play tennis, volley ball, basket ball, rings, and other sorts of foreign gymnastics and games. OF course, you must understand that while we put Chinese boxing first, we do not preclude others from playing just as they please. If a girl wishes to play a certain game, she is at liberty to do so. However, we do not have calisthenics in our Club.”
A Flourishing Club
The Club has a membership of about 250, and members age range from four years to 40, Half of the membership are schoolgirls while the other half are ladies from various families.
The Chin Woo Club was established a little more than ten years ago I a very modest building. Today it owns some 30 mow of land, some of which was presented to the Club. On this land are two buildings at present but it is hoped to build 20 more later on. There is a large football field, a Chinese park which has not yet been completed, and a “model village” will be erected some time next year, where there will be a public library. At present some Tls. 90,000 has been put into the Club.
Modern Sanitary appliances and baths have been installed, and it is hoped to make the Club as complete in every particular as possible within the next five years.
“CHINESE GIRL ATHLETES.” 1920.The North – China Herald, May 08, page. 342.
Interesting in the Republic era reform of the Chinese Martial Arts? Check out: The YMCA Concensus.