Martial Arts Exhibitions, Old and New
Earlier today I saw a Facebook notice reminding me that I am about to miss an event with the lightsaber combat group that I am currently doing an ethnography with. They have been asked to give an exhibition by a local charity. The entire thing sounds like a lot of fun, and if I was not in the middle of a move into a new apartment, I would certainly be going.
Nevertheless, an experienced martial artist could probably guess what will be on their agenda, even if you have never seen a lightsaber exhibition before. A few highly dedicated groups specialize in elaborate staged spectacles that include real scripts, extensive combat choreography, stage direction and special effects. The late NY Jedi pioneered this sort of mash-up between community theater and Star Wars. Many other groups have also adopted or modified that model.
But when more “martial arts” oriented lightsaber groups take to the floor, things are usually simpler. One can still expect to see plenty of Star Wars costumes and glowing lightsabers. But the action typically focuses on the exhibition of different sorts of forms performed with a variety of weapons, some two-person sets or drills, some spinning (always a crowd pleaser) and maybe some light choreography.
This is not all that different from what you would see in most traditional Chinese martial arts demonstrations. Nor is this social pattern particularly new. One can easily find 19th century descriptions of Kung Fu demonstrations that fit this general pattern. In fact, it is remarkable how stable this performance genre has been, even when jumping into the world of Star Wars charity performances!
All of this reminded me of an old newspaper article which I discovered this spring. It’s a particularly vivid description of a high-energy kung fu demonstration that was staged by the Shanghai Chinese Boxing Academy for the students and teachers of the American School in Shanghai, on March 20th, 1936.
The American School seems to have been an enthusiastic sponsor of the Chinese martial arts. Multiple articles published in The China Press during the 1930s mentions either events such as this staged at the school, or demonstrations given by the schools own martial arts club. This is yet another reminder that a surprising number of missionary and foreign backed schools in China appear to have promoted the martial arts during the 1920s and 1930s. They were convinced that their students could benefit from these sorts of “muscular” and nationalist activities. The China Press, for its part, was a regular participant in these events which (unlike other papers) it usually reported in glowing terms.
While reading this account of an event from 1936, and thinking about what my friends in the lightsaber community would be doing, I was struck by the similarities. The demonstrations of even hyper-real martial arts continue to follow well established patterns. Indeed, the adoption and employment of such patterns seem to be an important way in which these groups communicate their “martial identity” to the audience. That suggests just how deeply they have become embedded within Western popular culture.
Nor, as we are about to read, is the use of exotic, and even glowing, weapons a new trend. And schools in both the current era as well as the 1930s turned to demonstrations such as these as potent recruitment tools. While I wish my friends all the best in supporting an important cause, what I would really love to see is the Republic era demonstration described below. Just imagine what these guys could have done with some lightsabers!
American School Notes
The assembly Friday morning, March 20th was entertained by an exhibition of Chinese boxing, given by students and instructors of the Shanghai Chinese Boxing Academy, and presented by Mr. Wen-ying Peng. The program was opened by several athletes’ going through the difficult posturing and striking of the fundamental fist-boxing, which is the basis for the maneuvers with weapons. Then, a pair of wrestlers went into combat, and quick, surprising falls were given and taken before the audience. After these, an exhibition of thrusting, slashing and parrying with a single broadsword was given by one man, who continued with a fight against another man who used a pair of supposedly lighted torches, one in each hand, for clubs. This held the spectators breathless as they watched the quick movements of the fighters. The difficult cross-parry was used often by the man with the torches; his avoidance of the others claymore appeared miraculous.
Next, two gladiators armed with what amounted to quarterstaves came on stage. Narrow escapes from terrific blows, resounding slams of bamboo against bamboo, and lightning footwork, all contributed to making the combat a gripping spectacle.
After the battle of the bamboo rods, a young man came onto the platform bearing two curved swords, with which he proceeded to weave a network of lambent steel around himself. This act, the most spectacular of the feats of the sword, was greeted with enthusiastic and prolonged applause. Following this came another wrestling bout, and after that, one of the boxers performed with a pair of weird weapons which combined a crescent with a hook and a dagger.
Then the most brilliant of all the events was given; a combat between a man with a spear, and one armed with three lengths of stout wood shackled end to end with short chains. The latter was a formidable and extremely maneuverable weapon, and the other’s agility in avoiding its sweeping strokes was remarkable. When the three rods, extended to full length, flailed through the air directly at the spearman’s head, gasps were heard; but the resourceful defender, lifting the spear-shaft horizontally at arms length over his head, deflected the blow effectively. He then riposted with a striking thrust which the other caught in a cross-parry of the two end sticks. So went the game to its terminus. The program was concluded with more wrestling.
“American School Notes” – The China Press, March 22 1936.
If you enjoyed this Research Note you might also want to read: 1928: The Danger of Telling a Single Story about the Chinese Martial Arts