Who was China’s “Number One Sword?”
Few individuals come to be known as both a warlord and a “sword saint.” Even by the standards of China’s tumultuous 1920s, the carving out of two such notable public personas was an impressive achievement. Yet General Li Jinglin managed to leave his stamp on both Chinese politics and the development of the nation’s traditional martial arts.
I recently started to delve into the modern development (early 20th century) of the Wudang sword tradition. The following biographical discussion of General Li Jinglin is part of my very preliminary research on the subject. If all goes well, more posts on the background and social development of this unique style of fencing may follow.
Still, there can be no doubt that Li Jinglin (1885 – 1931) deserves more attention than he typically receives. Beyond his role as a political figure in the turbulent warlord era, he was a dedicated martial artist. Li studied with several important teachers, tirelessly promoting both Yang style Taijiquan and the Wudang sword tradition. When not exchanging techniques with China’s most famous martial artists he was bringing them together as he created one martial arts association after another, eventually becoming a chief architect of the KMT’s Guoshu movement.
While clearly dedicated to the practice of the martial arts, General Li was also acutely aware of the multifaceted role that these practices could play in the creation of a new type of Chinese state and society. Whether one’s research is historical or social in nature, concerned with the development of sword techniques, or attempts to impart “martial values” to the Chinese body politic, Li’s career can reveal much about the state of the Republic era martial arts.
The following essay touches briefly on each of these topics. Yet its major goal is simply to lay out what is currently known about Li Jinglin’s biography. At times this is a challenge as key issues are not well documented and other topics (his political maneuvering during the Warlord era) are complex. Some questions, such as, “At what point did he acquire the nick-name of “sword saint?” are likely to remain unresolved. This essay should be considered an initial research note rather than the final statement on any of these topics.
By way of disclosure I should state that I am not a member of any lineage stemming from Li Jinglin though, like a great many martial artists, I find that my practice has been somewhat influenced by his eclectic innovations. If not for his tireless work during the 1920s, its very unlikely that I would currently be reading up on Wudang sword traditions. Indeed, it is an open question whether the current enthusiasm for Wudang could exist in his absence.
This essay is based both on published writings by Li’s students (such as Huang Yuanxiu’s 1931 Essentials of Wudang Sword) and other publicly available articles (including this very helpful translation of a Business Times piece provided by Bernard Kwan at Be Not Defeated by the Rain). Lastly, given the nature of Li’s career as a warlord during the 1920s, he actually shows up in a fair amount of history that has nothing to do with the martial arts. While specific questions remain, the broad outlines of Li’s life are well known and help to illuminate the massive transformation that overtook the Chinese martial arts during the 1920s-1930s.
The Making of a “Sword Saint”
Li Jinglin was born in 1885 as the youngest of five sons. His family were hereditary Han bannermen located in Zaoqiang County, Encai Township, Hebei. This martial legacy notwithstanding, most of Li’s immediate and extended family seem to have been merchants. Some sources indicate that his grandfather had been a well-known martial artist in his own day. Like many younger sons in similar situations Li seems to have been drawn to the martial arts at an early age and struck out while still young, attempting to make his mark on the world.
I suspect that the biographical appendix on Li Jinglin provided by Huang Yuanxiu at the conclusion of his study of Wudang sword is not entirely reliable. Still, it is probably correct when it asserts that Li first began martial arts training with his father. Other sources suggest that as a child (sometime between 1890 and 1898) he studied Yan Qing Men and Er Lang Men, two styles that were regionally popular.
Huang’s biography, which was approved by the still living Li, then asserts that as a youth he met and befriended a strange hermit named Chen Shijun from Anhui. Chen supposedly instructed Li in a variety of practices including jacketed wrestling, Taijiquan, the spear and (of course) some method of Daoist sword. When the young and impulsive Li attempted to leave to join the military Chen prophesied that if he left now, before completing his training, Li would have at best a middling military career and would struggle to achieve his full potential with the blade. Li left anyway, and his subsequent career as a Warlord and sometimes ruler of Tianjin is, as they say, history.
Chen Shijun is a mysterious figure. When outlining Li’s sword lineage in the appendix, Huang traces it back to Chen but does not attempt to go farther (say to Zhang Sanfeng). In any case, the veracity of this story is unclear. I haven’t been able to find independent discussions of Chen, and most sources trace Li’s sword instruction to another, more historically verifiable, set of teachers.
What is known is that (ominous prophecies not withstanding), Li left to enlist in the Qing’s military “Youth Corp” in Luoyang in 1898 at the age of 13. Some sources, including the Business Times article translated by Bernard Kwan, assert that the leader of this unit was none other than Song Weiyi, another of the Republic period’s legendary swordsmen, and someone who is known to have taught Li his sword method. Yet when they first met is a matter of debate.
In one version of the story Song was already the Ninth generation inheritor of the Wudang Dan Pai sword tradition. Noting Li’s obvious talent, he accepted him as a disciple and began to train him in the jian. As we will see below, there is at least one other account of how Li and Song first met which would suggest that their relationship started many years later. Nor is Song ever discussed in Huang’s brief biographical sketch, which instead relies on the shadowy Chen. As such the credibility of this account is unclear.
What is clear is that 1898 may have been a uniquely bad year to enlist in the Youth Corp. The organization was disbanded because of the Boxer Uprising in 1900. At this point the young Li (only 15 years old) returned home, but he remained focused on the martial arts.
In the same year Li sought out Taijiquan instruction with Yang Jianhuo (the third son of Yang Luchan). History remembers him as a notably difficult and demanding teacher, a trait that Li would encounter again over the course of his martial pilgrimage. At the same time, he formed a lifelong friendship with Yang Chengpu (the son of Yang Jianhuo). The two remained close and Li would go on to champion and promote Yang style Taijiquan throughout his career.
This setback was not, however, the end of the young Li Jinglin’s military aspiration. In 1903 he enrolled in the “Accelerated Military Training Hall for the Beiyang Army”, which was the predecessor for the better known Baoding Military Academy. It is believed that immediately after graduation he began his career as a lower level officer in the capital.
Li first rose to prominence as a loyalist officer during the 1911 revolution. Taking the initiative Li volunteered to command the 500 man 2nd Suicide Squad and in the battle for Hanyang led the assault that captured “Turtle Mountain.” He was awarded the Yellow Jacket (a color normally reserved for the imperial family) by the then moribund Qing dynasty.
While the fighting at Hanyang was probably Li’s greatest individual military achievement, his career flowered during the warlordism that marred the 1920s. A complete accounting of this era is beyond the limits of this essay, which by necessity must focus on the martial aspects of his career. One could write a small book on Li’s various postings and adventures during the period.
Suffice it to say that in 1920 Li Jinglin operated as a regional commander under the Anhui Clique General Qu Tong Feng. After being ousted by Wu Peifu he sought refuge with the famous warlord Zhang Zoulin. In 1922 he received a substantial promotion and became the Commander-in-Chief of the Three Eastern Provinces following the restructuring of Zhang’s military.
Two years later Li could be found leading the Fengtian Second Army which aided in the victory at Longku, and in November his troops occupied Tianjin, whose management he would oversee for several years. Li’s regime is not remembered fondly. His occupation of Tianjin was notable for its thuggish and predatory nature. Like other Warlords Li was a member of the Green Gang and he went to extreme lengths to extort and squeeze the city’s merchants. He even managed to clash with elements of the US 15th Infantry Regiment that were stationed in the area.
These years were also a critical period in Li’s development as a martial figure. One wonders if this is when the previously avid wushu student blossomed into a fully-fledged “sword saint.” While Li consolidated his political/military base, he also turned his attention to the construction of a martial legacy.
The first step in this process happened back in 1920 when Yang Kui-shan became his first disciple while in Tianjin. Yang personally attended to Li and served as his bodyguard for years. Li later sent him to study with a variety of instructors and relied on Yang to handle much of the instruction of new students and disciples.
Later, in 1922, another officer who had been quartered in the house of a local martial arts enthusiast brought his landlord, a sword master named Song Weiyi, to meet Li. In some accounts this was the first time that the men met, and Li invited Song to live in his residence as his personal fencing instructor. This was the beginning of the master/disciple relationship that would eventually see Li become the 10th inheritor of the Dan Pai Jian tradition and a tireless proponent of the entire Wudang tradition.
In another version of this story the two had first met in the old Qing Youth Corp and were surprised to be reunited after many years. Song gave Li a copy of the Wudang Jian manual that he had authored making him the 10th generation inheritor of the tradition. While the details of the stories differ, both accounts suggest that Li (who had previously studied other sword traditions) devoted himself to the Wudang style during the early 1920s.
Other accounts of the period note that Li ran a very busy martial household. In addition to his own practice, he also instructed his three children (two sons and a daughter, born to a wife and two concubines) in the new Wudang sword method. Many of his top officers were students as well.
The 1920s were also a period of substantial innovation. Song’s jian curriculum lacked any set forms, though it did contain additional neigong and empty hand exercises. The Wu Jian (sword dance) “set” which was passed on by Song was really a type of free play or shadow boxing in which the artist freely flowed between each of the system’s 13 techniques in an improvised pattern. Other aspects of the system came down to technical practice and fencing. As such, Song’s sword method relied heavily on personal instruction.
To make the Wudang Jian suitable for mass dissemination in “modern China,” Li came up with a number of sets that could aid in instruction. The first of these was Xing Jian (continuous stepping sword) which borrowed directly from the footwork of Bagua. Dui Jan was a two-person set that focused on the central lessons of Wudang combat. A longer Six Section Sword form was also created. Following Li’s premature death other students subsequently adapted and constructed a number of Wudang sword sets.
Not content to rest on his theoretical laurels, Li appears to have sought out opportunities to test his mastery. He extended an open invitation to China’s swordsmen to visit his home, share his hospitality, and test his skill. The folklore of many lineages contain accounts of masters who either beat, or were bested by, Li in these exchanges. What is clear is that Li was assembling a vast network of contacts throughout the Chinese martial arts community that would later become very important.
The creation of the modern Wudang sword tradition took another step forward in 1923 when Song’s sword manual was published in Beijing. So far as I can tell this was the first ever publication on the topic of Wudang sword. Around that time Li also seems to have gained Song’s permission to begin to more widely promote what had previously been a closely held fencing system.
Li retired from active military service in 1927 after a falling out with Zhang Zuolin. Initially Li moved to Shanghai (and later Guangdong) where he continued to devote himself to the martial arts and grow his network of contacts and disciples. For instance, both Chen Weiming and Chen Zhijin studied Li’s Wudang sword method shortly after he arrived in the South.
What might have been a productive and quiet retirement was disrupted when the country was hurled back into conflict by the 1928 Northern Expedition. Li threw his support behind General Chiang Kai-shek and after the conclusion of hostilities was rewarded. In 1928 Zhang Zhijiang invited Li to join the KMT’s Military Council.
A year earlier Zhang, Li and Zhang Shusheng had began to plan the creation of a new martial arts association. While the effort would be national in scope (similar to the now defunct Jingwu movement) the new organization would be backed by the KMT and carry a distinctly statist, rather than a simply nationalist, flavor. Like its civilian predecessor it would seek to reform and strengthen the traditional martial arts (stripping out any sign of secrecy or feudal superstition) as a precondition for strengthening the Chinese body politic in their quest for national unification and an end to imperial threats. In March of 1928 the KMT controlled government passed Decree #174 creating the “Guoshu Research Academy.” Zhang Zhijiang was named the director of the ambitious new organization, and Li was named deputy director.
We have discussed the Guoshu movement in many other posts, so it is not necessary to review its structure or strategy here. Yet it should be noted that Li was active in its early years. In 1928 he helped to organize the (now famous) first national martial arts examination. In 1929 he followed this up by promoting the Zhejiang Guoshu Performance Gathering.
This was not his only achievement. That same year Li cooperated with Yang Chengpu to produce the Shandong Guoshu Academy manual containing the simplified Taijiquan set and 88 movement set still promoted in China today. Li left a notable mark on both the Taijiquan and the Wudang communities.
On a purely speculative note, I have always wondered whether the division of the initial Guoshu program into “Wudang” and “Shaolin” sections (rather than a scheme that would have made more administrative sense) reflected Li’s heavy proselytizing of the Wudang concept during this period. While Wudang is mentioned in some late Ming and Qing era literary texts, Li seems to have more or less been responsible for its sudden explosion in the modern era.
During these years Li’s network of personal disciples is reported to have grown to a prodigious size. Li is reputed to have had thousands of disciples with hundreds more joining him after major events in the Guoshu period. Given Li’s political status one suspects that most of these people were not looking for fencing instruction. Still, this is an interesting reminder of the many ways in which martial and political networks were expected to reinforce one another in Republican China.
Other disciples of note did begin to study with Li during this period. He took Li Yulin as a disciple in Hangzhou (who later went on to teach Dan Pai sword in Beijing). In the same year Li accepted Huang Yuanxiu as a disciple. Huang had already studied the Wudang sword system and took extensive notes during his brief period of instruction. Li approved these for publication and they were later released as the Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art. North Atlantic Books titled their translation of the text Major Methods of the Wudang Sword (2010).
Students who studied with Li at various periods of his career worked on, and received, different things. Indeed, the field of Wudang Jian is vast. But Huang’s efforts provide students with a detailed snapshot of Li philosophical and technical thinking towards the end of his career.
In 1930 Li was once again tasked with organizing military attacks in Jinan in support of the KMT’s conflict with Yan Xishan and Feng Yuxiang. That same year he helped to found the Shanghai Guoshu Institute. Then, in 1931, the seemingly unstoppable “sword saint” fell ill. He returned to Jinan and died shortly thereafter at the comparative young age of 47. It is hard to think of many other individuals who had such a profound effect on the development of the Chinese martial arts in such a brief time. Nor would the Wudang sword tradition exist in its current form without his pioneering efforts.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu