Daoist priests on Hua Mountain in the 1930s. Source: Photo by Hedda Morrison, Harvard digital archives.


An Unexpected Lunch


A friend from graduate school called during one of one of those terrible afternoons that only the month of February can conjure.  I was sitting in my windowless office at the University of Utah, ostensibly writing lectures for the semester’s new course preparations.  Half an hour later I found myself in a Chinese restaurant with my friend Whitney and his former Chinese language and literature professor who also happened to be in Salt Lake for the day.


The professor was a jovial older gentleman who was regaling us with the sorts of travel stories that one accumulates after bouncing around Asia for decades.  The company was excellent, the food was average, and before we left I decided to ask him about something that had come up.  At this point I had already started the preliminary research on my book documenting the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  During my personal Wing Chun training I had been exposed to what seemed like a basic cosmological theory regarding the five phases, and then I had seen a similar idea pop up in a few other arts as well.  I asked the professor about the origins of this notion and whether it indicated anything about the creators of these systems.  I never bought into the stories of mystical burning Buddhist monasteries, or “white eyebrow-ed” Daoist abbots.  Yet when working on a project like this you know that certain topics are bound to come up, so it is best to chase down leads when an opportunity presents itself.


The professor’s response was concise and to the point.  He noted that martial artists, in his experience, tended to confuse cultural metaphors with philosophical theories.  What I was asking him about, in his opinion, was not actually a well worked out philosophical system.  Rather it was a set of observations derived from daily practice.  To make the lesson more memorable someone had simply appropriated some commonly employed labels and applied them in a new way.  In short, the only thing that I could reliably surmise about this individual was that he was Chinese, and (not surprisingly) turned to elements common in late imperial or Republic era popular culture to explain his embodied insights about the nature of boxing.  Rather than investigating the ancient Daoist or Buddhist “roots” of such things he recommended that I instead focus on topics like popular literature and Confucian culture.


All of which sounded very sensible as this was already my basic approach.  But the professor was not done.  He then asked me what I had thought of the meal?  Before I could answer he noted that when he was younger he was obsessed with Daoist studies, and he read a huge amount of this material.  After all, he noted, “Its full of great stuff….its just so rich.”  But as he aged he decided that this focus was ultimately unfulfilling, at least from the perspective of intellectual history.  It was like always eating desert, but never eating dinner.


Sweet foods only make culinary sense when paired with a savory main dish. Likewise, individuals in the Qing dynasty who might have known about Daoist or Buddhist ideas were almost certainly educated by Confucian teachers.  Indeed, they probably were Confucian scholars by day who pursued these other interests in their free time.  It was the Confucian world view that defined the universe that other philosophies existed within (and sometimes reacted against).  “Look at late Confucian thought and how it impacts popular culture and religion,” he concluded. In retrospect, this was one of the better pieces of advice that I got when setting out on my current line of research.


A still image of the Five Tiger Stick Society performing on Miaofeng Shan. Source: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gamble/


The Mystery of the Five Tiger Stick Society



I recently found myself remembering that lunch.  It seems that an interest in martial arts history offers individuals almost limitless opportunities to skip dinner and head right for dessert.  Many of these temptations are prominently displayed in places like YouTube.


Social media sites can be a phenomenal resource for students of Martial Arts Studies.  If nothing else, they offer a vast video archive of the last century of hand combat development.  Yet the nature of the medium seems to encourage us to cut and edit this material into ever shorter and more focused clips, effectively stripping it of its original identity and any remaining contextual data.  In effect, our efforts to curate moments of vintage Kung Fu tells us more about ourselves than the often-anonymous individual whose movements have been immortalized on film.


Consider the case of the ‘Five Tiger Stick Society’.  I only recently discovered their historical existence after running across a YouTube clip.  It records a wonderful, if baffling, performance.   One is immediately left to wonder when it was filmed, and by whom?  Where and why did this performance take place?  Are all of the individuals in the clip part of the ‘Five Tiger Stick Society’?  Or did that label only apply to the five children with actual sticks who make an appearance in the film’s opening scenes?


A close viewing of the clip, while interesting from a technical standpoint, cannot really answer any of these questions.  What becomes clear is that for something that lasts only one minute and 43 seconds, this is a surprisingly complex visual record.  The film itself is composed of nine distinct vignettes, shot in at least two locations.  Most of these scenes are a recording of a single martial arts performer shot in a single take.  Yet the first and last sequence have been done in a number of cuts and were later edited together.


Here is a quick review of what you can see in this film:

0:00-0:06         Title Card

0:07-0:21         Five children wearing opera costumes perform with sticks in some sort of courtyard, possibly in front of a structure.

0:22-0:42         A group of very similar children (but wearing slightly different costumes) perform a dance with sticks on what looks like a road by wall.  This time they are accompanied by an adult male wearing white.  Note that the first and second shots were probably recorded at separate times and then edited together.

0:43-0:49         A group of musical performers standing by the afore mentioned wall.  Meanwhile an individual wearing white performs a dao form in the foreground, but he does not appear to be the focus of the camera man’s attention.

0:50-0:57         A solo performance with a heavy crescent knife or halberd.

0:58-1:06         A very nice spear set.  This is probably my favorite sequence in the clip.

1:07-1:19         Another solo dao demonstration by a different individual, this time wearing a dark shirt.

1:20-1:37         The demonstration of a two-man dao set.  Note that this was recorded in multiple shots.

1:38-1:40         Two different individuals performing a different two-man dao set, spliced into the ending of the previous scene.

1:40-1:43         Two men with spears attacking a single unarmed individual who demonstrates tumbling in his evasion.


Judging from the sheer number of unique performers, one suspects that this clip is a very abridged record of a martial arts demonstration that might have been quite lengthy.  There is also at least a suggestion that we are seeing scenes shot in two locations.  But again, if we only focus only on the details of the performance itself, we are left with no real sense of the social context that framed this extensive demonstration.


Lacking that information we cannot ask critical questions about why individuals participated in this activity, what their goals were, or how the assembled audience judged the quality of this performance.  Eating dessert on an empty stomach is rarely satisfying.  While these sorts of clips are intriguing, their discovery rarely alters our understanding of the historical record in a fundamental sense.  The way in which this clip (and so many like it) has been edited leaves us with few contextual clues necessary to tackle these more central questions.


Gamble with friend and camera after having completed the Miaofeng Shan pilgrimage (denoted by the flowers in his hatband). Source: http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gamble/


Sidney D. Gamble and the Miaofeng Shan Pilgrimage


Luckily, “few clues” is not the same as “none at all”.  The day after discovering this clip I was in the library at Cornell and decided to do a quick journal search on the one bit of context that remained.  I knew from that title card at the start of the film that someone in this group was thought to be members of the “Five Tiger Stick Society.”


That is not much to go on.  But to my surprise this name turned up a hit in a 2014 article in the Cambridge Journal of China Studies.  It seems that a martial arts society using this same name was taking part in the annual pilgrimage (sponsored by local incense societies), to the temple of Bixia Yuanjun on Miaofeng Shan outside of Beijing.


A few more searches revealed that this pilgrimage route has some history behind it.  It was popular during the early 20th century, and the clip above records a small part of one procession during the mid-1920s.  A bit more digging revealed that this footage is an excerpt from a much longer and more interesting film recorded by an individual named Sidney D. Gamble.


Gamble spent much of his early career as a social scientist working to advance various causes in northern China.  He graduated from Princeton with a degree in Economics in 1912, and in 1916 he earned a Masters degree in Sociology from the University of California.  He even taught some classes there.


Still, Gamble is much better known for his fieldwork.  While in China he worked to promote the YMCA and various missionary efforts which he saw as key to modernizing and strengthening the nation.   He also conducted extensive surveys and fieldwork that became the basis of his subsequent academic writing.


Luckily for us, Gamble was also an intrepid amateur photographer and was quite interested in traditional Chinese culture.  In pursuit of good photographic opportunities he participated in the famously colorful Miaofeng Shan pilgrimage on three separate occasions between 1924 and 1927.  These trips resulted in many fantastic black and white images as well as the collection of 16mm footage that Gamble edited into a short documentary after returning to the United States in the 1930s.  His family discovered the extensive photographic trove years after his death, and has since worked with Duke University to preserve and publicize this visual legacy.  In preparation for an exhibit of his work, the University lightly edited and added a soundtrack to his film.


The complete film is spectacular.  Anyone who is interested in Chinese popular religion during the 1920s will want to see this.  It runs about 15 minutes and can be watched here. In fact, anyone with an interest in both Chinese martial studies and sound intellectual nutrition (rather than just dessert) should watch the whole thing.

Perfomers from the Lion Society at Miaofeng Shan. Source: photo by Gamble, http://library.duke.edu/digitalcollections/gamble_586-3408/



Contextualizing the Five Tiger Stick Society


In retrospect, I am not surprised that the film, and the many photos that go along with it, were recorded by a professional sociologist.  It was obviously collected and vetted by a trained observer.  Gamble’s images are interesting precisely because they combine items of aesthetic, historical and theoretical value.


Film was expensive during the 1920s, and cameras only get heavier the higher up the mountain one carries them.  What was it that Gamble saw in these martial performances that inspired him to record them in such detail?  How did he, and by extension, how should we, understand their connection to the rest of the festival?  Lastly, what does this tell us about the reality of martial culture during the Republic era, outside of the modernizing and nationalizing influence of the Jingwu (Pure Martial) and Guoshu (National Arts) movements?


The fact that Gamble was even able to record such images suggests that we sometimes exaggerate the reach and success of these later reform movements.  Despite their notable successes, both movements had trouble winning the interest of large segments of the Chinese martial arts community.  Unaligned temple boxing societies, militias and village boxing clubs remained common throughout the 1920s.  The identities promoted in these sorts of organizations were more local and parochial in nature, rather than the nationalist and statist ideologies of the reform movements which were gaining traction among the urban middle class. I think that it is important to remember that in 1924 vastly more individuals were taking part in practices like this than were training in Jingwu’s state of the art, YMCA inspired, facilities.


Many Western observers first became aware of local martial arts through their participation in local festivals.  As writers at the time noted, their reasons for participating were often layered.  Such can be seen in the account of this same event left by the journalist Julius Eigner.


“Towards the end of the season another colourful element enters the scene.  These are actors, acrobats and street performers who, with the complete outfit of their profession, such as masks and their bizarre costumes, make the pilgrimage.  There are days when as much as a dozen groups appear on the mountain top.  On every shrine they pay homage to the deities as every other pilgrim.  After this ceremony has been gone through, they give a free-for-all show, especially to the delectation of those pilgrims who are returning already from the mountain as they, after the religious part of the ceremony has been completed, are carefree and in a happy frame of mind, ready to enjoy to the utmost any opportunity that is offering itself.

The main performances, however, are taking place on the platform in front of the highest temple of the mountain.  There are, for instance, the lion, dragon and tiger dancers.  Each lion is made up of two men who are covered by a piece of brightly colored cloth.  The head of the lion is very large, its eyes and snout being movable.  The performance resembles that seen on Western cabaret stages of the two-man horse.  The difference is that there are several animals in the ring which play with each other, biting and growling.  As the simple country folk who are gathering here are not often treated to such hilarious and skillful performances, they enjoy them to a high degree.

Then there are the sword dancers.  They are by far the best trained artists of them all.  Their extraordinarily swift movements and their high skill in the sham fights earn them continued howls of the hao, hao, comparable to the Western Bravo or clapping of the hands.

Next follow the actors with very primitive plays.  They in turn are followed by child actors.  These little ones win the most rounds of applause as, with stern and set faces, they proceed with their performances.

An interesting aspect of these free vaudeville shows is that the performers thereby hope to win the special favour of the god of their craft so that throughout the year they may have full houses and paying customers. At the same time, they get thereby free publicity, as the pilgrims, gathering on Miao Feng Shan, are coming from very far away places all over the northern provinces.”


Julius Eigner. 1939. “Strange Ceremonies Connected with the Buddhist Pilgrimage to Miao Feng Shan” The China Journal 30:3. p. 171.


While overly romantic, and more a shallow travelogue than an ethnographic account, Eigner’s entire article is worth reading.  His description supports the hints given in Gamble’s film that the martial arts societies were only a single aspect of the entertainment that one might find on the mountain during pilgrimage season.  And it is fascinating to see his discussion of the enthusiasm that child actors generated among the crowds.


Still, Eigner is mostly concerned with the performances and motivations of what appear to be professional opera companies.  The individuals that Gamble recorded looks more like members of local schools or temple organizations.  That is important as rather than trying to broadcast their skills across the region (hoping to attract a paying gig), such martial artists or musicians would have been more concerned with how their performance reflected and augmented their place in the village’s social structure.  In short, the motivations and identities that concerned them the most would have been inward looking and community focused (in addition to the issue of their personal relationship with the goddess, a question discussed extensively by Zhang).


These concerns are taken up by Zhang in his much more recent (2014) study of the Miaofeng Shang pilgrimage.  Gamble reports that the pilgrimage route lost popularity and declined with social changes during the 1930s.  By the time that the Communist arrived its unlikely that there was much religious activity on the mountain, and there was none by the era of the Cultural Revolution.  Yet during the 1980s local communities once again formed “incense societies” (essentially local religious congregations) and these groups resurrected or recreated the old pilgrimage patterns.


Unsurprisingly, these resurrected practices (once again under pressure as rapid urbanization disrupts what is left of northern China’s traditional village life) included both martial artists and musicians.  Zhang’s research focused on this most recent era, yet many of his findings regarding the motivations and organizations of martial arts performers would probably have been true during the Republic period as well.


Zhang found that in the 2000s the various incense societies that promoted the pilgrimage route divided themselves into civil (wen) and martial (wu) factions.  Both attempted to give service to the local goddess by providing goods that would promote the pilgrimage route.  This included efforts to provide free food and tea to visiting pilgrims, or to light the trails at night.  These sorts of projects were spearheaded by the “wen” societies.


Opera and martial arts performances have long been treated as a public good offered to entertain both the gods and the local community during festival times.  Yet when Zhang began to investigate the history of the Wu societies (all composed of local volunteers and associated with regional temple groups) an important additional layer of social meaning emerged.  Their presence not only entertained the crowds, it was seen as constructing a “symbolic” or astral temple at the very peak of the sacred mountain.  In this way the merit-winning actions of the martial performers could unite the local community in the blessings of the goddess.  Zhang’s discussion of this point is important enough to quote in full:



“Although the Wu societies mainly practice Chinese kung fu, the leaders insisted that the purpose of the 13 kinds of Wu societies also served Lao Niangniang. Unlike services provided by the Wen society, services provided by the Wu society can be interpreted on many levels. First and foremost, their pilgrimages to Miaofeng Mount contribute [ ] much more incense for the cult. Secondly, the Wu societies present wonderful performances before the goddess’ shrine. Last but not the least, the 13 societies in old Peking constituted a symbolic temple with their internal symbolic meaning.


‘The flying fork society goes first, the five tigers stick society follows behind. We put stilts in front of the door (stilt society). The pennant looks so majestic (pennant society). Lions crouch down on both sides of the door(lion society), two stones on the bottom of the door(two stones society, stone locks brace the door(stone lock society), thick stick lock the door(thick stick society), the parterre is used to hold the wine(parterre society), the voice of blowing and beating makes noise(noisy society), we use sticks to hold the boxes for paying tribute(box society), we use balance to weigh(scale society). And the bass drums stoop down (drum society). All these pennants and drums are working to make the world peace and tranquil.13’

Among these 13 incense societies,

‘The lion society symbolizes the stone lions in front of the temple. So the lion society must let other societies go first during the pilgrimage. The pennant society symbolizes the flag in front of the temple, so this society should go first. The bicycle society acts as a messenger raising money and food. The flying fork society [is] just like a pathfinder who clears away the obstacles for Lao Niangniang, so they practice forks. The five tigers stick society and the shaolin stick society are the heralds. The scale society is responsible for weighing for Lao Niangniang, the waist drum society seems to play the holy music. The box society represents the box for storing money and food. The yangge dance society and the small cart society stand for the tourists coming for the temple fair. The two stones society, the stick society and the parterre society etc. symbolize the deacons in the temple and the entertainers in temple fair.14’

Zhang Qingren. 2014. “The Logic of Chinese Local Religion–Analysis of the Statement of ‘Serving Lao Niangniang’ Claimed by the Incense Societies’ Pilgrimage to Miaofeng Mount.” Cambridge Journal of China Studies. Vol. 9, No. 1. p. 102-103 [minor grammatical corrections have been made to this quote.]


Modern incense societies lower their flags at Miaofeng Shan, 2014. Source: NY Times.





It may seem paradoxical, but the most important books out there for anyone attempting to understand the Chinese martial arts usually have very little to say about these fighting systems.  The martial arts have many functions, and personal or village defense is certainly one of them.  But on a more fundamental level these things are a type of social technology that allow individuals or groups to achieve their aims, more broadly defined.  We will never understand how this technology functions if we remove it from its (always moving) cultural context and attempt to fix these techniques under ahistorical glass.  As my friend’s teacher reminded me, dinner must come before dessert.  Context comes before understanding.


The next time you have an opportunity to post a vintage newsreel on YouTube, put the whole thing up.  Or if you find a clip, try and track down the rest of the film.  It is true that most of this material will not focus on the martial arts.  It may seem to have nothing to do with Kung Fu.  But one cannot grasp the ever-evolving nature of these fighting systems if we focus obsessively on only a single aspect of the lives of the individuals or communities who supported them.  One cannot understand the practices of the “Five Tiger Stick Society” without knowing why they climbed the mountain in the first place.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Red Boats and the Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy.