Asking “What if?”
Few things are more difficult to research than historical events that did not happen. This is especially true for social scientists who approach the question of theory creation and hypothesis testing from a more empirical or positivist angle. Yet difficult is not the same as “impossible.” Nor am I sure that we can really understand why a set of events transpired if we do not grapple with the question of what they meant to observers at the time. For better or worse, there are times when even the most careful researcher must tread into the realm of “the counterfactual.”
Consider the following. How would the world of the Chinese martial arts be different today if the military officer (and later Governor of Shandong) Ma Liang (?-1947) was remembered as the father of modern wushu? In truth, Ma’s entire career seems to be an unending series of “what ifs?”
This specific scenario should not unduly tax the imagination or stretch credulity. Ma Liang was the creator of a movement that went by the name “New Chinese Martial Arts” or “New Wushu.” He had an impact on national discussions of these fighting systems in the late teens and early years of the 1920s. Indeed, he came to be seen as something of an educational reformer, as opposed to simply a despotic warlord. And certain aspects of his reforms are still with us today.
And yet his memory is not.
Why has he been largely written out of Chinese political history? And what would the Chinese martial arts look like if they had developed along his proposed lines?
This essay is the first contribution of what I hope is a multi-part series looking at Ma’s legacy. In this post I hope to review the basic outlines of Ma’s life and career. Subsequent entries will explore specific events as well as Ma’s lobbying efforts to have the martial arts included in school curriculums. Still, a basic discussion of this largely forgotten figure is necessary before delving into these more detailed cases.
Some of this material has been briefly touched on in other places. Stanley Henning includes a discussion of Ma’s “New Wushu” in his essay on the martial arts in Republic period physical culture. Kai Filipiak mentions Ma more briefly in his 2010 article “From Warriors to Sportsmen: How Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Adopted to Modernity,” (Journal of Asian Martial Arts, 19:1 30-53). Perhaps the most accessible and detailed contribution to the discussion that readers are likely to come across is the essay by William Acevedo at the always excellent Zhongguo Wu Xue blog. It brings together the conclusions by these authors as well as information from some additional Chinese sources.
More interesting are all of the discussions in which Ma makes no appearance. Andrew Morris, in an otherwise brilliant analysis of Republican era martial arts, mentions him only in passing, and only in conjunction with his very limited role in the reform of the Guoshu movement. Ma’s New Wushu project never gets discussed. In a sense this is understandable as Morris was interested in the history of sports in Republican China, and Ma understood and promoted the martial arts in a very different way. But given Morris’ impact on the subsequent development of the Martial Arts Studies literature, Ma Liang’s New Wushu has come to be overlooked more generally. Nor does Ma receive even a brief mention in Lorge’s comprehensive volume Chinese Martial Arts: From Antiquity to the Twenty-First Century(Cambridge UP, 2012).
As a result of this collective oversight, we tend to imagine Jingwu and Guoshu as the only major national martial arts movements during the period. This binary focus blinds us to the possibility that if historical circumstances had been slightly different, the Chinese martial arts may have ended up developing along very different (and markedly more militaristic) lines. Indeed, the brief success of Ma Liang’s New Wushu, while not immortalized in Bruce Lee films (like Jingwu), or looked back upon with nostalgia by modern Chinese scholars (as is often the case with Guoshu), paved the way for other reform movements later in the Republic period.
Ma Liang’s Vision of China’s New Wushu
Military officers played an outsized role in both the promotion of the martial arts and the unfolding of China’s political fortunes during the Republic period. As such, when investigating one of these figures, we have two sources of information that we can turn to. The often-hazy (or just hagiographic) memory of a figure like General Li Jinglin within the martial arts community can be augmented by the generally richer (and more accurate) records of political history.
Commander Ma, however, is something of an exception. There can be no doubt that he was a well-known figure in life, whose personal notoriety ensured that his name was frequently in both the Chinese and foreign language press. Yet due to multiple failures of judgement, he ended up being marginalized in political circles and died an ignominious death. This probably goes a long way to explaining why we have so few discussions of Ma’s career, and why many of the most detailed of these seem to have been preserved by his fellow martial artists.
Few details from Ma’s early life have made it into the secondary literature. There even seems to be some question about when Ma was born. The most frequently cited date is 1875. Henning favors the slightly later 1878, while Acevedo puts his birth almost a full decade earlier in 1864.
Ma’s early martial arts background is something of a mystery as well. In multiple interviews other Chinese kung fu masters have stated that he was introduced to some sort of “Shaolin,” and this became the basis of his later New Wushu. Unfortunately, in Republican terminology the Shaolin umbrella covers a lot of ground.
William Acevedo reports that in 1900-1901 Ma served as an instructor at the Shanxi Zhili Infantry school, and it was during this time that he assembled his first draft of “Ma’s Exercises.” If true this would be a fascinating development. It would place the inception of New Wushu squarely in the middle of the Boxer Rebellion, a period in which the Chinese martial arts (or some version of them) were entering the national political discussion with ultimately disastrous consequences. It would not be hard to see a rejection of “Boxer superstition” in the modernized, streamlined and scientific approach to military training championed by Ma as a young officer. Yet in many ways his vision of what the martial arts could be bore the hallmarks of this earlier period of radical nationalism.
Then again, the decade long discrepancy noted above may impact how we read these events. Zhouxiang Lu and Fan Hong, the authors of Sport and Nationalism in China (Routledge, 2014) instead place Ma at the Shanxi Military Academy in the early 1910s and note that this was when he began to develop a four-fold system of basic training focusing on the disciplines of unarmed boxing, wrestling, the spear (presumably useful for understanding the bayonet) and the sword (jian).
Or maybe this is a distinction without a difference. Historians have noted that the first mass outpouring of popular Chinese nationalism (as the term is understood in a modern academic sense) erupted in 1909-1911 in the lead up to the fall of the Qing dynasty. One way or another, the New Wushu movement was born out of the combined fires of nationalism and militarism. Ma saw in the traditional martial arts a system that could be used to both physically strengthen the Chinese people and aid in the creation of more effective citizen-soldiers.
These goals could only be accomplished if Ma’s simplification and synthesis of traditional martial arts training was adopted on a national scale. In 1911 he and a group of martial arts teachers in Shandong began work on of a multi-volume set of textbooks titled Chinese New Wushu. One sometimes sees the title translated at New Chinese Martial Arts but in this case, I prefer to use the term ‘wushu’.
In his biographical study of Ma Liang the Chinese scholar Ma Lian-zhen (South China Normal University) notes that one of Ma’s major contributions was the stabilization and popularization of the term “wushu” in Chinese martial arts circles. In truth, the Chinese martial arts have never been called just one thing (a topic I have discussed at length elsewhere) and the choice of terms is often somewhat political or ideological. It is no mistake, for instance, that Republic era reformers chose to adopt the term “Guoshu” while later Communist innovators eschewed it. Ma Lian-zhen credits Ma Liang with helping to stabilize the now ubiquitous terms “wushu” in the current era.
Further revisions to the textbooks were undertaken in 1914, the same year that the program was adopted by the Ma’s newly created Wushu Training Center in Jinan (the capital of Shandong). Of course, such a movement cannot accomplish its central goals unless it is adopted on a national scale. Within a few months martial arts organizations in Beijing, Tianjin and Shanghai were all adopting Ma’s program. Ma’s reputation as an innovator in civilian educational reform, as well as military training, began to spread.
The timing of the New Wushu movement seemed, at first, to be fortuitous. During the early Republic period reformers were working to create innovative approached within the education sector. In practice, they tended to look to Japan and Germany (widely perceived as the ideal models of strong, centrally controlled, “late developing” industrial states) for guidance. The martial arts (in the guise of practices like Kendo, Fencing, Judo and Boxing) had been adopted by the educational establishment in both countries with the goal of producing strong, easily militarized, students. Educational reformers in China were also debating the merits of placing the martial arts in the nation’s middle and high schools for similar reasons.
Sometimes these debates went beyond mere talk. In 1917 the Beijing Normal School opened its doors. Prospective teachers were expected to take at least two hours of Taijiquan classes a week in addition to their academic subjects. It was expected that they would be able to teach or run martial arts themed extra-curricular activities. Teachers were also instructed to include colorful stories of military exploits and martial valor in their regular lessons to indoctrinate students with (government approved) martial values (Filipiak, 2010).
Even in such a favorable environment, Ma Liang did not rest on his laurels. Instead he called on his various military and political connections to lobby on behalf of the New Wushu program. His efforts paid off. In 1916 the Ministry of Education sent a fact-finding group to Shandong province to examine the successes and scalability of Ma’s program. The next year it was accepted as compulsory training in both national police and military academies, as well as in the Beijing Normal School. The last step was especially critical as a supply of well-trained instructors would be necessary to take the program into China’s many classrooms.
In October of 1918 the National Secondary Schools Principals Congress urged all secondary schools to make arrangements to include Ma’s training program in their curriculum. This effort was supported by the publication of the final draft of the Chinese New Wushu series by the Shanghai Commercial Press. The series was originally slated to contain eight volumes. Four would cover basic training in boxing, wrestling, fencing and the spear, while four more would introduce applications and more advanced material. Unfortunately, the second series was never printed and programs had to make do with the four basic texts. Nevertheless, the introductory pages of these texts were graced with endorsements and prefaces by important political leaders and intellectuals (Lu and Hong).
Modern practitioners often have overly romantic notions about a past “golden age” in which all Chinese individuals practiced and revered some aspect of the traditional martial arts. This was never the case. Even when martial arts training was deemed necessary, due to China’s Confucian social structure, it tended to remain somewhat socially marginal.
Ma’s successful injection of the New Wushu program into Republican era educational reforms was probably the first time that anyone got close to making the martial arts a mandatory aspect of Chinese social life at the national level. As one might expect, this rapid rise in visibility provoked a sharp response from other, more modernist, educational reformers.
This became most evident in the page of the left-wing New Youth. In 1918 Lu Xun, a leading writer and intellectual, unleashed a pointed attack on the notion of placing Ma’s New Wushu in schools. This position was then echoed by Chen Duxiu who explicitly linked the sudden mania for boxing (most evident between 1911 and 1918) with the similar tide of enthusiasm that swept over the country in 1900, leaving the nation in ruins.
All of this was too much for Chen Tiensheng, a pioneering member of the Jingwu movement, who took up his brush to defend the martial arts in what is probably the single most celebrated public debate of the early republic period. Every historian of the period has talked about his exchange (see for instance the discussions in Morris or Cohen’s History in Three Keys). Its so well known that there is no need to rehash the debate here. Yet while this exchange is usually framed as an exchange between middle class Jingwu reformers and left leaning intellectuals, what is often forgotten is that it was Ma’s much more militant vision of a national New Wushu that inspired the discussion in the first place.
Lu and Hong note that on April 6th of 1919 the Ministry of Education issued a special report titled “Proposals for the Development of Physical Education.” It called for wushu to be included in the curriculum of all schools and went on to declare that it should comprise “the most fundamental” aspect of China’s physical education. This was a major win for China’s martial artists, and while other organizations, like Jingwu, had been ramping up their own educational capacity (see Judkins and Nielson 2015), Ma’s New Wushu program was best positioned to capitalize on this windfall.
Still, no government declaration enforces itself, and revamping physical education in China’s many schools proved to be both expensive and logistically difficult. If nothing else, instructors needed to be trained and equipment had to be procured. So how far reaching were these reforms?
This is not a subject that we have much hard data on, but a June 1924 report indicated some success. It reviewed the curriculums of 40 secondary schools and universities distributed throughout 14 provinces. It found that 52.5% of these institutions offered martial arts classes, while an additional 22.5% had adopted them as an extra-curricular activity. Obviously, any sample of this size is likely to show several biases. One suspects that researchers were probably better able to get responses from larger and better funded schools that would also have been more likely to support these sorts of programs. Still, it is interesting to note that this report found that 75% of the schools it surveyed promoted the traditional martial arts on their campuses in the early 1920s.
1919 was the high-water mark of the New Wushu movement. Unfortunately, the political events that had smoothed the way for the program’s rapid rise played a part in its downfall. Germany’s defeat in WWI sent shock waves throughout the Chinese political system. Educators began to reevaluate their “over-reliance” on the German/Japanese model, and began to explore less militaristic theories of education that did not place the martial arts at the center of physical education.
Worse was the blow that was dealt by the Versailles Treaty, which formally ended hostilities between the warring powers. Rather than returning Chinese territory held by the Germans (as the Chinese government expected), these areas were instead handed over to the Japanese. Massive public protests and economic boycotts erupted in the face of this decision, sparking the May 4th movement.
This turn of events complicated Ma’s efforts to promote New Wushu on many levels. The most obvious of these were the personal and professional. Ma was a follower of “Little Hsu” or Hsu Shu-tseng who, along with other northern warlords, ended up being beneficiaries of Japan’s new status in the region. In fact, newspaper reporting on some of Ma Liang’s public addresses at the time leads one to suspect that he may have been genuinely disillusioned with China’s failure to build a strong state and had become something of a Japanophile (“Effusions of Ma Liang.” The Peking Leader. September 11, 1919. page 6)
As a military officer Ma was tasked with maintaining social order and enforcing the curfew in the capital and other parts of Shandong. By all accounts his efforts were a catastrophic failure. He actively attempted to confront a public that was furious about the Japanese moves in the region. Ma personally ordered the torture and execution of three leaders of the anti-Japanese commercial boycott (which he viewed as a threat to the social order). When that failed to calm the situation, he brought a contingent of his men to the local university and held the students hostage while lecturing them on proper behavior and threatening them with his dadao troops if they failed to fall in line. Even in a period characterized by violence and excess, Ma’s failures stood out and earned sharp rebukes from not just left-wing newspapers, but even other warlords.
Over time, Ma’s poor choices and political failures would undermine his beloved martial arts agenda. But in the short run this notoriety may have worked to his advantage. As news of the upheaval in Shandong spread the foreign press started to run stories and profiles on Ma. As they searched for background material on the officer two things stood out. First, his Muslim ethnicity, and second his recently published series of books on Chinese boxing (“The Modern Boxers of Shantung,” The North China Herald. Aug. 16, 1919. page 401). Even his critics were forced to admit that Ma’s troops seemed exceptionally well trained and conditioned. This was often held up as evidence of the viability of his training methods. Ma thus became one of the first names to be widely associated with the reform of the traditional martial arts outside of China.
The general seems to have worked to promote this fame throughout the early 1920s. He became known for his lavish martial arts demonstrations which were used to entertain guests, reporters, political dignitaries and even foreign military officers. A long account of one such event (discussed here) was even circulated in English through a public relations office. It was subsequently picked up and distributed by a number of international newspapers. Indeed, Ma seemed to be acutely aware of the value of the Chinese martial arts as a tool of global public diplomacy, especially if he could argue that they were either older than, or superior to, the Japanese practices that seemed to attract so much admiration in the West.
Ma Lian-zhen has noted that one of Ma Liang’s greatest accomplishment was the organization of the first massive national martial arts tournament held during the Republican period. The 1923 “National Martial Arts Meet” was staged near Westgate in Shanghai. Period reports suggest that it may have attracted up to a thousand participants and won widespread coverage in the press. Reports on the event even circulated in English language newspapers. This event set the standards and expectations that inspired the Guoshu movement’s later, and much better remembered, “National Martial Arts Examinations.”
The second half of the 1920s were a time of retreat for the Chinese martial arts at the national level. As Henning points out, this was an era in which the “New Culture Movement” dominated the public debate. It looked for ways to modernize and westernize Chinese society. While Ma’s New Wushu was notable for its attempts to simplify and rationalize the Chinese martial arts (so much so that it earned the ire of many traditionalists), it still seemed out of step with the era’s progressive values. The delegitimatizing of educational militarism following Germany’s defeat in Europe, and Ma’s many self-inflicted political wounds, combined to make his New Wushu program more infamous than famous. By the middle of the 1920s it seems to have slipped completely out of the public discussion of either physical education or the martial arts.
Nevertheless, Ma Liang was nothing if not a fighter. He continued to look for opportunities to interject himself into the national discourse. His personal fame ensured that it was not difficult to get his name in the newspapers. But substantively advancing his agenda during the second half of the 1920s proved to be more difficult.
In 1928, following the success of the Northern Expedition, Ma petitioned the KMT for permission to jump-start his program on a national scale. Press reports indicate that he asked to be allowed to open Wushu academies in all of China’s leading cities (see North China Herald, September 8th, 1928, page 408). Such approval does not seem to have been forthcoming as his plans would have clashed with the KMT’s Guoshu movement. Indeed, Ma was invited to join the staff of the new organization in 1928 as an “educational expert,” and he gave the occasional speech in support of martial arts training. Yet by in large he became a marginal figure in the new era’s leading martial arts movement.
The Mukuden Incident (1931) seems to have breathed new life into both Ma’s efforts, and the nation’s enthusiasm for martial arts training more generally. The establishment of a Japanese puppet regime in Manchuria in 1932 unleashed a wave of nationalism that gave the advantage to the advocates of the more traditional “National Essence” approach in their debates with the New Culture Movement. Political events in Northern China seemed to strengthen their argument that liberal physical education reforms had failed and the nation desperately needed stronger soldiers. As such, the traditional martial arts had to be reconsidered as the basis of the national physical education curriculum.
Capitalizing on this trend Ma tried something new. In 1933 he became more vocal in his backing the Central Gusohu Institute. At the same time, he proposed the creation of a massive (and carefully organized) network of civilian Dadao teams that would ultimately be loyal to him. Indeed, when looking at some of these national martial arts movements of the period it can be difficult to see where the martial training ends, and the political patronage network begins.
Unfortunately, his story did not end well. The Japanese advance across China continued during the 1930s, the rising popularity of the dadao notwithstanding. They captured Jinan in 1937 and Ma surrendered. The following year he provoked outrage across China (and denunciations from his fellow Muslims) when he accepted the role of Governor in the Japanese puppet government. To be honest, given his well-known pro-Japanese statements going back almost two decades, I am not sure how many people were actually “shocked” by his decision to collaborate.
In 1939 Ma was deposed from office. Following the end of the Second World War the now elderly MA was arrested by the KMT and imprisoned. He fell ill and died while awaiting trial.
If one theme has dominated our review of Ma Liang’s career, it is the oppressive weight of political contingency. It is all to easy to blame the failure of the New Wushu movement on Ma’s personal or political failings. Yet the broad outlines of this story were really set by global political events that were beyond the scope of any individual’s control. Indeed, the cyclic fates of the German and Japanese empires seem to have had an outsized impact on the political and social debates that both determined the place of the traditional Chinese martial arts in Republic era educational reform, as well as the general character of those practices that did emerge.
There is simply no escaping contingency. Had Germany carried the day on the battlefields of France, it is entirely likely that a highly militarized vision of New Wushu would have come to play a role in Chinese schools very similar to the Budo arts of Kendo and Judo in Japanese education. That would likely have altered both the popularity of the Chinese martial arts, and the way that they would have been socially constructed for decades after the end of WWI. Yet with the defeat of Germany, the aggressively urban and middle class Jingwu association was given a lift in their effort to reconstruct the martial arts as one aspect of the country’s “athletic culture” on par with activities like basketball and tennis.
When we chart the history of the Chinese martial arts what we see is a diagram of both individual choice and social contingency that resembles a vast branching tree. Ma’s career reminds us that the current configuration of the Chinese martial arts was not inevitable. It does not represent everything that the Chinese martial arts could have become, or all the potential that remains hidden within them. As social circumstances change in the future, so to will these practices.
Ma’s career is also a valuable reminder that even the paths not taken can have an important impact on what we experience now. While his New Wushu never really achieved its central aims, it helped to smooth the way for the more influential Jingwu and Guoshu movements. Ma did much to raise the profile of China’s Muslim’s martial artists, and his training programs helped to give the Republican martial arts perhaps their most iconic symbol, the Dadao. Ma Lian-zhen may even be correct in his assertion that every time you hear the term “wushu” uttered in a modern context, you are experiencing an echo of his reform. The past, it seems, is always with us.
William Acevedo. 2015. “Ma Liang – Chinese Martial Arts Modernizer, Warlord and Traitor.” https://zhongguowuxue.wordpress.com/2015/08/30/ma-liang-chinese-martial-arts-modernizer-warlord-and-traitor/
Kai Filipiak. 2010. “From Warriors to Sportsmen: How Traditional Chinese Martial Arts Adapted to Modernity.” Journal of Asian Martial Arts. Vol. 19 No. 1. 30-53.
Stanley Henning. 2003. “The Martial Arts in Chinese Physical Culture, 1865-1965.” in Thomas A. Green and Joseph R. Svinth (eds.) Martial Arts in the Modern World. Westport, Connecticut: Praeger. 13-36.
Ma Lian-zhen. 2012. “Ma Liang and the Modernization of Chinese Martial Arts.” Journal of Hui Muslim Minority Studies. No. 1.
Andrew Morris. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sports and Physical Culture in Republican China. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Zhouxiang Lu, Fan Hong. 2014. Sport and Nationalism in China. New York and London: Routledge.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Gu Ruzhang-Northern Shaolin Master and Southward Bound Tiger.