The following research note is part of our ongoing series discussing the career and contribution of Ma Liang (187?-1947). As I mentioned in the first essay, Ma can legitimately be considered a pioneering figure in the modernization of the Chinese martial arts, yet he is rarely discussed in the current literature. While scholars are showing renewed interest in the efforts of the Jingwu and Guoshu movements, Ma’s New Wushu consistently attracts less attention.
To rectify this situation, I would like to make some period reports of his activities more widely available to a general readership. The first of these, an account of one of his famous martial arts demonstrations, was already discussed here. Be sure to look it over if you have not yet read it.
This post focuses on another of Ma’s achievements, the organization and hosting of a massive national martial arts tournament, staged in Shanghai, in 1923. This event, the first of its kind, managed to attract competitors from all around China. In some important respects it laid the groundwork for the better remembered “National Martial Arts Examinations” of the Guoshu era. Ma’s achievement generated enough enthusiasm that China’s foreign language press even began to run reports on the tournament.
The following articles were both published in the pages of the North China Herald in 1923. It should be noted that this paper was not always kind to China’s martial artists, so the generally positive tone of the reports is encouraging. The first article covers the opening day of the tournament and reports on the various displays of calisthenics, forms work and weapons demonstrations. The author notes that no actual boxing or wrestling matches took place, but seems to have been generally impressed with the display. It is interesting to note that the martial arts are here presented and discussed as a modern set of practices, fit to advance China’s interests in the coming century. This view is subtly emphasized through the discussion of gender inclusivity and even the sorts of uniforms that the martial artists wear. Indeed, it is probably not a coincidence that the author repeatedly calls these contestants “athletes.” Readers should also note the frequent references to the Jingwu Association, which at the time was approaching the peak of its popularity.
Those hoping for reports on actual contests of strength and skill would not have to wait long. A few days after the close of the game the festival’s organizers and contestants reunited for a demonstration in Shanghai’s Town Hall. As was common during the period, this event was staged as a charity event. Various boxing forms were demonstrated, but this time they were accompanied by live (and apparently quite spirited) matches. There can be no doubt that General Ma would have been happy to learn that after attending his tournament and charity demonstration, foreign reporters in China were touting the strength of the country’s martial artists and pointing out that Japan’s much admired Judo actually had its “roots” in China. Indeed, one suspects that this was precisely the message that such events were calculated to spread.
ANCIENT ATHLETIC ARTS OF CHINA
Amazing Display of Agility and Skill by Chinese Athletes at the West Gate
More than 1,000 picked athletes representing every province in China took part in the National Athletic Carnival which was held at the Chinese Recreation Ground near the West Gate under the auspices of General Ma Liang and several local athletic associations.
According to General Ma, this is the first time in the history of China that such a representative exhibition has been held, and it proves conclusively the interest that is being taken in one of the foremost arts of ancient China.
The Carnival opened on Saturday afternoon and continued until Tuesday. It was devoted exclusively to feats of skill and athletics contests based on exercises which were introduced into China during the third dynasty,–some 2,000 years ago. Boxing, wrestling, dancing, tumbling, expert sword, knife and dagger play, all formed part of this interesting tournament, which was conducted with as much ceremony as ancient historical jousting matches in the list.
The tremendous crowd which thronged the confines of the Public Recreation Ground on Saturday afternoon, gave ample testimony of the interest which is felt in the sport of the ancient Empire.
CALISTHENICS FOR BOTH SEXES.
After the opening preliminaries, including a parade of contestants dressed in their smart club uniforms, a salute to the national flag, and an address of welcome delivered by General Ho Feng-ling and the reading of congratulatory messages by General Ma Liang, the display began with a series of formal calisthenic exercises by girls from the Cantonese Guild School, the Chin Ying Girl’s School, and the Chin Woo Girl’s Athletic Association. The girls were all dressed in smart light blue blouses and gymnasium knickerbockers. Their rhythmical movements to the count of their several instructors was especially interesting when it is remembered that, a decade ago, a Chinese girl was never allowed to take part in the exercises of her older brothers, but was closely confined to the house.
The calisthenics were followed by various ceremonial dances in which every muscle of the body is exercised, especial attention being paid to deep breathing.
After the girls had concluded their part of the programme, the various men’s athletic societies took the large field and conducted similar calisthenic exercises, which included the elementary positions of wrestlers. Especial mention should be made of a remarkable exhibition made by 40 picked soldiers, belonging to the 47th Mixed Brigade of the 2nd Division of the Frontier Defense Army under the command of General Ma Liang. These men were all considerably over six feet in height. And instead of wearing military uniforms were dressed in white short coats, navy blue trousers, and wide white canvas belts. The precision of their movements, sometimes most intricate, to the command of their drill sergeant was excellent. One of the movements to induce greater suppleness of back and lower limbs, consisted of standing erect, placing one hand on the hip, extending the other arm full length overhead with the palm of the hand inverted, then bending forward, without bending the knees, resting the palm of the hand on the ground, then clasping the opposite ankle and forcing the head through the narrow aperture, then by slowly raising the lower hand returning to the former erect position.
ARTS OF SELF-DEFENCE.
Following the group calisthenic exercises, various individual exhibitions were given in the ancient art of self-defence. But unlike western boxing, there were no opponents. It might be compared to our “shadow” boxing, used by all boxers before a match. The speed, agility, and grace with which an antagonist slipped away from an imaginary opponent were all taken into consideration.
Instead of continually taking the aggressive [sic] and carrying the fight into the theoretical enemy’s camp, several of the boxers pretended that they were far spent and showed the manner in which to fall gracefully and without injury. Mr. Ching Kwan-foh, an instructor at the Chin Woo Athletic Association, was especially brilliant, making no less than 45 full length falls, including forward, side and back, in less than 12 minutes.
One of the most interesting as well as the most graceful of the boxing and lance displays was made by Mr. Li Whei-ling, also of Chin Woo, who celebrated his 85th birthday last month. Mr. Li was more agile than any of his younger opponents, and made a picturesque figure, thrusting and parrying dexterously with his long lance, his long white beard waving continuously.
Other individual competitors exhibited their skill with quarter-staff, cudgel, double-edged sword and dagger, one man frequently being pitted against four opponents. In none of the games of the Occident is such speed, quick thinking, and coordination between the hand and eye necessary, since all the weapons are sharpened to knife points, and a slip, or misstep would result in certain death.
On both sides of the official stand were ambulances and stretcher bearers waiting for calls. Their services were only required twice on Saturday, once to dress a slight cut and the other to remove several splinters from one of the contestants who had slid on the pine platform.
The implements used by various contestants comprised every known form of weapon both ancient and modern. The catalogue gives the following list which have corresponding types in the Occident: club, three-linked clubs, single sword, double sword, double dagger, hilt, lance, hooklance, axe, tiger-headed protector hook, two-edged sword, rapier, javelin, hammer, copper clasp, swallow wing clasp, steel rings, shears, lock, saw, lash, awl, blunderbuss, chain, drill. Arrow barb. Long shuttle. Shield. Spears. Heavy shuttle, teeth spike, long handled spear, halberd, and mace.
“Ancient Athletic Arts of China.” North China Herald. April 21, 1923. Page 171.
CHINESE ATHLETES AT TOWN HALL
Ancestor of Jiu-Jitsu: Speed. Dexterity and Courage: A Remarkable Display
A fairly large audience gave an enthusiastic reception to 250 Chinese boxers and wrestlers at the Town Hall on Saturday evening, when athletes representing every province in China met and gave an exhibition of their skill in the manly art of self-defence. The exhibition was held under the auspices of General Ma Liang, and many of the athletes were the same who took part in the games held at the West Gate. The proceeds from the sale of tickets were devoted to the Chekiang Relief Fund, and it was stated that quite a considerable sum was realized. Through the courtesy of General Ho Feng-ling and Arsenal Band furnished incidental music.
In addition to the individual displays of boxing and wrestling against an imaginary opponent, there were several good bouts in which antagonists were real flesh and blood and took amazing and difficult falls apparently suffering not the slightest injury.
Chinese wrestling is in reality the parent of jiu-jitsu now taught universally in the Bushido wrestling schools in Japan. It is maintained that the men do not have to be of equal weight or strength, but the victor’s success depends mainly upon their agility in securing the primary hold upon his adversary. This contention was proved more than once on Saturday evening, when a wrestler frequently threw an opponent 20 or 30 pounds heavier. On the other hand, Mr. Ling Soh-ching, from Tientsin who weighed in the neighborhood of 13 stone, threw seven opponents in nine minutes, which was considered the record for the evening. By way of explanation, it might be added that a “throw” according to the Chinese definition, means usually casting your adversary some 15 or 20 feet away so that he rolls on his back. Nor were there any mats or mattresses to break the force of the fall.
Several of the boxing bouts were fast and furious affairs. The rules laid down by the illustrious Marquis of Queensbury doubtless have not been published in Chinese, since the various competitors fought with bare knuckles, kicked, scratched, bit, clawed each other with reckless abandon, that is, they would have if the opportunity hand offered. After “squaring off,” each contestant made a dash toward the other and kicked and struck centrally, the object apparently being to blind your opponent before he had the opportunity of carrying out his evil designs on you. The dexterity with which kicks and blows were parried equally well was a marvel of speed and agility.
The honors of the evening, however, were unquestionably awarded to a little girl of 10 years and her brother a year and half younger. Not only did these children imitate their elders to perfection, but in addition gave several quite remarkable exhibitions on their own behalf.
“Chinese Athletes at Town Hall.” North China Herald. April 28th, 1923. Page 240.
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Rituals of the Red Spear Movement: Invulnerability, Spirit Possession and Battle Magic.