The Nation and the Sword
Seki Juroji may be one of the most important pioneers of the traditional Asian martial arts who no one has ever heard of. Gainty (2013) notes that Seki was a successful farmer and swordsmanship instructor from Nagano. Like many other individuals from his generation, Seki seemed to have been gripped with not just a love of the martial arts (something that I am sure most of us can empathize with), but also a nostalgia for the time of the Samurai. These attitudes would have a far-reaching impact on Japan’s early 20th century educational reform efforts, and the modern martial arts as we know them today.
At the outset, it should be noted that a love of fencing and a burning nostalgia for the Samurai were not always inseparable traits within Japanese society. By the end of the Tokugawa period the Samurai class was openly reviled by the majority of Japan’s citizens who viewed them as self-aggrandizing parasites. Samurai theories of their innate leadership qualities and right to rule did not have a huge amount of support outside of the social circles that produced them. When the Meiji government finally abolished the Samurai class very few tears were shed. When the government forcibly closed the urban dojo’s and outlawed the wearing of swords most of Japan’s citizens cheered. Decades would have to pass before the actual memory of the (often very flawed) flesh and blood samurai could fade and be replaced with a more valuable, and politically useful, nostalgia.
This social hostility towards the remnants of the feudal past was so great that Japan’s traditional martial arts would have to come close to disappearing before any of them could be reestablished on a more forward-looking foundation. Yet this transition was aided by the fact that by the end of the Tokugawa period quite a few individuals from non-Samurai families had developed an interest in fencing. G. Cameron Hurst notes that some of the most important instructors of the late Tokugawa period were actually civilians, and it was clearly the enthusiasm of marketplace crowds which reversed Japanese fencing’s slide into oblivion during the 1870s.
In that sense Seki might appear unremarkable. By the 1890s one could find any number of farmers, brewers, police officer or shop keepers who had developed a new enthusiasm for the blade. What made Seki different was that he, and a hand full of others who would come after him, not only wished to share this enthusiasm with the rest of Japanese society, they wanted to make it mandatory. Indeed, Seki believed that the sword was one of the foundations upon which modern (post-Samurai) Japanese society should be built.
In 1893 Seki became the first individual to formally petition the Meiji Ministry of Education to include fencing classes in Japanese public schools. Citing a type of cultural argument that will be immediately familiar to students of Chinese martial studies, he noted that since the introduction of Western educational and social reforms Japanese society had veered dangerously away from masculine and “military” values towards “literary” and “civilian” ones. The result was a notable weakening of both the state and society. Luckily, the situation might be reversed if schools were to adopt mandatory martial arts training. Seki (who clearly had a stake in this outcome) noted that such a policy would not only improve the physical health of the nation’s students, but would showcase its strength on the world stage.
I have always found that last element of his argument to be fascinating. Its true that there was a certain degree of global interest in the Japanese martial arts in the 1880s and 1890s, but Seki’s vision was well ahead of the ground swell that would emerge at the turn of the century or (even more intensely) at the time of Japan’s defeat of the Russian empire. Indeed, the issue of global image may have played a key role in this unfolding drama. While certain martial artists wished to moderate Western social influences, Japan’s Ministry of Education was very much committed to European (and notably liberal) views on educational theory and school administration. Potentially dangerous pursuits such as kendo and judo faced an uphill battle within the various ministries.
Gainty observes that this is a critical point too often glossed over in discussions of the state’s relationship with the modern Japanese martial arts. These practices could not be co-opted as tools to promote nationalism, militarism and loyalty to the imperial house on a national scale until they were inserted into the curriculum of primary and secondary schools around the country. Yet this was not a plan that the government proposed, envisioned or demanded. Its technocratic administrators tended to be working from other, more “modern,” models of state development.
Rather, it was the concerted lobbying efforts of individual civilians like Seki that set the stage for what would happen in the 1920s and 1930s. More specifically, individual reformers teamed with institutions like the Butokukai and the Kodokan to lobby democratic institutions and advance their own vision of the proper relationship between the martial arts and the state. I don’t think that one could deny that the Japanese arts were eventually “captured” by the state, yet this outcome was actively sought and engineered over the course of decades.
For better or worse, Seki would not live to see the fulfillment of his dream. He submitted petitions to the Ministry of Education and the Diet (which forwarded his ideas on for further study) multiple times before his death in 1905. But a number of other reformers took up the cause. In 1911 both fencing and judo overcame bureaucratic opposition and were approved as elective middle school courses. From there things flowed more smoothly, with the new classes first spreading to primary schools before being made mandatory for all students in 1931. At this point Seki’s dream had been achieved. More Japanese citizens were then studying fencing than had even been the case during the Tokugawa era. While the sword had once been the soul of the Samurai, now, under state sponsorship, it had become the soul of modern Japan.
New Wushu and Chinese Educational Reform
Its instructive to know something about the relationship between educational reform and the adoption of the martial arts in Japan before discussing the Chinese case. Clearly Chinese reformers looked to Japanese models when thinking about these issues. And everyone in the more urbane corners of the Chinese martial arts community was painfully aware of the global prestige that kendo and judo had brought to Japan. As such, it is not surprising when we see the occasional parallel. But more instructive are the differences.
Both Japanese and Chinese reformers attempted to introduce the martial arts to primary and secondary school curriculums. And in both cases they claimed to be concerned with bolstering the cause of nationalism and state strength. But the process by which these decisions unfolded, and their ultimate success, proved to differ in important ways.
More specifically, the actors in the Chinese cases were more likely to be military or state agents. The entire process moved much more quickly in China. Yet these intended reforms never had a chance to deeply penetrate the less developed and more diverse Chinese countryside.
It needs to be stated at the outset that several civil martial arts groups in China were very much in favor of advancing the cause of physical education reform. And in some ways their arguments about the benefits of the martial arts to the state were not all that different than the arguments that their Japanese counterparts had made a decade or more earlier. For instance, as Jon Nielson and I have previously noted, the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association proved to be particularly successful at placing its instructors in local primary and middle schools during the early 1920s. In that way they influenced much of the up and coming generation of martial artists. Yet you cannot draw any simple equivalences between this Chinese group and the much longer lived, and more influential, Butokukai.
China had one resource during the Republic period (which was totally missing in Japan) that would have a huge impact on the development of its martial arts. That was a seemingly limitless supply of independent warlords and KMT generals. For complex social and political reasons, many of these individuals found that it was in their interest to advance a particular vision of the modern Chinese martial arts as well as the organizations and lineages that inevitably followed.
While not frequently discussed today, one of the most important of these individuals was the then notorious general, traitor and martial arts reformer Ma Liang. Indeed, Ma plays a somewhat similar role to Seki in that he was one of the first individuals in China to begin to put together successful lobbying campaigns that would lead to the introduction of martial arts classes into the school curriculum and make these fighting systems available for state capture and appropriation.
Where as the ultimate success of Japanese reformers came after two to three decades of effort, the process in China moved much faster. Given the obvious success of Budo as a domestic strategy and source of global prestige, liberal intellectuals in China probably had a harder time pushing back against these martial reforms. Indeed, Ma Liang achieved his greatest success as a policy advocate in well under a decade.
As we learned in our previous biographical sketch, the Muslim general began to experiment with educational pedagogy as young infantry officer. His attempts to create a simplified martial training method seemed to offer good results in the field and would eventually earn him something of a reputation as an educational reformer. In 1911 Ma’s interests seem to have expanded and he turned his interest from military training to the creation of a more general educational program suited for civilian study. The outbreak of nationalism and anti-Manchu sentiment following the fall of the Qing dynasty undoubtedly fueled these efforts. In Ma’s early efforts revolved around a set of four textbooks that were explicitly understood as a modern classroom curriculum rather than a manual of timeless secrets.
By 1914 a number of other martial artists had become involved in this project, and Ma’s followers opened civilian training centers in Jinan, Beijing, Tianjin and other norther cities. The timing his New Wushu movement was fortuitous. It capitalized on a general enthusiasm for combat sports among Chinese educational reformers. Of course, these individuals were not inspired so much by Chinese martial arts as the inclusion of subjects like military drill, fencing, wrestling and boxing in the curriculums of ascendant global powers like Germany and Japan. The early enthusiasm for combat sports in these countries created an obvious opening for Ma’s own lobbying efforts.
And lobby he did. In 1916 the Chinese Ministry of Education sent a fact-finding mission to observe the success of Ma’s program in Shandong and study its scalability. Drawing on his contacts in government and the military Ma succeeded in having his New Wushu program added to the required classes at the national police and military academies in 1917. It was also made a mandatory class at the new Beijing Normal School to prepare the way for its broader introduction into middle and secondary school classes. These efforts came to a head in 1918, the same year that Ma released the final edition of his four-volume curriculum.
Finally, in 1919 (only eight years from the start of his lobbying efforts) 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, Ma’s New Wushu program was best positioned to capitalize on this windfall.
It is interesting to consider the greater speed with which these reforms succeeded in the Chinese case. Obviously, the prior success of Japanese efforts deserves much of the credit. While Chinese educational reformers were not simply seeking to recreate Budo, the prestige that the Japanese enjoyed internationally would have bolstered their cause and given them some protection from left-wing intellectuals like Lu Xun and Chen Duxiu who were unhappy to see boxing being interjected into school curriculums.
Yet it is also important to note the identities of the “reformers” in the Chinese case. The Jingwu Association gets much of the credit (and deservedly so) for reforming the TCMA during the Republic era. And yet under Jingwu, these practices remained essentially the recreational activities of the well-off urban middle class. The masses would have to wait for Wushu to appear in their local schools. It seems unlikely that this would have happened as quickly without the efforts of Generals and military figures like Ma Liang. It was Ma who engineered one of the first successful attempts at a national martial arts curriculum early in this period. And ultimately it would be the military backed Guoshu Institute (working on the behest of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government) that would ultimately see the project through.
Just as the American occupation of Japan in 1945 reshaped its educational policy towards the martial arts, events in global politics would ultimately undermine the efforts of Chinese reformers. Specifically, Germany’s defeat in WWI deprived its educational approach of a good deal of luster, and Chinese administrators increasingly looked towards more liberal theories. Further, the Japanese betrayal of China at the Treaty of Versailles further dampened enthusiasm for the Budo model as the 1920s progressed.
Still, one suspects the core problems that plagued the efforts of Chinese martial reformers were more structural in nature. Japan was a relatively small and unified state. Not all of its prefectures were equally developed, and they all had their own rich histories. But imposing a single educational structure on the country proved to be a manageable and uncontroversial task. China, on the other hand, is vastly larger in scale. At various points in the Republic period many provinces were under the control of independent warlords rather than any sort of central government.
The differences in culture, economics and geography between places like the impoverished agricultural regions of Shandong and urban cities like Shanghai in the 1920’s could not have been starker. There are very good reasons why one area produced occult infused militias (such as the Red Spears) while the other was cultivating a much smaller number of sophisticated and rationalized middle-class physical culture movements (like the Jingwu Association).
It is entirely too easy to think of groups like the Yihi Boxer or the Red Spears as “primitive” while the Jingwu Association is held up as a product of modernity. But that is not really the case. All three of these groups represented different social strategies of accommodating the onset of modernity and advanced a specific vision of what a “modern China” should look like. Indeed, the martial arts are interesting precisely because they have become a site where both the state and various social groups can articulate and contest these visions. For a fleeting moment in the late 1910s Ma Liang’s vision appeared ready to dominate this national discourse through its attempted capture of the process of educational reform.
Modernity and the Death of Kung Fu
A number of commentators, in China, Japan and the West, have all wondered aloud about the fate of the “traditional” martial arts in the modern era. Can these social structures survive the demands of a fast-paced economic marketplace or rapid social change? While I generally think such concerns miss the mark, one must admit that some of the trends are worrying. Young people in China, Japan and South-East Asia appear to be less interested in seeking out martial arts training than their parents were in the 1980s. Further, the rise in real estate values and rents is proving to be a serious challenge for traditional schools in cities as diverse as Hong Kong, Singapore and London. In absolute terms, we have clearly seen a decrease in the number of practicing martial artists over the last generation, though it remains unclear to what degree this is offset by the rising popularity of combat sports like MMA.
Still, a broader historical view may help us to contextualize these trends. Simply put there was never a golden age in Japan’s feudal past when everyone was a dedicated fencing student. Nor was there ever a time in China’s history when the country was as full of Kung Fu students as the average martial arts film might lead you to believe. Prior to the onset of modernity and the attempted capture of these arts by the state, the martial arts tended to be highly specific, rather than universal, skills.
Put differently, the martial arts were a means of earning a living and asserting an identity. That identity tended to be narrowly defined, limited and parochial in nature. Only a certain class of Samurai retainer specialized in spear fighting. Another sub-cast specialized in the use of firearms. And while there may have been some important civilian swordsmanship instructors on the late Tokugawa period, most of their countrymen had no interest in the art and nothing but resentment for the Samurai who dominated the practice.
The situation in China is, as always, harder to resolve. The sheer geographic variability and historical scope of the subject stymies quick generations. In certain times and places (the Pearl River Delta in the 1840’s) all able-bodied men might well have been pushed into a village militia for fear of the piratical attack and foreign invasion. In other places and times civilian martial arts training seems to have been much less common, and generally restricted to “bare sticks” and others who stood outside of the realm of “good society.” Yet what is clear is that when individuals took up weapons, the identities that were reinforced tended to be much more narrowly drawn and focus on questions like profession, clan affiliation or village.
These questions of identity are not secondary to the success of the martial arts. It was only once kendo was reimagined as the heart of the Japanese people (rather than the Samurai), or that Taijiquan became a marker of Chinese culture (rather than residence in Chen village), that stable styles could become a mass cultural phenomenon. Put slightly differently, it was the spread of Chinese nationalism and identity that made Jingwu a success in the 1920s, just as the same basic forces power the immense domestic market around Taijiquan today.
The number of martial artists in the current era ebbs and flows, just as it has done for decades. Yet it is important not to mistake the temporary and cyclic outcomes that a given social system produces (which may vary due to trends in global competition, or even the entertainment industry) with a more fundamental change in the nature of the system itself. Modernity is not a threat to the martial arts as we know and experience them today. These things are a direct product of the modern nation state system, and that system has allowed for vastly more people to practice these arts than was ever possible in the past.
The question of educational reform in both Japan and China in the early 20th century is interesting as it allows us to focus on a specific moment in history and observe the differential process by which the state sought to co-opt, and then universalize, these systems. In some cases this process was even promoted by martial arts reformers as it would give them a previously unthinkable ability to influence to development of the modern “national identity.”
Such developments are best understood in the Japanese case. Yet Ma Liang’s often overlooked career as an educational reformer is equally important. He helped to pioneer the links between the modern Chinese state and its defacto support of wushu training, something that is now taken for granted. While his immediate educational successes may have been short lived, and to the best of my knowledge no one currently practices his New Wushu, Ma’s memory still casts a long shadow over the relationship between the Chinese martial arts and the state.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Kung Fu is Dead, Long Live Kung Fu: The Martial Arts as Voluntary Associations in 20th Century Guangzhou