Research Notes: The Big Knife and Ma Liang’s Attempted Comeback

A captured Chinese dadao being held by a Japanese soldier. Note the unique saw back blade. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

Given that it is a holiday weekend, I will be keeping this research note brief.  Still, the subject matter is quite interesting.  China’s Republic era dadao, or big knives, generate a good deal of interest among both historians and practical martial artists.  They also played a role in the development of General Ma Liang’s career as a martial arts reformer.

In some ways that is a bit surprising.  The general’s troops were often Muslim and hailed from impoverished areas of Northern China.  Of course these were exactly the sorts of individuals that would win fame as they faced down the Japanese army along the Great Wall in 1933, or slightly later in famous Marco Polo Bridge incident.  Stories of such exploits went a long way towards explaining the general enthusiasm for the dadao among China’s civilian martial artists during the early 1930s.

Yet the dadao itself was not really part of General Ma’s highly structured “New Wushu.”  One may skim his four textbooks (published in their final form in Shanghai in 1918) and not see any hint of his eventual big knife movement outlined below.  Ma was certainly interested in swords, and fencing was an integral part of his system.  For reasons which I have never completely understood his training method seems to have focused on the jian (traditional straight sword) rather than the more militarily accessible dao (saber).  Yet that did not stop the enterprising general from heavily promoting the dadao as he searched for a route back into the center of China’s martial arts community during the 1930s.

In our ongoing series, we have already reviewed a number of Ma’s accomplishments.  A basic overview of his life can be found here, as well as more specialized discussions of his role in promoting the martial arts as part of educational reform and the organization of the first national Wushu tournament.   Most of the General’s great successes came in the late 1910s and early 1920s when public enthusiasm for the martial arts was at its peak, and it appeared that there was a decent chance that his New Wushu program would begin to appear in school curriculums around the country.

However, international and domestic politic trends attenuated these early successes.  After the explosion of the New Culture Movement, martial artists of all stripes struggled to articulate how their practices might contribute to the development of a modern, strong China.  Yet the wheel of fate is always turning.  Other geopolitical developments would breath fresh life into China’s martial arts community and the General’s flagging career as a martial art reformer.

The 1931 Mukuden incident was the event that cast doubt on the New Culture Movement’s prior attacks on the martial arts and their role in educational reform.  This social shock was further compounded in 1932 when the Japanese installed a puppet regime in Manchuria, touching off a wave of nationalist fervor in China.  The latent associations that had been forged between the Chinese martial arts and notions of nationalism in the 1910’s were reawakened.  This led advocates of the “National Essence” approach to call for the promotion of modernized and militarized versions of the martial arts (both in schools and the general civilian population) as a counterweight to the fear of further Japanese aggression against China’s cities and economic centers.

General Ma, while still discussed in newspaper articles, found himself to be increasingly marginalized during the late 1920s.  This became clear with the formation of the KMT’s new Guoshu (National Boxing) Institute.  While Ma was eventually asked to join, he played a comparatively minor role as an “educational reform” expert.  The sudden swing in public opinion in the early 1930s presented him with an opportunity to restore a measure of public leadership.

The following articles illustrate two of his activities during this period.  First, Ma seems to have become more involved with the promotion of the KMT’s Guoshu program.  Secondly, Ma began to formulate his own plans for the creation of a civilian network (or militia) armed with dadao, capable of repelling the advance of Japanese infantry through cities (or at least making it costly).  It should be noted that Ma was far from the only martial arts reformers in the 1930’s to have this same “good idea.”  Many individuals, at both the local and national level, were spreading similar schemes.  During the 1930’s the dadao became something of a defacto symbol of the state and Chinese military strength, and the nation’s answer to the more famous Japanese katana.  Multiple specialized manuals were published, and a huge number of local martial arts instructors began to assemble their own systems to teach the weapon.

I have yet to discover the ultimate fate of Ma’s dadao network.  Maybe it never got off the ground.  Still, it is interesting to read a somewhat detailed outline of how one of these groups might have been organized.

It should also be noted that these efforts were well enough known that they began to attract the attention of the English language press.  Indeed, the stories that appeared in these newspapers during the early 1930s set the stage for China’s “Kung Fu Diplomacy” efforts after 1937 as the country appealed for military aid in the face of a much broader Japanese advance.

 

A Japanese private holding a captured Dadao sometime between 1931 and 1936. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

 

Art of Self Defense Urged by Ma Liang

Genera Ma Liang, Mohammedan leader in China, urged every Chinese citizen to learn and practice Chinese boxing and swordsmanship which he said is necessary for the building of a strong China in the future, during a lecture at a [illegible] party given in his honor by General Chang Chih-chiang, director of the National Boxing Training Institute at 24 Weihaiweai Road yesterday at noon.

Following the lecture, performances in Chinese boxing and swordsmanship were given by 20 students of the Mohammedan general which won applause from the audience.

“The Art of Self Defense Urged by Ma Liang.” The China Press, Feb. 18, 1933. P. 8

 

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Wide Training in Big Sword Use is Planned

Students to be enlisted from all nation for Nanking course

Many already applying to join movement

Nanking, March 23. –(special)—People from the whole country will be trained in the use of the “big sword” which has proved its usefulness as a weapon against the Japanese, according to a move just started by General Ma Liang, Mohammedan Leader of China.

The move aims at the organization of a “National Big Sword Army” to begin at Nanking.  The idea of the Mohammedan leader has met with enthusiastic response as scores of young Chinese have registered their names with the central Boxing and Swordsmanship Training Bureau asking to be members of the Big Sword Army under organization.

According to the scheme laid down by General Ma, Nanking will be divided into eight districts, each to have one company of the Big Sword Corps.  All who join the organization will be required to undergo boxing training in the Central Boxing and Swordsmanship Training Bureau before being taught the use of the big swords.

The organization of the Big Swords Corp will gradually spread to all cities and the countrysides throughout the nation until people of the whole country are equipped with and thoroughly trained in the use of the big sword as an effective weapon.

“Wide Training in Big Sword Use is Planned: Students to be Enlisted” The China Press. March 24, 1933.

 

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If you enjoyed this research note you might also want to read: Bridges and Big Knives: The Use of the “Big Knife” saber in the Chinese Republican Army by Brian Kennedy

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