A watercolor on pith image of a river vessel of the same or a similar type which was eventually adopted for the “Red Boats.” Likely painted in Guangzhou during the mid 19th century. Source: Author’s personal collection.




The “writing sabbatical” continues and I am happy to report that the book chapters and papers are progressing nicely.   This weekend’s post comes to us from the early days of Kung Fu Tea, and it covers a topic that has played a central role in the creation mythology of many of Southern China’s martial arts.  It was also part of a small series of posts on the Red Boats that I wrote at the time (you can find a follow-up essay here).  Anyone interested in checking out the original comments and conversations can click here.  Enjoy!


Exploring the Red Boats

No subject has been more romanticized among students of Guangdong’s martial arts (and Wing Chun practitioners in particular) than the “Red Boat” companies of the Cantonese regional opera tradition.  Late 19th and early 20th century martial arts folklore claimed that remnants of the Southern Shaolin Temple (including the Abbot Jee Shin) found refuge among these wandering performers following the destruction of their sanctuary by the hated Qing government.

Such stories make a lot of narrative sense.  Because of their low social status, and ability to travel from place to place without engendering too much suspicion, opera companies would seem to be the ideal cover for individuals fleeing government persecution.  They were even expected to house martial arts experts among their casts of performers.

Of course the acceptance of these stories as historical facts requires us to overlook other inconvenient details, starting with the likelihood that the Southern Shaolin Temple, imagined in so many Kung Fu legends, never existed.  Further, the anti-government activities of the various secret societies and triad organizations in southern China during the late 19th century had much more to do with criminal scheming and social posturing than they did any organized plan for actual political reform.  Things become more complicated in the first decade of the 20th century when Sun Yat Sen begins to organize genuinely revolutionary activity among some of these groups, but that is not what most Kung Fu legends are describing.

Most of the stories that see opera groups as dedicated political cells (rather than convenient covers for wandering criminals) seem to date to the mid 20th century or later. Some of them were not first recorded until quite recently.  In a recent post I looked at the actual history of political and revolutionary activities of Cantonese Opera troops.  It is true that these groups were often quite vocal in making political demands, and in one memorable instance even went into open rebellion against the state (along with many other elements of Southern China’s underclass.)  Still, a detailed examination of these episodes does not validate the historical accuracy of the Wing Chun folklore.  Rather it strongly suggests that the Red Boat Opera companies were never involved in the sorts of activities that are generally ascribed to them.

This does not mean that individuals interested in Wing Chun’s history are free to ignore the opera connection.  I suspect that it is actually very significant that the orthodox Wing Chun genealogies claim that Leung Jan was influenced by the Cantonese opera tradition during the mid 19th century (probably during the Opera Ban following the Red Turban Revolt for reasons which I have discussed elsewhere).  In fact, Cantonese opera had a particularly close relationship with the southern Chinese martial arts and likely had a substantive impact on both their development and public perception.

It is not my goal in these posts to dismiss any connection between the two.  Rather, it may be necessary draw the line between folklore, on the one hand, and social history, on the other, in order to open a space for new research.  I think that this is a rich topic that could potentially yield findings that would be important not just for our understanding of hand combat systems like Wing Chun and Choy Li Fut, but also southern Chinese popular culture as a whole.

Unfortunately this is not the sort of thing that is easily summarized in a single blog post.  In my last essay on the topic I restricted my focus to the somewhat complex relationship between Cantonese Opera and revolutionary politics in the late Qing and Republic Periods.  In the current post I want to introduce some basic historical and social description about what life was like on the Red Boats.  Southern China was a dangerous place during much of their period of operation.  What precautions did they take when plying the waters?  How did the opera companies fit into the local economy of violence along the Pearl River Estuary?  Just as importantly, how did they manage to train their own apprentices in Kung Fu while constantly on the move?

The historical investigation of these questions is complicated by our reliance on oral accounts.  Specifically, we wish to know more about the Red Boats to expand our understanding of the development of the southern Chinese martial arts.  Yet from the 1970s onward (and the process rapidly accelerated in the 1980s and 1990s) martial arts culture has been read back onto the accounts of the Red Boats themselves.  This created a seamless system of self-reinforcing folkloric accounts easily mistaken for history.

Nor is this challenge restricted to the realm of opera.  Traditionally most individuals within Chinese society held the martial arts in low esteem. They were not an integral part of how people remembered their own cultural past.

Yet after the Kung Fu Craze of the 1970s, where these traditional fighting systems came to be accepted as a legitimate marker of Chinese identity, this changed.   Increasingly they have come to be projected back onto the past, often in very creative (if totally anachronistic) ways.  In the final section of this post I hope to examine a few examples of this process as it relates to Cantonese opera and consider how we might attempt to control for it.

In a future installment of this series I will examine some 19thcentury accounts of Cantonese opera performances, particularly as they related to “military plays.”  I will also take a closer look at what we think we know about how these groups learned their martial arts in the first place, as well as the realities of river violence and piracy during the late imperial period.  Hopefully this series of posts will lay the groundwork for future research on the relationship between the martial arts and opera as related strands in the region’s popular culture.

Lastly, I should say a few things about my sources.  There are really only a handful of books and articles in the scholarly literature that focus directly on the history and description of Cantonese opera as it relates to questions of interest to martial artists.  This blog post relies heavily on two sources.  The first is an article by the anthropologists Barbara E. Ward titled “The Red Boats of the Canton Delta: A Historical Chapter in the Sociology of Chinese Regional Drama” (Proceedings of the International Conference on Sinology. 1981. pp. 233-258.)  Her work is based on a very large number of interviews (conducted between approximately 1975-1980) with individuals who lived and performed on the Red Boats.  Ward also conducted extensive ethnographic research with Cantonese Opera companies in her home city of Hong Kong (where she was employed as a professor of Anthropology at Chinese University of Hong Kong.)

The other source that I have turned too in writing this is a Master thesis by Loretta Siuling Yeung titled “Red Boat Troupes and Cantonese Opera.”  This research was completed much more recently (2010) and was supervised at the University of Georgia.  Yeung also conducted a number of interviews, but seems to have relied much more on the historical and secondary literature.  This change in research strategy is certainly understandable given the lack of surviving veteran Red Boat performers in 2010 and the academic goals of a Master’s thesis.  In general the historical accounts of Yeung and Ward are quite consistent.  Still, the differences which occasionally appear are also quite suggestive.


A windlass on the deck of a Vietnamese Junk loaded with rope.


Understanding the Red Boats as a Physical, Economic and Social System


The Red Boats present the student of popular culture with a number of paradoxes.  The era in which they plied the waters of the Pearl River was absolutely critical to our understanding of Cantonese opera.  In fact, this is when many of the traditions and customs that we now think of as “ancient” and “timeless” first emerged.

Barbara Ward has noted that echoes of life on the Red Boats can be seen in many aspects of modern, theater-bound, opera troops in Hong Kong.  Everything from the arrangement of dressing rooms to the details of incense burning rituals looks back to life on the boats.  Throughout the post-war period veterans performers who had actually lived on the boats were lionized and idealized by their younger peers.  Yet a number of very basic questions about these vessels remain unanswered.

During the 1970s Ward and others were able to locate a number of individuals who could give very detailed accounts of what the structure of these boats had been like.  Interestingly almost all of the actual Red Boats were internally identical.

The vessels were all made to the same basic specifications and were owned either by the opera guild or some other group of individuals (I have not yet been able to answer this question).  Individual opera companies generally rented these vessels for years at a time, and were responsible for hiring their own crew of sailors.  The high degree of standardization between boats allowed for companies to change ships with little disruption as the social structure of their company was designed to be compatible with any of the 60 or so specially built Red Boats which sailed the waters of southern China.

The era of the Red Boats was also much briefer than most martial artists realize.  When speaking of these opera companies I suspect that the vessels themselves were really only part of the entire equation, and possibly a small one at that.  For me the most interesting aspect of Ward’s extensive research was the discovery that each Cantonese Opera company had a shared social structure optimized for both performance and life on the boat.

These groups were not generalists or traveling troubadour/mercenaries.  Rather they were units composed of highly specialized performers supported by an elaborate physical and administrative infrastructure.  The real “technology” of these companies, the thing that accounted for their remarkable success, was actually organizational in nature.  It was their own internal structure and group cultural.  The physical layout of the boats both reflected this and helped it to gel.  In fact, Ward found that by the 1980s (more than 30 years after then last voyage of a Red Boat) it remained remarkably intact.

No historical account, either in Chinese or any other language, mentions Red Boats in southern China prior to the 1850s.  It is possible that they were introduced as a social and economic system for organizing opera performances just prior to the Red Turban Revolt of the 1850s, but if so they made very few voyages before the decade long opera ban that followed the end of that conflict.  The real start of the era of “Red Boat” activity was in the 1870s.  From that time forward these vessels became a conspicuous aspect of local popular culture.

The purpose of the Red Boats was to allow opera companies to travel from one temple festival to the next during the performance season.  Almost all of these voyages were actually carried out through southern China’s extensive river system.  These were not ocean going vessels and were not actually capable of moving along China’s coastline.  Occasionally a pair of boats (they always traveled two at a time) would be dispatched to fill a contract in Macao, but that was really as far into “open water” as any of these vessels ever ventured.  Even that journey was probably a harrowing experience for the cast and crew.

The Red Boats themselves appear to have been an artifact of one stage of the economic development within the Cantonese opera industry.  Clearly it took a lot of capital to build these ships, and individual companies had to earn a lot of money to pay the rent on them.  Prior to the 1850s most opera companies still traveled by water (with few roads in the region almost everyone in southern China did).  But there was nothing remarkable about their vessels and I have yet to see evidence indicating that the internal structure of these companies were standardized to the same extent that would later become common.

During this earlier period the region’s economy was generally smaller and it does not appear that traveling companies could make all that much money.  But as revenues grew in the middle of the century it became possible for the opera guild to invest in new technologies that would streamline the performance process.  In short, the Red Boat system that modern martial artists seem to be so interested in really appears to be an artifact of economic changes that were just starting in the middle of the 19th century.

The Red Boat opera companies reached the peak of their popularity in the 1920s.  This was really their golden era.  After that they became a victim of their own success.  Traditionally Cantonese operas were only performed on makeshift temporary stages that were erected as part of a temple festival.  The temples offered these performances to the local gods, and were responsible for raising the funds that were used to pay the actors who stage the performance.  The entire community would then come out to watch the show.

In the middle of the 19th century southern China had no (or very few) dedicated theaters.  It took a substantial investment of capital to build the Red Boats, but they were still a stop-gap solution for the opera guild.  The truth was that owning land and building theaters was incredibly expensive.  There simply wasn’t enough money in opera to make that viable in most places.

However, the rapid economic growth of the 1920s started to change all of this.  As opera companies grew rich, and more people flocked to cities, suddenly it became possible to build permanent theaters.  Access to these structures was still controlled by the guild, but the cost of staging a performance was vastly lowered if one did not have to travel to it.  And when it was necessary to travel to the countryside to fulfill lucrative festival contracts, a company could simply book passage on the new steam ships and trains.

Red Boat opera troops continued to travel through the 1930s but the institution was in decline even at that point.  The Japanese invasion in 1938 put a stop to much of this activity.  Rumor has it that they even bombed a pair of boats (possibly the last ones) moored in the harbor of Guangzhou.  Other accounts state that the last known sighting of a pair of Red Boats was in Macao circa 1950.

A number of people have asked me why the Red Boats were never really resurrected after WWII.  I think that the answer is basically financial.  The boats themselves represented a certain level of capital investment which made sense when the Cantonese opera companies were starting to enjoy a surplus (due to changes in the structure of the local economy) but could not yet afford speedier forms of travel and permanent theaters for off-season performances.  The Red Boats helped to give shape to the internal culture of the modern Cantonese opera company, but once they ceased to fill their basic economic function they were quickly discarded.

Barbara Ward’s 1981 Reconstruction of a classic Red Boat. See page 254, Figure 1.



I doubt many performers were all that nostalgic about this change in 1940s and 1950s.  All of the accounts collected by Yeung and Ward indicate that life on these vessels was a challenge.  Generally speaking these vessels traveled in pairs (termed a “Heaven Boat” and an “Earth Boat.”)  Both Red Boats housed between them about a 140-160 people in spaces that were only 80 Chinese feet long by just 10 feet wide.  Ward states that a full Opera crew included 62 actors, 12 musicians, 11 full time administrators/managers, 9 “costume men”, 10 property handlers/stage hands, 2 barbers, 4 laundry men, 7 cooks, 12 boatmen, 4 professional guards, a ship’s doctor, captain and other officers.

As performances became more elaborate in the early 20th century a third vessel was often added to the armada.  Its job was to carry the increasingly complex scenery and props which were becoming a part of newer styles of stage performances.  It was simply termed the “Scenery boat” was not made to any special specifications.

Each of these vessels had a raised deck on the stern and rows of cabins running down the sides.  They also had a mast that could be raised or lowered.  About half of the individuals on the boat were the performers, apprentices, musicians, property managers and administrators who made up the opera company proper.  They monopolized the cabins and area below decks.

Again, the internal layout of each of these vessels was standardized and basically identical.  Both Yeung and Ward confirm that the names of the various cabins were even standardized from ship to ship.  The “cabins” (really more like double bunks which could have privacy screens installed) were on the port and starboard side of the ship and were separated by a “hall” that was only a few feet wide.  Some of these bunks had better circulation and views than others.  Cabins were assigned by lottery at the start of each season and no one wanted to draw cabins with such poetic names as “Trash Heap” and “Mosquito Den” (which Ward speculates may actually have been unfortunately literal).

Interestingly Ward points out that all members of the opera company actually had equal chances of drawing a good birth going into the lottery, meaning that potentially a raw apprentice would end up with the best assignment on the boat.  Of course he probably would not keep it, but according to both rules and tradition the more senior members of the company would have to bid to buy it from him.  This could be a valuable boon for a young individual with very little access to money, and it is a fascinating way in which resources were redistributed (albeit on a limited scale) from senior members of the company to junior ones at least once a year.

A view of the interior layout of a Red Boat. Source: Barbara Ward, 1981. pp. 255, Figure 2.


Given everything that one reads about the cruelty of opera training, not to mention impoverished parents selling their children to traveling groups of performers, I thought that this was an interesting bit of evidence as to the willingness of these groups to actually make some investment in their youngest members.  It should also be noted that even the most junior apprentice in the opera company was still “senior” to 50% of these individuals on the craft.

Of course they would have been the crew.  With the exception of the Captain and the ship’s doctor, the crew and officers did not have any place below decks.  They worked and lived on the surface of the vessel, rolling out blankets and sleeping on the decks at night.  The crew included a number of sailors, but also more specialized individuals such as cooks, barbers, members of armed escort companies tasked with providing security for the vessel and general officers.

None of these individuals were attached to either the opera company or the vessel itself.  Instead the company rented the vessel for the season and then was responsible for finding and hiring a crew.  Ward suspects that most of the individuals who signed on for such missions were from the caste of “Boat People” who were so common on the waterways of southern China at that time.

Generating enough revenue to sustain an operation of this size and complexity cannot have been easy.  The ability to manage this complexity, staying both booked and on schedule, was really the great innovation of the Red Boat system.  Again, their greatest assets appears to have been organizational in nature.  I find it particularly revealing that a company traveled with no fewer than 11 full time managers and many other individuals who roles essentially boiled down to “performance logistics.”

Martial artists often wonder to what degree we can think of the Red Boat opera companies as semi-specialized bands of who may have adopted the role of “pirate” or “mercenary,” if not outright “rebel.”  Obviously we have much less information about what earlier groups in the 18th or early 19th century were doing.  Yet by the time the Opera Ban is lifted it is pretty clear that this is not usually the case.  These companies were highly specialized economic units.  Their vessels are not well suited for either open water sailing or combat.  In fact, they actually turned to local specialists for their defense.

The Chief Actors in the ‘Pageant of the Dragon’, Performed By The Chinese Labour Corps, Dannes (Art.IWM ART 837) image: five Chinese men stand dressed in elaborate, traditional costumes for the purposes of a pageant. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source: http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/12963



Violence on the Red Boats


Having laid out a description of the basic character of the Red Boat opera companies I would now like to return to a more focused discussion of their relationship with civil violence in the late Qing and Republic periods.  Again, this is a broad subject, and it is not the sort of thing that can be tackled in a single blog post.  The current discussion is by necessity limited though I intend to return to these same themes in my follow-up discussion.

The threat of violence was an actual concern for members of the Red Boat companies.  In some ways they may even have been uniquely cursed.  When thinking about social conflict in southern China we often draw a distinction between the sorts of banditry that was common in the countryside versus the criminality and secret societies that plagued the cities.  Due to their peripatetic nature these troops were practically guaranteed to be exposed to both of these forces at one time or another.

Members of these companies were likely also vulnerable for other reasons.  The low social status of performers may have made it difficult for them to seek redress through established official channels.  Also, by virtue of their appearance at temple festivals, opera performances were linked to gambling and other sorts of commerce that was often controlled by organized crime.

Of course piracy was another major issue on China’s waterways in the 19th century.  Robert Antony (Like Froth Floating on the Sea, 2003) identifies the period from about 1790-1810 as being the peak of the region’s piracy crisis.  While this sort of activity dropped precipitously after 1810 it never totally vanished.  One can easily add it to the already long list of concerns that the officers and crew of the Red Boats would have had to contend with

So how did the Red Boat opera companies handle these threats?  Wing Chun mythology suggests that it was by maintaining a separate set of more practical and deadly martial skills than those that were exhibited on stage.  For instance, in a number of stories the exiled Shaolin Abbot who has been hiding as a cook on a Red Boat reveals himself to be a martial arts master only after various members of the company fail to defeat a gangster who has been harassing the group.

The reality of the situation is probably more nuanced than these sorts of accounts would indicate.  As security on China’s roads and waterways broke down towards the end of Qing dynasty most merchants turned to “Armed Escort Companies” to provide safety for both goods and people while traveling.  In fact, these companies became a major employer of both civilian trained martial artist and retired military officers.  It is actually impossible to tell the story of the development of the modern martial arts without exploring these groups.

These security specialists employed a wide range of skills beyond Kung Fu.  Their most critical asset was actually their deep local knowledge, established relationships with local strong-men and their carefully cultivated diplomatic skills.  If these should fail many of these companies were also armed with relatively modern rifles, carbines and in some cases even state of the art handguns.

It is absolutely true that members of these companies also carried traditional weapons such as swords and spears.  Man of them had extensive training in hand to hand combat.  But if actual fighting could not be avoided very few individuals wanted to leave any of their bases uncovered.

It seems that the Red Boat Opera companies dealt with the turmoil of the 19th and early 20th century in exactly the same way that most merchants did, by hiring professional guards and escort companies armed with a variety of modern weaponry.  Even after the heyday of the armed escort company passed in the early 20thcentury, the Red Boats continued to turn to dedicated professionals for their immediate security needs.

Barbra Ward relates the following oral account in her paper which provides some additional information on this subject:

“Informant S, male aged 72, February 1975: When I was a boy my father used to take me to the theater whenever he could because he liked it very much.  So we used to see not only the plays in our own town at the festival times but also those in neighboring towns and villages.  Sometimes we walked and sometimes we went by boat.  I remember the Red Boats were really like special ferry boats.  And they had guns too.  In those days public order was not reliable, and the ferry boats always used to carry armed guards.  There were usually three of them.  They stood on the top of the ferry boat (i.e., on the cabin roof. B.E.W.) to keep a look out.  Quite often, too, a sort of platform was built at the bow on which a small gun was mounted.  The ferry boat often had iron sheets built along the cabin sides for protection against gunfire.  I know that the Red Boats had the same arrangements about armed guards, and I think that they often had iron sheeting too.  I used to like to see the guns.” (Ward, 234-235)

Clearly the Red Boats took security seriously, and that meant turning to professionals with modern weapons.  In that regard they were very similar to pretty much every other ferry and commercial vessel of any size on the Pearl River at that point in time.

Of course this does not mean that martial arts would have been a useless skill outside of the stage.  As useful as a small artillery piece is, it may not help in an altercation in an urban environment or when dealing with petty crime.  And we know from a variety of period accounts that these were things that many martial artists had to deal with.  There is no reason to suspect that the Opera companies would have been uniquely exempt on that front.  Still, it is clear that when dealing with major threats to the ship or crew they, like most other civilians, turned to professional specialists in violence.

Purported image of late 19th century performers with a large planted wooden dummy on a vessel.  This image is commonly passed around the internet, but I have yet to actually confirm the photographer, subjects or original place of publication.

Before concluding I would also like to review a few points about martial arts and operatic training on the Red Boats.  Again this is a topic that has generated a lot of speculation among Wing Chun students and other martial artists.  I have read numerous accounts that have claimed that Wing Chun owes it compact nature to the fact that it was developed on a boat (or alternatively to fight on boats).  Of course not everything about the Wing Chun system (such as its weapons, either the three meter pole or the expansive footwork of the swords form) is really all that “compact” or well adapted to tight spaces.

The informants that Barbara Ward interviewed were all unanimous in declaring that martial arts training did not happen on the boats themselves.  Rather these skills were taught almost exclusively when the boat was moored and the crew was on dry land.  Why?  A quick look at the Ward’s reconstruction of the typical Red Boat reveals the reason.  There was simply no room to do anything other than sleep on these vessels.

Hallways were only a few feet wide and often had trunks along their edges reducing their actual width even more.  Stair wells were so narrow that individuals actually had to turn sideways to move up and down them.  And while there was open space on the fore deck and roof of the cabin (if the mast was raised) that area was typically occupied by the crew of the vessel.  In fact, Ward’s informants indicate that even basic performance and musical training happened exclusively on land.

Still, when you recall that these boats were essentially river barges rather than ocean going vessels, this actually makes a lot of sense.  They were never all that far away from the bank, and most of the trips between venues (where they might be tied up for three day or more) were not all that long.


A model of an “Earth Boat” at the Foshan Museum included by Yeung in her thesis. Note the wooden dummy which is not present in Ward’s discussion.Source: Yeung p. 26.



Conclusion: The evolving relationship between martial arts mythology and our understanding of Cantonese Opera.

While we know a number of details about the history and operation of the Red Boats, there are still some of things that we are less sure about.  One of the most surprising of these is why these vessels were actually called “Red Boats” at all.  Most causal readers would probably assume that they were so named because they were painted red.

Yet Professor Ward’s informants in the 1970s (all individuals who had seen or lived on these vessels) disputed that.  They claimed that in fact the boats looked much like any other river going ferry.  Some stated that the boats were so named because they displayed red banners and advertisements when coming into port.  Ward herself wonders whether this was an ironic or self-deprecating pun based on the fact that high status official vessels were also called “Red Boats.”  She also speculates on the various associations of the color red with different local secret societies but comes to no conclusions (see pages 249-250).

Unfortunately there is little agreement on the basic facts of the situation.  While early accounts claim that the boats were brown, later sources and even government museum replicas (dating from the 1990s and 2000s), state that the boats really were red.  For instance, the Opera Museum in Foshan is one of the few places where scholars can go for reliable information about the history and development of Cantonese regional opera.  Their scale model of an opera boat is quite clearly painted red and white.  In fact, when Yeung did her research in 2009-2010 it does not appear that any of the later sources she used indicated that the boats were not red.  Who should we believe?

One would think that this would be an easy point to resolve.  All we would need to do would be to find a photograph of a Red Boat in the 1920s or 1930s and look at it.  And one might suppose that given the enormous popularity of Cantonese opera that we would be easy.  Unfortunately this is not the case.

We have many pictures of the performers that these boats carried.  We even have photographs of costumes and musicians.  But we have yet to identify a single surviving photograph or painting of an actual pair of Red Boats.  I have tried to speak with as much confidence as my sources will allow, but this surprising ellipse is a useful reminder of just how spotty the historical record can be.  On a fundamental level we just don’t know how these boats were decorated, or if they were decorated at all.

In general the sources that Ward dealt with were more numerous and closer to the actual events than the ones that Yeung had access too.  As such I am inclined to believe that these vessels were “red” only in symbolic terms, and probably looked much like any other ferry to a casual observer.  Their genius lay in their social organization, not their advertising.  I must admit that I also like the idea of them displaying red banners when they arrived at their destination.  That seems very plausible.

Still, this is no longer the dominant image of these vessels in either operatic or martial arts circles.  It would appear that sometime between 1970 and 2000 the “Red Boats” literally became red in the public’s imagination.  So what changed?

I suspect that a big part of this shift had to do with who could claim to be an “expert” on this aspect of southern China’s cultural heritage.  Prior to 1970 if you wanted to know about the Red Boats one would simply go and interview someone who lived on them or frequented their shows.  Martial artists probably would not have been considered a very credible source of information, nor would many people be all that interested in catering to their tastes or vision of the past.

Of course this was prior to Bruce Lee, Jet Li and the “Kung Fu Craze” that swept Hong Kong and Mainland China in the late 1970s and 1980s.  Despite the best efforts of previous generations of reformers, the martial arts were always viewed as a marginal activity within Chinese society.  Ergo their close association with the opera and military, both of which were also seen as very marginal activities.  When most Chinese individuals imagined their past the martial arts did not play a huge role in it, and if they did it was not necessarily a glorious one.

In the 1980s all of this changed.  A much wider group of people were now willing to accept the martial arts as a legitimate tool for both enacting and understanding Chinese identity.  This had an immediate and profound effect on the contours of popular culture.  Suddenly things were interesting to consumers precisely because they had a connection to the martial arts.

Martial arts tourism also became a major industry which picked up steam throughout the 1980s and 1990s.  Municipalities and individual institutions found themselves competing in a new industry based on a rapidly evolving “memory” of what the past had been.  I suspect that as the cultural prestige of the southern Chinese martial arts rose, its teachers were increasingly seen as “experts” to be consulted on the history of area’s opera tradition.

After all, these performance traditions played a critical part in the lore of groups like Wing Chun.  Their stories were colorful and often full of solid nationalist themes.  And of course they were likely to be an economic boon to whatever geographic unit could lay claim to them.

All of which brings me back to the model of the literally “Red Boat” housed at the Foshan opera museum. Astute observers will notice that in addition to the red paint another addition has been made to the model that does not appear in any of Professor Ward’s accounts or her own reconstruction of the boats.  Relying on the museum replica Yeung (in 2010) reports that the bow of each Earth Boat featured a wooden dummy for the opera singers to practice their Kung Fu on.  Further, the training apparatus in question looks suspiciously like a modern Wing Chun dummy.

I have got to admit that I have some very mixed feelings about this.  As a Wing Chun practitioner I would actually love for this to be true.  Yet it is strange that in 1975 none of Ward’s sources remembered this detail.  However in our current decade (well after the rise of Bruce Lee and even Ip Man) suddenly local experts “remember” that the boats all had dummies on them.

Again, it is hard to know what to do with this.  We have one photograph that appears to show two individuals on a boat with a dummy, much like the one that Yeung reproduces.  But I have never been able to actually confirm in concrete terms the origins or provenance of that image.

Readers should also recall that there were other sorts of dummies that were used in southern China.  Should we really expect of a modern Wing Chun dummy in 1870?  Or even in 1920?  Why not a Choy Li Fut style training device?  During that period it was the most popular regional art.

Finally, looking at the measurements and recreation provided by Ward I actually have some doubts as to whether a dummy would actually have fit on the deck at all.  After all, she has a cannon mounted in the middle of the platform where the martial arts student would have to stand in order to use the dummy.

Ultimately I doubt that the Red Boats included training dummies of the sort imagined by the Foshan museum model.  I do not doubt that dummies were part of opera training.  They are an important part of a number of local martial arts systems and it is hard to think of a reason why opera students would not have used them.  Yet this training, like pretty much everything else, probably had to wait until the apprentices disembarked onto dry land.

I suspect that this may be a good example of how martial arts folklore has come to be projected back onto Chinese popular history in unexpected ways since the 1980s and 1990s.  Prior to this time there would be no reason to think of Wing Chun teachers as “experts” in the history of Cantonese opera.  But after that time their stories became critically important to the many tourists who descend on Foshan each year hoping to hear about Cantonese opera’s connection to Wing Chun.

Popular culture is not static.  It is a dynamic thing.  This means that our view of the past is always changing and evolving as well.  It is not hard to see this process unfurl in academic discussions of China’s history, but it is also happening in popular conversations about the past and its relationship with modern identity.

I do not want to dismiss this changing discourse about the nature of the Red Boats and their relationship with the martial arts.  I think that these two issues regarding the boats’ appearance are pretty informative in terms of understanding what many individuals are looking for in the Chinese martial arts today.  Still, it is necessary to bracket this process if you are instead interested in understanding the evolution of the martial arts in the Late Imperial or Republic periods.  If one is unaware of the influence of these modern stories on how the past imagined, then history quickly becomes tautology.

How do historical or cultural students guard against this tendency?  In general Yeung’s thesis is pretty good, but it is clear that she was not really all that well informed about the local martial arts (her emphasis is on the musical and performance side of opera).  This may have hampered her ability to judge the credibility of different sources.

At the end of the day relying on accounts and documents close to the source is our best strategy.  When there has been a discrepancy between Yeung and Ward I have tended to favor the later precisely because her sources are more numerous and credible.  The real danger that arises when speculating about the past in the absence of primary documents is that we cannot tell when our thinking starts to go offtrack.  When the historical record is silent it is just too easy to support almost any argument no matter how spurious.

I hope that this blog post will help to address some of these issues, at least with regards to the Red Boat Opera companies and their relationship to Wing Chun.  In recent years this motif has been used to advance a number of competing theories about where the system originated and why it evolved in the way that it did.

Most of these claims are probably spurious. The Red Boat period of the Cantonese opera is both later and shorter than most people recognize (really circa 1870-1938).  These companies appear to have been highly specialized economic units and unlikely to have been involved in the sorts of radical politics which later martial arts folklore seeks to link them too.  Lastly, while the Red Boats inhabited a dangerous world, they often relied on professional guards armed with modern weapons to protect their property and lives.  In that sense they were very much like any other travelers on the Pearl River at that point in time.

Nevertheless, I suspect that opera was linked to the development of a number of important styles in Southern China.  Competition between opera troops to showcase the newest and most exotic skills on stage helped to spread different styles throughout the region, and likely even acted as vector for new hand combat traditions to enter southern China in the first place.  In asking these questions about where exactly the “history” ends and modern “folklore” begins, I do not seek to discount the contribution of Cantonese opera.  Rather I would like to open a space where their actual accomplishments can be investigated and understood aside from their more recent reputation.



If you enjoyed this essay consider reading: The Red Boats and the Nautical Origins of the Wooden Dummy.