A Lost Kung Fu Manual and Nature of “Chinese Boxing”

1860s photograph of a “Chinese Soldier” with butterfly swords. Subject unknown, taken by G. Harrison Grey.



This is my keynote address from the recent (Nov. 9-10th, 2017) conference on fightbooks held at the German Blade Museum in Solingen.  A full report on this event is coming soon, but I am eager to share this with the readers of Kung Fu Tea.  Enjoy!


A Man and A Book

As my colleague Brian Kennedy has noted, there is no subject more beloved in the world of kung fu fiction than the lost training manual.  Countless films, tv programs and wuxia novels have focused on the image of a lost (or better yet, stolen) book that holds the secrets to ancient fighting prowess.  Heroes and heroines go to amazing lengths to procure such a book and to unravel its secrets.  Both a source of knowledge and an outward sign of martial excellence, in the fictional world of the “Rivers and Lakes” such fightbooks can be the ultimate markers of one’s social status.

Today I hope to reveal another example of a lost book that suggests a unique set of insights into the evolving nature of the Southern Chinese martial arts during the late Qing dynasty, a period in which many of the regional styles that we know today (Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, Southern Mantis and Wing Chun) were coming into being.  Just as importantly, I would like to identify the previously anonymous translator of this text and discuss his role in shaping the public perception of the Chinese martial arts during the late 19th century.

Alfred Lister (?-1890) is basically an unknown figure in the martial arts studies community.  If he is remembered at all, it is as a middling official in Hong Kong’s civil service who eventually reached the rank of Acting Treasurer and Postmaster General.  What is not generally appreciated is that Lister, in addition to being a fine linguist, had a passion for Cantonese popular culture and “street literature.”

His interest in the realm of gambling dens, opera theaters and public marketplaces brought him into contact with various aspects of the Chinese martial arts.  This sparked what appears to have been the first sustained, multi-year, research project undertaken by a Western scholar into the realm of these fighting systems.  Lister’s contributions to the 19th century discussion of the martial arts have probably gone unappreciated for two reasons. First, some of his most important works were published anonymously in journals and newspapers as was fashionable for dilettante scholars at the time.  In a sense we were never meant to know who produced these pieces.  Second, Lister’s interests were not so much historical or technical, the genres most likely to attract the attention of modern martial arts students.  He was not hoping to learn or teach these fighting systems.  His fascination was more anthropological in nature.  By looking at the martial arts he hoped to understand both a unique aspect of Cantonese culture, and also to comment on universal patterns that he perceived in marginal individuals around the globe who engaged in similar behaviors as a way of producing social status.

Due to Lister’s sardonic style, and his harsh judgments about the effectiveness of “Chinese boxing,” most individuals who have come across his anonymously produced works have seen them as a curiosity, but ultimately dismissed them as a typical product of imperialist 19th century attitudes.  A deeper reading of Lister’s work reveals someone with a much more complex relationship with his environment.  He had some interesting theories about the role of translation in facilitating cross cultural understanding, and was an early student of the sociology of the Chinese martial arts.  And in all honesty, the sorts of individuals and practices that were common in the 1870s do not always reflect the image or levels of efficacy that modern Chinese martial artists wish to be associated with today.

Yet perhaps Lister’s greatest achievement was his discovery of a short manual which he titled “The Noble Art of Self-Defence.”  His partial translation and description of this work is invaluable to modern students of martial arts studies as it confirms the existence of a previously undocumented genre of fightbooks that were, by his account, commonly available at the time.

Unfortunately, these pamphlets were treated as ephemera and, to the best of my knowledge, there is not a single surviving example of the genre.  If not for Lister’s discussion modern scholars might not know of their existence.  Yet they have important implications for our understanding of the region’s fighting system and the evolution of its martial marketplace.

Who was Alfred Lister

Who was Alfred Lister?  In many ways Lister’s story begins not with his birth, but with the British acquisition of Kowloon in 1860.  Faced with the need to communicate with a vastly expanded Chinese community, the colony’s administration put in place plans to upgrade their civil service and institute training programs for talented young translators, chosen from the UK’s middle-class schools.  The promise of a healthy salary and rapid advancement attracted several applicants and Lister was a member of the second class accepted into government service in 1865.

Unfortunately, the early years of Lister’s career were inauspicious.  Rather than completing the promised training period he was rushed into several offices that put him on the front lines of the colony’s interaction with its Chinese residents, in both an administrative (harbor master) and judicial (justice of the peace) capacity.  Early in his career we find records of him being involved with the first attempts to regulate brothels to stop infectious disease outbreaks.  Later he caused a scandal which reached all the way to parliament when he wrote a report documenting the deplorable conditions in a Chinese charity temple what was used to store bodies and coffins waiting to be shipped home for burial.  As Lister noted, not all of the residents of the facility were actually dead at the time they were dumped there, and his report on the conditions in what was actually a hospice led, more or less directly, to the creation of the first modern hospital for Chinese residents in Hong Kong.

Lister’s writings (particularly his anonymous ones) suggest an individual who was quick to criticize his fellow administrators and the follies of the Western community in China more generally.  While to modern ears his judgments of Chinese culture are harsh, period readers likely heard someone with too much sympathy to the Chinese population given his administrative responsibilities to the crown.  As such, it is probably no surprise that Lister’s career plateaued early and, as his obituary in the North China Herald noted, he died in 1890 with few friends.  Still, that same obituary went on to remember Lister’s many publications as a younger man fondly.  So what did Lister write?

The short answer would be poetry.  Lister was both a talented literary critic and an amateur poet.  And while this part of his writing does not seem to have anything to do with fightbooks, it is important to review because in his engagement with the translations of such noted sinologists as Prof. James Legge, Lister began to lay out his own theory of translation.  That had an important impact on how he both translated, and transformed, the martial arts when presenting them to a Western audience.

Lister’s first treatments of the martial arts also arose out of what might be considered more literary pursuits.  In 1869 the Duke of Edinburgh arrived for a highly publicized tour of Hong Kong.  Lister was present at the Tung Hing Theater where the Duke watched two performances, probably as a translator.  The first of these was a historical drama, but the second was a farce titled “A-lan’s Pig” whose plot revolved around such cheerful topics as compulsive gambling, domestic abuse and martial arts.

Lister initially wrote a short summery of this kung fu comedy for a memorial book celebrating the Duke’s visit.  Yet it appears that something about the opera, and both the linguistic and cultural challenges of translating it, caught his attention.  In the first issue of the China Review (1873) readers were graced with an article, signed by Lister, in which he provided both a translation of the play and enough background discussion of the martial arts to make it sensible to a western audience.

He remarks that while searching for street literature he came across a libretto for the opera in the stall of a local book seller and immediately set about translating the work.  Yet the libretto for a Chinese opera is very sparse compared to a Western script, and so to give his readers a better sense of what it was all about Lister noted that he was adding a list of characters, costumes, stage directions and jokes (typically ad-libbed on a nightly basis) so that readers could get an actual sense of what a performance of this piece looked like.

In Lister’s view the rights of an audience to grasp the feeling and experience of a text vastly outweighed whatever rights an author might claim to a literal translation.  And to make something meaningful to a Western audience it needed to employ, or be related to, cultural signs that were already familiar.  In short, Lister argued that any translation of a text must be in part a transformation, and that this should be embraced for the sake of the reader.

Anticipating criticism for the fact that he was placing English folksongs, rather than Chinese ones, in the mouths of his Cantonese actors he noted:

“So, as “Ah” or “Oh” is not a common termination to English melodies of the less instructed classes, and as those classes certainly do incline to fol-lol (or words to that effect) as a refrain, I my stand on fol-lol, I stake my reputation on fol-lol!”

This grandiose declaration was made for comedic effect. Lister was, after all, translating a farce.  But it also gives us some idea of the issues that we should be aware of in his discussions of the martial arts.

Indeed, Lister seems to have been fascinated by the fact that Chinese martial artists, much like their counterparts in the London ring, had developed their own technical vocabulary for describing their actions.  And he noted almost immediately that on a sociological level, mastering this sort of vernacular code was used in both societies as a means by which members of the underclass sought to gain a measure of social respect among their peers.

Whether Western or Chinese boxers could actually claim a great degree of social respect was something that Lister seemed to doubt.  He was interested in popular culture, but he did not romanticize it.  Most of the martial artists that Lister seems to have been aware of were patent medicine salesmen, retired opera singers, soldiers or gamblers.

This last group deserved special consideration in his estimation, probably as the martial artists in the opera that he had translated were also gamblers.  An anonymous article in the North China Herald in 1873, almost certainly written by Lister, hits on several of his favorite points.  It published an account of a recent fight in Shanghai in which one gambler accidentally killed another in the middle of an impromptu challenge match.  The entire affair was a tragedy that destroyed multiple lives.  Yet it gave Lister a chance to both explore the social milieu of the Chinese martial arts as well as the linguistic resonances between the technical vocabulary surrounding the Chinese and Western modes of boxing.  Just as importantly, it provided him with an opportunity to begin to blend the two for the sake of his reader.

Any English language essay on this topic would face some unique challenge. During the late 19th century there was no single accepted term for the Chinese martial arts.  Indeed, the phrase “martial arts” did not come into common use in the West until the 1970s, and “kung fu” was not stabilized as a shorthand for these fighting systems until the English publications of the Jingwu association in the 1920s.  In the late 19th century Western readers relied on a pastiche of terms including (but not limited to) boxing, gymnastics, juggling, dancing, training and acrobatics to describe what we would now call a standard martial arts exhibition.

Mulling all of this over, Lister decided that what he was seeing was essentially a Chinese analogue for “the noble art of self-defence,” which, by the late 19th century had come to be used as a nostalgic term for boxing.  Indeed, it would become something of a catch-phrase in Lister’s writings.



Discovering the Noble Art of Self-Defence

In an earlier publication Lister had noted that he was searching the popular literature for information on the Chinese martial arts but had found nothing.  This led him to surmise, correctly, that these practices constituted a distinctive oral culture.  But apparently his luck changed sometime between 1872 and 1874 when he returned to the page of the China Review with an anonymously published article titled, “The Noble Art of Self-Defence in China.” (1874).

This work (signed as “LCP”) begins with an extended discussion of the uncanny correspondences that one finds between parallel institutions in China and the West.  That led him to a discussion of Chinese boxing and his latest document find.  More specifically, Lister proceeds to give a commentary and partial translation of a small fightbook which he titles “The Noble Art of Self-Defence.”

While claiming that this is a “direct translation,” he is kind enough to provide the book’s original title in Chinese for anyone with the skill or interest to examine it.  A more literal translation would be something like “The Tearing Down Techniques of Hero Boxing.”  This makes sense as “self-defense,” whether noble or otherwise, was not a descriptor that was used to name martial arts at the time.  “Hero Boxing”, however, is an idiomatic construction that makes frequent appearances in several techniques and sets associated with various martial arts that arouse out of Southern China in the late 19th century.

It is actually significant that this small work had a title as many of the hand-written manuscripts that were being circulated at the time, particularly those seen in conjunction with medical manuals, did not. Unfortunately, the book listed no author, probably because printing something like this in late-imperial China was not, strictly speaking, legal.  This copy likely came to Lister’s attention precisely because grey market popular literature and critical newspapers could be printed on one side of the colonial border and then shipped for sale in Guangzhou or Foshan with ease and minimal risk.  Christopher Hamm (2005) has already noted that this border area was critical to development of both martial arts novels and independent newspaper traditions in southern China.

Lister noted that this pamphlet was printed with crudely executed wood blocks, and was sold commercially for less than a penny in the sorts of stalls dedicated to “street literature.”  As such, this fightbook was basically a type of working class ephemera.  And that probably explains why we have no surviving copies of it 150 years later.

He describes the volume as being comprised of a title page and 11 additional leaves whose exact dimensions are never given.  Each page followed the same format and included images of two individuals engaged in combat.  The fighters were shown using different techniques which were labeled.  It is possible that there may also have been some brief prose descriptions of the movements, rather than the sophisticated rhyming couplets that are often seen in late imperial manuals.  Yet it is even more likely that only the names of the techniques were provided.  The exact nature of the text is something of an educated guess.  Given Lister’s interest in Chinese poetry, if he had come across badly composed rhyming couplets I suspect that he would have been only too eager to describe them for his readers.

While brief, the book follows a clear organizational scheme.  The first two pages (or lessons, as Lister identifies them) focus on unarmed boxing.  The next three cover pole fighting.  After that there are four discussions of the hudiedao, or other types of short pair swords, in combat.  This was a very popular class of weapons in Southern China, often used in militia training and given to security guards.  The final two lessons focused on the use of woven wicker shields.

The images themselves are stylistically like those seen in other training manuals.  The now widely available Bubishi (a 19th century hand copied Fujianese manuscript tradition that made its way to Okinawa and subsequently inspired some early pioneers of karate) contains a chapter of very similar images.  As with that manuscript, these images should be read from right to left.  In each case the figure on the right initiates an attack, and the figure on the left responds appropriately.  There is a possibility that Lister did not grasp this visual pattern and that may have caused him to mistake the losing technique in fig. 7 for the winning.

Lister was fully aware that most of this information would be incomprehensible to his Western readers.  Even highly experienced modern Chinese martial artists know the frustration of sitting down with a Qing era boxing document, often little more than a long list of names, and not being able to make sense of it.

As such, Lister does not attempt to present a complete literal translation of what he found.  Instead he reproduced eight of the diagrams from the book (roughly 2/3rds of the total).  These were commented upon with a mix of literal translations in some cases (“Hungry Tiger Catches the Sheep” or “Oyster vs. Snake”).  In others he provided a play by play of the actions in the diagrams and gave his assessment as to whether or not such a course of action was really a good idea.  In one case he seems to have inserted a numbered fencing system taken from a British military training exercise into his discussion to explain to his readers what the two-dimensional Chinese image was suggesting.

Any textual description also needs to take note of some of the features that are not seen in this fightbook.  Unlike either the Bubishi, or later Republic era manuals, this work contains no historical discussion of any kind.  While we know that we are looking at “Hero Boxing,” no attempt has been made to tell readers who created that, or how it came about.  Nor are there the sorts of prefaces that one sometimes sees attesting to authenticity of the practices outlined within.  The book shows no overall theoretical orientation, nor does it contain any cultural or medical references.  This was a pure martial arts manual.


Categorizing the “Noble Art of Self-Defense”

Given what we now know about Lister’s manual on “hero boxing,” how can we situate it in the larger context of the Chinese martial arts?  According to Kennedy and Guo, who are the standard reference on the subject, Chinese martial arts training manuals can be categorized into roughly five groups.  To begin with there are the ancient legendary texts which either never existed or have been totally lost excepts for their titles.  Second, we have the early woodblock printed manuals of the Ming dynasty.  Indeed, the oldest complete Chinese fight books that we have date to the 1500s, and this is really the start of the current conversation about the martial arts.  Their third category covers the hand-written manuscript traditions of the later Qing dynasty.  They note that to the best of their knowledge there were no commercial publications of any martial arts books between the 17th and the 19th century.  Then there is the advent of modern printed martial arts manuals following the explosion of nationalism that came with the 1911 revolution.  Lastly we have the sorts of “how to” books seen today.

This poses a problem for thinking about our work.  What we have here is clearly a printed commercial manual, and yet it predates the advent of this genre by almost 40 years.  Was this book a singular exception?  One publisher’s hobby?  Or is it evidence of a once more common genre of martial arts themed ephemera that has not survived in modern collections?  And if the later, how might it force us to draw some different conclusions about the nature and evolution of the martial arts in the Pearl River Delta during the 19th century.

Several authors have already noted that researching the history of the Chinese martial arts is difficult precisely because of their status as popular, rather than elite, culture.  It would not be correct to say that rich people never took an interest in boxing or military matters.  Yet because these pursuits were never seen as entirely socially respectable, in most cases the Confucian trained scholars who recorded local and family histories played them down or even passed over them in complete silence.

Foreign observers, on the other, were often fascinated by these displays of strange weapons and exotic schools of boxing or wrestling.  Period writings by missionaries, merchants and soldiers in southern China is an important, if overlooked, source of information on the development of these fighting systems.



For instance, on Oct. 3rd, 1829 an article in the Canton Register (almost certainly written by William Wightman Wood) noted the existence of another very similar fightbook.

“Pugilism in China.—The art of self-defense is regularly taught in China.  It is much practiced, although not countenanced by the local governments.  In the penal code, nothing appears concerning it.  Tracts are printed which would, in all probability, accompanied by their wood-cuts, amuse the fancy in England.  The Chinese have no pitch battles that we ever heard of; but we have seen a pamphlet on the subject of boxing, cudgeling, and sword-exercise, in which there are many fanciful terms….”

The basic outline of this work is very close to Lister’s manual.  Yet there are also differences that emerge later in Wood’s description.  To begin with, the pamphlet that he collected in the market near the commercial warehouses of Guangzhou began with a few exercises that focused on strength training and conditioning.  This included both punching heavy hanging bags of sand and weight training with stone locks.  Lister’s work includes no discussion of physical training.

Still, the basic format of these commercially printed pamphlets is remarkably similar given that they are separated by 40 years of history (some of which was quite violent).  It is also interesting to note that at least one of the unarmed boxing techniques discussed in Lister’s manual is also present in Wood’s earlier find (“Hungary Tiger Catches the Sheep”).

Lister’s article throws Wood’s much earlier account into sharp relief and suggests that neither of these fightbooks were isolated projects.  Rather, the area seems to have had a long running tradition of producing inexpensive martial arts manuals for commercial sale in the sorts of stalls that also sold opera scripts and song books.  While it is intriguing to note that both of our accounts suggest that these manuals were being sold in the border region between the Chinese and Western worlds, it seems highly unlikely that any of the Western warehouses in Guangzhou in the 1820s were hosting grey market Chinese publishing companies.  Thus, one may conclude that this material probably had some production history in the local Chinese market.

I argued in my 2015 volume that the commercial disseminating of the martial arts through “public schools” (rather than closed clan groups) probably emerged in the Pearl River Delta as early as the mid-19th century and was certainly in full swing by the end of the era.  Other authors have claimed that the commercial and public model of martial arts instruction would have been unthinkable prior to the early Republic period and was an innovation created almost solely by the well-known, and nationally successful, Jingwu Athletic Association.

Jingwu did much to define the Chinese martial arts as an open and progressive institution in the public imagination.  Still, the early commercialization and industrialization of the Pearl River Delta (due to its importance as a regional and global trade hub) created both a demand for more security and a monetized economy that could support a market in martial services.  The emergence of a print market for primers or ephemera, sold to the sorts of working class individuals who were most likely to take up boxing, is further evidence that the regional commercialization of the martial arts was well under way by the end of the 19th century.



Conclusion-But is it Chinese “Boxing”?

I would like to conclude by returning briefly to Alfred Lister and his role in spreading a certain level of understanding of the Chinese martial arts to 19th century Western readers.  Lister’s essay proved so popular that it was reprinted at least twice in various newspapers, including decades after its first release.  Each of these reprints amplified the readership of his ideas. And while Lister went to lengths to obscure his identity (probably because he made some sharp attacks against colleagues in the civil service), one of these later editors (of the Straits Times) seems to have taken a certain amount of satisfaction in outing him as the actual author.

Throughout his articles and essays Lister seems to have struggled to understand exactly what Chinese boxing was.  Recall that modern concepts like “the martial arts”, which act as convenient catchalls in our current conversations, did not yet exist.  He was left to work out on his own what connected staged opera performances, fights between gamblers, street performers and military training exercises.  He wanted to know how we should understand the nature of these similar exercises reoccurring in radically different (if always marginal) contexts.

This was one area where Lister’s personal theory of translation may have complicated things.  Rather than delving more deeply into the social history of Chinese soldiers, opera singers and criminals, he instead turned to the metaphor of western boxing and the romantic notion that working-class individuals might solve their differences and demonstrate their manhood through a constrained but vigorous fistfight understood as an impromptu sporting exhibition.  He notes with disappointment, for instance, that Chinese laborers almost never get into actual fights no matter how heated their disagreements.  And when things are finally pushed to the breaking point individuals would often come at each other with poles, stones and other improvised weapons rather than engaging in an orderly round of fisticuffs for an appreciative audience of onlookers.

In truth, the Chinese martial arts had been many things to many people.  But during the late 19th century the one social function that “boxing” rarely took on was that of organized sporting events.  Lister notes with disappointment that only two of the “lessons” in his book are dedicated to unarmed boxing.  That is 20% of the total.  The other 80% of the work focuses on defending yourself with poles, butterfly swords, and shields.

Lister doesn’t spend much time thinking about the social and historical implications of these weapons, but we should.  The middle years of the 19th century were a dangerous time to live in southern China.  The region saw in quick succession the Opium Wars, the Red Turban Revolt and a persistent state of civil war between the Cantonese and Hakka linguistic communities.   The Red Turban event alone generated tens of thousands of battlefield casualties.  If that weren’t enough, there were also serious piracy outbreaks during the 19th century and very real fears of a Western military occupation of the Pearl River.

At multiple points in this period the male residents of the Pearl River Delta were put under arms, both to protect their villages and to fight battles on behalf of larger gentry-led military forces.  What were the three most commonly issued weapons for militia troops?  A long pole or spear, a set of butterfly swords and a rattan shield.  A few matchlock arms (and later European pattern rifles) might be issued to each unit.  The more up to date guns and cannons (which became increasingly common after the disturbances of the 1850s) were typically reserved for regular troops.  So most militia members went into battle with either a pole arm or a set of hudiedao.  We have some fascinating intelligence reports from British naval officers during the Opium Wars reporting (basically in disbelief) large groups of Chinese recruits drilling with these traditional weapons.

March the 21st, Lin [the Governor General] was busy drilling 3,000 troops, a third portion of which was to consist of double-sworded men.  These twin swords, when in scabbard, appear as one thick clumsy weapon, about two feet in length; the guard for the hand continuing straight, rather beyond the “fort” of the sword turns toward the point, forming a hook about two inches long.  When in use, the thumb of each hand is passed under this hook, on which the sword hangs, until a twist of the wrist brings the grip within the grasp of the swordsman.  Clashing and beating them together and cutting the air in every direction, accompanying the action with abuse, noisy shouts and hideous grimaces, these dread heroes advance, increasing their gesticulations and distortions of visage as they approach the enemy, when they expect the foe to become alarmed and fly before them.  Lin had great faith in the power of these men.[1]

Butterfly swords seem to have originated in Guangdong during the late 18th or early 19th century.  While double weapons are quite popular throughout China, this specific weapon remained a regional specialty in the middle years of the 19th century.  Anyone familiar with arts like Wing Chun or Hung Gar can attest that they are still central to the area’s martial identity today.

When we find a manual that devotes half of it’s weapons discussion to butterfly swords (or similar blade forms), we can be confident that it is reflecting a distinct local martial culture.  This pamphlet was not imported from anywhere else, nor was it was simply a reprint of badly reproduced pages from an older Ming era military encyclopedia.  While there are many questions that we probably just cannot answer about the reconstruction of specific techniques in this text, its intended audience and mixture of topics suggest much about what was motivating the development of local martial arts in southern China between the 1820s-1870s.

Despite his best efforts, which were in many ways pioneering, Lister never really grasped how the Chinese martial arts functioned within the broader social community, or even how that community’s needs and definition of security might be different from his own.  He remained trapped by Western cultural paradigms that saw these systems exclusively as either a poor method of athletic sparring, (in which for some reason, little actual sparring ever happened) or as an outdated vision of military training. Nor was Lister alone among Western observers in this assessment.  But by publishing his views he had a greater impact on the reading public.

It is thus ironic that the Chinese martial arts reformers of the Republic period would so often seek to legitimate their arts by recreating them as either a rationalized sport on the one hand, or a system of more efficient military training on the other.  While Lister may have failed to grasp key elements of his subject, the cross-cultural dialogue that he helped to set in motion would have a profound impact on the development of the Chinese martial arts in the coming century.

In the final analysis, it may be difficult to disagree with his assertion that we cannot translate, we cannot make something legible across cultural boundaries, without at the same time transforming our discussion of it.  Yet Lister never anticipated how profound this conversion would be, or that it would come to encompass the very nature and future of the Chinese martial arts themselves.



[1] J. Elliot Bingham.  Narrative of the Expedition to China, from the Commencement of the Present Period. Volume 1.  London: Henry Colburn Publisher.  1842. P. 177-178.



If you enjoyed this keynote you might also want to see: A Tale of Two Challenge Fights – Or, Writing Better Martial Arts History


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