The Illustrated Australian News. Wednesday 26th, May 1886. Cover.


A month ago I was chatting with my friend Joseph Svinth (a prolific author and editor within the field of Martial Arts Studies) over email.  At the time I was still recovering from the last round of conferences and let things slide. But earlier this week I decided to take another look at one of his most interesting finds.  It is an engraving (executed by F. A. Sleap) that graced the cover of the Illustrated Australian News on Wednesday the 26th in May of 1886.

This image will be of immediate interest to any student of Chinese martial studies.  It shows two individuals engaged in armed single combat.  The ferocity of their fight is suggested by the fallen sword, pole and bamboo helmet that have been discarded in a lower corner of the frame.  Behind them sits a large crowd of spectators, including what appears to be dozens of other Chinese individuals armed with spears.  Western observers can be seen on the mezzanine above them and there is an inset bubble suggesting that the demonstration had its own musical accompaniment.

Still, the viewers eyes focus on the combatants.  We find them at the exact moment where one has landed a decisive kick, hitting the other square in the stomach with enough force to send him sprawling back.  Apparently, this same kick also snapped a wooden pole that both individuals grasped.  Despite this explosive violence the attacker maintains a level of relaxed composure that reminds one of the ever cool Bruce Lee 90 years later.

While lacking realism, this must be one of the most dynamic visual portrayals of the traditional Chinese martial arts that I have seen from the 19th century.  It is not much of a surprise that the magazine’s editors would have chosen this image for their cover.  One suspects that the audience would have been drawn to its exoticized “Eastern” violence for much the same reasons that readers of Blackbelt magazine spent much of the 1970s-1990s purchasing glossy cover photos of spectacular kicks and faces grimacing in unbearable pain.  While one might be tempted to read these later covers in light of the Vietnam War, or to apply some other highly contemporary discourse to them, its worth noting that the very first “kung fu magazine cover” that we have bears an uncanny resemblance to what would follow a century later.

This is not to say that the Vietnam War had no impact on how the public viewed the martial arts.  Nor can we safely ignore the way that gender, class and identity are treated.  Rather, this cover suggests the curious stability of certain key images even as other discourses evolve and change.  How the image is read in any decade may drift, but the core symbol remains.  Whether in 1986 or 1886, audiences seem to have had an intuitive sense that the Chinese martial arts could not, and should not, be reduced to a familiar sporting framework.  What that fact means in normative terms varies over time.


But what is really going on?


Once one digs a little further into the image’s background, it is hard not to be hit with waves of irony.  To begin with, the actual event behind this scene of shocking violence was not some great dispute.  It was a well-organized (and quite sizable) community fundraiser.  Further, they were raising money for a hospital.  More specifically, it was for a women’s hospital.

In his personal correspondence Svinth noted that these fundraisers were a regular and socially important affair.  Further, it appears that several the event’s organizers were Chinese individuals who had been granted British citizenship in other arts of South East Asia. They may well have been seeking to improve both the image of their community and their relationship with other groups by cooperating in these fundraising ventures.  Certainly, someone like Robert Putnam would see this as a classic strategy for building cross-cutting networks of social capital (which can happen in the world of the martial arts).

Nor were the martial arts the only focus of their event.  An article published in the May 26th edition of the Illustrated Australian News suggests that the overall pageantry of the day may have been the big draw.  Still, it was the kung fu demonstration that made the cover.


Chinese Demonstration in Aid of the Women’s Hospital.

One of the most successful demonstrations that has, perhaps, been held in this colony took place on the 11th inst., when the Chinese residents of Melbourne formed a grand procession in aid of the bazaar lately held on behalf of the Women’s Hospital.  The procession, which inaugurated the demonstration, started from the corner of little Bourke-street and Swanston-street, and comprised between 400 and 500 members, and was intended to represent a body guard of the Emperor, being composed of various grades of the Chinese official system in certain proportions according to a regulated scale.  There were noblemen, great generals, mandarins of the red, blue and yellow button, bishops, priests and deacons bearing ugly looking idols in grotesquely decorated palanquins, javelin men and other soldiers, with murderous instruments like halberds, of a horribly complicated combined axe and pitchfork construction.  Then there were queer olive colored, almond eyed boys and girls, carrying lanterns and fans: gorgeously armed horsemen, Mongolian musicians, comical Chinese jackanapes, who were posturing as jesters and exciting the risibility of the crowd, generally forming a fantastic [unintelligible] of barbarically splendid functionaries, creative of wonderment and interest to the mind, as well as affording a brilliant ocular spectacle.

The costumes and accessories, which were valued at between 7000 and 8000 Pounds were of the richest description, being composed of the most beautiful silks and satin in all the colors of the chromatic scale.  Some of the flowing garments of the high dignitaries, and most of the pennants and banners, were ornamented with peculiarly eccentric embroidery, displaying a wealth of gold, silver and strange artistic portraiture of natural and imaginative objects.  There were the usual scraggy-necked eagles, with extended wings, balancing on one leg, and performing other remarkable feats; dragons, with wide open mouths, chasing ferocious looking griffins, with the apparent object of biting off their tails. And hungry looking fish, with staring eyes, engaged in round dances.   In fact, the brilliant togas worn by the mandarins of exalted ranks included samples of nearly all the peculiar creatures which are to be fund in the archive of the Heralds’ College.

On arrival at the exhibition building the procession marched down the nave, to the accompaniment of their band, and in the presence of a large concourse of people presented his Excellency the Governor, who was present, with a draft address.  His Excellency having replied the procession disbanded, and during the afternoon took part in a series of performances, one of which, a single combat, has been selected for illustration.  The combatants displayed great activity in avoiding the repeated thrusts made by each, but the fighting was not very scientific, the object of both duelist seeming to be to plant his feet in the pit of the stomach of the other after the style of the Mexican pugs, and after having incapacitated him from resistance to dispatch him with a knife.


“A ride to Little Tibet: Chinese military exercise at Durbuljin, near Chuguchak.–Manchu soldiers at sword drill.” Daily Graphic. October 15, 1891. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Conclusion: Standing Between the Past and the Future

It goes almost without saying that the cultural literacy of reporter left much to be desired.  For instance, one strongly suspects that the “scraggy-necked eagles” that he identified in the embroidery of some of the gowns were phoenixes (or more properly fenghuang).  Nor does it seem all that likely that most 19th Chinese boxing bouts ended when the victor knifed his defeated opponent.  Perhaps he mistook what was a choreographed “two-man set” for a free fight.  Or maybe he simply let his imagination get the best of him in the face of so much savage violence.

I suspect that you cannot really grasp the social work that an article like this was meant to do without reading it within the framework of Nobert Elias’ “Civilizing Process.”  After all, other than their extraordinary skills in embroidery and community organization, what story did the reporter really seek to relate to his audience.  He first tips his hand not in the discussion of the martial arts, but of the mornings procession.  Readers are told repeatedly about the “ugly” and “disgusting” idols that were carried by the marchers.  While documenting an effort by local Chinese businessmen to find acceptance within the wider community, there can be no doubt that the author of this article sought to draw out the cultural boundaries between “us” and “them.”

It is not a coincidence that within the description of the martial arts exhibition we see an explicit juxtaposition between the “scientific” and sporting nature of Western combat games and Chinese practices that can be categorized almost as “duels.”  Elias spent many pages discussing the evolution of sports and even how one could see the development of the “civilizational process” within something like ancient Greek boxing.   Obviously, the author of this newspaper article could not have known any of that, but one cannot help but suspect that by turning what was likely a routine kung fu demonstration into “a duel,” he was consciously advancing an argument about the primitive nature of the Chinese people.

It is also important to think about what this event might suggest about early spread of the Chinese martial arts within the global system.  Popular narratives suggest that little or nothing was known about the Chinese martial arts in the West until the 1970s (or even later).  Stories about a “code of silence” within Chinatown schools, or a refusal to teach outsiders, reinforce these narratives.  Nor are such concerns all that far fetched when one considers the history of animosity and local violence that these neighborhoods endured, or the role that martial artists played as enforcers for local triads or gambling concerns.

Nevertheless, the reality of this situation was always much more complicated.  While a “code of silence” may have prevailed in Western Chinatowns, reformers in China proper were actively promoting the martial arts.  They were so successful that even English language newspapers took note of what was going on.  While very few individuals in the West could claim any first-hand knowledge of these practices, the subject was never as mysterious as later “revealers” and teachers claimed.

How could it be?  In addition to their role in self-defense training, the Chinese martial arts have always functioned as part of the public face of the community.  Tourists watched public martial arts demonstrations in New York and San Francisco during New Year celebrations.  Indeed, what is described in Australia in 1886 is interesting in that in many ways it fits a very traditional pattern.

This was a display that represented not the sporting ethos of a few individuals, but the collective effort and sacrifice of an entire group seeking to promote the welfare of the community.  The presence of local gods, the construction of an elaborate celebratory procession, and its conclusion in a spirited display of music, performance and martial arts was all following a traditional pattern.  When looking at the community based nature of this demonstration its hard not to think of other examples that we have seen, such as the “Five Tiger Stick Society” and their role in promoting the annual pilgrimages on Miaofeng Shan.

Yet while this case remains legible within that framework, it is clear that something else is also going on.  To begin with, the definition of “the community” being served is radically different than it might have been in the past.  The cause being promoted, and the public officials being honored, are fundamentally “outside.”  And that is precisely the problem.  Faced with a need to encourage more social acceptance, citizens of Chinese origin living in Australia were forced to ask how the martial arts, and traditional culture more generally, could be used to build bridges.  The efforts of this community appear to be a precursor of future trends.  In many respects their strategy resembles that adopted by China’s “Ivy League Boxers” living in the West during the 1920s-1930s.

The 1886 exhibition represents a transitional point between a type of social organization that would begin to fade with the fall of the Qing dynasty, and the sorts of cultural diplomacy strategies that would emerge during the Republic period.  In short, in this one episode we see elements of both the past and the future of the Chinese martial arts.

Still, the illustration and newspaper article remind us of a critical truth.  It is ultimately the audience that decides the value of an attempt at social outreach, or the meaning of a text.  Not all the press coverage of the Chinese martial arts in the late 19th and early 20th centuries was uniformly negative.  Still, this reporter seems to have perceived in this display only markers of difference rather than a statement of shared values or even a common goal.

Such outreach efforts are the most likely to succeed when demand for something about the other side’s culture already exists.  As any marketer can tell you, satisfying a well articulated demand is easy.  Creating demand from nothing is something else entirely.

If the preexisting relationship is based on fear or apprehension, it seems unlikely that a display of different social values will do much to alleviate the underlying situation.  An outstretched hand can always be misconstrued as a fist.  Still, articles like this remind us that rather than asking why the Chinese were not open to discussing their martial arts until the 1970s, we should instead be asking why we became willing to listen.  Likewise, why did the English language press have a more positive view of these practices in 1926 than in 1886?  We cannot understand the global transmission of these fighting systems without accepting that very often we in the West were the limiting factor.  This is a conclusion that many individuals still resist.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: London, 1851: Kung Fu in the Age of Steam-Punk