When we think about the early history of the Chinese martial arts in the United States we tend to focus our discussion on either San Francisco or New York. Los Angles, Chicago and Honolulu also make the short-list of important cites for martial arts innovation. Yet few of us would put Springfield College in Massachusetts on that list.
That is an oversight. Still, such mistakes can be instructive when they highlight larger, more systematic, flaws in our understanding of the world. A closer look at some of the Chinese students who attended Springfield suggests that efforts to familiarize the American public with the traditional martial arts in the early 20th century were more widespread than is generally appreciated. Further, these arts were being championed not by the sorts of working class individuals that inhabited the Chinatowns of California and New York, but by relatively affluent and highly educated students. Their vision of wushu was shaped by the modernist Jingwu movement and early 20th century efforts to reform and introduce these arts to the body politic via the national curriculum reform movement championed by Ma Liang and others.
Before going further a bit of background is necessary. During the early 20th century Springfield College served as an important YMCA training school. In addition to a large number of missionaries, it also produced the athletic directors who would bring notions of “muscular christianity” and “modern athletics” to clubs in cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou. Interestingly, this exchange of students was a two way affair. By the second decade of the twentieth century a notable number of Chinese students, educated in local missionary schools and already dedicated to the Western athletic model, were headed to Springfield College for both Bachelors and Masters degrees. After gaining their credentials they would return to take up teaching posts in both YMCA’s and Universities across China. My impression is that by the 1930s most of the individuals who held these posts were Chinese (rather than Western missionaries) though a large number continued to seek graduate training outside of China.
Being deeply steeped in the debates surrounding the physical education reform movements that were then raging in China, it was only natural that these students would bring those same concerns with them to the United States. And as we have already discussed elsewhere, one of the most critical disputes of the late teens and early twenties was how to mandate wushu training and make it available to Chinese middle and high school students.
In this paper (presented in at the martial arts studies conference in Korea) I discussed the role of Ma Yuehan in introducing this discourse to America. While completing a MA at Springfield College in 1926, he wrote a thesis (erroneously catalogued as a translation) which is the first English language work on Xingyiquan. This manual, complete with a naive historical discussion and numerous original photographs, is both the earliest English language volume on the Chinese martial arts that I have found, as well as the first English language work on the subject by a Chinese scholar. Martial arts studies, it would seem, might also have a more complicated history than one might assume. Anyone interested in learning more about this source should check out my paper here.
Given Ma Yuehan’s fame as a public intellectual and Olympic track and field coach, its doubly interesting to discover that he too took part in the 1920s debate regarding the role of wushu in Chinese physical education. Yet it would be a mistake to focus on him exclusively. Some recent additions to the digital collections at Springfield College illustrate that he was neither the only, nor the first, Chinese student to bring kung fu to the institution’s hallowed halls.
In 1917 two students, Wang Wen-li and Wang Shih-ching, enrolled as freshman. That same year the two were photographed presenting a demonstration of some sort in one of the university’s gymnasium. Its hard to know whether these photos were intended for publicity or posterity, but in either case they are quite interesting. My personal guess would tend towards the former as the images were subsequently printed as glass magic lantern slides which could have been displayed for larger audiences.
In these photos we see both gentlemen dressed in the type of black tunics that were quite popular with martial artists at the time. Both individuals are also shown with double swords. The doubled Dao are always popular, but it is also nice to see an early, dated, photograph of hook swords in action. In another photograph we see the two joined by a Native American (Cherokee) student named Walter David Owl. He would later go on to become a prominent minister working with the Iroquois community of New York State. Sadly their uniforms do not have any identifying insignia, but they must have gone to some trouble to bring both specialized clothing and full size weapons in their steamer trunks from China.
While figures like Ma Yuehan, and others whom I discussed in my paper, were well known, Wang Wen-lin and Wang Shih-ching have not left much of an imprint on the historical record. The University’s 1917 year book includes references to both freshman, but around campus they were better known for their musical abilities than boxing. One of the two was even an accomplished amateur magician. As America entered WWI the yearbooks ceased and we lose a valuable source of information. We do have a yearbook for 1921, which is when the pair should have graduated, but neither is listed. Still, foreign students commonly finished their studies on an expedited schedule.
Perhaps it is just as well that we do not (yet) have all of the details on the Wangs. They serve to remind us that individuals like Ma Yuehan were not singular outliers. As the martial arts became an established part of China’s physical education curriculum it was only natural that they would begin to make appearances on university campuses abroad. While the search for the early history of the martial arts in North America has tended to focus on basement Chinatown schools in San Francisco, Los Angeles and Honolulu, these photos remind us that this is only half of the story. During the 1920s America’s colleges and elite universities also became home to martial arts activity. While the Chinatown schools tended to reflect more traditional (and working class) folk styles, the open and progressive currents that were then sweeping across China made themselves felt within these institutions.
A special note of thanks must go to Joseph Svinth who passed these photos on to me.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Martial Arts Studies – Answering the “So what?” question.