Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.

Rebel Yell

Its hard to deny that there is something a bit subversive about the martial arts. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Dutiful law enforcement officers and loyal soldiers spend as much time actually training in these systems as anyone else. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that there is often a whiff of rebellion in our pop-culture attraction to these fighting systems.

Even more remarkable is how many different environments this can be seen in. As I scrolled through a list of kung fu films (most shot during the 1960s-1980s) on Amazon Prime last night I noted that many focused explicitly on themes of rebellion and resistance against unjust rule. This is a theme that goes far beyond stock stories like the burning of the Shaolin temple. Nor is it always easy to separate these larger motives from the more typical “revenge narratives” that drove so much of Hong Kong’s classic film making. If one were to expand the pool of films to include kung fu comedies (my favorite genre) one finds characters resisting social norms on topics as diverse as drinking and gender performance.

Hong Kong films are far from alone in this fixation. Kung fu schools across the West continue to tell stories about the Manchu oppression of innocent Han martial artists even as they market their own dreams of resistance against the sterile mediocrity of modern life.

I suspect that this same thirst for rebellion has even infiltrated some corners of martial arts studies. Within academic culture nothing is more problematic than physical violence. Thus there is a certain perverse thrill that comes from throwing ourselves into the sensuous experience of punches, kicks and locks while letting the Human Subjects Research Committee worry about the complex ethical dilemmas that such “embodied research strategies” may pose. Everyone, it seems, loves a rebel.

And that is precisely our problem. When everyone loves something it is not very likely that they love it for exactly the same reasons. The more we stop to consider things, the less likely it seems that shared symbols of “rebellion” carried the same weight in Shanghai in 1918 that they do in Manhattan in 2018.

Fighting systems need opponents (both real and imagined) as a basic condition of their existence. It goes without saying that some of this need for conflict may be structurally given. Other elements of it are likely culturally constructed and more variable.

So why might martial artists in various contexts choose to align themselves so closely with the symbolic language of rebellion? What sort of social work are these symbols likely to perform? Lastly, can the martial arts in the modern era ever act as vehicles for radical change, either at the social or the individual level?

One cannot help but notice that these fighting systems get a fair amount of support from societies and states around the globe. It thus seems logical that these institutions expect to reap some sort of benefit in return. Does this undercut the revolutionary potential of the martial arts?


Chinese Soldiers and Officer in Beijing. Source: Illustrated London News, July 14th, 1900.


The Chinese Case

Many fighting systems romanticize images of rebellious martial artists. The Japanese have their ronin, the American West glorified gunfighters and rural Venezuelans told stories about local stick fighters who managed to fend off greedy outsiders, just to name a handful of examples. Yet no country has a richer history of martial artists taking to the streets (or hills, or pirate ships) than late imperial China. Indeed, such critical events as the Taiping Rebellion, the Eight Trigrams Revolt, the Opera (Red Turban) Uprising, the rise of the Red Spears and the Boxer Rebellion all helped popularize the image of rebellious secret societies and martial arts clans. When seeking to understand the popular appeal of such figures, China is the ideal place to start.

It is thus somewhat ironic to discover that for much of the late imperial period any notion of rebellion was distinctly unpopular within Chinese popular culture. The problem arose not so much from literary images of these events, but being forced to deal with the visceral terror and aftermath of mass social uprisings. The Red Turban revolt (which was confined to the waterways of the Pearl River Delta region) was clearly the smallest and least destructive of the events listed above. And yet it claimed the lives of close to a million individuals, many of whom were the victims of indiscriminate mass executions that were part of the gentry led white terror that followed the initial conflict.

The region’s economy was devastated, major manufacturing centers were burned to the ground and trade was badly disrupted. And that was a real problem as Guangdong province (which in the 1850s focused on the production of export crops such as silk, sugar and various dyes) was dependent upon the import of basic food stuff to stave off starvation. And all of this pales in comparison to massive loss of human life that the Taiping Rebellion was claiming further north.

As with so many other products, the Chinese people found that actual experience of rebellion failed to live up to the advertising hype. Lots of people die, everyone starves, and what comes next is often more oppressive than what you started out with. Drawing on these basic facts Christopher Hamm noted that rebellious martial artists, while a stock figure in late 19th century Guangdong novels, were rarely the sort of anti-heroes that they would come to be accepted as after the 1911 revolution. While their antics were considered entertaining, ultimately what both readers and censors demanded was that the government use a heavy hand to restore social order (and avert regional disaster) in the final chapters of the book.

The rebellious monks of Shaolin were just not sympathetic figures in the wake of the Boxer Uprising. Small groups of revolutionaries not withstanding, most of the Chinese public was not very keen on the notion of rebellion during the 19th century.

All of this changed as China approached the 1911 Revolution. Once it became clear that the Qing were gone and a new, modern, Republic was to be established, there was both an explosion of popular nationalism and an immense outpouring of interest in stories about revolutionary figures. On the one hand it was certainly safer to stand up to the “Manchu princes” in 1912 than it would have been in 1910, and everyone likes to imagine that they had been part of the process of settling old scores. Yet when reading the literature of the period (and even more importantly, the contemporary political statement extolling “revolutionary values”) it quickly becomes apparent that many of these supposedly historical narratives were actually more concerned with inspiring the people to stand up to outdated social traditions and foreign imperialism than the defeated Qing.

This is when we see the explosion of revolutionary creation myths in the southern Chinese martial arts. Such narratives would have been extremely unpopular in the 19th century, when even real rebels often claimed to be trying to “rescue” the Emperor or the clutches of “evil advisors.” While we tend to see these stories as the ultimate proof of a style’s “ancient history” and deeply “traditional” nature, at the time they were probably an attempt to align the martial arts with the modern and progressive trends that were sweeping through Chinese society.



But How About the Theory?

Of course, it is often necessary to clear away the old before one can build something new. This is what narratives glorifying rebellion seem to do. To paraphrase the important sociologist James C. Scott (who spent a good chunk of his career studying the ways that popular storytelling might be politicized in peasant societies), they are the ultimate “weapon on the weak.” Narratives of rebellion emerge during moments of social upheaval, when its possible to upend the social values that define society’s winners and losers. Obviously Republican China was one such era.

Or is all of this just a false promise? At worst, it might even be another layer of social control. Why would society be so tolerant of discourses that are genuinely subversive? That is a question that runs as a subtext throughout Avron Boretz’s pioneering ethnography of marginality and masculinity in Southern Chinese life.

In his discussion of “martial values” Boretz insightfully recognizes that you cannot really separate questions of social marginality and rebellion from the construction of masculinity. By this he does not mean to imply that Chinese notions of masculinity are inherently violent or transgressive. In fact, that is the entire crux of the problem.

Boretz notes that rather than being automatically accorded respect, men in rural Taiwan and southern China are forced to earn recognition of their masculinity through social performance. Popular interpretations of Confucian norms have provided a standard way for this to happen. Sons wait to inherit a position of leadership (and hence the mantle of masculinity) first from the father, and then from their older brothers. It is thus the orderly transfer of property that signals the gaining of respect and the cementing of one’s patriarchal status. And both Confucianism and popular norms are very clear that any attempt to simply seize this authority by force is illegitimate.

There are two things to note about this situation. First off, within this ideal situation individuals signal their personal virtue by exercising self-control and waiting to achieve status within their local communities or clans. Secondly, such a system will immediately create a severe crisis of masculinity for many men at the margins of community life who simply have nothing to inherit. Lacking a familial estate and temple, they will never really be able to claim status as full members of the community.

Boretz notes that it is precisely these sorts of individuals who are most likely to rebel against dominant social norms. And they often do so by either joining martial arts groups, local temple societies, or criminal brotherhoods. These overlapping organizations share a mutual interest in promoting an alternative set of norms which claim that it is in fact possible to become a fully realized masculine individual through following a disciplined path of “martial attainment.” By observing a different set of behavioral regulations and denying themselves other physical pleasures (often in the form of sexual relationships), these “rebels” prove that they can be just as disciplined as their middle class brethren, even if they accept as normal the sorts of violence that Confucian thought eschews.

Many authors have noted that traditional martial arts have always faced a certain sense of illegitimacy within Chinese society that goes well beyond anything that we might see in Japan or the West. Boretz’s points help to illustrate why. The very idea of “martial virtue” functions as a mechanism of social legitimation that self-consciously violates the rest of society’s rules about what “the good life” should look like.

Further, in an era of rapid economic growth and expanding opportunities, why should individuals turn to alternative lifestyles to gain social prestige? A booming job market suggests that there are now many other ways to demonstrate one’s social success that are less likely to inspire neighborhood gossip. This alone probably explains why enrollments in kung fu classes are down across China from their high-water mark in the 1980s. (Other factors including skyrocketing rents and an aging population certainly haven’t helped).

Still, Boretz notes that while this critique of middle-class values may seem radical, looks can be deceptive. After all, this is simply a different way of attempting to claim a very familiar type of masculine legitimacy. No one in this process is seriously questioning whether this should be the basis for community authority. What is more, both systems (Wu and Wen) are actually signaling their virtue in very similar ways. Under a more orthodox set of rules one abstains from grabbing wealth through forceful or less than legitimate means. It is violence, real or implied, that is unbecoming of a gentleman. In the martial realm violence is valorized, as is the ability to “get rich quick.” But the ideal warrior must observe the many taboos (often involving sex) of the martial code to demonstrate that they too are capable of exercising self-control and thus paragons of virtue.


“Local Militia Shandong. 1906-1912 by Fr. Michel de Maynard.



All of this leads Boretz to a clear conclusion. While Chinese martial artists and members of dark brotherhoods may wrap themselves in the banners of social rebellion, in actual truth they are not very good at it. Their rhetoric of protest actually reflects a set of broadly shared values. Rather than tearing these down they reinforce them, and sometimes become their most ardent (if not their most respected) defenders. While the excesses of marginal young men may need to be channeled and occasionally reeled back in, local society doesn’t move against them as they are fundamentally eufunctional. Rather than challenging the system, the sorts of narratives that we see in the modern Chinese martial arts allow individuals to take personal characteristics that are supposed to be a source of shame (such as one’s poverty, or maybe too much of a love of fighting), and subvert these into a set of behaviors that can be seen as personally empowering while remaining socially non-threatening. This is a sort of rebellion that takes the potentially political and makes it safely personal.

I think that Boretz’s argument is very insightful, and it explains much of what we see in the Chinese martial arts. Actually, I would like to generalize and argue that functionally similar mechanisms can probably be identified in martial communities in the West as well. After all, MMA students seem to like rebelling against petty bourgeois values as much as anyone else. Yet social leaders in the West do not seem overly concerned about the proliferation of BJJ and Muay Thai classes, despite the image of impending, barely contained, violence that something like the UFC likes to project.

In considering how these arguments might apply to the West, I have begun to wonder if Boretz’s model might benefit from the addition of one more variable. What happens when we move from a theoretically timeless world of small communities and clan structures, to a modern world characterized by a transition to large scale states, nations and social structures? Or to put things slightly differently, how do these mechanisms change when we make modernity our key independent variable?

Again, the case of Republican China is instructive. Reform minded martial artists (such as those of the Jingwu movement) continued to see the martial arts as a means of social mobility for the potentially disenfranchised. In fact, they exerted tremendous resources to remake these fighting practices as a predominantly middle class pursuit. And once again, self-discipline and self-denial was the key to bolstering China’s threatened masculinity.

Yet in large part they succeeded because in embracing modernity they shifted the frame of reference from the clan or village to society and the state. Where as self-denial and masculinity had previously been ontologically given values whose superior virtue was simply self-evident, within a modern framework they were transformed into an instrumental strategy by which individuals could contribute to the strength of the “nation-state.” And because the need’s of the state were so pressing, this set of values (and the tools that promoted them) would get official backing from the government. This effectively moved the martial arts from the fringes of the social world and placed them squarely in the middle of the nation’s high schools and universities. The sort of individuals who could contribute the most to the growth of the “New China” (a young person, living in an urban environment, possibly a solider, with a modern education), was very different from the country patriarch envisioned by Confucianism.

This then brings us back to the Republic period’s love of rebellious heroes. It might also help to explain why period reformers were so quick to shine the spotlight on female martial artists and militia leaders in the popular press. After 1911 the martial arts became a mechanism by which these individuals could articulate their vision of what a modern, reformed, Chinese nation might be.

Still, as Boretz’s ethnography suggests, this didn’t happen everywhere. Like so much else in the period, the martial arts became contested ground. As I discussed in my book on the southern Chinese martial arts, debates emerged that pitted locally focused martial traditions against quickly growing, nationally oriented, reform movements. Nor was it always clear which approach was favored by economic markets in this free exchange of ideas.

Unsurprisingly both sides loved stories of a good kung fu rebellion. Stories of burning temples, assassinated grandmasters and bloody revenge were just too good to pass up. They continue to be the stuff that martial arts films are made of.

Still, when we look at the similarities and differences in what these groups did with those narratives, patterns emerge. In cases where the performance of “martial virtue” remained focused on seeking personal legitimacy within the local community, martial arts groups seem to have played a conservative, or even reactionary, role. When “martial virtue” was subverted and linked to strengthening of the state and nation as a whole, traditional modes of identity and sources of social influence were undercut. And that could feel very liberating.

It may be true that even in this latter case one hegemony was simply being replaced with another, but it was still a vision that the martial artists themselves had some hand (how ever limited) in shaping. Maybe, under the correct set of circumstances, a good kung fu rebellion really can save the day.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Telling Stories About Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man – The Evolution of a Heroic Type.”