Tibet has been on my mind. Far removed from the near tropical waters of the Pearl River Delta, it certainly falls outside of my normal research area. The region has its own martial and weapons traditions which are of interest to students of martial arts studies. Still, I think that it was the announcement of next week’s CCCI guest lecture at Cornell, on the influence of Tibetan ritual and philosophy in late imperial Chinese life, that jogged my memory.

While conducting literature searches for my Kung Fu Diplomacy project, I came across a couple of interesting pieces on martial arts in the border regions around Tibet. They did not directly relate to the topic at hand, so I filed them away for another day. But it recently occurred to me that one of these articles makes a nice case study for anyone interested in the advent of the Guoshu program.

Most of our narratives about such things focus on events and attitudes in a handful of larger (mostly Eastern) urban centers. Its not that difficult to figure out what martial artists in Beijing, Shanghai or even Guangzhou were saying about this reform movement. This is where the published material in the historical record (newspaper article, manuals, government documents and the like) was being generated and produced.

Yet most of China was not urban or well connected to national economic and social elites. What did the advent of the Guoshu reforms look like in the countryside, and at the fringes of the Chinese state? What sorts of identities and values did people attach to the martial arts? Or did they even care?

Andrew Morris has actually answered that last question for us in his excellent monograph, Marrow of the Nation (2004). He notes that after 1928 we see an explosion of small groups using the new Guoshu (National Arts) labels across wide stretches of the countryside. What these small movements meant by that, and whether they actually had any contact with (or sympathy for) the ideological aims of the Central Guoshu Institute is another matter entirely. As Morris demonstrates, the use of the Guoshu name exploded in popularity even in provinces that were in open opposition to the KMT and had no interest in actually sponsoring its official martial arts program. Readers should remember that warlordism was very much a thing in 1928, and China was far from a unified state.

The following article, published in September of 1928 in the North China Herald, provides us with a bit of empirical data on each of these questions. It begins with an account of the creation of a new “National Arts” club in Tachienlu (later renamed Kangding) which sits on the Tibetan border. The city itself is tiny, though it was a regionally important hub for the tea trade between China and Tibet. The area had a mixed ethnic population and a number of Tibetan temples. It had also attracted the attention of early Western explorers, and was well known thanks to the writings of figures like the formidable Mrs. Archibald Little. She gave an extensive account of her stay there in Intimate China: The Chinese as I have Seen Them (1899).

Readers will want to take special note of a few issues as they move on to the article. First, the reporter really struggles to come up with a vocabulary to describe what he is seeing. Catch all terms such as “martial arts” had not yet come into common usage in the English language. As a result he settles on the ungainly, yet highly evocative, trio of “Dancing, Prancing and Boxing” to describe the group’s activities.

“Sword Dancing” was a common term between the 1880s -1930s, used to describe the performance of solo weapons sets. “Boxing” was often used to describe either two-man sets or free play between unarmed students. No one seemed to have been totally comfortable with the analogy, but these sorts of exercises did superficially resemble Western boxing, so the name stuck despite its obvious inadequacies. I would guess that “prancing” might have implied either the practice of solo unarmed sets or possibly lion/dragon dance skills. Sadly, little actual clarification is provided.

One must also make some educated guesses when trying to decipher the ethnic composition of the club. We know that the practice started near the local military camps, and it explicitly adopted the “National Arts” (Guoshu) terminology. Thus one might guess that most of the participants were of Han extraction, though it may be impossible to say with certainty. The reference to a connection between Chinese operatic traditions and the local martial arts does seem to reinforce that possibility. In either case, there is no mention of female participation in the movement, though other social organizations actively sponsored the new boxing group.

Its particularly interesting to note the way that the article blends and moves between regional “physical culture” traditions ranging from Chinese boxing on the one side to Tibetian dance on the other. Nor does it seem to be a coincidence that all of this finds its natural synthesis in a discussion of rising demands for political independence and the observation that local, well armed, strongmen were no longer cooperating with the government.

Still, the entire discussion carries with it a sad feeling of “boom and bust.” It doesn’t appear, for instance, that there was a regular martial arts school in the region prior to the creation of the new club. The article reports that local youth are essentially volunteering to act as instructors.

Scholars commenting on the martial arts of the Republic period have noted that while we see brief flashes of enthusiasm (maybe even a mania) for the martial arts, they were never able to sustain this level of enthusiasm. This description is basically correct, but I wonder if we are not attempting to apply the wrong analytical lens. Rather than assuming that the martial arts should come to be universally accepted and popular, perhaps a certain cycle of “boom and bust” was their natural state throughout large chunks of the countryside. This is certainly something that we have already seen in the ethnographic investigation of the Phoenix Village Boxing Society, and its also something that I documented in the various martial arts associations of Guangdong province in my book.

In the countryside boxing was typically seen as both a seasonal pastime, and something to be called upon when necessary. Perhaps the real failure of the Guoshu movement was not an inability to promote boxing in the abstract so much as a failure to get local communities to adopt the notion that it was actually a modern, nationally directed, form of physical culture. The fighting traditions and identities that are being preserved in this article all seem distinctly local (and probably theatrical) in nature, no matter how enthusiastically individuals may have adopted the Guoshu label.



The modern city of Kangding, nestled between three mountains. Source: Wikimedia.




Tibet Revives the Ancient Arts of Self-Defense
From our own correspondent
Tachienfu, Aug. 11 [1928]


About three weeks ago the young men of Tachienlu took violently to an old system of dancing. In one of the military camps in the town a young fellow professed to be able to teach dancing, prancing and boxing. The system now taught includes all these three things. Immediately a society was formed for the preservation of national boxing and one of the temples secured as rendezvous. Some of the necessary outfit has been obtained, including Ping-pong, and the members of the society are now getting up very early in the morning and going through numerous exercises.

Practically all young Chinese in the schools and in the military and civil public offices are connected with this boxing society. The local officials are also taking some interest in the movement and giving it their patronage. The minor element in the town is not slow in following the major and small boys all over the city may now be seen jumping one foot high and three feet long and landing in an attitude of alarming self-defence. Before the jumper lands the arms wing in quick motion and the correct position is attained. The older members of the society, not agile as the younger, confine their prancing to the privacy of their upstairs bed-rooms.

Formerly this form of exercise was very largely confined to the theatre, the work of actors fighting the Three Kingdom battles over again. There is some fear that this old-time art may be lost, hence its resuscitation. As far as one can see the whole movement is highly commendable: it preserves an ancient art; it teaches the young men the control of the body; it unites in a common society the young men of the town. Provided the schoolboy does not neglect his books, the merchant his business, the official his office, the movement should produce some good hard useful muscle in the young men.

Dancing Through the Valleys

The country west of Tachienlu, known as Minya, has been en fete [celebrating] for the past month. Tibetans let nothing interfere with their religious dances and holidays. There may be trouble along the whole frontier yet the dance goes on and the company continues to gather. The Wealthy Tibetans in Town do not care to miss the lama’s dance, and this includes many well-to-do Chinese. The dances begin in a temple at one end of the Minya valley, the next dance being timed to begin when the others finish. In this way the visitors have the opportunity of worshiping in the different temples as they go along. Again, those who cannot visit all the lamaserys will make an effort to attend one and see the dance there.

The Self-Determination Germ

This year the dancers have been discussing another subject: Minya, like many other parts of Eastern Tibet, is determined to regain its independence. Self-determination is now an agitating factor in many of the minor states in central Asia. The Asiatic people are tremendous travelers and a dangerous three months’ journey over the wild plateaux is a lightly entered into as many present day marriages. These long journeys bring the different people of central Asia into close contact with each other: and what each state and tribe is discussing and doing is now well known.

There are four headmen in Minya who act as a bulwark, protecting Tanchienlu against the inroads of the wild robber bands beyond the frontier…Quite recently these headmen have shown a strong reluctance to obey an official summons to appear in town. Each is well armed with arms and munition supplied by the local authorities, conditionally, that they do all in their power to protect the town and frontier. As the loan has been of some duration the headmen now imagine the arms belong to them. They have been called in to discuss the point, but so far refuse to do so.

The North China Herald. September 15th, 1928.



If you enjoyed this research note you might also want to read: The Problem of the Phoenix Village Boxing Club: Rural Martial Arts in Republic Era Guangdong.