One of the more rewarding things that I have been able to do with this blog has been to showcase previously unseen, or rare, images of Chinese martial arts. I have tried to keep these photos, engravings, paintings and other visual representations within a single series for ease of future study and reference. And a number of these images are worthy of further thought and meditation. Some reveal interesting information about the practice of the martial arts, while all of them speak to the ways that these practices have been framed and understood within the global system.
Yet contextualizing these photographs has been a problem. While ephemera (postcards, newspaper engravings, etc…) reach a wide audience, they do so at the expense of any depth of descriptions. Images of specific individuals, each with their own practices and ideology, are inevitably flattened and repackaged as generic “cultural types.”
While always present, the advent of the Boxer Rebellion (1899-1901) accelerated this process to an almost comical degree. Ironically, an explosion of public curiosity about the new threat in northern China led to a proliferation of popular images which, when you scratched the surface, had little to do with the topic at hand. In the summer of 1900 it seems that the American public was ready to accept practically any image of a Chinese person as a revealing portrait of a dreaded “Boxer.”
This isn’t to say that some of the photographs that circulated during this period were not interesting. They certainly are. Yet it can be difficult to figure out what one is actually seeing. A few years ago I discussed the preceding cigarette card in a previous post. Published by the Ogden Cigarette company it sought to cash in on “Boxer mania” with a photo (circulated in both wide frame and a more tightly cropped version), of a group of individuals holding bows.
The fact that such a large number of men would stop and pose for a group portrait strongly suggests that these individuals were not actually “Boxers.” As a group the Yi Hi Boxers tended to have a violent dislike of both western individuals and photography in particular. At the time I speculated that we might be seeing a photograph of a local defense society, or possibly even a group of archery students who were preparing for the military exams (note the presence of a heavy knife and saddled horse). But I also lamented that without some sort of lucky break it would probably be impossible to know where or when this photo was really taken.
Good fortune, it seems, is on our side. A few weeks ago Joseph R. Svinth sent me links to the original version of this image. Best of all, we are now one step closer to solving the riddle of this group of archers. The image itself is housed in the digital collections of the USC Libraries. It is one part of a much larger collection of images generated by a group of Presbyterian missionaries working in Xiamen (Amoy), Fujian Province. This particular photograph was taken sometime around 1900.
A close examination would seem to suggest that this isn’t exactly the same image as what we see on the Cigarette card. In the USC’s copy the small boy in the front is holding what appears to be a bird cage. This is missing in the commercially circulated copies. Nor are all of the individuals in the same positions. Still, we now know where and when this group of photos was taken. Rather than showing a band of northern, anti-Western, radicals, it actually featured a local group from Fujian who were on good terms with a protestant mission. Best of all, the copy at USC has been scanned in high enough resolution that you can see some interesting detail of their gear.
Boxer Rebels or Loyal Soldiers?
Nor was this the only photograph from the mission’s collection to find new life in the commercial realm. One of the most memorable photos to emerge from the period of the Boxer Rebellion was the July 14th cover of the Navy & Army Illustrated magazine. According to the popular press this was a photograph of a “Boxer Chief” and his men armed with “horrible jagged knives.” Once again, the implication was that readers were seeing forces on the ground in Norther China.
The reality of the situation was slightly different. Rather than a “Boxer Chief” what we actually have is a local government official and his personal bodyguard. The weapons in question were part of his (officially mandated) ceremonial regalia. As the allied forces around Beijing were learning (much to their dismay), by the summer of 1900 the Chinese military was armed with rifles just as advanced (and sometimes more so) than anything in their inventories. Still, tridents and huge halberds really make an impression on the crowd when parading through the streets. Rifles are efficient, but they aren’t crowd pleasers.
Joseph Svinth did us a great favor by locating the original source of these two iconic images. Their transformation within the climate of 1900 helps to sharpen our understanding of how that crisis distorted popular views of both Chinese soldiers and martial artists in the West. Still, both of these are images that we have discussed previously. I would like to end this post with something totally new, also drawn from the mission’s collections.
This last photograph dates to 1912 and was taken by someone visiting the mission’s activities in Quanzhou. While the image is a little dark it clearly shows a rack of weapons (including forks, spears and crescent knives) in front of a local guard house. It would be hard to overstate how much had changed within Chinese society between 1900 and 1912. The period had been a rough one for China’s traditional fighting systems and the popular revival of boxing that would sweep through society (leading to efforts to include it within the national school curriculum) was still half a decade off. Still, it is good to see that this group of weapons was weathering the storm.
If you enjoyed these images you might also want to read: Yim Wing Chun and the “Primitive Passions” of Southern Kung Fu.