“Soft power” and “public diplomacy” are closely linked, yet distinct, concepts. Perhaps the easiest way of understanding this distinction is that the first is a power resource that political actors might call upon. The second concept describes a body of strategies by which policy makes attempts to turn the raw cultural attraction (or curiosity, or even envy) that defines “soft power” into distinct political outcomes.
But even these basic distinctions can dissolve if we begin to poke them. The arena of politics is unique in that at times the raw materials of identity and desire can actually be called into being by attempting to employ them. Successful “political discourses” seem effortless precisely because they manage this trick of transmuting their basic materials. Thus in some exceptional circumstances, it may be the efforts to employ public diplomacy that sparks a sense of curiosity about, and desire for, another actor’s culture (soft power).
Nor have these efforts ever been restricted to the halls of government. While Washington may be able to call bits of “soft power” out of the ether with well-timed arguments about democracy and human rights, their efforts pale in comparison to Hollywood’s yearly onslaught of fantasies of wealth, excitement and longing. Of course these images are a major source of America’s “soft power” on the global stage.
And there is no reason why private actors might not decide to employ their own reserves of soft power to create an international discourse that will advantage their efforts in the future. Hence Hollywood is always at the forefront of lobbying efforts having to do with free trade in the entertainment industry and the protection of intellectual property. Sometimes these efforts have benefited the larger policy goals of the United States government, but there is no theoretical reason to assume that the demands of every industry or politically motivated group will always align with that mythical beast known colloquially as the “national interest.”
In some ways the academic literature on Public Diplomacy is much like Martial Arts Studies. In both cases we have subjects of sufficient complexity that interdisciplinary approaches are almost inevitable. Further, both are niche literatures dominated by scholar-practitioners. Just as MAS conferences are full of people trading training stories, the pages of collected volumes on Public Diplomacy tend to be dominated by articles that have been produced by career diplomats or individuals with the title “Ambassador” before their names.
To the extent that this keeps our focus on real world policy problems, it can be a great advantage. And when you read the early literature on Public Diplomacy there does seem to be an almost granular focus on the role of consular officers in promoting musical concerts or traveling museum exhibits at very specific moments in history. As they say, “Write what you know.”
However, to the extent that this focus leads us to forget that the vast majority of “soft power” is not produced with the help of diplomats, or that the global environment is full of NGO’s and private actors who have their own ideas about what public diplomacy looks like, it can be a weakness. Nor does such a perspective do a great job of focusing on an even more important set of questions. What is the subjective experience of the global audience who encounter these trans-cultural messages? How do their preexisting narratives and understanding condition the government’s efforts to marshal a set of symbols in the pursuit of a given foreign policy goal?
For the most part I have avoided these more theoretical concerns when discussing my ongoing research on the intersection of the TCMA and public diplomacy here on this blog. But that doesn’t mean they are ultimately unimportant. Indeed, “Kung Fu Diplomacy” is interesting precisely because it forces us to think quite carefully about the ways in which government actors (CCP diplomats) exploit the previous efforts of private actors (Bruce Lee) and vice versa.
Still, we cannot measure the success or failure of public diplomacy (and the efforts of either private or public actors), without establishing a baseline understanding of the global public’s familiarity the area in question. This is particularly true with regards to the Chinese martial arts. We are only starting to comprehend the process by which the global public became familiar with these fighting systems. And to mirror the problem I noted above, most of these studies are written from the perspective of the small minority of people who actually became dedicated practicers of kung fu, judo or kali. This is simply another manifestation of the “practicer bias,” and it leads us to make grand pronouncements about how the Chinese Martial Arts were “unknown in the West” prior to the 1970s or Bruce Lee.
This is, of course, utter nonsense. What such assertions actually mean is that Chinese martial arts were not widely practiced in the West prior to the 1970s. Further, Bruce Lee created a level of cross-culture desire for these practices that had not previously been seen. Yet the Western reading public had all sorts of ideas about the Chinese martial arts which may have impacted their imaginations of China itself. Sensational and highly publicized events such as the Boxer Rebellion, the civil wars between “Hatchet Men” in San Francisco and New York, or the heroic stand of the “Big Sword Troops” in WWII, meant that everyone probably had some notion of what Chinese boxing was. These latent memories and images were the raw material that later reformers would work with and push back against.
Still, pointing to the image of the Boxer Rebellion isn’t very helpful. A more interesting question might be whether the American public saw the Chinese martial arts as something ancient, primitive and intrinsically “Chinese,” or if they were instead capable of discussing them as being part of a modern and evolving world. Did they know that the Chinese martial arts changed in response to government policy? What did they actually know about the individuals who promoted and administered these systems?
Admittedly very few people in the West were probably concerned with these sorts of questions in the 1930s and 1940s. But what sort of information was generally available? If, for instance, one was interesting in both boxing and “the Orient”, what sorts of information might you encounter in the popular publications of the period that brought these topics together? To put the matter in more specific terms, did the American public ever learn about the Guoshu movement?
The following articles are interesting as they provide English language discussions that bookend the Guoshu experience. The first, published in the English language China Press in 1936, provides a glimpse into the Guoshu movement at its peak. Here we see strong efforts to not just promote the martial arts, but to make them a compulsory aspect of physical culture throughout the various strata of Chinese society. While these fighting systems were always the most popular among young working class males, this article highlights the creation of a new martial arts club that focused instead on older government employees and officials.
As a side note, in my book I discuss efforts to establish a very similar organization in Guangzhou in the late 1920s. It is clear that in 1936 these efforts enjoyed the backing of elite circles in Chinese society and within the KMT.
Our second discussion paints a very different picture. This New York Times article is based on a 1947 interview with General Chang Chih-chiang (Zhang Zhijiang), the leader of the Guoshu movement. It is immediately clear that the intervening decade has not been kind to the Chinese martial arts. Through the General’s report we learn that the once proud organization is now financially crippled and unable to host events or even repair its former headquarters. The membership of the once massive organization had been reduced to under 400 individuals. Further, due to changing attitudes within the government and educational circles, efforts to promote the Chinese martial arts as a universal practice had been abandoned. By the end of WWII it was clear that boxing would once again survive only as a hobby (or employment skill) of the few.
The Guoshu movement was slipping into the twilight.
Obviously these two articles are far from exhaustive. But they do represent the sorts of information that was increasingly available to English language readers regarding developments within the Chinese martial arts. The actions of key political figures and reformers (including Chu Min-yi and Chang Chih-chiang) were known and reported in the press. The exploits of certain martial arts masters (note the references to Wang Tze-ping) even got some coverage. Nor was boxing always treated as something fixed, ancient and distant. In these reports it had a history that could be understood in terms of both policy debates and sporting metaphors.
Still, one suspects that these articles were not a product of random journalism. The work of Chu Min-yi is highlighted in the first piece. Throughout his career Chu worked hard to ensure that knowledge of the martial arts would be broadcasted to the West through mediums as diverse as foreign language publications, films and even an exhibition at the 1936 Summer Olympics.
Chang Chih-chiang was also a tireless promoter of the martial arts as well as an astute politician. It is probably not a coincidence that when facing an existential funding crisis he called in a reporter from a prominent Western publication. He may have believed that the appearance of such an article would help to remind the KMT of the importance of “shadow boxing” to China’s public image. In 1947 China needed both global aid and sympathy, and highlighting popular aspects of the country’s traditional culture might help. Again, the relationships between the creation of a public diplomacy strategy and the generation of soft power resources can become quite complicated.
The second article is also interesting in that it attempts to provide an English language vocabulary for discussing the Chinese martial arts well before the term “martial art” actually gained popularity. Of course Western boxing remained the standard against which all Chinese practices were understood. This may well have limited their appeal to a global audience. Still, as you read the press coverage of the 1930s and 1940s it is clear that the public discussion of the Chinese martial arts in the West was much more extensive than one might have assumed. At least some of this familiarity was a direct result of the cultural diplomacy efforts of individuals like Chu Min-yi, Ma Liang and Chang Chih-chiang.
Office Workers Have Own Club at Capital City
Chinese Swordsmanship and Boxing Taught to Members
NANKING, Aug. 30—(special)—Under the roof of a side-house inside a compound at 21 Hsiang Pu Ying is a dazzling array of big swords and spears. But there is no sign of a “Boxer Uprising.”
It is the clubhouse of the Public Functionaries’ Recreational Club. Those working in various ministries, yuan or the City Government and its various bureaus, after their day’s hard toll, may find here relaxation.
The club boasts a total of 600 members, all public functionaries from the governmental heads down to the rank and file of the government staff.
Chinese boxing and swordsmanship is one of the things taught at the club.
Those who have a flair for murder things [sic] have a variety from which to choose, cultural discussions, literature and art, music and drama.
Besides the house of semi-foreign style on one side, a two-story building of western mode stands in the center. This is called Chung Cheng Hall, named after Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek. In this hall, all performances in music and drama are being held from time to time for the entertainment of the members and their friends.
The club was founded on January 21, 1934. The Chung Cheng Hall was completed on January 21 this year, at a total cost of $20,000.
The affairs of the club are in charge of a Standing Committee of seven members headed by Dr. Chu Min-yi, as chairman. The six other members are: Dr. Weng Xen-Has, Secretary General of the Executive Yuan; Mr. Hsu Ching-chi, head of the Civilian Officials Department; Mr. Hung Lai-yu, head of the Judicial Officers Training Institute; Mr. Sun Shih-hwa, head of the General Affairs Department of the Ministry of Communications, Mr Lei Chen, head of the General Affairs Department of the Ministry of Education.
Seven secretaries are looking after the daily routine of the club. They are: Dr. Chu Min-yi, in charge of the Athletic Division; Dr. Wang Shih-chieh, Minister of Education, in charge of [the] Cultural Division; Mr. Chen Shu-jen, Chairman of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Commission, in charge of [the] Literature and Art Division, Mr. Tang Yu-yung in charge of Secretarial Division, Mr. Chang Yen-tsun, in charge of [the] Accounting Division.
The club holds a general Conference every year.
August 30, 1936. The China Press (Shanghai).
China Boxing Chief Mourns Lean Days
Government Fund too Small for Plans to Put the Country at 4,000-Year-Old Sport
By Henry B. Lieberman (Special for the New York Times).
NANKING, Nov. 8—The ancient sport of shadow boxing, which goes back 4,000 years to the reign of Emperor Huang-Ti, has come upon lean and skimpy days.
Gen. Chang Chih-chiang, counselor of the Military Affairs Commission and head of the Chinese Boxing Association, heaved a sigh and observed dolefully: “Because of scientific inventions the people who handle educational affairs are ignoring shadow boxing.”
The Boxing Association still gets a government subsidy from the Ministry of Education to perpetuate the traditional manly art of self-defense, but this is a mere pittance in terms of General Chang’s desire to make the entire nation shadow-boxing conscious.
Lack of funds has kept the association from rebuilding its nanking headquarters building, which was destroyed by Japanese bombing, and the shadow-boxing capital has shifted to Tientsin. Membership has fallen off until it is estimated it is only about 400.
Things have reached such a pass that the national champion, Wang Tze-ping, 50-year-old Shanghai osteopath, has not been able to find a suitable opponent since 1933. Mr. Wang, who has held the championship for thirty years, last defended his title successfully against a Japanese challenger.
Champion’s Jump Stressed
Although the champion is not getting any younger or spryer, General Chang’s thin bewhiskered face lighted up as he described with his hands the titleholders’ square chest, trim waist and artistic grace.
“You should see him jump,” he said. “This high.”
The general raised one hand almost to the level of his chin.
The boxing chief, a wiry type himself, greets each day at the age of 66 with a brisk shadow-boxing session because it strengthens the body, teaches you’d how to defend yourself and is good for national defense.
The General is a Hopeh man. He began his military career and was baptized in the old Northwestern Army as a follower of Feng Yu-hsiang, the “Christian general.” After the defeat of the northern warlords, General Chang received an honorary position here as military counselor and since then has found plenty of time for shadow-boxing.
The Chinese Boxing Association was established in 1928 to promote Tai Chu Chuan—absolute extreme fist. The term shadow-boxing is the Western description of this Chinese sport, which encompasses eurhythmic calisthenics, fancy foot-work, boxing against an opponent, wrestling and what the Chinese call “gymnastics with tools.” The latter refers to fencing with lances or swords.
When the subject of Japanese jiu jitsu was raised during the interview, General Chang waved a deprecating hand.
“They borrowed it from us,” he said.
Monks Developed Sport
Emperor Hunag-Ti is credited with introducing the sport of shadow-boxing to build a strong army. Buddhist and Taoist monks, eager to find a means of defending themselves against bandits, developed the sport until there are a number of schools based on different kinds of dodges, parries, thrusts and body gyrations.
Orthodox practitioners argue that by learning the use of your “inner strength” you can hurt a man without touching him.
The shadow-boxing phase consists of calisthenics in which a person goes through all sorts of twisting, turning and dodging against an imaginary opponent. This is actually a training process, corresponding to Western style training camp sparring and roadwork. But it has become a sport in itself.
A member of the Boxing Association did some shadowboxing this morning to illustrate the fine points of the sport. He cavorted like a Martha Graham dancer, slapping the ground and leaping about the place like a man trying to get a demon out of his system. His footwork and grace were delightful. But he wouldn’t go in Madison Square Garden.
November 2nd, 1947. New York Times (New York City).
If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Historical Fact vs. Social Discourse in the World of China’s 19th Century Martial Artists