We take the “concrete and palpable” presence of a thing to attest to the reality of that which we have made it to signify; our fantasies find confirmation in the materiality of things that are composed more of objectified fantasy than physical stuff.
Nicholas Thomas, Entangled Objects (Harvard UP, 1991), p. 138
Strange images occasionally emerge from the annals of kung fu history. This “strangeness” has many sources. Perhaps the most exciting is the shock of discovering something totally new. In all honesty, the historical documentary record on these fighting systems is so thin that the emergence of a single well placed source can still disrupt our understanding of what was going on in a given region or time period. It is heady stuff, and probably why so many document finds of dubious origin have emerged in the last few years (often tied to efforts to create a new tourist destination).
Yet strangeness has many sources. More common is encountering a known practice or personality in a totally unexpected setting. The rapid pace of modernization and westernization that swept over China in the early 20th century ensured that the Republic period was a cornucopia of such images.
Without a doubt my favorite of these is the frequent appearance of Jingwu’s modern martial artists decked out in nothing but leopard or tiger skins. Of course Chinese soldiers and martial artists have a long history of dressing themselves in the colors of predatory cats, or wearing “tiger crowns.” That is very much a part of traditional Chinese culture going as far back as the archeological record can take us.
Yet China’s “Pure Martial” movement was not trying to draw on this long and illustrious train of cultural associations. Rather, their representatives would take to the stage, perform a demonstration, or pose for press photos, dressed explicitly in the feline trappings of the stereotypical Western strongman. It all becomes even stranger once we realize that these colorfully clad individuals are often the same middle-aged merchants, clerks and bankers who funded the movement and provided its administrative background. It seems that everyone wanted to get in on the act.
So how did these images come about? What were audiences at the time meant to take away from them? And what theoretical concepts do they suggest that might help us to understand the relationship between communication and social change with the fighting arts more generally?
Walter Camp Goes to China
Before returning to our leopard print martial artists, I would like to introduce another moment of strangeness that emerged from my recent archival research. As we unravel this mystery we may gain the conceptual toolkit necessary to interpret a number of other puzzles within the presentation and spread of the Chinese martial arts. And once again, it all starts with a photograph intended for an English speaking audience.
This time the photo appeared in the North China Daily News, a British run newspaper that was widely read throughout China’s port cities. This newspaper even earned a following among China’s educated elites (many of whom read English papers) and news editors in the West. From time to time it would cover events in the martial arts world, and in the March 13, 1935, issue I was surprised to find a photo of three individuals practicing Taijiquan in a public park.
There was nothing surprising about the subject matter of the image. But few of the treaty-port newspapers ran many photos, and I don’t think I had ever seen such a detailed image of the Chinese martial arts in the North China Daily News. Unfortunately this photograph didn’t accompany an article, but the caption read:
“Chinese Clerks Do Their “Daily Dozen.” Interesting scenes are to be witnessed on the Bund any morning these days where, inspired by the growing interest in athletics, scored of Chinese clerks practice boxing as part of their morning exercises before going to work. These postures were snapped in the Public Gardens.”
On a purely factual level it would be hard to argue with anything in this brief but revealing discussion. Between 1933 and 1937 the KMT found a renewed enthusiasm for China’s traditional martial arts. The Central Guoshu Institute was busy organizing events, creating clubs for office workers in the cities and classes for workers in outlying areas. Martial arts manuals were being published at a rapid rate and China’s fighting systems were being promoted at home and abroad. Any substantial movement by the Japanese was liable to inspire the creation of a wave of “Big Sword” militias. But what are the “Daily Dozen,” and what do they have to do with the traditional Chinese martial arts?
The short answer would be nothing at all. The Daily Dozen was an exercise program created by the noted coach and “father of American football” Walter Camp. Initially developed in conjunction with the American military towards the end of WWI, this set of exercises was supposed to be a light workout that warmed up the muscles while promoting flexibility and a full range of motion. Camp’s program was never meant to be a complete fitness routine. Rather, it was designed as a way to physically and mentally prepare soldiers for a day of training without causing excessive fatigue before they could get to the task at hand. The entire set of exercises could be completed in eight to ten minutes.
Camps’ innovation proved to be very popular within the military where there was concern with what we might today term a lack of “functional fitness” among the recruits. After leaving the service many soldiers and officers brought his exercises with them into civilian life. In an economy obsessed with Taylorism, all sorts of American businesses began to promote the Daily Dozen as the key to an enhanced and energized workforce. Camp eventually wrote a pamphlet and released a set of recordings to promote his practice. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s the Daily Dozen became a fixture of global physical culture.
Importantly, the North China Daily News was not the first to frame the martial arts by associating them with Camp. That honor seems to have gone to members of China’s elite, Western trained, physical education community. In 1923 Gunson Hoh (then a student at the YMCA training college in Springfield Massachusetts) wrote a thesis on the topic of physical education in China. This included some discussion of the martial arts. But his biggest contribution was an English language description of the “Eight Pieces of Brocade,” complete with traditional woodcuts, modern photographs and training advice, all promoted as the “Eight Graceful Daily Exercises.” Hoh explicitly framed these as the Chinese response to Camp’s Daily Dozen. In so doing he hoped to show that traditional Chinese physical culture had always been as “progressive” and “scientific” as the modern Western trends that were then making their way into Chinese life.
Hoh’s academic work was amplified in multiple places. In 1926 Shanghai’s Commercial press released an expanded version of his thesis, printed in English, titled Physical Education in China. This work appears to have circulated fairly widely (one can still find copies of it in general circulation in American university libraries) and it also promoted the Eight Pieces of Brocade as China’s version of the eminently modern Daily Dozen. This same theme was picked up by Snowpine Liu in a 1933 article that he wrote for the English language Journal of Health and Physical Education, which drew on Hoh’s earlier publications but did not properly credit them.
This framing of traditional Chinese physical culture with reference to Walter Camp is interesting in a number of respects. To begin with, while descriptively plausible on a surface level, the more one knows about the history of this practice, the less it seems to have anything to do with Camp’s actual project. And one suspects that Hoh would have understood this. So why bring the two together?
The historian and anthropologist Anthony Pagden has addressed similar questions in his own work on colonialism and global encounters. In European Encounters with the New World (Yale UP 1993) he noted that the first act of engagement that occurs when Westerners encounter something strikingly new and different is almost always a mistranslation, or misconceptualization. Almost by definition one’s received linguistic and cultural tools will not be well suited for dealing with something radically new. As such, the work of cultural translation usually starts by finding categories that appear similar so that descriptive exploration can begin. Hopefully, through an iterative process of refinement, this eventually leads to a better understanding of why the two seemingly like activities are actually different, and maybe not even comparable.
This is certainly something that we have seen in our historical exploration of the Chinese martial arts here at Kung Fu Tea. Early Western observers of these practices, such as Alfred Lister, tended to classify these practices as “Chinese Boxing,” a choice that said more about the growing popularity of pugilism in Europe than any inherent similarity of these schools of practice. Lister and others then proceeded to be disgusted when Chinese martial artists “wasted” their time with weapon’s practice and refused to put on gloves and spar like a decent English “pug.”
Yet by the 1920s and 1930s more thoughtful Western reporters writing in the treaty port press were noting that in fact there were some key similarities between Western and Chinese Boxers. They could be seen in the almost ascetic discipline of the athletes, and hours spent shadow boxing and drilling. While for Western athletes this was only one part of the training that inevitably led to a prize fight in a local theatre, Chinese pugilist had concentrated exclusively on the development of these activities as an expression of a different set of values and desires. In short, while writers in the 1870s and 1930s might both refer to “Chinese Boxing” in their articles, the actual substance of that understanding evolved from focusing on a mode of fighting to a broader appreciation of disciplined training.
The current case is interesting in that it forces us to add to Pagden’s insights on how new and novel cross-cultural experiences get framed in the first place. Rather than always focusing on the Western actors, Hoh’s work reminds us that at times the “foreign other” also becomes involved with (or contests) this process of cultural translation. By associating the Eight Pieces of Brocade (and by extension the other elements of martial training which he discussed) with the Daily Dozen, Hoh was making both a descriptive claim (e.g., this is a non-exhausting set of health related exercises suitable for middle class people) as well as an ideological one (there is nothing inherently incompatible between traditional Chinese and modern Western physical culture).
Of course Hoh was not primarily a martial artist. He was actually much more interested in Western athletics. But as a Chinese student at an American University he found himself giving an account of all aspects of China’s traditional physical culture in his academic work.
Still, his ideological formulation of these issues would have been deeply appealing to the modernizers and rationalizers who were responsible for running the Central Guoshu Institute. Not only did this pave the way for promoting modernized martial arts training among middle class professionals, but by invoking Walter Camp’s name an additional argument could be made for integrating their use within military training.
All of this goes a long way towards explaining our newspaper photograph. Certainly the editors of the North China Daily News would have been aware of the “Daily Dozen” in the mid 1930s. More importantly, some of China’s own physical education reformers had been employing Camp as a metaphor for their preferred understanding of the country’s traditional practices for more than a decade.
This leads us to the possibility of strategic mistranslation. Invoking Walter Camp would quickly convey to Western readers an image of what solo Chinese practice might look like using a metaphor they were likely to find attractive. Yet Hoh himself was deeply influenced by a vision of the supremacy of Western athletics that had been crafted by Camp and others like him. Thus we can think of this metaphor as a case of strategic mistranslation in which Hoh, aware of how desperately Chinese elites at the time sought legitimacy in the eyes of Western society, played out his own vision for what modern Chinese physical culture (and martial arts) should become.
Rather than bringing this metaphor into line with actual practice through a process of better translations, these elites instead sought to bring the Chinese martial arts closer to the global vision of physical culture epitomized by Walter Camp’s Daily Dozen. Indeed, this framework would seem to explain Chu Minyi’s efforts to reform Taijiquan into a more “modern” system of “Tai Chi Calisthenics” (complete with standardized calls). He would go on to promote his vision both in China and on the world stage.
Within the context of early 20th century Asian history, it should be understood that the process of transcultural framing outlined by Pagden went both ways. Both Western and Eastern intellectuals became involved in the process of framing certain activities in a transcultural context. Yet the implications of this went well beyond generating better understandings. Employed strategically, this process could be used to localize foreign concepts, promoting very specific visions of what modern Chinese society should be through the cultivation of a certain theory of physical practice.
Bruce Lee Goes to the Theater
Interwar fitness fads were not the only, or even most common, ways in which the Asian martial arts were framed and culturally translated. This brings us back to those wonderful images of Jinwu’s amateur martial artists and financial backers refuting the “sick man of Asia” troupe while dressed as Western strongmen. While the primary audience for these photos were domestic, Jingwu was unique in the degree to which it sought out coverage of its movement by the foreign language press. In either case, its important to remember that these images were not consumed by either Chinese or Western viewers within a cultural vacuum.
Chinese martial arts reformers seeking to increase the legitimacy of their practices, both at home and abroad, were acutely aware of the precedent that the Japanese fighting systems had already set. By the 1920s the Western public was familiar with practices such as jujitsu and judo. The popular press even carried carefully reasoned discussions of the differences between these systems. And both students and readers around the globe wondered whether these fighting systems might not contain the secret to Japan’s success in its global political competition with the other imperialist powers. In shorts, Japanese political messages and its military successes in Asia framed global discussions of its martial arts, and these fighting systems seemed to provide a measure of legitimacy to Japan’s success in other spheres.
The logic of these interconnected messages were apparent to Chinese reformers within the martial arts, all of whom sought to win some of this legitimacy for themselves. Individuals like the warlord Ma Liang made sure that the foreign members of the press at his many wushu demonstrations were informed that China was the real home of his jujitsu, and that his men had nothing to fear from Japan’s many martial artists.
Yet how were the Japanese martial arts actually promoted in the West? Aside from the glowing reports of President Roosevelt and frequent discussions in the press, many people got their first exposure to the martial arts in vaudeville or music hall theaters. Such shows would host displays by traveling wrestlers and martial artists who, critically, displayed their practices along side western fighters and strongmen. Sometimes these same theaters would host novelty exhibitions in which Western boxers would square off against Japanese fighters. In fact, these sorts of shows were even popular in Chinese cities like Shanghai.
The Jingwu Association’s appropriation of the Western strongman outfit, while seemingly strange at this historical distance, actually makes perfect sense. They were struggling to win some of the domestic and international legitimacy that the Japanese martial arts had already achieved. And within the global context these were practices that were framed by, and made familiar through, a vaudevillian logic of display and entertainment. On a deeper level, one wonders if this was also another act of intentional mistranslation which sought to not just localize a set of global symbols, but to further a specific vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be in the process.
This theoretical framing of the Chinese martial arts might be an important concept to bear in mind when thinking about other periods in global transmission. Indeed, I have often wondered if this framing marked the first half of Bruce Lee’s career in America. When looking at accounts and images of his famous early appearances (such as the 1964 Long Beach Tournament) its hard not to see echoes of the older vaudeville performance tradition in some of his displays and techniques.
In sense that makes perfect sense. Lee came from a performing family. His father spent his life on the opera stage and Lee spent much of his childhood appearing in Hong Kong films. But more generally, theatrical displays of amazing physical prowess were in large part, how Americans learned about new fighting styles in the era before the martial arts film boom of the 1970s and 1980s. All of this puts Lee’s enthusiasm to escort Diana Chang Chun-Wen during part of her American tour in a slightly different perspective as it more directly suggests that he was still following the old pattern of theatrical demonstration. Indeed, Charlie Russo has argued quite convincingly that it was one such demonstration gone wrong which led directly to his seminal altercation with Wong Jack Man.
Ironically it was Lee’s career which seems to have marked the conclusion of this approach to framing the martial arts. His appearances first on television and then film allowed for the emergence of a more dynamic, violent and seemingly “real” vision of the Chinese martial arts within the public imagination. In a sense it was no less theatrical for its move from the stage to the screen. Yet what came next would seem lightyears away from Chu Min-yi’s stilted “Tai Chi Calisthenics” or Jingwu’s businessmen posing in leopard skin leotards.
Each of those efforts had made sense given the discourses that dominated discussions of the martial arts in the interwar years. Yet TV and then film not only made it possible to frame the martial arts against a number of different cultural trends, they practically mandated it. The worlds of vigilante superheroes, secret agents, gangsters, colonial injustice and racial conflict all exploded onto the screen. Each of these frames led to the emergence of new cultural associations with the Chinese martial arts. It was these, all mediated by Lee’s striking screen presence, which kicked off a new wave of cross cultural desire.
In conclusion, we can never really talk about the martial arts in a state of pristine isolation. These practices are a cultural phenomenon, and as such they derive their meaning from a vast range of other symbols and practices (most of which remain invisible or unexamined) which are used to frame them. This essay suggests that the choice of framing devices is rarely random. In some cases it is necessary to facilitate a deepening process of cross cultural understanding, such as the evolution of the term “Chinese boxing” between the 1870s and the 1930s. In other cases frames may be adopted as strategic miscommunications that attempt to contest or change the social meaning of a practice, as seen with the sudden enthusiasm for Walter Camp in the 1930s. Finally, Lee’s career, which seems to straddle two eras, suggests that the popularity of martial arts depends in large part on the often unexamined symbolic associations that surround them, rather than their execution on a purely technical level.
Lee is often credited as a genius as for knowing when to abandon aspects of his traditional training that no longer worked. Yet it may have been his enthusiasm for detaching the martial arts from their roots in theater and even early martial arts film, attaching them instead to the then popular stories of superheroes (the Green Hornet) and spy thrillers (Enter the Dragon) which forced Western consumers to reconsider the desirability of the Asian martial arts.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (29): Savate: French Kickboxing and the Military