Men fighting men to determine worth (i.e., masculinity) excludes women as completely as the female experience of childbirth excludes men….The female boxer violates this stereotype and cannot be taken seriously—she is parody, she is cartoon, she is monstrous. Had she an ideology, she is likely to be a feminist.
Joyce Carol Oates, On Boxing, 1987
On Negative Findings
Exploring history, like every sort of adventure, has it difficulties. One of these might be termed “the problem of foreknowledge.” When we write about popular history we usually want to understand how events or trends were experienced by a specific group. And yet the very fact that we know enough about such people to ask specific questions suggests that there will be a gap in perspective that cannot be bridged. After all, we typically know how the story ends. Our minds are already filled with historical narratives and theoretical frameworks even before we sit down with our primary source documents. We may want to know why certain events happened, but in broad strokes we are usually pretty clear on what must happen.
On the most fundamental level a historian cannot vicariously experience the events that his subjects lived. While we may try to suspend some aspect of our foreknowledge, or to empathetically place ourselves in their perspective, we are bound to fail. The brain’s need to impose order on the perceived chaos of the world will never really let us experience the radical uncertainty that defines the emotional reality of our subjects. Thus my understanding of the year 1933 will be fundamentally incommensurate with the lived experience of this chaotic and transformative period in the Chinese martial arts.
Understanding the limitations of our perspective, we can strive to ask better questions about the past. Rather than only asking about the perspectives and trends that carry the day, its also important to make the effort to explore history’s dead ends and reactionary whiplashes. Even if these movements failed, they ultimately shaped the lived experience of many people and paint a richer image of the struggles, fears and debates that define an era.
One of the areas where this can be particularly helpful is in our discussion of gender and the martial arts. Knowing that women currently participate in all sorts of combat sports, there is a temptation to read this situation onto the past. And certain early 20th century movements, including Kano’s Judo and the Chinese Jingwu Association, did go out of their way to promote the message that women should take up these reformed and progressive practices. Yet it is also undeniable that there were many fewer women in the traditional martial arts at the start of the 20th century than there would be at its conclusion. So what forces and attitudes shaped this evolution?
The danger on the other side is to dismiss too easily the work of feminist reformers in China or the UK, or to assert that somehow women were always excluded from the martial realm. I have written several posts over the last few years documenting early female Chinese martial artists and revolutionary leaders. To say that something was rare should not be taken to mean that it was never contested. Indeed, the fact that women were so often the targets of social violence suggests that this was a realm that could never be totally escaped.
The coming of Western imperialist ideologies that promoted competitive sports, progressive ideas about social reforms and feminism in the early 20th century set the stage for an explosion of female participation in the martial arts across Asia. Yet similar trends could be seen around the world. Women in the UK were taking up jujitsu with the same enthusiasm that their sisters in major American cities were embracing “executive boxing” classes.
Rather than simply assuming that female participation in the Eastern martial arts would always be viewed as inevitable or “natural,” its important to remember that within parts of Asia this trend (which we ironically assume to be “oriental” in origin) was perceived as another foreign import. At a time when communities were struggling to redefine their social and cultural identity, female participation in the combat sports was actively debated and contested.
Nor was this Western intrusion always seen as a positive development. This was particularly true within some of the more conservative Chinese expatriate communities of South East Asia. Consider, for example, the following article which appeared in the Straits Times in September of 1933:
Chinese Boxing Belles Will Not Be Encouraged
Although the younger generation of Singapore Chinese may favor the emancipation of their womenfolk, they intend to draw the line at their girls taking up boxing.
Up-country, this intrusion into the realm of masculine sport, seems to have caught on. The other day four young Chinese girls gave a boxing exhibition, and from a box-office point of view the venture was a success.
“I am sure the older and more sober-minded among us will do their best to put a stop to this sort of thing,” said a well known Singapore Chinese.
Mr. Tay Lian Teck said that he would not countenance any attempt to encourage local Chinese girls to take up the sport. “Some of the ultra-modern Chinese girls probably will not listen to any advice on the subject,” he added.
A member of the local boxing Board of Control said that it was unlikely that any public exhibitions of girls boxing would be sanctioned, unless it was of the nature of a burlesque show, on which case the Board would have no say in the matter
“Women are not physically suited to the sport,” said a Singapore doctor.
“It is just a stunt,” a boxer declared. “I don’t believe any woman can box.”
Singapore girls themselves are not very interested in the controversy.
The Straits Times. September 10th, 1933. Page 10.
At first it is not clear what sort of activity the author wished to address as The Straits Times would also use terms like “boxing exhibition” when discussing the eras frequent traditional martial art events. Still, the interview with a member of the local boxing commission leads us to suspect that the women in question were actually students of western pugilism, even if the article seems to have been intentionally vague on that point.
In any case, an exhibition of female boxing was controversial enough to inspire ongoing public discussion close to a week after the actual event took place. Mr. Tay Lian Teck was at the time president of the Singapore Football Association, a Municipal Commissioner and a member of the Chinese Board of Commerce. The article went out of its way to both line up expert opinion against female boxing and to mock “ultra-modern” women who might find enjoyment in it.
Unfortunately this piece is more of an editorial than an actual report. It lacked any of the critical details about the exhibition that so aroused the ire of respectable Chinese society within Singapore. But after a bit of exploration I found this account of the exhibition that seems to have inspired the debate:
Johnson’s Success: To Bouts for Girls
(From Our Own Correspondent.)
Malacca, Sept. 4.
The Malacca City Park, which has been closed for two months, reopened recently. A record crowd witnessed a boxing promotion of six contests there last night when How Diamond (9.6) and B. S. Ang (9.9) figured in the main event of the evening.
The fight was marked by hurricane hitting on the part of both boxers and the verdict went in favor of Joe Diamond at the end of the tenth round. The winner sustained a cut over the right eye at the end of the third round and had to receive medical attention.
The preliminaries included two bouts between girl boxers. Results: Miss Low (5.6) drew Miss Kee Lian (5.8) over four rounds.
Miss Goh (7.8) drew Miss Yong (7.4) over four rounds.
George Bong beat C. C. Tay over 4 rounds.
J. Rahman beat Kid Willard, the seconds throwing in the town at the end of the third round.
Dixie Kid knocked out Emble in the third of a four round bout.
The Straits Times, 5th of September 1933, page 15.
Shorn of its editorial bite, it is interesting to read about the actual exhibition in question. Two all female fights appeared on the expansive undercard. It may also be important to note that all four of these female fighters were in fact Chinese. I haven’t been able to locate any other accounts of fights by these women in the local press, but it would certainly be an interesting question for further investigation.
The conservative editorial slant of The Straits Times on this question was not shared by all of the treaty port papers. While the Singapore Free Press did not cover the actual event it evidentially got wind of its organization and commented on the upcoming contests in an editorial column of their own that ran on July 10th.
We lift a very different pen to comment upon the manners and habits of the modern Chinese miss, but we cannot Lind our eyes to the fact that radical changes are taking place among young ladies of to-day—changes that may well cause astonishment, if no other sentiment, among the more conservative of our Chinese communities. The latest step in the direction of emancipation among Chinese girls in Malaya takes them to the boxing arena where they will test their prowess in the noble art. The days when Chinese girls were practically confined to the house and garden except on the occasion of the Chap Got Meh are long past, and there is evidence that Malaya is losing its place as the last sanctuary of Chinese conservatism. Weddings and funerals on the old lines are becoming more an more rare and the system of collecting rentals by the lunar month is falling into disuse. We suppose we ought to welcome this accumulation of evidence of the advancement and enlightenment of the Chinese in Malaya—but somehow the sentimental element in the human composition cannot witness the jettisoning of this and that tradition and convention without a feeling akin to melancholy.
Singapore Free Press. Monday, July 10, 1933.
While paternalistic in tone, this paper took a much more positive view of female participation in combat sports. Yet on a fundamental level its fundamental assumptions were not all that different from the Straits Times. Both saw these contests through a political lens that linked them with an intrusion of Western modern values into Singapores otherwise conservative Chinese community. And while they differed on the ultimate desirability of these moves, both perceived something fundamentally disruptive within these developments. A line would be crossed from which one could not retreat.
In conclusion, these articles remind us that while we in the West often assume that female participation in the martial arts or combat sports reflects intrinsic Japanese or Chinese cultural values, that may not always be the case. Indeed, the movements that were most welcoming to female students tended to be those that embraced modernity. Further, more conservative elements of Chinese society in South East Asia (and other places) identified these trends as reflecting an undesirable intrusion of Western values.
This debate is important as it clearly illustrates the politicization of the Asian martial arts at a local level. Its easy to point to the Guoshu movement on mainland China, or the Japanese government’s appropriation of Budo, as examples of the traditional combat systems being implicated in nationalist projects. Yet this debate about the propriety of female boxers in South East Asia reminds us that individuals within local communities also sought to mobilize the martial arts to promote their own (often contradictory) visions of what modern Chinese society should be. If we were to ignore the more reactionary voices within the historical record, we would miss the degree to which the nature and form of these practices was actively contested.
If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Remembering Yim Wing Chun, the Boxer Rebellion and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.