Its hard to think of a single individual who had a greater impact on the development of the Chinese martial arts during the all important years of the Republic than Zhang Zhijiang (1882-1966). His name peppers the pages of works on physical culture and sports history. Indeed, modern Chinese martial artists are still dealing with aspects of his legacy. Yet it has proved almost impossible to find a single biographical discussion that really brings all of the aspects of his career together.
There are various reasons for this. In mainland China the Guoshu program was displaced by the Communist sponsored Wushu movement during the 1950s. This was an issue as Zhang had concentrated his energies on building formal institutions and organizations, rather than creating elaborate lineage teaching structures. These were, in turn, tied to the fate of the KMT.
Or perhaps Zhang’s career was just too large to fit neatly into any of the historical boxes that typically seek to organize the contributions of Republic era public officials. One can certainly find brief descriptions of his contributions to the martial arts in the histories of Morris (2004) or Kennedy and Gao (2008). Other authors, interested in questions of crime and social history, tend to ignore Zhang’s martial interests and focus instead on his brief tenure as head of the national opium suppression committee. Of course historians of the violent Warlord era know Zhang as one of the most trusted (and competent) followers of Feng Yuxiang, the “Christian Warlord.” Yet those who focus on the history of Christianity in China are quick to point out that Zhang was just as important a missionary as his mentor, if not more so. Indeed, it is possible to structure an entire discussion of his career that focuses almost entirely on his devotion to Christianity.
The following essay attempts to briefly bring together these various strands in an effort to help us better understand the personality and motivations of a key architect of the Guoshu movement. As students of Chinese martial studies increasingly come to appreciate the importance of the Republic period it is necessary to deal with the historically, and at times ethically, complex contributions of individuals like Chu Minyi or General Li Jinglin. The careers of individuals such as these stretch far beyond the confines of canned lineage histories that tend to dominate popular discussions. Ironically, Zhang may be one of the least understood figures within his generation of martial arts reformers (at least in the West), even though his name frequently pops up in our period histories.
Given the circumstances of his birth, one might have suspected that Zhang Zhijiang would inherit a certain penchant for organization. Yet one probably would not have guessed that he would achieve such fame. Born in 1882 to a landlord family, Zhang grew up watching his father function as a village elder in Zhili. Given the family’s economic position, Zhang was provided a traditional Confucian education and he studied to become an examination candidate during the 1890s. His studies can only be considered a moderate success as he was a awarded a low level Sheng-yuan degree, but this would not open a pathway to government service.
The family suffered a crisis in 1903 when Zhang’s father was required to produce two conscripts from his village for a newly formed imperial army unit. Unable to do so he was forced to send his own son into military service. At this point Zhang was 19 years old.
Military life seems to have agreed with the new recruit. He impressed his superiors and, given his education, he was put on a fast track for advancement. By 1907 Zhang was a platoon leader for the cavalry battalion of the 1st Mixed Brigade. This turned out to be a fortuitous posting as it gave him a chance to meet another young platoon leader named Feng Yuxiang, often referred to by later historians as the “Christian Warlord.” Zhang was eventually convinced to join Feng’s private “military studies society.”
Things began to move quickly for he young soldiers in 1910. After being radicalized by senior officers in their unit, both Feng and Zhang adopted anti-Manchu and nationalist sentients. In October 1911, when the Wuhan Revolt broke out, Feng’s Military Studies Society attempted to launch a local armed uprising. Zhang was sent to Shanghai to make contact with the Republic revolutionary leadership. Both efforts seem to have failed and the two were forced to flee.
Still, there was no stopping the tide of history. The Qing dynasty eventually fell, and the Republic was established in 1912. This led to major reorganizations within the military that helped to launch Zhang’s career.
In 1912 Chang Shao-tseng (one of Zhang’s former officers) was named the military governor of Shanxi. Zhang was appointed as staff officer and advisor. This posting lasted until 1914 when Zhang (needing a new job) traveled to Sichuan. There he took up the position of advisor for Feng Yuxiang who was commanding the 16th Mixed Brigade. Zhang would continue to serve as one of Feng’s most loyal followers for the rest of his career.
Zhang’s time in Sichuan was also important for more personal reasons. Like many of the modernizers in his generation, Zhang had been personally agnostic on questions of religion or spirituality. But while stationed in the Southwest he had a chance to work with individuals from the area’s protestant community. Zhang was deeply impressed with what he saw. Not only did this community have an unusual degree of enthusiasm for the national revolution, but they exhibited what he would go on to term “faith through actions.” Indeed, this was a notion (based on his reading of James 2) that Zhang would return to throughout his career.
Zhang was eventually Baptized in 1918 and went on to become both an enthusiastic and committed Christian. He was an ardent believer in daily scripture study and distributed tens of thousands of bibles over the course of his career. It should also be noted that Zhang’s conversion (at least according to some of his biographers) was earlier than Feng’s. Both Feng and Zhang would promote Christianity among their troops and were known for the comparative discipline of their fighting forces.
Zhang’s early military career was also a time when he honed a near obsessive interest in the Chinese martial arts. As with Christianity, in these fighting arts he saw an opportunity to reform and strengthen the nation by reforming and strengthening the individuals who comprised it. He even a martial arts “conversion story”, and would often tell how he had been cured of partial lower-body paralysis by his dedicated practice of these fighting systems. Zhang’s ardent desire to “save China” in a geo-political sense rested in a complex triangular relationship with his equally strong impulses to “save Chinese souls” and to “save the martial arts.” Indeed, it may not be possible, or fruitful, to discuss these various aspects of his career in pristine isolation.
Between the late teens and the late 1920s Zhang would fight a number of battles on Feng’s behalf. His career in this period is complicated enough that it would probably be better to leave it to the military historians. Yet by 1927 Feng had decided that he was done fighting. In that year he entered into an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, effectively destroying the Wuhan faction of the KMT. To cement the deal Zhang was sent to Nanjing to act as Feng’s personal liaison with the new government. Zhang was then elected to the State Council of the National Government, and named the Chief of Senior Staff during the second half of the Chang’s Northern Expedition.
His activities in this final campaign marked the end of his military career. In 1928 Zhang formally retired from active military and political affairs. Of course the next steps in his career ensured that he would never be able to leave the political world too far behind.
The establishment of a more unified government provided Zhang with an opportunity to focus on his two great passions, religion and the martial arts. In 1927, while giving a speech at a commemoration celebration for Sun Yat-sen, Zhang argued that anti-imperialist rhetoric aimed at Christianity missed the mark. He noted that Sun himself had been a dedicated Christian, and there was nothing within the Three People’s Principals that ran contrary to Christian teaching.
In early 1928 both Zhang and Niu Yongjian (then the Governor of Jiangsu Province) approached the Central Committee of the KMT with a similar argument. They again sought to discredit more radical voices within the anti-imperialist camp that were branding religion and missionary work as the “opium of the masses.” More specifically, they advocated for policies banning anti-Christian banners and public speech. On Feb. 26th the Central Committee passed a resolution along similar lines.
Zhang followed a similar strategy in his attempts to rebuild the Chinese martial arts. He seems to have viewed the “traditional” and faction-riven state of affairs within the folk arts as a metaphor for the weakness of the Chinese society as a whole. A campaign was necessary that would not just strengthen, but also unify, society while ensuring its loyalty to the ruling party.
Working with the former Tianjin warlord Li Jinglin (famous for his promotion of the Wudang sword method) and Zhang Shushen (a fellow military officer), Zhang once again approached the KMT’s Central Committee. This time he proposed the creation of a new national martial art organization and regulatory structure. This request was approved and Zhang was named the director of the new institute which, while reorganized multiple times during the 1930s, would go on to dominate the national discussion of the martial arts during the Republic period. Immediately after being named Zhang and his leadership team set about organizing the now famous 1928 National Martial Arts Examination.
Despite his initial attempts to “retire” from politics, Zhang continued to be assigned to other postings throughout this period. His reputation for rectitude complicated his life when he was named Chairman of the National Opium Suppression Committee in 1929. This position would soon find Zhang investigating a major scandal when a group of civilian police officers, working on tips from Zhang’s old mentor Feng, attempted to interdict a shipment of illegal opium in Shanghai only to discover that it was actually being transported by a larger and well armed military police unit.
The incident and its political fall out was extensively reported in the press. It seems that Feng was attempting to increase the value of his own opium operations by having the police take out his economic (and in some senses political) competition. The incident further revealed that the KMT, its public rhetoric notwithstanding, was unwilling to follow its own pronouncements when it came to drug policy. All of this led Zhang to publicly resign in disgust.
Geopolitical events, however, would conspire to keep the martial arts at the top of Zhang’s agenda. On September 18th, 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria and quickly moved to consolidate its position in the region. A few months later the Japanese Navy opened its own front with attacks on Shanghai. All of this forced the KMT to shift from a policy of general anti-imperialism (much of which was aimed at the UK), to a more focused attempt to build relationships with the West while consolidating global public opinion against the Japanese.
The attacks on Shanghai were something of a public relations disaster for the Japanese. While they could use their control of newswires and telegraph lines to manipulate the narratives about what was happening in Manchuria, the assault on Shanghai happened in the full view of the global press. As a result Japan was forced to go on a public relations offensive in 1932-1933 sending both diplomats and cultural figures to cities across Europe and North America in an attempt to promote their vision of what was happening in Asia.
The KMT was fully aware of these developments and sought to counter these efforts with a diplomatic and cultural charm offensive of their own. These efforts were, unfortunately, blunted by the military weakness of the KMT. That ensured that certain steps to pacify the Japanese were necessary. Still, the traditional Chinese martial arts would come to play an increasingly important role in burnishing China’s image on the global stage during the 1930s. Much of this effort would be overseen by Zhang himself.
Japanese aggression seems to have generated a good deal of enthusiasm for the martial arts. Many dadao or “big sword” units and training classes were created in the early years of the 1930s. Zhang argued for increased martial arts training in military units during this period, and pointed to the importance of big sword troops in his promotion of the 1933 National Martial Arts Examination.
Yet 1933 also saw the advent of a more diplomatic and outward looking martial arts discourse. Zhang embarked on a tour of southern Chinese cities designed to promote the Guoshu program. He then headed out into South East Asia where he gave numerous talks and staged martial arts demonstrations. Zhang’s efforts to boost traditional physical culture within the diaspora community seem to have been calculated to increase support for, and identification with, the Chinese state.
Zhang’s other missionary passions were not forgotten during this period. In the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria he created an institution called “Christian Bands of Ten for Saving China.” Formally incorporated in Nanjing in 1934, this group sought to save the nation by strengthening the people. In this case that was to be accomplished through a mixture of missionary work, regular Bible study and rigorous daily exercise.
This is only one area where Zhang’s interests in martial arts and Christianity overlapped. Of course he also promoted the YMCA, which by the 1930s was often offering martial arts classes of its own. And Andrew Morris notes that the Central Guoshu Academy’s training facility mandated that all students engage in daily bible study during its early years. It would seem that for Zhang the martial arts had become the ultimate expression of his “faith in action” philosophy.
These attitudes may be important to bear in mind when evaluating some of Zhang’s choices. While Morris explains Zhang’s 1934 decision to expel all female students from the Central Guoshu Academy (where there had been rumors of “improprieties” with male instructors) in terms of the KMT’s regressive theories of gender, Zhang’s fundamentalist religious background could also shed light on the decision.
In 1935 the government combined the Guoshu organization with other groups dedicated to physical culture to create a new institute that would pursue a unified approach to physical education. Once again, Zhang was named the director of the newly reconstituted institution. As part of the effort to both study the latest physical education movements, as well as to advertise the strides that China had made in this area (and the strength of its own martial arts movement), Zhang undertook a world tour in 1935 and 1936. Accompanied by a KMT Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he visited major cities in US, Europe and South East Asia, promoting “cultural understanding” and the Chinese vision of physical culture at every stop.
Much of this tour must be understood in the context of the massive preparations that were then underway for China’s participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics. This was the first Olympic Games to which the nation would send a full sized, and properly funded, team. As such it was meant to be something of a coming out party for the Chinese physical culture movement.
Given the importance of the venue, and the efforts that China was making to impress the global community, Zhang and Chu Minyi decided that the Chinese martial arts should be represented at the games as well. As such the Chu selected and trained a sizable demonstration team to give a martial arts exhibition, designed to educate Western audiences about the nation’s indigenous physical culture.
By all accounts this martial arts display was well received. The demonstration team then set off on a European tour, brining their educational program to a number of cities. This all must have made a good impression as in June of 1937 the German Consul in China awarded both Zhang and Chu Olympic medals for their efforts on the behalf of Adolph Hitler.
This inauspicious honor set the high-water mark for Zhang’s cultural diplomacy efforts. Renewed Japanese aggression in 1937 would shift any discussion of the martial arts in a much more practical direction. After the ensuing invasion Zhang moved the (much diminished) Guoshu establishment to Chunking. There he served on the People’s Political Council. He used this new office to continue to campaign for the traditional martial arts, but public opinion shifted against him, and his views came to be criticized in the press.
Following the end of hostilities in 1945, Zhang returned to Nanjing before eventually moving on to Beijing. He resumed his leadership of the now totally smashed Guoshu movement. The once proud national organization had been reduced to handful of members. With their funding cut, it was impossible to repair the damage that had been done to their venues, let alone promote new events.
Zhang seems to have tried to restore the glory of the Chinese martial arts by appealing directly to foreign audiences. In 1947 he gave an extensive interview to the NY Times detailing the decline of the Guoshu movement, but also reminding the world of the cultural importance of the Chinese martial arts. All of this read like a thinly veiled appeal to his own government made via Western media markets. But it was not to be. The era of the “National Arts” had come to a close.
In 1949 Zhang ignored the advice of friends to flee to Taiwan and instead decided to stay in Beijing. Of course the pioneering martial arts historian Tang Hao made the same choice. Ironically Zhang had ordered Tang to be arrested on suspicion of being a communist back in 1932 (Morris 2004). But the decision seems to have worked out in a similar way for both of them.
With the rise of the PRC, Zhang quietly shed his past as a “Christian general” and resumed his retirement from political life. He spent his final years researching and promoting his beloved martial arts, now in the form of Wushu. Zhang died in Beijing in 1966 at the age of 84.
Howard H. Boorman. 1967. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Volume 1. Columbia University Press.
Judkins and Nielson. 2015. The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. SUNY Press.
Andrew Morris. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sports and Physical Culture in Republican China. University of California Press.
Frederic Wakeman, Jr. 1995. Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937. California University Press.
Shuge Wei. 2017. News Under Fire: China’s Propaganda Against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928-1941. Hong Kong UP.
Ying Fuk-tsang. 2011. “Zhang Zhijiang: A Christian General’s Faith in Action.” In Carol Lee Hamrin and Stacey Bieler (eds.) Salt and Light, Vol. 3: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China. Pickwick Publications.
A representative sample of English language coverage on Zhang during the 1930s. These articles was chosen because they focused on his work with the martial arts:
“Chinese Boxing Show” Hong Kong Daily Press. April 27th 1933.
Untitled. The Straits Times. April 21, 1933. Page 14.
“Chinese Gymnasts Tour South Seas With Chang”. The China Press. May 26th 1933.
“Chinese Boxing Expert Leaving on World Tour”. The China Press. August 12, 1935.
“Nanking General Will Lead Nation in Physical Culture.” The China Press. September 18 1936 (Some discussion of the “League of Ten for National Salvation.”)
“Hitler Awards Olympic Medals to Dr. Chu and Gen Chang Chih-kiang.” The China Press. June 19, 1937.
“Lean Days for Guoshu”. New York Times. November 2nd, 1947.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (20): General Li Jinglin, the “Sword Saint” of Wudang.