I first became aware of an article titled “The Ancient Art of Chinese Boxing” by Julius Eigner through a reference in the work of Stanley Henning. I seem to recall that he was not impressed with its historical veracity, and neither am I. Still, it has always struck me as a potentially important source. We tell ourselves popular narratives in which the Chinese martial arts are “discovered” by the Western public on a fairly regular basis. They were discovered in 1900 (the Boxer Rebellion), again in the 1930s, again in the 1970s, and even after the release of “Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon.” At times I think the real mystery facing students of martial arts studies is not “how were these practices discovered” but, “how do they keep getting forgotten?”
Still, for certain sorts of actors this process of social forgetting is quite useful. It allows the martial arts to be continually reintroduced to the public as a means to explain something critical about the Chinese nation or society at a given moment in time. I doubt that the process of forgetting is ever totally complete. Even if we are not conscious of what we used to know, culturally laden symbols and associations remain. Those artifacts are the building blocks that the next round of diplomats, propagandists or advertising executives must work with as they attempt to reshape the martial arts in the image of their ideal world. Yes, through the process of social creation we craft our reality, but never exactly how we want it. History may be forgotten or negotiated, but it always exudes a certain invisible drag on the present.
Eigner’s work may not have much to say about the actual ancient origins of the Chinese martial arts, but it provides us with a very useful case study of how they have been packaged and presented to encourage individuals in the West to reimagine what China was, or might yet be. This is the core aim of any public or cultural diplomacy strategy. And by the middle years of the 1930s the KMT’s propaganda, foreign affairs and education ministries were fully engaged in this task. So were the nation’s fledgling athletic and martial arts associations. Indeed, these were critical tools as they could project an image of modernity and power directly into foreign stadiums and theaters as the Chinese state attempted to deploy the diplomatic charm of exhibition basketball games and martial arts demonstrations. The basic theory behind Nixon’s “Ping Pong Diplomacy” was nothing new. It actually has a long history in the diplomatic repertoire.
Nevertheless, it is not always practical to send out an athletic or martial arts team. Nor can they visit every city. To leverage the impact of these programs one needs to get high quality, sustained, media coverage. A well placed story in a major Western paper could reach many more voters than the actual event itself.
Getting that sort of coverage, sadly, was always a challenge for the Nationalist government. Shuge Wei has noted that prior to about 1935, the Chinese state lacked the key tools necessary to control its own political messaging or even to have an effective strategy for dealing with the press. And after these tools were eventually put in place, one was still dependent on foreign reporters and editors (writing for either treaty port newspapers or as correspondents for the major national dailys) to get the message into the hands of the global public.
One could tilt the playing field in various ways. It was not uncommon for the national governments of the era to censor international cable traffic in an attempt to kill the rapid distribution of unfavorable stories. More subtle intelligence officers might offer a large stipend to a friendly newspaper owner to encourage them to adhere to a certain editorial line. But this dance was a delicate one as the major newspapers in North America or Europe were only going to pick up stories from “credible sources”, and that meant keeping government interference well out of sight. Nor was the Chinese government the only state attempting to influence its national image through the press.
All of this brings us back to Julius Eigner’s curious (and by 1938 redundant) attempt to introduce the Chinese martial arts to the English speaking world. Typically I discuss articles and then introduce them to the readers. But this time it might be more effective study Eigner’s rhetoric before delving into a discussion of what this tells us about the complicated nature of “Kung Fu Diplomacy” in the 1930s. Still, Henning’s cautions need to be remembered as you dive into what can only be considered an “unreliable narrative.” Buckle up!
The Ancient Art of Chinese Boxing
Although jiu-jitsu, the Japanese art of self-defence which originated from the Chinese boxing practices, is known practically all over the world, noting more than the mere fact that there existed such an exercise as Chinese boxing is known to the West. Where this exercise, which justly may be termed strange and weird, comes from, what it means and what it aims are, seems to be still unknown. Yet the story of its history constitutes a really fascinating tale, even though there is little known of actual facts.
Chinese boxing originally developed out of the practices of the Indian Yogi, at least this is generally the thesis upheld by scholars, although there is not much to substantiate it except a rather vague affinity. When the first apostles of Buddhism came to China to make proselytes in “heathen” Cathay they brought with them, besides the holy scriptures and teachings of Buddha Gautama, the knowledge of strange physical as well as spiritual exercises from which Chinese boxing was to develop in later centuries.
These exercises had been developed and even elevated to a branch of science by the Yogi of India. These holy men and religious fanatics were deeply revered all over India owing to their magic powers over the laws of Nature. After many years of strenuous training, they had succeeded in liberating both body and mind from many of the rules and laws to which human life is subjected. Assisted by a cleverly developed breathing technique they had become masters of Nature, and, thanks to these powers, the un-educated populace stood in awe before them.
Rare physical feats, such as the suspension in mid-air without visible means of support, the traversing of fire with bare feet without getting burned, the falling into sleep, a sort of trance rather which sometimes lasts for weeks, without visible adverse effects etc., are still observable in many parts of India. Up to now Western science and psychology has not succeeded in unveiling the motivating power behind some of these strange phenomenon, although attempts have been made to deal with them as trickery and illusions.
The history of boxing in China is rather scanty. Some data, however, has been preserved on a stone monument in the famous temple Tsao Ling Sau [Shaolin] in Honan, which dates back to 722 A.D. This monument relates that the Emperor T’an Ta’ai Tsung of the T’ang Dynasty, once in need of brave and courageous men, called on the boxing monks of this monastery and had them incorporated into his regular army to fight against bandits. These fierce, fighting monks in the subsequent battles discharged their duty so honorably and justified the confidence put into them to such a degree that the Emperor endowed them with a huge piece of land on which the monastery still exists.
Scholars of today assert that this temple became the cradle of Chinese boxing. Through all of the centuries this temple enriched and enlarged the ancient boxing tradition through waxing and waning fortune. Even today boxers consider it a distinction to be a pupil of the monks of Tsao Ling Ssu.
But following this first period of relative popularity, there came many lean years. Periods of highest imperial favor alternated with those of relentless suppression. During the reign of the last foreign dynasty on the dragon throne numerous edicts were promulgated prohibiting boxing throughout the country. The reason for this last persecution, according to present-day historians, is the fact that the Manchu Emperors lived in constant fear of the revolutionary spirit of the boxers, which was especially rampant during this period. Eventually, in 1900, a secret society which was given the name of the Boxers succeeded in gathering their forces, and the rising which bears this name took place, being deflected against foreigners in China instead of the Manchu Dynasty by a clever maneuver of the Empress Ch’u His.
The decline of Chinese boxing was due to the enmity of the Manchus towards the boxers, scholars assert. It was only during past years that determined efforts were being made to restore this typically Chinese sport and give it a position which is deserved in a modern, growing nation.
Private individuals as well as official bodies combine to revive the ancient form of boxing. The presence of a group of Chinese at the World Olympic Games in 1936 in Berlin, who showed to a bewildered audience the intricacies of Chinese boxing, formed a milestone in this modern development. At the moment efforts are underway to select the best points of Chinese and Western boxing and to combine them into a new exercise for the delectation and satisfaction of the growing, athletically-minded generations.
Before starting to describe what Chinese boxing really consists of, a few feats which ancient boxers are said to have accomplished may be enumerated.
The story is preserved of a famous boxer who for years trained the muscles of his fingers in such a way that with the outstretched fingers of both hands he continuously hit upon the trunk of a huge tree. After having done this exercise for many years he had pierced the wooden trunks completely and at the same time had gained tremendous power. It is said that with a light touch of his fingers he could kill a man or else throw him through the air for a distance of ten yards. As the fame of the boxer spread he became so vain that his teacher found it incumbent to set him aright. He demanded of his pupil that he hurl a man through the air. The moment the man was flying through mid-air the old teacher jumped after him, succeeded in taking hold of him while still in the air and eventually brought him down lightly on the ground thus causing that he did not suffer the slightest harm. The audience stood in awe as they witnessed this well-nigh incredible achievement of both the old teacher and his pupil. The latter, it is related, from then on was again a modest man who eventually achieved a mental as well as physical balance of power which is the possession of all true boxers.
One more story of this kind may be related. During the Ming Dynasty there lived a man in the province of Hunan who was master over his body to such an extent that physical laws seemed to have no effect on him. Although Old and feeble, with a body ravaged by opium smoking, so the story goes, people from far and wide flocked to his abode to witness his incredible accomplishments, for he was able to fall asleep while actually floating in midair.
Practices of this kind, known scientifically as the transfer of the center of gravity, point directly to the Indian origins of Chinese boxing exercises. For the practices of the Indian Yogi have resulted in similar and even greater feats of human conquest over the physical laws. It must, however, be stated that modern Chinese boxing has no similar tales to tell.
As all highly developed abilities in arts and handicrafts in China since times immemorial have been handed down from the father to only one son or from the teacher to only his favorite pupil, it sounds logical that the number of people who practice boxing in its original form is infinitesimal. It is for this reason mainly that it is extremely difficult to get precise information on this strange and ancient art.
As already pointed out, it is in no way parallel to any form of sport as practiced in Europe or America. In some way it resembles a graceful antique dance of extremely harmonic albeit difficult movements. It may best be described by the following comparison. Western boxing is an expression of the active, restless, fighting and searching philosophy of life of the Occidental, where as Chinese boxing just as exactly reflects the contemplative, passive, knowing and restful soul of Asia.
If any attempt at classification of Chinese boxing can be made at all, one may divide it into two distinct phases: the exoteric, or outer, and the esoteric, or innermost phase of complete mastery over the body. The first may be roughly described as the attainment of physical power and fitness whereas the goal of the second school is the inward science of self-control.
The ordering of training in both schools is somewhat parallel, although there are minor differences. The Chinese distinguish three separate stages. The first stage, more strenuous and hard than the advanced forms, is primarily concerned with the hardening of the bones to their true strength. The second stage is devoted to the training of the muscles until they become soft and flexible and instantly responsive to the will. And finally the last stage is a lightening of the physical body through proper breathing which by this time has been scientifically established to coordinate with the lightening like actions.
After having gone through the three phases, until they have actually become subconscious, it is asserted, the adept of boxing will notice an agility of the body which is impossible to attain otherwise. However, this agility is not only of the body, although it is essential to the darts and leaps demanded by his exercise, but it slowly imparts itself to the mind. The thoughts which hitherto have been murky, dull and slow, eventually will become clear and keen. Just as the physical movements are sure and certain as never before, so the mental and emotional capacities will become clear, sharp and crisp.
The attainment of this physical and mental fitness seems to activate the scores of people of all ages and walks of life who crowd the Shanghai public parks every morning at sunrise. Clerks, students, shop employees all over the country can be see in idle moments, practicing the movements of their sport. While doing these exercises, their faces seem set and stern, forgetful of the happenings around them, even happy. If one is to believe them, they thereby gain strength, both mental and physical, for their day’s work.
But the true disciple of boxing is not satisfied with having reached this stage. The true boxer regards it as insignificant to have attained physical mastery only, for the high spirit of fair play permeates even ancient Chinese sports and call it unfair to apply these noble principals to the uninitiated. Further, as it is unworthy to harm one’s fellow beings, it is wisest to pursue these studies of mental control still further, striving for that illumination of mind which brings freedom to the individual.
Yet, with the present sketch, the problems of Chinese boxing have only been touched. The fact, however, that with it attention has been drawn to this strange exercise, may justify the attempt. Because Chinese boxing as so decidedly this Oriental touch which seems to defy all clear cut definitions and explanations it seems to ban impossible task for an outsider to unlock its mysteries.
Dissecting Julius Eigner’s “Chinese” Boxing
I sometimes think that the term “Orientalism” is overused; but it would be hard to think of a better-case study in Edward Said’s core concept than the explosion of inscrutable mysticism and “alien otherness” that we have just witnessed. In Eigner’s account true Chinese martial artists are more like Jedi knights than the flesh and blood instructors who patrolled the hallways of the Central Guoshu Association. His brand of “scientific mysticism” reminds me very much of the sort of the esoteric and occult discussions that were popular in the 1930s and 1940s.
How did Eigner come to his conclusions about the nature the Chinese martial arts and what was he actually trying to convey to Western readers? On an even more fundamental level, was this supposed to be a positive view of the martial arts, something that would spark curiosity about this aspect of Chinese culture? Or was it an attempt to dismiss a major movement in Chinese society as a “mere curiosity”?
Our first challenge in answering these questions is to ascertain who Eigner actually was. That effort highlights how careful one must be in dealing with the foreign language reporting on China during this era.
Julius Eigner was a prolific journalist in the final years of the 1930s placing dozens of articles in important English language newspapers and magazines in both China and Europe. Most of this material appears intentionally innocuous. Eigner seems to have been something of a cultural critic. He wrote reviews of tourist attractions which might interest foreign travelers and even critiqued trends in Chinese culture (such as changes in the world of opera). We already encountered one of his articles while reviewing accounts of martial artists in the Miaofeng Shan festival. During the late 1930s he seems to have produced dozens of stories like that one.
Yet to the extent that Eigner is remembered today, it is for a handful of more politically relevant pieces. In the February 1938 issue of National Geographic readers found a (still frequently cited) article titled “The Rise and Fall of Nanking.” Started before the Japanese conquest of the city, this article provided critical context for understanding the depth of the ensuing destruction and death. As such it helped to shape the American understanding of those horrific events prior to the nation’s entrance into WWII.
Some discussions of this article identify Juius Eigner as an “American journalist.” While its true that he published dozens of articles in perfect English, that assertion is false. Eigner was German. Along with Robert Broese, he was one of the representatives of the German Transoceanic Service stationed in China.
Throughout the 1910s and 1920s Transoceanic had been a reputable newswire service that sold articles covering events in Europe to a variety of newspapers in Asia, North America and South America. After 1933 the service was taken over by the Nazi party and made into a covert arm of their intelligence services. None of this was known publicly (at least at first) and Transoceanic continued to claim to be an independent media outlet. In reality it was spreading a carefully crafted mix of stories promoting anti-semitic sentiment and Nazi propaganda in various areas of the world.
Eigner’s appears to have been sent to China after this fateful transition occurred. Nor did he hide his political sympathies. In his memoirs Carl Crow, an American newspaper mogul living in China, disdainfully recalls Eigner lecturing him on the wisdom of Nazi policies. It would probably be more accurate to think of Eigner as a junior Nazi intelligence officer rather than a simple journeyman reporter with an interest in “slice of life” stories.
This fact may encourage us to take a much closer look at the work that Eigner produced and wonder if there may have been another agenda. At first glance his writing on Chinese boxing simply seems to be poorly informed. He motions to the Central Guoshu Association, but never names it. By 1937 there had already been so much reporting on the Chinese martial arts in papers like The China Press that Eigner’s piece stands out as somewhat naive even by the standards of the time. Again, this was an era in which the treaty port press in China regularly reported on local martial arts demonstrations and even wrote about policy changes coming out of the Central Guoshu Institute.
While there is certainly a tendency in Eigner’s work to focus on the strange and inscrutable, his writings do not typically suggest that he was hopelessly naive. To really get a sense of what is going on with this piece I think that it needs to be read side by side with another article, titled “The Chinese Soldier Today” that he placed in The China Journal in 1937. Rather than transcribing a second lengthy piece I will simply summarize it as a glowing description of the professionalism, discipline, modern mechanization and ingenious tactics of the Chinese military in their fight against the Japanese. And when these advantages were not enough, Eigner was willing to go on at length about the spirit and courage of the Chinese troops.
Its a well written article, and Eigner’s pictures of the Chinese weapons and training exercises are great. (Indeed, he seems to have been a talented photographer). Still, the tone of this discussion seems a bit out of place. As noble as their spirits may have been, the Chinese didn’t win most of their battles against the Japanese during the 1930s. Few others would probably describe the training, moral, leadership and equipment of the Chinese army in 1937 in such glowing terms.
If we remember that Eigner is not an independent journalist, but rather someone who represents the interests of the German government, this article makes a lot more sense. The German’s had been critical partners in rebuilding and militarizing the Republic throughout the 1930s. China was seen as a source of raw materials that the Germans badly needed, while the KMT saw in Germany a friendly power who could act as an effective role model in the militarization of their society. German cooperation with China did not really begin to fall apart until late 1937. Thus Eigner had every reason to talk up the strength of Chinese military. The credibility of Nazi military aid, training and strategic planning was being put to the test by the Japanese military and all the world was watching.
While he dwells on the topic of heroic bravery, there is nothing superstitious, Orientalist or otherwise inscrutable about Eigner’s discussion of the KMT’s fighting forces in 1937. Yet by 1938 the situation has evolved. Much of the official Sino-German cooperation had fallen apart after Hitler allied himself with the militarily superior Japanese in his struggle against the Soviet Union. Despite this move many Germans living in China remained personally sympathetic to the Chinese cause rather than Japan.
Still, the shift in alliances would have been a problem for Eigner. The Chinese no longer fought with German support. Nor was it possible to continue to pass off repeated Chinese defeats in the North as one “strategic retreat” after another. The tone of his writing shifts. Any discussion of Chinese fighting spirit is gone. According to the 1938 article the Chinese are fundamentally a peaceful people, but also one living in the past. They are honorable, observe the rules of fair play, and posses an ancient wisdom that is not totally incompatible with the aspirations of modern science. But Eigner goes on to suggest that these are also not the sorts of individuals whom readers in North America should expect to fight in their own defense.
It is almost remarkable that one could write an article about the Chinese martial arts in 1938 and not mention the tremendous excitement around the raising of big sword troops. This was an image that dominated American newsreels and reporting on the Chinese war effort. But that wouldn’t have been a part of the story that a German agent would be interested in broadcasting in 1938. Instead we are treated to a reminisce of how bewildered the crowd at the 1936 Berlin Olympics was at the sight of a Taijiquan demonstration. It was all “so mysterious.”
Eigner’s goal was not necessarily to denigrate the Chinese martial arts, he just framed them in a very unique way. His discussion fits quite nicely into the sorts of esoteric explorations that were popular in some circles in the 1930s. At the time many readers probably found his description to be quite interesting. But he was also using his examination of boxing to situate Chinese society in ways that were strikingly different from his treatment of the Chinese military (which, incidentally, never mentioned wushu) one year earlier.
The KMT used both athletic and martial arts programs as part of their formal cultural diplomacy strategy during the 1920s and 1930s. Still, the number of spectators that any event could accommodate paled in comparison to the readers that could be reached through a well placed press account of these same practices. That meant relying on foreign reporters to place articles in treaty port newspapers with the hopes that they would be picked up by major national dailys in the West. It was always a long-shot, but the potential payoffs were seen as substantial.
Shuge Wei explored how this process unfolded in great detail in the recent volume News Under Fire: China’s Propaganda Against Japan in the English Language Press, 1928-1941. While this study never addresses the era’s martial arts discussions, it opens a fascinating window onto the larger world of bribes, threats and secret agendas that shaped much of the press coverage coming out of China during this period. Indeed, Wei’s book is required reading for anyone seeking to use these sources in their own research.
Julius Eigner’s career as a journalist in China expands this conversation in two important ways. First ,it strongly suggests that these sorts of machinations were not restricted to the daily newspapers. Even respected monthly magazines could become the targets of state sponsored influence attempts. Second, Eigner reminds us that the Chinese government was not the only player seeking to exercise a little “Kung Fu Diplomacy.” Multiple other states had also determined that shaping China’s image on the global stage was a critical aspect of their own foreign policy.
The manipulation of the image of the Chinese martial arts was a powerful tool for doing just that. This was not a new strategy. Governments had pointed to the threat of anti-Western Boxer violence to demand concessions at the turn of the 20th century, as well as to justify racist and exclusionary immigration practices at home. The image of both the Japanese and Chinese martial arts had always haunted political discussions. Eigner’s shifting treatment of Chinese culture between his 1937 and 1938 articles nicely illustrates how nuanced this process could be. After all, a good propagandist doesn’t want to be seen. His work is valuable to us today not for what he says (or does not say) about Chinese martial arts history. Rather, he reminds us that even in the 1930s this was an important and politically contested space.
If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Thinking About Failure in the Martial Arts