The First of Five Photos by Horst Faas to accompany story on the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.
An older Chinese man practices the calisthenics called Tai Chi Chuan, sometimes called shadowboxing by Westerners, in the city of Shanghai recently. The calisthenic is done voluntarily and often alone. (AP Newswire 1972)
Taijiquan on a Cold Day in 1972
Occasionally you get lucky. You might find a photograph of the Chinese martial arts that distills a lot into a single image. That is what Horst Faas, the famed German war photographer, was known for. His photographs of the Vietnam war came to define the public perception of that conflict. Those images were complex and politically challenging. Perhaps we should expect nothing less from his photos of Chinese martial artists?
This particular photo, one of a series that ran along side an AP newswire article in 1972, managed to capture the complexity of the traditional martial arts in mainland China during the closing years of the Cultural Revolution. It also hints at the contradictory attitudes of Americans towards them on the eve of the eruption of the Bruce Lee/Hong Kong film inspired “Kung Fu fever” of the later 1970s. Every photograph captures a moment in time, but this was a particularly important one.
In the foreground we find a male martial artist dressed in a hat and mittens to stave off the cold. He strides purposefully, advancing through a set of movements described to the Western audience as “Tai Chi Chun”, a Chinese form of calisthenics often practiced “alone and voluntarily.” (We will return to the significance of this last clause shortly).
Nevertheless, the dynamism of his movements seems to be swallowed up by the sheer scale of the setting. Rather than the groups of martial artists that inhabit so many of China’s pubic spaces, here we see only a single individual in an impersonal space, dwarfed by an oversized propaganda poster in the background. What mere traditional practice could stand in the face of such a “heroic” message? The mythic worker in the background stands unmoving with his arm aloft, yet it is his ideological call that dominates the frame. Undeterred and alone, a single martial artist carries on in the shadow of “the Revolution.” This was Taijiquan in 1972.
The Thing vs. the Idea of the Thing
What are we to make of this image? How should we explain it? What dimensions of information has it captured, and what has it excluded?
The very composition of Faas’ photograph suggests a method for its interpretation. In the foreground we see an embodied practice. A man practicing Taijiquan is, in some ways, a very concrete thing. His practice is a result of technical transmissions and historical processes. We might study his movements and master his techniques. If interviewed he could tell us about his teacher and students.
Yet this scene derives its visual tension from the immense propaganda poster in the background. That is not simply paper and ink. It is the tangible representation of a powerful set of ideas being consciously projected into the nation’s shared public spaces. In this photograph it is actually these ideological facts that construct and give meaning to the man’s embodied practice, not his personal history or embodied skill. They are also present. The two seem to exist in a powerful dialogue between that which is individual and peculiar, and that which is collective and universal. Nothing gives a slightly subversive subtext to an “individual and voluntary” activity quite like doing it in front a call to collectivist and revolutionary action.
This is a critical point whose utility is not restricted to this photograph. Scholars construct the object of their study in very specific ways so that we can gain analytical purchase on a variety of theoretical problems. The Chinese martial arts are typically treated as either objects, a sort of cultural or embodied artifact, best understood in technical terms, or as an idea, a collection of images, texts and concepts that evolve through time.
For the purposes of any individual project we might choose to focus on one or the other of these approaches. In a paper on Huang Fei Hung in Hong Kong cinema I might be much more concerned with the ways in which this southern art is presented to the audience rather than in how it was actually practiced “on the street.” Likewise, most of our historical discussions of the origins of Shaolin Boxing ignore more modern legendary stories attributing the art to Bodhidharma or some other legendary figure. Instead they focus on a vision of the art that arrises from contemporaneous historical documents or the careful reconstruction of physical training methods. And there is certainly much room in martial arts studies for both types of projects.
But what does it all mean? Taking a step back, it becomes obvious that it is impossible to understand what a martial art means to the people who practice it in a cultural sense if we systematically ignore the stories that they tell (or consume) about their own practice. Likewise, if we cannot appreciate the technical practice of Hung Gar we will miss the social significance of something like the “ethnographic turn” in the early Wong Fei Hung films.
We may occasionally bracket the study of the martial arts as object/practice or idea/media discourse. Yet we cannot understand much about their development or place in the modern world if at some point we don’t struggle to bring these perspectives together. Ideas motivate and give meaning to practice. New types of practice lead to new ideas. This cyclic relationship, as much as anything else, dictates the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of martial arts studies.
Lets reconsider this image from first a technical and historical perspective. Daniel Amos has noted that we are mistaken when we assume that the Chinese martial arts reemerged on the mainland only after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in 1976. Indeed, we are also largely mistaken when we assert that it was the Cultural Revolution that led to their disappearance in the first place.
To simplify a complex paper, Amos argues that in fact most (non-professional) individuals gave up the martial arts at a much earlier date than is generally assumed. The far reaching social reforms enacted by the new Communist regime meant that the old social institutions that supported boxing (and gave people an incentive to promote it), were basically wiped out by property and community reform programs by the end of the 1950s. Once it became clear that it was local party officials and the state that ensured one’s safety, not voluntary social networks of traditional practitioners or secret society members, most people very quickly gave up the martial arts. The world in which they had previously existed had simply vanished, cutting off the demand for these practices.
In a perverse way the Cultural Revolution may have actually saved the practice of the Chinese martial arts on the mainland. Many important texts and weapons were destroyed by over-zealous Red Guards or those who feared their wrath. But as it became clear that the local party officials had lost control of the situation and could no longer protect individuals from the Red Guards, former practitioners and “reformed” secret society members once again started to rebuild martial arts networks as a form of private protection.
Seeing public Taijiquan practice in the early 1970s is, in some ways, less surprising than what one might assume. Further, David Palmer has suggested that individuals turned to activities like Qigong and Taijichuan as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma and repression that was inflicted on the population by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And both of these scholars have noted that the trends which began in the 1970s only accelerated in the 1980s.
Seen in this light our lone martial artist is neither an aberration nor an illustration of the futile nature of trying to bring modernity to the Chinese people. He is a pioneer who suggests what the future of the Chinese martial arts will be, as well as the political subtext that will accompany these activities. After all, as Faas notes, these are voluntary and individual exercises which served to purposefully set people apart from the mandatory and collective daily exercises that were practiced by pretty much every work unit in the country.
This turn towards the question of ideology brings us to the second half of our interpretive equation. What did such an image suggest to Western readers about the nature of Chinese society and martial arts? Few Americans knew that much about what was going on inside the globally reclusive Chinese state during the Cultural Revolution. And why is it significant that pictures like this, and so many other discussions of Taijiquan, begin to appear in the press in the years 1972 and 1973?
We know that the popularity of the Chinese martial arts exploded in the mid 1970s. The release of Enter the Dragon in August of 1973 catapulted Bruce Lee to superstardom and ensured that the public would have a healthy interest in the Chinese martial arts. But other factors must also be considered. While Bruce Lee would set the match to the powder, other forces had been laying the groundwork for this explosion of interest in Chinese culture. Nor did all of these actors share the same vision of the practice or meaning of the traditional arts.
The politics of the Cold War played a large part in this. Note for instance that in February of 1968 Black Belt magazine ran a historically important feature on the martial arts of “Red China.” Readers of Kung Fu Tea may be interested in its brief discussion of Wing Chun and the early photo of Ip Man which it published. But if we take a step back and read the entire issue its interesting to note how the discussion of the Chinese martial arts is repeatedly framed within a larger political discussion of Chinese Communism and whether it should be seen as threatening in a global context. Indeed, the article makes an effort to try and understand the CCP’s ideological stance towards the martial arts and cites books published by mainland presses earlier in the 1960s.
In 1972 President Nixon provided the ultimate answers to these geopolitical questions when news of his historic opening to China became public. This tectonic political shift dominated public discussions at the time and it continued to reverberate throughout the early 1980s. Intensive media coverage during the era of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” ensured that there was a growing interest in many aspects of Chinese culture.
Once the table tennis was over, the Chinese government staged martial arts demonstrations for dignitaries (and journalists) on both sides of the Pacific. Who can forget the pictures of a young Jet Li visiting the White House in 1974? In many ways this was the beginning of the modern era of Chinese “Cultural Diplomacy,” and it was clear from the start that the martial arts would play a major role in these efforts. Indeed, the Communists seemed to be picking up right where the Nationalists had left off in the 1930s. Americans remained curious about Chinese martial arts, and the government was eager to show off the achievements of the newly reformed wushu system.
What did American readers see when looking at this photograph in 1972? Generalizations are difficult, but I suspect that most individuals probably felt an anticipation of change. Clearly this photo was intended to capture a moment of social transition. But the political atmosphere of 1972 probably led a great many readers to assume that it was the collectivist and revolutionary ideology in the background (represented by the Maoist propaganda poster) which was about to recede into history, while the “traditional” yet voluntary practice in the foreground represented China’s hope for the future.
While not immediately obvious, this reading of the photograph does something interesting. Rather than leaving Taijiquan as an unchanging relic of “ancient China,” it acknowledges that it is a practice caught up in the churn of geopolitical events. As such, it has a real history. We might even be able to understand broader patterns of change within both Chinese and global society by studying this fighting systems. Such a reading also brings the historical and technical discussions of scholars like Amos and Palmer into close alignment with trends that were emerging from Western media discourse. Rather than an artifact of the allochronistic past, the reemergence of Taijiquan was proof that the long prophesied “New China” was finally on the horizon.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Inventing Kung Fu