The Center and the Periphery
What is this “a case of?” That is the basic empirical question that underlays countless discussions in the social sciences. It is difficult to know what something means, what puzzles or challenges its presence suggests, if one does not have at least a rudimentary understanding of what we are looking at. Generations of graduate students have been instructed (or perhaps indoctrinated) to start their investigations with this precise question.
Problems arise, however, when one begins to push beyond those most basic levels of identification. To identify whether something feels like the “Chinese martial arts” is often simple enough. Asking why it is so classified has proved to be more challenging. I would like to argue that, important theoretical considerations aside, there are certain socially and historically grounded reasons why it is hard to pin the Chinese martial arts down.
When weighting in on definitional debates in the past I have repeatedly asserted that it is difficult to generalize about the nature of the Chinese martial arts precisely because these practices have been seen in so many segments of Chinese society. These fighting systems have been many things to many people over a period of centuries. Thus when we make sweeping assertions that the “real” Chinese martial arts were only about military training, or opera, or self-cultivation, we are privileging one narrow aspect of Chinese society against the rest of it. In effect we are saying that valiant soldiers are somehow more legitimate and authentically Chinese than “dirty street performers.” Their historical struggles or social contributions should be remembered where as the perspective of more marginal (or earlier, or later) groups is somehow not a legitimate expression of the Chinese experience.
To the extent that many of us are practitioners of the martial arts, and not just academic students, I think that this impulse is understandable. As practitioners we feel an impulse to justify whatever approach it is that we have poured countless hours (or years) into. Traditional Chinese martial artists worry about questions of legitimacy. They want to place themselves as close to the established centers of authority as they can. Thus the very existence of radically different visions of what the Chinese martial arts are, or have been, can be threatening precisely because they seem to devalue what we hold dear.
Left unchecked this impulse can easily run counter to the demands of writing good social history. Someone sensitive to these issues might note, for instance, that during the 1930s there were vastly more members of “Red Spear” militias practicing talismanic magic (along with their more mundane martial training) than there were wealthy middle class members of the Jingwu association in cities like Shanghai or Guangzhou. Yet we as a field write articles and books about the second group, while ignoring the existence of the first? Why?
As Sixt Wetzler has reminded us, our job as academic students is to understand the social, cultural and historical implications of these practices. It is not to act as critics and proclaim what constitutes “good” or “bad” martial arts practice. Put slightly differently, as social institutions, the martial arts have always been implicated in the power dynamics of the day. We should seek to consciously understand what these were, rather than unconsciously perpetuate these same myths and hierarchies in our own work. Ergo the academic student of martial arts studies is likely to spend quite a bit of time thinking about practices and communities other than those that she finds in her personal training space.
In a sense nothing about this assertion is all that radical. Similar issues are bound to come up in the study of religion, dance, cooking, sports or any community based activity that is studied by practitioner-scholars today. Still, I suspect that the Asian martial arts, particularly those that were implicated in the 20th century’s nationalist struggles, pose a challenge for yet another reason. These are social practices that were consciously manipulated by generations of social reformers in an effort to tie both individuals and communities more closely to the nation-state. In order to do that the activities themselves had to be able to cross boundaries, both in terms of what was practiced, where it was practiced, and who could talk about it.
Martial arts were a useful tool precisely because they have such a fungible, liminal, character. These are supposedly “military” arts that are overwhelming practiced by civilians. Their practice cultivates “masculine” virtues, and yet they often draw on “feminine” imagery. During the 1930s the traditional martial arts were simultaneously held up as evidence of the genius of China’s ancient civilization, as well as its fundamentally modern and progressive nature. These were self-defense systems that shaded into something not that different from modern athletics. They were a traditional entertainment activity that could claim to spiritually nourish both the individual and the nation. In the hands of 20th century reformers, the Chinese martial arts promised to provide a mechanism whereby the perfection of the individual citizen would lead (almost magically) to the creation of a strong and disciplined state.
Is it any wonder that the KMT’s leaders would turn to what had previously been explicitly local and civilian practices in their quest to unify and militarize Chinese society? This was possible precisely because the martial arts are fundamentally a cultural narrative about the transformation of the individual in service of the community. [Cue Disney’s Mulan song here. Or how about this one?]. Yet they are the tool of transformation rather than the final destination. Because that end point can be constantly redefined, either by vast national forces, or even individual preferences, there is always a degree of instability within any attempt to define the martial arts. We can never be sure that points at the center and the periphery of that discussion will still be in the same position relative to each other ten, twenty or fifty years in the future.
All of this sprang to mind as I watched two reels of film that Joseph Svinth managed to find, and generously shared with me, in the National Archives. Unfortunately neither has any narration, or even a title card. Still, it was immediately evident that these were important films. Produced by the Harmon Foundation (best known for its work preserving African-American culture) this film recorded Chinese military training in the late 1930s. Best of all, the martial arts make numerous appearances throughout both reels.
While we might be tempted to focus only on the martial arts, I would encourage readers to sit down and watch them in their entirety. They open with a panning shot across a set of inscribed arches informing us that we are about to enter the “Central Army Officer Candidate School of the Republic of China” (translation by Douglas Wile). This facility was the successor to the famous Whampoa Military Academy established in 1925 in Guangzhou. Like so much else it was relocated to the North (following the Northern Expedition) in 1928 and found a new home in Nanjing.
After this opening scene, the viewer is invited to watch assorted moments in the training of China’s future officer corp. We see much marching and running in formation, German surplus helmets and modern machine guns, tending gardens, scenes from the mess hall and (my personal favorite), soldiers using their entrenching tools to plant trees on the base.
But all of this is interspersed with scenes of physical training. At minutes 4:14 and 4:52 we see soldiers doing Western style gymnastics on both a high bar and the vault horse. Immediately after the viewer is introduced to the Chinese martial arts:
Reel 15:17 We find soldiers engaging in bayonet practice wearing gear modeled on Japanese jukendo armor. This includes both basic footwork exercises and two man contests. At 6:29 we even get a set of “heroic headshots” as men remove their helmets. The clearly staged nature of this sequence suggests that these films were produced for their propaganda, rather than purely ethnographic, value.6:48 The audience is shown brief clips of multiple two-man unarmed boxing demonstrations and routines.6:57 The camera then quickly cuts to a longer exploration of weapons practice. We are first shown a fast paced two man set pitting the spear vs the dao. Next, at 7:22, a two-man Jian (straight sword) set is shown that feels slightly more theatrical in its execution.7:40 This action is interrupted by two men demonstrating shuai jiao or jacketed wrestling. Unfortunately this clip is quite short.7:45 A much more elaborate demonstration of staff/“fork” manipulation is shown which seems more intended as a type of entertainment than practical training.Reel 23:15 Reel two quickly returns to the subject of wrestling. This time the contestants are wearing their standard training uniforms. It also appears that the match is being staged before a large and appreciative audience.7:20 Later the bayonets come back out. While many fanciful martial arts styles can be found on the base, bayonet drill is presented to the viewer as a no-nonsense form of military training.
These films are important historical resources. We don’t have that much high quality footage of the practice of the Chinese martial arts during the 1930s. Nor, for that matter, do we have a complete visual record of life in these critical military institutions. It is thus fascinating to not only see martial arts, but to also have them contextualized within the larger pattern of the soldier’s daily lives. This is precisely why it is important to try and view these films as complete documents, rather than skipping right to the “good stuff.” It is everything else that frames these practices and gives them meaning. Without that framing its impossible to consider our initial question, “What is this a case of?”
Even after reviewing this wonderful visual reference, that question remains difficult to answer. Some of this material is clearly “martial” in every sense of the word. There is no other way to see the Chinese bayonet drill which does reminds one both of Japanese jukendo (perhaps the most commonly practiced Budo in the late 1930s) and the bayonet drills done by every modern military around the world at the time. Here we see a clear expression of Chinese martial arts culture at its most practical and utilitarian. No one would doubt that at that moment these soldiers were practicing the “arts of war.”
And then we turn to the traditional weapon demonstrations. It is hard to imagine that there is any practical military application for the Jian or staff/fork demonstrations which we have just seen. It is also hard to imagine that these practices were actually “martial” in their origins. Both remind us that the Chinese martial arts were generally something practiced by civilians (meaning individuals who were not professional soldiers) for a wide variety of reasons, including entertainment.
At many points military units have hired martial arts instructors, and yet from the early 19th century onward all of the accounts I have seen have suggested that a clear demarcation continued to exist between what was “martial arts training” and what was pure military preparation. As General Qi Jiguang first observed at the end of the Ming, there are many reasons why a commander might want to introduce his troops to unarmed boxing. But no one ever believed that these skills were meant to be used on the battlefield. Many of the skills that we see demonstrated in this video don’t appear to be all that different from what one might see in civilian Guoshu or Jingwu demonstrations. Even within a purely military context (and on the eve of a Japanese invasion), it appears that most of these practices continued to hover at the periphery of the actual “martial sphere.”
Perhaps that is the point. While rewatching the clips of wrestling found in Reel 2, I began to suspect that the role of the martial arts in this academy paralleled the function of boxing at West Point. These were multi-purpose camp activities. On the one hand they must surely have built a certain level of strength and coordination. One suspects that the commanding officer hoped to instill a greater degree of bravery in his cadets. But these were also useful “recreational activities” and a (disciplined) way to blowoff steam. Whether it was a wrestling tournament or a weapons demonstration, such activities gave soldiers a healthy and wholesome activity which was socially valuable precisely because it came from, and was connected to, other aspects of national culture. Boxing is useful to state-builders, at least in part, because of its ability allow civilians to connect with military values, and the solider to reconnect with the nation at large.
The Global Dimension
The divide between civil and military is not the only one being navigated in this film. It may not even be the most important. Consider the following questions. Who, in the late 1930s, could speak about the Chinese martial arts? And how did this film end up in America’s National Archives?
The electronic cataloging information that goes along with this film notes that it was part of the material that was donated by the Harmon Foundation when it ceased operations in 1967. This institution is best known for its pioneering work preserving African American culture. What is less well appreciated is that the group also became an important agent for the promotion of pro-Chinese propaganda during the lead up to WWII. Indeed, there is every reason to think that the films we have just discussed were produced as a policy argument aimed at the American people rather than as a pure historical record. That makes their repeated emphasis on martial arts training even more significant.
The exact origins of this particular film are still a bit of a mystery. It was shot by an individual named Thomas Kwang. Listing his home address as 44 Cambridge Rd. in Tientsin, Thomas (also known as Kwang Jwe Sun) spent much of his young adulthood in the United States. He graduated from Andover in 1926, though he appears to have been technically a member of the class of 1927. His school records indicate that he was an active student and an avid wrestler (competing on the varsity team) and singer.
From there Kwang entered Middlebury College in 1927. After completing his undergraduate degree he then did graduate work in political science at Yale. Upon returning to China, Kwang seems to have worked as a journalist and photographer. His pictures of important events and famous people in China (sold through Paul Guillumette, inc.) were regularly featured in Life magazine. Unsurprisingly most of these covered the war effort. Kwang was also active in the “treaty port press.” He placed a large number of photographs with the China Weekly Review, an American owned, English language, newspaper that was well known for its progressive, pro-Chinese, editorial policy.
It was precisely these connections to elite American publishers and educational institutions that likely brought Thomas Kwang into contact with the Harmon Foundation. He had produced at least one other documentary with them prior to the escalation of hostilities with Japan in 1937. Members of the group in China took a strongly anti-Japanese line and immediately began to mobilize their cultural and social capital in an attempt to persuade the American public to aid the Chinese people.
Shuge Wei, in News Under Fire (Hong Kong UP, 2017) notes that Mary B. Bradly, the head of the organization, personally took steps to publicize the films produced by George Fitch documenting the Nanjing Massacre. Later she advised individuals seeking to promote the Chinese cause to mix propaganda films and public lectures for greater effect in reaching the American public (225-216). One wonders whether this is the reason why it was unnecessary to have any narration attached to Kwang’s project? Perhaps it too was intended as a visual aid in public lectures?
Nor was this an isolated incident. Jingyi Song, in Shaping and Reshaping Chinese American Identity: New York’s Chinese During the Depression and World War II (Lexington Books, 2010) notes that the Harmon Foundation was actually one of the first organizations to attempt to report on what was happening in Japanese controlled territories in China. In 1938 Frances Root (better known as a composer and performer) followed the progress of the Eight Route Army, producing another film that was again exhibited at lectures in New York. All of these films emphasized that the Chinese people were valiantly resisting the Japanese. The Harmon Foundation would continue to produce films designed to influence the American public throughout WWII (133).
Nor were they alone in this effort. The Dutch filmmaker Joris Ivens also followed the progress of the Communist Eight Route Army in the second half of his film The 400 Million (also titled China 1938). Readers will find some great footage of local southern militias armed with Dadaos and red tasseled spears in that piece. As with Kwang, these images are explicitly invoked to display the fighting spirit of the Chinese people. The narration in Ivens’ film (and Frank Capra’s Battle of China, which uses some of Ivens’ footage) makes explicit what can only be visually hinted at in Kwang.
In the hands of these foreign propagandists, the martial arts were capable of bridging yet another type of divide. China could be portrayed as a largely peaceful agricultural country, the sort of place that many rural Americans would naturally sympathize with. Yet the presence of big swords, spears and boxing drills suggested that these were civilians who could stand up and fight, if Americans were willing to open their wallets and give them the military support that they so desperately needed.
On a conceptual level the Chinese martial arts have always been a bit slippery. What they promise is transfomation, at both the individual and collective level. They present themselves as both a bodily and cultural technology. The proper goals of this exercise, however, have been contested. It is difficult to speak of these fighting systems in the singular. In the hands of national reformers they even became a tool of both domestic and global statecraft. In that sense the fungibility of the martial arts is not something to be defined away. It is precisely what has enabled these institutions to thrive in the modern world.
The Chinese martial arts could become a tool of nation building because they straddled the boundary between military and civilian, practicality and performance, and even the local versus the state. Likewise, cooperation between Chinese officials and Western propagandists created images that could reach across the Pacific. On the one hand these films informed American viewers that Chinese society contained a will to fight that was every bit as strong as Japan’s famed Bushido. Yet it was powered by familiar impulses that were largely compatible with American values.
This last point is critical as we think ahead to the future. America popular culture had been saturated with problematic images of violent Chinese martial artists and Tong “hatchet-men” since at least the time of the Boxer uprising. American consumers who took an interest in such matters may well have heard of the Chinese fighting methods, but they were usually viewed negatively and in racially essentialist terms during the early 20th centuy. Yet during the 1970s these systems would explode into the public consciousness in a new and much more positive light.
Other scholars (Paul Bowman, Stephen Teo, Jared Miracle, Sylvia Shin Huey Chong, etc..) have explored several critical factors which help to explain events in this later period. Yet as we consider their arguments we should also remember that many of these trends have deeper roots than one might suspect. The narrative that Kung Fu can be a tool of anti-imperialist struggle was not introduced to the Western public solely by Bruce Lee. Indeed, the same idea had been hinted at in films such as those discussed here during WWII. Even the curiosity among African-American regarding the anti-imperialist struggles of the Chinese (so often symbolized by the traditional fighting arts), is foreshadowed by the actions of the Harmon Foundation. The multi-vocality which makes the martial arts difficult to define is precisely what allowed them to appear on the global stage as a positive force in the 1930s, foreshadowing the respectability that they would win in the post-war period.
***I would like to thank both Joseph Svinth and Douglas Wile for being kind enough to share their discoveries and linguistic expertise with me. This post would not have been possible without them. Any errors in interpretation are mine alone.***
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Chinese and Japanese Martial Arts as Seen on Western Newsreels.
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