Judo at Ina Middle School. Vintage postcard circa late 1930s. Source: Author’s personal collection.


Staging a Global Controversy

Origin stories are very often political.  People everywhere intuitively understand this.  If you can pinpoint (or simply construct) the moment of something’s creation you can also attempt to socially frame its subsequent practice in all sorts of useful ways.  Rhetorical slight of hand allows us to claim that when we know about something’s past we are empowered to act as arbiters of legitimacy or authority in the present.

I suspect that this basic impulse is what first draws so many practitioners to the topic of martial arts history.  Even if the art we practice is only a hundred years old (relatively modern in the grand scheme of things), the moment of its creation is still far removed from our personal life experience. As individuals become aware of this distance, questions naturally arise.  Why was this art developed?  Is my practice correct?  Is it even authentic?  

It is only natural to look to the pioneers of a system for answers, but in their absence we turn to historically informed arguments.  Individuals who are interested in history for its own sake, or those who want to use the development of martial arts communities to understand something about Chinese or Japanese society, are rarer than one might think.  That sort of curiosity typically arises only after people have had a chance to develop a fair level of understanding.  I think that it would be fair to say that among practitioners and casual readers many seemingly historical discussions are actually debates about the nature of current practice.

This basic pattern of communication is not new.  While reading historical sources from the 1920s and 1930s I was struck by just how stable it has been throughout the 20th century.  Consider, for instance, the massive debate surrounding the origins of jujutsu and later judo.  Japan’s rapid economic development, and its revival of the warrior mythos, stoked a fair degree of interest in the island’s martial practices even prior to the events of the Russo-Japanese war.  But following the new power’s stunning defeat of a major European empire, jujutsu became a genuinely fashionable practice throughout the Western world.

This, almost inevitably, led to all of the inconvenient questions that new martial arts students are bound to ask.  Certainly the practice is a reflection of Japan’s proud warrior culture, but when did it actually originate?  Must one be Japanese to master it? How was it really meant to be used?  And what relationship does it have with other, seemingly similar, Asian fighting arts.

Current students still ask what we should make of the multiple lineage accounts within Japanese schools that explicitly link their practice to immigration of culturally important figures fleeing the destruction of the Ming dynasty.  Or that many Japanese spear fighting traditions explicitly link themselves to the mainland.  Or that a few “Japanese” martial arts manuals (most notably the Okinawan Bubishi) show figures wearing Chinese clothing and hairstyles.

Unsurprisingly, Meiji era martial arts reformers, many of whom were deeply involved in the nation building project, had a number of responses to all of these points.  Nor did this ever rise to the level of a true “debate.”  Arts such as Judo, Kendo and later Karate were taken to be fundamental expressions of Japanese culture, and practices that linked society to the Emperor through a set of (supposedly) inherited martial responsibilities.  Links to Chinese sources were downplayed or dismissed, but given the general consensus on these issues there was no need for a heated public debate.  Perhaps the most well known example of all of this was the modification of the characters used to write the name “karate” so that references to its possible Chinese origins could be expunged prior to the practices acceptance by the mainstream Japanese martial arts community.

I suspect that “consensus” might also be a good term to explain the situation in China.  Chinese martial arts reformers were well aware of the strides that their Japanese brethren were making in establishing both government support for their project and moving it into the cultural mainstream.  A number of Chinese reformers (such as Tang Hao) had studied in Japan and returned deeply impressed with what they had seen.  Yet for most Chinese practitioners it went almost without saying that practices like judo had their genesis in the Middle Kingdom.  The point seemed so obvious that it was accepted without extensive debate.

With the rise of Japan as a major imperial power in Asia, this tacit disagreement took on an increasing urgency character.  If you read through the prefaces of Republic era martial arts manuals (such as the collection freely available at the Brennan Translation blog) you will quickly encounter ideas like these in the front-matter of various works:

When the Japanese defeated the Russians east of the Liao river [in 1905], was it not because of jujitsu that they were victorious? Jujitsu is a part of our [China’s] nation’s boxing arts. They actually stole our nation’s secrets and then changed the name. It has recently dawned on our countrymen that boxing arts are our nation’s specialty, able to both defend one’s health and protect the nation. The military uses them for training, and schools hold courses in them, thereby preserving our cultural essence.

Preface by Ling Rongqi. Boxing Art Fundamentals – Illustrated Handbook for Tantui by Hu Jian. Chinese Library of Shanghai, May 1917. (translation by Paul Brennan)

Or in less inflammatory terms, the following lament by Huang Wenshu:

What the Japanese call Judo actually comes from our own ancient tradition. When we examine its effectiveness, it is indeed a profound achievement, but when we examine its methods, it is still not worth a tenth of our Shuaijiao. Unfortunately we are not able to unanimously encourage Shuaijiao in our nation because it is generally looked upon as the superficial tricks of street performers, undeserving of admiration from people of refinement.

The Skills and Essentials of Yang Style Boxing & Martial Arts Discussions by Huang Wenshu, Martial Arts United Monthly Magazine Society, 1936. (Translation by Paul Brennan)


Both government officials and martial arts reformers in China were well aware that Japan’s growing cultural stature on the global stage was intimately connected with a Western appreciation (and even adoption) of its fighting arts.  All of that was a threat to Chinese attempts to isolate the increasingly aggressive country diplomatically and force it to scale back its regional imperial ambitions.  And yet the Chinese government would have trouble accomplishing these goals if their society was seen as weak and undisciplined by the Great Powers.

Chinese martial arts reformers sought to address this problem through a two pronged strategy.  First, as I have reported in numerous recent posts, they attempted to demonstrate to the English language press the strides that their own martial arts had made in the post-1911 era. This came in the form of public demonstrations by Chinese student groups living abroad, distributing newsreel footage of martial arts training in the “new army” and even well placed English language articles in the “treat port press.”  Perhaps the crowing achievement of this effort was the demonstration of Taijiquan at the Berlin Olympics in 1936.  The second aspect of this strategy was to reappropriate for Guoshu the respect and legitimacy that the Western public had granted judo.

Those involved in these efforts saw the stakes as quite high.  Note, for instance the preface to Liu Dianchen’s 1920 Xingyi manual:

Nowadays the world competes over martial abilities. Western gymnastics and Japanese jujitsu are praised throughout the world as unrivaled. But if we work hard in our schools and not dare to fall behind, then we too can be said to dazzle the eyes of everyone and strike awe into their deities. Upon encountering our nation’s martial arts, no one will bother to fight us, knowing they have already lost. For those who know the Way, they are always victorious, while for those who pursue trivial things, there is truly no glory.

Preface by Qi Shukai of Liwu [in Hebei], in Selected Subtleties of the Xingyi Boxing Art by Liu Dianchen 1920 (Translation by Paul Brennan)

An American Wrestler facing off against a Judo student. This photo is identified as having been taken in the Philippines in 1904, but Joseph Svinth suspects that it was actually taken in the US in 1904. Source: https://calisphere.org



The English Language Debate


Still, angry editorials within Chinese magazines and martial arts manuals would do little to advance this cause.  This was simply preaching to the choir as the consumers of such literature were already convinced of the primacy of their hand combat systems.  The real challenge was to distribute these opinions to English language readers.  Only in that way would it be possible to popularize this notion in Western countries.  This was also the biggest challenge facing China’s would be cultural pioneers and propagandists.

Fortunately for them, their argument found a surprisingly warm reception among the treaty port journalists producing English language articles in cities like Shanghai, Beijing or Hong Kong.  Individuals who wrote for papers who generally took an anti-Japanese editorial line, or one that was more favorably disposed towards the nationalist revolution, may have found this theory to be especially attractive.   For instance, the German reporter (and probably intelligent agent) Julius Eigner began his account of “The Ancient Art of Chinese Boxing” with the following observation:

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.  

Julius Eigner. “The Ancient Art of Chinese Boxing.”  1938. The China Journal. January. Pp. 11-14.

It seems that this particular bit of “folk wisdom” caught on among foreign journalists in China and actually managed to transcend, at least in part, ideological and editorial lines.  Eigner, like other German commentators of the period, was very pro-Chinese and boosted the KMT in much of his writing.  The same cannot be said of Rodney Gilbert. His dire warnings about the dangers of Chinese nationalism, and perpetual suspicion of both the government and communists made him something of an institution among the more conservative voices within the treaty port press system.  Yet its interesting to note that an extensive (and transparently propagandistic) piece he wrote profiling General Ma Liang (an early advocate of national Wushu education) was actually titled “China: Parent of Jiu-Jitsu.”  The opening paragraph of his account (all of which is well worth reading) set the tone for everything to follow:  

About 15 years ago the study of the Japanese system of self-defense generally known as jiu-jitsu became popular in Occidental countries.  Japanese Professors of the art were permanently retained; some Europeans and Americans came to the Far East to take postgraduate courses in Japan, and the impression they gave was that jiu-jitsu was very much more than a system of wrestling tricks, and that it involved a profound knowledge of the human anatomy.  The writer does not remember that while jiu-jitsu received all this advertising abroad, it was ever mentioned that it was not native to Japan but, like so much else in Japan, had been originally borrowed from China.  That the system of wrestling which is parent to jiu-jitsu is still cultivated in China, and is now widely taught, only recently became known to the writer, and though many others may be fully aware of this, it is probably not commonly known that the Chinese professors of the art claim that the Japanese system of self-defence is incomplete and that the old Chinese science of self-defence is still superior.

Rodney Gilbert. “China, Parent of Jiu-Jitsu.” The Far East Republic: A Monthly Magazine Devoted to the Republic of China. Vol. 2 No. 11 (August) 1920. Pp 230-232.

What impact all of this had on the Western reading public is debatable.  Interest in the Chinese martial arts didn’t really begin to pick up in North America until the 1960s.  As karate began to overtake judo in popularity some western martial artists began to openly wonder about the Chinese systems it was said to have descended from.  Of course this was the environment that a young Bruce Lee first arrived in.  Still, the off handed mention of the theory in this 1949 New York Times article suggests that the idea likely gained some traction during the 1940s. It also suggests the degree to which Western journalists were relying on local (Chinese) elites to shape their understanding of the martial arts.

Certain Japanese martial artists seemed to have anticipated that such “confusion” might arise, and throughout the period their statements drew a clear distinction between true Japanese Budo and Chinese Boxing.  Most of these arguments boiled down to the assertion that the Japanese martial arts could not have descended from the Chinese sources as the systems appear to be entirely different.  After all, Japanese kata’s in jujutsu or kendo traditionally required two participants, where as the Chinese cultivated solo performances.  Further, the sorts of punches and kicks that might have influenced the development of Karate were absent from “true” Japanese arts like judo.

In support of this position, we remark first that Jiujutsu as practiced in Japan is not known in China. In that country there is the art before referred to called Kempo, and from the account of it in a book named Kikoshinsho it seems to be a method of kicking and striking.

But Jiujutsu involved much more, as been already made clear. Besides, a student in China, according to the books of instruction, is expected to learn and practice the art by himself, whilst in Jiujutsu it is essential that the two men shall practice together.

Even though we admit that Chingempin may have introduced Kempo to Japan, it is extremely difficult to look upon Jiujutsu as in any sense a development of Kempo….Apart from Chingempin, the Japanese could learn something of the art of Kempo as practiced in China from the books named Bubushi, Kikoshinsho, etc.

We believe then that Jiujutsu is a Japanese art, which could have been developed to its present perfection without any aid from China, although we admit that Chingempin, or some Chinese book on Kempo may have given a stimulus to its development.

Jigaro Kano and Rev. T. Lindsay. 1888. “The Old Samurai Art Of Fighting Without Weapons.” Transactions of the Asiatic Society. Vol 16. 1889. 192-205. P. 198

Kano’s remarks are more temperate in this matter than his Chinese colleagues.  By the standards of the day they can even be read as charitable (note his concessions on the origin of Kempo). They were also prefaced with a surprisingly extensive literature review of period Japanese text that attempted to place the origins of these arts in China.  Each of these was dismissed as mistaken or spurious.  Still, the extensive discussion also revealed that his familiarity with the Chinese arts was fairly limited.  Kano seemed to have no awareness of China’s rich history of wrestling (which, for most of its history was actually more popular than boxing), or even the existence of two person drills and sets in most boxing traditions.

Still, his thoughts on the question seem to have carried weight.  They were largely repeated by Shidachi’s in his 1892 paper, “Ju-Jitsu: The Ancient Art of Self-Defence by Slight of Body.”  Taken together Kano and Shidachi’s articles are one of the earliest attempts by Japanese martial artists to wade into the larger realm of cultural diplomacy.  Both articles attempt not just to tell their readers something about judo, but to frame their perception of Japanese culture by doing so.  Downplaying links between the Japanese and Chinese arts was critical to this project.

Even more important is the essentially triangular nature of these debates.  By in large it doesn’t appear that Chinese martial artists were trying to win over their Japanese counterparts or vice verse.  Given the nationalist motives that characterized both sides such an effort would have been naive.  This was a debate that played out mostly in English language publication.  It was directed towards the global community, and carried out with the goal of legitimizing the nationalist claims and military policies of both states.  As Qi so bluntly observed “Nowadays the world competes over martial abilities.”

All of which brings us to our final reading, one that I have not previously discussed.  It is an account of a Judo exhibition being staged for the edification of the expatriate community (and possibly some Chinese spectators) in Shanghai in 1928.  Its interesting as the entire article really revolves around the interconnection of the the Japanese and Chinese martial artists.  Indeed, the author even seems to have been aware of some of the older Japanese lineage accounts that Kano was forced to deal with in the 1880s.  Yet rather than dismissing them as spurious, or simply symptoms of Japanese fascination with Chinese culture, this particular Western accepted those claims.  Of course the editorial policy of this particular paper always favored nationalist Chinese causes.

I would not treat this author’s opinions as reliable historical facts.  An air of sensationalism surrounds the entire piece.  In point of fact, this exhibition was in no way “the first of its kind” in judo’s history.  Judo teachers had been practicing their trade in Europe (or more precisely, the UK) from the early years of the 1900s.  Still, the article offers valuable insight into the history of the idea of the Chinese martial arts among Western sportsmen.  It is particularly interesting to note how important the idea of textuality and “lost books” are in his discussion.  That is only one of the ideas, outlined here, that would reemerge and help to shape the general public perception of Chinese hand combat systems in the post war years.


“London Sees Thrill of Japanese Sports.”
A Judo match between a British and German competitors. Taken from a vintage newsreel. 1932.

At Town Hall Tomorrow Will Be First of its Kind in Judo History


Fifteen Judo Experts From Takudai University of Tokyo Will Stage Show Under the Auspices of I.S.C.


For the first time in the history of Japan, the culture of Judo, the famous Japanese art of offense and defense better known to foreigners as “Jui-Jitsu”, will be demonstrated by a team of experts outside of the Flowery Kingdom [Japan] on October 1 at the Town Club and the Takudai University Alumni, 15 Judo experts from the Takudai University of Tokyo, will show local sportsmen how it is done.

The judo experts who in grade range from 1st and sixth grade men, are expected to arrive here to-morrow and will return to Jaan after a stay of two days.The exhibition is expected to be a highly interesting one and will offer local sports followers with two and half hours of “something different.”

Judo was systematized in Japan in the 16th century and since that time has not only spread throughout Japan, but also throughout Europe.  Although brought to Europe only three years ago, Judo has spread rapidly in Germany, Italy, France and other European nations.The culture although adapted for both defense and offense, is mainly for defense and to enable an unarmed man to defend himself from the attack of an armed man.

Judo originated in the Flowery Kingdom in the 15th century as the result of a book published by Chinese advocating the teaching of boxing and sword fighting to combat the Japanese invaders, which fell into the hands of a number of Japanese.This book demonstrated the art of Chinese boxing and the Japanese, using it as their foundation, systematized their own form of exercise which they then called “Budo.” At this stage, “Budo” was a military exercise and practiced by all military men.

Where the Chinese book demonstrated the attack and defense in boxing, the Japanese decided counter-attack and defense.As years went by, more interest was taken in the culture and study of the human body and its weakest points, became one of the principle necessities to become an expert judo man.

Judo then became divided into five different exercises, the perfection of which was vital to become a wearer of a “black belt., the insignia of a first-class judo expert.These exercises were divided and still are at the present time into attack, warding, break-fall, throwing and locks.The attack and warding are based on the fundamentals of boxing or sword-fighting; break-falls consist of the development of the Chinese somersaults used in boxing to break a hold or secure a hold on an opponent.The locks are the different holds on a vital portion of the body which render a man helpless to move.

The demonstration at the Town Hall will include showing the culture of judo from beginning to end.The experts will show the various attacks and defenses, the numerous locks and after demonstration, will engage in bouts to show how its done.

All of the experts coming here are students of the Takudai University of Tokyo and are coming here at the invitation of the Alumni body in Shanghai which sponsored the idea of bringing them here with the object of having the real culture of judo demonstrated to foreigners.

Bookings are now open at Squires, Bingham Co., 17a Nanking Road.

September 28, 1928.The China Press (Shanghai).



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Zheng Manqing and the “Sick Man of Asia”: Strengthening Chinese Bodies and the Nation through the Martial Arts