They say a picture is worth a thousand words. If true this will be a weighty essay. Yet that was always the thing about Harrison Forman, the renowned photo-journalist, writer and explorer. As a correspondent he was a double threat, capable of producing both beautiful images and the narrative that went along with them.
This essay, which features a number of his photographs (all of which are housed in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s digital collection) is something of a departure from my normal posts. It is more of an photo essay than an academic discussion. Still, I think that Harrison’s image can help us to come to terms with a critical historical point.
It is all too easy to create simplified accounts of the Chinese martial arts. This is true at any point in time, but our discussions of comparatively recent, 20th century, events seem particularly prone to this. When faced with the very forceful modernizing and nationalizing argument of the Jingwu movement, it is easy to forget that more traditional schools existed across China. Often located in secondary cities or more rural areas, they typically wanted nothing to do with these approaches. Indeed, both the Jingwu and Guoshu movements struggled to succeed outside of China’s rapidly growing urban centers. As I explored at length in my volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (written with Jon Nielson), instructors in places like Foshan resisted these pressures and continued to explore the ways in which regional fighting traditions could reinforce local power networks and modes of identification.
Likewise, when we focus only on the lineage histories of Southern Kung Fu schools, it is possible to forget that certain professions, from armed escort services, to itinerant doctors, to opera troops, had their own reasons for pursuing martial arts training. All of this existed in a different social sphere from General Ma Liang’s efforts to introduce his New Wushu into national school curriculums, or the efforts of Chu Minyi to create a middle class system of “Taiji Calisthenics.”
We have recently explored these efforts, and our post on the 1936 Guoshu Oympic exhibition team reinforced our understanding of the modernizing trends within the world of Chinese physical culture. But it would be a mistake to assume that this was all that there was, or even that it captured the texture of most individuals’ interactions with the martial arts.
The modernizing groups are comparatively easy to study as they had a coherent ideology and left a trail of documents that consciously framed and situated their efforts within Chinese history. Yet while the Guoshu movement, at its height, could claim tens of thousands of members, it is easy to forget that China’s self defense societies, crop watching groups, and village militias counted their collective memberships in the many millions. These groups were omnipresent in the countryside during the chaotic years of the 1920s, several survived the comparative calm of the mid 1930s, and they erupted back onto the scene as China was dragged into war by the Japanese at the end of the decade.
It is difficult to generalize when it comes to these sorts of local self-defense groups. Many did hire local martial arts instructors as trainers. This was generally a good idea as the expense of buying rifles and handguns meant that traditional weapons, including spears and swords, continued to be seen in large numbers through the end of WWII. While it might seem as though such weapons had no place on a modern battlefield, they were ideally suited to controlling small civilian population centers located across China’s vast landscape. “Protecting” the civilian population, rather than directly fighting the Japanese, was a typical mission for many of these groups.
The amount and type of training that any group received varied tremendously. And some of the most successful movements, including the Red Spears, also drew on ritual practices and invulnerability magic in addition to more mundane weapons training. That movement was especially important during the Warlord period as protecting village resources from both hostile neighboring towns and predatory tax collectors became a priority.
It is ironic that we have so few good photographs given the millions of people who actually served in Chinese militias during the 1920s. However, the globalized nature of conflict during the 1940s guaranteed that the final incarnation of these militias would be better documented. In many ways this was the last great hurrah of the traditional Chinese village militia. But thanks to the photographs of individuals like Harrison Forman, we not only have a better idea of what mass peasant mobilization looked like in the 1940s, but can hazard a guess as to what similar formations of Red Spears might have looked like a decade or two earlier. It is also important to note that while such images have largely been absent from academic discussions of Chinese martial arts history, they were widely circulated in newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s. As such they likely helped to shape period notions of traditional Chinese hand combat methods in the West.
Who was Harrison Forman (1904-1978)? Born in Milwaukee, he was trained initially as an artist and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin (1929) with a degree in Asian languages. Flying was an early passion, and Forman first travelled to China to sell American aircraft. However, a career in sales was quickly derailed by his adventurous spirit. Forman became an early explorer in Tibet and quickly earned the title of “the modern Marco Polo.” Like his predecessor he came to be known to the public through his talent as both a travel writer and the producer of popular newsreels. It was as a journalist that Forman would be best remembered.
Critics might contend, however, that Forman’s reporting was flawed. While often richly descriptive, he seems to have had a disturbing habit of trading access to hard to access locations for positive coverage. Of course this was an era in which all foreign journalists were subjected to heavy censorship. Still, one cannot help but notice that when embedded in KMT controlled areas Forman wrote glowingly reports of the Nationalist government. After convincing Japanese administrators (during the early stages of WWII) to allow him to photograph the interior of Taiwan, he produced highly complimentary articles about their administration as well. And later in the war, when he was posted to the Eighth Route Army, he wrote very positive assessments of the Communist Party and its leadership. Indeed, his rose-colored assesment of this last group ensured that he would be criticized and marginalized as the debates over “who lost China” heated up in the domestic American political arena after 1949. I personally suspect that Forman was, at heart, an adventurer and explorer, and may have been a bit too eager to say what needed to be said to “get the story.”
Still, the stories he got were often marvelous. Of particular interest was his time following the Communist Eight Route army with a group of Min Ping (or People’s Militia) members in Yan’an in 1944. All of the photos in this post are drawn from that particular expedition. Nor have I even scratched the surface of the visual record that Forman captured. He literally took more pictures of these groups than I could count, and he produced many thousands of images of the war in China. But all of this is really a footnote in his career. In most circles he is best remembered for his newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in the opening stages of the conflict, as well as the many special reports that he produced for the National Geographic Society (of which he was a life long member) and the New York Times. After his death his papers (including many volumes of hand written diaries and tens of thousands of photographs, slides and undeveloped negatives) were donated to the University of Wisconsin. Much of the collection has now been digitized and made publicly available. I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the period take a look at the collection. But be warned, fully exploring all of his writings and images will be a long term project. I have only scratched the surface over the last few days.
Not surprisingly I found myself especially drawn to Forman’s photographs of martial artists, soldiers and militia members. A number of his shots recorded rallies and meetings of huge groups of militia members that seemed to fill entire valleys. These incredible images give one a real sense of what it must have been like to see a group of thousands of Red Spears preparing for a skirmish a decade earlier. Yet Forman never seemed to lose sight of the individual story, either as a journalist or photographer. These group shots were juxtaposed with carefully composed portraits, some of which could easily hang on a gallery’s wall.
Readers should not assume that the small group of photos that I used in this post are entirely represantitve of his body of work. Obviously I was more interested in the images of militia members armed with spears rather than those featuring rifles or machine pistols, yet both types of soldier could be found in abundance. Forman also took many shots showing militia members at work. One group of photos recorded individuals carving wooden cannons (used as primitive mortars), while another series of photographs showed militia members boobytrapping furniture as a village was abandoned ahead of a Japanese advance. Other photos showed soldiers laying landmines or carrying equipment.
Collectively Forman has left us with a remarkable visual record of a Chinese militia group in the the final years of WWII. Military historians will find much of interest in these images. But for students of martial arts studies they are a stark reminder that the urban and middle class approach to hand combat was not the only one that exited during the Republic era. Indeed, it wasn’t even the most commonly practiced. Rather, these Chinese martial arts have always reflected the values and conflicts of the communities that supported them. They have been, and continue to be, many things to many people.
***A special note of thanks goes to Joseph Svinth who first told be about University of Wisconsin’s collection of Forman’s photographs and sent some examples of his work that really sparked my interest. This post would not have happened without his generosity.***
If you enjoyed these photos you might also want to see: Tai Hsuan-chih Remembers “The Red Spears, 1916-1949”