Telling a Tale
Brief biographical sketches of Chinese martial artists are some of my favorite posts to write. I am not sure why, but I find the challenge of reconstructing a very different type of life, or way of living, irresistible. Societies and cultures are never stable targets. They are constantly moving, splitting and changing. A good biographical discussion reveals not just the details of one individual’s life, but throws light on the concerns, events and issues that shaped it. If approached correctly, biography can be an enlightening case-study touching on all sorts of theoretically relevant issues.
Which is not to say that writing something like that is easy. Authors face a couple of critical challenges. First, one must locate an individual who lived in interesting times. Second, you need to work with someone whose life was well enough documented that that you actually know what they were up to. Yet they cannot be so well understood that there is nothing left to say. The first of these conditions is generally not limiting when dealing with Chinese martial artists in the late Qing or Republic era. The process of revolution and social upheaval that gripped Chinese society during much of the 20th century ensured that the nation’s martial artists were living in proverbially “interesting times”. Yet finding a figure whose life was well enough documented to permit actual study is often a challenge. The flames of social transformation do not always leave as much of a paper trail as later historians might want. It is all about finding a happy medium as our first and second conditions often work against each other.
Luckily for us, Wang Ziping (1881-1973) appears to be the exception who scores well on both scales. The son of a locally well known martial artist (and the father of a martial arts dynasty in the current era), Wang lived through some the most wrenching transitions in modern Chinese history. Each of these eras left a mark on his long and varied career. Best of all, the celebrity that he acquired in his lifetime ensured that this life would be comparatively well understood and documented. That doesn’t mean that we know everything. Tantalizing mysteries emerge as we attempt to piece together both the facts and legends surrounding an exceptionally full life. But in doing so we are rewarded with a better understanding of pivotal moments in the development of the Chinese martial arts.
As always, the standard disclaimers apply to this essay. I am not a student within Wang’s lineage and I do not claim to have any private information regarding his life or career. This essay was constructed from a number of publicly available Chinese and English language sources, as well as my own work with Republic era newspaper articles. Various accounts given by Wang’s own family have been particularly helpful in understanding his personality and the texture of his life. By synthesizing these accounts we may yet learn something new about Wang’s impact on the martial arts.
Strong Body, Strong Nation
Wang Ziping was born to a family of locally well known Muslim martial artists in Cangzhou, Hebei Province, in 1881. One might think it only natural that this child would go on to have a distinguished career in the same field. After all, the rising tide of nationalism at the end of the Qing dynasty ensured that the popularity of the martial arts would increase until 1900. And the growth of social disorder in the late 19th and early 20th century suggested that an armed guard or soldier would always be able to find work.
Ironically, Wang would have to struggle to carve out a place for himself in the region’s rich martial landscape. Various accounts have stated that Wang’s father thought his son was too frail to be a martial artist and so refused to train him. On the surface such a story seems odd as its the reversal of the “standard formula” in which parents, worried for the health of a sickly child, seek out martial instruction in an attempt to boost development and vigor. Family accounts suggest, however, that Wang’s father actually wanted his son to pursue a more academic education, and thereby contribute to the family fortune by finding professional work.
This ban on martial arts practice did not sit well with the family’s youngest member. At the age of six Wang headed out into the forest where he would dig trenches to practice both his vertical leaps and long jumps. He made improvised training equipment from stumps and tree trunks. And with the encouragement of his mother he began what would be a life long quest to develop new modes of strength training (such as swimming to retrieve weights from the bottom of a pool) in the hopes of developing both his body and future prospects. Through diligent work Wang developed both an extraordinary level of functional strength and jumping abilities that would shape his reputation for decades to come.
Still, it may not have been immediately evident as to whether these superhuman efforts were going to paying off. Some accounts suggest that as a youth Wang was expelled from his village for being a “Boxer Bandit.” I suspect that this has fed the belief that he was a sworn member of the local Yihiquan chapter and got caught up in the Boxer Rebellion in that way. While not an expert in this particular area, I wonder how likely it would be that a devote Muslim youth would seek to join a heterodox religious movement based on spirit possession by Chinese gods and legendary figures?
Other accounts, which seem a bit more plausible, suggest that the young Wang actually joined the army and worked as a physical trainer/martial arts instructor, putting his years of solitary physical training to good use. Many Muslim youth would get caught up in the chaos of the Boxer rebellion, but as soldiers who were brought in to reinforce the capital. Indeed, Muslim soldiers were on the front lines of some of the most bitter military battles in the campaign.
One way or another, Wang survived his brush with the the Boxers, and like so many other displaced soldier and martial artists, melted into the countryside ahead of the punitive raids carried out by each of the eight allied nations. While a formative period in Wang’s life, sources dealing with these years are scarce and stories abound. As Cohen might caution us, painting someone as a Boxer is the sort of thing that would have gone over much better in 1930 than in 1910. By the 1960s any involvement with the porto-marxist peasant uprising might even be seen as glamours. Yet in 1901 such an admission might get you killed. As such we need to exercise caution when dealing with accounts of this period that are not based on contemporaneous sources.
The various stories agree that following the abortive uprising Wang moved to Jinan (the capital of Shandong province) and attempted to make a living as an itinerant merchant. As he traveled from place to place he sought out other martial arts masters. Some Chinese language accounts also suggest that he became involved with Ma Liang’s attempts to promote a simplified martial arts regime among the provinces troops and population.
It is also clear that it was during this period that Wang first encountered Yang Hong Xiu, his future teacher, possibly performing a public feat of strength including a mill stone. In point of fact mill stones figure prominently into many stories of Wang’s early exploits. It was at this time that he began to devote himself to the full time study of the martial arts.
During his third decade Wang developed a reputation for fighting challenge matches with the foreigners who intruded into local life in Shandong province. Of course all of this was happening in years after the 1911 revolution and the immense rise in national consciousness that this portended. Perhaps the most famous of these stories, related by Wang’s daughter and granddaughter, revolves around an effort to save the culturally significant carved doors of a local mosque from a group of Germans who wished to purchase them. This story likely took place sometime between the start of the Republic and the German retreat from the area at the end of WWI. As with many (though not all) of these encounters, Wang won the bet and saved face for the nation through a display of his strength (lifting sets of bells or mill stones) rather than by fisticuffs. Indeed, he seems to have been just as famous as a strongman as a martial artist.
That is not to say that he never fought. At some point in the 1910s he is said to have crossed hands with an American physical education teacher in Qingdao and another German fighter. Some accounts also suggest that later in the decade he confronted a group of Japanese martial artists. They were armed with spears and he carried a pole. It is known that Wang confronted a Russian strongman in a park in Beijing in 1919, and in 1921 he got involved with a challenge laid out by an American named fighter Sullivan who seems to have been making the rounds of the local theaters. That last point is important as it reminds us that many of these confrontations were between professionals. They had an undeniably economic component to them, even if they are now mostly discussed in terms of national honor. This sort of activity was a common way for traveling boxers, strongmen and wrestlers across the world to make a living in the early 20th century.
Still, an undeniable pattern emerges when we examine the accounts of his activity in the 1920s. Whether in the ring or engaged in feats of strength in the local marketplace, Wang was making a name for himself by systematically knocking down representatives of each of the foreign powers in China. He was putting his prodigious physical capital to use in ways that could only be read politically.
This aspect of his career would be magnified in the coming decades. It appears that Wang had some sort of relationship with Genera Ma Liang and would appear in some of his famous martial arts exhibitions. These events were often witnessed and reported on by foreign reporters. In December of 1922 the North China Herald ran a breathless article narrating a particularly grand demonstration staged by Ma in Shanghai before a cosmopolitan audience. It was a long and detailed piece. But a full third of the article was dedicated to an account of the strongman show that Wang staged right in the middle of the performance. Some of the feats he performed were Chinese in their cultural origin, while the reporter identified others as being identical to the sorts of stunts that one might see performed in the West. By the end of the evening no one doubted Wang’s extraordinary strength. One wonders how many other shows and tournaments Wang was part of in this era as Ma Liang was staging events like this one with some regularity.
All of this exposure paid off and Wang Ziping’s reputation began to grow at the national level. His granddaughter reports that in 1923 the famous Chinese painter Qi Baishi even wrote a poem celebrating Wang’s achievements in defense of the nation titled “Subduing the Tiger in the South Forest, Dispelling the Dragon from the Ocean Depths.” In many ways the charismatic (and photogenic) Wang was becoming a recognized public face of the era’s martial art movement.
This same prominence would also carry Wang through the following decade. In 1928 he was named the first director of the Shaolin teaching division of the newly created Central Guosh Institute. This was a a very high profile appointment that once again gave Wang a degree of national exposure. Unfortunately it didn’t last long. The initial plan for the Guoshu organization called for it to be split into “Shaolin” and “Wudang” divisions that would be responsible for promoting the external and internal arts. As Andrew Morris has noted, the plan turned out be a disaster. While the Guoshu movement was tasked with uniting China’s squabbling martial artists, this division basically forced different styles to compete with each other for scarce budgetary resources. It took mythic rivalries and made them real.
By all accounts Wang had never lost a public fight, and he wasn’t about to start now. His battles over simple administrative matters with Zhedong (a Xingyi master and head of the Wudang division) quickly escalated from merely epic to truly dangerous. The pair’s underlings even attacked each other with spears. At this point the Guoshu movement’s political leadership intervened and disbanded the pathological divisions which they had inadvertently created. A new administrative team was brought in and the organization was put on a firmer organizational footing. Wang kept an appointment, however, as an instructor of the Shaolin arts.
That turned out to be quite fortunate for one of the group’s new administrators. Tang Hao was involved with the group’s early publishing and education efforts. The Japanese educated lawyer used the opportunity to pursue his passion for martial arts history and in 1930 began to release the results of his research into the true origins of Taijiquan (which he placed in Chen village) and Shaolin Boxing (which he argued had nothing to do with Bodhidharma or the other popular myths).
While he is now remembered as the father of Chinese martial studies, audiences at the time were less appreciative of his work. Tang Hao’s efforts to explode the mythology surrounding the Chinese martial arts led to a remarkable number of threats in a short period of time. Nor does it appear that his employers did much to back him up. Wang, however, supported Tang Hao and helped to assure his safety as he made a tactical retreat from the capital. This was early evidence of shared sympathies that would see both Tang and Wang become part of the new martial arts establishment after the rise of the Community Party in 1949.
A later NY Times article (written in 1949) suggested that Wang Ziping fought a Japanese martial artist in a public bout in 1933, at close to the age of 50. That would seem to be entirely in character, but I haven’t been able to find any other specific references to the match. But we do know that in 1935 Wang received yet another prestigious appointment, this time as a judge for both the boxing and wrestling portions of the Sixth National Games. While Wang’s credentials as a martial artist are often discussed, we forget that he was also a talented wrestler. Indeed, the entire topic of Republic era wrestling seems to have slipped out of the current conversation.
Wang remained active with the Guoshu movement right up until the very end. In 1949, in a strategic bid to increase the profile of his floundering organization, General Zhang Zhijiang gave an exclusive interview to the NY Times discussing the state of Chinese martial arts. The end result was a lengthy article in one of the most important English language newspapers examining the highs and lows of the Guoshu movement. Of all its many heroes, Zhang chose to focus much of his discussion on Wang Ziping, and the extraordinary physical abilities that he retained even at the age of 70.
There appears to have been something undeniably charismatic about Wang’s personality. Beyond his physical talent, or abilities as a teacher, people just liked him. While he never wielded the level of influence of Generals Zhang Zhijinag or Ma Liang, those sorts of people saw in him an ideal public face for the Chinese martial arts.
Nor would this be the last time that English languages audiences would hear of Wang’s exploits. The immigration of family members to the West ensured that Wang’s contributions to the Chinese martial arts would take root here. But during the Cold War, PRC propaganda publication such as China Reconstructs, continued to run features on the reform of the martial arts that highlighted Wang’s contributions.
After the rise of the Communist Party, Wang accepted a number of appointments in athletic and political bodies. He continued to be involved with the teaching and promotion of the martial arts, and the practice of traditional Chinese medicine. His daughter held a prestigious professorship in Wushu, coaching both a martial arts and archery team. In 1958 Wang published a volume titled “Twenty Therapeutic Exercises for Treating Disease and Prolonging Life.” This, along with the creation of his “Green Dragon Sword,” have remained among his most appreciated original contributions to the Chinese martial arts.
The apex of this final phase of Wang’s long career came with the dawning of the 1960s. In 1959 he was appointed the Chief Referee of the First National Wushu Exhibition. Then in 1960 he was invited to accompany Zhou Enlai on a state visit to Myanmar. Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of the Chinese martial arts. At the time he was nearly 80 years old.
The situation for China’s elite martial artists deteriorated rapidly with the start of the Cultural Revolution. University Wushu programs were mothballed and coaches and professors (such as Wang’s daughter and son-in-law) lost their employment. Wang himself was forced to close his traditional medicine practice and to stop publicly teaching the martial arts. His wife had a heart attack and died after a visit from the Reg Guard. Wang’s granddaughter, Grace Xiaogao Wu-Monnat, has given a particularly detailed (and touching) account of her family’s fortunes during this time period that is well worth reading.
While he passed away in 1973, and thus missed the “Kung Fu Fever” that would erupt at the end of the decade, Wang remained dedicated to his beloved martial arts. Perhaps being forced to struggle to learn them taught him that any vision could be accomplished with hard work. As he repeatedly told his young granddaughter, struggling to find her own path to martial accomplishment in the depths of the Cultural Revolution, “All you need is a dream. And you can be everything you ever want to be.” What better ambassador could the Chinese martial arts have had?
If you enjoyed the biography you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (16): Yu Chenghui – Realizing Swordsmanship in an Era of Restoration