Three of the earliest English language books on Kung Fu by Chinese authors published in North America.


Rethinking the Conventional Wisdom

Our daily conversations are made up of innumerable facts drawn from what might be termed, “the conventional wisdom.”  The contents of this warehouse of social knowledge are so widely shared that none of us stop to wonder where these insights originated.  These are the facts that “everybody knows.”  Unfortunately, what everyone knows can quickly become what no one critically examines.  Nor are these “facts” always neutral in their social implications.  

Let me illustrate with a quick example.  A few weeks ago I was editing an excellent chapter for another scholar when the topic turned to definitions (always a perilous subject for the unwary). As the author listed off a number of world martial arts traditions they tossed out the term “kung fu” and then immediately noted that, in fact, this was a misnomer and implied that wushu was the correct name.

But is “wushu” always correct?  In what sorts of circumstances or discussions might a scholar choose one term over the other?  The term ‘kung fu’ is quite widely used in daily conversation about the martial arts in Southern China.  Of course many of the earliest Chinese martial artists in the United States (including Bruce Lee) were from Fujian or Guangdong. They brought both their local styles and vocabularies with them.  Hence its no surprise that Westerners who practiced these styes tend to have adopted the term kung fu as well.  Within the southern Chinese martial arts community this is not a sign of confusion or ignorance.  Some martial artists in places like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia have both stylistic and ideological reasons for avoiding ‘wushu’. 

None of this was really an issue for this author or their chapter.  While I have previously published on this topic, they were not specialists on the Chinese martial arts and there would be no reason to expect that they would be versed in an area so far outside their speciality.  In truth we are all a bit blind when we start to move beyond our focus. At that point all of us end up relying on the “conventional wisdom” to some degree.

Still, quite a lot of work, effort and repetition went into constructing the idea that “kung fu” is a misnomer.  So perhaps it would be worth our time to think a little more carefully about how the term “kung fu” actually entered English language usage.  Further, we need to think carefully about the political implications of the terms that we use and avoid choosing winners and losers in ongoing cultural debates that we often see only dimly.  Our job as students of martial arts studies is to identity, study and comment on these discussions.  Yet we need to be very careful about carelessly intervening in a debate that pits attempts to ground martial arts practice within local or regional cultures (for which the use of the term kung fu has become something of a proxy) against competing efforts to construct a totalizing and unifying national discourse (guoshu in the 1930s, or wushu after the 1950s).    


Female martial artists (including Chen Laoshi) from the later Jingwu Association, another liberal group seeking to use the martial arts to reform and “save” Chinese society.


The Role of the Jingwu Association

As I indicated above, I have discussed this issue in the past. Rather than rehash all of those arguments here, it is sufficient to note two points.  First, the term kung fu has been circulating within the English language literature on the Chinese martial arts for much longer than most individuals and the OED (which is of no help in this case) suspect.  Secondly, there has never really been a single universally accepted term for the Chinese martial arts.

Perhaps we can expand on that last point.  Given the wide geographic and temporal spread of traditional fighting techniques across Chinese history, scholars have located a rich vocabulary that has been used to name and describe these arts.  Even some of the most common terms for civilian martial arts in the modern era, like quanbang (a term meaning ‘fist and staff’ that was extremely popular during the late Qing dynasty) have vanished from modern usage.  Indeed, the case of quanbang is instructive.  Stanley Henning noted that the word fell out of favor post-1911 as it was used by the Manchu Qing government to distinguish “unimportant” civilian activities from the “reality” of archery and weapons training used in the military.  After the collapse of the dynasty the term came to be seen as an externally imposed colonial label and it was rejected for largely political reasons.

Indeed, the immense waves of nationalism unleashed by the 1911 revolution would have a substantial effect on the Chinese martial arts.  These practices were still reeling from the humiliation and suppression that they had faced following the Boxer Uprising.  Yet in the early years of the Republic small groups of reformers decided that the martial arts could be saved by making them a tool to modernize and serve the state.  Indeed, Japanese martial artists had already pioneered this pathway in the late 19th century.  But where was the Chinese answer to kendo or judo?  Only a unified martial art could help to both unify China’s fractured body politic while at the same time forcefully announcing to the rest of the world (much as Japanese wrestlers had done in North America and Europe) that China a was strong nation looking ahead to the future.  What would this new system be called.  And what would it look like?

One of the first individuals to put forth an agenda (and then attempt to legislate an answer through the ongoing debates on national curriculum reform) was the warlord and boxing enthusiast Ma Liang.  The general’s troops had gained fame through their martial arts training and high level of physical condition.  Eventually Ma decided to adapt his simplified martial arts training program for civilian use and began to implement it within the schools of his home province (Shandong).  The plan was to eventually expand the effort throughout all of China.  To this end text-books were published, legislation was passed and a program was even established to train school instructors.

While Ma got off to a quick start, his program never really succeeded on the national level.  But in the late 1910s it was probably the best known national reform effort within the Chinese martial arts.  In addition to easily available textbooks, Ma had also developed a catchy name.  He called his simplified national style “new-wushu.”

Ma’s biggest competitor in the late 1910’s and early 1920’s was the Shanghai based Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association.  In many ways this movement was very different.  It lacked Ma’s obvious militarism and was headed by civilian business tycoons who were more at home in the boardroom than on the battlefield.  But in an era when superior marketing strategies would carry the day, that was exactly the edge that the Jingwu Association needed.  Jingwu envisioned a much richer catalog of physical culture, one aimed at China’s growing, and increasingly affluent, urban middle class.  Their martial arts curriculum taught a number of complex forms taken from various styles, and then mixes all of this with basketball games and roller skating expeditions in the park.  Jingwu succeeded because they crafted an absolutely compelling vision of what modern Chinese society should be, and the role that the martial arts should play in its creation.

Yet if the global success of judo taught Chinese reformers anything, it was the need for good branding.  The very fact that Ma named his art new-wushu suggested that the term “wushu” itself had a public relations problem.  China’s martial artists were still struggling to emerge from the shadow of the Boxer Uprising and the general public perceived them as being backwards and superstitious.  Hence Ma’s emphasis on the “new” and rationalized elements of his program. 

Coming up with a Chinese language brand was only half the battle. The business leaders at the head of Jingwu knew that it was pointless to throw off the mantle of the “Sick Man of East Asia” if nobody was watching.  Japanese wresters had proved that martial excellence was a way for Asian countries to get noticed and earn a degree of (still grudging) respect on the global stage.  China’s martial artists had every intention of following in their footsteps.

And yet there was genuine linguistic confusion in the English language literature as to what their practice was even called.  One will search period treaty port newspapers for discussions of the “martial arts” in vein.  That term never really took hold in English until the post-war era.  Instead one finds references to: Chinese boxing, Chinese gymnastics, juggling, national boxing, national arts, pugilism and even “the noble art of self-defense” (among others).  When a newspaper printed an article on judo, everyone in Asia and the West knew what it was talking about. But if a newspaper were to print an article on a prominent teacher of “national boxing,” there was a very good chance that no one would know what it was describing.

To solve this problem the Jingwu Association appears to have adopted two strategies.  The first was to distribute some English language material on the Chinese martial arts.  For instance, Kennedy and Guo noted that their ten year anniversary memorial book included multiple sections that were in English.  These should not simply be seen as a vanity project to increase the groups’ (already substantial) cosmopolitan credentials.  At the same time these tracts were being produced, the Jingwu Association was also actively inviting reporters from English language newspapers to its events.  The result was a steady stream of English language articles on Jingwu demonstrations throughout the late 1910s and early 1920s.

Jingwu’s second strategy seems to have been to provide these English language journalists with a handy name for the Chinese martial arts, a single word that would put them on the same rhetorical footing as Japan’s increasingly famous judo.  The term that Jingwu settled on was “kung fu.” Their preference for the term likely reflected the fact that many of the groups founding members were actually part of the Cantonese community in Shanghai.  In addition, the term kung fu allowed them to clearly distinguish their product from Ma Liang’s “new wushu,” and its older (and supposedly more suspicious) cousin’s in the countryside.

It is pointless to introduce a term without being able to define it.  And that brings us to the second half of this post, the transcription of an article titled “Chinese Athletics” which appeared in the English language Shanghai Times on December 18th, 1919.  Published during the huge 10 year anniversary celebrations, this article was clearly an effort to both introduce the term “kung fu” to an English language audience, and to provide an extensive background discussion of what the Chinese martial arts really were.

Readers should take note of the repeated attempts to position kung fu as prior (and hence superior) to Japanese judo.  More interesting still is that a close reading reveals that large sections of this article were borrowed directly from the afore mentioned English language sections of the group’s ten year anniversary book.  This material was rearranged, and some minor modifications in wording were made.  The spelling of “kung fu” seems to have been modified to “Kungfu” throughout.  Still, all of this suggests an effort to coordinate the group’s messaging to foreign audiences.

There are historical tensions within this article that also merit consideration.  The account clearly alludes to the previous year’s vicious public debate with the famous writer Lu Xun, who took to the pages of New Youth.  He had sought to equate efforts to put martial arts instruction in public schools with the sort of mania that preceded the eruption of the Boxer Uprising (See Andrew Morris, Marrow of the Nation, 193).  Like Ma Liang, Jingwu tried to draw a very clear boundary between the faulty practices of the past and the newly restored and rationalized practice of “kung fu.”

However, for this to be an authentic expression of the Chinese national essence it could not be too new.  This article gives kung fu its own origin myth, one tied directly to the Yellow Emperor and the founding of China.  That is a revealing rhetorical choice.  During much of the late imperial period the Yellow Emperor had slipped in stature.  Yet with the birth of the Republic he was rediscovered as a popular symbol of Han ethnic nationalism and resistance to outside aggression.  It is not a total surprise to see him become the patron saint of Jingwu’s kung fu given their goal of “national salvation.”

Kung fu’s appearance as a popular English language term for the Chinese martial arts is neither a misnomer nor a misunderstanding. It is also not a coincidence.  The Jingwu Association had been attempting to lay the foundation for all of this as early as the 1910s.  The irony is that they were attempting to use kung fu as a unifying term for a national practice (much as wushu is used today), while in the modern era it has come to be associated primarily with the regional martial cultures of southern China.  A complete explanation of how that part of the story unfolded will need to wait for another post.  Still, this discussion illustrates that much of the actual history of the Chinese martial arts during the 20th century revolves around efforts to create a cohesive social sector through the invention of a unifying brand or program.  Each of these competing labels carried political implications, and all of them defined new sets of winners and losers.  If we lose sight of this as we reach for an “easy label,” we risk becoming part of the process of political debate rather than students of martial arts studies.



A media montage of English language newspaper accounts of the Jingwu Association.




The Chin Woo Association


Tomorrow will witness the first of three entertainments given under the auspices of the Chin Woo Athletic Association in commemoration their tenth anniversary.  There will be performances also on Saturday and Sunday evenings.  All of these will be given at the 

[illegible] Theatre on Jukeng Road off North Szechuen Road Extension.  A special feature of the entertainment is the screening of some 5,000 feet of motion films describing the history and activities of the Association during the past ten years.  These films were taken by the members of the Association’s Camera Club.

The Chin Woo Athletic Association was formed ten years ago and was received with much disfavor and unfair criticism, not only from the press but from the general public who claimed that the Association was only a place for the breeding of “Boxers.”  The founders, however, were not at all discouraged, knowing the need for physical culture for the four hundred millions and the value of “Kungfu” as a form of gymnastics.  So they persisted in their efforts and brought the club from a membership of 8 to 800, from a rough little hut to its commodious building with modern conveniences, thus far exceeding their expectations.  In Shanghai alone it has three branches with a membership of 500 of their own.  Canton and Hankow each boast of an association. But what is most important of all is that the Association provides voluntary physical directors to two universities, three colleges, and about a dozen schools.  “Kungfu” has been called boxing but in reality it is no more than gymnastics combined with interesting contests in which young men so delight.  With the old material at hand, the Association has attempted to follow modern methods of instruction.  It has passed the experimental stage, and its success is proved by “Kungfu” being adopted for class work along modern lines.  Several works have been compiled and published, all of which have a very large circulation.

While most of the schools now clamor for its system of Chinese gymnastics (“Kungfu”) the Association also maintains other forms of physical recreation: football, basketball, tennis, and other such competitive games are provided.  Besides there are instructive classes for intellectual development and amusement.  The Camera Club boasts of an invention by one of its members and a string band second to none in Shanghai.  Educational classes in Chinese and English are conducted for its members.

The year now closing has been a significant one for the Association, a donation of $30,000 from an anonymous donor making it possible for further extension.  Ground has already been purchased for a recreation park which will be thrown open to all Chinese.  More money, however, is needed and by conducting the three entertainments mentioned above, the Association hopes to be able to raise a little towards this.

History of Chinese “Kungfu”

China is weak but she certainly claims to be the author of the art known to the Japanese as “Judo” or “Jijusu.”  Prof. Arima in his work “Judo” (Chapter II) defends that judo is indigenous to his countrymen and not foreign basing his argument on a book called “Kuyamitoride[?]” and the existence of the Takenonchi school some 400 years ago.  Self defense being natural to everybody, the art is known to every people on the globe almost since human beings were found.  Of course, as Prof. Arima says, it was in its initial stages.

The history of the Chinese arts of self-defense or “Kungfu” begins from the time when our ancestors first came to dwell in the best part of the continent of Asia.  Emperor Hwang Ti made it possible for us to live permanently and extend our area of occupation by defeating the Chi Yao, the leader of the Miao tribes.  The battle was fought at Ti Lo, Chili and won for China such a glorious future that till 1895 she had been the one power of Asia.

Since the days of Huang Ti till the Boxer Upheaval in 1900 entrance to military service was by examination of the knowledge of “Kungfu.” No man in the service was not versed in it and the military leaders could only distinguish themselves by being masters.  Because of the wretched conditions of communications and the lack of police organizations, “Kungfu” was a necessary equipment of every businessman in traveling.  Many a story is told of travelers seeing gangs of desperadoes and extricating themselves through defeating the opponents at “Kungfu.”  In those days daring men with a good knowledge of “Kungfu” carried on a business that was called “Piao Chu.” At a certain charge “pao-piao” would be sent to accompany a party through a bandit-infested area and whose service was like that of a personal guard.

Old China keeps no official record of things other than literature.  This explains why record of the art of “Kungfu” is found in a few strayed leaflets.  Either because suppression or the desire of the authors to avoid abuse, a great part of works on “Kungfu” was lost.  It is a great pity, but one that could not be prevented.  The only work that is still in existence and authentic is “Ba Tuan Ching” or “Eight Developments” by You Fei (A.D. 1300) one of China’s greatest warriors.  There is another work named “Yih Chin King” or “Development of the Muscles” by Ta Moh. In this book much alteration had been made and it is difficult to vouch for its authenticity.

After the overthrow of the Ming Dynasty, the Chinese restive of the Manchus began to pay particular attention to “Kungfu.”  Any of the warriors who served under Ming fled to distant parts (including Japan): others became monks and lived in secluded places.  It was then that [the] Japanese began to have “judo.”  Among those who entered monasteries were the founders of two famous schools in “Kungfu,” “Siao Ling” [Shaolin] and “Wu Tang.”  These two schools existed for quite a while and had many followers.  “Siao Ling” was noted for “Wa Kung” (external development) and “Wu Tang” for “Nai Kung” (internal development).  The former, however, has more followers.

None of those persons well versed in “Kungfu” would not say that they do not belong to “Sia Ling.”  But the school has many divisions each claiming its advantages over others.  They can be grouped under two sections, the North and South.  Prof. Fog in founding the Chin Woo Athletic Association had in mind the object of uniting the different divisions for developing the art.  His success is seen to-day in the number of professors maintained by the Association representatives of [illegible] divisions and the number of followers, both men and children.

The Shanghai Times, December 18, 1919. Page 16.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: “Fighting Styles” or “Martial Brands”? An economic approach to understanding “lost lineages” in the Chinese Martial Arts.