School boys at play. Stereoscopic card, circa 1905. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.



A History of Desire


When thinking about the diffusion of the Asian fighting arts to the West, we must distinguish between the history of the martial arts as they were practiced, and their evolution as symbols within the popular imagination.  Obviously both subjects are important.  Yet no one takes up a practice (or enrolls a child in lessons) before they are capable of imagining what they might gain.

This dichotomy between practice and perception suggests some interesting research questions.  Perhaps the most immediately relevant to this blog (and my ongoing research) would be, what exactly did Western audiences imagine when they saw images of Japanese judo or kendo students during the early 20thcentury?  What similar or different meanings did they ascribe to “Chinese boxers” or “sword dancers” when they appeared in period postcards or newspaper accounts.  And how does all of this help us to understand the relatively early adoption of Japanese practices in comparison to their Chinese counterparts?

The standard explanation for all of this has simply ignored the realm of ideas and public discussion all together, extrapolating instead from practice.  It has frequently been asserted that no one in the West knew about the existence of the Chinese martial arts prior to the 1960s.  And in any case, the schools that did exist were “secretive” and closed to non-Chinese students until Lau Bun, Bruce Lee or some other pioneer threw open the flood gates, kicking off the process of transmission to an eager West.

I think we can safely say that this sort of popular reading of the situation is wrong on all counts.  We have now reviewed enough popular media from the late 19thand early 20thcenturies to establish that “Chinese boxing” (as the practice was most frequently termed in the period) was not a mystery.  Individuals might see it on postcards, in newsreels or even in local demonstrations.  Yet very few Westerners seemed all that interested in learning more about it until the late 1960s and early 1970s.  What changed was not so much the supply of the art (which, in all truth, remained limited even after immigration policies loosened), but rather the public’s demand for it.

This brings us back to the realm of ideas. We might even term our subject the history of cross-cultural desire.  What did Western consumers in the early 20thcentury desire from images of Japanese martial attainment?  As we work on that puzzle we might gain some insight into what was missing from the images of the Chinese “sword dancers” which were also pretty popular during this same period.



A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.



Enter the Stereoscope


I recently acquired a vintage stereoscopic card that seems to speak directly, and rather self-consciously, to these questions.  These dual images were meant to be viewed through a table top or hand-held unit which, with the help of a set of lens, transformed two slightly offset photographs into a single three-dimensional image.  Collecting and viewing these cards was an immensely popular pastime in the late 19thand early 20thcentury.  Consumers in the West hungered for information about life abroad, but relatively few people had the resources to travel by steamship and train.  Travelogues of journeys to destinations in exotic Japan and China became instant best sellers.  Further, stereoscopic images were typically sold in sets which included extensive discussions of the places and people featured in the virtual tour.

All of this needs to be remembered when we think about early discussions of the Asian martial arts in the West. Images and accounts of these practices were being reproduced and packaged for sale by the same industries designed to satiate a hunger for travel and cross-cultural desire. Indeed, we tend to forget that the rapid reduction in transportation costs kicked off by the advent of steam travel in the late 19thcentury initiated the first period of true economic globalization.  All of this inspired the rapid development of new martial practices throughout Asia, while simultaneously transmitting accounts of their practice to the West.





As such we should not be surprised to discover the occasional stereoscopic image of Asian martial artists or traditionally dressed soldiers during this period.  The current photograph features a group of Japanese boys going at it with bokkens and sticks as their parents look on.  In the foreground one can see one of their teachers attempting to direct the action.  The cherry tree blossoming in the background suggests that this was a school festival or an athletic day, rather than part of a regular martial arts training program.  Still, the publisher seems to consciously equate the two.

Flipping the card over readers will find the following discussion of the Japanese educational system and the place of “fencing” within it:

You are in the northeastern part of the city; the Imperial University, the Art School, the Zoological Museum and a number of other educational institutions are in this district.  This part of the park is a favorite place for schoolboys’ games.  You see the native teacher wears European clothes, and at least the caps of these struggling, hard-hitting youngsters are of European cut, but the spirit and energy with which they are playing did not have to be imported from the west!  Not one of these boys but knows by heart stories of Japanese loyalty and heroism that stir his blood.  It is not without effect that their ancestors, generations after generation, were taught the nobility of self-sacrifice for a beloved superior of a great idea.

Just at present these are merely jolly youngsters whose hardships consist only of severe demands by their school. They work much harder than English or American boys.  Besides learning to read and write their own immensely difficult language that means memorizing and learning to draw with a brush and ink, several thousand word-signs), learning Japanese history, etiquette and morals, all the boys study English too.  They will have to pass fairly difficult examinations in English grammar, general history, geography, arithmetic, geometry, and the natural sciences if they are to occupy any but the commonest positions in life.  What makes the case harder—though they themselves do not realize it—the scanty diet of Japan gives them an insufficient physical basis for all this severe work. The consequences is that many ambitious youth break down.

A great deal is made of athletics in boy’s schools.  The gymnasia are well equipped with modern apparatus.  Fencing, running, leaping, all are enthusiastically cultivated. Boat races are favorite amusements of the University students.  Baseball is immensely popular and admirably played. (See Lafeadio Hern’s chapters on School-life in his “Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan.”)

From Notes of Travel No. 9, Copyright 1904, by Underwood & Underwood.

As with any sort of period discussion, a note of caution is in order.  This image bears a copyright date of 1896 and gekiken (or kendo) was not yet an official part of the national curriculum for Japanese middle and high school students.  That didn’t stop individual schools from adopting either judo or fencing as core elements of their physical education programs. Yet in 1896 this topic was still generating policy studies and heated debate within the government. Denis Gainty’s discussion of the educational reform in the period makes it clear that the Ministry of Education was actually firmly opposed to the widespread adoption of fencing as (among other drawbacks) they were worried about repeated head trauma and other injuries to students.  They actually favored western inspired physical education policies and games.  Such practices wouldn’t become a mandatory element of the Japanese educational system until the early 1910s.

I will admit to having dismissed the Ministry of Education’s concerns when I first read them as being overprotective and a bit unfair to the martial arts.  Still, looking over this photograph one wonders whether they may have been on to something about the potential for head trauma!

This sort of bureaucratic nuance tended not to make its way into popular Western discussions.  They emphasized the “essentialist” nature of Japanese martial arts practice.  Fencing reflected values deeply embedded in the core of the Japanese nation. Just as the Meiji reformers intended, once the actual Samurai had vanished as a social class, the entire population could be reimagined along such lines.  It wasn’t just Japanese citizens who were involved in this project.  The Western press fully supported this rhetorical move as well.

In the case of Japan, cross-cultural desire seems to have been driven by the perceived effectiveness of these practices. While early Japanese wrestlers in the West were not undefeated, they won enough matches to inspire a fair degree of public interest.  They could even count among their many fans President Theodore Roosevelt who famously received instruction in the White House for a time.

We can find other clues as to the source of this desire in the dates on the card.  This particular card seems to have been published after 1904, using an image recycled from an earlier collection.  As such it was probably in circulation just after the end of the Russo-Japanese war.  Japan’s victories in this conflict electrified reading audiences in the West who were shocked to see a rising Asian power defeat a major European empire. The question on everyone’s mind was “How did they do it?”  How was Japan able to become a modern power so quickly?  It is not a surprise that attention would turn to their school system, or the use of the martial arts as a sort of “moral education.”

That last notion would continue to fascinate Western audiences for decades.  It may even be the progenitor of our rather paradoxical current belief that all children between the ages of 5 and 15 should spend at least two evenings a week in a local taekwondo gym as it “builds character.”  As the Chinese proverb reminds us, consider the source of the water from which you drink.





The charmingly chaotic nature of this scene reminds me of a related newsreel which promoted similar ideas.  This short film was produced exactly 30 years later (in 1934), and it is well worth watching. It begins with a massive outdoor kendo class with hundreds of students overseen by a number of instructors standing on a raised platform.  In the second scene the initial order has given way to two mobs of students rushing after each other in a fanciful recreation of some sort of medieval battle, but one in which spears, archers, horses, cannons and tactics play no role.  Meanwhile the narrator informs the audience:

“No good the little Jap boy saying ‘no can do.’ He just has to.  Here is the mass production of the ‘can do’ spirit at a Tokyo school. Besides being an old Japanese custom, it makes the youngsters tough and gets them used to taking the buffetings of life…

[The charge begins]

Spectacular! But there are probably one or two bad headaches after the skull cracking is finished.”

Schoolboys “Kendo” at Tokyo. British Movietone. August 6, 1934.






In some ways our two images are notably different.  While the stereoscopic card probably shows some sort of festival or community display, the second image provides an almost chilling insight into the actual militarization of school martial arts programs a few years before the invasion of China and the Second World War.  Yet the Western story about these images never changes.  In both cases the “fencing” is seen as an effective toughening exercise fully integrated into a modern educational system.  This probably played quite well with a Western audience raised on their own exhortations to live out a vision of “muscular Christianity.” If anyone doubted the utility of these exercises they could simply be pointed toward Japan’s many military victories, of which the Russo-Japanese War was just an opening salvo.

The Chinese martial arts, in contrast, lacked such credentials within the popular imagination.  The Chinese military had been repeatedly defeated by both Western powers and the Japanese.  Reformers like General Ma Liang, the Jingwu Association and later Chu Minyi were eager to follow the Japanese lead and institute regular martial arts training as part of the national school curriculum.  Yet their efforts, even when they won coverage in the English language press,  seemed to lack the “rough and tumble” ferocity that Western audiences admired.  While individual acts of athleticism might be admired or mocked in various articles, Chinese boxing as a whole didn’t seem to serve an equivalent purpose in Western media discussions.

Judo, jujutsu and kendo all appeared to answer the most pressing question of the day, “How do the Japanese do it?” The real problem wasn’t that individuals in the West had never heard of the Chinese arts.  Rather, no one was asking an equivalent question about China’s foreign policy or military accomplishments. It was precisely these larger national narratives that inspired the public toward cross-cultural desire or indifference.  The global “discovery” of kung fu would have to wait until we all started to ask a different set of questions in the wake of the Korean and Vietnam Wars.



If you enjoyed this brief Research Note you might also want to see: The Boxing Master, the Pirate’s Wife and the Soldier: Three Scenes from Southern China’s Piracy Crisis, 1807-1810