Chinese wushu students in Dengfeng. Source: The National


It goes by many names. Organization, bureaucracy…”hard work”… It’s the sort of social effort that defines modern industrialized life. Weber famously termed it the “iron cage” of rationality. We so frequently speak of, or imagine, the martial arts as an intrusion of pre-modern tradition onto the global stage that one might be forgiven for assuming that these institutions possess a logic and schema of their own.  This is exactly how they have been advertised for decades, as a critique of, or temporary escape from, the cold rationality of the mundane world.

And yet, as the following discussion reminds us, the Chinese martial arts have thrived precisely because they were a cultural revival movement that was both imbedded within, and dependent upon, China’s newly emerging modern institutions. Consider the following paradox.  How is it that a city like Guangdong might have vastly more martial artists in the years 1920 or 1930 than the same neighborhoods could have boasted in 1900 (right on the eve of the Boxer Rebellion)?

In the late 19thcentury such practices were most popular in the countryside and they tended to be pursued by young men of marginal means looking for a way to make their way in the wider world. By the second decade of the 20thcentury the sorts of institutions and industries that had supported these social pathways (the imperial military service examination system, the armed escort companies, salt smuggling/monopoly enforcement, etc…) had been obliterated by rapid social and economic change.  And yet the martial arts were still vastly more popular in Southern China during the second and third decades of the 20thcentury than they had been during the first?

It was the adaptation of these systems to new purposes, and their adoption by modern social forces, that ultimately created the schools that we have today.  In the military archery examinations (used for selecting junior officers) were eventually replaced with dadao drill (for strengthening the infantry).  In the civilian realm, the upsurge of nationalism in the late 1910s led many members of China’s newly empowered middle class to search for acceptable ways to reconnect with their national local identities.  Ideally such an activity would both answer existential questions regarding what it meant to be Chinese while at the same time addressing the practical daily problem of life in a modern economy. Countless reformers within the martial arts community worked hard to create practices that could do both.

None of these groups were more successful than the Jingwu Association. Others (Morris, Kennedy and Gao) have noted that they combined a knack for franchising martial arts training with a keen appreciation of the latest advertising techniques.  The result was the creation of China’s first truly national martial arts brand, and the widespread acceptance (at least in urban areas) of their modernized understanding of the martial arts.

While a catchy advertising campaign might win you brand recogonition, by itself it is insufficient to create a truly national social movement. Individual consumption choices just cannot account for that, especially when we remember that Jingwu membership would been a luxury that was out of reach for many of China’s working class citizens. Reformers understood that they would need to find a mechanism to compel individuals (particularly in the quickly developing urban cores) to participate in these previously marginal activities if they were to have any hope of becoming a central aspect of China’s modern identity.

After all, one’s consumption decisions alone cannot make you a member of “the nation.”  If the martial arts were to remain a purely voluntary pastime they would never be more than one hobby among many.  That is not a strong basis for identity, or at least not the sort that the Chinese state was attempting to cultivate.  As Benedict Anderson so cogently observed, we find nobility in dying for one’s nation, rather than one’s employer, or an abstract political philosophy, precisely because the first is not a choice we have control over. Rather than a voluntary pastime, or means of making a living, a system was imagined where citizens would study the national fighting arts simply because they “were Chinese.” Through their shared practice they would come to understand what that phrase really meant. In some ways it is all too easy to get caught up in the details of Jingwu’s market innovations and lose track of their fundamentally nationalist political philosophy, or the radical scope of their vision.


Wushu students. Source: China Daily


Yet how does one transform the voluntary and the particular into the mandatory and the universal? China’s network of public and private schools was the only tool with the scope to accomplish this task.  Better yet, the national debates over curriculum reform that swept across the country in the late 1910s provided the ideal opening for reformers to argue that martial arts should become the basis of physical education in China, much as judo and kendo had come to be accepted in Japan.  Yet how was this agenda actually implemented? And what would this sort of instruction actually look like?

This is where our story returns to the question of bureaucracy.  Nothing gets done in a modern society without meetings, and they tend to generate a paper trail.  That is good news for historians. It seems odd, but if you want to know about the development of the traditional Chinese martial arts, discussions of the development of the modern educational system are actually a pretty good place to start digging.

I was reminded of all of this when I ran across the following article reporting on a series of organizational meetings which took place between the Guangdong Educational Association and local branch of the Jingwu Association. Formally inaugurated in April of 1919 (with a well-attended ceremony at the Haizu Theater in Guangzhou) the Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Association lost no time in enrolling local schools in its mission to save China by spreading the gospel of the (reformed and modernized) martial arts.  For their part, the schools seem to have been only to happy to receive physical education instructors who they did not have to recruit or train.


Local Students to Take Lessons in National Boxing from Members of the Ching Wu Association

The Educational Association helps a meeting of teachers and students on April 14. The meeting was purposely convened to introduce the teachers of the Ching Wu Athletic Association to the students who have joined in learning the national boxing exercises, and to work out a time table to suit the various schools.

It was decided to teach these exercises in the Educational Association’s building, in the Boys High Normal School, and in the Sacred Heart College on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the afternoon from 4 till 5:30 o’clock commencing this afternoon; in the No. 6 Government Public school and in Nam Hoi School on Tuesdays, Thursdays and Fridays, the time is the same as in the other schools beginning yesterday afternoon.  With regard to the Nam Wu Middle School and other schools in Honam they asked to arrange the days and time for themselves.  In Canton Christian College these exercises will be taught on Mondays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 4 till 6 o’clock in the afternoon; and in the Government Trade School on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the Morning. The boxing exercises will also be taught to girls in Kwen Wai Normal School in Saikwan, and in the Girls Athletic School.

The Canton Times. Friday, April 16th, 1920.  Page 1.

A few notes about this article stand out.  The first is that this instruction, while formally mediated and adopted by the provinces Educational Association, seems to have happened outside of normal class hours.  Thus, at least in 1920, martial arts education seems to have resembled a supplementary “club activity,” rather than something which could displace other subject from the school day.  Still, four and half to six hours of instruction a week was an ambitious schedule. This sort of “soft introduction” was also how the martial arts were first introduced to many Japanese schools in the late Meiji period.  It suggests a local demand for this sort of training even in the absence of more comprehensive curriculum reform.


Wushu Students. Source: China Daily


Indeed, the following short notice, also from the pages of the Canton Times, suggests that this demand predated Jingwu’s move to the region.  It should also be noted that the editorial style of the Canton Times paper consistently used “national boxing” (rather than Jingwu’s “kung-fu” terminology) as its preferred English language name for the martial arts. That choice may be seen as potentially significant in light of the ongoing attempts to place these practices at the center of modern Chinese national identity.


The Seventh Canton Athletic Meet will begin February 27. The enrollment for the athletes concluding yesterday when more than one thousand from nearly 40 schools in Canton and other places reported to participate in this Meet. Among them, the Girls’ Normal School in Tai Shak Street will send a body of selected girl students to give a national boxing play while at the same time the Girls Physical Training School will also hold a military drill exhibition.  It will be most interesting for the guests to learn that Mrs. Fung Chaung-ching will also take part in the games on that occasion.

The Canton Times. Feb. 25th, 1919. Page 7.

One wonders whether the Girls Normal School and Girls Physical Training School discussed here might have been the very same institutions that were referenced in the final sentences of the first article.  Still, the note on the Honam schools bowing out of the scheduling process is a valuable reminder that Jingwu was not the only player attempting to colonize this public space and there may have been some hesitance to adopt its program.  A short notice run in a wide number of newspapers in December of 1919 noted that a certain Mrs. Wu, the wife of a Colonel in the army, had successfully set up martial arts classes for female school students on Honam island in Guangzhou:

The new woman in Canton is not the tender and slim, timid and frail, pale faced and tiny footed Chinese woman of yesterday.  Mrs. Wu, wife of a Colonel of the Army, is organizing in Honam a club to teach the members of the gentle sex the national game of Chinese boxing.  In one of the government schools for women, Chinese boxing is taught to the girl students.

Straits Times, 17 December 1919, page 8.

I have yet to decipher the identity of “Colonel Wu,” but apparently he was an important enough figure in Guangdong in 1919 that the article’s author decided that he and his wife needed no further introduction.  Multiple figures were also promoting Ma Liang’s “New Wushu” at this point in time, and he was hardly the only military officer to have taken an interest in the martial arts and educational reform.

It is hard to know what exactly was being taught in the schools on Honam given the scanty information in this article.  Still, the Women’s chapter of the Guangdong Jingwu branch would not be inaugurated until Chen Shi Chao (the director of the Women’s Department, and Chen Gong Zhe’s brother) came to the region in the Spring of 1920.  So I would suspect that this program probably didn’t fall under the Pure Martial umbrella.

As John Nielson and I noted in our social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts, Jingwu’s proactive stance in the region payed off.  The schools noted in this article were just a fraction of the institutions that would adopt their system.  By 1925 no fewer than 45 of Guangzhou’s schools, companies and clans employed dozens of Jingwu instructors.  Together they educated at least 3,000 students in these various branch locations, in addition to the thousands more who took classes in the Association’s main schools.  Similar efforts were mounted in Foshan, Hong Kong, and other locations in urban Southern China.

It should be remembered that many of the individuals who would go on to promote the later Guoshu and Wushu movements were first introduced to the martial arts through the efforts of the Jingwu Association. Its success in the creation of a national martial arts cannot be understood merely in terms of business acumen or advertising strategies (those these things certainly helped).  Rather, their success in placing their unique vision of the martial arts in Chinese schools gave these systems the sort of coercive social influence that was necessary to turn a previously marginal (mostly rural) activity into a core aspect of the modern Chinese identity.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Ip Man, the Death of Language and the Roots of Communication