Testing the edge. A Chinese soldier with dadao. General Zhang pointed to the initial success of troops armed with “Big Swords” as proof of the importance of martial arts training throughout his various remarks in the 1930s. Source: Unknown.



A Different Take on an Old Debate


If you study the traditional Chinese martial arts and have spent any time on the internet, you will have heard some variant of these debates before. Do I need to study Buddhism or Daoism to really understand Wing Chun? Are the foundational principals of Taijiquan found in ancient Daoist philosophy, or would one be better served by taking a close look at late imperial Confucian writings? Of course, the current Abbot of the Shaolin temple has been busy promoting the idea that the wushu demonstrations staged by his warrior monks are an ancient type of “moving Chan.”

Anyone interested in the actual relationship between Chan practice and the Shaolin martial arts can probably find all of the answers they are looking for in Meir Shahar’s excellent work on the famous temple. Indeed, the field of Chinese martial studies emerged at least partially out of a desire to debunk many of the historic myths and misunderstandings surrounding Chinese religion and the martial arts. Yet there are aspects of these questions that remain tantalizing unexplored. For instance, does anyone wonder whether Christianity might really be the spiritual or ethical system that sits at the heart of the Chinese martial arts?

The notion that a Western religion might have anything to do with these hand combat practices seems far-fetched.  But that was not always the case. During the 1930s such linkages gained a sort of quasi-official legitimacy due to both the political efforts that the martial arts were caught up in and the personal ambitions of the leadership of the Central Guoshu Institute. General Zhang Zhijiang (1882-1966) went to great lengths to promote both boxing and Christianity with equal missionary zeal, often in the same breath.

Given his many efforts, all of which received glowing coverage in the Chinese (and to a lesser extent global) press, it may be worth wondering why they are not better remembered.  I suspect that this is because Zhang chose to stay in the PRC following the 1949 victory of the Communist Party.  He even continued to promote the TCMA during this extended “retirement.” Those efforts received a certain amount of social recognition.  However, his prior efforts to evangelize the Chinese masses were quickly forgotten.

None of that is really a surprise. We have seen variants of this story many times before. And if one’s interests lay only in the reconstruction of the old Guoshu training regime, it is probably not all that significant.  Yet for students of Chinese martial studies, Zhang’s linkage of the Chinese martial arts and Christianity is actually quite interesting. It signals the ways in which Central Guoshu Institute was attempting to situate these practices within ongoing debates over the nature of society, and how Chinese culture should be leveraged on the global stage as part of the state’s public diplomacy efforts. So why did Zhang attempt to link such seemingly different social movements? And how was all of this received by audiences in China and abroad?


Troops from the 29th Army.


Action Through Faith


Before delving into period media discussions of these topics, some words of background may be in order. As we discussed in a previous post, General Zhang Zhijiang was one of multiple leading martial arts reformers to emerge out of the period of warlordism which consumed the early years of the Republic. Zhang had a well-deserved reputation for personal rectitude that famously complicated his appointment as head of the opium suppression efforts for a government that had no intention of actually suppressing opium.  Before that Zhang had risen to fame as one of the most reliable lieutenants of Feng Yuxiang, China’s “Christian Warlord.”

While Feng was known to baptize his troops, it seems that Zhang discovered Christainity on his own.  While serving under Feng in Sichuan, he encountered communities of Christian converts and was impressed by their revolutionary zeal and what he termed “faith in action.” Like other elites in the period he took up the study of Christianity and saw it as both a progressive and modernizing force. That doesn’t mean that Zhang lacked a spiritual testimony.  Indeed, he would become just as famous as a Christian preacher and speaker in some circles as he is for the promotion of martial arts in others. Yet it appears that Zhang was attracted to both practices at least in part as each promised to transform China’s population from a disorganized mass, victims of both fate and global aggression, into a motivated and revolutionary body capable of making their way in the world.

Zhang would probably not understand our hesitation upon reading about the intertwining of kung fu and Christianity. Our current cultural vision of religion in the West tends to view it as a conservative force oriented exclusively towards the past. Yet that doesn’t really do justice to the progressive Christianity, often dedicated to radical social reform, that Zhang encountered earlier in the 20thcentury.  Likewise, we tend to view the Chinese martial arts through allochronistic and ethno-linguistically essentialist lenses.  Again, it is unlikely that Zhang (hip-deep in a massive modernization effort) would have been sympathetic to such a view.  Like other reformers of the Republic period, he saw the Chinese martial arts (once properly purified and rectified) as a powerful force for the modernization of Chinese society. While his combination of Christianity and Chinese martial arts training may be jarring to modern sensibilities, during the 1920s and 1930s many individuals seem to conclude that the two were headed along the same path.

For instance, we have already seen reports on this blog of western missionary schools adding Chinese martial arts training to their curriculum in the early 20thcentury.  While traditional athletics and ball games were certainly more popular in American and British schools, a certain number of missionaries who were exposed to both the Chinese martial arts and the Western notion of “muscular Christianity” seem to have decided that such instruction was just what their young charges needed. Indeed, the YMCA would become an important force for the promotion of both Western and indigenous boxing traditions in China. It is now also clear that the famous Jingwu Association was built largely in its image.

Jared Miracle has documented much of the ideological interplay between China, the West and Japan on this issue, and his work is well worth reviewing.  Likewise, Scott Phillips has recently coined the term “YMCA Consensus” to encapsulate all of this.  He notes that reformers both in the Chinese martial arts community and in other areas largely agreed on the steps which were necessary to modernize Chinese society. These included a turn away from superstitious practices and beliefs (folk religion and the opera), and often dovetailed quite nicely with the spread of progressive Christianity and other revolutionary philosophies in China.

This is a very useful concept, though one that might be better termed the “YMCA debate.” My 2015 volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (co-authored with Jon Nielson) looked at how these debates unfolded in some detail in a single location (the Pearl River Delta) where the forces of reform and modernization were soundly trounced by a reactionary local society.  Hence any “consensus” that existed tended to manifest itself at the elite national level.  Of course, this is exactly where most of our written historical sources come from (including the journal and newspaper articles discussed below).

It goes without saying that Zhang was the literal vanguard of such a movement.  When viewed in this context his dual promotion of Christianity and the Chinese martial arts makes perfect sense. We should also remember that many other individuals were coming to very similar conclusions during the Republic period.

A similar logic applies when we think about the KMT’s international public diplomacy strategy. Given the West’s well-established interest in judo and jiujitsu, it did not take a marketing genius to conclude that China’s martial arts heritage could be a great asset.  Still, one would need to show that these were not the same backwards superstitions that had led to the Boxer Rebellion a generation earlier. Rather, the “modern” martial arts were a rectified and scientific practice that could be shared with the world.

In short, individuals like Zhang hoped to demonstrate China’s modernization by sharing elements of a carefully curated “traditional” culture, much as every other major power was also doing during this period of nationalist revival. And what better way to contextualize such discussions than by linking them to the global currents of progressive Christianity, especially in its more “muscular” or sporting forms? The Chinese were not the only ones who appreciated the notion of “action through faith.”

The promotion of this message would monopolize much of Zhang’s career during the 1930s.  While his contributions to the development of the Central Guoshu Institute have been explored by Andrew Morris and others, one of the important aspects of Zhang’s career was his frequent extended good-will tours accompanied both by teams of martial artists and other officials, all designed to promote these messages. These tours were both domestic and international in scope.

In 1933 Zhang and a team of athletes, martial artists and diplomats undertook a long tour of South East Asia. This was a sensitive time as it followed Japanese aggression in Manchuria and Shanghai, and the Japanese were then sending their own teams of diplomats through the region and the West to explain their view of the Chinese situation. In 1935 another year-long expedition was mounted.  This one would cover both the United States and Western Europe before once again returning by way of South East Asia.  Again, Zhang would be accompanied by officials from the Foreign Ministry and martial artists.  In 1936 Zhang undertook a domestic tour across Southern China, a region that the Guoshu movement had trouble penetrating.  This was the same year that Chu Minyi would lead his better known Olympic expedition to Berlin and the subsequent international demonstration tour across Europe.

True to form, Zhang mixed his unique brand of Christian and martial evangelism in many of these stops.  That seems to have been particularly true of this 1935 expedition to the West.  How successful any of this was is another matter.  The Chinese press followed his progress, and the English language papers of Shanghai and Beijing reported that foreigners showed interest in the Chinese martial arts at all of his stops.  Unfortunately, few mentions of Zhang’s tour appear in the major Western papers that I have been able to review. Granted, this sort of search is more difficult to conduct as most local papers that might carry accounts of a multiple-city event aren’t located in a single database.  Still, it is not a good sign that his efforts made so little impact on the major national papers (at least in the US).  For instance, the Washington Post carried only a single notice of his visit to the US.  On page 4 of the October 9th issue there is a short notice identifying Zhang and noting that he would be delivering a talk entitled “Christianity and Peace” at a joint meeting of protestant denominations at the Church of the Pilgrim at 8 p.m.

Chu Minyi’s Olympic expedition seems to have suffered a similar fate the following year.  Both Zhang’s 1935 and Chu’s 1936 tours must have been vastly expensive undertakings. And while both were politely received (note for instance we don’t find any newspaper articles mocking them) they clearly did not generate the same sort of enthusiasm in the Western press that they inspired back home. The question comes down to demand.

It was precisely Japan’s military success in Asia (a “hard power” resource) that made its culture attractive to Western consumers.  So while the “soft power” of cultural attraction may be independently deployed in the pursuit of certain policy goals, it rarely arises in isolation from developments in the realm of “hard power.”  More often than not, the two are linked. Zhang and Chu worked diligently to craft a strategy that would effectively communicate with Western audiences. Yet given China’s weakened military position, selling the desirability of its martial arts was always going be an uphill fight. While various reformers could argue that China was the true of home jiujitsu, Western audiences showed little interest in taking up the argument.

Still, the efforts that Zhang put forward help to remind us that reforms within the Republic era Chinese martial arts did not happen in a vacuum. Chinese officials were very much aware of the notion (championed first by the Italians, then the Germans) that a nation’s athletes should be thought of as “diplomats in track suits.” Further, the 1930s was a decade in which all of the Western powers were showcasing their national physical cultural heritage as well as the latest trends in physical training.  Rather than seeing the development of the Chinese martial arts during this period as something isolated or culturally pristine, it is important to consider the ways that Zhang and others sought to situate them within broader global trends.


A Chinese guerrilla team armed with rifles and dadaos near Guangzhou in 1941. Source: Vintage War photograph, Everett Collection.



Leading the Nation in Physical Culture


All of that should be taken into consideration when reviewing sources such as this. On September 15, 1936 the pro-KMT, English language newspaper The China Press, published a long article profiling Zhang.  It reviewed his recent tour of North America and Europe, and promoted his upcoming expeditions through the major cities of Southern China. The article provides us with a nice summary of Zhang’s career, which was no doubt its purpose.  More importantly, it suggests how Zhang and the rest of the Nanking establishment wanted his efforts to be seen and understood by readers in the West.  Interestingly, this piece repeatedly emphasizes the connections between Zhang’s attempts to proselytize the Christian message and his efforts to save the nation through teaching the martial arts.  Both were seen as an aspect of the same basic mission.


Nanking General Will Lead Nation in Physical Culture


Chang Chi-chiang, foremost exponent of Ancient Physical Arts, to Take to Road with Staff of 20 Instructors


The day of inter-provincial wars in China is no more, and those warlords who rose to power, ruling a particular slice of conquered territory for various periods have either retired been pushed out of the picture or passed on to another world.

One of the few emailing military leaders, however, is General Chang Chi-chiang, a man of no mean ability, and who in his time had under his command no less than 300,00 men and fought in some 10 wars.

He has since written “finis” to a career of war, and is now engaged in a battle of quite a different sort. He is, in other words, seeking to win the hearts of China’s millions through serving his country in an entirely peaceful endeavor.

Airplanes, field guns and other military equipment have their place in the upbuilding of the country, the general concedes, but his task lies in building up the morale and physique of the people.

Today General Chang is Director of the Central Institute for National Culture [Guoshu] and concurrently Commander-in-Chief of the Leauge of Ten for [the] National Salvation of China through the faith and works of Chinese Christians.

To Lead Lectures

In the name and interest of both organizations, General Chang will soon lead in the future an expedition of more than 20 men in a round-the-country lecture and demonstration tour, urging every one of the four hundred millions of this country to prepare body and hearts against the eventuality of a great national crisis.

General Chang speaks forcefully when he talks of the thing which he thoroughly understands and in which he has put the deepest of faith and enthusiasm. Let each of our fellow-countrymen be thoroughly trained and drilled in the national physical art that our forefathers have left to use so that our body will be like iron and steel in times of great trials that may come, then no aggressive foreign power will be able to conquer China.”

General Chang mentioned with great pride what he considers to be the historic battle of Hsifengkuo in Northern China. He cited reports that the other country involved in those battles [Japan] has been busily searching for Chinese in Northern China versed in the use of the Big Swords. These Chinese, ignorant of what it means to their own country, have been bought to become instructors for the army of the nation concerned, General Chang said.

“If a foreign country has seen the need of training her citizens in a physical art that belongs to China, how much more should China be aware of the need herself?” General Chang asked.

Urges Physical Development

“So, ye four hundred millions, rise up like one man in intensified physical training.  Take lessons in boxing, in the use of swords, spears, arrows, each according to personal tastes.” That will be the clarion call which General Chang is going to make to the nation on his future round-the-country lecture and demonstration tour.

At the same time, General Chang, in his capacity as the Commander-in-Chief of the League of Ten for National Salvation of China, will urge all people, especially the Christians, to join that organization so that the entire force of 500,000—odd Christians will form a formidable strength in the campaign of saving China by purging the hearts of the four hundred millions of their sins.

This will not be the first time that General Chang has traveled extensively in the interest of the promotion of the ancient physical art and the heart-purging cause. He made a similar trip covering more than 14 countries in America and Europe last year.  “The people of all these countries showed considerable enthusiasm in the Chinese arts.” He said.

With General Chang, it is a case in which a real and worthy career began at the age of fifty.  For he was at that age when he was first made Director of the Central Institute for National Physical Arts in 1928. This organization had as its founders all the government executives including Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek, Mr. Tai Chi-tao, Marshal Feng Yu-xiang, General [illegible] Lieh-chun, etc., who are still serving on the Board of Directors.

One-Man Job

But these founders have left the huge task of pushing the campaign entirely in the hands of General Chang so that it has been a one-man game for him for six years. Within this period. Branch institutes have been established in [illegible] and municipal centers as well as provincial capitals throughout the whole country, excepting Tiber and Mongolia.

The Central Institute at Tou Piao Hsiang has more than 20 instructors, each a specialist in one of the multiple sorts of Chinese boxing and swordsmanship. They have under their tutorship 120 students including 30 girls.

This organization with its auxiliaries throughout the country, according to General Chang, has had a hard time financially. A monthly subsidy of only $5,00 can hardly be enough to finance such a great undertaking. But General Chang has a spirit of determination that cannot be swerved by financial difficulties. He has incurred debt totaling $100,000 on account of the institute, he said.  General Chang is also president of the Central School of Physical Culture at Hsiaolingwei with a total of 300 students.

It is a marvel to see how the General has given himself up to the cause.  He rises at 5 o’clock and does a physical drill until 10o’clock every morning.  Even while talking with friends he moves his arms and hands every now and then as does a boxer.

The League of Ten for National Salvation of China was organized in 1933 mainly due to the inspiration which General Chang gave to a group of his Christian friends including Mr. David Young, pastor of the Advent Christian Church, Dr. Handel Lee, President of the Nanking Theological Seminary and Dr. Li Tien-lu, professor of the same institution.

General Chang was one time Chairman of the Opium Suppression Commission and later Pacification Commissioner for Kiangsu Province.

“Nanking General Will Lead Nation in Physical Culture.” The China Press. September 18, 1936, 4.



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