As previously noted, I have been taking a couple weeks off from the blog to focus on another writing project that needs my attention. Nevertheless, I ran across an image that I wanted to share. As I did a bit of research it occurred to me that this photo suggests a theoretical dilemma that may be relevant to that project as well. It seems that I just cannot stay away from Kung Fu Tea. But in this case that might actually be for the best.

Let us begin with the photograph that tempted me out of my blogging vacation.  It is an eight by eleven-inch glossy print showing three Chinese martial artists with swords (jian) in a Beijing park.  This particular photo was previously part of the Houston Chronicle’s photo archive before I purchased it at auction.  The stamps on the back indicate that it was published on December 26th1984, and that it was provided by the Financial Times’ newswire service. Unfortunately, the digital archives for the Houston Chronical begin in January of 1985, so I am not sure what article this ran with.

The image itself speaks volumes.  In my opinion it is one of the best photographs of the folk martial arts in China that I have seen from this period.  Taken on “Jade Flower Island” in Beihai Park, the image features both architectural and martial points of interest.  The composition of the picture mirrors the conventions of traditional Chinese painting where we see human figures in the foreground dwarfed by the enormity of their environment.  The eye is naturally drawn upward from our elderly martial artists towards a tiled roof, and then to the distinctive outlines of the White Pagoda.  That seems to blend into the surrounding sky.  Our swordsmen wield wooden blades and move in slow circles that balance the vertical sweep of the image. It goes without saying that the entire scene projects a carefully calculated image of timelessness.

This allochonistic element is probably the key to understanding the photograph’s appeal.  The more western cut of the trousers and shirts worn by the men strongly suggest that this image post-dates the Mao era, but I have a feeling that the average Western viewer would have a difficult time estimating the age of this image. It exudes the same timeless aesthetic that seems to draw so many to the Chinese martial arts.

Still, 1984 is hardly the distant past and Beihai park remains full of retired Taijiquan practitioners. Knowing this I set out to do what any self-respecting martial arts blogger would do. I began to search the internet for recent pictures of more contemporary martial arts students practicing in this same spot. The juxtaposition would have been lovely, but unfortunately my search turned up nothing.

What I did manage to locate, however, were dozens of mentions of Taijiquan in major American newspapers during the year 1984. Specifically, Proquest Historical Newspapers came up with 35 mentions of “Tai Chi” for that year in its sampling of national and local newspapers. If one were to rerun that same search for a more recent year you would simply be inundated with references. But given that fewer stories about China and the Chinese martial arts were produced in the mid 1980s, it was possible to examine every reference to “Tai Chi” that showed up in the search.

This exercise (while not entirely scientific) proved to be heuristically useful. The first thing that became apparent was that by 1984 it was not at all difficult to find a decent beginner’s class if one lived in any good-sized city in America. The vast majority (70%) of the references were advertisements for instruction.  The local advertisements in one Boston newspaper were really quite interesting.  While there was a single advertisement for a “Wushu” school, and another for a “Ving Tsun” studio, at least eight other teachers and schools listed “Tai Chi” instruction, making it the most commonly available Chinese martial art at the time. While the activity in the Houston Chronicle photograph may have struck the average American as “exotic” or “mysterious,” it seems that many readers would have known exactly what they were doing.

Indeed, by 1984 so many Americans were familiar with “tai chi” that it could simply be mentioned in passing without any additional explanation being necessary.  A number of articles in the Proquest sample did just that.  One Chinese-American dancer noted with ambivalence that people simply assumed that she must have studied taijiquan simply because she was of Chinese decent (she did not). Ronald Reagan’s trip to Beijing in in 1984 also provided an opening for a number of reflections on Chinese culture or society which contained passing references to Taiji. In one such essay the noted humor columnist Andy Rooney reminisced about visiting China while in the Army and advised President Reagan to “skip the Tai Chi” as “the television cameramen are bound to get shots of you doing it and you could look pretty silly.” Indeed, the underlying premise that ran throughout Rooney’s essay was that somehow China hadn’t really changed that much from the 1940s and that much of life in “the real China” (something that Nancy Reagan had noted that she wanted to see) was bound to make an American president appear either uncomfortable or foolish.

Only a handful of articles took “Tai Chi” as their central object of inquiry. These were inevitably profiling new martial arts classes or Chinese teachers. Their descriptions of the art emphasized that it was best understood as a type of “moving meditation” that was beneficial to one’s health. Indeed, moderate exercise and stress relief were the main draw.  One woman who had recently started a career as a computer programmer decided that “Tai Chi classes” were just the thing to help her destress after a long day of writing code. Gone were the modernist and scientific explanations of taijiquan that Chinese reformers had promoted in the 1920s and 1930s. In their place readers found references to profound philosophical ideas and mysticism. A few intrepid reporters even tried to figure out how all of this related to “Tai Chi’s” ability to convey actual self-defense skills with little success.


Another press photo capturing a larger group of Taijiquan practitioners in Beijing in 1984.


Just as interesting were the elements absent from these discussions. In the entire sample of articles, I did not come across a single refence to Chinese action films, Bruce Lee or even other Chinese martial arts. Indeed, there didn’t seem to be any sort of reference to modern visual media at all. Likewise, the pre- and post-war experience of China’s many martial artists was entirely absent.  “Tai Chi” was portrayed as an entirely timeless art that was known only through embodied practice. It didn’t seem to exist in relation to any outside reference points at all.

Whether any of that is true is highly doubtful. It is likely that the people signing up for all of those beginners’ classes had some sort of expectation as to what they would be getting.  And it is very likely that those expectations were shaped by films, television and popular publications in some way.

Perhaps the strangest omission of all was the wall of silence separating the discussion of taijiquan as a cultural practice from the realities of life in China in 1985. President Regan’s upcoming trip ensured that there were many profiles of the state of both Chinese politics and society.  Yet these tended to carry a notably different tone than the largely positive (if unabashedly orientalist) discussions of “Tai Chi.”  American readers were informed that China remained a largely impoverished country. Few individuals could afford cars and even a black and white TV set was a luxury beyond the means of most families. In 1985 bicycles remained the nation’s dominate mode of urban transport and hand-drawn wagons could be seen transporting bulk goods on practically any street.  As the title of an April 26tharticle in the Hartford Courantput it, “Poverty Ridden China Struggles to Catch Up With the World.”

By 1984 taijiquan had come to be seen as a positive and desirable past-time, enthusiastically embraced by middle class students across the West. Yet few other elements of Chinese society shared that honor. What a close reading of this year’s newspapers suggests is that while Americans were increasingly willing to embrace Taijiquan, by in large their attitudes toward China remained ambivalent.  Indeed, it is useful to look back at the press coverage of the mid 1980s to remind us of not just how rapid China’s economic growth has been, but also the degree of cultural respect that it now commands. The rise of China’s social standing within the global community has been every bit as rapid as its economic ascent.

Political scientists developed the concept of “soft power” as a way of theorizing these moments of transformation.  Joseph Nye coined the phrase in an attempt to capture the force of cultural attraction that some leading states (though not all) are able to exert in international politics.  It refers to the degree to which citizens of other countries come to regard another state’s cultural products, norms, political institutions or modes of social organization as desirable and worthy of emulation.  We might think of soft power as a nation’s charisma.

Both large and small states can cultivate soft power resources and employ them as part of a public diplomacy strategy.  Yet Nye theorized that its especially important for the leading, or hegemonic, states of the global system to command this sort of cultural respect.  Simply put, even the most powerful states (say, the USA at the end of WWII) have finite resources. Yet the actual costs associated with maintaining a peaceful and cooperative international order are almost limitless.

If every diplomatic action, or the establishment of every international organization, were to require costly negotiation no state could afford to play a leadership role in global politics.  Yet through the spread of soft power citizens in other countries might decide to accept certain shared norms, cultural standards or expectations that naturally advantage the hegemonic state. This outward flow of domestic cultural acceptance lowers the cost of global leadership and actually helps to stabilize the creation of a cooperative and peaceful international order.  It goes without saying that in the current era China’s leadership has become obsessed with cultivating its soft power within the global system.  Its current support of the traditional martial arts through various cultural diplomacy programs is just one aspect of a much larger effort.

In some ways the concept of soft power seems to explain a lot about the global spread of the Asian martial arts. Why were Westerners so interested in Judo during the 1910s and 1920s, while a concerted public relations campaign by the KMT to promote Chinese boxing in the 1930s was largely ignored? Simply put, Japanese culture captivated the West in ways that Chinese culture never did in the pre-war period. Japan’s rapid modernization and victory over Russia in 1905 convinced many individuals that it possessed some sort of cultural secret that led to this victory, and Japanese martial artists loudly advertised that this secret could be found in judo, kendo and jujutsu. In contrast, China suffered a string of military defeats and seemed to fall ever further behind Japan’s benchmarks for economic modernization.

Americans were not, for the most part, hostile towards the Chinese state during the 1920s or 1930s.  But they saw little that was worth emulating.  This would seem to explain why the efforts of Chu Minyi or Zhang Zhijiang were bound to fail when it came to popularizing the Chinese martial art.  China lacked soft power during the era’s critical public diplomacy battles.

This is an attractive narrative, and it has the virtue of being relatively parsimonious.  Unfortunately, our discussion of the state of taijiquan in the mid 1980s complicates things. In the 1970s-1980s we see the popularity of this martial art skyrocket prior to the improvement of China’s image on the global stage.  Kung fu and taijiquan both began their ascent into popular consciousness at a time when China was largely viewed as an impoverished state and a negative example.

Clearly Bruce Lee and the popularization of Southern Chinese action films have something to do with this.  Though it is interesting that neither of those factors were ever discussed in any of the “Tai Chi” articles that found their way into my sample set. It has been widely theorized that America’s disastrous loss in the Vietnam War may also be linked to the growing popularity of the Chinese martial arts in this period as a wounded American popular culture struggled to appropriate the forces that had caused it so much pain. That certainly seems plausible. But then again, there is very little discussion of any sort of foreign policy (let alone the Vietnam War) in the era’s taijiquan literature.  And in any case, a survey of articles in Black Belt magazine suggests that curiosity about Chinese hand combat was growing within the American martial arts community well before the end of the Vietnam War. I suspect that the popularity of karate in the 1960s (which came to replace judo as the most commonly available martial art) may have been even more important in planting the seeds of kung fu’s eventual rise.

What is striking is that most of the newspaper discussions of “Tai Chi” in 1984 focused on the personal needs and growing discontents of the American students who were taking up these practices.  They felt unhealthy and stressed about work. They were aware that they were out of shape. It was a personally driven search for wellness in the face of growing levels of social stress (and a perceived need to resist or subvert these trends through individual action) that drove individuals towards the practice of taijiquan.

On the surface this might seem like a facile finding.  Yet its important as it reminds us that no single model can account for the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  The factors that explain Western interest in judo in the 1900s-1910s (growing admiration for, and fear of, Japanese society) were quite different from the individually experienced anxieties that attracted middle class Americans to taijiquan in 1984.

The growth of a nation’s soft power can clearly aid in the popularization of its martial arts or combat sports.  Yet the case of Taijiquan reminds us that it is not a necessary condition.  Put simply, not all practices in all times and places are easily interchangeable. The fact that various arts might perform a variety of social functions suggests that we should not expect so see all styles following the same linear pathway towards social acceptance and respectability.  Indeed, it was entirely possible for Americans to discover much to admire in taijiquan at a time when they could find very little else that attracted them in Chinese society as a whole.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: What is a lineage? Rethinking our (Dangerous) Relationship with History