Transforming Southern Martial Culture
How did Taijiquan, now ubiquitous, establish itself in Southern China? What about the other northern Shaolin systems? I would think that the lion’s share of the credit must go to the Jingwu Association which introduced and popularized several systems throughout the 1920s. Still, the institutional structure of the modernist Jingwu Association tended to absorb sets from various arts rather than presenting them as distinct, self-contained, lineages. The other actor, frequently noted in this equation, is the Guoshu (National Arts) movement.
Guangdong province established its own branch of this national organization relatively early on. I recently heard the assertion that all of the “traditional” practices of southern China could be classified into three categories. First, one had the local Cantonese arts (Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, etc..), next there were the Hakka styles (White Eyebrow, Dragon) and finally there are the northern arts (Taijiquan, Northern Shaolin). The argument went that it was ultimately the Central Guoshu Association, and their program to promote national unity through martial arts training, that should receive the credit for disseminating these styles to the south.
This particular assertion was made much too quickly, and the author was speedily on to other topics. Still, I think it would be worth our time to go back and parse these events more carefully. Guoshu, as both a term, idea and a historical movement, seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment. Speculation as to why this is, and what it ultimately suggests about contemporary Chinese martial arts culture, will need to wait for a separate blog post. Yet, at least in the case of Southern China, it is interesting to note that many of the organization’s greatest contributions to martial culture are rooted in its institutional failures, rather than success. The following meditation on these questions is based largely on research conducted for my co-authored volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. If you are interested in chasing down a more complete account of Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta (or my footnotes) take a look at chapter three.
In a certain sense the prior assertion by the unnamed author is absolutely correct. Even if the Jingwu Association whetted the public’s appetite, the Guoshu movement was directly responsible for the export of many important styles and lineages to the south. Still, if we succumb to a type of easy romanticism about this process, we risk misunderstanding both the nature of the Southern Chinese martial culture and the severity of the challenge that it posed to a program consciously designed to displace regional traditions with a more universal set of practices and identities. Yes, national reformers were able to use the martial arts to shape debates about what the “New China” should be. Yet local society could also turn to these practices in launching their own broadsides against outside forces.
A Governor Goes North
The first common misconception that casual readers might have is that the Guoshu organization was truly national in scope. Andrew Morris has noted that the movement’s pretensions to universality and sectoral dominance never materialized in real life. Indeed, it would have been practically impossible for any organization to fully integrate itself into Chinese life, in both the city and the countryside, in only a few years during the turbulent 1930s. China was just too large and complex for this to happen. Further, many of the specific challenges that Guoshu faced stemmed from the group’s unapologetically partisan nature.
Unlike the Jingwu Association, the Central Guoshu Institute was not dedicated to vague notions of Chinese nationalism. Its goals were much more statist in orientation. While encouraging patriotism was important, the group received enthusiastic government backing as it also sought to indoctrinate its practitioners with loyalty to the KMT, and to Chiang Kai-shek in particular. This became an issue as, his victory in the Northern Campaign notwithstanding, not all of the KMT’s notoriously independent cliques and generals were equally enthusiastic about aligning themselves with Chiang and his program. As such, many regions of China actually resisted the spread of the Guoshu. Or, to be more precise, while they may have enthusiastically embraced the name Guoshu, and certain philosophical notions about national strengthening through the reform of the martial arts, they were not about to turn local “paramilitary” assets over to Chiang and his allies.
Morris asks us to consider the case of Shanxi Province in the 1930s. Long a stronghold of traditional boxing, readers may be surprised to learn that it had no official Guoshu chapter. This fact may not at first be evident. The province actually boasted over 500 registered martial arts societies in the 1930s, and many of them using the term Guoshu in their names (evidence of the fashionable nature of the word). Yet the entire area was administered by the independent warlord Yan Xishan who carefully avoided any contact with a program that was (quite correctly) perceived as a tool of Chaing Kai-shek’s close backers.
A very similar pattern could be seen in Fujian and Guangdong. Both provinces were formally administered by the KMT, yet in the post-1927 era their leadership was sometimes protective of their local autonomy. This institutional weakness within the KMT impeded the expansive vision of the Guoshu Institute.
That is not to say that the new movement didn’t have important allies. In October of 1928, General Li Jinshen (governor of Guangdong and an important military figure at the time) visited the first national martial arts examination hosted by the newly organized Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing. He was so impressed with what he saw that he decided to commit substantial resources to promoting the Guoshu program in Guangxi and Guangdong. He invited Wan Lai Sheng (a Six Harmonies and Shaolin Master) and Li Xian Wu (Taijiquan and a native of Guangdong), to return with him to Guangzhou.
Li quickly drew up plans that were approved by the local government. Wan Lai Sheng was formally appointed the head of the new provincial organization by General Li’s Eighth Army. Given the ambitious nature of Li’s plans, Wan then went about recruiting a number of high-profile instructors. These included Fu Zhensong, Li Xian Wu, Wan Laimin and Gu Ru Zhang (who many readers will already be familiar with). Gu would go on to become the central figure in the promotion of Bak Shaolin (Northern Shaolin) in Guangdong province. These instructors, and Wan, were known in the press as the “The Five Southbound Tigers.”
Li’s Liangguang Guoshu Institute first opened its doors in March of 1929, hosting three sets of two-hour classes a day. The organization had an initial enrollment of 140 students, which quickly increased to close to 500. Still, a closer examination revealed something odd. Rather than filling its ranks with local martial artists looking to get on board with the new national program, almost all of these students were low ranking civil service personal. Still, there was enough “official” demand to both expand the class structure and to begin to offer off-campus instruction at any business or office which could meet the financial requirements and guarantee at least 20 students. Chinese sources note that, once again, it was government offices that dominated the off-campus study program.
Despite these initial struggles to penetrate the local martial arts sub-culture, or perhaps because of them, Governor Li pressed ahead with an ambitious agenda for the Liangguang Guoshu Institute. This was aided through the efforts of the local government. First, an ordinance was passed mandating registration and licensing of all martial arts organizations or schools in the province. Second, the creation of any new martial arts school or organization not administered by the institute’s (mostly Northern) staff was banned. Finally, money was set aside for the creation of a regional publication dedicated to advancing the nationalist and pro-KMT “Guoshu philosophy.”
Backed by the full might of the Eighth Army, the provincial government, and an enthusiastic governor, such a set of reforms could have had stifled Southern China’s vibrant martial culture. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely the goal of their effort. General Li Jishen was quite sincere in his desire to bring the local martial arts community to heel, effectively transforming it into a tool to be exploited by the state. While it remains unclear to me whether these sorts of orders could have been enforced in the countryside, their impact on urban Choy Li Fut or Hung Gar schools would have been disastrous. Deep pools of local knowledge and experience were about to be sacrificed on the altars of “national unity.”
It is interesting to speculate on whether, and how successfully, the local martial arts sector would have resisted these efforts. Fortunately, historians have no answer to that question as Li’s ambitious plans fell apart almost immediately. Indeed, the great weakness of Guoshu’s rapid expansion was that its success depended not so much on popular demand as the political calculations of often unpredictable leaders.
In May of 1929, General Li Jishen took the spectacular step of resigning as governor and traveling to Nanjing with the intention of mediating a truce between Chiang Kai-shek and the “New Guangxi Clique.” This was, to say the least, a serious strategic miscalculation. Negotiations went badly and Chiang (quite predictably) was furious. He had General Li arrested and held until his eventual release in 1931, after which he drifted towards the Communist Party. This left Guangdong in need of a new governor. They received one in the form of Chen Jitang, who is still remembered for his social reforms (the creation of a very basic social safety net) and building programs (he paved the streets of Guangzhou).
One of Chen’s first acts upon taking office was to disband the Guoshu Institute. It is likely that Chen saw this organization as a potential political threat. After all, he did not create it, and many of the individuals within it were loyal to his predecessor. It is also likely that Chen did not want to be that closely associated with a group that was so much under of the influence of Chiang’s most ardent supporters. Whatever the actual reason, budget concerns were cited as the precipitating factor. With a total budget of 4,500 Yuan a month, the Institute was a notable undertaking. But that figure hardly seems outrageous given Li’s expansive vision for the organization. All told the Liangguang Guoshu Institute closed its doors after only two months, and without making any progress towards its ambitious goals.
That is where its story ends. The initial attempts to establish Guoshu in Guangzhou immediately fell victim to internal politics within the KMT. In retrospect it is almost too predictable.
All of which is great, because what happened next had an actual shaping effect on the development of Southern martial culture. The surprising collapse of the Liangguang Institute left a number of extremely talented Northern martial arts exponents unemployed (and more or less stranded) in Guangzhou. This seeming setback created new opportunities that spread the Northern arts more effectively than anything that Li had envisioned. After all, most of the instruction that had been provided in these initial months was directed at a relatively small group of government employees. Chen’s forced dissolution of the organization allowed its instructors to enter into a much broader (and truly competitive) marketplace for martial arts instruction. It was within these smaller commercial schools that arts such as Bak Siu Lam and Taijiquan really took off and came to be accepted by the general public.
Following the breakup of the Guoshu Institute, Li Xian Wu was hired by the Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Assocation as its new director of academic affairs. He later published a well-known guide to taijiquan. Gu Ru Zhang proved to be among the most influential of the remaining staff. Attempting to capitalize on the work that was already accomplished, he sought to create the Guangzhou Guoshu Institute (formally established in June of 1929). Gu was selected as its president, Wang Shaozhou was named its vice president and Re Shen Ku, Li Jing Chun and Yang Ting Xia (the wife of Wang), were all hired as instructors.
This new, smaller, organization enjoyed a measure of official backing and was housed in the National Athletic Association building on Hui Fu East Road in Guangzhou. That said, the new institute never subscribed to the grandiose policy objectives of its predecessors. Rather than regulating Southern China’s martial arts sector, it essentially entered the economic marketplace as one school among many.
And as fate would have it, Gu’s new efforts found some real success. In 1936 the Guangdong Province Athletic Association sponsored a martial arts exhibition at the Guangzhou Public Stadium. Gu’s Guangzhou Guoshu Institute performed for an enthusiastic crowd and received an award from the local government. Still, like most of the other local martial arts organizations it was forced to shut its doors in 1938 during the Japanese occupation. Yet it was due to the more private efforts of Gu and his fellow instructors, rather than the grandiose machinations of General Li, that the Northern arts established long lasting schools and lineages in Southern China. They did so by entering the marketplace and providing a good that consumers actually wanted.
Martial Arts and the Weakness of “Established Churches”
It would be impossible to tell the story of China’s twentieth century martial arts without carefully reviewing the political opportunities, alliances and entanglements that presented themselves in each era. Still, as we review this material it quickly becomes evident that political sponsorship is a double-edged sword. More than one martial arts organization was destroyed by the capricious winds of change blowing through China’s political history. Political alliances proved to be a pathway to rapid growth, but also rapid obsolesce.
Leaders have repeatedly sought to use the martial arts as one element of larger campaigns to shape society more to their liking. In the short-run this creates funding and promotional opportunities. But it also creates martial arts institutions that are more responsive to the demands of political elites than the public who must actually attend classes and pay their sifu’s rent. Such a bargain is rarely good for the martial arts in the long-run as it prevents them from establishing the type of relationship with consumers that is necessary to survive periods of rapid social change.
The story of the Liangguang Guoshu Institute offers a critical insight into the strengths and weaknesses of “established” martial arts (to borrow a term of religious studies.) As a government backed institution, the only students it seemed capable of recruiting were individuals already dependent on the governor for their paychecks. Yet when its instructors were released into the competitive marketplace, they created popular schools and practices that quickly spread the northern styles across southern China. That has had a lasting impact on Guangdong’s martial culture.
If you want to delve deeper into these questions check out: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”