As part of my ongoing research on the role of the traditional martial arts within the creation of China’s public diplomacy strategy, I am reviewing several propaganda sources produced in the 1950s and 1960s. By in large these printed outlets have little to say on the subject, preferring to focus their rhetorical energies on the rapid pace of China’s industrial growth, or its success in the building of massive dams and hydro-electric power plants. This is very much the sort of material one would expect to find in a Communist country’s propaganda from early in the Cold War. But occasionally some mention of the martial arts does manage to fight its way through this tide of socialist progress, and it is worth considering how China’s new Communist government discussed these practices when presenting them to the world. What follows is one of the most interesting pieces to be published in the country’s main English language outlets during the 1950s.
Before delving into this, a few basic matters need to be discussed. The first of these is conceptual in nature. When reviewing the press coverage of the Republic era martial arts on this blog I have tended to use the term “public diplomacy.” Yet I just introduced this article (and the publication that it came from) as “propaganda.” Given that both of these are official (or quasi-official) state strategies to circulate information to consumers within the international system, what makes them different? How do we know when a given newspaper account or documentary film falls into one category rather than the other?
As with so many discussions of definitions, some caution is required. In modern parlance the term “propaganda” tends to carry a highly negative connotation. It is often tied to information warfare and even more physical types of competition and violence. Public diplomacy, on the other hand, is generally seen as a positive force in the world that reduces the likelihood of misunderstanding and needless conflict. But this wasn’t always the case.
While the basic idea behind public diplomacy is not new (E. H. Carr discussed it in the Twenty Year Crises in 1939) its modern terminology has gained widespread popularity only more recently. Prior to the 1940s the term propaganda does not appear to have been viewed as always negative. Some scholars believe that it was actually the heavy German use of information/ideological warfare during that conflict that delegitimatized the term.
The difference between these two strategies is still debated in the International Relations literature today. But one of the most common distinctions that is drawn has to do with differences in messaging strategies. Communications are often classified as propaganda if they are one-way broadcasts of information that are either objectively false (designed to deceive foreign voters), or they intend to narrow a complex subject in such a way that it can only be viewed from a single preferred perspective. All of this begins to move us towards the issues of “indoctrination” or deception that seem to fit with an intuitive understanding of what propaganda is. Alternatively, strategies of communication that provide information which reveal complexity around an issue, or inspire citizens in one country to make direct links and engage in organic information exchanges with their counterparts in another state (perhaps over music, culture or history), tend to be termed “public diplomacy.”
All of this has interesting implications when we begin to think about the martial arts. On the one hand, it is hard to think of a recreational activity that has inspired more organic cultural exchange between communities in a variety of Asian countries and the West. Thus, the practice of martial arts, or the building of shared associations and organizations, is an almost textbook example of public/cultural diplomacy. Yet if those same arts were to put into a government produced film, and used to indoctrinate audiences at home or abroad with ethno-nationalist themes (as the Japanese did during the 1930s and 1940s), we would have an equally clear case of propaganda.
One can imagine a large grey area between these two ideal types. Exploring that territory might be fruitful. However, the article below clearly falls into the propaganda camp. This doesn’t mean that most of the information found in it is untrue. On one level it provides a fairly reliable report of what actually happened in the now famous November 1953 “National Exhibition and Competition of Traditional Chinese Sports” held in Tianjin. This was a critical national event in the early development of modern Wushu. Read at this level, it is interesting to see what sorts of information about the Chinese martial arts might have been gleaned by (highly informed) Western readers in the early 1950’s. Note also the total lack of terms like “Wushu” or even “Martial Arts” from this text, and the article’s reliance on older vocabulary such as “Shadow Boxing.”
Yet a closer reading reveals a secondary purpose that moves beyond journalism. At almost every turn this article goes to lengths to argue that it is the Communist Party, and not its vanquished Nationalist rival, that is responsible for the modernization and popularization of the Chinese martial arts. Indeed, the “history” provided here only recounts the KMT’s suppression of martial arts and individual performers. No mention is made of the Central Guoshu Institute, or the three large national meets that were held during the 1920s and 1930s. Instead, the 1953 event (which was quite impressive) was held up as the very first national martial arts and traditional sports tournament in Chinese history.
Like practically everything else that appeared within the pages of China Reconstructs during the Cold War, this article needs to be explicitly examined as a piece of political propaganda. Yet its main goal was not really to shape America’s vision of China through its martial arts. That would come later. Rather, at this early stage it still sought to delegitimize the CCP’s traditional rival, the KMT, through a debate over who was best preserving the “positive” aspects of China’s traditional culture.
This does not mean that an attentive reader would not have gleaned certain ideas about the nature of Chinese society from the author’s description of its traditional fighting systems. One would have learned, for instance, that China’s martial arts were just as ethnically diverse as its population. Further, ethnic minority martial artists were shown to be quite skilled (though usually within their own area of cultural expertise) and capable of defeating the very best Han competitors. One also would have learned that modern martial arts competitions were very democratic in the sense that their many events provided opportunities for everyone from elderly men to young girls to compete in events that played to their specific strengths. Lastly, the Chinese people were shown to value both self-cultivation and balance through their approach to the martial arts.
Some of these themes would reappear in later articles on Wushu published after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the 1970s and 1980s, while others would be retired. The following article is a critical record, not just of the public emergence of the PRC’s new Wushu push, but of how this event was recast as a propaganda tool within an early Cold War framework.
Tournament of Old Sports
Lin Chien, 1954.
In China today, alongside unprecedented spread of modern athletics, the traditional sports of the people are being revived. Among a tremendous variety of forms developed since ancient times, a large number are of great value to health and recreation. Aesthetically too, many of the movements are remarkable for rhythm and beauty, with a close relationship to dance. In this, as in every other field of culture, the People’s Government has been making great efforts to preserve those positive aspects of the national heritage which are of use in the new life of China.
Regional traditional sports meets were held in Harbin for Northeastern China and Tientsin for North China, in 1951 and 1952. At the same time, many local teams and groups were set up and expanded their activity. Last November, a national exhibition and tournament took place which brought together the best performers from all over the country—in the same way as the best dramatic troupes had been brought together in the National Drama Festival of 1952 and the best folk artists in the National Festival of Folk Music and Dance in 1953.
Originally it had been intended to incorporate this event in the National Athletic Meet held in Peking in the previous month; there being no intention to separate national from international forms of physical culture. But because there were so many athletes, it proved inconvenient to accommodate both at the same time and the traditional sports meet, the first in Chinese history, was held separately in the new municipal stadium in Tientsin, which seats 13,700 spectators. It went on, before packed stands, for an entire week.
The 397 participants were assembled under the auspices of the All-China Athletic Federation with the cooperation of the athletic departments of the trade-unions, youth and other organizations. Contingents came from all the administrative areas—Northeastern, Northwest, North, East, Central-South and Southwest China, from the Inner Mongolian Autonomous Region, the People’s Liberation Army and the All-China Railway Sports Association.
Ten nationalities were represented: Han, Hui, Mongolian, Uighur, Kazakh, Tatar, Miao, Thai, Korean and Manchu—their colorful dress adding to the gay spectacle. In ordinary life, the athletes were workers, peasants, soldiers, students, teachers, government workers, members of the professions, Lamas (Buddhist monks) and housewives. Not all Chinese sports depend on strength and stamina. Some are judged on style and grace, so that there are forms suitable to all ages. The youngest participant in the meet was eight years old. The oldest was 80.
Most of the entrants were enrolled in the categories of Chuan Shu (“shadow boxing”) and Chinese fencing. They performed solo or in pairs, and occasionally in larger groups, bare handed or with old style weapons. Such exercises, which are exceedingly varied, exist in every section of China. In ancient times, they were closely connected with training in self-defense and were used by armies. Now, after a very long period of differentiated development, they have a greater significance as a form of physical conditioning.
“Shadow boxing” is generally done by one person. A performer who was much applauded at the meet was Lan Su-chen, a young teacher from the Southwest. In the “soft-flowing style” of which she is an exponent, the movements are dance-like, with superb and effortless control in the most difficult balance stances. Seeing her, one understood the historical fact that the Chinese dance, which had all but perished as an independent art, has been preserved in some chuan shu movements as well as in the Chinese drama. There are many versions of chuan shu, involving different degrees of muscular tension and types of movement. In all, the entire body is exercised in a balanced way. The benefits of chuan shu were convincingly shown by the older men. One of them, age 67, was able, without any appearance of strain, to lift each leg alternately until it stood parallel to his body with the foot above his head. He had begun to train only after 40, to improve his health which was very bad at the time.
On the general principal of showing all related sports which hold lessons for the other, international style boxing was also shown in this section.
In fencing, performers are matched against each other the same or different arms. A swordsman, or two swordsmen, fight with a spearman. A man with an ordinary cudgel, or unarmed altogether, fights against edged weapons. Despite the tremendous speed and intricacy of both attack and defense, the opponents only touch each other lightly to show their ability in real combat. Sometimes actual weapons are used, sometimes facsimiles made of less dangerous materials—as in short fights in which the daggers are of leather.
This division included international fencing with foils.
In the hands of traditional Chinese athletes, even weightlifting was combined with lightness of execution. This was demonstrated by Shan Shao-san. A folk variety artist from Kaifeng, who tossed a 22-pound weight in the air with one hand more than a hundred times, juggling it as dexterously as conjurers juggle hollow balls. In this division too, there was a contest in the international style. Some China-side weight-lifting records were broken, and marks set approximating Olympic standards.
The Inner Mongolians put on a particularly impressive demonstration of wrestling which, along with riding, is their favorite national sport. Mongolian men begin to wrestle at the age of six and keep on until past middle age. The Kuomintang, fearing that the minority would rise against its oppressors, proscribed the pastime as “too combative.” Today, as part of the active revival of all types of physical culture in Inner Mongolia, it has come back to its own.
At the periodic Natamu fairs in their home region, the Mongolians form two opposing ranks according to weight and height, after which they wrestle, pair by pair. The contenders may grip each other anywhere between the neck and the waist and try for a single throw which decides the winner. The contests at the all-China meet were attended by traditional ceremonies. Team-members not engaged in the current bout lined up in long blue gowns, round hats and cowhide boots and truck up a rumbling bass chant, “Pick your best wrestlers and begin.” As they did so, the wrestlers came out hopping from foot to foot in a warming-up dance with legs and arms spread-eagled. Big magnificently-muscled men, they wore cowhide neckbands with brightly colored pendants each standing for a victory, brass-studded belts, billowing trousers of many yards of snow-white material, leather belts and embroidered leggings. After wrestling, the dance and chant were repeated.
In the heavyweight finals, the Mongolian herdsmen Tsengkir fought with the 200-pound Tien-tsin stevedore Chang Kuei-yuan, representing North China. After Chang threw Tsengkir bodily out of the ring but failed to floor him according to the rules, another bout was fought with Tsengkir winning. Inner Mongolia’s wrestlers got two first places and one third.
Steeke of Sinkiang province, and athlete of Uighur nationality, won great applause in a breath-taking feat—walking and dancing along a tight-rope stretched at a 45 degree angle from the ground to the top of a pole 66 feet high. Steeke tells how, when performing in the past, he was pushed around by Kuomintang police. Today he is a regular member of the Kashgar district cultural troupe and is teaching his art to seven pupils, including his two daughters.
Feats of Archery
Archery was well represented. Two Inner Mongolians, a hunter and a peasant, were the victors in the main events. Other performers showed that many more things can be done with bows than just shooting arrows at targets. The bow as a test of strength was demonstrated by Chang Ying-chieh who drew four of them, using both arms and legs. He exhibits at Peking’s Tienchiao bazaar with his father, who taught him how to do it. Kao Chuan-yung, a Peking linotype operator, can shoot marbles from an ordinary bow with amazing accuracy. One of his feats is to balance a marble on the upturned sole of one foot which is bent back toward his thigh, and, twisting his body and head around, to hit it with a second marble shot from a bow. Kao was very disappointed that he had no one to compete with in this unique type of archery, which used to exist in the past but has now virtually died out. He developed his own skill, he said, when he used to go out hunting pigeons to supplement his diet in the days before the liberation. Now he is teaching the art to three fellow-workers in the print shop where he is employed.
While all these events were taking place in the center of the Tientsin stadium, various feats of horsemanship were performed in the outer circle, with the Inner Mongolians once more excelling. Regular-style polo was also played.
Popularization and Renewal
A notable feature of the meet was the beginning it laid in the working out of standards for the performance and judging of traditional Chinese sports. Previously there had been no systematization, and the more highly-skilled practitioners clung to various “secrets,” sharing them with only a few or with no one. Now athletes from all over China have exchanged experiences. In addition, perhaps 200,000 people were present at the meet and thousands more at later exhibitions performances when the prize winners went on tour. Films, photographs and newspapers accounts have informed millions of others. The whole field of Chinese national athletics has been classified into four categories—calisthenics, dance, physio-therapy and defense—and much progress is expected along all these lines.
The All-China Traditional Sports Meet was treated as an important event in the athletic life of the country. It was part of the process of popularization and renewal of the rich culture that has come down from the past. Its significance was emphasized by messages, received specially for the occasion, from Chairman Mao Tse-tung and Vice-Chairman Chu Teh of the Central People’s Government, as well as in the full treatment given by the press. Now a series of local meets is scheduled to take place. They are certain to result in new discoveries and new developments.
Lin Chien. 1954. “Tournament of Old Sports,” China Reconstructs. No. 2 (March/April) pp. 40-43
If you enjoyed this account you might also want to read: Conceptualizing the Asian Martial Arts: Ancient Origins, Social Institutions and Leung Jan’s Wing Chun.