An advertisement for a “revolutionary opera.” Many such shows were staged during the Cultural Revolution.


The History of Practice vs. The History of an Idea

This post continues an occasional series looking at the ways in which the traditional Chinese martial arts were discussed in the PRC’s propaganda and cultural diplomacy efforts from roughly the early 1950s to the early 1980s.  We have previously seen some newsreel footage of important martial artists during the early part of this period, as well as an English Language article on a critical event in the development of modern Wushu which was staged in 1953. This article is a little different in that it jumps ahead and examines a discussion of the TCMA dating to the final years of the Cultural Revolution.  Published in China Reconstructs (the PRC’s premier Cold War era English language propaganda magazine) it is an important (if somewhat difficult to interpret) time capsule.

The complexity of this particular article derives from the fact that when we talk about “martial arts history” we often forget that this topic actually encompasses several subjects.  For instance, we might discuss the origins of a specific embodied technique (the history of practice), or we might instead focus on the development of the organizations or leading personalities in the transmission of this technique (an institutional or social history).  But this does not exhaust the range of possibilities.  We might also ask about the spread and evolution of the ideas, beliefs and ideologies that motivate all of this. This is particularly important when thinking about the global transmissions of the martial arts in the 1970s and 1980s. The image of these practices, and the cross-cultural desires that they stoked, typically preceded the actual transmission of embodied technique.  Within the global marketplace advertisements almost always come before, and shape our understanding of, practice.

While distinct areas of inquiry, it is very difficult to totally sperate the realm of ideas from that of technique.  On the one hand, relatively few people actually practice even the most popular martial arts at any given point in time.  They are always a somewhat restricted, often marginal, embodied experience.  However, ideas propelled by printed publications and visual media can easily saturate popular culture, becoming mass phenomenon.  And yet these ideas can shape the sorts of martial practices that emerge in any given time or place.  While these two different modes of research may require distinct sources and methods, ultimately we need to bring both the history of practice and the history of ideas together to understand the development of any martial arts tradition.

The article that we will be reading (and discussing) below was also published in the pages of China Reconstructs and was intended to affect the image of China, and its martial arts, in the West.  Indeed, it may be useful to begin by thinking of all of the different visions of the martial arts that this article was designed to answer.  Judo was by this time quite popular in the West and was even an Olympic sport. Its success largely defined the global understanding of the martial arts in the 1960s and early 1970s.

But by 1975 new trends were evident.  Karate was increasingly popular, and Bruce Lee’s Kung Fu Fever was in full swing throughout the English-speaking world. The emergence of this popular culture phenomenon encouraged masters of various Chinese martial arts styles (often from Hong Kong, Taiwan or South East Asia) to open schools throughout North America and Europe.

This basically ensured that the martial arts would begin to appear in ideological debates.  In many cases these teachers expatriate claimed to be the true guardians of “authentic” Chinese culture and would use the martial arts to point to the various ways that it was under attack in China itself.  In other cases, instructors who were sympathetic to the PRC would argue that its reforms and support of wushu suggested that it was the true champion of the Chinese nation.

Occasionally these debates became quite heated. But given the growing cultural identification between the martial arts and China within the popular imagination, they were not something that the Chinese government could ignore.  Throughout the 1970s we see repeated attempts to both promote wushu abroad and to shape the popular discussion of the martial arts.  The following article pursues both of these goals as it seeks to convince Western readers that the Communist Party had successfully successfully accomplished China’s modernization effort while also preserving what was best in its culture.

Such an argument is not unique.  Nationalist party policy elites made similar proclamations during the Republic era (1911-1949), and one still hears the same points being made today.  However, this article is a bit different in that it’s vision of the Chinese martial arts was shaped, in large part, by the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976).  While instructors in the West often proclaimed that authentic martial arts in China had been driven to extinction by this event, the article went to lengths to point out that a substantial revival in the popular practice of wushu was already a foot.

Before moving on to the article itself, I would like to point out a few important points that readers should notice.  To begin with, the vocabulary within this piece is interesting.  The terms “Kung Fu” and “Martial Art” (both of which were increasingly popular in the West in the late 1970s) are never used.  Instead the author only uses the term “wushu” as well as some much older, almost anachronistic, terms such as “shadow boxing.”  This struck me as significant as the earlier article from the 1950s which we recently reviewed never once mentioned “wushu.” It employed a variety of other terms that would have been familiar to Western readers.  But by the 1970s the rhetorical momentum had consolidated around this new terminology, even in English language propaganda.

As in the 1950s, the author and editors of this piece also went out of their way to portray the martial arts as an aspect of a living, vital and (most importantly) modern China.  Once again, they would drop heavy handed references to Chinese workers being employed in high tech industries and scientific fields.  Yet all discussions of traditional ethnic identity (which defined so many discussions of Wushu during the 1950s) are missing from this later piece.  Instead the author turns to gains in gender equality in an attempt to underscore the progressive social role that wushu plays within Chinese society.

Western readers are informed that while Confucian pride had restricted the practice only to men, under the tutelage of the CCP, more women than ever were joining the art.  Interestingly this same claim was also made by the KMT in the 1930s/1940s and the Jingwu Association in the 1910s/1920s.  If nothing else the consistency of the claim speaks to the strong desire to see the Chinese martial arts as a progressive social force, and to be able to claim credit for the achievement.

Attentive readers might note that other sorts of hierarchies have also been eliminated from the discussion of the Chinese martial arts.  While this article profiles the growing popularity of practice among China’s workers, there is no mention of masters or teachers.  No specific styles are named.  In fact, even organized classes seem to be a rarity, happening only in a handful of work units.  Instead it paints a remarkably “democratic” picture of cooperative learning in which small groups of people come together to exchange techniques.  And while certain older individuals are valued for their skills (indeed, they might even be permitted to travel to acquire new techniques to bring back to their work units or villages), it is pretty clear that they lack any sort of institutional authority.  That seems to be concentrated in the hand of local and regional “physical culture” committees who have decided, for their own reasons, to target wushu for future growth.

Other things are missing from the discussion as well. There is no reference to the extensive growth of wushu departments in China’s universities and institutions of higher learning in the 1950s or 1960s. Nor is there a discussion of the role of certain martial arts and Qigong in the country’s medical practices prior to the escalation of the Cultural Revolution.  The article does mention the potential of these practices to strengthen and improve the health of workers eager to do their bit to build socialism. But again, no source of deep expertise seems to be necessary to achieve these ends.  All one need to do is to find a “veteran” worker from one’s own commune who can act as a coach.

Even when true mastery appears, it is evident that author has gone to some lengths to hide it for ideological reasons.  At one point the article speaks of a local peasant by the name of “Wang” who was capable of performing great feats of strength. He was oppressed by the Qing who labeled him a “boxer-bandit” as he was seen as a threat by the reactionary leaders of local society.  But the new Communist government supported his efforts and even his publication of a book later in life.  It seems almost certain that this is an oblique reference to Wang Ziping, who was a favorite both the Guoshu and early Wushu movements.  Indeed, Wang even became known as a distinguished medical doctor later in life.  The government used him as a subject for propagandistic films and even included him on a diplomatic trip (where he demonstrated the power of wushu).

The way that he is treated in this article is quite different.  Given his fame, I suspect that anyone connected to the Wushu community have immediately guessed who was being discussed.  And holding Wang up as an example of martial excellence was safe as he had actually died of illness two years before this article was published.  Still, by refusing to print his full name, and focusing primarily on his connections to local society, Wang is recast as just another patriotic citizen doing his best to support the CCP.

It is not difficult to understand the various ways in which this portrayal of wushu advanced the ideological objectives of the Communist Party during the final stages of the Cultural Revolution.  This was a unique vision to the Chinese martial arts far removed from Bruce Lee’s onscreen heroics or the dream of massive competitive tournaments that had dominated the 1950s.  Yet it was a vision of the Chinese martial arts that reflected contemporary Maoist thought.  All of this can be seen in the non-competitive, non-hierarchic, highly cooperative vision of Wushu.

Yet does the vision outlined in this article reflect the reality of practices on the ground?  The common argument heard within Western martial arts classroom from the 1970s-1990s was that the traditional arts were dead in Mainland China.  More specifically, they had been killed off by the start of the Cultural Revolution. Yet this article suggests a vibrant martial arts movement, not withstanding the lack of hierarchy or organization beyond the local level.

Daniel Amos’ pioneering ethnographic research conducted in Guangdong in the late 1970s suggests that the Cultural Revolution failed to suppress the martial arts at the local level.  Indeed, the thing that actually came the closest to killing them off entirely was the massive reform of the economic and social system earlier in the 1950s.  Deprived of their traditional sources of support, and even their larger social purpose, almost everyone simply stopped practicing the martial arts relatively early on.  There was no need for the state to ban them when most people simply didn’t have a reason or opportunity to continue to practice.  The exception to these trends occurred in the relatively elite educational, athletic and medical realms where teams of professionals began to organize new Wushu programs.

Amos notes that what the Cultural Revolution really did was to reverse these two trends.  Local party leaders were unable to protect University athletic programs or hospital Qigong clinics from the wrath of the Red Guard.  This led to the widescale institutional dismantling of these programs. But all of this tended to play out very different in the actual work units.  Seeing that their local party leaders were incapable of providing any form of protection from this new threat, reformed gangsters, former secret society members and retired martial artists quietly began to reassemble their networks and to take on new students.  The fear of the Red Guards seems to have led these vulnerable individuals to look for private sources of security.  Many individuals did begin to study wushu within their work units during this period, and it would ultimately set the stage for the explosion of the folk martial arts sector in the late 1970s, immediately after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution.

Ultimately this article is interesting as it speaks to multiple historical trends.  This is an ideological document that was intended to be read as such.  But it also describes both the growing popularity of martial practice in the last years of the Cultural Revolution, as well as organizational decapitation that the era’s “reforms” had brought about.  This complexity is one reason why this article deserves careful study as we set about reconstructing the history of the idea of the Chinese martial arts in the West.



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




Tsangchow Takes to Wushu in a Big Way

By Chang Kuang-Chun


Early every morning residents of Tsangchow, near the Pohai Sea in Hopei province [editor’s note: Bohai Sea in Hubei province], flock to the People’s Park in the center of the city. They go there to do wushu, a traditional form of exercise.  Arriving by bicycle or on foot are workers, shop assistants, government cadres, doctors, students, retired workers and Red Army veterans. Among them are children of seven or eight years, and oldsters in their 70s or 80s.  In groups from three to ten they gather under the trees, beside the pond or in front of the pavilions.  Some do shadow boxing while others fence with swords, spears or other weapons—all in the wushu style.

As the hour of work approaches they go off in various directions.  The whole year round, rain or shine, summer or winter, the same scene is re-enacted. This takes place in at least a hundred other places in different parts of the city with altogether several thousands of enthusiasts.

On the city’s outskirts and in the surrounding rural areas, wushu is equally popular.  Each of the 32 communes in Tsanghsien county has its own representative team.  In some communes every brigade has wushu classes, and after dark in some brigades classes go on in three or four brightly lighted training grounds.  City and country contests are held each year and during holiday festivals workers and peasants get together to give wushu demonstrations and learn new movements from each other.


Past and Present

Although Tsangchow is now a bustling railway center on the Tientsin-Pukow line, it was formerly a desolate place with few inhabitants. It is said that as long as 1,500 years ago the local people took up Wushu to defend themselves from persecution by the reactionary ruling class.  Moreover, because it was an isolated spot, it became an area to which exiles were sent by the authorities, and many of these exiles taught the local people new wushu movements.

In old China the reactionary ruling class, afraid that wushu would be used as a weapon by the people, willfully persecuted many experts of the art.  One of them, known as “Wang the Thousand-pound Lifter”, one day saw a run-away horse and cart galloping through the street.  He tried to check the horse but missed his hold.  He grabbed the back of the cart and, wrenching it with all his might, overturned both cart and horse.  For this feat his fame quickly spread among the people but the reactionary Ching dynasty bureaucrats branded him a “bandit boxer” and forced him to flee the area.

After liberation wushu gained new popularity and Wang became one of its chief exponents.  Encouraged by the People’s Government, he took an active part in the study and revision of traditional wushu movements and wrote a book on the subject.  The position and prestige accorded wushu in new China is completely different from what it was in the old days.


Rearrangement and Improvement

Following Chairman Mao’s call, “Promote physical culture and build up the people’s health,” a movement to learn wushu spread rapidly in the Tsangchow prefecture.  Physical culture committees at all level in the area have named wushu one of the main sports to be popularized.  They often arrange for old wushu experts to exchange experiences or send them to learn new movements from professionals in other parts of the country.

In line with Chairman Mao’s policy of making the past serve the present and weeding through the old to bring forth the new, they are gradually rearranging and refining this ancient art.  Rejecting the dross, they have eliminated rigid movements that are injurious; assimilating the essence, they combine the fine points from different forms and boldly create new ones.  They aim to integrate strength with plasticity, create gestures that are firm yet flexible, movements are smooth and extended and forms that are graceful.  While aiming to build up the people’s health, they retain the characteristic wushu features of both attack and defense in dealing with the enemy.

In the past there were many schools of wushu, and none would allow its most advantageous movements to be known to any other school.  This gave rise to great antagonism among some schools. Today, people learn the art to strengthen their physique for the common purpose of building socialism and defending the country, so rivalry between the different schools has given way to a new spirit of unity among wushu sportsmen.  With the support and encouragement of the Communist Party and the People’s Government, amateur training classes for young people have been opened in the Tsangchow prefecture, and wushu is included as part of the physical training program in many schools.  Old and respected professional experts volunteer as coaches in the various centers and wholeheartedly try to pass on their skills to the younger generation.

In the past, influenced by the Confucian idea that “man is superior and woman is inferior”, few women learned wushu. Today, among enthusiasts in Tsangchow, women constitute one-third of the total.  On some training grounds, 60 percent of the participants are women.


Improving Physique

In Tsangchow’s People’s Park an oldish man was practicing shadow boing under some trees.  He was Yin Tsung-chi, a sales clerk who had been doing these exercises daily for more than 20 years.  He took to wushu after liberation when he was in poor health and often fell ill due to the hardships he had suffered in the old society.  After taking up shadow boxing his health improved so much that now at 54 he can work as hard as any of the younger people in his shop.  Talking of his experience he says, “Wushu trains the whole body.  Constant practice makes one’s limbs supple and improves one’s spirit.  Now I can do a full day’s work without feeling tired and I have unlimited energy.”

Mu Ming-kai, a young worker at a Tsangchow plant making parts for the chemical fertilizer industry, was in poor health when he started work in 1967.  He couldn’t do heavy jobs or climb to any great height.  He felt this limited the contribution he could make to the building of socialism.  The leaders at the plant and his co-workers invariably gave him only light work and he felt ashamed of his weakness.  He asked veteran worker Chi Feng-hsiang to teach him wushu.  With several years of training, his health has improved.  He is always in the forefront when there is heavy work to do, he climbs to great heights without hesitation and consistently works well.

Chang Kuang-Chun. 1975. “Tsangchow Takes to Wushu in a Big Way.” China Reconstructs, No. 7 (July). 47-48.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (52): Taijiquan in Communist China and the United States in 1972