I recently noted that it is necessary to begin historical discussions by specifying whether we are examining events (or practices) as they actually happened, or the evolution of ideas about them. This is not to say that these two spheres are totally separate. Indeed, our beliefs about what is proper, and where practices came from, tend to have a notable effect on how things like the martial arts develop. But different types of research questions often call for their own sources and methods.
Once we decide that we are going to address the history of an idea, we must still specify who held these beliefs and how they evolved over time. While ideas about martial arts might be more widely spread than their actual practice, they are still far from universal. Such images are always partial, fungible and slowly shifting. It is that incompleteness that makes them useful to advertising agents, diplomats or anyone who would like to alter the way that an audience perceives the world. One must first be able to load social content into an image before it can be deployed in the tricky business of cultural diplomacy or propaganda.
That may sound complex, but like so many other things in life, it can be illuminated by referencing a popular meme. Imagine, for instance, that we are cultural historians attempting to establish what the American public believed the Chinese martial arts were in 1975. It is easy to write about this in sweeping terms, perhaps referencing the social trauma unleashed by the nation’s misadventures first in the Korean and the Vietnam War. Other writers have already advanced a number of theories running along these lines. And I am sure that there is a great deal of truth to them.
Still, if I were to offer my own assessment of the situation, I think we would have to begin by acknowledging two points. First, even during the “Kung Fu Fever” of the early and mid 1970s, the Chinese martial arts remained a somewhat empty category in most people’s minds. There was a sense of mystery around the whole thing. Yes, there were some powerful guiding images. But for many people (even those who were already deeply involved in the actual practice of the Asian martial arts), it was a vast territory waiting to be explored. Anything felt possible. Secondly, this territory was contested. As is often the case with partial and fragmentary cultural categories, not everyone imagined the Chinese martial arts in the same way.
Consider my own, somewhat crude, take on a popular category of meme. Readers may discover that heading over to a meme generator, and choosing your own categories and years might be an interesting way of starting to think through the various strands that always comprised our social understanding of any complex phenomenon. This simplified version of a popular meme lays out only four categories, rather than the customary six. But I think that is still enough to hit on some of the major cleavages of the day.
To begin with, there is the issue of generational perception. Individuals who grew up with stories of Chinese boxing, “dirty judo” and Big Sword troops during WWII were likely to have a very different set of cultural memories associated with the Chinese martial arts than their baby boomer children. Indeed, personal accounts suggest that many children of the 1960s and 1970s had very few mental images of these practices prior to their exploding onto first the small screen (the Green Hornet, Avengers and Kung Fu) or the big one (Enter the Dragon and everything that came next). Those images had a powerful formative effect on a generation of young minds. Yet as I have sought to demonstrate in numerous previous blog posts, it is simply not the case that the parents and grandparents of these children had never heard of the Chinese martial arts before. Indeed, the Boxer Rebellion had been a major moment in American media history, as had the stand of the Dadao armed troops against the Japanese invaders during WWII.
Yet even if we were to focus only on mediatized images of the 1970s, the sudden appearance of Kung Fu did not go uncontested. The Chinese government began to formulate strategies of cultural diplomacy drawing on images of Wushu at almost exactly the same time. Rather than riding the coat-tails of popular films or TV programs, they promoted their own aesthetic, cultural and ideological vision of Chinese martial prowess. This was seen in an increasing number of propaganda publications, features in mainstream Western magazines and newspapers, and even staged spectacles as Wushu teams began to undertake “good will” tours across the West.
Other viewpoints were also starting to come into play. The loosening of laws that had restricted Chinese immigration would have a profound effect on the development of the martial arts in North America. As martial arts teachers immigrated from areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia they created a new generation of schools. These would project yet another set of images directly into local neighborhoods, ones that did not necessarily conform to the theatrics and violence of popular Kung Fu films, but which were also resolutely opposed to the professionalized Wushu performances that the PRC was starting to make available as the era of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” progressed.
If we want to understand why certain aspects of China’s cultural diplomacy strategy succeeded or failed in this era, it is important to have some sort of base-line understanding of what Americans knew, or were at least was culturally conditioned to accept, about Wushu long before Jet Li ever performed for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon on the White House lawn. That answer might seem obvious if we approach the question only from the perspective of a film studies textbook, or perhaps the oral history of our own Kung Fu school. But as this meme seeks to reminds us, by the 1970s competing images were already in play, each contesting the notion of what it really meant to be a Chinese martial artist. That, in turn, impacted how audiences might come to understand China itself.
It is within this context that we return to the pages of China Reconstructs, the PRC’s most influential English language propaganda outlet during the 1970s. While discussions of the martial arts had been uncommon in the pages of this magazine during the 1950s and 1960s, it is not surprising that they seem to gain to new prominence in the 1970s. Interestingly, all of this starts just before Bruce Lee ignites the era’s “Kung Fu Fever”. Whether that was simply a matter of good fortune, or if China’s propagandists were reading the cultural currents carefully enough to detect the same sorts of market demand that Hollywood also foresaw, is an interesting question that will need to be investigated later.
Perhaps the clearest evidence of this shift occurs in June of 1972 when Wushu is featured on the cover of China Reconstructs. Readers should recall that, given the ideological struggles of the era, this outlet mostly featured articles about China’s massive construction projects, the growth of improbably high-tech industries, and the heroic struggles of its people to build socialism. I suspect that given its theme, this issue’s cover would have stood out to readers of the period. It featured a young girl (dressed in red) holding an acrobatic pose with a jian (double edged sword).
This cover was the reader’s down-payment on a short photo essay to follow. The whole thing feels a bit like it was rushed into production. On the first page of the feature readers are informed that, “Wu shu, a traditional form of physical culture, is a popular sport in China. It includes both shadowboxing and exercises with weapons such as broadswords.” Yet apart from this partial definition, no other substantive text is included with the article. Instead the editors seem to rely on the evocative photography that follows to demonstrate, rather than describe, the finer points of the art.
Excluding the cover, the essay includes five other photos. They share many thematic similarities. In each case the central subject is a child or young teen who is engaged in either learning or demonstrating wushu. All of the students are carefully attired in matching, modern, uniforms. These are the forerunners of the matching track suits that dominate China’s current Wushu academies. Students are seen exhibiting both empty hand and weapon-based techniques, just as the definition suggested that they would. It should also be noted that there is no sign of Sanda or any type of sparring, whose practice was banned during the Cultural Revolution. Everyone is involved in taolu practice.
The highly visual nature of this text brings us back to the problem of interpretation. One suspects that the magazine’s editors were attempting to simultaneously give readers a light “popular interest” feature (something that would humanize the Chinese people) while at the same time subtly contesting the images of kung fu that were just on the cusp of exploding into the American subconscious. But with virtually no text, it is hard to know with certainty. Another article, also focused on the characteristics of Wushu, was published a few years later that would seem to help us confirm that this might have been the authorial intent. The two make a nice pair as the later lacks the spectacular photography of this piece, but it does make the “proper” ideological interpretation of Wushu quite clear.
Still, authorial intent can only take us so far. When analyzing a cultural diplomacy or propaganda campaign, its utility is even more limited. The real question is how diverse segments of the American population reacted to these images, or ones like them. Sadly, those sorts of sources are very rare. We have better accounts of what individuals thought when they first encountered the Kung Fu television series or Bruce Lee’s films. I suspect that is one of the reasons why so much of the literature has focused on these events rather than stories in news outlets or staged spectacles. Still, there are some gems that are worth considering.
One of my favorites can be found in the September 1975 issue of Black Belt magazine. All of this is happening in the wake of Nixon’s opening with China, so there was a fair amount of interest in what life was like behind the “bamboo curtain.” Unsurprisingly, martial arts publications were leading this curve. After close to a century of living in the shadow of Budo, the Chinese martial arts were finally getting their due. In an effort to show readers what they were going to get, the cover of the September 1975 issue featured a man in a Mao suit, performing some sort of martial art, transposed against the great wall of China.
This was not the first time that Black Belt had run features purporting to reveal the state of Wushu in the PRC. The February 1968 issue again gave Chinese systems the cover and ran a lengthy article entitled “The State of the Martial Arts in Red China Today.” Both features are worth reviewing. But while the 1968 article relied on recent publications and testimony by expatriate authors, the 1975 article offered a detailed eye witness account.
This came in the form of an article submitted by Jerry E Fisher. Mr. Fisher was invited to China to participate in one of the events that characterized the first stages of commercial opening with the West. Ironically, the purpose of his visit had nothing to do with the martial arts. Because of his prominence in the American carpeting industry, Fisher was actually invited to spend close to a month in China to attend a trade show on that topic. But like any dedicated researcher, he did everything in his power to thwart his political handlers and investigate the martial arts at every turn.
There is no need to transcribe the full account of Fisher’s adventures here as google has thoughtfully scanned and made available most of Black Belt’s back catalog. As such I would encourage readers to study his article at their leisure. It is a fascinating look at travel in China during the Cultural Revolution, and attentive readers might even spot a cameo appearance by George Bush.
After repeated false starts, Fisher eventually concluded (basically correctly) that by the early 1970s the Chinese martial arts existed only in two places. Formal, government designed, Wushu programs were still operating at the middle school level (where as the more advanced University programs had been forced to shut down by the Red Guard). While he identified this as the ultimate source of the prior year’s “good will” diplomacy tour in the US, there was no program in place to introduce Western visitors to China to these practices. All of that would come decades later.
The other place that one might find martial art practice was in the public parks, early in the morning, before the first work shift. Fisher describes some of these study groups, though language barriers prevented him from learning too much about them. Still, it is clear that most were small (between a dozen and two dozen people), and while he was able to identify a “teacher” in each group, there was not yet much in the way of vertical organization. Indeed, the eyewitness account that Fisher provides are in many ways very similar to what we already saw in the 1975 China Reconstructs article.
Nevertheless, a simple agreement on material acts should not imply an acceptance of interpretation. Throughout his piece Fisher seems to be sensitive to his identity as a capitalist in communist China. And while he was careful not to criticize his Chinese hosts (and those people who generously exchanged techniques with him in the park), he clearly was not accepting of everything that he saw. While he was happy to discover a vibrant martial arts scene in Beijing’s parks, he observed that the ideological environment was thwarting certain aspects of practice, and hence the development of the martial arts.
What might be the most important thing about this account for our current purposes is that Fisher understood and framed his physical experience of Wushu in China in terms of the prior media exposure that he had received the year before while still in the United States. Again, this was when the PRC sent a Wushu team to perform in multiple locations as part of a good will tour. It is clear that this tour had a profound impact on the way that he understood and evaluated the Chinese martial arts.
All of this was then processed, repackaged, and distributed to martial artists across the English-speaking world in the form of Fisher’s 1975 Black Belt article. It is worth noting that the Chinese government never intended to make him a spokesperson for Wushu. Indeed, various low-level agents actively attempted to thwart his curiosity on the subject. Yet this account is a good example of the ways that mass media campaigns and cultural exchanges can create a pool of individuals who, while still ideologically independent, are capable of acting as “cultural interpreters.” Even if unintended, the publication of images and accounts such as those reviewed here must be considered as a measure of the success of China’s martial arts diplomacy during the final stages of the Cultural Revolution.
If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (52): Taijiquan in Communist China and the United States in 1972