Two senior students outside Sage Hall at Yenching University, March 1928. Source:

An Unexpected Find

It is basically a truism to say that the Western public didn’t know very much about the Chinese martial arts in the 1920s.  More interesting is the question of why.  Given the global popularity of Judo and Jiu-Jitsu, Chinese reformers, intellectuals and physical education teachers were more than happy to explain to anyone who would listen that China was “true” home of the East Asian martial arts. And given the popularity of these practices in educational and middle-class circles during the 1910s, some of them could even back up those observations with a bit of a demonstration.  Indeed, the Chinese martial arts were exhibited with some regularity on the campuses of America’s top universities throughout the 1920s and the 1930s.

The real problem was not a lack of information.  It was a lack of cross-cultural desire on the part of the Western public.  Japan’s geopolitical fortunes made its martial culture a pressing issue that could not be ignored.  One might seek to debunk the claims of Kano’s various Judo instructors (as members of the sporting press often did), or you could try to appropriate these new martial technologies for one’s self (a strategy adopted by a growing number of Western students).  Yet it was hard to ignore the Japanese martial arts.  They seemed to demand an answer, just as Japan’s growing political dominance in Asia would eventually force the world’s hand.

The Chinese martial arts were in a very different position.  It is not that people were unaware of “Chinese Boxing” or what it might look like. Chinatown celebrations, sometimes including martial artists, made it into the period’s news-reels.  And the tales from the Boxer Rebellion had dominated the Western imagination a generation earlier.  Nevertheless, if Japan’s martial traditions came to represent a geopolitical riddle that must be solved, China’s fighting arts became synonymous with those aspects of Asia that were better forgotten.  Or, if one was of a more romantic disposition, taken off the shelf for the occasional festival, but certainly not taken too seriously.

Reformers thus faced an uphill battle as they tried to win for China a measure of the respect that Judo and even Kendo had brought to Japan’s physical culture.  Again, not all members of the international community within China ignored the martial arts.  A few even seem to have found them worthy of personal study. But it was reporters for China’s many English language newspapers who seem to have really led the way in trying to convince people to discuss them.  Perhaps they were best positioned to understand that the domestic surge of interest in China’s indigenous fighting systems following the 1911 revolution was not, in fact, backwards looking self-Orintalization.  Instead it represented potent trends within China’s growing national consciousness.

It was precisely the links with modernity and resurgent nationalism which made the Chinese martial arts newsworthy, both for Western reporters and local reformers.  This, in large part, seems to have determined what sorts of stories got published during the Republic era.  While there was certainly the occasional piece documenting local practices, the vast majority of stories followed the fortunes of progressive reform movements, such as General Ma’s New Wushu, the famous Jingwu Association, or the KMT backed Guoshu movement.

One might debate the degree to which these groups were representative of what was really going on within China’s martial arts during the Republic.  When we recount this narrative from a unitary national perspective, these sorts of organizations are practically the only thing that is ever discussed.  And its undeniable that each of them made critical contributions to the shape of the Chinese martial arts as they exist today.

However, as I illustrated in my volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts, at the regional and local level, these nationally focused groups often had much less influence than one might expect.  Indeed, the roots of current disconnect between what might be termed China’s official Wushu programs, and its many disparate folk martial arts, can be found in fissures that began to emerge in the 1910s and 1920s.  One only has to consider how even the most optimistic membership estimates for the Jingwu Association simply pale in comparisons to the tens of millions of Red Spear Militia members during the same period to get a glimpse of everything that we typically leave out of “national level” discussions of Chinese martial arts history.

Still, one of the great virtues of the Jingwu, and later the Guoshu, movement was its desire to fight the widely held stigma that martial artists were merely illiterate and uncouth strongmen. If China’s citizens were to be brought into the modern age, their physical culture would have to lead the way. Producing books, newspapers, pamphlets and newsreels not only insulated the newly emerging wushu culture from the scorn of the May 4thintellectuals, it also provided a pool of concepts, practices and images from which one could build a truly national culture on.  These reformers tend to be somewhat overrepresented in our historical studies precisely because they were obsessed with leaving a written historical legacy.

Yet as I read the treaty port newspapers of the 1920s or 1930s, I am struck by how little of our understanding of this period is really a “new discovery.”  It certainly feels new when you first encounter it in the pages of Andrew Morris or Stanley Henning, but that is because we have neglected most aspects of Chinese social history, and not just the bits having to do with the martial arts. A dedicated contemporaneous student, or anyone keeping a scrapbook on “Chinese boxing,” might have been able to construct a remarkably accurate picture of what was going on within these national groups, even if they didn’t speak Chinese.  A remarkable amount of material was being published in English for anyone who wished to follow along.  What is remarkable is that so few readers wanted to try.

All of this was driven home when I came across an article titled “Chinese Girls to go in for Sports” in the February 26thissue of the Canton Times. This relatively short-lived treaty port paper carried some interesting features on the Chinese martial arts, though not to the same degree as something like The China Press.  Still, it was the subject matter of this article that really struck me.

Articles about the Jingwu Association are easily located in English language papers during the 1920s.  Most of these are accounts of public demonstrations, but this piece was different.  It provided a matter-of-fact discussion of the creation of the organization’s women’s group in 1920.

For all of the detail within this piece, one critical name is missing.  That is Chen Shichao.  The sister of the better-known Chen Gongzhe (one of the major organizers and financiers of the Jingwu Association), Chen Shichao did much to advance the cause of China’s female martial artists.  She seems to be largely responsible for Jingwu’s progressive views on gender and the training opportunities that women were afforded within the organization.


A group of female students demonstrating the jian at Fukien Christian University sometime in the 1920s. Source:


Chen Shichao’s achievements were the result of many years of hard work, and they sometimes earned her blistering criticism in the press.  She began teaching women’s classes in 1917. The next year she organized a women’s performance and demonstration team.  In 1920 she would be named the first Director of the Jingwu Women’s Sports Association.

It was the organization of this later group that sparked the article to follow.  However, it does not mention Chen, or any of the other female instructors. Most Jingwu chapters had what we might think of as dual leadership structures.  On the one hand there was a director, board and various officers who were inevitably among the city’s leading citizens and well-connected merchants. These individuals were responsible for raising much of the funding needed to finance buildings, clear bureaucratic obstacles, and to ensure the degree of social and political backing necessary to keep the practice moving.  A second group of officers, generally assigned by the organization’s head-quarters in Shanghai, would then be sent to oversee the actual instruction of the martial arts curriculum, as well as the preparation of newsletters, the organization of cultural events and other sporting endeavors. These individuals were actual employees of the Jingwu Association and drew a salary from the organization. Basically, this was the sort of division between corporate officers and board members that you might see in lots of different areas.

That same division of responsibility is illustrated in this article on the organization of the woman’s group.  The meeting saw the appointment of a President, two vice-presidents, and a seventeen-member board.  These women were very well connected and represented elite levels of Shanghai society.  It is somewhat slow going without the actual characters of their names, but it is possible to identify a number of these women in the historical record and read about their careers and those of their husbands.

Sadly, one of the notable things about this list is how many of these husbands and family members died by assassination during the 1920s and 1930s.  Breaking down everyone’s biography would take us too far away from the Jingwu Association. But even a quick review is enough to remind us of just how perilous life as a political operative was during the Republic of China period.

Still, even though I am hesitant to actually dive into all of this, I bring this list up for a very specific reason. Throughout the 1910s and early 1920s Jingwu claimed to be a non-partisan group whose national aims were, in many ways, above the realm of “mere politics.”  This is often contrasted with the Guoshu movement which was explicitly backed by certain factions within a single political party.  It aimed to indoctrinate its members into loyalty to a specific party and leader, rather than just the nation.

In a sense this is true.  Yet this list also suggests that Jingwu wasn’t actually holding the political world at arms-length. Instead, as you reconstruct the life histories of individuals on this list its possible to get a sense of the sorts of favors that the organization was looking to call in, and the types of political support that it thought it needed.  Again, this is an interesting research project for us now, but one suspects that much of this would have been obvious to newspaper readers in the 1920s.


A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.


Chinese Girls To Go In For Sports

Shanghai April 20.—Prominent Chinese Women of the city have launched an athletic club to be called the Chin Woo Girls’ Athletic Association which will offer courses in Chinese boxing, fencing, archery, the National Language, hygiene, tennis and basketball.

The Association was organized at a meeting held at the Great Eastern Hotel on Saturday at which time Mrs. Tang Shao-yi, wife of the Chief Southern Peace delegate, was elected President.  Other officers are Mrs. Yao Chuan-pen and Miss Chang Chao-han, vice presidents, and Mesdames Nieh Chi-Kwei, F. C. Tong, Y. D. Shen, C. T. Wang, T. F. Soong, Liao Chung-kai, Ho Shu-hua, Hsu Kwei-lung and Jabin Hsu and the Misses Chang Sian-wen, Chang Shan-soo, Cho Pei-fang, Chai Tsenan, Huang Yuen-shen, Chen Chin, Tong Pei-lan, Sung Guai-yu, Tang executive committee.

The organization will have headquarters at the fires branch of the Chin Woo Athletic Association, Fu Tuk Lee, North Szechuan Road.

“Chinese Girls To Go In For Sports” The Canton Times. April 26th, 1920. Page 3.




If you enjoyed this article you might also want to read: Research Notes: Han Xing Qiao Opens the “Internal Arts” to the West, 1934