Plate with Dragon and Carp. Qing Dynasty. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.
Plate with Dragon and Carp. Qing Dynasty. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.



***We have now come to the point in the semester that I call “deadline season.”  As such, we will be dipping into the archives over the next few weeks to give me some additional time to work on a couple of articles with upcoming due dates, and then to iron out the details of two conference presentations.  Once these papers have been presented, I will be sharing them on Kung Fu Tea.  But before moving on to new topics, I need to revisit an old friend who was the subject of a conference presentation that I gave a while back at the Fightbook conference held at the German Blade Museum in Solingen.  I am relieved to see this project finally moving towards publication as it chronicles an important moment in the West’s encounter with the Chinese martial arts.  As such, this also seems like the ideal time to revisit some of my initial background research on the subject.

While never discussed within the martial studies literature, Alfred Lister was a critical western observer of the Chinese martial arts in the second half of the 19th century.  Over a period of four years he produced four different statements (two relatively brief, and two much more detailed) that sought to socially situate and explore the world of Chinese boxing.  Further, Lister insisted on drawing parallels between Chinese and Western practices that would make his observations immediately relevant to English language readers with no prior exposure to these practices.  The importance of Lister’s contributions (and the evolution of his thought on these matters) has been obscured by two factors.  First, while a known figure in Hong Kong’s history, the outlines of his life and career have remained somewhat obscure.  Secondly, Lister did not always publish under his own name. More specifically, he attempted to hide his authorship (with only moderate success) of two of his more important works on the subject.

The following essay will shed light on Lister’s early research into the nature of the Chinese martial arts by addressing both of these issues.  Part I (posted below) discusses Lister’s life and career within the Hong Kong Civil Service.  It then goes on to discuss why he started to write on the Chinese martial arts (among many other subjects).  Finally it examines the two relatively brief discussions of Chinese boxing that he openly signed his name to.  In the second section of this essay (to be posted next week) we will examine Lister’s major works on the southern Chinese martial arts.  This will include an investigation of the authorship of each piece (both of which were published anonymously), as well as the far reaching effects of Lister’s work.  While the questions examined in Parts I and II are closely connected, the discussion has been split to avoid posting an excessively lengthy essay and to facilitate a deeper appreciation for the value of theory when making empirical observations.  Indeed, the central shortcoming of Lister’s work is that, writing over a century ago, he did not have the theoretical tools necessary to appreciate the practices that he was observing within their own cultural context.****




While not well remembered, Alfred Lister (b.? – d. 1890) was a critical 19th century observers of the Chinese martial arts.  His writings leave no indication that he was interested in attempting to master these practices.  He found many of them to be somewhat ridiculous and, at anyrate, he had the constitution of a poet rather than a boxer.  Lister’s criticisms of Chinese practices also appear to have included more than a few feints and jabs directed toward the Western versions of these practices as well.

Still, the very existence of Lister’s writings on the Chinese martial arts raises important questions.  How was it that non-martial artists encountered these practices in the second half of the 19th century?  Modern romanticism notwithstanding, it should be remembered that most elements of China’s better classes shared Lister’s conflicted, and at times openly negative, view of the martial arts during this period.  Indeed, his opinions on these subjects may well have been shaped by theirs.  Secondly, what sort of impact did Lister’s English language observations have on the formation of early Western discourses about the nature and meaning of the Chinese martial arts?

Perhaps the first question that must be addressed is an even more basic one.  Who was Alfred Lister, and how did he come to Hong Kong?


Chinese snuff bottle with dragon. Qing dynasty, 1820-1850. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.
Chinese snuff bottle with dragon. Qing dynasty, 1820-1850. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.



A Career in Hong Kong


Not much is currently known about Lister’s early life.  After some preliminary searching I have not been able to find any information about his birth or life prior to his first appearance in Hong Kong as a recent college graduate.  One suspects that a trip to London for some archival work would probably be necessary to resolve that mystery.

Nevertheless, in a very real sense Lister’s story began between 1860 and 1861.  It was at this time that the small British colony of Hong Kong acquired what is now a bustling and packed peninsula called Kowloon.  This added not just territory, but a substantial Chinese population that the city’s British administration needed to be able to communicate with.

Fostering such communication had not been a priority for the previous administration.  The idea of a merit based civil service (as opposed to one in which individuals purchased their offices) had only recently spread throughout the UK and its various administrative units.  In any case, the British rulers of Hong Kong had attempted to keep communication and interference with the area’s Chinese population to an absolute minimum.  The previous administration only had a single qualified interpreter, and he was subsequently dismissed due to an uncomfortably close relationship with a local pirate!

All of this changed after the addition of Kowloon.  In addition to professionalizing the city’s Civil Service it was decided to start a new cadet training program to ensure a steady supply of individuals with sufficient language skills and cultural familiarity to be effective in their jobs.

The initial plan called for the yearly recruitment of small groups of recent university graduates (about 20 years old) who had achieved high marks and established a track record of linguistic scholarship.  These individuals would be advanced a sum of 100 pounds so that they could make their way to Hong Kong, take up positions as cadets, and begin their Cantonese language training.  After a few years of study they would be evaluated and offered positions as translators, where they would serve for another 3 years.  After that they would be fast-tracked into various jobs throughout the city’s understaffed civil service.

While a good plan on paper, the necessities of government appear to have gotten in the way of its actual execution.  Lister arrived in Hong Kong as a member of the second class of cadets and language students in 1865.  But it does not appear that he got his 5 years of language study and translation practice before being moved into active service.

Records indicate that in 1868 he received appointments as both Justice of the Peace (Lister actually became known for his talent as a jurist) and as the acting Register General, a position that put him in direct contact with the city’s growing Chinese population.  Circumstances also dictated that Lister had to hit the ground running.

In 1869 he became involved with multiple contentious issues surrounding the intersection of medical care and the complexities of colonial administration.  Lister’s name appears in reports dealing with the inspection and health care of prostitutes in brothels catering to Western customers in an attempt to check the spread of venereal disease.  Needless to say, the government’s sole concern was the welfare of city’s European and American residents, and not “public health” as the term is understood today.

However, Lister was not unconcerned with the welfare of city’s Chinese residents.  In 1869 he touched off an uproar (which managed to make it all the way back to parliament) when he wrote a report detailing the horrific conditions he discovered in a charity temple where coffins were stored before they could be shipped home for burial.  The problem with this arrangement, Lister noted, was that not all of the facility’s inhabitants were actually dead.

In fact, the temple was acting more as a hospice where poor individuals were being sent to die while receiving no palliative care or even the most basic human dignities.  The details of Lister’s report were so shocking that the facility was closed and the British government was forced to abandon its “non-intervention” policy towards local Chinese customs in an attempt to ensure a basic level medical treatment.  The creation of the Tung Wah Hospital was a direct result of this incident.

Lister has been accused by later critics of misinterpreting what he saw and disregarding the fact that this was a traditional practice.  Still, this was probably the seminal event in his short career, and one that certainly did not endear him to his superiors who wanted no part in a high profile controversy that raised questions in London about how the colony was being administered.

In strictly empirical terms, it is not at all clear that Lister “misinterpreted” the horrors that the building contained.  He saw dying individuals lying unattended in pools in their own urine in dark windowless spaces, and he reported it to his superiors. Rather, Lister does not appear to have been content to fully accept a sort of cultural relativism that was common during the era.

His insistence on drawing direct, sometimes uncomfortable, parallels between Chinese and Western institutions would become a hallmark of his thinking and work as a translator.  As he would remark at many points in the future, a direct translation of a text that prevented Western readers from understanding or evaluating it on their own terms was really no translation at all.  Likewise, if a practice was deemed to be ridiculous or harmful when encountered within a Chinese context (e.g., boxing) its Western counterparts (bare knuckle fighting) were probably just as problematic.   While his criticisms of Western practices were more subtle, they were certainly present in his writing.

In 1870 Lister was appointed Sheriff, and then in June of the following year he was named the colony’s Coroner.  Not much is known about Lister’s private life in this period.  He appears to have been in generally poor health, but he was probably married.  On May 17th of 1872 the London and China Telegraph carried a notice reporting the death of his infant son.  Following this Lister accepted other posts including Acting Harbor Master and the Post Master General.  In 1882 he was named the colony’s Acting Treasurer.  This appears to have been the highest professional honor that Lister achieved.

Unfortunately Lister’s health continued to deteriorate.  In 1890 (shortly after returning from a trip to England) Lister requested medical leave and boarded a ship to Yokohama.  Apparently he was seeking treatment for Bright’s Disease (chronic kidney inflammation).  Unfortunately he died before reaching the harbor in Japan.  An obituary that ran in a social column of the North China Herald noted that at the time of his death he held office as both the Treasurer and Post Master General.

The anonymous friend who wrote his obituary noted that while Lister never had the charisma to dominate the political landscape, he had been a careful judge and administrator.  He was remembered for his writings on poetry, though his own efforts in that field were mixed.  Lister had evidently spent most of his money supporting needy members of his own family, and a donation was taken up on their behalf after his death.  His obituary made no reference to a surviving wife or children, but Lister was fondly remembered for his many amusing publications as a younger man.


Bowl with dragon over waves. Qing Dynasty, 1722-1735. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.
Bowl with dragon over waves. Qing Dynasty, 1722-1735. Walters Art Museum. Source: Wikimedia.


Lister and the “Noble Art of Self-Defence”


Throughout the first half of the 1870s Alfred Lister advertised his personal interests within the pages of The China Review.  A quick review of his publications reveals someone interested in both Western and Chinese poetry.  Further, Lister did not hesitate to go toe-to-toe with the venerable Professor Legge regarding the lack of literary virtue in his translations of verses from the Chinese classics.

Lister’s writings also exhibit a clear interest in less weighty matters.  He was fascinated with more popular forms of literature.  He wrote reviews on a vernacular romance, various pamphlets or chapbooks that one could find in market stalls, collections of plays and songs and even a study of the various ways that Chinese currency could be debased or counterfeit (presumably of the most interest to individuals in the money-changing profession).  Given the lack of attention that this sort of literature receives, Lister’s descriptions of it are all the more valuable.

This is also where we begin to encounter his writings on Chinese boxing.  Lister, like so many others, encountered both practitioners of these arts, as well as popular publications describing them, in the markets that he stalked looking for reading material.

Unfortunately not all of this material that he published bears Lister’s name.  A few of these pieces, in which the martial arts are discussed with reference to more respectable literary work, are signed by the young civil servant.  But we should recall that boxing of all sorts had a less than savory reputation in the second and third quarters of the 19th century.  This was something that not everyone wanted their name attached to (especially sober civil servants).  Thus some of these texts were authored anonymously.

This was not the only subject from which Lister withheld his name (presumably in defense of the reputation of his office).  While he had no problem signing has name as a literary critic addressing scholarly work on Chinese poetry, period sources note that he opted to publish his own artistic works anonymously.   Nor should we be surprised to see him withholding his name from publications in which he harshly criticized some of his colleagues within the city’s civil service.  Establishing authorship is thus the first challenge that we must address with each of the following documents.

It is not known when Lister first observed a demonstration of the Chinese martial arts, but they began to make appearances in his popular publications shortly after he assumed office as a Justice of the Peace and the Acting Register General, both positions that brought him into contact with all levels of Chinese society.  Still a catalyst was needed inspire him to put pen to paper.

As was mentioned in a recent post, in 1869 the Duke of Edinburgh graced Hong Kong with a royal visit.  Lister was present at a Cantonese opera performance staged in the Duke’s honor and subsequently described the event, and the two performances that were watched, for a memorial book that was published in commemoration of the visit.  The first play was a serious historical drama.  The second was a slap stick comedy that revolved around compulsive gambling, kung fu and domestic abuse.

While the actual performance was hilarious, Lister quickly discovered that his Western audience needed to get up to speed on the place of the martial arts in Chinese popular culture before they could appreciate the jokes.  On page 33 of the 1870 summary of the play Lister simply described the libretto:


“A-lan is stupefied, and at his wit’s end what to do, or how to meet his wife. He gives a comic fancy sketch of her reception of him, and says he dare not go home. The other swindler, to get his accomplice clear off, offers to give him lessons in boxing, so that he may meet his wife on more equal terms, and makes a few exhibitions of his skill by inviting A-lan to hit him, when he knocks him down in sundry wonderful ways. A-lan is very anxious to learn, and agrees to say no more about the pig, for which he is taught three feints, or modes of parrying an attack, and that he may practice them, the professor offers to impersonate his wife, which he does very amusingly, coming at him with feminine scoldings, and gestures, and trying to cuff him for the loss of the pig. A-lan practices his newly acquired art of self defence very successfully, the professor being floored each time.”

“He then went home, confident in his newly acquired skill, and, naturally, a rupture followed. A-lan tried all three of the feints he had learned, but to no purpose, his wife knew them all and a few more, so he soon found himself ignorainiously tied to the door-post, with his wife’s old jacket over his head, while she went to her supper, promising to come and settle accounts with him when she had finished!”


It is probably significant that Lister first begins to write about the Chinese martial arts after encountering them in the theater.  In subsequent writings he continues to emphasize the close connection between these two realms.  Of course the early 20th century martial arts reformers did everything in their power to break and obscure this connection as part of their effort to modernize the martial arts and reimagine them in more nationalist and progressive terms.

Still, there can be no denying that most Chinese individuals seem to have been comfortable equating the two realms.  This refusal to draw a clear distinction (as understood by Westerners) between separate realms helps us to understand why anti-government rebels took to the streets in opera costumes during the Red Turban and Small Sword Revolts, or why young martial artists might turn to literary characters for divine aid during the Boxer Uprising.

The short sketch of the 1869 performance for the Duke appears to have been the start, rather than the resolution, of Lister’s investigation of the martial arts.  In 1873, in the very first issue of The China Review, Lister redoubled his efforts.  Writing under his own name he provided a “translation” of a script of this same opera that he managed to find in a local bookstall.

Unfortunately, in this case a “direct translation” simply would not do.  Lister wanted to convey to his audience a clear picture of 1) what the Duke had experienced one night in 1869 and 2) how the play had been experienced by its Chinese audience.  Yet when he read the document he did not find anything that Western actors might recognize as a script.  Basic elements like stage direction, a list of characters, or a description of costumes was all missing.  All that he had was a simple libretto to which performers added their own genius, and a large helping of local jokes, on a nightly basis.  Nor would Western audiences be able to grasp the humor without much additional explanation.

Lister set out to produce a “translation” (really a transformation) that would be suitable for a Western audience.  If that meant putting Western idiomatic speech (and song) into the mouths of his Chinese player, he had no regrets.  As he explained in his introduction to the project, only in that way could a Western reader understand the experience of a Chinese audience member.

Did the Chinese actors really sing “Fol-lol” on stage? Absolutely not.  But as Lister notes:


“So, as “Ah” or “Oh” is not a common termination to English melodies of the less instructed classes, and as those classes certainly do incline to fol-lol (or words to that effect) as a refrain, I my stand on fol-lol, I stake my reputation on fol-lol!”


Obviously this declaration was meant for comedic effect. Lister was, after all, translating a farce.  But it also gives us some idea of what Professor Legge was up against.

So how did Lister attempt to describe Chinese boxing to his audience?  By employing the term “the noble art of self-defence” Lister was drawing a very clear equivalence between the Chinese martial arts (which, as we just saw were associated with a great many social functions, including theater and military service), and Western boxing, something that was clearly a sport.  In point of fact, the one function that the southern Chinese martial arts never took on during the 19th century was that of “competitive sport” (understood in the Western sense of the term).  Yet that was how Lister attempted to introduce his audience to the practice.

And yet Lister was aware that Chinese audience members would certainly not interpret the appearance of a boxing lesson on stage in this way.  More work needed to be done to socially situate the reality of the Chinese martial arts for the Western audience.  An additional level of nuance was necessary.  If Lister’s first move was to draw a connection with Western boxing, his second was to complicate the picture.

“Professors of the noble art of self-defence are not uncommon in China, they generally unite to their calling that of quack-doctor.  Selecting some bumpkin in the crowd, the professor will give him leave to aim a blow at him in any manner he likes, and proceed to demonstrate with what ease it may be parried.  This is always done by catching the wrist of the attacking party in some unexpected way, and not improbably the return attack consists of a kick in the stomach, or a blow on the forehead from the sole of the professor’s foot.  Then the pugilist will thump himself on the ribs with an iron rod till the place grows black and blue, and the blows resound like strokes on a drum.  He applies a plaster (his own specialty of course) for a few moments, and when he removes it, in some inscrutable way, bruises and discoloration have vanished, and given place to yellow and dirty skin!” (“A Chinese Farce,” The China Review, Issue 1, 1873).

Lister attempts to clarify the social standing of Chinese boxers by equating them with traveling quack doctors.  Of course this was another institution that existed in both the East and the West.  Nor can he be faulted for his descriptive accuracy.   We have many accounts by both Eastern and Western observers that describe these individuals in almost identical terms.  Lister probably had ample opportunity to observe such performances first hand.

Still, as we delve deeper into his other accounts it is clear that Lister was not capable (or not interested) in challenging the validity of his Western categories of social analysis.  Throughout his writing he continues to struggle with this same question.

What is Chinese boxing?  Is it a form of theater?  Or is it “really” an obsolete military exercise?  Or is it fundamentally a Chinese form of athletics that has been misapplied?

Lister knew about, and had personally observed, many aspects of the Chinese martial arts.  Yet his inability to transcend his inherited categories, or to see these practices as an expression of a transcendent set of social values that might not have any equivalence in the West, should remind us of just how novel these practices were when they were first documented.

As the old saying goes, the eye cannot see what the mind does not know.  Lacking a theoretical understanding of what the Chinese martial arts were, Lister could not grasp their nature even when surrounded by the evidence.  Simple observation was not enough to inspire deep understanding.  Instead he remained trapped within the paradoxes of classification.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Ip Man and the Prostitute: Female Sexuality as a Weapon in Traditional Chinese Martial Culture.