On May 24th I was asked to deliver the closing keynote address for the 2019 Martial Arts Studies meetings at Chapman University. A special note of thanks must be extended to both Andrea Molle and Paul Bowman for organizing such an incredible set of meetings, and hosting this conference in North America for the very first time. Their efforts allowed us to bring together a vibrant group of talented scholars and new faces. What follows is the text of my presentation, accompanied by a selection of slides. Hopefully this will convey something of the spirit of these wonderful meetings.
The Utility of Kung Fu Diplomacy
Every paper begins with a question. Here is mine: Can the spread of a new method of sword combat encourage peace? And what sort of connections might exist between any of the martial arts and politics, or conflict, more generally?
This second question has been the overarching theme of this year’s Martial Arts Studies conference, and as a political scientist, it’s a question that is near to my heart. My professional concerns tend to focus on the arena of international politics and inter-state competition. Within that reified realm we might want to rephrase our question in the following way. What links might exist between globalization of various martial traditions and patterns of international conflict? Might the practice of the East Asian Martial arts, or indeed any fighting system, help to contain the spread of mistrust, suspicion and ultimately inter-state violence? Are these tools that we can look to in an increasingly isolationist and nationalist era?
Even suggesting such a question might seem audacious. We could reasonably ask why the popularizations of certain combat systems, many of which claim to be rooted in specific moments of historical violence, might not strengthen nationalism and lead to increased isolation. That certainly seems possible, and we might even see some support for that in the period prior to WWII. But from a Realist position conflict within the international system is overdetermined, it is the natural order of things, so in some ways such a finding would not be very interesting. It is those unexpected moments when cooperation emerges between potential rivals that are more interesting.
Yet our first question keeps remerging. For instance, we might note that martial artists, individuals like Kano Jigoro or Morihei Ueshiba throughout the modern era have claimed, in all sincerity, that the practice of their arts would promote understanding, and through that a vision of world peace. Can this homage to the “life-giving sword” ever be more than empty rhetoric?
I was reminded of this question while conducting some fieldwork on modern Chinese swordsmanship at a recent workshop. Yu Cheunghui is probably best remembered in the West for his various film appearances. Within the TCMA he is most famous for inventing a taolu, or set, for the archaic double handed Jian, a weapon that was last used in anger by the Chinese military during the Tang dynasty. I have always been interested in his set and so I was thrilled to be invited to a small workshop hosted by a couple of individuals who had studied briefly with Yu.
What was somewhat ironic was that such an event was taking place in Michigan rather than someplace in China. Of course, Yu toured the US and taught his set to a number of Western students, including two of the people whom I was working with. Neither of them spoke Chinese, but they could both recount the details of their time with Yu in great detail. And both told a remarkably similar story. When asked why he had created a somewhat archaic longsword form, Yu noted that he did this to promote global understanding and ultimately world peace. Unable to speak English he decided that he needed to develop a different medium of communication. More specifically, Yu observed that many cultures around the world had some sort of longsword in their history. In his views it was one of the universal notes of the human experience. So Yu believed that if he could revive the Chinese tradition, propagating it both in China and abroad, individuals who might never speak Chinese would still have an ability to understand something of the beauty of Chinese culture, and the nature of Chinese society, through experiencing their martial practices. This was possible, in his view, as Yu’s long sword was a culturally specific manifestation on a universal phenomenon.
Yu is by no means unique in this general conviction. I have run into similar ideas in the Wing Chun community. Nor can we forget that the entire Olympic movement builds strongly on the belief that athletic competition can foster mutual understanding and respect.
Scholars have theorized, probably correctly, that incomplete information and fear about another population or state’s intentions are leading causes of conflict. Trans-national communities of commerce, study and practice are widely seen as creating the sorts of social networks that can both provide mutual understanding and act as an interest group in favor of increased cooperation rather than conflict.
Governments have often sought to encourage networks of trust as part of their larger “public diplomacy” strategy. Public Diplomacy might be defined as a state supported effort to encourage either direct, or socially mediated, communication with the citizens of a target state to inform them or promote certain values, typically in a way that would further the sending state’s long-term strategic objectives. America’s efforts to build free lending libraries within its embassies, or to arrange for global tours of jazz musicians during the Cold War, are often pointed to as classic examples of public diplomacy campaigns. Both efforts were designed to directly engage citizens in other countries and to give them first-hand knowledge of some aspect of American culture, thus generating mutual understanding.
Now, in light of the recent spike in information warfare directed at elections in various countries, I should immediately note that public diplomacy is not the same thing as propaganda, which is typically dealt with through a different body of theory. What is envisioned here is a more open system of exchange and learning that does not presuppose a single “correct answer” that citizens of the target state are expected to be indoctrinated into. Public diplomacy campaigns tend to focus on long and medium range goals, rather than short term issues. Diplomacy has always been about locating and reaching those areas where mutual benefits are possible, and in this respect public diplomacy is not different from its traditional counterparts.
In actual practice there are many types of public diplomacy. In some cases, information campaigns are run out of embassies and are overseen directly by foreign service officers. In other instances, governments sign agreements allowing for educational or cultural exchanges, and then pretty much get out of the way, allowing private actors to speak directly to each other, carrying out the sorts of programs that private actors identify a local demand for. There has been something of a debate in the literature as to which of these two approaches is the most effective (in my opinion it’s clearly the latter), though that is something that I hope to explore in the following cases.
Indeed, Yu Chenghui’s self-financed tour across America to promote the beauty of the Chinese longsword is one possible vision of what public diplomacy can look like. Governments give out the visa’s, and the occasional travel grant, while private actors respond to preexisting demands to form links directly with their counterparts. We might think of this as a horizontal model of public or cultural diplomacy.
One does not have to look hard to find the other possible models of organization. Any search for news stories on the Chinese martial arts will quickly turn up dozens of nearly identical accounts of Wushu tournaments being held in various countries across the global South, inevitably sponsored by either the local Confucius Institute or directly supported by the staff of the local Chinese embassy.
Other stories will focus on martial arts exchange programs where promising local students, often from Africa, are sent to China, or Chinese instructors are brought on tours of regional schools. The English language press releases that chronical these events will inevitably contain quotes from local officials or consular staff explaining the positive social values that the study of the Chinese martial arts creates, and the strength of the transnational networks which are created.
Nor is China the only country interested in promoting their traditional fighting systems as a means of branding themselves within global markets, increasing their reserves of soft power. States like Japan and Korea were quick to note the utility of the martial arts in building up one’s soft power reserves. Both of these states have been perfecting kung fu diplomacy for decades.
Yet how effective can these efforts really be, and what sorts of strategies are most likely to be effective? The PRC’s current efforts are doubly blessed in that Bruce Lee almost single handedly built the sort of name recognition for Kung Fu that most commercial brands can only dream of. Further, China is now a wealthy country that can devote immense resources to promoting its public diplomacy strategy.
But what about less developed states like Indonesia or Brazil? What can they hope to accomplish with fewer resources and perhaps less well-known practices? Can this typeof cultural diplomacy be an effective tool for a wide range of states, or is this something restricted to the Great Powers. And how effective can the martial arts ever be as part of a global branding strategy?
Guoshu and the Olympic Spirit
While China’s current situation might not be the best guide for smaller states contemplating a similar strategy, I think that we will find a surprising amount of insight if we instead examine its first experimentations with these policies back in the 1920s and 1930s, many decades before Bruce Lee would make Kung Fu a household term around the world. Prior to WWII China itself was a developing country in a hostile security environment. The popularity of the Japanese martial arts in the pre-war period suggested to the financially and militarily struggling Nationalist government that it might enjoy more success in shoring up its international position by cultivating the “soft power” of its martial arts and making them part of the state’s public diplomacy strategy.
In order to address these questions, I would like to review two, closely linked, historical cases from this period. These instances are important because they remind us that the notion of cultural or public diplomacy is not a new thing. While the academic literature on these topics only became fashionable after 9/11, these are diplomatic tools that nations have sought to use throughout the modern period, and they need to be studied in a historical as well as a theoretical context.
Second, these two observations struck me as interesting as they contrast with one another in important ways. One campaign focused on images that were largely civil in nature. The other emphasized the military, and militant, associations of the martial arts. One set of images was designed to appeal to the Western middle class and emphasize the modernization within Chinese society, while the other focused attention on its traditionalism. In one case a public campaign was constructed around somewhat problematic images that were already popular in the West, attempting to recast them in a heroic light, while in the other considerable resources were dedicated to shifting foreign perceptions on a much more fundamental level. Lastly, while one of these strategies gained something of a foothold in the West’s public imagination, despite that great expense and effort, the other was quickly forgotten. I expect that even in this room few of us will remember the full story of Wushu’s first appearance in the Olympic games, or why it was that Hitler instructed his Ambassador in China to present special swastika adorned commemorative medals to two of China’s top martial arts authorities in 1936.
Perhaps this, our first Kung Fu Diplomacy case study, must begin by introducing the Western educated Chu Minyi (1884-1946), the most prominent civilian supporter of martial arts diplomacy within the Nationalist government during the 1930s. He believed quite deeply in the necessity of spreading the practice of the martial arts within China, and their fame abroad. In fact, he saw this as a necessity for national survival.
In many ways Chu was the ideal figure for such a mission, despite the fact that he never studied the martial arts in his youth. Like many young men from prominent families in his generation, he was sent abroad to acquire an international education. His global exploration began in Japan (where he studied politics) before he moved on to Belgium (where he earned a degree in medicine) and France. He was eventually awarded a doctorate from the University of Strasburg. Chu was quite comfortable in the West and he possessed a modern, urbane and worldly outlook.
He returned to China and took up permanent residence in 1925. Rather than practicing medicine, the now middle-aged Chu received a variety of educational and political appointments from the government and he would move in and out of government circles for a number of years. Following the Japanese invasion in 1937 Chu Minyi would go on to hold important positions in Wang’s Nanjing puppet government including Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Japan, before being arrested and executed for collaboration in 1946.
I mention all of this as Chu’s Western education and modernist credentials were central to his understanding of the martial arts, and beliefs about what the government should do with them. While living in Europe Chu practiced various types of calisthenics and came to view the global order through the lens of Social Darwinism. These notions pepper his writings. Chu’s publications suggest that he was convinced that the Chinese state could only prosper if its population was strengthened, militarized, and welded into the same sort of “body politic” that was believed to be propelling the fortunes of fascist states like Italy, Germany and Japan.
It should be noted that in the 1930s this view was not rare within China’s physical culture community. While Chinese policy makers were sickened by the Nazi party’s theory of racial hierarchy, Andrew Morris has noted that Chu, in his writings, adopted the same notions of immutable national characteristics which were the foundation of the era’s racial politics. He, and others, sought to use some of the the “scientific methods” of the fascist states in their attempts to strengthen China. Chu’s earlier writings also suggest that he wished to forge closer ties with Japan, a nation that he saw as logical pan-Asian partner in ongoing global struggle.
Still, Chu Minyi was a relative late-comer to the Chinese martial arts community and only began to practice Wu-style taijiquan in middle-age. What he lacked in martial experience he made up in enthusiasm. In his later writings Chu would describe himself as a “Taiji addict.” This was a vivid image at a time when opium and heroin addiction were crippling public health epidemics in cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou. As his many shirtless pictures and frequent public demonstration could attest, Chu kept himself in top physical shape.
A distinguished lineage notwithstanding, Chu’s approach to the martial arts was anything but traditional. His speeches and essays suggest a deep belief that these arts were not so much an instrument for individual improvement, self-defense or excellence. Rather, they could only properly be understood as a communal exercise intended to strengthen the body politic of the Chinese nation as a whole. Properly reformed and framed, they were a means by which China could win respect throughout the global community. Individual martial arts practice was simply a means by which individual citizens might experience and become part of this great work.
Throughout his career Chu would seek to place both “national strengthening” efforts and martial arts on a firm scientific footing. He devised a number of mechanical training devices which could be used in Taijiquan practice when no training partners were available. But none of this innovation would be at all useful unless China could broadcast its newly discovered source of strength to the world. So he was always on the lookout for opportunities to do just that.
In 1930 Chu headed up China’s educational display at the “International Exhibition” in Liège. He brought a number of his Taiji devices so that he could demonstrate their use to a global audience. In doing so he hoped to prove that China had both a unique ancient system of physical education, but one that could be rationalized, taught and reproduced through mechanical and scientific means. In an era when China strove to catch up with the West, he desperately wanted to argue that his nation also had something that to contribute to modernity.
After returning to China in 1931 Chu published a manual on a modernized practiced of his own creation called “tai chi calisthenics.” Andrew Morris notes that in 1933 he had his exercises translated into English and French so that they would be more accessible to a global audience. He even dropped the somewhat intimidating term “tai chi” from their titled and renamed them simply “circular exercises” for the benefit of Western readers. These translated exercises were then presented to a global audience at the 1934 Brussels International Exhibition.
Yet some of Chu’s smaller scale initiatives were even more significant. In 1936 Chu personally led a martial arts demonstration at the International Arts Theater (a Western club) in Shanghai. It was judged to be such a success that a regular Taijiquan class was organized, led by one of Chu’s assistants from the original demonstration. This event is important as it suggests that at least some exhibitions staged during this period were able to convince Western audiences to take up the Chinese martial arts.
The growing enthusiasm for “Chinese boxing,” whipped up by press coverage the fast approaching 1936 Olympic games, may have also inspired the members of the IAT to take a closer look at these practices. English language treaty port newspapers (most notably The China Press) had run numerous stories on the government’s plan to send a martial arts exhibition team to Berlin, and even reported on the details of its selection and training.
The Berlin games were an international public diplomacy opportunity that Chu and the KMT’s foreign ministry simply could not ignore. This would be their best chance to display the vast strides that had been made in modernizing and rationalizing the Chinese martial arts (and by extension, Chinese society) before a truly global audience. The pageantry of the games offered a microcosmic stage on which the competitive reality of global politics played itself out.
China entered this arena with two distinct goals. The first goal was simply to demonstrate that they were a member in good standing within the family of nations. Secondly, figures like Chu were desperate to prove that their national culture had intrinsic value, that it could be reformed for the modern age, much as the Japanese had done with bushido. Chu was well aware that the best way to get your message heard on the global stage is to repeat it. And repeat it he did, loudly and often.
The nine members of the martial exhibition team were selected on May 13th and English language press releases and newspaper articles began to appear as soon as the 14th. By the 15th a feature article in The Chinese Press noted that martial arts squad, along with Ma’s newly selected track and field team, had been invited to a special event hosted by the German diplomatic delegation and local Chinese dignitaries. While the Chinese track and field team dutifully listened to political speeches and watched propaganda films extolling Nazi Germany’s Olympic virtues, the newly formed demonstration squad was expected to entertain the international dignitaries with a martial arts exhibition. Chu narrated the entire event in both Chinese and French, and translation was provided for those speaking other languages. This was only the first of the team’s many martial arts exhibitions designed to entertain and inform crowds about China’s unique athletic prowess.
Chu also sought to burnish the modernist credentials of the Chinese martial arts by employing the latest technology in his public relations campaign. He commissioned a German language film titled “Our Nation’s Ancient Tiyu Styles” to be entered into the 1936 Olympic Sports and Physical Education Film Contest. This project featured Chu personally demonstrating taijiquan, shuttlecock and traditional archery. For good measure he included a fair amount of footage of his own, undeniably “modern,” mechanical training apparatuses.
When the time for the actual exhibition came, Chu ensured that the event would begin with a display of his own system of modernized tai chi calisthenics. As the demonstration progressed more traditional styles and two-person weapon sets were displayed before a capacity crowd. The action was prefaced by a prepared statement on the history and character of Chinese boxing read over both the public address system and broadcast on the radio. Chu Minyi also prepared a 28 page program for the spectators. The taijiquan writer Martin Boedicker noted that the pamphlet contained identical texts written in English, French and German.
This was a very good night for China’s early Kung Fu diplomacy efforts. The assembled crowd of 30,000 spectators greeted the exhibition with enthusiastic applause. The lightning quick performance of the two-person weapons sets made a lasting impression. Hitler was so impressed with one individual’s trident work that he actually refused to shake his hand when awarding a special trophy as he suspected that he may have called on supernatural powers.
With no Olympic veterans among its athletes or coaches, and only limited experience in international competition, China’s actual performance on the playing fields of the 1936 games was lackluster. Yet glowing accounts of its martial arts demonstration quickly made their way into the global press. It should be remembered that in 1936 Germany was still China’s most important economic and military alliance partner. At the time the Nazi regime was supplying the Chinese military with both weapons and advisors to assist in their conflict with the Japanese. Other German experts advised the Chinese government on economic reforms and social policy. Thus, the success of China’s “new army” in the 1930s was thus seen as a litmus test of Germany’s own efforts.
In this way the Nazi regime had a vested interest in China’s first Olympic outing being remembered as a success. Their entirely propagandistic Trans-Oceanic Newswire service spread positive reviews of the martial arts demonstration. As late as 1938, Julius Eigner, a German reporter representing Trans-Oceanic in Shanghai, was producing English language articles on the Chinese martial arts. And in June of 1937 Hitler blessed the success of these efforts when he instructed his ambassador in China to award both Zhang Zhijian and Chu Minyi special Olympic medals in light of their recent accomplishments. At the time it must have seemed that the investment in martial art diplomacy was finally paying off.
The end of the Berlin games did not signal a slowdown for Chu’s or the exhibition team. After the closing ceremony they undertook an extensive public diplomacy tour. The guoshu team demonstrated China’s unique physical culture. They traveled to a variety of German cities as well as Denmark, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Italy. They also visited a number of ports of call in South East Asia on the journey there and back.
The Rise of the Big Sword Troops
Despite the foregoing government led efforts of the 1920s and 1930s, of which Chu’s bid for Olympic fame was only the most visible manifestation, the Chinese martial arts failed to gain any traction in the West. Nor did they ever succeed in establishing a progressive and middle-class image outside of their homeland. The various international tours and publicity campaigns pursued by figures like Chu always seemed to generate enthusiasm in the moment, but they were then quickly forgotten. In any event, the Japanese invasion in 1937 would render much of China’s prior public diplomatic strategy moot.
Yet the Chinese martial arts were not totally forgotten as the globe lumbered towards the Second World War. Rather, the sensational images of “boxers” and soldiers wielding immense blades which had first been popularized in the wake of the Boxer Rebellion reemerged and evolved (with the help of a new generation of journalists and propagandists) to dominate the Western imagination.
Some examples of this wartime transition from civil to martial themes might seem frivolous, yet they speak to the popularity of these images. In 1938 Gum Inc. of Philadelphia began to distribute its now infamous “Horrors of War” trading card series. Whether their shocking portrayals of graphic violence (much of which focused on Japanese atrocities in China) actually succeeded in the stated aim of promoting pacifism among the nation’s youth is debatable. What is not debatable is the immense popularity of this series which, at one point, had more than 100 million cards in circulation in the United States.
One of its most popular images (No. 2) was titled “Chinese Big Sword Troops Resists Jap Forces.” The front of the card showed a pitch battle in which Chinese troops, wielding their signature dadaos, overran a Japanese machine gun nest while being strafed from the air. At a time when the mood of the country was largely isolationist, the back of the card sought to inform American children about the role of “Big Sword Troops” in the battles around Beijing.
By the late 1930s North American adults were also becoming acquainted with the exploits of China’s military martial artists. We often forget that mainstream English language newspapers had been reporting on Chinese “Big Sword Troops” since the late 1920s, and these accounts became more dramatic in wake of Japan’s 1937 advance. China’s foreign language treaty port press also spread the global fame of these generally poorly equipped units when they made improbably heroic stands against the invaders. Later accounts of their (inevitable) setbacks also found their way into the Western press.
There had always been militaristic undercurrents within China’s official martial arts circles during the 1920s-1930s. Yet when the nationalist government and individual reformers attempted to promote the traditional martial arts on the world stage, they tended to focus on civilian practices and solidly middle-class aspirations. No bayonets were thrust in the 1936 Olympic demonstration, and no dadao’s wielding troops were seen in any of the other internal good-will tours that the KMT staged.
Yet it was these images of the dadao (or big sword) that became more prominent in the West during times of upheaval or crisis. On June 7thof 1939 newspapers around the United States distributed a photo showing a female militia leader hoisting her sword against a stark sky. The item’s caption (marked Hong Kong, China) informed readers that this “Chinese Amazon…has achieved fame through her skills with the famous Chinese broadsword against Japanese invaders.”
Such images were all the more potent as they were no longer confined to the headlines or the occasional newswire photograph. Starting in the late 1920s, newsreel footage of Chinese martial artists became increasingly common in both Europe and North America theaters. Unfortunately, many of these films (particularly those that were distributed within the United States) no longer survive as American studios didn’t make much of an effort to preserve these sorts of archives. But the remaining collections (especially those housed in Europe) are sufficient to give us some idea of how the martial arts were being presented to a popular audience.
A few of the surviving films captured images of civilian martial arts demonstrations. A feature from 1937 titled “Traditional Sports Still Enjoy Some Popular Appeal” showcased classic examples of China’s martial art culture while contextualizing it against the rising popularity of Western sports in China. These were the precisely the types of images that Chu Minyi was attempting to capitalize on with his own 1936 entry into the Olympic Film festival.
The dadao, China’s dramatic counterpart to the Japanese katana, seemed made for the silver screen. The civil disorder that accompanied the Northern Expedition in 1928 ensured that images of military police officers and executioners armed with big swords would begin to appear in global theaters.
Tensions with Japan in 1929 brought more images of the Chinese military in Western theaters. In one set of clips, a well-equipped Chinese military unit is shown practicing martial arts drills with pudaos. As the situation worsened in 1933, big sword troops again gained prominence in Western newsreels. One carefully staged recording showed a large group of soldiers performing a martial arts set with their swords. Another newsreel instead focused on a military unit performing a “dadao charge” for the edification of a group of wealthy western tourists who were visiting the great Wall of China.
While visually gripping, these newsreels reinforced certain tendencies that were not entirely compatible with the images that Chu was attempting to promote in the West. Whereas he had emphasized the modernity and potentially universal appeal of the martial arts, these films inevitably dwelt on the threatening, peculiar and strange. While strongly nationalist, and suggesting that Chinese soldiers would not shy away from a fight, they also reinforced a Western tendency to see China as perpetually backwards.
This tension came to a head with America’s entry into the Second World War after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Policy makers in Washington turned to Hollywood to explain the necessity of the coming battles in the Pacific theater to a still reluctant public. Frank Capra’s 1944 “Battle for China” accomplished this by arguing that the values of the Chinese people were essentially the same as those held by Americans. Japan was painted as a common enemy, and as an existential threat to the survival of both China nations. At one point, Capra even showed new recruits in the Chinese military practicing a martial arts routine in between shots of other callisthenic exercises that would be much more familiar in a western context.
More importantly, 1944 also saw the release of Clifton Fadiman’s wartime documentary “Here is China.” While not as visually brilliant as Capra’s “Battle for China,” American audiences may have found this film to be even more memorable. The project was funded by United China Relief, a cooperative organization under the control of Henry Luce, the publisher of Time, Life and Fortune magazines. It should be remembered that Luce had grown up in China and was a longtime supporter of the Nationalist Party’s struggle against both the Japanese and the Communist Party.
Luce’s United China Relief sought to inform the American public about the situation in China and encourage good relations between citizens. Yet its approach to these goals in a wartime environment tended to move beyond education and into the construction of intentionally misleading arguments about both the Chinese and the Japanese situation. Indeed, their effort fell more squarely into the realm of propaganda rather than pure public diplomacy. This tendency was on display in Fadiman’s documentary and could be seen in the brief discussion of youth culture that occurred just prior to the narrator’s discussion of the Japanese invasion.
This scene plays out as we first see images of classroom instruction, followed by a group of smartly dressed young boys in school uniforms going through the complicated movements of a sword routine. The camera lingers on their movements as they execute challenging stances, cuts and turns. Narrating the film Fadiman notes:
“China was building strong minds and strong bodies, aware of the importance to the nation of a vigorous and informed youth. Here is a young fellow who means business.”
The camera then cut to a contrasting shot of university aged youth diving and swimming in a luxurious western style pool. Here the audience was informed that: “The life of young people in the large cities [prior to the Japanese invasion] was much like ours here in America.”
These directly contrasting scenes, viewed widely in America’s wartime theaters, require some unpacking. In some ways Fadiman had finally accomplished what Chu Minyi had never managed. He had turned to physical culture, and the reformed martial arts, to demonstrate that China was a progressive nation that had much in common with the West. Yet Fadiman’s effort reached western audiences on a scale that Chu could only dream of.
Still, not everything about this film was quite as it seemed. Like Capra, Fadiman was acquainted with the technique of parallel editing. He also sought to reframe specific instances of fascist propaganda in an effort to better reach the American public.
The schools seen in this clip may not have been Chinese institutions. The raw footage for this scene was originally circulated as part of a Japanese propaganda film which was subsequently captured by the United States government. That film had noted that the school in question was actually a charity orphanage in Guangzhou run by the Japanese military. Their original narration for the scene was quite different.
“This is an orphanage in Canton for unfortunate children who have lost their parents. They are being raised to become respectable Chinese under the gentle and merciful hands of the Imperial Army. The number of children housed here numbers 240. They commit themselves to study, and they show a determination to rapidly grow into respectable men who will benefit their society. China has traditionally had large numbers of underprivileged children who then turn into delinquents that corrupt society. Under the magnanimous eyes of the Japanese, these deep-seated [tendencies] are now close to being eliminated.”
It is remarkable that by the 1940s neither American or Japanese audiences required any sort of explanation as to what the children were doing on screen. They were familiar enough with Chinese martial arts practice that they were recognizable on sight. Yet both wartime Japan and the United States sought to contest the symbolic meaning of these practices.
The Japanese military sought to justify their occupation of Southern China to a domestic audience by arguing that only they could act as the true guarantors of Chinese culture and social order. In paternalistic tones they assured audiences that only they were capable of bringing progress to China. This political guardianship was visually legitimated by their efforts to ensure that the Chinese martial arts would be properly taught to the next generation.
In the hands of Fadiman this exact same sequence of film was used to emphasize the independent and progressive nature of Chinese society. They had been responsible for ensuring the education of a vigorous youth prior to the Japanese invasion, and the inclusion of the martial arts in the nation’s primary schools suggested to American audiences that the Chinese had been making progress. While the actions in the primary school sequence might initially seem strange, Fadiman’s narration made it quite clear that the fundamental cultural values behind the Chinese martial arts could already be found in any small town in the American Midwest.
The Second World War represents an important inflection point in the West’s engagement with all sorts of Asian fighting traditions. In the case of the Chinese arts, it marked the end of the period of “Kung Fu diplomacy,” in which the Nationalist government sought to use its traditional cultural resources in an effort to build a rapport with the West. Those efforts largely ceased with the onset of Japanese aggression in 1937. Yet that does not mean that the Chinese martial arts were forgotten. Press coverage of big sword troops, and propaganda efforts like those crafted by the Harmon Foundation, United China Relief and other Hollywood directors ensured that Americans continued to be exposed to images of the Chinese martial arts.
Yet in this second, more successful case, it was foreign (American, Japanese and even Germans) actors who defined the image of the Chinese martial arts. They used these practices to further their own policy and fund-raising goals. Some of these efforts normalized the idea of martial arts practice, while others continued to show it as a desperate or backward pursuit. In some cases, as we just saw with the Japanese film of the Guangzhou orphanage, they even discursively contested the social meaning of these practices.
In any event, the nature of the military situation dictated that the voice of the Chinese government would remain largely inaccessibly and beyond the range of American audiences during the late 1930s and 1940s. Still, Fadiman’s treatment of his captured Japanese footage suggests that the efforts of China’s many martial arts reformers had not been totally in vain. A foundation had been established that others would build on. We would see much more of this following the end of the Cultural Revolution and Nixon’s opening to China in the 1970s.
So what have we learned?
For my concluding point I would like to return to our first case, that of Chu’s Olympic efforts, and ask what it suggests about the promise and limitations of cultural diplomacy in the current era. What lessons might current states learn from these early efforts? And what do they suggest about the ability of smaller states to build a distinctive brand on the world stage through public or cultural diplomacy.
Public diplomacy is in some ways a form of political advertising, and it is always easier to sell customers an item that they already want, rather than to attempt to convince them that they should really be wanting something else. Images of heroic “big sword” wielding troops were easier to absorb and repurpose in the 1930s than Chu’s more nuanced points about the fundamentally modern and progressive nature of the Chinese martial arts.
The first of these images probably appealed to a subconscious desire for exotic adventure and danger. Even after writing quite a bit on the subject, I am still unsure as to what sort of visceral desire Chu Minyi’s “Tai Chi Callisthenic” might have appealed to. Certainly, some middle-class Chinese students took to it because of its claims to represent a distinctly Chinese vision of modernity, but that wasn’t an insecurity that needed to be addressed by the sorts of individuals who might travel to Berlin to watch the Olympic games. What they found exciting about the Chinese martial arts was probably something else, something that may have been less immediately useful to the Chinese government.
This brings us to major issue within the literature on Public Diplomacy. Is this exercise best understood as strategy by which officials in one country attempt to speak directly to, and change the values and desires of global consumers? Or should it be understood as diplomacy of and by the people, in which social groups in both countries form networks through the exchange of practices, images and performances that already have some mutual appeal?
One doesn’t have to read far into current newspaper stories to see the Chinese government struggling with this very phenomenon. The Kung Fu Fever that Bruce Lee ignited is still globally present. Indeed, those images continue to generate the first impressions and basic cross-cultural desire that bring most individuals to the Chinese martial arts, making them a potentially useful tools of public diplomacy. Yet sorts of images, values and practices seen within those films, or the folk martial arts schools that spread to the West in the 1970s and 1980s, are often very different from the practices, images and values which the Chinese state so desperately wants to promote in places like Latin America and Africa today. Much of its current Kung Fu Diplomacy seems to be premised on the supplanting of these images and structures with other organizations and values over which it exercises more direct control.
And so, we often find government led efforts competing with, and often failing to best, images that are deemed to be less proper, but which are genuinely organically popular. This suggests that both in the 1930s and today, public diplomacy is most likely to work when it accentuates preexisting market trends that are useful to governments. Yet attempts to treat them as public education campaigns designed to create patterns of cross-cultural desire for goods and practices that no one really wants, tend to be less successful.
One might object to this by saying, “What good is soft power, that unique species of cultural desire that Joseph Nye hypothesized, if it can’t inspire citizens in another country to want to change their fundamental values. Isn’t this what happened when America exported blue jeans and rock and roll around the world in the 1950s and 1960’s.” Or, more on topic, when the Japanese managed to export Judo both in the early 20thcentury and then again in the post-WII period. Why couldn’t Chinese government backed programs do that in the 1930s?
The answer, I think, lies in understanding the limitations of “soft power” as a conceptual framework. This notion maybe a useful way of speaking about the political relevance of cross-cultural desire. Yet within global politics it is very rare for soft power to arise in isolation from more traditional forms of “Hard Power” such as military dominance or economic wealth. So yes, we can understand the global spread of Judo in terms of “soft power,” but we must also remember that this basic cultural desire came from someplace. The first period of spread happened in the wake of Russo-Japanese War, while the second corresponded roughly to the rise of the post-war Japanese Economic Miracle.
China in the 1930s faced a much more difficult situation. It sought to claim some of the cultural appeal of Judo for its own wrestling, boxing and fencing traditions. Yet China lacked Japan’s military strength or economic modernization. Individuals began to study Judo in the early 20thcentury because they were in awe of, or simply a bit afraid of, Japan’s military accomplishments. Yet China simply could not generate that same level of enthusiasm no matter how many demonstrations they staged. After all, why should you pay much attention to the Chinese martial arts when they could do little to stop the Japanese military advance? Questions of modernity aside, who really wants to study an art that isn’t at least a little dangerous? In this instance the Soft Power of cross-cultural desire compliments traditional modes of Hard Power, but it does not replace them.
All of this suggests that minor powers seeking to turn to public diplomacy as an alternative to conventional military, economic or institutional types of power should temper their expectations. These tools are most effective when they encourage the growth of organic networks connecting communities in two countries. Governments can clear the way for this process, but if they become too visibly involved, they risk either imposing a set of values that there is no desire for, which can lead to the end product feeling like unwanted propaganda.
Still, it is clear that in many cases public diplomacy can increase levels of mutual understanding and transnational cooperation. In that way Yu Chenghui’s desires may come true. It is possible that the spread of Kung Fu Diplomacy, and maybe even the emergence of a new vision of the Longsword, to the extent that it succeeded in generating new transnational communities of practice, may become a pathway towards increased global understanding and peace.
“Here is China.” Clifton Fadiman. United China Relief. 1944. 27 Minutes.
If you enjoyed this keynote you might also want to read: The Cultural Translation of Wing Chun: Addition, Deletion, Adoption and Distortion