Cross Big Knives, early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.


***Greetings. I am currently hard at work on a few different research projects.  One of these involves quite a bit of thinking (and reading) about the process of “standard setting” in an international context and what implications this might have for understanding the development of martial arts practices and institutions.  On the surface that might sound like a dry topic, but it actually cuts right to quick of so many of the “political” fights that seem to plague martial arts communities today. Hopefully that will be one of the next big topics which we tackle here at Kung Fu Tea. In the mean time, I wanted to repost an essay from a few years ago tacking another core issue in our field, the persistent problem of presentism and the way that it distorts our understanding of the past.  Enjoy!***




I would like to begin today’s post by noting that Joseph Svinth (whom most of you will already know from his many contributions to Martial Arts Studies) really deserves to be listed as a co-author on this piece. Joe was kind enough to bring Thomas Handforth’s many prints to my attention and noted some of the debates that his career as an illustrator inspired.  Further, he suggested that “presentism”, a topic that has been a part of the discussion of Handforth’s illustrations of Chinese life, is one of those central issues that must also be periodically addressed within Chinese martial studies, a position with which I strongly agree.  In short, Joe was the driving force behind today’s post.  Any errors of omission or commission are mine alone.


Archer, early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.



A Quest for Art


Given the physically explosive nature of kung fu, I have always been surprised that these hand combat practices have not generated more in the way of visual art outside the world of film.  Obviously, there have been some notable exceptions.  And I have gone out of my way to showcase vintage photographic images of these practices here at Kung Fu Tea over the years. Still, I cannot help but feel that something is missing.

Perhaps the situation is over-determined.  The kung fu movies of the 1970s certainly gained a huge pop-culture following, but maybe that has been part of the problem.  Perhaps these practices just seem too trivial to be the subject of “serious” art.  Or maybe it is more difficult to translate explosive physical movement into static visual composition than one might think?

Still, my biggest frustration is that the Chinese martial arts are so often portrayed in a remote, mysterious or down-right orientalist way.  And yet all the Chinese martial artists that I have encountered are modern individuals who have integrated these practices into their daily lives.  In attempting to stabilize these practices “exotic” and “mysterious” origins, we lose sight of their lived reality and dynamism.

Plus, I run a blog.  The internet is an unrelentingly visual medium.  The difference between a successful essay and one that no one clicks can come down to something as simple as the choice of cover images.

Still, on a more personal level I want to see something more than just ethnographic accuracy or nice composition in a photograph.  For me, the best martially themed artistic images are interesting precisely because they capture something about the time, place and feeling that prevailed at the moment of creation.  When Joseph Svinth started to email me the images of Chinese life that Thomas Handforth published during the 1930s, I knew that he had come across something special.

A few words of introduction will be helpful.  Handforth was born in Tacoma in 1897 (died 1947) and studied art at the University of Washington before dropping out and moving to New York City.  Eventually he was swept up in the fires of WWI and served with the US Army’s medical and sanitation corps in France.

Like other artistic individuals of his generation he showed no immediate interest in returning to the US.  Handforth lived in Paris for a time and studied at the L’Ecole des Beaux Arts, before moving on to the less traveled places where he would sharpen his artistic vision and establish his reputation as one of the period’s great illustrators.  These other destinations included Africa, Latin America and (most importantly for us) China.  During the late 1920s Handforth began to receive commissions to illustrate children’s picturebooks, though all but one of these early efforts have fallen into obscurity.

In 1931 Handforth’s life changed when he won a Guggenheim Fellowship funding a five year tour across Asia.  Horning reports that after spending two weeks in Beijing he decided that this single city had enough visual richness to keep him busy for years.  He settled down in a traditional home, became a fixture in the city’s gay arts scene, and began to experiment with lithography.

Handforth seemed to be at his best when capturing the views of street life and the common people.  Vibrant marketplaces attracted his attention and a number of his pieces from the period display vignettes of daily life.  Chinese physical culture was a special point of interest.  Many of his most interesting pieces feature wrestlers, acrobats, marketplace performers and “sword dancers.”  After corresponding with Handforth’s surviving family Alexander Lee obtained some his vintage photographs and noted how these images were reworked and developed into his better-known illustrations.

His commercially produced prints from this period typify trends that were sweeping through the worlds of art and graphic design.  Archers (probably strongmen pulling heavy bows as part of a performance) and wrestlers stand against stark, empty, backgrounds.  The result is a heightened sense of visual tension and drama.  The classic conventions of art deco design are employed to further stylize and strengthen the visual form.  No one would look at Handforth’s well muscled figures and call them “The sick men of east Asia.”  Indeed, his work seems to fetishize the link between masculinity and the martial arts.

It is also interesting to note what does not appear in his art.  There is no sign of the modernizing Guoshu or Jingwu influence in his prints.  Rather than recording the rise of rational, middle class, martial arts, Handforth was fascinated by the older traditions that persisted in the era’s marketplaces.  I suspect this is why we see less unarmed boxing (and no female martial artists) in his catalog.  On the other hand, he left future generations many scenes celebrating China’s various wrestling traditions, a topic that receives surprisingly little attention today, even within Martial Arts Studies circles.  He also covered darker aspects of the city’s life, such as the gruesome public executions and beheadings that became increasingly common in Beijing as the political situation deteriorated.


The actual Mei Li, reading her book. Source: KATHLEEN T. HORNING, the Horn Book.


Enter Mei Li


This does not mean that female figures were absent from his art.  Handfroth drew a number of sketches of female acrobats and gymnasts.  And it was one four-year-old girl by the name of Mei Li who was without a doubt responsible for his greatest success as an illustrator.

Kathleen Horning notes that Handforth was rather shy by nature and one wonders whether this was why he decided to settle in a neighborhood in Beijing rather than performing a five-year grand tour of Asia.  Whatever the case, local markets and public spaces provided him with an unending supply of a subjects.  And closer to home a small girl named Mei Li ruled over the courtyard that Horning did much of his sketching in.  Mei seems to have been responsible for lining up some of Handforth’s subjects and translating instructions as to how they were to stand.  His writings indicate that while small in size, the child had a personality that was well suited to management.

A young sword dancer that Handforth produced many studies of. Photo by Handforth. Source:


The same boy, now as a finished fine art print. The photo and finished study give us some idea of Handforths method of interpreting and producing images. Source:

As Handforth’s collection of local friends and models grew he decided to illustrate a story that might plausibly bring them all together in a single place.  As such, he composed a narrative in which the irrepressible Mei Li, with the help of her brother, would sneak off to see and take part in the annual New Year festival.  Of course, this involved breaking a few social conventions for a female from her background and social standing.  Still, the real-life Mei seems to have been only too happy to become the protagonist of such a story.

Handforth was clearly aware of, and attempted to comment on, the changing gender relations in China during the 1920s.  This can be seen in three spots in his short story.  It opens with the translation of a Chinese poem lamenting the uselessness of an unconventional (or possibly any) female child in a traditional home.  Indeed, Mei’s escapades in the festival might be best understood as an elaborate (and pointed) answer to the poems rhetorical question of “what can a girl do?”

Second, while at the festival the young girl has her fortune told and it is revealed that she would one-day rule over of a kingdom.  Such a prediction was clearly not far off the mark for either the real-world Mei or her literary doppelganger.  Handforth’s writings make it clear that he expected great things in the girl’s future.

The problem of gender really comes to a head, however, when Mei returns from the festival, only to be greeted by the home’s Kitchen God.  The family’s deity informs her that the kingdom she is actually destined to rule over is that which has traditionally been assigned to females, the hearth and home.  Mei’s response to this assertion is quizzical.  She accepts the answer, but only up to a point, noting, “It will do for a while, anyway.”

Some modern critics (including Xiaoli Hong) have detected in this a failure of imagination on Handforth’s part, and seen in it a message that was potentially damaging to female children.  Indeed, the fact that the book won the 1939 Caldecott prize, and received critical acclaim in venues such as the NY Times, make the subtle implications of its contents even more important.   Rather than clearly facing and overcoming an unjust barrier, the irrepressible Mei seems to have been stifled by social convention and accepted the norms barring her from participating in public life.

Horning, however, has disputed this reading of the text.   She notes that it is entirely too easy for modern readers and critics to forget what the actual situation in China was like during the 1920s and 1930s.  While this was a period in which modern feminist principals took root, they were not yet firmly established.  Students of Chinese martial studies will already be aware that there was a good deal of push-back on these ideas.  Indeed, the entire thrust of the story shows Mei challenging the attitudes of her time (in a very physical and embodied way) and the community being richer for it.

In a revolutionary situation, rather than focusing on her statement that “It will do…”, the clear implication is that readers should take much more seriously her qualification of “..for a while, anyway.”  Mei is an irrepressible force glimpsed in a moment of radical change.  Indeed, every time we read accounts of female martial artists in the Guoshu or Jingwu movements, it is important to remember that they were commented upon precisely because they seemed to be exceptions and signs of impending social transformation.

The Clinch, early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.


After encountering Horning’s treatment of Mei Li, Xiaoli Hong reevaluated her approach to Handforth’s classic picturebook.  She read it again with a more sophisticated set of theoretical tools and paid special attention to the tension that existed between how events were described in the text and what was actually shown in the illustration (indeed, the story seems to feature a somewhat unreliable narrator).  She concluded:

“Horning’s article also evoked wonderings about whether I applied a presentist lens in my first reading of Mei Li. According to Power (2003), readerly presentism—a reader’s perception that a book written in or about the past is, racist and sexist—is “to a large degree inevitable as readers cannot completely identify and control their own cultural and social conditioning “(p.425). However, it “would be a grievous problem if it in fact denied the integrity of a past era” (p.457). After recollecting my first encounter with Mei Li, I think I imposed my modern beliefs and values onto a past era without going deep into how the social structure of discrimination and oppression against women was (and may still be). Based on stories I read and heard about in contemporary society, I assumed that a female character would triumph over sexism or at least make some life-transforming decisions at the end of the story. My presentist lens precipitated me into a quick yet narrow judgment of the picturebook. Thus, as McClure (1995) argued, “the milieu of the time in which a book is set should be considered for its influence upon the book’s perspective and content” (p.11).


Mongolian Wrestlers, , early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.


Presentism as a Problem in Chinese Martial Studies


This last insight illuminates aspects of not just Mei Li, but Handsford’s larger body of visual art that both spread and commented upon images of Chinese martial culture during the 1930’s.  Indeed, one can think of few points as important to consider within the historical branches of martial arts studies as the ease with which modern readers might slip into a presentist mindset, even without ever recognizing it.  Xiaoli Hong’s warnings regarding the way that we evaluate questions of gender and identity are certainly valid.  Yet the challenges that we face in martial arts studies run deeper.

As I have noted many times before, a presentist bias is built into the very words and concepts that we use to describe these fighting systems.  If we were ask Handsford about the various sorts of wrestlers, boxers, opera singers, sword dancers and “acrobats” he called his friends during the early 1930’s it is likely that he could tell us quite a bit about their individual careers and social worlds.  Yet if we were to instead ask him about China’s “martial artists” he would probably have looked at us in puzzlement.  I don’t think that I have seen that phrase commonly applied to these practices in English until the 1970’s.  Indeed, throughout the 1960’s unwieldy constructions like “Chinese Karate” and “Chinese Boxing” remained much more common in the popular literature.

This semantic confusion has real consequences when we talk about the history of these arts.  I think that one of the things which supports the erroneous notion that the TCMA were unknown in the West prior to Bruce Lee is the simple fact that they went under different names.  A review of pre-WWII newspapers turns up no references to the “Chinese martial arts,” but accounts of sword dancers, “national boxers,” jugglers, wrestlers and acrobats are not all that uncommon.  What was missing was our modern vocabulary, and the notion that all of these practices occupied the same conceptual space or represented the same (usually essentialist) notions of national identity.

Indeed, the core idea behind the phrase “Chinese martial arts” is that these practices are structurally similar to, and in a sense function interchangeablely with, a wide range of other practices including the Japanese, Filipino, Brazilian and (most recently) Historic European “martial arts.”   I do not wish to reopen the debate on how, or whether, we should define the martial arts in the final paragraphs of this essay.  Instead I would like to revisit a more basic argument which I made in the opening pages of The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (SUNY, 2015). Imprecision is our enemy when we talk about the development of these fighting systems.  Many individuals claim to be interested in the deep history of these traditions, yet what actually concerns them are those practices and identities that they personally enact on a weekly basis.  Almost by definition, those are a product of the modern world.  They would be better explored by a sociologist, anthropologist or film studies scholar than a historian of the Ming dynasty.

Further, the very words and concepts that we use create problems when we do delve into the late imperial period.  The problem with the term “martial art” is that everyone has an intuitive, pop-culture inflected, understanding of what this entails.  And that turns out to be a very difficult thing to set aside.


Chinese Wrestlers and Manager, , early 1930s. By Thomas Handforth. Source: Oregon State University Digital Collections.


You say the words “martial art” and it is almost impossible not to imagine commercial schools with detailed curriculums and grading structures, standardized uniforms, and well established organizational bodies.  Of course, many of these traits entered American society rather recently via the boom of interest in the Japanese martial arts in the post-WWII period.  Because the basic social and economic structure of village life in China during the 18th and 19th century was quite different from anything that the average suburbanite might imagine, the modes of social organization seen in their hand combat systems must have been equally different as well.  For instance, one cannot simply “pay” for instruction when living in a non-monetized environment.  Nor do most of us spend a lot of time thinking about the clan militia system as an important diffuser of martial knowledge in southern China.

Of course, “different” is not the same as “unintelligible.”  The danger of approaching these discussions with a presentist lens is that we will always see a few facts, here and there, that we seem to recognize.  Those can be creatively combined and used to imagine in the past the same sort of institutions and interests that we have in the present.  In a perverse way, it is actually easier to read highly modern and inappropriate models of the martial arts onto Chinese history as we go farther back in time as there is just less surviving evidence to remind us of how wrong headed this exercise is.  That certain elements of the Chinese government’s “public diplomacy” machine actively promote self-orientalizing narratives for both political and economic reasons further complicates the situation.

Good martial arts history does not necessarily start with the excavation of the fighting systems themselves.  Rather, it takes seriously the understanding that we are engaged in the process of social history.  One begins by reconstructing the social, cultural, political and economic environment.  Only then can you really begin to make valid determinations as to how the remaining pieces of the puzzle fit together.

And yet some element of the Chinese martial arts themselves seem resistant to this process.  The earliest references that we have (such as the enigmatic Maiden of Yue, or the writings of General Qijiguang in the 16th century) already describe the martial arts (as they existed then) as an intrusion of an “ancient,” half-forgotten and primordial, past into the present.  To paraphrase a famous story, when looking for the roots of these fighting systems, it really does appear to be invented traditions, all the way down.

This strain of romanticism was very much alive in the 1930s.  As the KMT linked the development of the martial arts to the promotion of Chinese nationalism, elements of the primordialist discourse surrounding the TCMA were strengthened.  All of that is evident in Handforth’s art.  Note for instance the swordsman wearing what appears to be a traditional Qing era bamboo helmet.  And yet the dadao that he manipulates were quite a popular weapon during the 1930s.  When looking at the heroic, art-deco inspired, treatment of the human form, it is clear that Handforth’s work captured the spirit of the age.

Yes, the references to a romanticized past are still present.  But it is the modern visual aesthetic that really gives his work artistic merit.  Likewise, Mei Li may face social opposition, yet in her declaration to the Kitchen God we hear the promise of a different world to come.

At its best martial arts history can do something similar.  Rather than simply passing on invented traditions or reviewing the development of specific techniques, when fully understood it offers a clear view of the social fault-lines that defined the lives of its practitioners, as well as a better understanding of how they sought to exercise their agency moving forward.  To understand the past we must first accept that it was someone else’s present.  In doing so we reject the temptation to simply read ourselves into it.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: What is a lineage? Rethinking our (Dangerous) Relationship with History