When is a nunchuck, perhaps the most iconic weapon to emerge from Okinawan karate, not a nunchuck? When it is being held by Bruce Lee. At least that is what the discussion in my Facebook feed seemed to suggest.
Looking for something as dynamic and visually distinctive as himself, Lee selected the nunchuck as his signature onscreen weapon, using them to great effect in Enter the Dragon. Nor do we need to search too far to discover where Lee learned about them. As the most biographized Chinese martial artist of all time, the consensus is that Dan Inosanto, who at the time was Lee’s student, introduced him to the weapon.
Nor is there any suggestion that Lee had much prior experience with them. The only weapons taught in Wing Chun, his mother art, are the long pole and the butterfly swords. But never having completed the system, he wasn’t formally trained in them either. Mathew Polly suggests that the only weapons that Lee had deep personal experience with while in Hong Kong were the Italian stilettos that proved to be so popular with teenagers around the world during the 1950s.
Still, as this FB conversation became slightly strident, assertions were made that Bruce Lee was using nunchucks not for their cinemographic value, but because they are a native Chinese weapon. Lee was just reminding the world of that fact and reclaiming them for their rightful homeland. Readers of this blog will be well aware that this is an old and popular type of argument that predates Bruce Lee by decades. During the 1920s there was an actual cottage industry in Shanghai dedicated to producing English language newspaper articles about how China, and not Japan, was the “true home of Judo.” Still, to back up the assertion one individual produced a picture. It was an old black and white photograph of a group of Chinese martial artists standing in front of racks of traditional weapons. And on the end there was a pair of Lian Ting (連梃, lit. ‘Linked staff’).
Enter the Lian Ting
Of course, most casual observers would not see these two weapons as being the same thing. Both clearly derive from flails. A wide variety of flails have been used by Chinese soldiers and martial artists over the centuries and a few may have been similar to nunchucks. Most of them were not.
As a general rule Chinese flails tend to be notably longer (many reaching two meters in total length) and asymmetric in design. Typically, the handle of this weapon was about three times the length of the head. They often featured longer chains than one might otherwise expect. These differences would impact the ways in which such weapons could be used and the sorts of missions that it could undertake.
The very earliest discussions of flails in the Tongdian seems to identify them as point defense weapons wielded by women attempting to defend a wall. The broad sweeping attacks of flails would reappear at various points in Chinese history as a reliable way to defend structures or discourage adventurous individuals from climbing ladders. But it was probably as a cavalry weapon that they became best known within Chinese military circles. It is interesting to note that their origin as a mounted weapon is often attributed to nomadic invaders from the north, individuals who almost by definition didn’t do much intensive agriculture and would not have had a lot of experience threshing grain. I am still mulling over that fact, but perhaps some caution is in order before assuming that all flail traditions share a common root in grain agriculture. Whatever their ultimate origin, flails traveled far as a mounted weapon and also became a part of Korean military practice. Their use was further commemorated in Korean military encyclopedias.
During the Qing dynasty flails were again seen in military regulations. According to this very helpful essay at the Great Ming Military blog these, weapons tended to shrink in size, but retained their asymmetric nature. They were also more likely to be issued in pairs. Yet in the following period flails became something of a rarity in the Chinese martial arts and (aside from their cousins, the nunchucks and three sectional staff) are less commonly encountered today.
Ted Mancuso has a theory regarding their fading. He notes that with the shift from rural to urban cultural values that accompanied the rapid modernization (and urbanization) of the Republic period, all sorts of weapons with an agricultural past were quietly forgotten. Like so much else about the traditional arts, physical education reformers didn’t see them as being well suited to pulling the Chinese martial arts into the future.
That theory certainly makes sense, and it fits with other things that we have already observed regarding the elimination of “superstition” and “backwardness” from Chinese hand combat practices during the period. This is probably enough to explain why Bruce Lee was introduced to nunchucks in America rather than the Lian Ting (or its Cantonese equivalent) in Hong Kong.
Nevertheless, I recently ran across a couple of accounts that might suggest that flails were less forgotten during the early Republic era than one might have expected. The first of these comes in the form of a report on a martial arts demonstration given at a four day athletic meet in Nanking in 1919. The author, C. A. Siler, was an important YMCA figure in China and helped to organize the event. While the YMCA typically promoted events such as basketball, track and field or calisthenics, some of its directors enthusiastically embraced the notion that the Chinese martial arts could become an aspect of the nation’s reformed physical education movement (which was a major topic of popular conversation at the time). As such, it is unlikely that Siler was unfamiliar with demonstrations of Chinese boxing or fencing. But what did surprise him was to see a “fencing” demonstration using only flails.
Athletics in Nanking, China
In April there was held at Nanking under the auspices of the Educational Association of Kiangsu Province perhaps the largest track meet that has ever been held in China. The management of the meet was turned over to the Y.M.C.A., and we took all the students in the physical training school to Nanking for the four day meet. There was a track and field met in which individual points were kept. There was competition by schools, with the requirement that at least ten percent of the entire student body of each school must enter. The events in this competition were standing broad jump, fifty-yard dash, shot put, and high jump. The school making the highest average won the event.
There were prizes for the best drilled military company, and for the best exhibition of Chinese fencing. There was competition for girl’s schools in calisthenics, aesthetic dancing, and basketball. In addition, a Chinese athletic club put on an exhibition of heavy apparatus work that was wonderful to witness.
One of the most fascinating events to us Americans was the sham duels fought with a sort of flail like our grandfathers used for flailing wheat. The flail is a round club about five feet long and 1 ½ inches thick, with a piece of chain a foot long fastened firmly to the end, and a second club a foot long and 1 ½ inches thick fastened to the other end of the chain. This is a very popular form of fencing with the Chinese, and requires an immense amount of skill. The duels are sometimes single pairs, sometimes between groups of four or six, and sometimes consist of a single man swinging his flail. During the duel, a perfect rhythm is kept up by the clanking of the chains, the striking of the clubs on the ground, or by two opponents striking their clubs together.
Of course, there is no actual combat, for if anyone during the whole four days was actually struck, he did not allow it to be known. The entire combat is worked out beforehand in minutest detail, and then practices for weeks before the exhibition. It is wonderful in the extreme to see those flails and chains flying promiscuously about at a terrific speed past a man’s head, and then between his legs, then missing his nose by a fraction of an inch, then as he jumps over it passing under his feet with a force that would have broken both legs if he had jumped a fraction of a second too early or two late.
C.A. Siler, M.D. in Physical Training, April 1919, pp. 813-814.
Sadly, this short account doesn’t provide us with much information about the school that staged this particular demonstration, but clearly someone had made the promotion of the Lian Ting a special project. It’s also interesting to note that Siler provides a pretty detailed description of the weapons used in the event. These are not the smaller paired flails that were popularized during the Qing dynasty. Instead they had more in common with the substantial two-handed weapons that dominated the Ming. As we will see in a moment, that fact may be suggestive.
Siler was not the only American observer to leave an account of Chinese flails from this period. In 1913 Berthold Laufer published an essay on “The History of Chain Mail and Ring Mail” for the Anthropological series of Chicago’s Field Museum. While discussing armor in China he includes the following aside noting that he too had observed at least one flail demonstration, and had even procured an example of this weapon for the American Museum’s collection.
“An offensive weapon deserves attention in this connection, because a chain is utilized in it, and its invention is ascribed by the Chinese to a foreign tribe. This is the t’ie lien kia (No. 1132) pang, a weapon consisting for two wooden cudgels, the one nearly three times the length of the other, their upped ends being connected by a chain (Fig 40). The longer cudgel is round, and is held by its lower end in the hands of he soldier; the shorter one is square cut, and provided at the end with a sharp point of iron intended to hit the enemy’s head. The chain allowing it ample freedom of motion, it is swung around in a wide circle, this making it a fierce and powerful weapon. The Wu pei chi, illustrating and describing this instrument (Ch. 104, p.14) states that its original home was among the Si Jung (Western Jung), one of the general designations for the Turkish and Tibetan tribes living north-west from China; that they made use of it, while riding on horseback, in fighting Chinese infantry, and that the Chinese soldier learned to handle it, and are more clever at it than the Jung. Its shape is compared to a threshing flail; and it may even have been derived from this implement, with which it agrees in mechanical principal. It is still known in Peking under the name of “Threshing flail,” and is used in fencing. I saw this sport practiced in 1902, and at that time secured a specimen for the American Museum, New York. In the time of the Emperor K’ien-lung it was still employed in the Chinese army.”
Berthold Laufer. 1913. “History of Chain Mail and Ring Mail.” Anthropological Series. Field Museum of Natural History. Publication 169. Chicago. 249-251.
All of this suggests that a number of flail traditions did survive to the Qing/Republic transition period, and it remained a common enough weapon that one can find multiple English language accounts of its use with only minimal searching. Further, at least one martial arts reformer, working in conjunction with the YMCA was training his students to fence with flails. So why did the weapon continue to decline in popularity?
I think that there is much to be said for Ted Mancuso’s suggestion. The perception of rural roots probably did not help. But it is also interesting to note that the flail in its various forms existed not as a dual use technology, but as a fairly specialized military weapon with specific roles. It might also be the case that as mounted soldiers adopted the handgun and individuals responsible for siege defense upgraded to the heavy machine gun, there simply wasn’t much of a demand for these weapons in performing those same jobs. The weapons that seemed to become most popular during the Republic period were those that could be easily repurposed to the realm of recreational practice and individual study (such as the jian, dao and short spear). Thus, it may be significant that in our account of a modern flail demonstration, the martial artists in question did not use the more recent Qing era cavalry weapons. They instead opted for something resembling the older Ming infantry weapon.
Getting back to Nunchucks
None of this really answers our initial questions about Bruce Lee and his affinity for nunchucks. By the last phase of his career Lee seems to have transcended the nationalism (Chinese arts vs. Japanese arts) that so motivated him as a younger instructor in the United States. He wasn’t concerned about the seeming cultural inconsistency of a Chinese martial artist picking up a weapon most people associate with a Japanese art. One imagines that to the extent that he viewed this choice through an ideological rather than an aesthetic lens, the ability of the individual to transcend culturally constructed frames of “proper” and “improper” modes of fighting was probably what motivated him. The perceived “Japaneseness” of the weapon may have struck him as a feature and not a bug. Nor is it much of a surprise that in the current era some fans are very eager to reclaim both Bruce Lee and his Nunchuks for China. After all, if we are going to argue (quite incorrectly) that Lee created MMA in Hong Kong, why not claim that China is the home of the Okinawan nunchuck?
Perhaps we should resist that temptation as the Lian Ting, and all of China’s many other flails, are interesting weapons in their own right. Each one of them has a specific history and its own story to tell. Sometimes this story emerges in the circumstances of its creation. In other cases, the most interesting twists can be found in their disappearance. And every once in a while, we might uncover something inspirational in their rediscovery.
If you enjoyed these thoughts you might also want to read: Prof. Maofu Gong Discusses the State of Folk Wushu and Martial Arts Studies in China Today