I have been reviewing every issue of China Reconstructs as part of my ongoing research on how successive governments attempted to use martial arts (and traditional culture more generally) to generate soft power and shape the image of China within the global imagination. These public diplomacy strategies shifted by the decade and I have now worked my way up to the post-1949 era. China Reconstructs is an important source as it was the CCP’s major English language propaganda outlet for much of the Cold War.
In other places I have shied away from the term “propaganda,” noting that public or cultural diplomacy cannot be understood through the lens of information warfare. Nevertheless, the label is definitely warranted in the case of this publication. Only a very narrow, and not entirely intellectually honest, slice of life within China was shown in this magazine. Further, articles and editorials were often selected with an eye towards making the Western democracies look bad. One can understand the genesis and function of China Reconstructs as a continuation of global class warfare by other means. This is totally in keeping with the ideology of the CCP at the time which viewed practically everything, including physical culture and sports, through a revolutionary lens.
The review of this publication is going slowly as there does not seem to be a single overall index or digital search database. While some webpages have scanned a number of issues their collections are still incomplete. As such I have been going through old paper copies a few years at a time in the hopes of getting a better sense of the government discourse during this period. The leading articles in any issue are typically discussions of new industrial projects or the rationalization of agriculture. But a surprising number of articles do touch on sports (which had a regular column) and physical culture.
Throughout the 1950s these include occasional discussions of the martial arts. In other cases a range of martial artists (from old men doing Taijiquan, to Tibetan archers, to Mongolian wresters) are featured in the large color or black and white photographs that are found at the beginning of issues.
As interesting as this material is, it pales in frequency and volume to the coverage of traditional Chinese theater performance and training. Throughout the 1950s practically every issue of China Reconstructs had at least one article or feature discussing some occurrence in the world of opera. Some of these were primarily ideological in nature, discussing the ways that “new plays” might advance the “New China.” Others read like theatrical reviews covering major festivals in which famous actors from the pre-1949 era staged more traditional plays to packed houses in Beijing, Shanghai or Guangzhou. A few articles even went into the technicalities of how set were designed or actors trained during the 1950s. During the 1950s China’s premier English language propaganda organ was obsessed with theater. If the martial arts were seen as a potentially helpful tool for spreading the news about New China, theater was the variety of traditional culture that was actually being promoted the most vigorously.
This brings us to the main topic of today’s discussion. I would like to share the following short article which appeared in the August 1955 issue of China Reconstructs. While various articles published over the course of the decade touched on some aspect of the Chinese martial arts, this one seems to have been tasked with giving Western readers the most comprehensive overview of the subject. It is a nice example of what the Chinese government wanted the world to know about Wushu during that decade.
Obviously there are many points to note. The term Wushu (which did not appear in earlier English language articles) is introduced in this piece. It is also interesting to consider the article’s rather conflicted relationship with the topic of self-defense. clearly there is no need for such skills in a “workers paradise.” Yet the author must also guard against the Western assumption that only Japanese arts have any practical value. Perhaps the most interesting feature of this article is its instance on the close connections between theatrical performances and the traditional martial arts.
This remains a controversial assertion in some quarters and my friend Scott Phillips has done a good job of reviewing the historical process by which the martial arts were rhetorically distanced from theater, religion, and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture during the Republican era. As such, its fascinating to see the two being tied together during the first half of the 1950s. My sense is that at least some of this had to do with the political and social rehabilitation of theater during the early 1950s. Obviously a lot of damage was done to these institutions from a traditional or Western standpoint. But China Reconstructs was full of reminders of how socialism had rescued actors, acrobats and martial artists from the cultural marginality and extreme poverty that feudal society had cursed them with. It seems that as now respectable agents of the state one could advertise and amplify the rather obvious connections between martial arts and theater.
An Ancient Form of Physical Culture
Any early morning, in the parks of Peking and other cities in China, one can see old or middle-aged men going through gymnastics movements—sometimes flowing and dance-like, sometimes sharp and adroit—like those of hand combat. They are practicing wu shu, the ancient Chinese art of self-defense. Originally a part of military and ceremonial training, and of drill for combat with or without weapons, it has long since lost this significance. But it has come down to our day as an element in the training of Chinese actors, dancers and acrobats; also as a recreation and a way of overall body training. Chinese physicians sometimes prescribe it as a form of physical therapy.
Wu Shu, with its many varieties, has a history dating back thousands of years. Ceremonial tournaments are mentioned in the Book of Rites of the Chou dynasty (1066-403 BC). From the Spring and Autumn Annals (722-481 BC) and the literature of the Warring State’s period (403-221 BC), we know that displays of dancing, archery, fencing, wrestling and skills with various weapons were common among the nobility of the time.
The value to health of controlled movement and breathing exercises, which are a part of Wu Shu training, was proclaimed by the ancient philosopher Chuang Tze (circa 275 BC). During the Han dynasty (206 BC-220 AD), the medical genius Hua To originated a system of exercises for convalescent treatment and general physical development. Some of these early exercises were based on the movements of five animals—the tiger, the deer, the bear, the monkey and the bird. They are still used in different forms of “Chinese boxing” or chaun shu, a branch of wu shu, which is still widely popular.
As its Chinese name implies, “Chinese boxing” pertains to fighting with the fists. But though the punch is one means of attack, it also permits striking with the arms, feet or even fingers. In its old form it was a deadly fighting technique that, like the Japanese ju-jitsu, which is derived from it, made skillful use of knowledge of anatomy. Today it has become a system of calisthenics. The coordinated movements in this form, simulating offensive or defensive tactics, are designed to develop various parts of the body and quick reactions of mind and muscle.
In learning the art, the “boxer” first works alone, repeating ad memorizing a wide range of movements. It is not until he has thoroughly mastered them that he begins to practice with an opponent. Since real fights could lead to serious injury, only solos or sparring exhibitions are given in athletic displays.
It is because chuan shu has not been used for real combat for decades, that the idea has currency abroad that it is only shadow boxing, with little practice value for self-defence. This is a mistake. Up to thirty or forty years ago it was customary to stage actual bouts that, like the bloody bare-knuckle boxing matches of eighteenth-century England, often ended in serious injury or death. Such brutal exhibitions, frequently mercenary in character, were a product of the reactionary social system. The best masters of the art did not put them to such uses; their aim was to protect and develop life and health, not destroy it.
Styles of Boxing
Through centuries of development, Chinese boxing has developed many schools and styles, each with its distinctive features and movements.
Traditionally, these styles are grouped into two main schools. The “outer” school stressed the development of strength, speed and powerful action. The “inner” school concentrates on rhythmic motion and the art of relaxation. Teaching the boxer to counter violence with flexibility and resilient strength.
In the “outer” school, the best known system is called Shao Lin. It was introduced in the sixth century by the Abbott Ta Mo of the Shao Lin monastery in Honan province, as an exercise for monks suffering from poor health as a result of their sedentary life. Its basic principles have been applied to other aspects of body-building, and it has now some 170 movements.
In the “inner” school the most widely practiced forms are Hsin Yi and Tai Chi. Hsin Yi boxing develops hair trigger swiftness of reaction in all parts of the body. The tai Chi systems lays stress on the coordination of movement and breathing, and on developing a tough flexibility. Its tactics are to make the opponent defeat himself by getting off balance or wearing himself out, after which the coup de grace is delivered.
The selection, sequence and rhythm of movements in each styles comprise as integrated whole for the achievement of the purpose desired. The “Outer” school gives a predominant place to “imitative boxing”, which is a unique fusion of physical culture with the dance.
In the “Monkey” imitation. For instance, the boxer leaps forward and backward, his body crouched and his knees bent, the weight of his body resting on the toes. By adopting the movements of this animal the boxer develops extraordinary speed and agility. In exhibitions, to led an element of interest and humor, he often copies facial expressions and gestures of the monkey amusing the spectators with all sorts of “monkey tricks.” This style is used in training for the title role of the Monkey King in the famous opera “Sun Wu-kung Sets Heaven in Disorder”, a well-loved incident from the mythological Journey to the West.
“Tiger Boxing”, as its name suggests, teaches lithe crouching and springing.
Besides animal-mimic styles, there is a kind of imitative boxing which mimics the actions of a drunken man. While seemingly off balance, the PR actioner is always in full control of the situation. The apparently limp and uncontrolled movements, which include tumbling and somersaults, conceal a host of feinting and attacking ruses, to the grief of an unwary rival.
Finally there re styles which “re-enact” the famous fighting scenes of history and legend. One of these is known as “Wu Song Breaking his Fetters”. Wu Song, a popular character is the novel Shui Hu (All Men are Brothers), fought and defeated four armed guards who had been bribed to murder him on the way to the place of an unjustly-imposed exile. Since he was handcuffed, he had to use his feet and elbows to overpower his enemies. In imitating his exploits, the boxer locks his hands as if they were chained.
Mien Chian (literally “soft and flexible”) boxing is almost purely a form of Calisthenics , with long slow movements balancing and transitioning from one position to another. It is excellent for the development of controlled strength and poise.
The All-China Athletic Federation has begun to organize a systematic study of all branches of wu shu, including boxing. Thousands of people have taken it up and in Shanghai’s Fushin Park alone there are over 20 instructors, each with a small group of students. Many factories, schools and government offices have wu shu groups, and it is becoming popular in the villages.
Actors and dancers too are showing a keen interest in the revival, because wu shu is one of the historic roots of stage dancing in Chinese Opera.
This old art, with its many modes, provides useful bodily training regardless of age or sex. At the All-China Traditional Sports Tournament in the Tientsin, many titled were carried off by women. The contestants ranged from a boy of eight to an old man of eighty.
Our Contributors (page 32)
TSENG WEI-CHI, Long a physical fitness instructor, was one of the earliest promoters of international style weightlifting in China. He was a referee at the 1953 All-China Tournament of Traditional Sports. He is now working in the Foreign Languages Publishing House, Peking.
Source: China Reconstructs, August 1955, pp. 27-28.