A Thought Experiment
I suspect that anyone with even a passing interest in Chinese martial arts history has already compiled a mental list of the past masters and personalities that they would most like to visit on the off chance that anyone offered them a ride in a time machine. My own list gets updated with some frequency. Still, any student of the more practical aspects of science fiction will quickly point out that such a journey would not be without a degree of peril. Spoken dialects change rapidly and much of southern China struggled with continual outbreaks of the bubonic plague from roughly the middle part of the 19th century to the start of the 1950s. One suspects that real time travel would not be for the faint of heart.
Nor can we forget the old adage that you should never meet your heroes. In the case of 19th century martial art masters, the meaning behind this particular pearl of wisdom is clear. Everyone who steps out of a time machine looks a bit odd and most of these guys knew how to use a sword. The real question then is, how do we avoid being stabbed while conducting our first person historical research? Answering that riddle would be easier if we knew a bit more about how individuals in late-Qing and Republic era China ended up on the wrong side of a blade in the first place.
It turns out that this is a multifaceted subject. Various martial arts schools perpetuate their own bodies of folklore which often include accounts of improbable leitai victories and narrow escapes from mysterious killers. While some of these stories are wild exaggerations, others might be true. But in their present (typically decontextualized) format, both varieties tell us more about the communities that pass on these traditions than the individuals who may have experienced them.
It goes without saying that one of the best ways to get run through with a blade would be to join the military. We have already looked at many examples of military swordsmanship here at Kung Fu Tea ranging for militia-based hudiedao training during the Opium Wars to the role of the dadao during WWII. But military training isn’t the same as the sorts of martial arts systems that most of us are most concerned with. While clearly related, the traditional Chinese martial arts were expected to function primarily in the civil realm. Indeed, patterns of crime and social violence in this area posed their own tactical challenges.
Then there is the question of dueling. Looking at both the oral traditions and physical techniques seen in many Chinese Jian (straight sword) systems, it seems possible that whoever was using these weapons was interested in a type of “first blood” engagement that favored quick cuts to exposed targets such as the weapon hand or head. There is a gentlemanly mystique that follows the jian, and figures such as General Li Jinglin (aka, the Sword Saint) are said to have crossed blades with countless other fencers as they honed their skills in friendly contests.
I have always wondered about this last group of stories. While the idea of gentlemanly duels is often tossed about, there is not much period evidence that supports the notion that large numbers of people were engaged in any sort of full contact weapons training in the late Qing and early Republic periods. Certainly there are some notable exceptions including public events at later guoshu tournaments. But most accounts, such as that left to us by Huang Wenshu in his preface to The Essentials of Wudang Sword (Shanghai, 1931), strongly suggest that very few martial artists in China were studying the sword (specifically the jian) as a truly combative weapon in the 1910s and 1920s. Further, one of the points of commonality in the accounts of many of the individuals who took up the quest for more realistic weapons training (see for example Huang Wenshu, Tang Hao and even Li Jinglin) was prolonged exposure to Japanese sword training methods or exponents. The development of modern Kendo during the Meiji period really reshaped the Japanese martial arts and served as a model for some martial arts reformers in China as well. So how much evidence can we find for frequent duels using sharp blades, or any other sort of training weapons, between Chinese experts prior to this?
One suspects that the afore mentioned time machine might actually be necessary to definitively answer this question. Ideally such engagements would result in only minor injuries and relatively elite individuals have all sorts of means of keeping their affairs out of the public view. Still, playing with swords is dangerous, tempers can flare, and things rarely go entirely to plan. Serious injuries, or even deaths, were not unheard of in boxing matches between martial artists, and those typically left a record in both the court system and newspapers. Might we find evidence for gentlemanly duels in these same types of sources?
A quick spin through the foreign language newspapers that I can access remotely during the COVID lockdown failed to generate any articles that would suggest that lots of these sorts of engagements were happening between 1890 and 1940. That was all the more interesting as these same papers featured surprisingly frequent articles on serious duels being fought in countries like France, Italy and Argentina throughout the 1910s-1930s. Yet their reporters, always eager for a lurid story, never seemed to detect anything similar happening in China.
This is not to say that no one in China got stabbed with a sword. A quick survey of these same papers suggested that one’s chance of getting run through in Beijing or Shanghai was quite a bit higher than New York or even Paris (where fencing was a practical obsession). So how were swords being deployed and what sorts of injuries did they create?
To answer these questions, I pulled together a quick, and entirely unscientific, survey of newspaper articles from the 1880s to the 1930s. I then selected the following four articles because they were too interesting not to share. Each one of them also represents a type of civilian violence where swords continued to be feared. In the first of these we find large scale clashes between highly organized competing gangs of salt smugglers during the late 19th century. Such groups were an important source of employment for itinerant martial artists. Indeed, many southern Chinese martial arts styles still tell stories about “wandering salt merchants” who are forced to rely on their kung fu to survive. Our first article offers a glimpse into the reality behind these myths.
The second article reads like something from a true crime blog. Most people killed or injured with swords during this period were unarmed (at least this was true in the newspaper stories I reviewed). Unsurprisingly, domestic and personal disputes were also commonly implicated in these killings. The second story in our set features both elements.
The third story examines another case in which a sword was deployed against multiple unarmed victims. But in this case the violence is a byproduct of imperialism. Here we have an escalating conflict between rival Russian and Chinese factions. Our fourth, and final, account examines an armed conflict between two different gangs attempting (unsuccessfully) to collect on a gambling debt.
None of these articles give us much detail about the weapons that were used. However, each of them reports the exact pattern of injuries that various blades could inflict. These were, in a word, horrific.
We are left with something of a paradox. While there isn’t much independent evidence of full contact combative sword training among most of China’s civil martial artists during the early republic period, these blades continued to be implicated in many acts of violence. I suspect that some of the assailants in these articles were trained (the salt smugglers and the Russian soldiers), while others were not (the gambling gangs). But even in unskilled hands swords and sabers remained unpredictable and deadly weapons well into the 20th century.
Fight Between Smugglers
The North-China Herald
April 29, 1881(p. 422, Paragraph breaks added)
Two Chinamen arrived in Shanghai on Tuesday from Chapoo, suffering from serious injuries received in a conflict amongst smugglers on Saturday last. They came to the Gutzlaff Hospital, in the Ningpo Road. Which is under the superintendence of Dr. Jamieson, at the expense of a wealthy Chinaman at Chapoo, who had heard of the reputation of the Hospital and of the skill of Western medical practitioners. Their injuries, which are of a revolting nature, have been inflicted with utmost barbarity, the detailed circumstances in connection which we have been unable to ascertain.
But from the information we have received from the questions put to the men themselves, it would appear that Chapoo, which is a town on the Hangchow Bay, is the rendezvous of gangs of salt smugglers, who ply their vocation openly and are too strong for the interference of the local mandarins and their soldiers. When not interfered with, they are kindly disposed to the populace and well behaved, fraternizing even with the soldiers of the yamens. But they occasionally have faction fights among themselves, which are desperate affrays, and it was on one of these occasions that the two men now in the Gutzlaff Hospital were injured.
One gang attempted to steal salt belonging to another gang. A fight ensued, in which the crews of between forty and fifty boats, armed with all descriptions of deadly weapons,–guns, swords, daggers, knives, &c., took part. The men in the Hospital state that their fleet consisted of sixteen boats, and that they were attacked by thirty other boats and beaten, and that their salt and boats were taken from them.
It is evident that the battle was fierce and bloody, as, during the melee, they saw two or three of their comrades when were killed fall into the water, and their own injuries tend to show that what they stated is no exaggeration. One of them is not expected to recover, his skull being fractured in three places, and he has cuts and stabs on his face, arms, shoulders, and feet. The other, though his injuries are less dangerous, is hacked about in a similar manner, having three cuts on his head, and the bone of his left arm laid bare; three of his fingers are broken on his left hand, and on his right; he has a stab in the side and also one of the buttocks. They escaped before the fight was over, and meeting with the well-to-do Chinaman who had heard of the Gutzlaff Hospital, he provided him with money to come and be treated there.
Brutal Murder in Hongkew
The North-China Herald
June 27, 1923 (p. 238)
The Police are investigating a somewhat lurid crime which occurred in Tiendong Road early on Tuesday morning. In response to a message received at the Hongkew Police Station shortly after 8 o’clock, Det.-Inspector Gabbut and Det.-Sgt. Tinkler visited the scene, and in an alleyway found the body of a Chinese, wrapped in a Japanese bed quilt, and secured with rope around the neck and ankles. There were bloodstains upon the door of a house a few yards away.
Under a bed, also blood-stained, they found an old-fashioned Chinese sword, with blood upon it not yet dry. Examinations of the body of the deceased shows that he had been stabbed and slashed with the sword. In grappling with his assailant, he had gripped the blade which, being drawn through his hands, cut the fingers to the bone. Some of the deceased’s clothes had been hidden, and a hasty attempt made to remove traced of blood inside and outside the house.
Upon Further investigation, the police learned that [the] deceased, a wharf coolie, was the husband of an amah [maid] employed by Japanese residing at this address. The amah has disappeared, as also has a private ricsha coolie in the same employ, and the police are searching for both. The Japanese occupants of the house have stated that they neither saw nor heard anything of the affair.
Street Fight in Wayside: Eleven Chinese Injured by Sabre Wielding by Russian Ex-Soldier
The North-China Herald
May 8, 1926 (pg. 255)
As the results of a temporary feud between groups of Russians and Chinese in the Wayside district on Monday evening, 11 Chinese were injured by sword wounds, the weapon being handled by an ex-Russian army man, who it is presumed ran amok. Three Chinese have sustained such serious injuries, that they are expected to die. Of the original 11, seven, including one woman were detained in hospital, while the others were treated and sent home.
From official reports it would seem that a Russian lad went to a bicycle shop in the vicinity at 10 o’clock to obtain the use of a machine. Because of the late hour the Chinese proprietor refused to rent the bicycle. Other Russians attempted to force the issue. A free for all fight ensured, which appeared to end in a draw.
Then, as it would seem from the information available, the Chinese gathered near an alleyway off Dent Road, where a colony of Russians live. Arguments followed and another fight took place. During the scuffle one Gregory Bournatoff got badly beaten. Eye witnesses state that he went to his home, got his military sabre, returned and began to lay about with the result that three Chinese were probably fatally wounded and eight others more or less damaged by cuts and blows.
When police became aware of the situation—the Chinese were brought to the station in small and larger groups—Det.-Sgt. Repas [name partially illegible] made investigations.
Not finding his man at home at 1753 Tongshan Road, he ascertained that he was gone to the French Concession. With the assistance of the French Police, he arrested his man in a house at 852 Rue Amiral Bayl. In aking a search of Bournatoff’s room, he found a sabre hidden in the mattress of the bed with fresh blood-stains at the hilt. Bournatoff appeared at the Mixed Court. He was remanded for a week.
Sword Killer to Serve 15 Years in Jail
The China Press
April 22, 1937 (p. 14)
Zung Yue-sung [name partially illegible], age 24, unemployed and the man who killed a fellow human on Haitang [illegible] Road during the course of a brawl Tuesday night, April 6, without realizing just what he had done, was sentenced to 15 years imprisonment by the First Special District Court yesterday morning. Six others who were arrested with him and who stood trials for allegedly being concerned in the assault, were found not guilty. Four were ordered released while the other two are being held in custody pending the usual period of appeal.
The victim of the attack, apparently staged by Zung and several of his cronies, was Zung Hai-tsai. The latter had become involved with his eventual slayer over a gambling debt amounting to one dollar. The pair got their gangs together and proceeded to fight it out with swords, axes and daggers on Haining Road near Miller Road about 10 o’clock in the event [sic].
Sub-Inspector Dow, of the Hong-kew Station, happened along when the scrap was getting hot. Just as he was preparing to go into action himself and try to break up the affair, a man staggered up to him swinging a sword wildly. Inspector Dow pushed him away and then noticed that blood was spurting from a spot near the man’s neck.
He tried to staunch the flow of blood with his handkerchief, an effort which failed. In the meantime, he saw a man with a wound on his cheek and arrested him. The man proved to be the slayer. Dow blew his police whistle and constables, arriving on the scene, stopped the scrap and arrested six other men.
An ambulance was called for the wounded man and he died before he reached the hospital. It was eventually brought to court that the accused Zung had been responsible for the slaying. He states that he did not know that he had killed anyone. He had been slashing with his sword and might have struck several people, he declared. At least he was not confining his attentions to any one man.
If you enjoyed this trip through time you might also want to read: Spreading the Gospel of Kung Fu: Print Media and the Popularization of Wing Chun.