A guard house, Canton, China, illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXV, no 655, June 17, 1882.

Photography vs Illustration

There was just some discussion on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook page of a 19th century illustration generously shared by Scott M. Rodell.  The scene showed half a dozen soldiers relaxing at a guard house or yamen in Guangzhou. Published in The Graphic in 1882, the scene seems to contain much of the true to life detail that the magazine staked its reputation on. Scott noted that one could see a see a rack of polearms in the print, as well as large painted rattan shield. One individual could be seen wearing either a piadao (single short knife meant to be used with a shield) or possibly a set of hudiedao (butterfly swords). Of course, even in the very best print it would probably be impossible to determine exactly what weapon hung in that scabbard.

Given my background in Wing Chun, and curiosity about an early written account I encountered suggesting that the Green Standard Army in Guangzhou had hudiedao in their inventory, the image immediately caught my attention. The fact that both the shield and knife wielding soldier were leaning against the same structure suggest that perhaps we should understand it as piadao. That was a weapon carried by all sorts of soldiers. Still, one can hope.

Yet now we find ourselves in the murky realm of discerning authorial intent rather than just identifying weapons.  What did the artist behind this piece intend for us to take away? It is an interesting question as The Graphic was well known for hiring socially liberal artists to fill its pages with often complex images designed to promote a progressive, or at least humanizing, view of the world.

I say “often” as a few different genres of illustrations would appear in The Graphic over the years.  In addition to the afore mentioned images we also find the sorts of romantic portrayals of colonial and military adventures that one would expect in a publication of this period. There are comic illustrations as well, my favorite being an account of a rather primitive round of golf on the Scottish Highlands.

All of which is to say, the illustrations in The Graphic (or any other period news magazine) are not photographs and need to be understood in terms of a particular publication’s editorial policy. In this case I think we can all be certain that the British reading public did not have strong opinions on the question of hudiedao vs. piadao. They would have noted what was shown was far from a modern and efficient military.  In truth, by the 1880s the Chinese Army utilized many rifles (or rifled muskets) and other firearms. This more modern hardware seems to make infrequent appearances in period illustrations. Nevertheless, they are certainly more common than pole-arms in vintage photos of actual Chinese military units during the last couple of decades of the Qing.


A group of Western trained Qing dynasty soldiers in China during the later 1860s. The use of Western military advisors was increasingly common throughout this period. Source: Wikimedia.


Beyond that, the reading population would likely have noted something else.  These were scenes of a military at leisure. The soldiers can be seen smoking, chatting or playing games, all under the supervision of a small alter in the courtyard wall.  They are not, however, patrolling, training or keeping the peace.

Given that this composition is almost surely an artistic creation after the fact, one suspects that this is not a coincidence.  19th century Western readers tended to see Chinese men as effeminate and poorly suited to martial pursuits. Further, one of the main complaints of period travelogues was that their soldiers were indolent and lazy. Rather than marching in industrious straight lines and polishing boots like their British and French counterparts, they were always in their barracks smoking and gambling. I never visited 19th century Canton so I really can’t say way whether this stereotyped image had a grain of truth behind it. Yet we should not be surprised to find the notion being replicated in a period illustration in a popular magazine.

All of which is to say, an illustration isn’t a photograph.  And maybe that is a good thing. Photographers are just as much artists as illustrators, and their editors must also respond to market trends and pressures. Yet there might be a tendency to accept photos at face value, whereas we remember that prints in 19th century magazines require a fair degree of cultural interpretation.  Perhaps if this had been a photograph, I would be one step closer to finding solid proof of the existence of hudiedao in military use in Guangzhu. But what else would I actually know?

It is likely that much of how that photograph is interpreted would remain a matter of projection, just as late 19th century British readers were likely projecting their stereotyped views of Chinese masculinity onto figures in the guard-house illustration.  We thus find ourselves in the rather odd position that detailed photos might, in some cases, convey less useful information than fanciful artistic renderings. When faced with a photo I mostly see what I think I already understand about the scene.  But in looking at a vintage engraving, I remember to ask critical questions about how a specific audience, in a particular time and place, would have understood it, and how those attitudes shaped public perception of Chinese martial arts for decades to come.


Chinese Military Exercises. The Graphic. Volume XV , No 379, March 3 1877. Note the title of the image and description.


Chinese Military Exercises

All of this bring us to main subject of today’s essay. The previous print was not the only portrayal of Chinese soldiers to grace the pages of The Graphic. A little earlier, in 1877, the magazine printed another item titled “Chinese Military Exercises.” Once again, the artwork betrayed no hint that many soldiers were armed with rifles by this point. Those were the arms that brought an end to the Taiping Rebellion and everyone knew that there was no going back after that cataclysmic event.  Rather, what we have are four vignettes of individuals performing what most readers would now identify as “traditional Chinese martial arts.”  On the top we see two individuals going through a choreographed spear routine.  On the bottom left an individual performs an unarmed taolu.  In the center a group of soldiers practice forming a shield. Finally one individual at the far right can be seen wielding a set of twin hook swords against “an imaginary enemy.”

The question then emerges, how would a 19th century reader have understood these assorted images? The term “martial art” would not enter general circulation as an English language catch all phrase for traditional Asian combative practice for close to a century after this image was published. In the late 19th and early 20th century there was no single universally accepted terms for these practices in Western publications. Period authors speak of Chinese boxing, pugilism, gymnastics, sword dancing, assaults at arms, national boxing, physical culture and even juggling when attempting to describe behaviors that readers today would immediately understand as “martial arts.” Incidentally, the term “Kung Fu” first begins to appear in English language treaty-port newspaper articles during the 1920s as part of the Jingwu Associations efforts to standardize and popularize the image of the Chinese martial arts in the West, though at the time it failed to catch on.

A common assumption in the literature is that prior to Bruce Lee individuals in the West had never heard of the Chinese martial arts.  This isn’t exactly true. From yellow peril novels centering on nefarious boxers in the 1910s through New York Times profiles of the fading glory of traditional boxing after WWII, Americans had actually heard a surprising amount about Chinese martial artists. Still, they lacked was two things.  First, they had no overarching conceptual framework allowing them to sort and aggregate these facts into a coherent understanding.  Second, there wasn’t much cross-cultural desire to do so as (unlike the Japanese) Westerners saw Chinese people as uninterested in military pursuits and thus poor models of martial virtue.  All of this would change during the Asian wars of the mid twentieth century. Leaping into public consciousness at the end of the Vietnam War, and during a period of growing interest in counter-cultural movements, Lee was well positioned to take advantage of the erosion of this second barrier. The term Kung Fu, which had failed to catch on 50 years earlier, would quickly become a household word.

Those attempting to do archival research should add “military exercises” to our growing list of search terms, and students of Martial Arts Studies should ask how 19th century readers  would have understood it. From a strictly visual perspective, I find it fascinating that three of the four vignettes in this print featured individuals wearing military uniforms. We have numerous accounts of military demonstrations from the 1870s-1930s all indicating that (their growing stores of modern weaponry notwithstanding), when local governments staged military reviews it was often the more traditional cold weapons that were featured. It is thus not outlandish that a Western newspaper correspondent might witness one of these events and report on it under the title “military exhibition.”


An original photograph (probably 1920s or 1930s) showing a marketplace martial arts demonstration. Note the Shuang Gau led by the man on the left. Source: The private collection of Benjamin Judkins.

Still, I personally suspect that this reading of the term is a bit too narrow. I need to do some additional media searches over the coming weeks, but the last figure in this collection is important. He is the only one not wearing a military uniform. Further, both period accounts and even vintage photos, suggest that hook swords were a commonly encountered weapon in marketplace demonstrations around China. Unlike the paidao or even the hudiedao, there is no hint that these were ever used by military units. As such, this appears to be an image of a purely civilian martial artists. While the Western reading public may have missed much of the cultural nuance in any photo or illustration, surely anyone who looked at this would realize that one of the “military” figures was actually a civilian.

We are thus left with an interesting paradox. The “military exercises” described in this illustration do not include most of what the Chinese military actually did during the 1880s. Nor do they describe a type of activity that is confined to military personal. Instead, it seems to be a type of easily identifiable physical culture often (though not always) involving weapons, open to both civilian and military practitioners. Lacking any urgent necessity in a period in which firearms ruled the battlefield, such activities would likely have been understood by Western readers as essentially recreational in nature. The entire montage may even have been assembled to further reinforce Western stereotypes of China’s indolent, backwards and lazy soldiers.

In short, the real value of this print may lay not in its visual portrayal of the Chinese fighting arts, but rather in how it attempted to classify them. The term “military exercises” seems to foreshadow the later stabilization of “martial arts” in the Western imagination.  Once again, the most interesting question is not what they hint about practice in China, but rather how these things were being understood by a quickly growing Western middle-class audience.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Advance of the Tigers Through Western Eyes.