The Significance of the Red Spears

If one were to ask a group of history students what the most successful Chinese hand combat movement of the early 20thcentury was, my bet is that the conversation would turn into a debate over the relative popularity of the Jingwu and Guoshu philosophies. There are, in point of fact, many ways to measure relevance. If we are mostly concerned with influence on the present, it is hard not to see the long shadow of the Jingwu Association on the commercialization of these styles, or Guoshu’s influence on the development of the current Wushu program.

Still, if we were to consider a more historical perspective, asking instead which movement revealed the true character of traditional martial culture in the 1920s or 1930s, one wonders whether something else might rise to the top. Afterall, both Jingwu and Guoshu were aggressively middle class and modernist organizations centered in China’s urban areas.  The Jingwu Association never penetrated into the countryside and the success of the Central Guoshu Institute was tied primarily to which regions of China were controlled by KMT factions loyal Chiang Kai-shek. One suspects that historians fixate on these two groups not because they were the most popular at the time, but rather, they were the ones who left a lot of easily accessible newspapers, journal articles, photographs and other publications.

It probably doesn’t hurt that they were also promoting a rationalized and commercial vision of the Chinese martial arts that is pretty compatible with how these systems are currently viewed in the West. Yet during the 1920s the majority of people who studied some form of traditional combat were not educated and urban middle-class residents. They were often illiterate peasants in the countryside.  Rather than boxing and physical fitness, they seem to have been primarily interested in weapons training.  Rather than being patriotic hobbyists, they were young men pressed into village militias by their landlords or family elders, usually in pursuit of a distinctly local agenda. Nor did they engage in the modernizing and scientific rhetoric that colored elite martial publications during the 1920s-1930s. Instead they openly cultivated numerous magical practices designed to make one invulnerable to weapons on the battlefield.

Of course, I am speaking of the Red Spears and other related groups who occupied much of Northern China from the Warlord era until the Communist forces pacified the countryside’s “counter-revolutionaries” during the early 1950s.  Whereas the Jingwu movement may have counted its membership in the thousands or tens of thousands, the Red Spears were numbered in the millions. These loosely organized regional groups and schools, typically led by a group of local landowners and the outside instructors and ritual masters whom they hired, were by far the most successful martial arts movement of the first half of the 20th century.

Discussions of the Republic era tend to neglect the Red Spears for two reasons. First, and most importantly, they never produced the type of rich documentary record that something like the Jingwu Association did.  This is not to say that there are no records. We have interrogation reports, newspaper accounts, memoirs and some intelligence documents. Yet these overwhelming poor, mostly illiterate, martial artists did not go out of their way to produce bi-weekly newsletters, or to give systematic interviews to foreign language journalists, in the same way that the professional public relations officers of the Jingwu Association did.

To make matters worse, the Red Spears were always the strongest in relatively rural areas that were suspicious (with good reason) of outside interference. The notable pro-urban sentiment that emerged during the Republic period made it easy to ignore such “backwards” groups. That tendency was reinforced by their full-throated embrace of magical charms and (sometimes vicious) political conflicts at a time when urban martial arts reformers were positioning themselves as detached guardians of a secular and rational vision of China’s past that was entirely compatible with Western notions of modernity. That fig leaf fell away quickly when one traveled into the dusty countryside, which is probably why most modernist reformers chose to decry the dangers of “superstition” and “parochialism” from the safety of their apartments in Shanghai, Guangzhou or Nanjing. 

Nevertheless, we commit a category error when we accept this as a story of “traditional culture” vs modernity. The Red Spears were in no way backward looking luddites or xenophobes. Unlike the earlier Yihi Boxers they don’t seem to have had a fundamental issue with Western individuals or technology. Rather, they were responding to the tremors of global politics, economic dislocation, domestic reforms and imperialism. What we really see in this contest is actually two competing understandings of what role martial arts should play in local communities, as well as differing visions of how local society should relate to the modern Chinese state. The Red Spears understood martial arts as a means of resisting the unjust demands of the center, where as statist reformers used the Guoshu and later Wushu systems to support and advance their extractive policies.

This is not to say that either of these ways of understanding, or practicing, martial arts is a priori invalid from a practical point of view. Rather, scholars get into trouble when attempting to craft a single narrative about what was happening within the Chinese hand combat community during the first half of the 20th century. This was an incredibly diverse, vibrant and confused time with strong trends each moving in different directions.  For every Jingwu instructor trained in Shanghai, dozens (maybe hundreds) of Red Spear teachers took to the plains of Henan, armed with an arsenal of cold weapon and invincibility charms. Yet despite these great numbers, we still do not have a rich documentary record of their training methods or goals.

As such, I would like to introduce a new source to the conversation.  The following newspaper article was written by Normal D. Hanwell for the China Weekly Review in 1939.  Hanwell, a Political Scientist, had graduated from UCLA and traveled to China to complete his doctoral research on local government.  The American Political Science Association lists him as having completed a dissertation in 1940, but I am not sure if he ever had a chance to formally graduate.  Sadly, Hanwell died of a cardiac infection in 1941. To the extent that he is remembered today, it is for a series of newspaper and magazine articles that he wrote for Edgar Snow. His description of the Communist Army was one of the best early pieces produced by a Western observer.

Given his background, it is not surprising that Hanwell would have realized the importance of the Red Spears as China entered the Second World War. The following article is basically a White Paper laying out the conditions under which these groups might be recruited and organized to aid in the resistance to the Japanese occupation.  That first requires a detailed discussion of what they were and their place in the northern countryside. 

Hanwell was neither a martial artist nor an anthropologist.  As such he doesn’t spend much time on the martial training or ritual practices of these groups. Instead, he draws on his own scholarly background to produce a surprisingly even-handed political and economic analysis of the movement. This piece should definitely be read in conjunction with other period descriptions and Tai Hsuan-chih book, The Red Spears, 1916-1949, translated by Ronald Suleski (University of Michigan, 1985). Still, it is a welcome addition as it speaks directly to the social, political and military significance of rural martial artist in China during the late 1930s. 



Background and Doings of China’s Red Spears

By Norman D. Hanwell (Asia Magazine)

The China Weekly Review, August 19, 1939. Page 381


Secret societies have been the backbone of every revolutionary movement in China, past or present.  Today, under stress of war, this time-honored institution is undergoing major changes; and a gradual breaking away from feudal characteristics is taking place.

Peasant secret societies, such as the Red Spears, Yellow School, Heavenly Gate, Yellow Sand, Old Gold and others too numerous to mention, have taken part in battles along the Tientsin-Pukow Railway, along the Hwai River, and in many other vital areas.  Having formerly participated in self-defense operations against petty bandits and disbanded soldiers, they have now turned to aiding the struggle for national liberation. Since they lack political leadership, they sometimes continue their harassing defensive activities. The Japanese military have occasionally been successful in buying over some leaders. In August, 1938, the Peking Chronical carried a statement to the effect that fifteen hundred Red Spears in Shanshi had surrendered, twelve of their delegates having come to a Japanese garrison and signed a “document of consignment for fifteen hundred Red Spear partisans.” In contrast to this, the general tendency has been increased resistance in the societies already active.  The combination of previously oppressive conditions and the disrupting effects of invasion have left the peasants no other outlet than that of organized resistance.

China’s Secret Societies

Few Westerners have been able to learn much at the first hand of China’s existing secret societies.  Even those who over the years culled bits from their Chinese friends have not made their results generally available. But Chinese, naturally better qualified to investigate these indigenous organizations, have been studying them in the belief that they can play as vital role in the current national resistance as they have in the past.

It is the result of a number of these studies, published in Chinese by investigators of quite different political backgrounds, which enable me to essay the following analysis and sketch briefly the background and present activities of secret societies, with particular emphasis on the Red Spears.

China’s first secret society is said to have been founded in the period of the Three Kingdoms (220-265), by the Chinese heroes Liu Pei, Kuan Yu and Cheng Fei, paralleling the Knights of King Arthur’s Round Table in English folklore.  Some Chinese secret societies have been personal, some religious, others political, and still others a combination of all three. Religious societies, which grew up during the periods of religious persecution which Taoism, Buddhism and Nestorianism suffered from time to time, carried on their activities under ground.  With the passing of religious persecutions, the purely religious secret society has become less prevalent; yet elements of the religious do adhere to modern secret societies even though they be primarily political in character.

 There is little doubt that the principal cause for the growth of these organizations in China is the extreme difficulty and uncertainty of life in a heavily populated country, devastated unceasingly by flood, drought, epidemic and civil war, the latter itself a manifestation of the excessive over-population.  Under such conditions the struggle for existence is so great that the isolated individual counts for very little.  Alone he would shortly succumb in his efforts to maintain himself.  Hence the axiom “Union makes strength,” as a French observer aptly points out, “assumes in China a value unknown anywhere else to a like degree.” This innate tendency of the Chinese to associate is actually an absolute necessity.

The immediate origin of a political society was generally misrule and oppression, not primarily an attachment for some previously Chinese dynasty, as is so often claimed. This theory is confirmed by the activities of existing societies and their prevalence in areas notorious for the oppressive conditions existing there.  The profession of an attachment to a dynasty may play a part in rallying some to the standards of the society, but it is more likely a form of ritual for maintaining the cohesion of the group than any sincere desire to place a descendent of a former dynasty in power. Indeed a more probably development than this would be an attempt of the society’s own leader to usurp the power and authority of the government, as was the case with the Taiping leaders of the past century.

Taiping Origins

The Taipings were themselves organized as a secret society, and their ability to continue in active rebellion for more than ten years is indicative of the strength arising from their association.  With their defeat, however, they broke up into countless separate secret societies.

On which grew to great strength over large areas was the Ko Lao Hui, literally the “Elder Brother Society,” which remains powerful today. It is particularly strong in western and north western China, and reports have even come from the eastern province of Shantung of the presence of related societies of the Elder Brother. In the 1911 Revolution which overthrew the Manchu Dynasty, this Elder Brother Society played a vital role part: in Szechwan, for example, its leaders were appealed to for assistance in opposing the government soldiers.

An idea of the confused organization of some Chinese societies may be gained from the conflicting actions Elder Brother society members following the inauguration of a new provincial government Szechwan at that time.  Feeling themselves left out in the division of offices, the secret societies, together with some of the leading members of the local militia, began making exorbitant demands.  A section of the Elder Brother Society troops “were no better than robbers,” in the belief of one Chinese historian, and they joined in looting expeditions which accumulated so much in one day that is was named the “day of looting.” However, one of the leaders of the Society was prevailed upon to take his troops into the region of looting, where he captured all of the looters he could find and promptly beheaded them. Incidentally, it was a picked body of these Elder Brothers Society Troops that was responsible for the leading of foreign residents there to a place of safety.

Feudal Characteristics

A number of studies of local administration in Szechwan made only a few years ago state that district heads there are concurrently leaders of the Elder Brother Society, thus indicating a certain feudalistic character in its organization in that province. In contrast Edgar Snow is responsible for the statement that Ho Lung, well known as the “Red” Robin Hood of China, is a member of the Elder Brother Society with the highest degrees, and that it is claimed that “he can go unarmed into any village of the country, announce himself to the Ko Lao Hui, and form an army.” That there are certain equalitarian ideas within the secret organizations is indicated by the following section of a secret society ritual quoted by a contemporary Chinese historian”

“The Supreme Being charged us to destroy the evil contrast between crushing poverty and excessive luxury. Father Heaven and Mother Earth had never given to the few the right to abuse, for their own satisfaction, the properties of millions…The sun with is radiant face, the Earth with its treasures, the world with its joys, are a common good that must be taken back out of the hands of the few, in order that they may be universally enjoyed by the millions.”

China’s political development is closely linked with secret societies and a large proportion of her leaders belong to them.  Special studies have been made of Dr. Sun Yat-sen’s use of such societies, a number of which he joined.  John C. DeKorne says that “The Kuomintang stands on the shoulders of the secret societies of the past; there being thus a certain parallelism between the Kuomintang and the Tai’P’ings of the last century…It also finds it necessary to lean heavily on the secret societies of the present.” T’ang Leang-li, historian of the Kuomintang Revolution claims that “without the activities of the secret societies the Republican Revolution would never have materialized.”



Chiang Used Them

There are consistent reports that both Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek utilized certain secret societies powerful in the Yangtze Valley, in particular the Ch’ing Pang and Hung Pang (Green Gang and Red Gang, respectively), for building and maintaining their hold on the region. The distinction between these societies, or “gangs”—for they do contain less reputable elements—and other secret societies in China lies partly in the fact that they are made up of boatmen and tradesmen, rather than peasants. The Green Gang and the Red Gang are said to have been formed by the boatmen of the river and Grand Canal at a time when the operation of the government’s salt monopoly threatened them with unemployment. DeKorene refers to the allegation that the leaders of these gang live in a French Concession and are well known to the officials. “One of them,” he adds, “maintains a fortress-like castle on one of the hills comprising the Mokanshan Range near Hangchow, and is escorted by an armed guard wherever he goes.  He looks like a meek, benevolent old scholar, and it’s hard to believe the stories one hears of his prowess and that of his organization in racketeering.”

THE RED SPEAR SOCIETY (Hung-Ch’iang Hui), with which we are mostly concerned, is a more elemental society, an organization whose fundamental purpose is and has been that of self-protection.  Along with other societies, it has grown particularly in the period of stress and strain which so fill China’s history. And today, when China is passing through one of the most intense of such periods. The Red Spears flourish as never before. They opposed outside invasion by the Mongols, they resisted the government of the Manchus on many occasions. And have resisted the various onslaughts of foreign imperialism.  Back in 1925, during one of the periodic civil wars, they reacted strongly against the military conscription that was becoming commonplace in China’s villages. Feng Yu-hsiang, so called Christian General of China, cooperated with them in 1926-1927 and sent men to organize them.  Most military leaders have been unable to make use of them, since one of the primary aims of the society is resistance to military oppression. In general, their only tasks have been to oppose harsh and oppressive taxes, all to prevalent in rural china, to fend off bandits and to protect their homes.

Recruited from Peasants

By far the greater part of the Red Spears are recruited from China’s peasants. Though they include owners, part-owners and tenants, most are farm laborers, who form the lowest economic unit in China’s present economy. In addition one finds a few rural handworkers and market clerks.

In some sections of China, South Honan, for example, the Red Spears form what might be literally translated as the “Red School.” Leadership is vested in the Hsuch Tung, the School Managers, under whom there are the Chiao-shih, or teachers, who are the lecturing officers. These leaders, teachers and managers each have followers or disciples numbering from hundreds to groups large enough to be counted by ten thousands.  All of the disciples are taught to consider that their teachers are “omnipotent and holy,” and that they are to be obeyed absolutely. 

Leadership of the Red Spears may be divided into two categories. By far the larger group is made up of the wealthy local landlords, gentry with both money and power, who, because they possess relatively large portions of land, have many tenants subject to them.  Whenever there are bandits present in the locality, the landlord, as a School Manager, calls together his tenants, as member of the Red Spears, and passes out arms to them in order that they may aid in the defense of his holdings. With the return of more normal peaceful conditions, the arms are restored to the landlord’s keeping.  It behooves such a landlord to cooperate with the Red Spear Society because of its anti-bandit policy which helps to protect his possessions.  Yet there is reason for him to fear that it might sometimes act to the advantage of the peasants, most of whom have no possessions of any consequence, and resist, not only political and military extraction, but also the arbitrary extractions of the landlord himself. Many such landlords exist on rents and income from loans, both of which are customarily expensive.  The landlord, therefore, cooperates with two organizations often antagonistic in character and attitude: he works with the Red Spears of his own market-town or locality for resistance to banditry and official excesses, and he cooperates with his fellow landlords and rich peasants to prevent the realization of any of the peasants’ demands at his expense.

A Popular Leader

Other Red Spear leaders are of direct peasant stock. They are not elected by the peasants, but, having demonstrated their courage, their generosity, their friendliness and vigor, they have come to be looked up to as leaders of the Society. A tribute to one of these leaders by a critical Chinese student may give some indication of the type. In Southern Honan there is one Ch’en Hsien-ming (whose name many be written differently in various places because he cannot himself write it!) who is much beloved and trusted by the peasantry of the region. This thirty-year-old peasant leader at one time was, in a small way, a landowner, possessing from eight to ten mu of land. Because of his love for his friends, which led to his supporting them, he sold his small piece of land and now is in the position of so many Chinese peasants—to translate the colorful description of this Chinese investigator—a man “burning under the sun, breathing the heavy wind, sweat running down his back, tilling another man’s land, a tenant.” On one occasion the magistrate of Ch’en’s district, wishing to rally the peasants to resist Japan, went with his personal bodyguard to have an interview with Ch’en, but Ch’en, having heard of his coming, did not remain. Later, after the followers of the magistrate had explained the purpose in view, a meeting was arranged. Ch’en, though willing to resist Japan to the end, refused to accept any official position, since he was distrustful of official policy. In the course of the meeting there were whispers on the part of some of his followers to the effect that he had sold them out, but upon its conclusions it was clear that he still belonged as he did before to the mass of peasants. This incident is illustrative of the very unhealthy, though unfortunately justifiable, suspicion of local officialdom by the Chinese peasantry.

Through the customs of the Red School probably differ from locality to locality and naturally the secret part of their program is difficult to confirm, since no outsider is permitted to attend, there are descriptions by Chinese in print. In some sectors members of the Red School “got to school” in a temple each evening. Arriving with their red-tasseled spears. Reaching the School Hall they come before the incense altar common to all Chinese Temples, bare their backs and kneel to listen to one their leaders lecture. Following this, each one breaths deeply and beats his breast, ending with the shouting of the slogan “Chi Kung lai yeh!”—a phrase difficult to translate. Perhaps it might be compared to “The gods be with us!” a short incantation from which strength may be obtained. Out of this process some of the Red Spears are convinced of their invincibility in battle and immunity to death therein.

The Type of Training

Certain persons profess to find in this type of training some scientific basis. For example, the regular evening attendance, the listening to lectures and the sitting in meditation are good training, they claim, for the development of the quality of serenity or tranquility.  The practice of holding the breath and beating the breast is excellent for developing the lungs. The crying out of the slogans is declared to be good training for breath control. Whether we accept any of these “scientific” values or not, we must admit that there are psychological advantages to be obtained from these practices. The peasant convinces himself of his own ability to undertake certain tasks, and his conviction inevitably increases his effectiveness.

A recently made investigation of the White Spear Society of Anhwei Province, an area now under Japanese occupation, reports that the superstitious “Chu kung lai yeh!” has been replaced by slogans more appropriate to present activities. Among these are “Kill the Eastern Sea Devils”—that is, the Japanese—and “Kill the Traitors”—that is, those Chinese cooperating with the Japanese.

BECAUSE THE SPEARS are extremely powerful in many sections, they must be given official considerations. One magistrate, finding that government orders were not reaching particular district where the Red School was particularly powerful, decided upon the use of force, a “military solution.” He went to the locality with the district Pao-an Tui (Peace Preservation Corps), and upon his arrival was able to call together a great many Red Spear members. Then, guided by developing events, he restrained the Pao-an Tui from firing a single shot. Instead he lectured the listening members, urging them to improve their locality, and appointed two of the landlord leaders of Red Spears to official positions as leaders of the local Self-Defense Corps. Immediately the situation became quiet and government orders were thenceforth carried into execution.

On the other hand, when the local government pursues uncooperative, wrong-headed tactics, the reaction is quite different.  There have been occasions when groups of Red Spears, misunderstanding certain government activities, have organized resistance even to the extent of taking up arms. In April, 1935, for example, the Tientsin Ta Kung Pao reported an armed uprising instigated by the Red Spear Society in the region of Suchow (the scene of major fighting early in the current warfare), against the land registration then being carried out. The land to be registered—land seized and occupied by the peasants—was located in the old bed of the Yellow River and hence was not in the land registers. The occupants apparently were fearful that the registration was to be followed by additional taxes. Armed with guns and red-tasseled spears, they attacked the police, and not until after the village office had been destroyed, was the uprising quelled.

Conflicts in Hopei

Another interesting conflict between the Red Spears and the local government was taking place periodically in 1934 and 1935 in southern Hopei, where nothing but crude salt could be produced on account of the nature of the soil. Salt has for long years been one of the main sources of tax income for China’s governments; and the salt-farming peasants of this region, organized in the self-protective Red Spears, were constantly clashing with the Salt Police. On the one hand there was the demand of the government for the unpaid tax, on the other the claim of the peasants that they had to make a living. A more intelligent approach to the problem was undertaken by some government officials who, through the digging of artesian wells in the area, were apparently able to improve the soil sufficiently to enable the peasants to raise cotton. Thus the constant clashes were ended.

Considering the strength and weakness of the Red Spears reveals how at times the one develops out of the other. Their greatest strength is in naturally that of umbers and wide-spread organization—for, although they are not strongly centralized, but merely regional organizations with local leaders, they are able to cooperate in protecting identical interests. On the other hand, out of this same greatness of numbers arises a weakness—a loose organization likely to result in confusion.


Red Spears’ Courage

The courage of Red Spear disciples is well known. They no doubt compose many of the “dare-to-die” units which from time to time pepper dispatches from the war fronts of China. To some extent counteracting this undeniable courage, however, is the general lack of planning behind it, which dissipate its effects.

The loyalty of the members to their leaders and their willingness to follow them under all conditions are another source of strength, at least as concerns their mobilization for action. But the prospect of a “teacher” leading his followers down the wrong road, the “road of death,” is ever present. As has happened on a number of occasions during the present hostilities, such a teacher may “sell out” to the enemy, taking his followers with him. Any action by a minority to remain faithful to their original aims of self-protection would thereupon lead to internal conflict, weakening the Spears as a defensive force.

Aside from a few savage, ambitious individuals, by far the largest group of Red Spears are passive in nature. Like most Chinese peasants they have developed a fatalistic attitude involving general acceptance of existing conditions, even contentment with their lot. This attitude of tolerance has much to recommend it, particularly in a world so full of the reverse, of a baseless intolerance of minorities innocent of any fault save that of their mere existence. In China, however, this tolerance seems to have been carried too far. Not until a condition has become absolutely impossible will the Chinese peasants strike back, and then more often in a disorganized than in an organized manner. Of late, however, efforts on the part of those politically more intelligent are beginning to show results. Indeed, an awakening from passivity may be one of the favorable results of the war in China. Under the pressure of war, it has become possible for peasant organizations to be developed on a much grander scale than before. This has been realized by some Red Spear groups, who have asked that experienced organizers be sent to help improve develop their own organizations.

Primitive Armament

THE ARMS EQUIPMENT of the Red Spears, although perhaps not adequate, is quite large in quantity. It is of an inferior type—old rifles, many of them locally made, and the more primitive Red Spears and big swords. It is of course impossible to estimate the number of weapons with any exactness. In one district of southern Honan one estimate claims for the Spears some ten thousand rifles. The source of these rifles are varied: some are purchased, as indicated earlier, by landlords, others are gathered in the course of fighting after thy have been abandoned by fleeing soldiers, and other are purchased locally, from the small arsenals. In the south Honan district referred to, rifles can be purchased for 10 Chinese dollars.

Despite the present admitted weakness, the potentialities of China’s great secret societies are so enormous that it is small wonder if leader of groups now active in the struggle for political control in China are anxious to exploit the great man power they represent. Various ways and means of cooperating with them have been considered. In almost every case there is the realization that their primary grievance must first be satisfied. Most important among the suggested methods are the following: No new taxes must be imposed. All unjust exactions or forced contributions must be stopped. Absolute discipline of all military forces, national, police or local militia, must be enforced. No mistreatment of local inhabitants is to be tolerated. The military and police should cooperate with the secret societies in rooting out all local bandits, robbers, and “traitors.” Once the elemental demands of the secret societies have been met, they will naturally be more susceptible to nationalist propaganda. Whether they prove to be a force for progress or for reaction will depend upon the source of their leadership. Under the present progressive leadership all signs indicate that China’s secret societies are going to war.  



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: The Red Spear Society: Origins of a Northern Chinese Martial Arts Uprising