I am always on the look out for vintage newspaper accounts of Chinese martial arts for my database. While it takes some digging, it is not that difficult to get a sense of what is happening in the English Language “treaty port” newspapers of Asia. Much of this material has been electronically scanned and cataloged and is readily available through any university library. Local newspapers in the United States are another matter. There are just so many of them that they fall through the crack of most library search tools which focus their electronic firepower (and licensing dollars) on a couple dozen larger papers. Finding things in local papers is distinctly hit or miss. Still, new collections are constantly being digitized, and when something does come up, we have an important record of what was known and thought outside of major metropolitan areas.
For all of these reasons, I was thrilled when Rodney Bennett posted an interview with General Ma Liang in an 1924 issue of The Whittier News to the “Vintage Martial Arts Books, Magazines, and Clips” Facebook group. Ma Liang is a strangely overlooked figure in much of the current academic literature on the revival of Chinese martial arts during the Republican period. While I have written a number of posts on his various contributions and controversies here at Kung Fu Tea, many Western treatments of the period pass him over in virtual silence while focusing only on the later Jingwu and Guoshu movements. Still, Ma was an undeniably important figure who pushed the Chinese martial arts onto the national stage at home as he lobbied over a long period of time to have them included in national primary and secondary school curriculums, much as they were in Japan.
Even less remembered is that Ma was among the first figures in modern Chinese martial arts to undertake a sustained campaign to educate readers outside of China about the value of these fighting systems (or rather, his version of them). Rather than attempting to convince anyone in London or New York to take up Wushu (a term which he introduced and stabilized in modern Chinese language discussions), Ma instead gave interviews to foreign reporters and even hired free lance public diplomacy experts. His strategy seems to have been a simple one. Noting the admiration that Japanese arts such as Kendo and Judo inspired in the West, Ma hoped to remind the reading public that their true origin was to be found in the older and more venerable Chinese fighting systems. Like other reformers, he seems to have believed that cultivating an appreciation for these fighting systems abroad would legitimize his efforts at home. It is often easier to valuable a neglected aspect of your own cultural heritage when outsiders (especially those in advanced and wealthy countries) are telling you how important they are.
After getting off to a quick start, political realities caught up with Ma marginalizing both his political career and hopes of leading China’s martial arts community. By the early 1920s it was clear that Jingwu had become the dominant martial arts brand, not Ma’s ‘New Wushu.’ Still, Ma was nothing if not persistent. He appeared at multiple Jingwu events after his retirement from the military, and even organized a spectacular national martial arts festival and tournament in 1923 that would serve as a precursor to the Central Guoshu Academy’s ‘National Examinations.’
In a round about way this brings us back the article in The Whittier News. Local papers such as this typically relied on syndicated newswire services for their international coverage, particularly when it came to relatively esoteric subjects such as physical culture debates in China. I decided to do some digging and discovered that several other papers ran this same article in 1924. A few of them were military papers, and even the New York Times carried the feature (September 14, “Says Chinese Boxing is Better Than Ours” p. 18). Interestingly, the Times piece avoided being electronically cataloged, but it was included in a 1924 index of sports stories.
All of the copies of the article are largely similar, though its not uncommon for the opening sentences to change or material to be moves around. This is important in the current case as the Times’ version provides us with a hint as to how Ma was seeking to communicate with the West. At some point in 1923 (likely in the wake of his successful national tournament) he gave an interview and demonstration where foreign language reporters were present. This was the source of the English language quotes which are found in all of the versions of this article. The Times states that original source of the interview was a story run in a paper called the Sentinel which was published by the 15th infantry division, then stationed in China. I have tried to locate the original piece but it doesn’t seem that this issue has ever been digitized. Indeed, there are very few issues of the Sentinel floating around in any format. Still, once the article was syndicated it was quickly reprinted in multiple other military, local and national newspapers.
Once again, it seems that Chinese Boxing appeared more frequently in discussions during the 1920s than we may have guessed. This article is important both for what it says, but also in that it illustrates the pathways by which reformers in China sought to influence global conversations about their country. Lastly, it is interesting to consider the role of the military in all of this. Ma’s martial arts were profiled in several English language articles in treaty port papers, but they weren’t always picked up by the Western press. However, a pieced framed as a conversation with American servicemen in China on the relative merits of different types of boxing attracted immediate attention.
Granted, not all of it was positive or free from racism. Some outlets reported the story more neutrally than others. But all of this foreshadows the immensely important role that servicemen in Asia, always in engaged in various forms of sports and physical training, would eventually have in popularizing the martial arts two decades later. R. W. Smith would directly echo Ma’s language and promote Japanese and Chinese fighting systems as being less damaging to their students than boxing. While Ma’s appeals on this point didn’t catch-on during the 1920s, they would reemerge as a staple of popular discussion in the post-war era.
Athletics in China Styled Very Superior
The Whittier News, Tuesday March 11, 1924. Page 1
Shanghai, March 11.—Gen. Ma Liang, former commander of the border forces, now living in retirement, is the leader of a new “Back-to-Chinese-Athletics” cult in China. His opposition is directed at the slavish adoption of western athletics in Chinese schools, when, he claims, China possesses its own athletic system that has been practiced for thousands of years, and which, he claims, is far superior to anything the West has produced.
General Ma is the doughty champion of what, for want of a better translation, is called Chinese boxing. Not only does it adequately fill the merits of a national sport, but he insists that it is better than western athletics, for it trains brains as well as brawn. His complaint is that foreign instructors concentrate on the production of superior machines, and overlook the brain part.
West Would Enjoy It
His claims for Chinese boxing do not stop at Chinese schools. He feels convinced that if the West could be converted to its merits, it would modify the present vogue of boxing, with its many brutal features, and make it more of an enjoyable sport, not a crude way of inflicting punishment. He said:
“Chinese detest western boxing. We think it is inhuman. We cannot understand why men should want to batter each other senseless and call it a sport. Yet this is the type of training that is being introduced into our schools by foreign instructors, who laugh at our sport because it is not rough or brutal.”
General Ma indicated a few points on Chinese boxing, about which he has written four books, and he is nationally known as the greatest authority on the subject. The game is very old, the chronicles mentioning it hundreds of years before the Christian era. Unlike western pugilism, no actual blows are struck. The opponents skip and move about to occupy positions of mastery, and penetrate one another’s defense in getting at vital parts of the body which, according to the rules, count in compiling point. But instead of blows, a slight touch with the fingers, or a demonstrated intention, or a movement, or a position is sufficient for the judges to proclaim their verdict. No attempt is made to equalize weight, or divide into classes, because brute strength plays no part. It is superior skill which counts. The boxers finish without a scratch. There are none of those bloody scenes which distinguish victories in the West.
More Skill Needed
Chinese boxing is very scientific. It necessitates profound study of the anatomy to find vital and vulnerable spots, for, after all, in case of self-defense, General Ma claims that Chinese boxing would be more effective than foreign because of its greater skill. Feet and arms can be used, and any part of the body may be the target, but a stipulation is made before the contest. It may be varied with the use of swords, and then, to a foreign spectator, it seems a mixture of fencing and Highland fling. General Ma continued:
“I have tried your foreign boxing and I found it too inhumane. Many of your organized games are useful, but I claim that Chinese boxing is better. It contains everything for acquiring bodily and mental fitness, agility, quickness of decision, an active mind, resourcefulness, in short, everything for producing a good type of man, and woman, because, as it is a reliable game, women can also profitably play it.
In all your western athletics too much attention is paid to exercising limbs, and not the brain. You develop enormous running powers, and aim at covering distances like machines. That doesn’t need brain. You need only long legs and a sound wind. What education is there in that? It’s no use training a nation of race horses. Why, all ricksha coolies are good runners, but who want a nation of men with ricksha coolie mentality?”
That is General Ma’s argument for Chinse boxing. He is 55 years of age, and in his drawing-room he demonstrated many poses and positions, and skipped about like a college graduate, despite his years. He has played the game for years, and in his retirement he has trained thousands of students. After several years difficult advocacy he sees his system, a standardization of several systems, slowly being adopted in schools throughout China.
If you want to know more about General Ma you should also read: Ma Liang’s “New Wushu:” Modernizing and Militarizing the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts