We must thank Joseph Svinth for this post. He came across the following photo essay during his research and was kind enough to share it with me. It was clear that this needed to be included in the “Through a Lens Darkly” series as we just don’t have that many great images of TCMA practice from seventy years ago. Given my interest in traditional weapons, I was also fascinated by the range of armaments that this piece featured.
Most early and mid 20th century treatments of the Chinese martial arts demonstrate a fascination with weaponry. The reasons for this are varied. Lion dance celebrations, one of the few places where non-Chinese residents in the West might reliably encounter these fighting systems, often included extensive demonstrations of weapon sets. That sent a strong visual message that these fighting systems were fundamentally unlike Judo and Karate, the two best known Asian martial arts in the West during the post-war period. The preference for demonstrations with steel, as opposed to wood or bamboo, would have also set these systems apart from Kendo.
It is hard to deny the romance of the sword. While most period sources used the term “Chinese boxing” as a reference point for readers (the current nomenclature of “martial arts” would not stabilize in English language publications until the 1970s), others underlined the importance of these arms by referring to these fighting systems as “sword dancing” or “Chinese fencing.” Weapons convey a sense of danger, and that can lead in different directions. On the one hand, they inspire a certain amount of respect. The memory of Chinese “Big Sword troops” during the Second World War did enjoy some of this in the West. Yet they also generate an innate fear and sense of revulsion that anyone in the modern world would revel in such primitive and bloody means of violence. This was obviously the dominant response a generation or two prior when the Boxer Uprising was the major cultural signifier of Chinese martial arts in the West.
Thus Chinese martial artists, and journalists wishing to write sympathetic stories about these systems, spent a lot of time explaining this deadly menagerie. These explanations typically broke down into one of two categories. Advocates of “scientific training” noted the ways in which weapons practice built strength and coordination. More culturally minded practitioners discussed them as a heritage project. During the 1930s it had been popular to promote spear and sword training within China as a means to defend the nation, but by the end of WWII that idea had fallen out of favor.
It is thus interesting to note that the journalist who wrote this piece went in a slightly different direction. He humanized his subject by exploring the many connections between the traditional Chinese martial arts and theatrical performance. Researchers like Daniel Mroz, Charles Holcombe and Scott Phillips have all made the same point in our current literature. Martial arts training was often a core aspect of one’s apprenticeship in any traditional opera company. Likewise, practicing martial artists might use their skills to engage in amateur performances, which we often forget was pretty much everyone’s favorite pastime in the Late Imperial period. Before TV, and in a largely illiterate society, people had to make their own fun. Various types of performance were one way that people at all levels of society did that.
This is not to say that the martial arts weren’t also practiced by soldiers, criminal enforcers and security guards. They certainly were. But despite the protests of modernists attempting to save (or really create) a “pure” version of martial arts in the 1910s-1930s, fighting systems free from the taint of traditional village folk culture, there has always been a lot of cross-over between these realms. This remains one of the main reasons why there is still so much confusion about the goals of much traditional practice today.
The 1951 Pix magazine photo essay goes in another direction, celebrating the links between martial practice and stage performance. The gentleman interviewed (Lao Hu) makes a living teaching opera students and gives a bit of detail on how different roles are performed. I think that this makes sense as there was more popular interest in Chinese theater in the mid twentieth century than there is today.
While reviewing English language propaganda magazines produced by the PRC in the 1950s, I was surprised to discover that almost every issue had not one, but often two, features that would explore some aspect of traditional Chinese performance. In comparison, the martial arts would get a couple of articles a year. This seemed to be an attempt to tap into the same (somewhat elite) cultural enthusiasm that led Maya Deren to feature abstract operatic/martial performance in her groundbreaking 1949 avant guard film “Meditations on Violence”, or Sophia Delza to study theater while living in China at the same time. Her work as an early promoter of Taijiquan in the United States was really something of a side effect of her initial interest in actor and dance training. (However, it should be noted that Delza explicitly rejected the notion that Taijiquan derived from operatic performance, seeing it as an independent form of artistic expression with its own internal logic.)
The notion that Kung Fu could somehow resolve the Judo vs. Karate debates of the early 1960s, tipping the scales in favor of the supremacy of striking arts, really put the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts on a different track. This was somewhat ironic as wrestling was hugely popular in traditional China, probably more so in many places than “boxing.” Still, the emergence of Bruce Lee as a media superstar, and the publication of early books by authors like R. W. Smith, crystalized a different and much more combative image of what the Chinese martial arts should be. That is largely the framework that continues to shape the public imagination of these systems today. Still, it is interesting to be reminded of the somewhat different discussions that emerged in the 1950s.
Fencing in the Western world is the art of offense and defense with a weapon. In China it is more a specialized form of harmony between mind and body and is generally linked with dancing and acting. European fencers use foils, epees, sabres. Orientals are trained with a great variety of weapons—from hinged sticks to sharpened steel rings with fearsome barbs.
Actors learn swordplay to enact duels, suicides or war dances in traditional plays. All movements are strictly stylized. Numerous schools teach fencing.
Sadly, I have not been able to identify “Lao Hu.” Without having the actual characters, I am not even sure if this is really his name. Perhaps “Lao” is being used here in an honorific sense, and sometimes Fu was transcribed as Hu. If anyone has a lead on the identity of the martial artist in these photos (most likely a Bagua instructor in Beijing in the early 1950s) please feel free to drop a hint in the comments below!
If you enjoyed this photo essay you might also want to read: The Sword Shops of Beijing’s Bow and Arrow Street