City Scape.probably northern 1911

Law Enforcement and the Martial Arts in Republican China

The intersection between law enforcement and the development of the modern Chinese martial arts is a fascinating topic that deserves a lot more attention than it normally gets.  In many ways the police are an ideal place to look when you are trying to capture recent trends in hand combat.  The military never wants to engage in “hand to hand” combat.  They would prefer to do their killing with artillery or bombs.  Most civilian martial artists actively try to avoid trouble and they train their students to do the same.  That makes perfect sense.  Avoiding street violence whenever possible is a great self-preservation strategy.  It’s what society expects of them.

Law enforcement officers are in a very different situation.  Their job requires them to go out looking for trouble.  And when they locate a criminal they cannot just call in an artillery strike.  They are expected to apprehend the suspect so that the individual can be questioned or put on trial.  There is every reason to expect that wanted criminals will violently resist arrest.  As a result police departments the world over tend to be very interested in hand combat training.

This is often a little different from what civilians practice.  How to safely handcuff a suspect without accidentally shooting them is a topic that does not come up very frequently in my Wing Chun classes.  Still, police departments frequently hire outside combat experts and pour considerable time and money into the sorts of tactical questions that society as a whole is content to ignore.  Law enforcement around the country manages to support a small but thriving industry that caters to their specific needs for combat training and resources.

The situation in Nationalist controlled China was no different.  As the government struggled to assert its control over society it created police departments and reformed traditional law enforcement techniques in every major city in the country.  This was a huge undertaking and it took a lot of money.  Ironically, much of the funding to support these reforms came from the sale of opium and heroin by the state, but that is a topic for another post.

Chinese police departments and law enforcement academies hired civilian martial arts instructors in large numbers.  These individuals acted both as instructors and were sometimes recruited as officers.  A contract teaching at a local police academy was both a steady source of income and a prestigious honor for any martial arts teacher.  Cheung Lai Chuen started his rise to fame in exactly this manner.

Given that law enforcement was such an important consumer of martial arts instruction, it might be interesting to ask whether it had any sort of impact on the development of the Chinese martial arts in the mid-20th century.  The case of Wing Chun, especially as it developed in Hong Kong during the 1950s and 1960s, would seem to indicate that it did.  To understand how, we need to know a little more about the early years of Ip Man’s career.

A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of Kung Fu Tea. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.
A rare shot of Ip Man enjoying a cup of Kung Fu Tea. Few individuals in the west know that the venerable master was a big fan of cafe culture and often spent hours with his students in local restaurants after class.

Detective Ip Man and the Roots of the Multiple Attacker Scenario

Ip Man was a younger son born into a wealthy merchant family.  His parents owned businesses between Foshan and Hong Kong and they could afford the best for their children.  Ip Man received both a traditional Chinese style education and a state of the art western one in Hong Kong.  In sociological terms he was clearly in the economic class that subsequent historians have termed the “new gentry.”  Among the various luxuries in life, his parents bought him Wing Chun lessons with Chan Wah Shun, an important local martial artists.

Ip Man appears to have been a genuinely genial and well liked individual.  However, it is also quite clear that he was not a very productive member of society for much of his young adulthood.  Apparently he preferred to spend the family fortune rather than building it, and he devoted most of his time to practicing Kung Fu and associating with other local martial artists.

I suspect that much of the impoverishment of the Ip family actually has to do with Nationalist (GMD) tax policy and wealth expropriations to support the Northern Campaign against the warlords in the 1920s.  In this sort of an economic environment making large investments with payoffs in the distant future probably did not make a lot of sense, and consumption at least insured that you got to enjoy your wealth while it lasted.

By the 1930s and 1940s the economic fortunes of the Ip family had turned for the worse.  It is often said that due to his diminished circumstances Ip Man was forced to get a job as some sort of law enforcement officer in Foshan.  When this happened, and what post he actually held, is not always clear.

There are a number of reasons for this.  Most of the accounts we have are brief and sometimes they have been carelessly translated.  Ip Man himself did not spend a lot of time ruminating about the “good old days” as he apparently came to despise the Nationalists government.  His children (especially Ip Ching) were also quite young at the time of these events.  Lastly, most Wing Chun students only care about the Hong Kong period of his career when he was actively teaching.  As a result not much research has ever been conducted on his earlier career in law enforcement.

The accounts of Ip Man’s career in law enforcement that we do have are brief and contradictory.  Some sources indicate that he started working with the police in Foshan as early as the 1930s.  I recently heard an interview with an “expert” from a mainland non-Ip Man Wing Chun lineage who claimed that Ip Man actually started to work in law enforcement after the 1938 Japanese occupation of the area.  According to this individual he was actually a Japanese collaborator and traitor, which is why he was forced to flee to Hong Kong in 1945 and never returned to mainland China.

The claim that Ip Man started to work for the local GMD police in the 1930s is interesting, but I believe it is ultimately based on a misunderstanding.  The more recent claim that he worked for the Japanese police and was a collaborator is outrageous.  There is no evidence to support that claim and quite a bit (like his actual travel documents that show he immigrated to Hong Kong in 1949, fleeing the Communists) that disprove it.  Still, on at least a social level this particular conspiracy theory is interesting as it demonstrates how uneasy many martial artists in mainland China are with both Wing Chun’s sudden rise in popularity and its domination by “foreign” teachers in both Hong Kong and the West.  Discrediting Ip Man and his lineage would be a helpful first step in rewriting the history of this art in terms that mainland martial artists might find more helpful.

Instead the greatest number of accounts, and the most reliable accounts, seem to indicate that Ip Man was first hired to work in law enforcement by the Nationalist government as it struggled to regain control of the countryside in the wake of the Japanese withdrawal at the end of WWII.  During the war Ip Man had actually been employed as a private martial arts instructor at a friend’s cotton factory.  As the war ended and the economy returned to normal his first experiment in public teaching came to a close.

Shortly after the close of his school Ip Man was apparently approached about leading a group of “plain clothes” detectives in Foshan’s newly reconstituted police force.  He likely accepted this position at some time in 1945 and held it until he abandoned his post and fled to Hong Kong at the end of 1949.  As far as I can tell this four year period was the only time in Ip Man’s life when he held a conventional job that brought home a steady paycheck.

While his days as a carefree “Kung Fu bum” might have been over (to use a modern image), Ip Man’s association with the martial arts did not go away.  In fact, they were probably the reason he was offered the job in the first place.  We know for instance that between 1945 and 1949 Ip Man frequented a local private martial arts association that was backed by the local branch of the GMD.  This is where he occasionally instructed other police officers such as Jiu Chow (who asked him to “correct his forms”) and where he first met and exchanged notes with Pan Nam (again, while the two worked together neither claimed a teacher-student relationship).

I review the details of all of this in my book manuscript and I do not want to get bogged down in a discussion of what Wing Chun looked like between 1945 and 1949 in this post.  But I will say that knowing some form of martial arts was an important job skill for law enforcement officers, and being able to evaluate and teach them was something that would benefit their officers.

Assistant Chief of Police and his staff at the Headquarters in Chengtu, 1944. This photograph was taken by the well known war photographer Cecil Beaton.
Assistant Chief of Police and his staff at the Headquarters in Chengtu, 1944. This photograph was taken by the well known war photographer Cecil Beaton.

Law Enforcement in Mainland China: 1920-1949.

So what was the world of law enforcement like in 20th century China?  While not directly related to the martial arts I think this is a topic that students of Chinese martial studies will find both interesting and edifying.  If nothing else, it will help to flush out our collective understanding of the “Rivers and Lakes” of Chinese society and how they interacted with, and were used by, the official centers of power.  Two of the best resources for someone looking to study this topic are Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937 and Spymaster: Dai Li and the Chinese Secret Service both by Frederick Wakeman.  While not light reading, no one will ever fall asleep reading either of these books.  Be prepared for some bracing stuff if you decide to dive into them.

To quickly paraphrase over 1000 pages of Wakeman’s research, after the collapse of the Qing Dynasty the new Nationalist government tried to create a modern police force through a variety of means.  The end result was a hodgepodge of different organizations answering to various offices all of which overlapped with one another to some degrees.  Nor did all of these attempts even share the same basic law enforcement strategy.  Attempts to create “modern” and “scientific” police forces coexisted side by side with military police patrols more dedicated to maintaining public order than justice, and even more traditional attempts to subdue crime by co-opting the criminals.

In any substantial city in China one might run into four different types of law enforcement.  First there were uniformed officers on the street.  These might answer to a local office that answered to the municipal government.  Second there were detectives tasked with investigating major crimes (such as murders or drug smuggling).  Their relationship to the uniformed officers could vary from locality to locality.  Next there were military police officers who answered to the national GMD party structure.  Lastly, there were multiple flavors of “secret police” that acted at the behest of a couple of different cliques within the leadership of the GMD.  These individuals were most concerned with hunting communists but they might also become involved in major crimes and the regulation of the thriving narcotics industry.  The situation was chaotic and shootouts between different sorts of law enforcement officers (especially when narcotics were involved) happened from time to time.

Foshan, being a smaller town in Guangdong and somewhat off the beaten path, probably avoided the worst of this.  Ip Man himself led a squad of detectives tasked with investigating and preventing major crimes.  The job of officers like this was to keep bad news out of the newspapers and to provide resolution to incidents that did manage to make it into the popular press.  It should also be noted that detectives were probably the least prestigious, and most widely reviled, aspect of the national law enforcement apparatus.

There was a widespread perception in China that the nation’s detectives were corrupt and often little better than the criminals they were supposed to apprehend.  This popular sentiment was absolutely true.  The line between a city’s detectives and its gangs was often vanishingly thin.

Detectives were often recruited directly from the “Rivers and Lakes” because they were expected to have a detailed understanding of the local criminal element.  This might include everything from an ability to speak and understand the various creole dialects favored by criminal enterprises to having a “working relationship” with organized crime bosses.  Without an ability to make alliances with, and get information from, the powerful gangs that dominated crime in China, it just wasn’t possible to investigate crimes.

While understandable on a certain level, the entire system was an engine for corruption on an almost unimaginable scale.  Large parts of the notorious “Green Gang” were actually knowingly hired as detectives in Shanghai in an attempt to “cut out the middleman” and give the GMD at least a nominal say in what was being smuggled into the city and at what price.

In this system, the average detective was not a very disciplined, educated or sophisticated agent of law enforcement.  Getting these individuals trained in even basic skills, like radio use or writing reports, was a constant headache.  This is where someone like Ip Man became useful to the local Nationalist Party bosses.  On the one hand he was highly educated and able to communicate with the political establishment.  On the other hand he was a martial artist who had contacts through the underbelly of local society.  His skills as a martial artist were an important job asset, yet they were a secondary characteristic.  His education and contacts (as well as the fact that he was generally liked and trusted by the community) was what allowed him to do his job.

So, what kind of work did Ip Man’s unit actually do?  Once again, we don’t have a lot of solid information on this.  And, to be totally honest, if you think seriously about what was going on in China between 1945 and 1949, that’s probably just as well.  I personally suspect that there were some very specific reasons why Ip Man was less than eager to meet any official representatives of the CCP in 1949 and they probably had nothing to do with his family’s history of land ownership.

When discussing his father’s career in law enforcement, Ip Ching relates one story in which Ip Man and his team apprehended the criminals behind a kidnapping scheme.  This seems pretty reasonable.  Kidnappings for ransom were common in this period and they got into the papers.  The job of a detective squad would be to go after exactly these sorts of high profile, socially disruptive, crimes.

An "entry team" of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown.
An “entry team” of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown.

Kidnapping, Torture and Law Enforcement’s Secret War Against the Communist Party.

Unfortunately, Wakeman reports that not all of the responsibilities of your average detective were this innocuous.  The GMD financed itself through the sale of illegal drugs.  Very often the police were used to ensure that the “correct” drug shipments made it into a given city, and that those controlled by a competing interest did not.  The famous Taiji Master T. T. Liang, who worked as a customs official, was nearly killed in a shootout that stemmed from an incident like this.

The rising popularity of the Communist Party (CCP) was also a major concern that came to dominate more and more of China’s limited law enforcement resources.  While normally the special concern of the various “secret police” organizations, local detectives were often involved in the search for communist agents or sympathizers.

Wakeman recounts in chilling detail how these individuals were captured.  Generally one did not want to tip off the local Communist Party cell that one of their members had just been captured and was probably being tortured and interrogated.  If warned communist agents could literally abandon their safe-houses and disappear in minutes.  Uniformed officers were rarely used for this sort of work.  Instead a team of secret police agents or detectives were tasked to the case.

Many methods of capture were employed but they could be surprisingly bold.  Wakeman relates the following ploy in his book.  After locating a target a field team of 4-6 individuals would surround the suspect on a public street.  The key was to get the target into a car or rickshaw before they realized what was happening or could raise an alarm.

One of the more inventive tactics was to stage a domestic violence incident to distract the public from what was actually happening.  A female officer dressed as a civilian might approach the target and greet him as a lover.  A second later another agent, posing as her husband, would appear and start beating the confused target to prevent his escape.  Immediately after that two other individuals would appear to “clear up” the misunderstanding and take the victim to the “hospital.”  They would throw the now incapacitated target into the back seat of a waiting Packard.  The public would quickly forget the brief scuffle as domestic violence was a common occurrence.  If all went as planned the police might have a few hours to interrogate their suspect before he was missed.

Such interrogations were brief and they usually ended very badly for the prisoner.  Both detectives and secret police officers routinely employed gruesome tortures if their initial efforts at turning a suspected agent failed or the individual claimed innocence.  The fact that these tortures would often leave a victim maimed for life didn’t really matter as most suspects would be summarily executed at the end of the “questioning.”

The basic thought was that if the police had actually apprehended a Communist agent they were probably too dangerous to hold unless they might have some specific value in the future.  If that was the case they would disappeared into a vast system of secret prisons run by the GMD’s internal security apparatus.  If the arrested individual turned out to be an innocent victim then releasing them and admitting what happened would be too embarrassing for the local government.  It was better that the broken and maimed individual simply “disappeared” and the government disavow any knowledge about what happened to them.

It is actually hard to overstate the horrors of law enforcement’s involvement in the Chinese Civil War.  This was very much a “dirty war” on a scale that rivaled anything that happened in Latin America or the Middle East.   Thousands of innocent individuals were killed simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  So many people were being “disappeared” in the hunt for suspected communists that disposing of their bodies became a major logistical headache.  Wakeman’s descriptions of how the government attempted to handle this problem is stomach churning and gratefully outside the scope of the current article.

The CCP did not take this industrialized murder campaign laying down.  They created their own highly disciplined and dedicated system of death squads who were assigned two types of targets.  Their first responsibility was to kill any former Communist agent who defected or cooperated with the GMD rather than face torture and death.  Their second priority was to attack and kill members of the Nationalist police and security apparatus who were responsible for the deaths of their comrades.

For the most part the Communist death squads had to conduct a secret war so as not to betray their presence or the location of their support system (which is what the Nationalists were hunting for in the first place).  Their tactics tended to mirror those used by the detectives and the secret police.  Rather than simply assassinating their targets on the street they would snatch them, toss them in the back of a car, question and then execute them.

While I have not been able to find any surviving records about the police campaigns against the CCP in Foshan, we do know that at least some of this sort of thing happened in the Pearl River Delta.  Lt. General Kot Siu Wong was tasked with the last ditch defense of the area against the Communists in the late 1940s.  His idea was to force police and military personal to join the local Triads.  These were then united into a single covert organization under his command used to violently oppose the CCP.  Eventually the scope of this effort was expanded to include martial artists and large segments of the civilian population as well.

We have absolutely no evidence about what role, if any, Ip Man and his detective squad had in the suppression of local communists.  A lot would depend on what the relationship was like between the local police department in Foshan and the secret police organization run by Dai Li.  That information might be out there, but I have not seen it yet.

Still, it is unlikely that Foshan emerged from the final years of the Chinese Civil War totally unscathed.  It seems inconceivable that Ip Man would not have been aware of the formation of the Zhongyi Association (later the notorious Triad “14K”) by General Kot.  What he thought of these efforts, and how involved he was with the anti-communist campaigns is still an open question.

All of this information should put Ip Man’s flight to Hong Kong into clearer perspective.  Most martial arts masters did not feel that it was necessary to flee in 1949.  Even most soldiers remained in China and simply changed sides.  However, as the CCP consolidated their control one of their first acts was to settle their rather lengthy list of scores with the secret agents and police officers who had made their lives a nightmare.  The fact that Ip Man’s name ended up on one of these lists is actually not that surprising given how he had been employed between 1945 and 1949 and it is at least suggestive of what might have happened in Foshan.

As the Communist advance accelerated in 1949 the Nationalists resorted to more desperate measure in an attempt to hold on to power in at least part of the country. Here a Chinese officer executes two suspected communist agents in the street as a crowd of police officers and civilians looks on.
As the Communist advance accelerated in 1949 the Nationalists resorted to more desperate measure in an attempt to hold on to power in at least part of the country. Here a Chinese officer executes two suspected communist agents in the street as a crowd of police officers and civilians looks on.

Conclusion: Fear and Loathing in Foshan

While Ip Man’s career in law enforcement is usually mentioned only in passing, the truth is that it coincided with a period of unprecedented chaos and social disintegration in China.  The hope brought by the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War (WWII) was quickly replaced with the growth of organized crime, massive levels of government corruption and a reemergence of hostilities between the GMD and the CCP.  As a detective loyal to the GMD Ip Man was forced to negotiate these opposing forces.  It seems likely that his brief career in law enforcement was eventful and it may have modified his understanding of the martial arts.  This period certainly shaped his views on politics and when he finally reached Hong Kong he had nothing positive to say about his former employers.

In the second half of this post we will explore how these experiences likely shaped Ip Man’s personal fears and beliefs about self-defense.  He was no longer worried about meeting a lone opponent at the back of a dark alley.  Rather his career in law enforcement had taught him that the real enemy was an ambush by a CCP snatch team comprised of 4-6 individuals and a vehicle.  Nor was this fear merely theoretical.  He knew that somewhere there was a list with his name on it.  To be an effective self-defense art Wing Chun would have to evolve and develop explicit tactics for dealing with this new class of threats.  To be truly effective these principal would need to be woven into all aspects of the art.  Only in that way would they become second nature to all students.

More generally, the association between law enforcement and martial artists in 20th century China was a fruitful one.  Both groups gained something by this interaction.  Police officers received sophisticated hand combat training which increased their ability to make arrests.  Martial artists were exposed to novel tactical situations, different from what any civilian or military art might foresee, that required careful study.  Wing Chun practitioners are still enjoying the fruits of this innovation today.  Once again we find that it is not possible to understand the Chinese martial arts without first understanding the social and political environment that shaped them.

***You can find the second part of this article here.  Just click on the link.***