The Olympics are once again being hosted by China and the eyes of the world are on Beijing. Martial arts don’t really play any role in the Winter Games, but there seems to be more political discussion surrounding this event than we have seen since the Cold War era. As such, I thought it might be useful to repost an essay I wrote about the genesis of China’s Olympic ambitions and the role of martial arts in how it all played out. Enjoy!
China Picks 2 Women Boxers For Olympics
Four Men Also Chosen to Give Display of Old Chinese Art
Six candidates for the Chinese boxing [sic] for the World Olympiad at Berlin in August were chosen yesterday at a meeting of the selection committee. Four of the successful candidates are from Nanking, one from Shanghai and one from Honan. Three reserves were also picked and in the event of any of the picked members being unable to to proceed to Germany, the reserves will be substituted.
Among the six selected, two are women boxers from the capital, the seat of the National Boxing Association. The list of the successful candidates is as follows: —Men….Chang Ven-Kwang (Nanking), Wen King-ming (Nanking), Chen Wel-Yee (Shanghai) and King Zah-sung (Honan), Reserves…Chang R. Ting (Japan) and Kut Yung-sing (Honan). Women….Jul Lee-yuen (Nanking), and Foo Soh-yung (Nanking). Reserve…Liu Nyeo-hwa (Honan).
The names of selected candidates will be submitted to the executive committee of the China National Amateur Athletic Federation for approval.
The boxers of the Chinese art of self-defense will participate in the Olympics in exhibitions, while three Chinese army boxers of the western type will compete in the boxing competition.
It is understood that all the six successful candidates and the three reserves will shortly go to Nanking to undergo a training period….
May 14th, 1936. The China Press.
In 1932 a lone Chinese athlete (Liu Changchun) appeared at the Los Angeles Olympic games. While he didn’t manage to win gold, his experience did ignite a spark of enthusiasm that led to China’s full scale entry into global athletic competition during the next round of games, held in Berlin in 1936. Reformers in the fields of athletics and physical education had been working furiously to popularize western games and training modalities for decades, and China had enjoyed some success in regional athletic competitions. Still, no one expected that the national medal tally of the 1936 games would be vastly different from those in 1932. Vocal nationalist enthusiasm not withstanding, reasonable observers hoped for a couple of bright performances which would suggest that China was “catching up” in the realm of athletic competition. After all, the Japanese had already become an athletic powerhouse proving that Asian athletes could compete at the highest levels. Given the politicized nature of a set of games that have come to be remembered as “Hitler’s Olympics”, Berlin seemed like the ideal place to throw off the “sick man of Asia” mantle.
The political situation surrounding these games was complex. On the one hand, China’s political elites and athletes were well aware of Germany’s racial policies. Chinese athletes at the game were among the few who refused to offer the Nazi salute as they entered the Olympic stadium, and Morris reports that many were visibly uncomfortable with the omnipresent displays of fascist culture. Yet Germany had so far proved to be a staunch military and economic ally in the KMT’s increasingly desperate conflict with Japan. It had, quite publicly, sent both military trainers and equipment in an effort to remake China’s “new army.” Thus both the German government and the Chinese people had their own reasons for hoping that China would put on a strong showing at the Berlin games.
Unfortunately this was not to be. Weakened by a rough, month long, voyage at sea, and robbed of one of their best chances for victory by a suspiciously reversed call in a boxing match, China’s athletes returned home without moving beyond the competition’s preliminary stages. Nor, if we are being honest, was this outcome all that surprising. It was the nation’s first real Olympic outing and its team had no veteran competitors or coaches. So why was the KMT willing to spend such large amounts of scarce money to mount an Olympic expedition? Why did this effort come to be seen as a national priority even when no one actually expected gold?
The news item at the top of this essay suggests quite a few of the answers. Berlin was never simply a bid to collect medals (though China’s hard working athletes certainly tried to win some). Rather, the pageantry of the Olympics offered a microcosmic stage on the reality of global politics played itself out. China entered this international discourse with two distinct goals. The first goal (to be addressed through athletic competition) was to demonstrate that they were a member in good standing within the family of nations. Secondly, Chinese leaders were desperate to demonstrate that their national culture had intrinsic value, and that it could be reformed for the modern age (much as the Japanese had done).
For these reasons the government choose to mount a martial arts exhibition team that would travel to Berlin. It was also the reason why so much of the coverage of the event focused on this group’s performances, rather than the rest of the team’s lackluster results. While only minor progress was made on the first of these goals, the second succeeded beyond anyone’s expectations.
If one was forced to point to a single personality, Chu Minyi would have to be credited as the driving force behind these efforts. In many respects his actions were a natural outgrowth of the revolutionary enthusiasm of the 1920s and 1930s. A Western educated physician who came to the martial arts (and government service) later in life, Chu viewed both society and its fighting arts through the lens of the “modernization hypothesis.” Clearly arts such as Taijiquan (his personal passion) were an invaluable gift from the past. Yet if they were to reach their full potential they would need to be sanitized, stripped of “superstition” and made socially acceptable to China’s growing middle class. Practices that had once been rooted in village life and clan defense would have to be carefully restructured so that they strengthened only national identity and loyalty to the ruling KMT. Lastly, all of these efforts needed to be broadcast on the global stage.
After all, what good was it to throw off the mantle of the “sick man of Asia” if no one was watching? Strengthening the body politic has always been an inherently discursive act. Japanese budo had already demonstrated that a compelling vision of a reformed traditional culture could be an asset in the global diplomatic area. By showcasing a stronger China, Chu and others hoped to deter future imperialist aggression and encourage more global support for the Republic. But actually getting Chinese martial arts in front of Western audiences (who, during the 1920s-1930s were not exactly clamoring for kung fu) had been a problem.
In some ways this basic strategy goes back to the Jingwu Association, if not a bit before. They too pioneered a modernist approach to the martial arts, seeking to strip them of secretive or local practices while at the same time using them to promote progressive Western values such as feminism. Indeed, Jingwu learned early on that martial arts demonstrations were the perfect venue to demonstrate to the world that the place of women in Chinese society was changing at a breakneck pace. They also pioneered strategies such as inviting foreign correspondents to their demonstrations, publishing material in English and opening branch schools in overseas Chinese communities.
The Guoshu movement adopted all of these same techniques, but began to formally integrate them into the state’s cultural/public diplomacy efforts. The weakness of the KMT’s military forces vis a vis the Japanese suggested that less expensive “information based strategies” would be critical to defending China’s place in the tumultuous global system of the 1930s. During this later period demonstrations by overseas student groups, publicity tours and even the occasional foreign language newsreel showcasing the Chinese martial arts started to appear.
For this reason the Berlin Olympics represented an opportunity that Chu and the other Guoshu reformers simply could not ignore. This would be a chance to display the vast strides that had been made in modernizing and rationalizing the Chinese martial arts before a truly global audience one. The nature of the venue also suggested that a successful show would be widely reported throughout the international press.
The timing was right for such a venture for other reasons as well. The resurgence of nationalism in the interwar years led to a renewed interest in “national physical culture.” So many countries wanted to display their domestic practices that the Olympic organizers were forced to limit the time allotted to each exhibition to 45 minutes. And while no exhibit was more “exotic” than that staged by the Chinese (foreshadowing, in a way, the self-orientalizing discourse that would come to dominate the post-WWII discussion), many were a good deal larger. Countries like Sweden, Finland and Germany each filled the Olympic arena with hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of athletes demonstrating examples of national physical culture. The audience loved it. While the Chinese athletes faced an uphill battle on the playing fields, the Guoshu team was well positioned to ride a wave of national physical culture enthusiasm.
Still, no one was leaving anything to chance. Chu was well aware that the best way to get your message heard is to repeat it. And repeat it he did, loudly and often.
The nine members chosen for the exhibition team were selected on May 13th and reported in the press on the 14th. By the 15th a feature article in The Chinese Press reported that they, along with Ma’s newly selected track and field team, had been invited to a special event hosted by the German diplomatic delegation and local Chinese dignitaries. While the track and field team dutifully listened to political speeches and watched a recently produced propaganda film extolling Germany’s olympic virtues, the exhibition squad was expected to entertain the international dignitaries with a martial arts exhibition. Chu narrated the entire event in both Chinese and French. Of course translation was provided for those speaking other languages.
This was the first of many martial arts exhibitions that year designed to entertain crowds and reinforce the vision of China’s modern athletic prowess. On June 26th the entire Chinese Olympic team boarded an Italian steamer for the journey to Venice. While the athletes attempted to fight off sea sickness and stick to their training schedule, Morris notes that the exhibition team gave demonstrations in the South East Asian ports of call, all in an attempt to reinforce the sense of transnational Chinese identity. Never missing an opportunity to play to a captive audience, they also anchored the “Olympic Evening” and “China Night” galas that were held over the course of the journey (Morris 178).
Chu also sought burnish Guoshu’s modernist credentials by employing the latest technology. He commissioned a German language film titled “Our Nation’s Ancient Tiyu Styles” to the 1936 Olympic Sports and Physical Education Film Contest. This project featured Chu demonstrating Taijiquan, shuttlecock and traditional archery. For good measure he included a fair amount of footage of his own, undeniably “modern,” mechanical training apparatuses. While I have been unable to locate a copy of the original German language film, a Chinese language version using the same footage still exists. That gives us a pretty good idea of what would have greeted patrons of the film festival.
Chu was well positioned to craft a vision of the martial arts that would appeal to Western audiences. The entire thrust of the Republic era move towards rationalization and modernization did double duty in this respect. All of this was especially evident in Chu’s own project, which he called Taijicao, or Taiji calisthenics. He had traveled to Europe and presented this material (termed “circular exercises” in both English and French so as not to intimidate a potentially friendly audience) at the 1934 Brussels International Exhibition two years earlier. The 1936 Olympic team also began their official exhibition with a display of Taijicao as an announcer read over the PA system and radio a statement on the “history and character of the Chinese art of boxing.” Chu is reported to have also prepared a program with explanations of the Chinese martial arts in a variety of European languages. While I have heard rumors of these coming up at auctions, I have not yet been able to locate a copy in a university library.
While much smaller than the exhibitions staged by many of the European countries, the Chinese performance enthusiastically received by the assembled crowd of between 26,000 and 30,000 spectators. Fast paced two man weapons sets made a lasting impression on the crowds who had never seen anything quite like that before. Morris (179) reports that Hitler was so impressed with one martial artist’s trident work that he actually refused to shake his hand when awarding a special trophy to the exhibition team as he suspected that he may have called on supernatural powers. Of course the German state, which was in an alliance with the KMT, was invested in this display being remembered as a success. As such the government controlled Trans-Oceanic Newswire service spread rave (if brief) reviews far and wide. For good measure Hitler instructed his ambassador to award both Zhang Zhijian and Chu Minyi special olympic medals for the accomplishments after their return to China.
Yet the work of the martial arts exhibition team was far from over. In addition to the athletes and the martial artists, the Chinese government also sent an “investigative team” tasked with studying Western physical education practices. This effort was led by Gunson Ho, another individual who we have briefly discussed on the blog. After the closing of the 1936 Olympiad the martial arts and investigative teams undertook what can only be considered a well planned public diplomacy tour. Each of these teams traveled to a variety of German cities as well as Denmark, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and Italy to display the modernized Chinese martial arts, and then listen to lectures on the latest ideas in the study of physical culture.
The 1936 expedition was a costly undertaking, and yet Chu, Ma and Ho were determined to make the most of it. The value of the good press won by the exhibition team was priceless, and it served to blunt the otherwise disappointing performance of the Chinese athletes in foreign discussions. The Chinese newspapers, it should be noted, were much less forgiving.
And by mounting an extensive goodwill tour through both South East Asia and Western Europe, the Chinese state was able to build on the initial enthusiasm generated by the Olympics and drill down on its core message. Not only was revolutionary China a modern unified state, it had treasures of its own to offer global society. This message seems to have been met with enthusiasm pretty much everywhere the Guoshu team went.
While weighting the cost and benefits of the 1936 games, an Olympiad that resulted in no medals and little glory on the actual playing field ,Shen Siliang, the director general of the Chinese delegation noted:
“The achievement of international recognition alone is worth millions to us as a nation and more than justifies the amount [of money] spent on the tour….I believe [the athletes] have accomplished more for China than several ambassadors could have achieved in years.” (Quoted in Lu and Hong, Sports and Nationalism in China).
In some ways the entire concept of “public diplomacy” is a bit anachronistic. While the subject is commonly discussed by scholars today the term didn’t really exist in the 1930s, though E. H. Carr and a few other scholars, looking at the importance of propaganda in WWI, had begun to theorize that something like this was on the horizon. Still there doesn’t seem to be any doubt that Shen understood the Berlin Olympiad in essentially political and diplomatic terms.
Judged by these criteria, the political value of the Berlin games far outweighed whatever setbacks China endured on the playing field. Further, diplomatic and sports historians can no longer view the Guoshu exhibition team as a mere supplement to the serious business of athletic competition. These individuals bore the weight of the government’s cultural diplomacy strategy, and they did not disappoint. They endured the same harsh travel conditions as everyone else, yet were expected to perform almost continually. Of course all of these successes would be swept away by the fires unleashed in 1938. The war in the Pacific devastated the Guoshu program and left it a shell of its former self.
Still, one wonders what Chu and fellow martial artists would have been able to accomplish had they been given another decade to pursue the path of “Kung Fu Diplomacy.” As we take a closer look at the Berlin games it becomes evident that this was not a singular event. Rather, it was simply the most visible manifestation of an increasingly well established program to deploy China’s traditional culture to take control of its public image on the global stage.
If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:The Cultural Translation of Wing Chun: Addition, Deletion, Adoption and Distortion