A Collection of Chinese Arms, Published in 1905, posted by Peter Dekker.

Spring Cleaning

I sat down this morning to work on a project looking at sword aficionados in China, their customers in the West, and how the relationship between the two creates both spaces for innovation in Chinese martial arts and as well as political arguments about the proper relationship between martial artists, society, and the state. This exchange is mediated by powerful economic market forces and Western perceptions of China (e.g., those forces that we have been calling “globalization” for the last several decades) that are now coming under greater strain than at any time since the early 1970s.

Sadly, my OCD will not allow me to address the task at hand until I first clear and organize my computer’s cluttered desktop. I am sure that many of you can relate.

In starting that task I ran across a small collection images, taken at another point in time, when changing perceptions of China fueled an explosion of interest in their traditional weapons by Western collectors. Whereas the current moment focuses on elevating a certain view of historical martial arts, and is rooted in a fundamental admiration for Chinese culture, the circumstances around this prior spread were very different. In the final years of the 19th century a vast media empire had grown up around the need for regular reports on the progress of the Boer War. Following its conclusion this entire information infrastructure, steeped as it was in the imperialist ideology of the time, turned its attention to Boxer Uprising in China, and the subsequent intervention by Western and Japanese military forces.

The global export of increasingly sophisticated hand-made swords in the current era is a supply side project, meaning that it began when a relatively small number of Chinese aficionados decided to create a new market largely as a means of changing the perception of Chinese sword making (as well as legislation around the keeping and use of these weapons) at home. Certainly one might make a bit of money exporting high quality swords to the vanishingly small numbers of Western collectors and martial artists capable to appreciating the care and effort that went into these weapons. Yet if we are honest, one must admit that you could make vastly more money producing and exporting almost anything else. It is actually hard to think of a market more niche than “museum quality replicas of obscure Han dynasty weapons suitable for use by modern martial artists, priced under $1000 USD.”

It is hard to understand this recent development as anything other than a passion project. These are individuals who really love archaic Chinese sword design and would like more people to appreciate it as well. Of course, Paul Bowman might ask us to take a step back for a moment and apply some rudimentary psycho-analysis to the situation. Loving archaic weapons is slightly eccentric in our modern world. Weapons, such as these, have not been carried in anger in hundreds, and in some cases thousands, of years. So what do these individuals desire by desiring to recreate and evangelize such swords? And what about martial artists in the West, small our numbers may be, who are the primary consumers of such pieces?

Perhaps we may start by thinking about the last time that highly utilitarian Chinese swords flooded global markets in early 20th century. Of course those arms were not recreations, but the real deal. They were seized in huge numbers following the failed Boxer Uprising.

A Russian Postcard (circa 1900) showing arms seized around the time of the Boxer Uprising. Swords are stacked like cordwood in the front, while various firearms can be seen behind. Note the variety of blade shapes and hilts seen in this collection.

As the preceding Russian Postcard reminds us, the Chinese were not only armed with swords at this time. Modern firearms had been a critical part of the Empire’s arsenal since the massively destructive Taping Rebellion. And while Western images of the period tend to focus on groups of soldiers armed with archaic matchlocks or massive, strange looking, wall guns, the Western armies marching on Beijing in 1900 quickly learned that other Chinese until were armed with the latest technology and knew how to use it.

Comparatively well armed imperial soldier, sometimes trained by European officers, were the greatest threat to Western troops. Yet media reports from the period tended to focus instead on fanatical peasant martial artists streaming into the capital armed with nothing except a sword or perhaps a spear. In the wake of the failed uprising large numbers of these traditional weapons were seized and shipped to the West where they were sold through curio shops, auction houses and even mail-order catalogs. Anyone of moderate means who could own their own piece of one of saddest incidents in modern Chinese history if they so desired. It goes without saying that this sort of commercial interaction reinforced Western beliefs about both the “backwards” and ideologically dangerous nature of Chinese society. Nor were the boogeymen of paganism and the “occult East” far behind. The collection and display of Chinese arms in this period was practically an argument for Western imperialism rendered in steel.

It would be difficult to imagine a more different situation than the production and export of high-end, hand made, Chinese swords today. And yet….

The answers may differ, but I suspect that some of the unspoken questions motivating current trade would still be familiar to earlier collectors. Steeped in imperialist propaganda coming from the daily news and penny dreadful novels extolling the “yellow peril,” Western consumers in the early 20th century found themselves repeatedly asking “Is China dangerous?” The fact that their arms seemed to be 100 years out of date and could be ordered from the Sears catalog following the defeat of the Boxer Uprising offered a reassuring “No.” Not only that, they seemed to justify the imposition of a type of colonial dependence necessary for further economic modernization, military rationalization and missionary work. Indeed, even prior to the Boxer Uprising most Chinese intellectuals had been calling for a very similar set of reforms. I love antique arms more than most, but it must be admitted that the collection of an adversaries swords, at a time like, that was not just a byproduct of conflict. It was an actual political act – the embrace of an imperialist ideology at the individual level.

The indelible association between the blade and violence, not to mention the strong mythic resonances that such weapons tend to evoke in the modern imagination, suggests that the collection and study of weapons probably continues to be a political act today. Of course it is a bit more subtle now. This is politics by subtext. We do not say, nor do we admit, how these object function in the social and the symbolic realm.

For instance, the creation and ownership of swords is very tightly controlled in modern Japan for several reasons, a full exploration of which would go beyond the current post. But the primary concern motivating the Western occupation forces in the 1940s, or the Japanese government today, is not that someone would use a $20,000 shinto Katana to rob the local 7-11. Rather, the strong association between swords and the extreme right wing of Japanese politics, and the memory of the shocking political violence that it unleashed in the 1920s, is the issue. Rather than banning something that remains a key symbol of the nation, the state instead asserts its ability to regulate who has access to these blades, and it does so in such a way to promote a specific relationship between Japanese society and the state. It is the state alone that dictates who will wield the symbolic, as well as the kinetic, properties of the blade.

This bring us back to the psychoanalytic question of what we desire by desiring a finely made Chinese sword. But rather than focusing on the Western consumers, let us instead consider, for a moment, the individuals in China who are developing and promoting these weapons. Again, the concerns and goals of the state set the parameters of any discussion.

On one hand, the Chinese government has expressed strong interest in promoting a certain version of wushu as being key to producing healthy citizens and promoting uniquely Chinese values and identities. Ultimately the state is grows through the strengthening of its citizens. Taking part in such training is one way that citizens can feel the influence of, and personally participate in the completion of, these larger goals.

This process can be seen in many degrees and registers. It manifests in the promotion of highly athletic taolu by elite, university trained, martial artists, the development of Sanda as an indigenous combat sport (“MMA with Chinese characteristics” if you will) and the re-imagination of certain types of traditional or “folk” martial practices as vessels of intangible cultural heritage. Yet what one is unlikely to see in any of these setting is a functional sword. The security apparatus of the modern Chinese state has always looked upon civilians owning “real” weapons with a certain degree of suspicion and there have been further restrictions following the highly publicized knife attack at a train station some years ago.

A set of LK Chen’s historically accurate Han dynasty jain and dao being inspected before shipment to their new owners in the West.

The end result of this is that the buying, collecting and use of high-quality hand made blades in mainland China exists in what might be thought of as a legal grey area. While some of these arms are in circulation, it is not easy to purchase or ship them domestically, and certainly not on a larger scale. However, the government has no qualms about the export of these same weapons from the postal offices of Longquan, the center of traditional Chinese blade smithing, to consumers in the West. On the most basic level, the development of what can be thought of as a new “cultural heritage industry” within China, driven by a relatively small number of aficionados and martial artists, is dependent on global consumers to secure both respectability and an economic foothold. Yet unlike the exports of the early 20th century, this is a deeply cooperative project.

As Andrea Molle argued in his recent book on Krav Maga and nationalism, there is no martial practice that is not, on some level, a political act. The intrinsic connection between swords, violence and community regulation makes those connections even more obvious in weapon based systems. And that is important as the Chinese state has seen itself in the leadership position, dictating terms and shaping society, in order to advance its vision of the development of the nation. Yet martial arts communities in China traditionally helped to defend and shape their communities, and their culture has spawned its own, somewhat different vision, of what the ideal relationship between society and the modern Chinese state should be. As scholars of wuxia literature in the early and mid-twentieth century have noted, these alternate pathways have been document in a wide, and surprisingly sophisticated, body of literature. Nor has the basic discontent that spawned these calls ever really gone away. If anything, the rapid economic development of the past several decade, and growth of a more secure middle class, has led some of these longings to resurface and assume new, consumer driven, forms.

Two women in Shanghai dressed in Hanfu, 2021. Source: Wikimedia.

Perhaps the place where this is most obvious is in the “Hanfu” fashion trend. This movement, in which young, typically urban, workers spend their days off dressed in sometimes fanciful recreations of Han dynasty (or sometimes Tang) clothing quite consciously bemoan the loss of traditional Chinese culture while articulating a demand to look back to a time when China was the strongest state on the planet. These were also periods in which the social strictures and limitations were different than they are now, as was the relationship between individuals and the state. This sort of subtle discontent can be safely expressed when wrapped in an entirely patriotic (and sometimes even nationalistic) discourse that openly romanticizes notions of a resurgent China reclaiming its culture. The difference, however, is that now private actors are asserting their own vision of what the relationship between modern Chinese society and the state should be through a creative reinterpretation of the past.

Other scholars have already addressed the Hanfu movement. I think what has been missed is that this same basic ideological framework can be seen in various areas of China’s diverse martial arts communities, though perhaps nowhere more strongly than in the recent resurrection of Han and Tang dynasties weapons. Indeed, many of the people producing and consuming these weapons in China are themselves practitioners of Hanfu.

While not the weapons that most modern martial artists need for daily practice (something that is rooted quite strongly in the much different blades of the Qing and Republic eras), we again see a desire to look back and recapture the genius of Chinese smiths in an era when they were acknowledged by all for their innovations and brilliance. By comparison, the more modern martial arts of the Ming, Qing and Republic periods are all colored with concerns of foreign influence and social decay, whether in the form of the of the Manchu invasion of the Ming, their subsequent occupation of China, or later humiliations at the hands of European armies.

Such anxieties do not darken the historical annals of the Han dynasty, at least not at first glance. While there were foreign threats, the Han were largely successful in overcoming them and expanding their influence along the silk roads. Critically, existing literary works, surviving artworks, and the archeological record, all seem to suggest that this was a period in which civilians owned and openly carried weapons. Not only did the Han dynasty generate some of the most sophisticated blades in China’s history, but it also spawned a unique martial culture that centered around the mastery of these weapons.

Unfortunately the historical record is scant and almost no reliable sources survive. Thus we will never know with certainty what the actual techniques or values of these martial systems were. Yet it is this very silence that allows them to become an important ideological space for those who would seek to contest the current direction of the Chinese martial arts, dominated as it is with flashy taolu and the floppy props that the state sponsored athletic officials allow in the place of true dao and and jian.

Ironically, the first step in this process seem to be creation of desire and legitimacy by Western martial artists and collectors. Once that is accomplished it may be easier to call on the government to do the patriotic thing and promote a more realistic set of practices domestically as well. On a certain level what these blade smiths are asking us to do is to reconsider the seemingly settled question as to whether the Chinese martial arts can be “dangerous.”

Such questions can never be answered in a vacuum. We are destined to come back to such nagging doubts over and over again. And in every iteration of the question it is not just the Chinese martial arts that change (the Boxer Uprising, Bruce Lee, Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, Tiajiquan, Xu Xiaodong) but also the global political and economic forces that frame that answer (imperialism, defeat in Vietnam, end of the Cold War, growing economic friction with China).

There is nothing new about using Western views of the Chinese martial artists to frame domestic debates as to what the Chinese martial arts, or Chinese society, should be. This is a long established patterns that even predated the Boxer Uprising itself. It is seems that not only the practice of martial arts, but the discussion of them, is intrinsically political in an era of increasing competition. Still, the values of different actors are not monolithic, and that means that during the period of globalization that lasted from roughly the end of the 1970s to the present that there has been a unique window for cooperation between martial artists enthusiasts in China and the West. Perhaps they did not alway share exactly same desires or goals, yet both benefited from the exchange. The question that remains to be answered is what will happen to these relationships as the current iteration of globalization evolves, or perhaps withers. All of that promises to reframe of the question “Is China dangerous?” in ways that might have profound impacts on the practice of martial arts in the West.

Hanfu and traditional archery also seem to be popular traveling companions. Source: https://ziseviolet.wordpress.com