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Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (9): Woman Ding Number Seven: Founder of the Fujian Yongchun Boxing Tradition

Qing era painting of a general's wife and her female retainer. Source: New York Public Library, electronic collection.
Qing era painting of a general’s wife and her female retainer. Source: New York Public Library, electronic collection.

Introduction: Gender and the History of the Chinese Martial Arts

Women are a challenging subject in Chinese martial studies.  One the one hand traditions about female boxers, nuns, bandits and heroes abound in the folklore of the “Rivers and Lakes.”  These stories are more common in some geographic locations and at certain times than others.  For instance, stories about female martial artists became markedly more popular at the end of the Qing dynasty and really exploded during the Republic of China period. 

As this was the era that most deeply stamped the modern Chinese martial arts, it is not surprising to discover that the same motifs and archetypes that were developed in those periods are still with us today.  It is impossible to come to terms with the traditional Chinese fighting styles as a popular culture phenomenon without first considering the issues of folklore and gender.  Luckily we still have a huge body of historic novels, operas and oral traditions for study.

The situation is less straight forward for individuals who approach the question from a strictly historical perspective.  Many of the most popular traditional martial arts have a female ancestor or hero somewhere in their pantheon.  The hand combat traditions of southern China seem to be particularly well blessed in this regard.  Wing Chun, Phoenix-Eye Fist and White Crane are just three examples of regional styles that claim to have been founded by women.  These claims often have a substantive impact on how practitioners understand both the history and the performance of their art.

Yet historically speaking very few women ever studied the martial arts in traditional Chinese society.  Almost all of the stories about such individuals that are currently discussed are, upon closer examination, ahistorical.  There is no proof that anyone named Yim Wing Chun ever existed, and there is very good evidence that Ng Moy is a literary creation of the late 19th century.

Nor is it simply a question of who did or did not exist.  The stories that we pass on about female boxers do not fit very well with what we actually know about Chinese society or popular culture in the late imperial period.  If we are simply discussing these stories as folklore, that is fine.  In fact, it is great.  Fantasy is revealing precisely because of the leeway it grants us to explore our hopes and fears. 

Yet if you are actually trying to understand social, economic or political conditions in 19th century China these modern tales obscure more than they reveal.  As such we should not be surprised if there is a certain tendency to ignore the question of female involvement in the martial arts in an attempt to get on with the “real work” of history.

While an understandable reaction this position leads to its own set of pitfalls and dark alleys.  The traditional martial arts seem to have been about two things.  First, they were a matter of security.  That may have been the physical security that comes from protecting oneself against bandits or it could just as easily be applied to the idea of economic security, important to so many of the instructors, performers, guards and wanders who depended on the martial arts to make a living.  Later in the 19th and early 20th century boxing took on an additional dimension.  It became a tool for asserting a certain set of social values, and reaffirming one’s place in the community.

Chinese women were not immune to either of these categories of concern.  They too were caught up in the cycles of violence that occasionally gripped social life.  They too might make a living as an itinerant street performer, acrobat or singer.  And they too had to wrestle with what it meant to be a Chinese woman in a rapidly changing world. 

In short, when we assert that martial studies is important because of what it can tell us about the evolution of Chinese society and popular culture, we are at the same time committing ourselves to thinking very carefully about the various roles (some central, others tangential) that women played in this world.  We cannot ignore the reality of female involvement in the martial arts simply because the existence of such individuals was rare (and one suspects even more rarely remembered), or because such accounts seem to provide too much cover for “Republic era fiction.”

For the last few months I have been thinking about how to include more profiles of female practitioners in the “Lives of the Martial Artists” biographical series.  There are a number of figures from the Republic period (my main research era) that I would like to discuss.  Of course there are always challenges.  Finding reliable sources on Chinese martial artists is never easy.  Nevertheless, the more pressing concern is actually theoretical.

When discussing the biographies of male martial artists there is a well defines set of conversations that seems to structure our investigations.  There are a number of different “types” of martial artists that seem to reoccur and the most important questions revolve around how these individuals related to the broader economy of violence in the rest of society.   Due to their rarity, and different social roles, female martial artists do fit easily into these same conversations.

Nor do important social trends ever emerge independently from local history.  In today’s post we will go back and examine the life of the oldest verifiable female martial artist in the history of southern China that I am currently aware of.  We will also review a simple framework for thinking about the major divisions in social life in late imperial China as a way of better situating these early female boxers.  Lastly we will briefly examine how stories of these early female martial artists grew and evolved as we move into the Republic period.  This discussion will provide us with a richer social context to better understand the innovations and reforms of a later generation of female martial artists.

Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Japan Photos.
Naganita Class. Okayama City, 1935. Source: Old Photos of Japan.

Ding Number Seven and the Origins of White Crane Boxing

The historical records produced during the Ming and Qing dynasties contain a number of references to female martial artists.  These sources clearly indicate that they were massively outnumbered by their male brethren, but as a category they were never entirely absent either.  Of course “martial arts” as a conceptual category is a comparatively recent invention.  Most of these individuals were identified and discussed using different professional markers.  They were remembered as entertainers, vagabonds, criminals, healers, mystics, saints and in one memorable case even a rebel general.  The fighting arts (and their related body of traditional physical culture) might play a role in each of these professions.

There are far fewer cases in which a woman was explicitly identified as a full time martial arts instructor with a large number of students.  And I am aware of only a single a instance in which a historical woman was acknowledged by later male writers as the founder of area’s martial tradition.  But before we can explore further we need to know something about the sorts of resources that are available to students of Chinese martial history.

“Gazetteers” are a fascinating historical resource for anyone interested in life in late imperial China.  These records were by their nature both geographically bounded and technical.  They might focus on a region, a province, a county, a city, a temple or even an important waterway.  The ostensible point of a gazetteer was to gather the information that a busy outside government official or visitor might need to get up to speed on a new posting or assignment.  As such these books are a valuable historical resource which provide maps, community histories, economic discussions, biographies of notable citizens and local color.  

Members of the gentry were usually tasked with writing and editing the gazetteers.  This was considered a prestigious assignment as the editor of such a volume had the ability to shape the local social and historical record.  A review of these books shows that the families of the editors were inevitably remembered as “illustrious scholars” and “paragons of virtue.”  It is important to take the social history that one finds in these books with a grain of salt, but they remain a vital resource for understanding local history in China.

The editors of these volumes usually went to some effort to put their best foot forward and appear as orthodox and socially respectable as possible.  As a result gazettes often omit the sort of information that might be most useful to the historian of the martial arts.

Douglas Wile discovered a classic case of this while researching his landmark volume on the early Taiji literature (1996).  The Wu brothers, who had important careers as high ranking public servants, were also gifted literary scholars.  They put these skills to good use by editing the local county gazetteer after retiring from public office, as well as discovering, editing and preserving the oldest still existing manuscript tradition of what we now call the “Taiji Classics.”

In fact, all three brothers were deeply involved with and committed to, the practice of Taiji.  It is thus odd that the historical volume that they edited contains no references to Taiji, or to the brothers other very substantial military exploits.  Wile debates how we should interpret this silence.  Was it some hint of sedition?  Possibly.  But a simpler explanation would be that a public airing of such an eccentric interest in a “dignified” source would bring embarrassment to the Wu family.

Marnix Wells has fared better with the use of gazetteers in his research.  The county records that he dealt with in his investigation of Chang Naizhou not only preserved his memory, but it went into detail on the biographies of a number of other martial artists in the region.  This is really about the best scenario that you can hope for.  Yet in many cases these records simply pass over the martial arts in silence, not because they were actually absent, but rather because they were viewed as undignified or unorthodox by the volume’s editor.

The other difficult thing about gazetteers is finding and translating them.  Localities were supposed to update these records regularly.  Some did, while others were pretty lax.  Nor is there a central clearing house for this information today.  A few of these volumes (generally the ones for the more important areas) have been republished, but most of this information is still sitting in library stacks and private book collections in China.  Actually getting ahold of all of the information that you would like to see, and successfully translating it, can be a major feat of scholarship in itself.

Luckily for us the editors of the late 17th century gazetteer for Yongchun County, Fujian Province, had no moral objections to the martial arts.  We are also fortunate in that what he had to say was deemed important enough to warrant subsequent republishing and discussion, first by scholars in China, then by Stanley Henning in the United States.

Very often information about important martial artists (if any is included) will be found in the section on local biographies of noteworthy private citizens that most county gazetteers seem to have included.  The brief account quoted by Henning and others states that during the Kangxi era (1662-1735) a woman named Ding Number Seven moved to Yongchun with her husband.  Together they taught a number of individuals including 24 disciples.  The most important of these was an individual named Zheng Li.

Zheng warranted his own entry in the volume.  It focused on his immense strength and boxing skills.  The discussions of his feats included a stereotyped defeat of a water buffalo (which he pulled the horns off of) and a shaolin monk (who later became a friend and teacher).  Zheng was taught by Woman Ding, and he in turn provided instruction to most of the lineages that were still operating in the area at the time that the account was written.

So when does this account date to?  We do not have an exact date, but we do have some clues.  The list of southern gazetteers provided by James Tong indicates that Yongchun County did not update their records frequently (Disorder Under Heaven, 1992).  As such it looks like this account might date to the 1684 edition of the local gazetteer.   If these dates are correct than Ding Number Seven would have been active sometime between 1660 and 1680.  Given that the account indicates as least two generations of instruction have passed, this would indicate that she was probably teaching in the 1660s.

Of course this account is also interesting for what is left out.  We hear very little of her husband and his accomplishments.  One wonders if perhaps she was included because she was both a martial artist and a “virtuous widow,” a group that always enjoyed recognition in these lists (see the discussion in Victoria Cass, 1999).

Nor do we know the name of the style that she taught.  Today she is revered as the ancestor of Yongchun White Crane Boxing.  Yet neither avian nor geographic nomenclature are mentioned in the account of her teaching, just the size of her school.  Readers are also never told where she learned her art.  Was it from her husband?  Or possibly her father? 

While the biographical account of Zheng Li is full of exaggeration and folklore (the defeat of a bull-type creature is one of the classic markers of a martial arts legend, as is a confrontation with a Shaolin monk) his teacher’s life lacks any fantastic elements.  The account is all business, possibly too much so.

Subsequent versions of her story were more expansive and attempted to fill in these blanks.  Perhaps the best-preserved account from this era is found in the Bubishi.  This enigmatic work represents a Fujianese martial arts manuscript tradition dating from the last half of the 19th century.  The manuscripts in question were preserved in Okinawa (hence the Japanese title), and went on to influence the development of that island’s indigenous fighting traditions. 

The manuscripts included in the Bubishi are written in Chinese and include discussions of martial arts history, ethics, White Crane and Monk Fist styles, vital point strikes and traditional Chinese herbal medicines.  The manuscripts are sometimes heavily illustrated and often appear without any specific order.  An almost identical work entitled the Secret Shaolin Bronze Man Book was preserved by the Liu family in Fuzhou leading to the conclusion that the work was originally composed in China rather than Okinawa.

The volume begins its discussion of White Crane Kung Fu with the following story:


“In spite of his fighting skills in Monk Fist Boxing, Fang Zhonggong was no match for the scoundrels from a neighboring village who deceived and then viciously beat him while vying for control of his village.  The injuries Fang sustained during the altercation were so severe that he was unable to fully recuperate and fell gravely ill.  Attending to by his loving daughter and personal disciple, Fang Qiniang, his condition gradually deteriorated.  No longer even able to eat, he finally died.

Deeply troubled by the loathsome circumstances of her beloved father’s death, Fang Qiniang vowed to take revenge.  Although just a country girl from the rural village of Yongchun, Fang Qiniang was nevertheless a promising and spirited young woman.  She longed to vindicate her family name, but she had not yet mastered the fighting skills her father was teaching her.  She deeply pondered upon how she might find the power and strength to overcome such adversaries.

One day, not long after the tragedy, Fang was sobbing over the memory of her loss when suddenly she heard some strange noises coming from the bamboo grove just outside her home.  Looking out the window to see what was making such a racket, she saw two beautiful cranes fighting.  She noticed how the magnificent creatures strategically maneuvered themselves away from each others fierce attacks with remarkable precision.  In the midst of piercing screams, the vigorous and lethal pecking was well concealed.

Deciding to frighten off the creatures, Fang went outside and grabbed the long bamboo pole she used for hanging clothes to dry.  As she approached the cranes, Fang swung the pole but was unable to get close.  Each time she attempted to swing or poke with the pole, they sensed her proximity, and, before the pole could reach its intended target, the birds instinctively evaded her every effort and finally just flew off.

Reflecting deeply upon this incident, Fang concluded that it was a revelation and soon set about evaluating the white cranes’ instinctive combat methods.  If someone could fight the way the white cranes had, that person would be unbeatable.  After considerable time and study, Fang finally came to understand the central principles of hard and soft and yielding to power.  Fusing the central elements of Monk Fist gongfu with her own interpretation of the birds innate defensive movements she created a new style.

After three years of relentless training, Fang developed into an unusually skillful fighter.  Capable of remarkable feats of strength and power, Fang Qiniang was no longer the weak and frail girl she once was.  Her skills and determination finally gained her a notable reputation.  Undefeated in those three years, Fang’s innovative style ultimately became one of the most popular civil self-defense traditions in and around Fujian Province, and became known as Yongchun White Crane Boxing.”


The Bubishi demonstrates that within two centuries the creator of Yongchun Boxing had evolved from a historical person with a number of personal students to a full blown initiatory figure with a martial arts mythology of her own.  A comparison of the early account of “Ding” to the later stories of the woman “Fang” provides an excellent illustration of how it is that myths emerge and crystallize around the barest historical details.  Note also how the questions posed by the short biographical sketch are systematically answered throughout the later extended story.

Rather than coming to the county with her paradoxically quiet husband, she is now attached to a father capable to teaching her Monk Fist Style.  This certainly explains where Feng learned her art.  Yet she did not teach Monk Fist to her students?  Instead her father conveniently dies at the hands of bandits and she is forced to innovate to avenge the family name. 

While the theme is a common one in martial arts legends, it still serves to introduce the vision of the fighting cranes that has been central to the development of martial arts in the Yongchun region.   Further, Feng’s encounter with fighting cranes at her moment of greatest loss and despair shows an uncanny resemblance to Ng Mui’s later epiphany in the aftermath of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple. 

Of course this new account raises its own set of questions.  Did Feng use her new found martial prowess to carry out an act of bloody revenge?  And what of the missing husband?  Did she ever go on to marry? If not, why?  Lastly, who was Feng Zhonggong?  Given the abrupt start of the story it would appear that the Bubishi is only presenting a tantalizing fragment of what was once a longer narrative.

Current folklore, still in circulation among modern martial artists, has taken up each of these questions in turn.  It takes no great leap of imagination to see Fang Zhonggong as an escapee from the ruins of Shaolin.  This conclusion may even be implied in the 19th century fragment of the story that we still poses.  He is obviously not a monk as he has married and has a daughter.  Still, many lay Buddhists studied martial arts at Shaolin in both legend and fact.  This would certainly seem to explain how he learned Monk Fist style in the first place. 

His daughter’s use of the long pole in her attempt to scare off the noisy cranes is highly suggestive of the historic Shaolin pole fighting style.  Lastly, the Bubishi claims that Feng always taught that it was only through the cultivation of inner peace and harmony that true martial mastery could be achieved.  It also states that her ideas about this were handed down from the ancient past through her father and were not native to Fuzhou.

Modern readers have accepted this implied Shaolin connection without hesitation.  Ng Ho reports that in some versions of the story Feng Qiniang refuses to marry, becomes a Buddhist nun herself, and changes her name to Yongchun (Wing Chun in Cantonese).  In the end he concludes that from a folklore perspective “It is impossible to ascertain whether Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang and the nun Yongchun were one and the same person or three distinct individuals.”   I agree with this basic conclusion that the myth takes a single identity and reworks it into multiple stories.  To this list of overlapping stories we can also add the Abbess Ng Mui. 

Historically speaking, the faded memory of Ding, a real martial arts instructor in Yongchun Village, has inspired the foundation myths of both Wing Chun and White Crane, as well as the individual legends of the Yim Wing Chun, Fang Yongchun, Fang Qiniang, and most recently the Nun Yongchun or Ng Mui.  All four of these individuals probably represent different aspects of the same legendary figure.


 Women Naginata Warriors, Gaurdians of the Chiyoda Palace, Covering the Retreat from a Burning Castle. By Chikanobu, 1896.
Women Naginata Warriors, Gaurdians of the Chiyoda Palace, Covering the Retreat from a Burning Castle. By Chikanobu, 1896.

Thinking About Female Martial Artists in the Late Imperial Period

How should we seek to situate the historic accounts of Woman Ding Number Seven?  Just as importantly, how should we understand the evolution of her reputation over time?  In what ways does the growth of this subsequent tradition illustrate the expectations and possibilities that female martial artists worked under?

The critical item to take away from the older account was that not only did some women seriously study the martial arts, but they might even have been reasonably expected to teach.  The subsequent 19th century expansion of the original story can be viewed as an attempt to erase any ambiguity on that front.  Ding’s husband was entirely erased from the memory of the White Crane system.  Given the highly patriarchal nature of Chinese society, this is a fact that invites some careful consideration.

Victoria Cass has provided us with a simple three part typology for considering the different aspects of Chinese popular society in the late imperial period that a woman might be required to function in.  While much of her volume, Dangerous Women (1999), focused on female mystics, martyrs and prostitutes, she also explicitly addressed martial artists and rebels.  As such I think that this is a good starting point for thinking about Ding and her legacy.

Geography played a strong part in the popular imagination in both the Ming and Qing period.  In fact, it became a sort of mental filing mechanism for various sorts of experiences, and subsequently different philosophies of the best way to achieve the “good life.”  The three main geographic domains that seem to have captured the public imagination were the quaint villages of the countryside, the burgeoning cities of the south and rustic mountain retreats.

The lives of individual women can also be thought of as being structured by each of these domains.  The small town was the stronghold of traditional morality.  Women played a crucial role in the maintenance of this system. 

Cass objects to the term “neo-Confucian” as it excludes too many important cultural elements (particularly as they pertain to the female members of the household).  This was a social system that was ordered by the principals of hierarchy, loyalty and (most critically) sacrifice.  Individuals were expected to sacrifice to show their fealty to the larger social structures, and in so doing they brought order to not only their own lives, but also to the entire community. 

Sometimes (such as the through the suicide of a “virtuous widow”) this creation of good order was seen as taking place on a cosmic scale.  Cass sees women as often fanatic participants in, and defenders of, what was essentially a dangerous cult.  Specifically, it was dangerous because of the size of the sacrifices that social decorum could demand of any of its members at a moment’s notice.

It would not be hard to see Ding within this world.  In fact, this is almost certainly the world that both she and the subsequent gazetteer editors inhabited.  Whereas later accounts dismiss her husband, the clear implication in the original text is that she was married to a martial artist and moved to Yongchun because of him.  These are the actions of an obedient wife.  Her involvement with the martial arts might be seen as the sacrifice of a gentle life, and a certain vision of femininity, to the demands of the “family business.”

Admittedly these are probably are not the first ideas that would occur to most modern readers of this biographical sketch.  Yet if Ding was to be included as an example of a “leading citizen” in a document like this, than she would have to conform to the stringent expectations of neo-Confucian orthodoxy.  If she was widowed at a young age (as seems a likely possibility) it is probably worth noting that she doesn’t appear to have remarried or to have had children.

The second geographic domain is more urban.  The city was the home of a new type of popular culture.  Here men and women sought to build a different life based not on the idea of “sacrifice” but “authenticity.”  Strong feelings and impulses were seen as the well spring of life, rather than something that needed to be placed on the altar of the family and the state. 

More egalitarian relationships were forged in the home and more economically equal modes of production happened on the street.  Urbanization saw the creation of a new class of town folk and merchant.  Women in cities became merchants, writers, healers and teachers in great numbers.  The city was often decried for its prostitution and “moral degradation,” but the truth was that it opened a wide variety of new economic opportunities for woman that had never been available in the countryside.

Female acrobats and martial artists occasionally performed in the streets.  Likewise the early Republic saw a number of all female opera troops in southern China.  There is some indication that Ding also succeeded in this commercial world.  She had a large number of students for someone from a small village and her fame spread well beyond the borders of Yongchun.

The last geographic area is the mountain retreat.  This is the realm of the recluse or mystic.  Individuals retreated from the concerns to the world to follow the path of the dao, placing themselves in direct contact with strong natural currents.  Cass argues that this trend was actually a direct outgrowth of the success of late imperial urbanization.  In some way the mystical turn was a reaction against urbanization, but one that preserved the importance of “authenticity” as a central value.

Throughout the Ming and Qing periods mystics were thought to acquire magical powers through their isolation and devotion.  Some were sought out as healers, while others became spiritual gurus.  Some of the more eccentric ones were simply sought out as curiosities and highly prestigious dinner guests.

In the late 19th century mastery of the martial arts came to be closely aligned with this vision and the social values that went with it.  This transition is actually pretty evident in the history and folklore of the hand combat systems.  Early in the 19th century much of the martial arts seem to revolve around the need for sacrifice to defend the village from concrete physical threats.  As the threats of the late 19th century became more metaphysical in nature, the martial arts took to the mountains, metaphorically speaking.  Early in the 1800s a highly desired teacher might have been a military trainer or a distinguished veteran.  But by the end of the 19th century only a secluded mystic would do.  If they claimed a Shaolin heritage, so much the better.

A painting of Hua Mulan.
A painting of Hua Mulan. Source: Wikimedia.

Again, there were older cultural precedents that one could draw on in the construction of this vision of martial virtue.  Consider for instance the archaic story of the Maiden of Yue, which was discussed in martial circles throughout the Ming and Qing:

“[An advisor speaking to his King]….I hear there is a young woman of Yue who came from the Southern Forests; the people of Yue speak highly of her.  I think your Majesty should send her an invitation and you can see for yourself how good she is.’

So the King of Yue sent an emissary with a polite invitation to ask whether the King could get her advice on skill in use of swords and halberds.

The Young Woman of Yue traveled north for her audience with the king.  On the way, she men an old fellow who said his name was ‘Old Mr. Yuan.’

He said to the young woman, ‘I hear you fight well with a staff.  I’d like to see a demonstration.’

She replied, ‘I wouldn’t presume to keep anything from you: you are welcome to test my skill, Sir.’

So Old Man Yuan drew out a length of Linyu bamboo.  But the bamboo was rotten at one end.  The end fell to the ground and the young woman immediately snatched it up.  The old man wielded the top end of the staff and thrust towards the young woman, but the girl parried straight back, thrust three times and finally raised her end of the bamboo and drove home her attack against Old Man Yuan.  Old Man Yuan hopped off up a tree, turning into a white ape.  Then each went their own way, and she went to meet the King.

The King asked her, ‘of all the methods of fighting with the staff which is the best?’

She answered, ‘I was born in the depths of the forest and I grew up in the wilds where no other people ever ventured.  So there was no “method” for me and I followed no course of instruction, for I never ventured into the feudal fiefs.  Secretly I yearned for a true method of fighting and I practiced endlessly.  I never learned it from anyone: I just realized one day that I could do it.’

‘And what method do you practice now?’ asked the King.

‘The method involves great mystery and depth.  The method involves “front doors” and “back doors” as well as hard and soft aspects.  Opening the “front door” and closing the “back door” closes off the soft aspect and brings the hard aspect to the fore.

‘Whenever you have hand-to-hand combat, you need to have nerves of steel on the inside, but be totally calm in the outside.  I must look like a demure young lady and fight like a startled tiger.  My profile changes with the action of my body, and both follow my subconscious.  Overshadow your adversary like the sun; but scuttle like a flushed hare.  Become a whirl of silhouettes and shadows; shimmer like a mirage.  Inhale, exhausting, moving in, moving back out, keeping yourself out of reach, using your strategy to block the adversary, vertical, horizontal, resisting, following, straight, devious, and all without sound.  With a method like this one man can match a hundred; a hundred men can match ten thousand.  If Your Majesty wants to try me out, you can have a demonstration right away.’

The King of Yue was overjoyed and immediately gave her the title ‘Daughter of Yue.’  Then he ordered the divisional commanders and crack troops to practice the new method so that they could pass on their skills to the troops.  From then on, the method was known as ‘The Daughter of Yue’s Swordsmanship.’”

                     Translation by Stephen Selby. Chinese Archery.  Hong Kong University Press. 2000. pp.155-157


As the biography of the Woman Ding Number Seven evolved into the tale of the tale of “Fang”, daughter of a “Shaolin monk,” other literary patterns and inspirations were brought in to enrich the mix.  Notice for instance how in the later version of the story Fang uses a pole in a test of skills with a heavenly animal, much like Maiden of Yue in the ancient account.  Both of them are without a male protector, and both are left to their own devices to devise a system of defense that will work for a woman.  In so doing they both reveal the fundamental principles and philosophy behind the Chinese martial arts.  And while Ding may have started off in the heart of a village surrounded by students, Fang, like her ancient predecessor, inhabits the wilderness.  In her later literary guises he even takes up residence at “White Crane Temple” in the mountains.


A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.
A photo of female martial artists from the Jingwu Anniversary Book. The woman on the left is Chen Shichao, one of the most vocal campaigners for the equality of female martial artists within Jingwu. She toured China and south east Asia promoting female involvement in the martial arts.


In future installments of this series I would like to take a closer look at some of the prominent female martial artists and reformers of the Republic period.  But to do that it is first necessary to gain a better understanding of the historic roles that such individuals have actually played.  Our examination of Woman Ding demonstrates that while not common, important female martial artists did exist in the late imperial period and that they could be remembered as foundation figures.

Still, the progression from “Woman Ding” to “Feng” suggests that there has always been a strong tendency to understand and frame these discussions within larger archetypal narratives.  Changes in Chinese popular culture account for not only the drastic increase in stories about female martial artists in the late Qing and Republic era, but also the way in which those stories evolved.  Rather than seeing women warriors as a bulwark of neo-Confucian values, they are increasingly perceived as guardians of a transcendent set of truths about Chinese identity and the true nature of power.  These were topics that generated much anxiety at the time.

This narrative potential had been present for centuries.  Indeed the story of the Maiden of Yue was told in many places during the Ming dynasty.  But it wasn’t until the more existential challenges of the early 1900s that this vision became a popular mode of social expression. 

The groundwork has now been set for a monumental shift.  Not only will the social reforms of the late Qing and Republic era bring more women into the martial arts than ever before, but they will also be inheriting a very specific set of cultural expectations.  They will be seen as both guardians of the essence of Chinese culture and potential reformers in the face of serious threats to that tradition.  A number of female martial artists during the 1920s and 1930s will seek to seize this banner.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (4): Sun Lutang and the Invention of the “Traditional” Chinese Martial Arts (Part I).

Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.
Self portrait of Sun Lutang, demonstrating Xingyi Quan for one of his five books.

I am currently working on a paper that has me thinking about Sun Lutang again.  To my mind he has always been one of the quintessential pioneers of the modern Chinese martial arts.  So here is Part One of a three part biographical sketch.  Also see Part Two and Part Three.  Enjoy!

Introduction: Why Sun Lutang?

One of the persistent problems that I see in amateur discussions of “Chinese martial studies” is a lack of understanding of how broad the traditional martial arts really were, and the variety of life experiences that they encompassed.  In fact, rather than discussing China’s martial culture in the singular, it would probably be better to think about these cultures in the plural.  The martial arts never were just one thing, and our experience with the modern “traditional” arts tends to seriously skew our perceptions of the past.

To counter this trend I have been compiling a series of short biographies on important and interesting martial artists from the 19th and 20th centuries.  So far we have seen the martial arts used as a revolutionary philosophy by a cross-dressing political terrorist, as a means of economic and political advancement for a poor boy from the country, and as an natural outgrowth of southern China’s intensely commercial marketplaces.  All of our previous martial artists have pursued very concrete economic, social and political goals.  With the exception of Qui Jin’s use of martial imagery in some of her revolutionary poetry, none of them have viewed the martial arts as an overly philosophical or spiritual endeavor.

I believe that this accurately represents the life experience of the vast majority of China’s 19th century martial artists.  Most of these individuals were relatively uneducated youth from the countryside.  They sought out the martial arts either as a means to better paying employment (perhaps as a caravan guard) or as a source of entertainment and personal cultivation during slack periods of the agricultural year.

Yet this is not how most western martial artists view the Chinese styles today.  Discussions of the “traditional” martial arts (in both China and America) are prefaced with the assumption that these practices are “really” about health, weight loss, qi cultivation or mental peace.  I think that these often heard assertions would come as something of a revelation to most of China’s 19th century boxers.  It is not that they did not value the health benefits of regular exercise.  In an age without modern medical care they certainly did, and “Qigong-esque” exercises have been around for a long time.  But that was never why they braved social condemnation to practice these arts in the first place.

Still, since the late Ming dynasty there has been a small minority of individuals who did practice and advocate the study of boxing as a form of “self-cultivation.”  Meir Shahar, in his masterful study of the evolution of the fighting arts of Shaolin, has demonstrated that in the late 1500s at least one group of monks at the temple started to abandon the study of battlefield weapons in favor of unarmed boxing mixed with Daoist longevity practices and traditional medical philosophy.

It is not a mystery that small groups of monks might find the mixture of strenuous physical training and philosophical mysticism intoxicating.  These individuals were, after all, monks.  Self-cultivation and the attainment of altered states of consciousness through strenuous esoteric activities was their day-job.  This was just a new technology to accomplish the goals that monks in many religious traditions have always sought.

What was surprising was Shahar’s finding that the growing popularity of this strange brew was not confined to the nation’s Temples, but that it was spreading quite rapidly throughout the lettered classes in the late Ming and early Qing period.  At exactly the point in time when one might have expected elites to be the most interested in serious military study, they were instead turning their attention to more mystical pursuits.

So we know that this interest in Daoist philosophy, medicine and longevity practices has been an undercurrent in certain corners of the Chinese martial arts world for some time.  Probably over 400 years.  Depending on how you interpret the story of the Maiden of Yue (a Bronze Age fencing master who showed a keen interest in philosophy) maybe a lot longer.  But we lack the literary evidence to say much about the pre-Ming period.

Still, this view remained a minority one.  It was the sort of thing that was mostly taken up by the few educated elites who had any interest in Boxing, and it did not have a huge impact on the goals and military aspirations of ordinary martial artists.

This basic social pattern started to undergo a fundamental shift in the wake of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1901).  In the modern era (dominated by firearms) the original military applications of the martial arts started to look outdated to a number of educated social elites.  Actual military and police personnel had reasons to continue to be interested in unarmed defense, but these sorts of concerns rarely bothered arm-chair reformers or “May 4th” radicals.  In fact, many of these reformers and modernizers wanted to do away with traditional hand combat.  To them boxing was an embarrassing relic of China’s feudal and superstitious past.

For the martial arts to succeed in the 20th century they would need to transition.  They had to be made appealing to increasingly educated and modern middle-class individuals living in urban areas.  It would be hard to imagine a group more different from the rural farm youths that had traditionally practiced these arts.  But this is the task that the early martial reformers of the 20th century dedicated themselves too.

We have already briefly discussed the Jingwu Association (created in Shanghai in 1909) and their pioneering efforts to reform and save the Chinese martial arts (as well as the nation).  However, there were a number of other reformers in the same era.  And while the traditional martial arts did survive, the systems that we have today are in many ways quite different from what the Jingwu, and later Guoshu, reformers envisioned.

Sun Lutang is a seminal figure in the history of the early 20th century Chinese martial arts.  While best known in Neijia and Taijiquan circles (where he is credited with the creation of Sun style Taiji), his vision of what the Chinese martial arts should be is still being perpetuated today.  In fact, he did more to promote the idea that the martial arts are fundamentally about health and self-cultivation than any other single figure.  Through his ground breaking publications in the 1910s and 1920s he codified a set of ideas about the nature of the Chinese martial arts that we continue to carry with us.

In some senses I am hesitant to write on Sun Lutang.  I do not practice Sun style Taiji, Xingyi Quan or Bagua.  For that matter I am not particularly sympathetic to the view that the Chinese martial arts should be about health and self-cultivation.  I am much more familiar with the local histories of southern China and Cantonese culture.  I come to this question as an outsider.

Yet the influence of Sun Lutang’s ideas and reforms have stretched far beyond his homeland in the “central plains.”  His theories continue to influence popular perceptions, in both the east and west, about what the Chinese martial arts are and what they should be.  With his triple dedication to hand combat, Daoist longevity and classical Chinese philosophy, he has become the perfect “little old Chinese man” that all other martial arts teachers are subsequently judged against.  In short, it is necessary for the field of Chinese martial studies to address the contributions of this dynamic writer and thinker on a more fundamental level than any specific contributions that he may have made to popular lineages of Taiji or Xingyi Quan.

The next three posts comprise a brief discussion of Sun Lutang and his contributions to the traditional Chinese martial arts.  The remainder of this post provides an overview and timeline of his life.  The information in this review is based on the introductory essay (by Tim Cartmell, 2003) in A Study of Taijiquan (1921) by Sun Lutang.  Cartmell drew on a variety of sources when assembling his biographical sketch, including extensive interviews with Sun Lutang’s surviving daughter Sun Jianyun.  A skilled martial arts teacher who worked with her father, Sun Jianyun was able to fill in many of the gaps and paint a more accurate picture of her father’s day to day life.

The second post in this series will focus on Sun Lutang’s association with other martial artists and hand combat institutions.  In fact, one of the most interesting elements of Sun Lutang’s life is the window that it opens onto the transformation of late Qing hand combat traditions and the development of modern martial arts culture in Northern China.  While the brief biographical sketches that we present below cannot always flesh out the social importance of events in his life, we hope to be able to expand on some of this material in the second post.

With a better understanding of the factual and social foundations of Sun Lutang’s life, the third post will turn to a discussion of his lasting impact on the traditional Chinese martial arts.  While Sun Lutang lived most of his life in Northern China, his ideas have spread around the country, and even around the globe.  What impact did his synthesis of philosophy, medicine and hand combat have on the development of the southern Chinese martial arts?  To what extent did he provide the intellectual and philosophical foundations that allowed the Chinese martial arts to become a middle class phenomenon outgrowing, in large part, their origins in rural poverty?  Do we see his hand in the emergence of the Qigong craze on the 1990s, and the subsequent “medicalization” of the Chinese martial arts?  Lastly, when I deal with students who want me to tell them that Wing Chun is really an “internal” art, to what extent are they responding to ideas and hierarchies that were first developed by Sun and promoted by his students?

Kennedy and Guo have called Sun Lutang the most important Chinese martial artists of the modern era (2005 p.182).  I don’t think that this assertion is an overstatement.  Of course saying that someone has had a huge impact on the development is not the same as saying that they were the most talented practitioner to ever live.  If nothing else his books have clearly had a transformative impact on all the literature that has come after them.  Still, it seems that relatively few modern martial artists (outside the Neijia community) really have much of an idea of who Sun actually was or what he accomplished.  He is lionized by members of his Taiji lineage and ignored by pretty much everyone else.

My review of Sun Lutang’s life will have little to say about his specific martial teachings or contributions to Taiji.  Instead I hope to promote a broader appreciation of this figure in the field of Chinese martial studies.  His life is a fascinating case study that illustrates a key era in the transition of the Chinese martial arts.  Further, the ideas that he authored or popularized continue to shape how many people approach these fighting styles to this day.  Even the practice of people who will profess to have never studied Sun is often profoundly marked by his writing.

Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.
Historic Lotus Ponds in old Baoding. Source: Wikimedia.

Childhood: Overcoming Injustice with the Brush and the Sword.

The early years of Sun Lutang’s life are interesting enough to be the subject of a number of movies.  Originally named Sun Fu Quan, there is some debate as to when exactly he was born.  His daughter says that he was born in 1862 on a small farm outside of Baoding (south west of Beijing) in Hebei Province.  Sun’s father had never been very prosperous and did not marry until middle age.

Recognizing the intelligence of his son he sent him to study the Confucian classics with a local teacher when he was seven years old.  For the next two years Sun memorized and copied basic texts.  Despite his obvious intelligence his formal education came to an unceremonious end when his father’s crops failed and the family was forced to sell the farm to pay off debts or taxes.  A short while later Sun’s father fell ill and died, leaving the young boy fatherless and with no means of support.

Sun’s mother felt that she was unable to care for her child so she placed him in the home of a wealthy (but apparently sadistic) landlord as a servant.  Sun was never actually paid for his work but he was fed.  It seems that virtual slavery did not suit the young child’s personality and while he suffered through many beatings he started plotting a means of emancipation, at least to the degree that an eight year old child can imagine such things.

His first big break came in 1872.  While in a field tending sheep Sun came across an old man of about 70 leading an outdoor martial arts class.  The next day he returned and begged to be taught the martial arts.  When asked why he wanted to study boxing the naïve 11 year old bluntly told the teacher (surname Wu) about his situation and desire to take revenge on his employer and his equally abusive family.  Aghast at the tale of the young child life’s the older martial artist took him on as a student, but only after warning him that “The martial arts are not just for fighting, these principals are very deep.”

I hope to explore Wu’s background and his influence on the young Sun in my next post.  While a good mentor for the boy his influence on him only lasted a couple of years.  On New Year’s Day of 1875 Sun got in a confrontation with the son and nephew of his employer.  After successfully defending himself from an unprovoked attack, his boss threatened to beat him to death and Sun’s term of “employment” as a household servant came to an end.

With no means of supporting himself, and no plans for the future, Sun fell into deep depression.  His only interest now lay in the martial arts, but even that was soured by the taunts of local villagers.  They felt that Sun was sure to grow up to become a bandit and a blight on the countryside and delighted in telling him so.  Statistically speaking they may have been correct.  Most “bandits” were young men without prospects or land who suffered an economic setback that forced them out of village life.

Not wishing to be a burden on his mother the young Sun resolved to hang himself.  Fortunately his suicide attempt failed and the boy was cut down by a passing traveler who took the boy home.  After assessing the situation he gave the family some money that they used to leave the hamlet and travel to Baoding proper where Sun had an uncle who ran a shop selling calligraphy brushes.  The uncle took in the struggling family and gave the young Sun a job as a clerk.  This was an immense step up in life from what he had known in the countryside and the Uncle proved to be a kind employer.  Further, his job in town put him in touch with the literary elements of society and gave him a chance to practice his calligraphy on scraps of paper.

It was through his Uncle that Sun would meet two men who would change his life forever.  The first of these individuals was a scholar named Zhang.  Zhang immediately recognized the young boy’s talents and invited him into his home to study calligraphy and literature.  He in turn introduced Sun to a friend of his named Li Kui Yuan.  Li Kui Yuan was a talented Xing Yi Quan student and the owner of the Tai An armed escort service.  He was delighted to find a student and resumed Sun’s formal instruction in the martial arts.

When he was 18 years old, Sun and Li went to visit Zhang on his 50th birthday.  Zhang took the opportunity to suggest that Li accept Sun as his formal disciple, and Li suggested that Sun should be engaged to Zhang’s 16 year old daughter.  Both ideas were heartily accepted and Sun place in society was now secure.  But he did not marry immediately.  Instead he and Li traveled to Beijing to study with Guo Yun Shen, Li’s original Xingyi Quan teacher.

Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.
Lion state at a temple on Emeishan. source: Wikimedia.

The Wandering Years

By 18 years of age Sun’s life had changed dramatically.  His mother was cared for (by Zhang), he had a fiancée and the sort of martial education that would allow him to make his way in the world.  This was when most young martial artists would settle down and get on with the business of life.

But Sun was reluctant to marry immediately.  Nor did he only view the martial arts as a means of career advancement.  He wanted to understand them on a deeper level, and doing so meant leaving the confines of Baoding and traveling to the capital.  Guo Yun Shen would be the key figure in his subsequent development into a master.

Sun learned quickly as he studied with Guo.  The older master was impressed with the intelligence and footwork of the youth, enough so that he made him the formal inheritor of his lineage of Kung Fu.  He also bequeathed upon him the nickname “smarter than an active monkey.”

In total Sun spent eight years with Guo.  In addition to his earlier education with Wu and Li, he now had a formidable martial education.  But he was not done yet.  In 1889 Sun used an introduction from Guo to meet Cheng Ting Hua, a master of the relatively young Bagua system.  At the age of 27 Sun undertook a detailed study of this new art.

Sun studied with Cheng for three years.  In that time he focused on Dragon Style Bagua, Bagua Sword and spear training.  At the end of this period he was apparently left with additional questions, but Cheng claimed he had no more to teach him.

Instead he said that if he Sun wanted to understand the system more deeply he needed to study Daoism.  However, Sun was not free to undertake such a trip lightly.  He now had responsibilities to consider.  In 1892 he returned to Baoding, married his fiancé and saw the birth of his first son.  To support the family he started a popular school that attracted a number of students.

But the advice of Cheng was not forgotten.  In 1894/5 he set out for Sichuan province where he met the monk Zhi Zhen who taught him both Emei Qigong and the theory behind his approach to I-Ching analysis.  On the return trip Sun stopped at Wudang Mountain (an important site for Daoist instruction) and studied Qigong and immortality practiced with Jing Xu.  I hope to investigate this philosophical turn in Sun’s martial practice, and its specific connection to his trip to Emei, in the next post.

In 1896 he returned to his home town near Baoding with his wife and son.  During this period Sun established not only martial arts classes, but also literary clubs to help spread literacy and basic education among the peasantry.  He even appears to have started to lecture about philosophy directly in his classes.

While things were going well for Sun and his family, in 1899 we once again find them on the move.  This time he moved the whole family away from Baoding and relocated in Xing Tang, 120 km from Beijing (twice the distance of his previous residence).  Xing Tang now appears to be part of Shijiazhuang.

This move is usually passed over with relative silence in Sun’s various biographies.  That is unfortunate as it is probably one of the most interesting, and wisest, decisions that he made in his entire life.  The Boxer Uprising was brewing in in 1899 and there was substantial violence along the border between Hebei and Shandong.  The spreading violence was clearly headed to Beijing, and Baoding was directly in its path.

By late in 1899 inter-community violence was breaking out between Chinese Christians (often armed with modern western rifles) and anti-foreign Boxers (armed with spears and swords) in Baoding.  The area saw repeated massacres in February and March of 1900, when things started to spiral out of control.  Some of the most important violence of the early Uprising happened along the Baoding-Beijing railway to the east of the city.

Joseph W. Esherick reviews events in and around Baoding in his groundbreaking study The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (1987).  Most of the “Boxers” were impressionable country youth rather than sophisticated martial artists.  Many of them relied on spirit possession and magical formula for their military power, not years of formal training.  Still, it is undeniable that many martial arts schools in the region were caught up in the violence.  Others foresaw tragedy on the horizon and tried desperately to distance themselves from the coming cataclysm.

It would appear that Sun was in the later camp.  By moving his family to Shijiazhuang they avoided the brutal waves of inter-community violence, and later western retaliation, that tore Baoding apart.  It would certainly be interesting to know the fate of his Baoding students from this period, whether they too fled or if they stayed to fight.  Cheng Ting Hua, Sun’s Bagua teacher and the individual who sent him on his quest to study Daoism, was shot and killed by German troops during their sack of Beijing.

His new home was also far enough from the capital that he could continue to practice and teach the martial arts in the years after the Uprising.  This is significant as schools were being closed and martial artists were forced underground across the country.  In this period public sentiment turned decidedly against boxing and the traditional martial arts came closer to extinction than they have been before or since.

As a young man Sun Lu Tang was very interested in the practical applications of his fighting arts, something that is still reflected in the basic structure of Sun Taiji.  He fought in a number of challenge matches and worked as a guard and bodyguard.  However, later in his career he claimed that the martial arts were really for health maintenance and self-cultivation.  He famously told his students that if they wanted to fight they should “get a gun.”  One wonders how much of this shift in his attitude had to do with his philosophically inspired wandering, and how much of it can be attributed to the utter destruction of Baoding (and the murder of Cheng Ting Hua) during the throws of the Boxer Uprising.

One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.
One of the most iconic images of the Boxer Uprising. This photograph was taken for the turn of the century wire news media.

Sun Lutang on the National Stage

It is a minor miracle that the traditional modes of hand combat survived the social fallout from the Boxer Uprising.  The western retaliation in the wake of this wave of anti-Christian violence was terrible and indiscriminate.  Educated individuals around the country blamed martial artists (quite unfairly) for the diminished state of their country.  Nevertheless, after a few years had passed it became possible to reopen schools that were closed in the initial calamity.

In 1907 Xu Shichang, (still a Qing official) invited Sun to the far northeast of China (Feng Tian) to set up a school.  While there he defeated a local bandit who was terrorizing the area and may have been scheduled to fight with a foreigner in a public challenge match.  I cannot confirm its authenticity, but the popular story is that Xu Shichang called the fight off because he feared diplomatic retaliation if Sun defeated the foreigner.

The stay did not last long, though it helped to cement his relationship with Xu, a figure who would be an important politician in the Republic era.  It also introduced Sun to a new circle of potential sponsors.  Late in 1907 he returned to Baoding to reestablish his schools there after almost eight years of absence.

But politics would once again shape Sun’s destiny.  As we saw in our biography of Qiu Jin, the period before and after the 1911 revolution was an interesting time to be in Beijing.  Intellectuals were meeting across the city to discuss different ideas for reform and the future of the country.

These dynamic possibilities attracted Sun who must have bemoaned the diminished state of the martial arts.  He decided that if he was going to promote the martial arts on a national scale he needed to be in Beijing.  And so he moved his family to a little house in the capital.  As a result Sun had a front row seat for many key events in the revolutionary period.

In 1914 his daughter Sun Jianyu was born.  She would go on to become an important teacher of her father’s arts and a master in her own right.  The same year also saw a chance meeting with Master Hao Wei Zhen who fell sick while in the capital and was cared for at the Sun house.  He later repaid Sun by teaching him Wu style Taiji.  Sun studied Taiji for two years; this was the last major element of his martial education.  He was already 52 years old when he first undertook the study of Taiji.

Kennedy and Guo quite rightly call Sun the most important writer on the Chinese hand combat.  Through his books he has become probably the most influential martial artist of his generation.

His first book, a Study of Xing Yi Quan, was released in 1915.  This groundbreaking effort was the first really practical modern martial arts manual that could actually teach readers the key points of an art.  The text was relatively straightforward and helpful.  It was also the first book to contain a large number of photographs documenting every step of a movement or form.  Pretty much every martial art manual published from that point onward has copied Sun’s basic format.

This early work turned out to be just the beginnings of an ambitious publishing agenda.  In 1916 he published a Study of Eight Trigrams Boxing.  In 1921 he published A Study of Taiji Boxing, in 1925 he wrote The True Essence of Boxing (his most philosophical work) and in 1927 he released his monograph on the Bagua sword (jian).

The popularity of martial arts instruction started to pick up again in Beijing (and around the rest of the country as well) in the mid-1910s.  Recall that this is the era when the Jingwu association came to prominence in Shanghai.  Multiple groups were advocating saving the nation through “strengthening” it, and the traditional martial arts seemed to be an idea training tool.  That same philosophy appears to have appealed to Sun and he likely helped to popularize it.

In 1916 he joined the Beijing Sports Lecture Hall (which included such luminaries as Wu Jian Quan, Yang Cheng Fu and Li Jing Lin) where he taught classes on both the martial arts and Chinese philosophy.  The later subject was calculated to appeal to a more educated middle class audience, so this is clear indication that Sun was attempting to change the demographic profile of the martial arts.

A number or reformers during this period concluded that for the martial arts to survive they had to become more appealing to educated middle class individuals.  Sun’s emphasis on health and self-cultivation was one way of accomplishing this goal.  The Jingwu strategy of offering classes on photography or western sports was another.  This period of time is also important for the development of the five modern styles of Taiji, including Sun Lutang’s own offering that combines the essential insights of Taiji, Xingyi and Bagua.

Sun’s growing reputation allowed him to rekindle his contacts in government.  In 1919 Xu Shichang secured him a government appointment to teach martial arts in the Presidential Palace.  Sun was subsequently assigned the rank of Lieutenant in the Nationalist military and held this position until he formally resigned it in 1924.

In 1922 tragedy struck when Sun’s third son, Sun Huan Min, died of complications from broken ribs after falling and injuring himself in a martial arts demonstration in Shanghai.  At that point Sun moved to Shanghai, a growing and dynamic metropolis, and established new schools with hundreds of students.

In 1924 Sun traveled briefly to Shanxi where he further expanded his student base.  He did not stay in the region long, and returned to Shanghai to teach in 1928 at the invitation of Zhang Zhi Jiang and Li Jing Lin of the Central Guoshu Institute.  Sun remained active with the Central Guoshu Institute for some time, receiving appointments in Nanjing and Zhe Jiang.  In 1931 he even opened a large all female class in Zhe Jiang that he later turned over to his daughter.  After the Japanese invasion of the country in 1931 he resigned his various appointments and returned to Beijing.

In late November or early December 1933 Sun began to have premonitions about his impending death.  His daughter states that he used his knowledge of the I-Ching to predict the exact day and time that he would die.  Believing that the end was near he returned to his home in Baoding.  After returning home he stopped eating and went into a state of almost continual meditation.  On the 16th of December he died in the same room, of the same house, that he had been born in.

An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.
An image of Sun Lutang, permanently memorialized in one of his own books.


Suns physical death did little to slow the flow of his ideas.  His theories about the martial arts, the value of health and qigong training, and the intrinsic connection between boxing and Daoism continued to gain adherents.  In fact, his ideas shaped the foundations that the Republican and post-war Chinese martial arts would be built on.  They still live on today.  While they are the subject of deep study by some martial arts students, they have also generated many popular assumptions about the “traditional” arts that are blindly perpetuated by the media and entertainment industry.

The previous review has only touched on some of the historical highlights of Sun’s long and eventful career.  What is still needed is a social history of his contributions to the martial arts, one that can connect him to the political, social and martial currents of his day.  After all, Sun’s innovations did not happen in a vacuum.  He lived in one of the most dynamic and interesting periods of martial arts reform.  We will turn to a more detailed examination of these issues in our next post.

Click here for Part II of our study of the life of Sun Lutang.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (22): Wang Ziping and the Strength of the Nation

Wang Ziping. Source:



Telling a Tale


Brief biographical sketches of Chinese martial artists are some of my favorite posts to write.  I am not sure why, but I find the challenge of reconstructing a very different type of life, or way of living, irresistible.  Societies and cultures are never stable targets.  They are constantly moving, splitting and changing.  A good biographical discussion reveals not just the details of one individual’s life, but throws light on the concerns, events and issues that shaped it.  If approached correctly, biography can be an enlightening case-study touching on all sorts of theoretically relevant issues.

Which is not to say that writing something like that is easy.  Authors face a couple of critical challenges.  First, one must locate an individual who lived in interesting times.  Second, you need to work with someone whose life was well enough documented that that you actually know what they were up to. Yet they cannot be so well understood that there is nothing left to say.  The first of these conditions is generally not limiting when dealing with Chinese martial artists in the late Qing or Republic era.  The process of revolution and social upheaval that gripped Chinese society during much of the 20th century ensured that the nation’s martial artists were living in proverbially “interesting times”.  Yet finding a figure whose life was well enough documented to permit actual study is often a challenge.  The flames of social transformation do not always leave as much of a paper trail as later historians might want.  It is all about finding a happy medium as our first and second conditions often work against each other.

Luckily for us, Wang Ziping (1881-1973) appears to be the exception who scores well on both scales.  The son of a locally well known martial artist (and the father of a martial arts dynasty in the current era), Wang lived through some the most wrenching transitions in modern Chinese history.  Each of these eras left a mark on his long and varied career.  Best of all, the celebrity that he acquired in his lifetime ensured that this life would be comparatively well understood and documented.  That doesn’t mean that we know everything.  Tantalizing mysteries emerge as we attempt to piece together both the facts and legends surrounding an exceptionally full life.  But in doing so we are rewarded with a better understanding of pivotal moments in the development of the Chinese martial arts.

As always, the standard disclaimers apply to this essay.  I am not a student within Wang’s lineage and I do not claim to have any private information regarding his life or career.  This essay was constructed from a number of publicly available Chinese and English language sources, as well as my own work with Republic era newspaper articles.  Various accounts given by Wang’s own family have been particularly helpful in understanding his personality and the texture of his life. By synthesizing these accounts we may yet learn something new about Wang’s impact on the martial arts.


Wang Ziping in his late fourties. Source:


Strong Body, Strong Nation


Wang Ziping was born to a family of locally well known Muslim martial artists in Cangzhou, Hebei Province, in 1881.  One might think it only natural that this child would go on to have a distinguished career in the same field.  After all, the rising tide of nationalism at the end of the Qing dynasty ensured that the popularity of the martial arts would increase until 1900.  And the growth of social disorder in the late 19th and early 20th century suggested that an armed guard or soldier would always be able to find work.

Ironically, Wang would have to struggle to carve out a place for himself in the region’s rich martial landscape.  Various accounts have stated that Wang’s father thought his son was too frail to be a martial artist and so refused to train him.  On the surface such a story seems odd as its the reversal of the “standard formula” in which parents, worried for the health of a sickly child, seek out martial instruction in an attempt to boost development and vigor.  Family accounts suggest, however, that Wang’s father actually wanted his son to pursue a more academic education, and thereby contribute to the family fortune by finding professional work.

This ban on martial arts practice did not sit well with the family’s youngest member.  At the age of six Wang headed out into the forest where he would dig trenches to practice both his vertical leaps and long jumps.  He made improvised training equipment from stumps and tree trunks.  And with the encouragement of his mother he began what would be a life long quest to develop new modes of strength training (such as swimming to retrieve weights from the bottom of a pool) in the hopes of developing both his body and future prospects.  Through diligent work Wang developed both an extraordinary level of functional strength and jumping abilities that would shape his reputation for decades to come. 

Still, it may not have been immediately evident as to whether these superhuman efforts were going to paying off.  Some accounts suggest that as a youth Wang was expelled from his village for being a “Boxer Bandit.”  I suspect that this has fed the belief that he was a sworn member of the local Yihiquan chapter and got caught up in the Boxer Rebellion in that way.  While not an expert in this particular area, I wonder how likely it would be that a devote Muslim youth would seek to join a heterodox religious movement based on spirit possession by Chinese gods and legendary figures?

Other accounts, which seem a bit more plausible, suggest that the young Wang actually joined the army and worked as a physical trainer/martial arts instructor, putting his years of solitary physical training to good use.  Many Muslim youth would get caught up in the chaos of the Boxer rebellion, but as soldiers who were brought in to reinforce the capital. Indeed, Muslim soldiers were on the front lines of some of the most bitter military battles in the campaign.

One way or another, Wang survived his brush with the the Boxers, and like so many other displaced soldier and martial artists, melted into the countryside ahead of the punitive raids carried out by each of the eight allied nations.  While a formative period in Wang’s life, sources dealing with these years are scarce and stories abound.  As Cohen might caution us, painting someone as a Boxer is the sort of thing that would have gone over much better in 1930 than in 1910.  By the 1960s any involvement with the porto-marxist peasant uprising might even be seen as glamours. Yet in 1901 such an admission might get you killed.  As such we need to exercise caution when dealing with accounts of this period that are not based on contemporaneous sources.

The various stories agree that following the abortive uprising Wang moved to Jinan (the capital of Shandong province) and attempted to make a living as an itinerant merchant.  As he traveled from place to place he sought out other martial arts masters.  Some Chinese language accounts also suggest that he became involved with Ma Liang’s attempts to promote a simplified martial arts regime among the provinces troops and population.

It is also clear that it was during this period that Wang first encountered Yang Hong Xiu, his future teacher, possibly performing a public feat of strength including a mill stone.  In point of fact mill stones figure prominently into many stories of Wang’s early exploits.  It was at this time that he began to devote himself to the full time study of the martial arts.

During his third decade Wang developed a reputation for fighting challenge matches with the foreigners who intruded into local life in Shandong province.  Of course all of this was happening in years after the 1911 revolution and the immense rise in national consciousness that this portended.  Perhaps the most famous of these stories, related by Wang’s daughter and granddaughter, revolves around an effort to save the culturally significant carved doors of a local mosque from a group of Germans who wished to purchase them.  This story likely took place sometime between the start of the Republic and the German retreat from the area at the end of WWI.  As with many (though not all) of these encounters, Wang won the bet and saved face for the nation through a display of his strength (lifting sets of bells or mill stones) rather than by fisticuffs.  Indeed, he seems to have been just as famous as a strongman as a martial artist.

That is not to say that he never fought.  At some point in the 1910s he is said to have crossed hands with an American physical education teacher in Qingdao and another German fighter.  Some accounts also suggest that later in the decade he confronted a group of Japanese martial artists.  They were armed with spears and he carried a pole.  It is known that Wang confronted a Russian strongman in a park in Beijing in 1919, and in 1921 he got involved with a challenge laid out by an American named fighter Sullivan who seems to have been making the rounds of the local theaters.  That last point is important as it reminds us that many of these confrontations were between professionals. They had an undeniably economic component to them, even if they are now mostly discussed in terms of national honor.  This sort of activity was a common way for traveling boxers, strongmen and wrestlers across the world to make a living in the early 20th century.

Still, an undeniable pattern emerges when we examine the accounts of his activity in the 1920s.  Whether in the ring or engaged in feats of strength in the local marketplace, Wang was making a name for himself by systematically knocking down representatives of each of the foreign powers in China.  He was putting his prodigious physical capital to use in ways that could only be read politically.

This aspect of his career would be magnified in the coming decades.  It appears that Wang had some sort of relationship with Genera Ma Liang and would appear in some of his famous martial arts exhibitions.  These events were often witnessed and reported on by foreign reporters.  In December of 1922 the North China Herald ran a breathless article narrating a particularly grand demonstration staged by Ma in Shanghai before a cosmopolitan audience.  It was a long and detailed piece.  But a full third of the article was dedicated to an account of the strongman show that Wang staged right in the middle of the performance.  Some of the feats he performed were Chinese in their cultural origin, while the reporter identified others as being identical to the sorts of stunts that one might see performed in the West. By the end of the evening no one doubted Wang’s extraordinary strength.  One wonders how many other shows and tournaments Wang was part of in this era as Ma Liang was staging events like this one with some regularity.

All of this exposure paid off and Wang Ziping’s reputation began to grow at the national level.  His granddaughter reports that in 1923 the famous Chinese painter Qi Baishi even wrote a poem celebrating Wang’s achievements in defense of the nation titled “Subduing the Tiger in the South Forest, Dispelling the Dragon from the Ocean Depths.”  In many ways the charismatic (and photogenic) Wang was becoming a recognized public face of the era’s martial art movement.

This same prominence would also carry Wang through the following decade.  In 1928 he was named the first director of the Shaolin teaching division of the newly created Central Guosh Institute.  This was a a very high profile appointment that once again gave Wang a degree of national exposure.  Unfortunately it didn’t last long.  The initial plan for the Guoshu organization called for it to be split into “Shaolin” and “Wudang” divisions that would be responsible for promoting the external and internal arts. As Andrew Morris has noted, the plan turned out be a disaster. While the Guoshu movement was tasked with uniting China’s squabbling martial artists, this division basically forced different styles to compete with each other for scarce budgetary resources.  It took mythic rivalries and made them real.

By all accounts Wang had never lost a public fight, and he wasn’t about to start now.  His battles over simple administrative matters with Zhedong (a Xingyi master and head of the Wudang division) quickly escalated from merely epic to truly dangerous.  The pair’s underlings even attacked each other with spears.  At this point the Guoshu movement’s political leadership intervened and disbanded the pathological divisions which they had inadvertently created.  A new administrative team was brought in and the organization was put on a firmer organizational footing.  Wang kept an appointment, however, as an instructor of the Shaolin arts.

That turned out to be quite fortunate for one of the group’s new administrators.  Tang Hao was involved with the group’s early publishing and education efforts.  The Japanese educated lawyer used the opportunity to pursue his passion for martial arts history and in 1930 began to release the results of his research into the true origins of Taijiquan (which he placed in Chen village) and Shaolin Boxing (which he argued had nothing to do with Bodhidharma or the other popular myths).  

While he is now remembered as the father of Chinese martial studies, audiences at the time were less appreciative of his work.  Tang Hao’s efforts to explode the mythology surrounding the Chinese martial arts led to a remarkable number of threats in a short period of time.  Nor does it appear that his employers did much to back him up.  Wang, however, supported Tang Hao and helped to assure his safety as he made a tactical retreat from the capital.  This was early evidence of shared sympathies that would see both Tang and Wang become part of the new martial arts establishment after the rise of the Community Party in 1949.

A later NY Times article (written in 1949) suggested that Wang Ziping fought a Japanese martial artist in a public bout in 1933, at close to the age of 50.  That would seem to be entirely in character, but I haven’t been able to find any other specific references to the match.  But we do know that in 1935 Wang received yet another prestigious appointment, this time as a judge for both the boxing and wrestling portions of the Sixth National Games.  While Wang’s credentials as a martial artist are often discussed, we forget that he was also a talented wrestler.  Indeed, the entire topic of Republic era wrestling seems to have slipped out of the current conversation.


Wang Ziping with Jian


Wang remained active with the Guoshu movement right up until the very end.  In 1949, in a strategic bid to increase the profile of his floundering organization,  General Zhang Zhijiang gave an exclusive interview to the NY Times discussing the state of Chinese martial arts.  The end result was a lengthy article in one of the most important English language newspapers examining the highs and lows of the Guoshu movement.  Of all its many heroes, Zhang chose to focus much of his discussion on Wang Ziping, and the extraordinary physical abilities that he retained even at the age of 70.

There appears to have been something undeniably charismatic about Wang’s personality.  Beyond his physical talent, or abilities as a teacher, people just liked him. While he never wielded the level of influence of Generals Zhang Zhijinag or Ma Liang, those sorts of people saw in him an ideal public face for the Chinese martial arts.

Nor would this be the last time that English languages audiences would hear of Wang’s exploits.  The immigration of family members to the West ensured that Wang’s contributions to the Chinese martial arts would take root here.  But during the Cold War, PRC propaganda publication such as China Reconstructs, continued to run features on the reform of the martial arts that highlighted Wang’s contributions.

After the rise of the Communist Party, Wang accepted a number of appointments in athletic and political bodies.  He continued to be involved with the teaching and promotion of the martial arts, and the practice of traditional Chinese medicine.  His daughter held a prestigious professorship in Wushu, coaching both a martial arts and archery team. In 1958 Wang published a volume titled “Twenty Therapeutic Exercises for Treating Disease and Prolonging Life.”  This, along with the creation of his “Green Dragon Sword,” have remained among his most appreciated original contributions to the Chinese martial arts.

The apex of this final phase of Wang’s long career came with the dawning of the 1960s.  In 1959 he was appointed the Chief Referee of the First National Wushu Exhibition.  Then in 1960 he was invited to accompany Zhou Enlai on a state visit to Myanmar.  Here he was once again called upon to demonstrate, and to be the public face of the Chinese martial arts.  At the time he was nearly 80 years old.

The situation for China’s elite martial artists deteriorated rapidly with the start of the Cultural Revolution.  University Wushu programs were mothballed and coaches and professors (such as Wang’s daughter and son-in-law) lost their employment.  Wang himself was forced to close his traditional medicine practice and to stop publicly teaching the martial arts.  His wife had a heart attack and died after a visit from the Reg Guard.  Wang’s granddaughter, Grace Xiaogao Wu-Monnat, has given a particularly detailed (and touching) account of her family’s fortunes during this time period that is well worth reading. 

While he passed away in 1973, and thus missed the “Kung Fu Fever” that would erupt at the end of the decade, Wang remained dedicated to his beloved martial arts.  Perhaps being forced to struggle to learn them taught him that any vision could be accomplished with hard work.  As he repeatedly told his young granddaughter, struggling to find her own path to martial accomplishment in the depths of the Cultural Revolution, “All you need is a dream. And you can be everything you ever want to be.”  What better ambassador could the Chinese martial arts have had?



If you enjoyed the biography you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (16): Yu Chenghui – Realizing Swordsmanship in an Era of Restoration


Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (11): Mok Kwai Lan – The Mistress of Hung Gar.

Mok Kwai Lan demonstrating the flying plummet, one of Wong Fei Hung's signature skills. Source. Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 Num. 7
Mok Kwai Lan demonstrating the flying plummet, one of Wong Fei Hung’s signature skills. Source. Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 Num. 7


***In honor of the recent celebration of Mother’s Day.  Enjoy!***



This post is the third entry in our series examining the lives of female Chinese martial artists.  While it is the case that the vast majority of hand combat practitioners in the 19th and 20th centuries were male, a certain number of women also adopted the art.  We started by looking at the life and historical reputation of Woman Ding Number Seven and her contributions to the creation of White Crane Kung Fu in Fujian province.  Not only did she make some critical technical contributions to the development of the local arts, but her memory served as an important touchstone for discussions of gender and hand combat throughout southern China.

Next we examined the life and contributions of Chen Shichao and her brother Chen Gongzhe.  This dynamic pair was an important force behind the success that the Jingwu Athletic Association enjoyed in the early 20th century.  Chen Gongzhe was instrumental in financing the group, while his sister worked tirelessly to promote female involvement in the martial arts on equal footing with men.  This goal challenged strongly held norms and resulted in notable (often quite personal) push-back from more conservative elements in society.  Yet ultimately the Jingwu Association succeeded in spreading the belief that women should have access to martial training and that this was an area where they could excel.  It is unlikely that this social transformation would have been quite so successful without the pen and teaching efforts of Chen Shichao.

In the current post I would like to return our focus to southern China.  Mok Kwai Lan is most often remembered as the fourth wife (or more accurately concubine) of Wong Fei Hung, the renown martial artists who is regarded by many as the father of modern Hung Gar.  Yet Mok was also a martial artist and practitioner of Chinese traditional medicine before her marriage.  Further, she maintained an independent and fruitful teaching career for more than five decades after Wong’s sad death in 1924.

Both Mok Kwai Lan’s life and career deserve more careful consideration than they usually receive.  She is a figure whose influence spans generations.  She was born in the final decade of the 19th century and her martial training likely started at the same time as the Boxer Uprising.  She saw the rapid development and transformation of the martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s, before having her own career disrupted by the invasions of the Second Sino-Japanese War.  In the postwar era she witnessed a fundamental transformation in the popular perception of the traditional arts, driven in no small part by her departed husband’s rise to fame as a local folk hero.  Lastly she was still active and teaching when the “Bruce Lee Explosion” reignited global interest in the martial arts in the middle of the 1970s.  It is hard to think of too many other figures whose careers spanned so many important eras.



Early Life and Training

Mok Kwai Lan was born in Kao-Yao Village (slightly to the west of Foshan and Guangzhou along the banks of the Pear River) in Guangdong.  From the start her family life was somewhat unconventional.  At a very young age she was given to her paternal uncle who was childless.  He formally adopted the young girl and raised her as his own child even though her biological parents were still very much alive.

Mok’s uncle must have had a fairly liberal view on questions of gender and female education.  The late 19th century saw a number of developments on this front, from anti-foot binding leagues in larger towns and cities, to the development of neo-Confucian schools of thought promoting formal education for bright young women of good families.  These attitudes were by no means universally accepted.  There was even push-back against them in some quarters.  Still, these currents were in the air in the late 19th century.

It seems likely that Mok’s new guardians (and her uncle in particular) must have shared many of these ideas.  Her Uncle (whose name I am still having trouble verifying) was a both a practitioner of Mok Gar Kung Fu and traditional Chinese medicine (where he specialized as a bonesetter).  Soon after arriving in the family Mok Kwai Lan began her apprenticeship in both areas.

This path was not undertaken without some resistance.  Mok reports that her Aunt forbade her to study the martial arts as she believed it would strip her of her feminine qualities (and probably make her unmarriageable).  At that point her uncle decided to continue to train her “in secret,” though one wonders how private any such activity could actually have been in a household with only three individuals, one of whom was a child.

Mok Gar is rarely encountered today, but it contributed substantially to the development of the other regional styles.  Unlike most southern martial arts it is highly regarded for its kicking skills.  While still kept below the waist (which is true of the kick in most southern styles), the techniques of this system are said to generate devastating power.  Mok’s uncle also introduced her to what was possibly a unique family set referred to as “snapping the iris.”

It is interesting to note that her training in both kung fu and bonesetting probably began sometime between 1900 and 1902.  This was the era of the Boxer Uprising, and a time of major social dislocation around the country.  The local governor shut down boxing schools and associations all over Guangdong in an attempt to prevent copy-cat attacks on foreign merchants.  One has to wonder if the uncle decided to train his daughter as a diversion when other sorts of practice became impossible.  On the other hand he may have decided to start her training only after one the general situation settled down.

In either case it is interesting to note that she began her training in Mok Gar at almost exactly the same time that Ip Man (also a young child) was being introduced to Wing Chun by Chan Wah Shun (also a practitioner of traditional Chinese medicine) in the Ip clan’s Foshan temple.  Similar historical events impacted the lives and future careers of both of these martial artists making their subsequent development an interesting comparative study.

Apparently Mok Kwai Lan was a good student.  By her 16th birthday (1908) her training in bonesetting was complete and she had grown into an accomplished boxer (despite her aunt’s objections).  At this point she had the basic skills that were necessary to start a career as a practicing martial artist.  Nevertheless, slightly unconventional family arrangements would once again bend her career path.


Mok Kwai Lan when approximately 16 years old. Source: Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 number 7.
Mok Kwai Lan when approximately 16 years old. Source: Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 number 7.



Madame Mok Kwai Lan, Concubine of Wong Fei Hung

Mok’s adopted father was friends with a popular martial artist and doctor named Wong Fei Hung.  Wong was remembered locally for a number of things, including his long and somewhat colorful career with the military in both Guangdong and Fujian.  After leaving his army posts he settled down in the Foshan and Guangzhou area where he ran a local pharmacy and martial arts school.   He was a frequent visitor in the Mok house where he would come to chat and enjoy tea with Uncle.

Wong Fei Hung is actually a somewhat difficult figure to write about.  So often our problem in Chinese material studies is that we just do not have much to say about an individual.  Unfortunately not a lot has been remembered or preserved about most martial artists.

In Wong’s case we face the opposite problem.  From the 1930s onward his memory was actively (and quite consciously) transmuted into that of a larger than life folk hero.  Stories were told about his exploits in dozens of newspapers, novels, radio programs and no fewer than 77 feature length films all produced before 1970.  Hundreds of accounts surround his life, and it can be very difficult to determine which (if any) have some degree of veracity.

A full treatment of Wong Fei Hung’s life and career will have to wait for another post.  Instead we will focus on those events that had the greatest impact on his relationship with Mok Kwai Lan and her subsequent life.  Yet even here there are a number of colorful stories that require careful consideration.

Popular folklore relates that Wong Fei Hung first met Mok while his school was performing a lion dance on a local festival day.  Wong was engaged in a particularly vigorous demonstration of a Tiger Fork routine when he lost a shoe in a kick.  The shoe flew into the audience hitting a young woman (Mok) who had come to watch the display.  The attractive young woman was furious at being struck and would not accept an apology, instead demanding that someone who claimed to be a “master” should pay more attention to the details of their performance.

Wong was immediately struck by the fiery spirit of the young woman as well as her beauty.  After she left he resolved to meet her, and eventually the two were married.

In 1976 Mok Kwai Lan gave an interview to Leung Ting which became the basis of an article in Real Kung Fu magazine (“The ‘Tigress’ – Madame Mok Kwei Lan – Widow of the Late Wong Fei Hung.” By Andre Lam Volume 1 Number 7. pp. 49-55.)  In her own account she did not mention anything about this story.  Instead she relates that Wong Fe Hung was friends with her uncle and a frequent visitor in the house.  Apparently he first noticed her in that context.

In 1909 he approached his friend to ask about marrying his adoptive daughter.  This was a difficult decision.  On the one hand Wong was a well-known, and well off, martial arts teacher and traditional doctor.  But he was also in his late 60s and a serial widower.  He had been previously married three times to women who died prematurely.  In fact, popular folklore relates that Wong had decided that he was cursed with regards to marriage and had given up on the institution prior to meeting Mok.

Mok Kwai Lan’s Aunt was dead set against the match.  She felt that Wong was much too old for the young girl (who was only 17-18 at the time).  She further argued that arranging such a marriage would betray the trust of Mok’s biological farther, who was also her husband’s brother.  Still, Mok’s uncle claimed that it was a good match as the couple (while mismatched in age) were well suited to each other.  Two years later (in 1911) they were married.

Or more precisely, Wong Fei Hung accepted Mok as a concubine.  This is usually explained in martial arts circles in terms of the previously mentioned “marriage curse.”  By not naming Mok as an official wife it was hoped that she might avoid the fate that befell her three other predecessors.

Still, it seems likely that there is more to the story.  Young martial arts students in the 1950s adopted a particularly puritanical view of Wude (or “martial virtue”) that one suspects would have been quite at odds with the actual lives of most of their heroes in the late Qing and early Republic period.  Extreme self-control in the realm of personal relations became a hallmark of a “true master.”  At the same time the trend towards “modernization” made the idea of a “second marriages” less palatable among Hong Kong’s society.  Of course this is also the era in which Wong Fei Hung was being reimagined as a popular folk hero.

It is more likely that Mok was accepted as a concubine as that was her intended role.  In the 1976 interview mentioned above she states that in the years directly after their union, Wong Fei Hung married two other women.  Neither of them ended up staying in the relationship for more than a year.  Mok gives no hints as to why they left.  But in the end she was the one who ended up staying with Wong until his death and then caring for his surviving children.

While she may have entered what was a complex marriage situation as a concubine, she ended up playing the role of the “wife” and “mother.”  This social transmutation is all the more remarkable as Mok never actually bore any children of her own.  Of course for women producing sons has been the most common pathway to acceptance within the traditional Chinese family and clan structure.

It seems likely that the more flexible nature of Wong Fei Hung’s “martial clan” helped to facilitate this acceptance.  Still, it is undeniable that in a certain sense Mok’s success in the Hung Gar community after the 1930s transcended the limitations of her actual family and marriage life.  Her path cannot have been an easy one.

The years between 1911 and 1919 were a busy time in Mok Kwai Lan’s life.  One suspects that they were also an era of immense personal and professional growth.  Because of her own background and training she was able to join Wong as a professional partner.  He trained her in his own martial style, and she assisted him in his medical practice.  Interestingly the style of medicine that she practiced remained that which she learned from her uncle, even though she was beginning to innovate on the martial front.

Of course Mok also had to attend to all of the duties that were expected of a Sifu’s wife.  She saw to the physical upkeep of both the home and the school, and she cooked meals.  This was probably the most dynamic period of teaching for Wong and his wife reported in 1976 that at some points she was cooking meals for up to 20 employees and members of the household.

Interestingly Wong Fei Hung also appears to have been a generation ahead of his time with regards to gender and education.  Like Mok’s uncle he saw no reason why women should not have access to martial arts training.  He also objected to the traditional pattern of favoring boys over girls in family relations.  While rarely remembered for his contributions to feminism, Wong was actually quite innovative.  He was one of the first local instructors to offer classes for women, and he accepted female disciples (such as Dang Sai-King).  Notice that all of this happening prior to the 1919-1920 opening of the Jingwu association branches in Guangzhou and Foshan.  Wong’s success in this area shows that there was a demand for female instruction in Guangdong even before Jingwu started to make its own arguments to the local public.

Mok Kwai Lan was instrumental in making all of this possible.  She was responsible for teaching the women’s classes (which were gender segregated).  She also led Wong’s all female Lion Dance team.  This is said to have been the first female Lion Dance team in the Pearl River Delta, and it predated the rise in popularity of female opera companies by at least a decade.

Mok Kwai Lan was a true pioneer in these areas.  She enjoyed professional experiences that few other female martial artists of her generation could claim.  Yet this did not relieve her of her responsibilities to hearth and home.  Recounting the crush of these early years she stated: “I was the shop-keeper, the osteopathist and physician, the Kung Fu instructor and the cook.  I had to cook food for some twenty employees of the Gymnasium.  Sometimes I had to work all the night through.  In short I performed all kinds of duties.” (Lam 50).  While Wong Fei Hung loved to spend time at the local teahouses with his male students, Mok was too busy maintaining the business and home to join him.

Nevertheless, Madame Mok found other ways of establishing her own martial reputation about town.  Over the course of her long career she has also accumulated a number of interesting stories, one of which I find particularly revealing.

Early in the Republic period Foshan and Guangzhou had a problem with “Red Turban” revolutionary soldiers.  Their name referred to a red cloth that was worn on the head.  Of course this symbol has a rich history in the annals of Chinese revolutions.  It was probably particularly popular locally because of the “Red Turban Revolt” (the memory of which was being reimagined and rehabilitated in the light of the 1911 revolution) in the 1850s.  Needless to say, the remains of the Red Turban army in the post-1911 period were poorly led and disciplined.  One suspects that many of these individuals were basically criminals.

“On one occasion (the day of a festival), Wong was ready to give his usual public performance.  At the time there were in Canton [Guangzhou] the so-called “Red Headed Soldiers” (soldiers with red turbans) who were “famous” for their ill discipline.  They often robbed people of their belongings.

In Wong’s team there was a young woman who had just recovered from an abortion a month ago and who was taking care of the weapons used in the performances.  This young lady had a lot of jewels with her.  One of the soldiers had seen the jewels.  He came up to her secretly and assaulted her in an attempt to seize her jewels.  The young lady was knock down and suffered injuries.  She called out for help.

When Madame Mok heard the scream, she came to her rescue.  She saw that the soldier was trying to kick the young woman.  “How dare you!” she shouted at the soldier who at first was taken aback.  When he saw that the “wet blanket” was  a woman, he was scared no more.  He took up a staff and struck at Madame Mok.  However, the “Tigress” seized it with her hand in a movement as quick as lightening and hit back with it at the head of the soldier.  The “robber” bled terribly and fled for his life.

However, the “Tigress” would not let him go so easily.  She overtook him and gave him a kick which caused him to fall to the ground.  The other soldiers were also frightened away.  The next day, the incident of the “Tigress” punishing the “robber” became the headline for all the newspapers in Canton.” (Lam 54).

There are many other stories about Mok’s career as a young woman that one could tell.  She even received an appointment from the local military (probably sometime in the 1920s) to lead classes for female artists.  Still, I think that this story is a classic tale as it emphasizes her interacting with and leadership of other female students in Wong Fei Hung’s organization.  It also illustrates her famous resolve and fiery personality as well as the more mundane dangers that martial artists faced in the early Republic period.

Wong Fei Hung’s career started to come to a close in 1919 when his favorite (and best trained) son, Wong Hon-Sam, was killed under dubious circumstances.  The younger Wong was an accomplished martial artist who fully inherited his father’s skills.  He found employment as a security guard with the West River Medicine Sailing Company.  Tragically he was shot by a co-worker who claimed that the drunken and out of control Wong had become a threat to the vessel.  Stories have circulated for years that the shooting was in fact a conspiracy or a set-up, but all that we can say from this historical remove is that it probably involved large amounts of alcohol and a number of guns.

Upon receiving news of the death of his son Wong Fei Hung began to withdraw from the world.  He stopped teaching martial arts and became ever more reclusive.  He is said to have refused to train his remaining sons for fear that they too would fall victim of the needless deaths that claimed so many along the “Rivers and Lakes” of Chinese society. Mok Kwai Lan continued with her martial practices, and I have even read some accounts stating that she started to teach the two remaining sons (I cannot vouch for their accuracy).  Yet this was the start of sad era for the once vibrant Wong clan.

Wong Fei Hung made his last public appearance later in 1919 at the opening gala of the newly established Guangzhou chapter of the Jingwu Athletic Association.  Few people thought he would attend.  When he took to the stage in front of the packed audience he performed a demonstration with the meteor hammer (flying plummet) that is still being discussed to this day.  After that he basically vanished from the public view.

The situation in the Wong household took a decisive turn for the worse in 1924.  In that year large parts of the city were burned to the ground during the Guangzhou Merchant Corp Rebellion and its violent suppression by a young military officer named Chang Kai shek.  This is not the place for a detailed examination of these events, even though they are very important to students attempting to understand the evolution of Southern China’s social and political structures (as well as elite involvement in the local economy of violence.)  I will try and address this incident at greater length in a different post.

For our current purposes it is sufficient to say that Wong was devastated by both the material and emotional losses that accompanied the destruction of his clinic and former school.  He was 77 years old at the time of the fire and all of his material resources were tied up in his property.  Suffering from a mixture of exhaustion and depression he was admitted to Chengxi Fangbian Hospital where he died on May 24th.

Mok Kwai Lan was left destitute at the time of her husband’s death.  Wong’s funeral arrangements were organized and paid for by Dang Sai-King (one of his better known female disciples).  In the early 1930s she and Lam Sai-wing once again extended their support to Mok, helping her and her two step-sons (Wong Hon-syu and Wong Hon-hei) move to Hong Kong and establish a new school dedicated to continuing Wong Fei Hong’s legacy.


Mok Kwai Lan posing with a student. She is 68 in this photograph., Source: Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 Number 7.
Mok Kwai Lan posing with a student. She is 68 in this photograph., Source: Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 Number 7.



The Hong Kong Years

Mok Kwai Lan was fortunate in that she already had extensive teaching experience when she established her new school in Hong Kong.  She even had expertise in running the financial side of the business.  Still, Hong Kong was a different place than Guangzhou and Foshan, and one can only assume that adjustments needed to be made.  For instances, Mok Kwai Lan was now the head of the school and would need to lead male students.

The early 1930s was probably a good time for a Hung Gar instructor to move to the city.  The efforts of instructors like Lam Sai-wing (a former disciple of Wong) had helped to establish the art’s reputation in the region.  Further, one of Lam’s students, a writer named Chu Yu-chai, was just beginning to produce a series of novels dramatizing a fictionalized version of the life and exploits of Wong Fei Hung.  These were published serially in local Cantonese newspapers.

These stories (considered somewhat crude by the standards of later Wuxia fiction) would have an immense impact on public perception of Wong Fei Hung.  Prior to their release very few people in Hong Kong had ever heard of Wong or his school in Guangdong.  But the novels were a hit, and he was rapidly adopted as a Hong Kong folk hero.

Nor was print the only media that Wong was destined to succeed in.  Chu’s stories could be easily adapted to radio dramas, and that is exactly what happened in the 1930s and 1940s.  This new development further inflated Wong’s memory, and it must have helped to attract students to his widow’s school.

Of course all martial arts teaching activities in Hong Kong came to an abrupt end with the Japanese occupation in 1938.  We don’t actually have a huge amount of information about Mok’s early career in the city.  But we do know that in 1944 she opened a new school called the “Wong Fei Hung National Arts Association” which was located on Gloucester Road in the Wanchai district.

This school remained open from 1944-1969.  Two and a half decades is a decent run for any kung fu school, and it seems that Wong’s evolving stature in the public imagination contributed to the continued success of Hung Gar in Hong Kong.

In 1949 “The Story of Wong Fei Hung (Part 1): Wong Fei Hung’s Whip that Smacks the Candle” was released in Hong Kong.  This was the first feature length film to feature Wong as a protagonist.  It is also one of the most important martial arts films ever made as it helped to set the direction and define the potential of the Hong Kong Kung Fu film industry for literally decades to come.

While a fictional tale, the Hung Gar clan was involved in the production of this film at multiple points.  The script was based on a popular radio dramatization of one of Chu’s original Wong Fei Hung stories.  Interestingly the production studio brought Chu, Wong Hon-hei and Mok Kwai Lan into the project as “consultants.”

It seems that Mok was enthusiastic about the new development.  Nor does she seem to have been concerned about fictional nature of these retellings.  In fact, she even got herself cast in a fighting part in one of the sequels (“The Real Story of Wong Fe Hung Part 3: The Battle by Lau Fa Bridge”) which came out in 1950.

In totally 77 feature length films taking Wong Fei Hung as their protagonist would be produced between 1949 and 1970.  Each film in this series stared Kwan Tak-hing as Wong Fei Hung and Sek Kin as his fictional nemesis.  While the quality of many of these later films declined noticeably, they were still very popular with audiences.  It might actually be impossible to overstate how important this series of films was in the process of elevating Wong from his station as a relatively unknown local martial artist to the ranks of a full blown “folk hero.”

Starting in about 1970 Mok Kwai Lan enjoyed another burst of popularity as a new wave of Wong Fei Hung nostalgia was felt in Hong Kong.  She gave a number of interviews and demonstrations in this period, starting with a performance of her family’s Mok Gar forms on a Hong Kong Television show in 1970.  Later in the decade she would again be seen on TV performing Hung Gar sets as part of a televised Wong Fei Hung story.

Nor does Mok shy away from publicity in the interviews that she gave in the late 1960s and 1970s.   In the Real Kung Fu interview cited above she promotes the romanticized myth of the “death touch” (including a delayed killing effect that might strike up to a year later) and “lightness qigong.”  On the one hand her portrayal of her former husband is remarkably down to earth.  He seems to spend a lot of time napping in her stories, and then going out for tea with his friends.  Yet she also appears to fully subscribe to the “myth” of Wong Fei Hung.  It is an interesting tension.

At some point in the early 1970s Mok Kwai Lan established a new school.  This one (also located in Hong Kong) was called the “Wong Fei Hung Physical Fitness Institute.”  While advancing in age she headed the organization until its close in 1980.  Mok taught a large number of students over the years.  Probably her best known student is Master Lee Chan Wor who was actually her grandson-in-law.  Lee is considered to have inherited her martial tradition and has maintained the lineage.  Returning to a theme from earlier in the essay, he is also an interesting testament to the continuing influence that Mok had as a mother and then grandmother to her step-children.

Mok Kwai Lan demonstrating her family's "Iris Breaking" set on Hong Kong Television in 1970. Source: Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 Num. 7
Mok Kwai Lan demonstrating her family’s “Iris Breaking” set on Hong Kong Television in 1970. Source: Real Kung Fu Vol. 1 Num. 7



On November 3rd, 1982 Mok Kwai Lan died in Hong Kong.  She was 90 years old at time.  Over the course of her long career she bore witness to the fundamental transformation of the modern Chinese martial arts.

Her life serves as an important reminder of the historical contributions of female practitioners of the traditional fighting styles.  Most hand combat students in the late Qing and Republic period were men.  Still, our brief examination of Mok’s life shows that there were important developments in popular culture throughout the second half of the Qing dynasty that helped to open additional spaces for female martial artists.  Her accomplishments after 1900 would not have been possible except for the beliefs that her adopted father and future husband formed earlier in the 19th century.

It would be interesting to know more about the specific mental and cultural models that convinced these men that training female martial arts students was not only possible but desirable.  Still, the important thing to realize is that those models were out there.  Their roots seem to lay in simultaneous developments that were unrolling in both elite circles (neo-Confucian educational theory) and popular culture (changing themes in wuxia novels).  No doubt the strong impulse towards social and national reform which gripped the Chinese people in the late 19th and early 20th century was also an important part of this story.

Mok Kwai Lan’s life is also an important testament to the role of the media (first print, then radio and finally film and television) in creating our modern understanding of the martial arts.  The basic pattern that we see with the “creation” of Wong Fei Hung as a culture hero is very similar to that which would later play out with Bruce Lee and even Ip Man.  This opens the possibility of a future comparative case studies that might reveal both interesting differences and continuities over time.  While writing this biographical sketch I have become particularly interested in how surviving family members influence the translation of these “memories” from one generation to the next.

Wong Fei Hung was clearly an interesting person who enjoyed an influential career.  The impact of his technical innovations, as well as the “social memory” that he has inspired, are still being felt in the southern Chinese martial arts today.  It is a shame that there has not been a book length treatment of his life and career published in the English language.  Still, a detailed study of Mok Kwai Lan might shed even more light on a greater number of important questions and I suspect that it would be every bit as interesting to read.



Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (21): Zhang Zhijiang, Father of the Guoshu Movement

General Zhang Zhijiang. Source: The Library of Congress.




Its hard to think of a single individual who had a greater impact on the development of the Chinese martial arts during the all important years of the Republic than Zhang Zhijiang (1882-1966).  His name peppers the pages of works on physical culture and sports history.  Indeed, modern Chinese martial artists are still dealing with aspects of his legacy.  Yet it has proved almost impossible to find a single biographical discussion that really brings all of the aspects of his career together.

There are various reasons for this.  In mainland China the Guoshu program was displaced by the Communist sponsored Wushu movement during the 1950s.  This was an issue as Zhang had concentrated his energies on building formal institutions and organizations, rather than creating elaborate lineage teaching structures.  These were, in turn, tied to the fate of the KMT.

Or perhaps Zhang’s career was just too large to fit neatly into any of the historical boxes that typically seek to organize the contributions of Republic era public officials.  One can certainly find brief descriptions of his contributions to the martial arts in the histories of Morris (2004) or Kennedy and Gao (2008).  Other authors, interested in questions of crime and social history, tend to ignore Zhang’s martial interests and focus instead on his brief tenure as head of the national opium suppression committee.  Of course historians of the violent Warlord era know Zhang as one of the most trusted (and competent) followers of Feng Yuxiang, the “Christian Warlord.”   Yet those who focus on the history of Christianity in China are quick to point out that Zhang was just as important a missionary as his mentor, if not more so.  Indeed, it is possible to structure an entire discussion of his career that focuses almost entirely on his devotion to Christianity.

The following essay attempts to briefly bring together these various strands in an effort to help us better understand the personality and motivations of a key architect of the Guoshu movement.  As students of Chinese martial studies increasingly come to appreciate the importance of the Republic period it is necessary to deal with the historically, and at times ethically, complex contributions of individuals like Chu Minyi or General Li Jinglin.  The careers of individuals such as these stretch far beyond the confines of canned lineage histories that tend to dominate popular discussions.  Ironically, Zhang may be one of the least understood figures within his generation of martial arts reformers (at least in the West), even though his name frequently pops up in our period histories.


A Younger Zhang with his trademark Bible. Source:


Biographical Sketch

Given the circumstances of his birth, one might have suspected that Zhang Zhijiang would inherit a certain penchant for organization.  Yet one probably would not have guessed that he would achieve such fame.  Born in 1882 to a landlord family, Zhang grew up watching his father function as a village elder in Zhili.  Given the family’s economic position, Zhang was provided a traditional Confucian education and he studied to become an examination candidate during the 1890s.  His studies can only be considered a moderate success as he was a awarded a low level Sheng-yuan degree, but this would not open a pathway to government service.

The family suffered a crisis in 1903 when Zhang’s father was required to produce two conscripts from his village for a newly formed imperial army unit.  Unable to do so he was forced to send his own son into military service.  At this point Zhang was 19 years old.

Military life seems to have agreed with the new recruit.  He impressed his superiors and, given his education, he was put on a fast track for advancement.  By 1907 Zhang was a platoon leader for the cavalry battalion of the 1st Mixed Brigade.  This turned out to be a fortuitous posting as it gave him a chance to meet another young platoon leader named Feng Yuxiang, often referred to by later historians as the “Christian Warlord.”  Zhang was eventually convinced to join Feng’s private “military studies society.”  

Things began to move quickly for he young soldiers in 1910.  After being radicalized by senior officers in their unit, both Feng and Zhang adopted anti-Manchu and nationalist sentients.  In October 1911, when the Wuhan Revolt broke out, Feng’s Military Studies Society attempted to launch a local armed uprising.  Zhang was sent to Shanghai to make contact with the Republic revolutionary leadership.  Both efforts seem to have failed and the two were forced to flee.

Still, there was no stopping the tide of history.  The Qing dynasty eventually fell, and the Republic was established in 1912.  This led to major reorganizations within the military that helped to launch Zhang’s career. 

In 1912 Chang Shao-tseng (one of Zhang’s former officers) was named the military governor of Shanxi.  Zhang was appointed as staff officer and advisor.  This posting lasted until 1914 when Zhang (needing a new job) traveled to Sichuan.  There he took up the position of advisor for Feng Yuxiang who was commanding the 16th Mixed Brigade.  Zhang would continue to serve as one of Feng’s most loyal followers for the rest of his career.

Zhang’s time in Sichuan was also important for more personal reasons.  Like many of the modernizers in his generation, Zhang had been personally agnostic on questions of religion or spirituality.  But while stationed in the Southwest he had a chance to work with individuals from the area’s protestant community.  Zhang was deeply impressed with what he saw.  Not only did this community have an unusual degree of enthusiasm for the national revolution, but they exhibited what he would go on to term “faith through actions.”  Indeed, this was a notion (based on his reading of James 2) that Zhang would return to throughout his career.  

Zhang was eventually baptized in 1918 and went on to become both an enthusiastic and committed Christian.  He was an ardent believer in daily scripture study and distributed tens of thousands of bibles over the course of his career.  It should also be noted that Zhang’s conversion (at least according to some of his biographers) was earlier than Feng’s.  Both Feng and Zhang would promote Christianity among their troops and were known for the comparative discipline of their fighting forces.

Zhang’s early military career was also a time when he honed a near obsessive interest in the Chinese martial arts.  As with Christianity, in these fighting arts he saw an opportunity to reform and strengthen the nation by reforming and strengthening the individuals who comprised it.  He even had a martial arts “conversion story”, and would often tell how he had been cured of partial lower-body paralysis by his dedicated practice of these fighting systems.  Zhang’s ardent desire to “save China” in a geo-political sense rested in a complex triangular relationship with his equally strong impulses to “save Chinese souls” and to “save the martial arts.”  Indeed, it may not be possible, or fruitful, to discuss these various aspects of his career in pristine isolation.

Between the late teens and the late 1920s Zhang would fight a number of battles on Feng’s behalf.  His career in this period is complicated enough that it would probably be better to leave it to the military historians.  Yet by 1927 Feng had decided that he was done fighting.  In that year he entered into an alliance with Chiang Kai-shek, effectively destroying the Wuhan faction of the KMT.  To cement the deal Zhang was sent to Nanjing to act as Feng’s personal liaison with the new government.  Zhang was then elected to the State Council of the National Government, and named the Chief of Senior Staff during the second half of the Chiang’s Northern Expedition.

His activities in this final campaign marked the end of his military career.  In 1928 Zhang formally retired from active military and political affairs.  Of course the next steps in his career ensured that he would never be able to leave the political world too far behind.

The establishment of a more unified government provided Zhang with an opportunity to focus on his two great passions, religion and the martial arts.  In 1927, while giving a speech at a commemoration celebration for Sun Yat-sen, Zhang argued that anti-imperialist rhetoric aimed at Christianity missed the mark.  He noted that Sun himself had been a dedicated Christian, and there was nothing within the Three People’s Principals that ran contrary to Christian teaching.

In early 1928 both Zhang and Niu Yongjian (then the Governor of Jiangsu Province) approached the Central Committee of the KMT with a similar argument.  They again sought to discredit more radical voices within the anti-imperialist camp that were branding religion and missionary work as the “opium of the masses.”  More specifically, they advocated for policies banning anti-Christian banners and public speech.  On Feb. 26th the Central Committee passed a resolution along similar lines.

Zhang followed a similar strategy in his attempts to rebuild the Chinese martial arts.  He seems to have viewed the “traditional” and faction-riven state of affairs within the folk arts as a metaphor for the weakness of the Chinese society as a whole.  A campaign was necessary that would not just strengthen, but also unify, society while ensuring its loyalty to the ruling party. 

Working with the former Tianjin warlord Li Jinglin (famous for his promotion of the Wudang sword method) and Zhang Shushen (a fellow military officer), Zhang once again approached the KMT’s Central Committee.  This time he proposed the creation of a new national martial art organization and regulatory structure.  This request was approved and Zhang was named the director of the new institute which, while reorganized multiple times during the 1930s, would go on to dominate the national discussion of the martial arts during the Republic period.  Immediately after being named Zhang and his leadership team set about organizing the now famous 1928 National Martial Arts Examination.




Despite his initial attempts to “retire” from politics, Zhang continued to be assigned to other postings throughout this period.  His reputation for rectitude complicated his life when he was named Chairman of the National Opium Suppression Committee in 1929.  This position would soon find Zhang investigating a major scandal when a group of civilian police officers, working on tips from Zhang’s old mentor Feng, attempted to interdict a shipment of illegal opium in Shanghai only to discover that it was actually being transported by a larger and well armed military police unit.  

The incident and its political fall out was extensively reported in the press.  It seems that Feng was attempting to increase the value of his own opium operations by having the police take out his economic (and in some senses political) competition.  The incident further revealed that the KMT, its public rhetoric notwithstanding, was unwilling to follow its own pronouncements when it came to drug policy.  All of this led Zhang to publicly resign in disgust.

Geopolitical events, however, would conspire to keep the martial arts at the top of Zhang’s agenda.  On September 18th, 1931 Japan invaded Manchuria and quickly moved to consolidate its position in the region.  A few months later the Japanese Navy opened its own front with attacks on Shanghai.  All of this forced the KMT to shift from a policy of general anti-imperialism (much of which was aimed at the UK), to a more focused attempt to build relationships with the West while consolidating global public opinion against the Japanese.

The attacks on Shanghai were something of a public relations disaster for the Japanese.  While they could use their control of newswires and telegraph lines to manipulate the narratives about what was happening in Manchuria, the assault on Shanghai happened in the full view of the global press.  As a result Japan was forced to go on a public relations offensive in 1932-1933 sending both diplomats and cultural figures to cities across Europe and North America in an attempt to promote their vision of what was happening in Asia.

The KMT was fully aware of these developments and sought to counter these efforts with a diplomatic and cultural charm offensive of their own.  These efforts were, unfortunately, blunted by the military weakness of the KMT.  That ensured that certain steps to pacify the Japanese were necessary.  Still, the traditional Chinese martial arts would come to play an increasingly important role in burnishing China’s image on the global stage during the 1930s.  Much of this effort would be overseen by Zhang himself.

Japanese aggression seems to have generated a good deal of enthusiasm for the martial arts.  Many dadao or “big sword” units and training classes were created in the early years of the 1930s.  Zhang argued for increased martial arts training in military units during this period, and pointed to the importance of big sword troops in his promotion of the 1933 National Martial Arts Examination.

Yet 1933 also saw the advent of a more diplomatic and outward looking martial arts discourse.  Zhang embarked on a tour of southern Chinese cities designed to promote the Guoshu program.  He then headed out into South East Asia where he gave numerous talks and staged martial arts demonstrations.  Zhang’s efforts to boost traditional physical culture within the diaspora community seem to have been calculated to increase support for, and identification with, the Chinese state.

Zhang’s other missionary passions were not forgotten during this period.  In the aftermath of the Japanese invasion of Manchuria he created an institution called “Christian Bands of Ten for Saving China.”  Formally incorporated in Nanjing in 1934, this group sought to save the nation by strengthening the people.  In this case that was to be accomplished through a mixture of missionary work, regular Bible study and rigorous daily exercise.

This is only one area where Zhang’s interests in martial arts and Christianity overlapped.  Of course he also promoted the YMCA, which by the 1930s was often offering martial arts classes of its own.  And Andrew Morris notes that the Central Guoshu Academy’s training facility mandated that all students engage in daily bible study during its early years.  It would seem that for Zhang the martial arts had become the ultimate expression of his “faith in action” philosophy.

These attitudes may be important to bear in mind when evaluating some of Zhang’s choices.  While Morris explains Zhang’s 1934 decision to expel all female students from the Central Guoshu Academy (where there had been rumors of “improprieties” with male instructors) in terms of the KMT’s regressive theories of gender, Zhang’s fundamentalist religious background could also shed light on the decision.

In 1935 the government combined the Guoshu organization with other groups dedicated to physical culture to create a new institute that would pursue a unified approach to physical education.  Once again, Zhang was named the director of the newly reconstituted institution.   As part of the effort to both study the latest physical education movements, as well as to advertise the strides that China had made in this area (and the strength of its own martial arts movement), Zhang undertook a world tour in 1935 and 1936.  Accompanied by a KMT Secretary of Foreign Affairs, he visited major cities in US, Europe and South East Asia, promoting “cultural understanding” and the Chinese vision of physical culture at every stop.

Much of this tour must be understood in the context of the massive preparations that were then underway for China’s participation in the 1936 Berlin Olympics.  This was the first Olympic Games to which the nation would send a full sized, and properly funded, team.  As such it was meant to be something of a coming out party for the Chinese physical culture movement. 

Given the importance of the venue, and the efforts that China was making to impress the global community, Zhang and Chu Minyi decided that the Chinese martial arts should be represented at the games as well.  As such, Chu selected and trained a sizable demonstration team to give a martial arts exhibition, designed to educate Western audiences about the nation’s indigenous physical culture.  

By all accounts this martial arts display was well received.  The demonstration team then set off on a European tour, brining their educational program to a number of cities.  This all must have made a good impression as in June of 1937 the German Consul in China awarded both Zhang and Chu Olympic medals for their efforts on the behalf of Adolph Hitler.

This inauspicious honor set the high-water mark for Zhang’s cultural diplomacy efforts.  Renewed Japanese aggression in 1937 would shift any discussion of the martial arts in a much more practical direction.  After the ensuing invasion Zhang moved the (much diminished) Guoshu establishment to Chunking.  There he served on the People’s Political Council.  He used this new office to continue to campaign for the traditional martial arts, but public opinion shifted against him, and his views came to be criticized in the press.

Following the end of hostilities in 1945, Zhang returned to Nanjing before eventually moving on to Beijing.  He resumed his leadership of the now totally smashed Guoshu movement.  The once proud national organization had been reduced to handful of members.  With their funding cut, it was impossible to repair the damage that had been done to their venues, let alone promote new events.

Zhang seems to have tried to restore the glory of the Chinese martial arts by appealing directly to foreign audiences.  In 1947 he gave an extensive interview to the NY Times detailing the decline of the Guoshu movement, but also reminding the world of the cultural importance of the Chinese martial arts.  All of this read like a thinly veiled appeal to his own government made via Western media markets.  But it was not to be.  The era of the “National Arts” had come to a close.

In 1949 Zhang ignored the advice of friends to flee to Taiwan and instead decided to stay in Beijing.  Of course the pioneering martial arts historian Tang Hao made the same choice.  Ironically Zhang had ordered Tang to be arrested on suspicion of being a communist back in 1932 (Morris 2004).  But the decision seems to have worked out in a similar way for both of them.

With the rise of the PRC, Zhang quietly shed his past as a “Christian general” and resumed his retirement from political life.  He spent his final years researching and promoting his beloved martial arts, now in the form of Wushu.  Zhang died in Beijing in 1966 at the age of 84.



Howard H. Boorman. 1967. Biographical Dictionary of Republican China, Volume 1. Columbia University Press.

Judkins and Nielson. 2015. The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts. SUNY Press.

Andrew Morris. 2004. Marrow of the Nation: A History of Sports and Physical Culture in Republican China. University of California Press.

Frederic Wakeman, Jr. 1995. Policing Shanghai, 1927-1937.  California University Press.

Shuge Wei. 2017. News Under Fire: China’s Propaganda Against Japan in the English-Language Press, 1928-1941. Hong Kong UP.

Ying Fuk-tsang.  2011. “Zhang Zhijiang: A Christian General’s Faith in Action.” In Carol Lee Hamrin and Stacey Bieler (eds.) Salt and Light, Vol. 3: More Lives of Faith that Shaped Modern China. Pickwick Publications.




A representative sample of English language coverage on Zhang during the 1930s.  These articles was chosen because they focused on his work with the martial arts:

“Chinese Boxing Show” Hong Kong Daily Press. April 27th 1933.

Untitled. The Straits Times. April 21, 1933. Page 14.

“Chinese Gymnasts Tour South Seas With Chang”. The China Press. May 26th 1933.

“Chinese Boxing Expert Leaving on World Tour”. The China Press. August 12, 1935.

“Nanking General Will Lead Nation in Physical Culture.” The China Press. September 18 1936 (Some discussion of the “League of Ten for National Salvation.”)

“Hitler Awards Olympic Medals to Dr. Chu and Gen Chang Chih-kiang.” The China Press. June 19, 1937.

“Lean Days for Guoshu”. New York Times. November 2nd, 1947.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (20): General Li Jinglin, the “Sword Saint” of Wudang.


Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (8): Gu Ruzhang-Northern Shaolin Master and Southward Bound Tiger.

An image of a now famous postcard that Gu Ruzhang sent to his students.
An image of a now famous postcard that Gu Ruzhang sent to his students.  Most images of Gu appear to be taken from this mailing.


Gu Ruzhang is one of the best known martial artists of the Republic of China era.  He is remembered today as a pioneer who helped to bring Northern Shaolin to Southern China.  Most accounts of his illustrious career start with his appearance at the first National Guoshu Exam held in 1928. At the conclusion of this tournament he was awarded the title of “guoshi” (national warrior) and came to the attention of important military leaders in the Nationalist Party (GMD).  They would subsequently sponsor his teaching mission to the South.

Unfortunately these accounts omit some of the most interesting aspects of Gu Ruzhang’s life and career.  Perhaps the real question that we should be asking is what unique set of circumstances led him to Nanjing in the fall of 1928 in the first place?   We have already seen that a close examination of the careers of other martial artists can expand our understanding of both civil society and martial culture.  My own personal background is not in Northern Shaolin, nor am I really qualified to speak to the specific substance of Gu Ruzhang’s martial method or training system.  However, a brief outline of his career does open a valuable window onto the rapidly evolving realm of the civilian fighting systems in the Republic of China period.

Much of my own research focuses on the evolution and development of Southern China’s martial culture in the 19th and 20th century.  Gu Ruzhang is a central figure in many of these discussions precisely because he crossed cultural boundaries and helped to promote and popularize different approaches to the Chinese martial arts.  For those reasons alone his career might make an interesting case study.

Still, none of us are free to make our lives exactly as we wish.  Gu Ruzhang’s career was both constrained and enabled by powerful forces within Chinese society.  Some of these were the direct result of the political turmoil that China experienced in the first half of the 20th century.  Others were a side-effect of the rapid modernization and urbanization of the state’s traditional economy.

Gu Ruzhang’s story is as much about political history as it is anything else.  By exploring these sometimes neglected aspects of his life and career I hope to shed a light on the basic forces that were shaping the development of the traditional Chinese martial arts more generally.  His career coincided with a period of immense change in the way the traditional fighting styles were imagined and taught.  I hope that a brief discussion may help to clarify why these changes began to emerge when they did.

Vintage postcard showing a pagoda in Jiangsu. Circa 1910.
Vintage postcard showing a pagoda in Jiangsu. Circa 1910.  Gu Ruzhang was likely still living with his mother (following the death of his father) when this images was taken.

Gu Ruzhang: Creating a Tiger

Gu Ruzhang’s life has become the subject of many legends and stories.  Some of them are basically true, others are vast exaggerations.  Nor did he leave a body of literature behind as did some of his contemporaries.  All of this makes documenting his life somewhat challenging.  The following account will try to stick to the “known facts” while placing them within the proper historical context.

Gu Ruzhang (“Ku Yu Cheung” in Cantonese) was born in 1894 in Jiangsu province in Funing County.  It doesn’t appear that his family was rich, but his father did run a successful armed escort company which employed a number of local martial artists.  These sorts of businesses thrived and prospered at the end of the Qing dynasty.  As the government’s grip on society weakened it became increasingly dangerous for either people or goods to travel on the roads.

Local highway men were a constant concern.  One of the most common solutions that merchants employed was to hire specialized armed escort companies to accompany their caravans.  In fact, by the final decades of the Qing dynasty such firms had become one of the leading employers of martial artists.

Gu’s father is said to have been an expert in Tan Tui (springing legs) as well as the art of throwing blades.  These skills were an important part of his professional reputation, though of course by this point in time most bandits (and the armed escorts that dealt with them) also carried modern and effective firearms.

Like many martial artists of the time, Gu’s father was basically illiterate.  This did not make running a business any easier and he appears to have wanted to provide his children with the benefits of at least a basic education.   In 1901 Gu was sent to complete a year of primary schooling.  It should be noted that Gu was the second son (he had one older brother and a younger sister), so we can probably assume that his schooling was less extensive than what his older brother might have received.

In 1906 his education changed from the literary to the strictly practical.  From the age of 11 Gu was instructed by his father.  He was first introduced to the form Shi Lu Tan Tui.  Unfortunately this course of study was also fated to be short lived.  Within two years his father was struck with a lingering illness that left him confined to his bed.

What happened next is a little unclear, but it appears that he advised his children on their future educations shortly before he died.  Gu reports that his father recommended that he seek out Yan Jiwen (a former college who had also been a player in the local escort industry) in Shandong to continue his martial training.

However the youth did not set off all at once.  Instead he stayed with his mother for an additional two years.  This was probably in observance of the traditional mourning period.  After that he left for Nanjing where he was enrolled in a middle school to continue his formal education.

Unfortunately that situation does not seem to have agreed with him.  One year later (in 1911) he and a classmate (who was also a cousin) named Ba Qingxiang set out for Shandong to find “Great Spear Yan.”  At the time Gu was likely 15-16 years old.

It is interesting to note the timing of this career change.  The Qing dynasty was overthrown in 1911-1912.  The nation was full of revolutionary sentiments and young men across the state felt a powerful “call to arms” in this period.  The martial arts (which had suffered badly in the wake of the Boxer Uprising) also began to become more popular in this period.  This was especially the case of anything that could claim to be tied to Shaolin or the secret societies that had resisted the now discredited Qing government.

Again, we don’t actually have any day to day accounts of what Gu was thinking or feeling.  Yet I find it to be suggestive that it was at this specific moment that he decided to dedicate himself to the study of the martial arts.

Gu and Ba apparently had little trouble locating Yan Jiwen or convincing him to teach them.  At the time he was actually running a small school and he seems to have been happy to take on the task of instructing the son of his friend and former colleague.  Ru began his training by relearning his Tan Tui sets to his new teacher’s satisfaction.  At that point he was introduced to the ten sets of Northern Shaolin, a variety of weapons forms, Iron Palm training and Small Golden Bell Qigong.

Gu stayed with his new teacher for quite some time.  He studied in residence in Shandong for at least eleven years.  In 1922 Gu received world of his mother’s death.  Decorum mandated that he return to his home village and observe the proper period of mourning.  At this point Yan proclaimed that Gu’s education was complete and he was ready to head out into the world.

The next two to three years were spent back in Jiangsu province.  During this time Gu lived with his cousin Ba and worked to hone his skills. Yet once again his career plans changed.

Rather than opening a school or joining a military academy, Gu reappears in the historical record in 1925, employed as a clerk in the office of the Finance Minister in Guangdong Province.  Many of the better known legend of Gu’s martial feats date to this period.  For instance, this was when he supposedly killed a Russian War Horse with a single blow from his iron palm.

Of course the really interesting question is not whether Gu actually killed the horse, but what he was doing in Guangdong at all?  After all, this job was pretty far from home?  Nor was it what he had spent the last 13 years training to do.  Why might a resident of Jiangsu (or northern China more generally) decide to move to a very different cultural and geographic climate in late 1924 or early 1925.

Gu did not leave us with a diary of his day to day thought, but one suspect that the very destructive Second Zhili–Fengtian War of 1924 may have had something to do with this decision.  This conflict pitted the more liberal (western backed) Zhili faction against the conservative (Japanese backed) Fengtian clique for control of Shanghai (including both its rich legal and illegal trade networks).  Things quickly escalated from there and the conflict became the bloodiest of Northern China’s many warlord conflicts.  Almost all major urban areas in northern China suffered some damage as a result of this war, and in some placed the destruction was extensive.

It is not a surprise to discover that a number of individuals (Gu among them) decided that Guangdong looked like a good bet in 1924-1925.  The Soviet backed clique of the KMT (headed by Chiang Kai Shek) was enjoying a moment of peace and security as its northern rivals ripped themselves apart.

It is likely that Gu (and others like him) believed that Guangdong was good place to start fresh.  While a smaller port than Shanghai, the area was still connected to international trade.  Even if the pace of social reform and economic growth was generally a little slower in Guangdong, by the 1920s it should have been possible to build a new life here.

Unfortunately Gu arrived just in time for another catastrophe, this one of an economic nature.  The Hong Kong Strike of 1925-1926 was one of the most economically disruptive periods in the entire history of the Republic of China.

Not surprisingly this event had an important impact on a number of regional martial arts organizations.  In fact, it affected pretty much everything in the local economy and society.  Yet it is seemingly never remembered in our discussions of the era’s martial arts?

The origins of this trade embargo can actually be found in Shanghai and the aftermath of the Second Zhili–Fengtian War.  Resentment of foreign interference was running high after this destructive conflict.  Shanghai, which had both a substantial foreign presence as well as a highly unionized workforce, became the epicenter of this growing resentment.

The Communist Party sensed an opening and moved quickly to educated workers, draw up lists of demands and organize student protests.  Initially much of this agitation focused on Japanese owned spinning mills.  A series of escalatory confrontations at one mill led to a Japanese manager shooting and killing a demonstrator.  At that point the city exploded like a powder keg.

Large groups began to protest in the international settlement.  Demands ranged anywhere from a release of protesters held by the police to the end of extraterritoriality and even foreign investment in China.  Eventually large numbers of protesters attempted to storm a British police station (they were intent of freeing some jailed comrades) which resulted in British, Chinese and Pakistani law enforcement officers opening fire on the crowd.  There were dozens of casualties.  Within days similar massacres played out in different cities around the country.

Very quickly the anger of the Chinese people shifted from the Japanese to the British.  Hong Kong remained a center of the UK’s commercial strength in the region and it was a highly identifiable target.  Both the KMT and the Communists initially supported plans to boycott foreign good and trade with Hong Kong.  Businesses that flaunted the boycott found themselves the target of often violent reprisals.

The social effect of all of this was devastating.  The economies of Guangzhou and Hong Kong were deeply linked and (truth be known) highly dependent on trade.  When that trade was severed the entire area suffered a massive and immediate drop in GDP.  This in turn led to a collapse in employment and government revenue.  Probably 50% of the region’s GDP evaporated in a few months.

In a future post I plan on talking about how these events affected the Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and Wing Chun communities.  But for right now, let’s consider what this probably did to Gu Ruzhang.    The entire reason that he had moved to the south was probably to get away from exactly this sort of social disruption.  Further, he got a job as a low level clerk probably because he had the benefit a few years of formal education and there was not much else for a wandering martial artist to do.

After all, the military (traditionally the largest employer of martial artists) had long since been professionalized and the armed escort companies (the second largest employer of hand combat professionals) had been put out of business by cheap and reliable train travel about a decade years earlier.  In short, the martial arts world of his father and teacher had ceased to exist.  Gu was probably working as a filing clerk because he needed the job.

This was the basic situation before the local economy took a massive hit.  One wonders whether rumors of his Kung Fu prowess began to emerge during this period because he was forced to fall back on his martial skills and public demonstrations to support himself.  After all, the famous story of killing the horse with a single punch is, at the end of the day, a pretty typical example of a public performance where organizers are selling tickets and contestants are competing for money (all protests to contrary notwithstanding).

Fortunately Gu’s luck begins to improve at about this point in our story.  Once again it is a shift in national politics that opens a new set of possibilities.  With the major northern cliques left bloodied and exhausted from their recent confrontation, Chiang Kai Shek lost little time in exploiting his opening.  Following the end of the Hong Kong Strike in 1926 (which had lasted substantially longer than he planned) his forces began the now famous “Northern Expedition.”  This campaign allowed the general to consolidate large parts of China under his direct control.

Still, there is more to unifying a nation than seizing territory.  The KMT created multiple programs to promote a sense of nationalism and shared identity.  One of the more interesting of these (building off of the earlier success of the Jingwu Association) sought to use the traditional martial arts as a tool of state building.

Of course in the 1920s there was very little about the Chinese martial arts that was actually “unified” or “modern,” let alone supportive of the KMT.  The Japanese had demonstrated that the martial arts could be a critical part of the nation building process, but to do this the government must first assert regulatory and ideological control over this section of civil society.  In politics a message that cannot be scripted or guided is not a tool, it’s a liability.

The new organization meant to unify the martial arts community behind the aims of the state was the Central Guoshu Institute.  The group was founded as the dust was still settling from the Northern Expedition and its headquarters were located in Nanjing.

Gu Ruzhang appears to have been hired on as a drill instructor at the Central Guoshu Institute soon after its creation.  However, that is not where he would come to national prominence.  Members of the Guoshu Institute realized that they needed to convince martial artists around the country to participate in their program (one that most boxers had been doing perfectly well without) if they were going to succeed.  To spread their mission they organized the First National Guoshu Exam in October of 1928.

The novel undertaking was a three way combination of a Qing era military exam (minus the traditional emphasis on archery), a boxing tournament and a modern, spectator-centered, sporting event.  The relatively young Gu Ruzhang entered the tournament and on its final day was named a “guoshi” or national warrior.  At the time it was the highest honor that the KMT could award to a martial artist.

A weapons performance at the National Guoshu Exam.
A weapons performance at the National Guoshu Exam.

Gu Ruzhang: The South Bound Tiger.

The organization of the initial National Exam had been rushed.  There were the sorts of problems with the format and programing that one might expect from a new effort.  Still, many members of the audience found the entire thing enthralling.  One of the most enthusiastic converts to the new Guoshu program was General Li Jishen.  At the time he was the governor of Guangdong and Guanxi and the commander of the Eight Army.

Li decided that he would enthusiastically support the Guoshu initiative.  It seemed to be the ideal way to strengthen and unify the area under his command.  Of course the traditionally hierarchic structure of martial arts associations could also be converted into an inexpensive mechanism for spreading ones political influence throughout society.

He invited Gu Ruzhang and four other individuals to return with him to Guangdong where they would establish the Liangguang Guoshu Institute.  Collectively these individuals became known in the press as the “Five Southbound Tigers.”  Together they had an impressive background in the northern arts including Taiji, Bagua, Liuhe Quan, Cha Quan, a wide variety of weapons and of course Northern Shaolin.

This was not actually the first time that the northern arts were to be publicly taught in the south.  That honor is usually awarded to the Jingwu Institute which had opened multiple clubs in the area in 1920 and 1921.  It should also be remembered that, unlike most other areas of the country, the Jingwu Association in Guangdong remained strong until the Japanese invasion in 1938.

Unlike the Jingwu Association, the new institute was conscious of the need to recruit some southern stylists for the teaching staff.  This went a long way towards not alienating the local population.  It hired Zhang Liquan, a White Eyebrow expert, among a handful of others.  Gu Ruzhang himself was well known for cultivating a positive relationship with a local Choy Li Fut clan.  Still, the vast majority of the organization’s teaching efforts were to focus on the orthodox (e.g., northern) Guoshu curriculum.

General Li’s branch of the Guoshu Institute formally began accepting students in March of 1929.  It had an initial enrollment of a little under 150 students and its offered classes 5 times a day (three two hour session and two one hour slots).  Following the lead of the Jingwu Association, the new club made deals with local schools, government offices and companies to provide in house instructors for a set fee.  For the most part it seems to have been government agencies that took them up on this offer.  It appears that a very large percentage of their student base were workers from various KMT controlled offices.  Initially enrollment was limited to men, but special classes for women were eventually created.

While enrollments were good, they were not spectacular.  The fact that so many of the new students were employees of the KMT leads one to suspect that it was going to take the new organization a while to penetrate deeply into the already crowded local market  for martial arts instruction.

Despite these shortcomings, or maybe because of them, the governor and the Liangguang Martial Arts Institute announced a road map to radically reform the martial arts of Southern China.  The first stage of this process was the registration of all martial arts schools in Guangdong and Guangxi.  The next step was to be a total ban on the creation of any new schools or associations other than those created by the staff of the Guoshu Institute.  Lastly the organization would begin publication of a new martial arts magazine explicitly dedicated to advancing the nationalist “Guoshu philosophy.”

With the full power of the provincial government and the Eighth Army backing the orders, it seems at least possible that these policies could actually have been implemented.  Clearly General Li Jishen was quite sincere in his desire to turn the local martial arts community into a tool to be exploited by the state.  With perfect hindsight it is hard to see how the execution of such a plan could have been anything but disastrous for Guangdong’s flourishing indigenous martial arts community.

Political calamity intervened before implementation of the new policies could begin.  In May of 1929 General Li Jishen resigned as governor and traveled to Nanjing with the intention of mediating a dispute between Chiang Kai-shek and the “New Guangxi Clique.”  Negotiations between the groups went badly and Li Jishen was arrested and held until his eventual release in 1931.

General Chen Jitang was then appointed the new governor of Guangdong and Guanxi.  One of Chen first acts was to eliminate his predecessor’s cherished Guoshu program.  I suspect that this action was politically motivated.  Perhaps he saw the organization as a threat, or maybe he did not want to align himself with a wing of the GMD that was so much under the influence of Chiang Kai-shek’s vocal supporters.  Whatever the real reason, Chen claimed to be acting out of an urgent need for fiscal responsibility.

The total budget of the Institute was around 4,500 Yuan a month.  This was a substantial figure, but probably in line with the costs of a major social engineering project like that which Li had envisioned.  The Liangguang Guoshu Institute folded after a mere two months of operations, a victim of internal politics within the GMD.

The upshot of this rapid fall was that a number of prominent northern exponents were left unemployed and more or less stranded in Southern China.  This seeming setback created new opportunities that spread the northern arts more effectively than anything the Guoshu Institute had ever managed to do.

After all, most of the instruction that the school had offered was focused on a handful of civil servants.  This likely reflects the fact that it was government pressure and subsidization that supported the original Institute, not public demand.  Chen’s forced dissolution of the Institute allowed its instructors to enter the much broader marketplace for private instruction.  It was within these smaller commercial schools that northern styles, such as Bak Siu Lam and Taiji, really took hold and began to spread in the south.

Gu Ru Zang proved to be among the most influential of the remaining staff.  In June of 1929 he created the Guangzhou Guoshu Institute.  It seems likely that this new, smaller organization, had some level of official backing and that it clearly fell within the broader Guoshu movement led by the Central Academy in Nanjing.  The group was housed in the building of the National Athletic Association.  That said, the new institute did not continue the grandiose mission of its predecessor.  It did not attempt to regulate or lead the local martial arts marketplace.  It essentially became just one more martial arts school among many.  Ironically that appears to have been the key to its long term success.

I have no idea whether Gu actually killed a horse with a single blow. Luckily we have a series of photographs of this particular feat.
I have no idea whether Gu actually killed a horse with a single blow. Luckily we have a series of photographs to confirm this particular feat.

Conclusion: Gu Ruzhang as a Wandering Tiger

One might assume that after his return to the South, and his subsequent establishment of a successful martial arts institute, Gu would settle down.  Unfortunately it was not to be.  He left the region following the Japanese invasion of Manchuria in 1931.  I have not been able to locate precise information on what he did next.

In 1932 Ho Qian, a high official in Hebei Province, hired Gu to act as a head instructor at the Heibi Military Academy.  Such appointments were very prestigious and highly sought after.  This kind of government sponsorship was seen as legitimating the efforts of a martial artist.  Gu also opened a traditional medicine clinic in 1932.  Yet once again the Master showed no interest in putting down roots.

In 1934 he returned to the south, this time to receive an appointment as the Chief Guoshu Instructor for the Eight Army.  This would be the last major assignment of his career.  In 1938 the Japanese invasion reached Southern China.  Most martial arts schools closed their doors or went underground.  The Central Guoshu Institute retreated with the government to the far interior of the country.

In the early 1940s Gu Ruzhang announced his retirement from the world of the martial arts.  At that point he disappeared from public view.  I have not been able to find much information on the final years of his life.  He is known to have died in 1952 and a few of his students have asserted that heart problems were to blame.  He was only 58 years old at the time of his death. 

Still, his career spanned three decades in which the traditional martial arts were transformed, modernized and socially repositioned for even greater success in the future.  Gu taught literally thousands of students in his lifetime and played an important role in preserving and passing on China’s martial culture.

It is certainly interesting to watch how the Chinese martial arts evolved throughout his life.  As a child they were the essential skills of bandits and paramilitary guards.  Later they fell on hard times.  Then in the 1920s and 1930s the traditional combat systems were systematically re-imagined as an aid in building and promoting a new vision of Chinese nationalism.  Each of these shifts reflected larger changes in the China’s economic and political situation.  These in turn manifested themselves in very specific ways in Gu’s life and career.

Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (20): General Li Jinglin, the “Sword Saint” of Wudang

General Li Jinglin sporting both sunglasses and a jian.



Who was China’s “Number One Sword?”


Few individuals come to be known as both a warlord and a “sword saint.”  Even by the standards of China’s tumultuous 1920s, the carving out of two such notable public personas was an impressive achievement.  Yet General Li Jinglin managed to leave his stamp on both Chinese politics and the development of the nation’s traditional martial arts.


I recently started to delve into the modern development (early 20th century) of the Wudang sword tradition.  The following biographical discussion of General Li Jinglin is part of my very preliminary research on the subject.  If all goes well, more posts on the background and social development of this unique style of fencing may follow.


Still, there can be no doubt that Li Jinglin (1885 – 1931) deserves more attention than he typically receives.  Beyond his role as a political figure in the turbulent warlord era, he was a dedicated martial artist.  Li studied with several important teachers, tirelessly promoting both Yang style Taijiquan and the Wudang sword tradition.  When not exchanging techniques with China’s most famous martial artists he was bringing them together as he created one martial arts association after another, eventually becoming a chief architect of the KMT’s Guoshu movement.


While clearly dedicated to the practice of the martial arts, General Li was also acutely aware of the multifaceted role that these practices could play in the creation of a new type of Chinese state and society.  Whether one’s research is historical or social in nature, concerned with the development of sword techniques, or attempts to impart “martial values” to the Chinese body politic, Li’s career can reveal much about the state of the Republic era martial arts.


The following essay touches briefly on each of these topics.  Yet its major goal is simply to lay out what is currently known about Li Jinglin’s biography.  At times this is a challenge as key issues are not well documented and other topics (his political maneuvering during the Warlord era) are complex.  Some questions, such as, “At what point did he acquire the nick-name of “sword saint?” are likely to remain unresolved.  This essay should be considered an initial research note rather than the final statement on any of these topics.


By way of disclosure I should state that I am not a member of any lineage stemming from Li Jinglin though, like a great many martial artists, I find that my practice has been somewhat influenced by his eclectic innovations.  If not for his tireless work during the 1920s, its very unlikely that I would currently be reading up on Wudang sword traditions. Indeed, it is an open question whether the current enthusiasm for Wudang could exist in his absence.


This essay is based both on published writings by Li’s students (such as Huang Yuanxiu’s 1931 Essentials of Wudang Sword) and other publicly available articles (including this very helpful translation of a Business Times piece provided by Bernard Kwan at Be Not Defeated by the Rain). Lastly, given the nature of Li’s career as a warlord during the 1920s, he actually shows up in a fair amount of history that has nothing to do with the martial arts. While specific questions remain, the broad outlines of Li’s life are well known and help to illuminate the massive transformation that overtook the Chinese martial arts during the 1920s-1930s.


Li Jinglin in uniform. Soure:


The Making of a “Sword Saint”


Li Jinglin was born in 1885 as the youngest of five sons.  His family were hereditary Han bannermen located in Zaoqiang County, Encai Township, Hebei.  This martial legacy notwithstanding, most of Li’s immediate and extended family seem to have been merchants. Some sources indicate that his grandfather had been a well-known martial artist in his own day.   Like many younger sons in similar situations Li seems to have been drawn to the martial arts at an early age and struck out while still young, attempting to make his mark on the world.


I suspect that the biographical appendix on Li Jinglin provided by Huang Yuanxiu at the conclusion of his study of Wudang sword is not entirely reliable.  Still, it is probably correct when it asserts that Li first began martial arts training with his father.  Other sources suggest that as a child (sometime between 1890 and 1898) he studied Yan Qing Men and Er Lang Men, two styles that were regionally popular.


Huang’s biography, which was approved by the still living Li, then asserts that as a youth he met and befriended a strange hermit named Chen Shijun from Anhui.  Chen supposedly instructed Li in a variety of practices including jacketed wrestling, Taijiquan, the spear and (of course) some method of Daoist sword.  When the young and impulsive Li attempted to leave to join the military Chen prophesied that if he left now, before completing his training, Li would have at best a middling military career and would struggle to achieve his full potential with the blade.  Li left anyway, and his subsequent career as a Warlord and sometimes ruler of Tianjin is, as they say, history.


Chen Shijun is a mysterious figure.  When outlining Li’s sword lineage in the appendix, Huang traces it back to Chen but does not attempt to go farther (say to Zhang Sanfeng).  In any case, the veracity of this story is unclear.  I haven’t been able to find independent discussions of Chen, and most sources trace Li’s sword instruction to another, more historically verifiable, set of teachers.


What is known is that (ominous prophecies not withstanding), Li left to enlist in the Qing’s military “Youth Corp” in Luoyang in 1898 at the age of 13.  Some sources, including the Business Times article translated by Bernard Kwan, assert that the leader of this unit was none other than Song Weiyi, another of the Republic period’s legendary swordsmen, and someone who is known to have taught Li his sword method.  Yet when they first met is a matter of debate.


In one version of the story Song was already the Ninth generation inheritor of the Wudang Dan Pai sword tradition.  Noting Li’s obvious talent, he accepted him as a disciple and began to train him in the jian.  As we will see below, there is at least one other account of how Li and Song first met which would suggest that their relationship started many years later.  Nor is Song ever discussed in Huang’s brief biographical sketch, which instead relies on the shadowy Chen.  As such the credibility of this account is unclear.


What is clear is that 1898 may have been a uniquely bad year to enlist in the Youth Corp.  The organization was disbanded because of the Boxer Uprising in 1900.  At this point the young Li (only 15 years old) returned home, but he remained focused on the martial arts.


In the same year Li sought out Taijiquan instruction with Yang Jianhuo (the third son of Yang Luchan).  History remembers him as a notably difficult and demanding teacher, a trait that Li would encounter again over the course of his martial pilgrimage.  At the same time, he formed a lifelong friendship with Yang Chengpu (the son of Yang Jianhuo).  The two remained close and Li would go on to champion and promote Yang style Taijiquan throughout his career.


This setback was not, however, the end of the young Li Jinglin’s military aspiration.  In 1903 he enrolled in the “Accelerated Military Training Hall for the Beiyang Army”, which was the predecessor for the better known Baoding Military Academy.  It is believed that immediately after graduation he began his career as a lower level officer in the capital.


Li first rose to prominence as a loyalist officer during the 1911 revolution.  Taking the initiative Li volunteered to command the 500 man 2nd Suicide Squad and in the battle for Hanyang led the assault that captured “Turtle Mountain.”  He was awarded the Yellow Jacket (a color normally reserved for the imperial family) by the then moribund Qing dynasty.


While the fighting at Hanyang was probably Li’s greatest individual military achievement, his career flowered during the warlordism that marred the 1920s.  A complete accounting of this era is beyond the limits of this essay, which by necessity must focus on the martial aspects of his career.  One could write a small book on Li’s various postings and adventures during the period.


Suffice it to say that in 1920 Li Jinglin operated as a regional commander under the Anhui Clique General Qu Tong Feng.  After being ousted by Wu Peifu he sought refuge with the famous warlord Zhang Zoulin.  In 1922 he received a substantial promotion and became the Commander-in-Chief of the Three Eastern Provinces following the restructuring of Zhang’s military.


Two years later Li could be found leading the Fengtian Second Army which aided in the victory at Longku, and in November his troops occupied Tianjin, whose management he would oversee for several years.  Li’s regime is not remembered fondly.  His occupation of Tianjin was notable for its thuggish and predatory nature.  Like other Warlords Li was a member of the Green Gang and he went to extreme lengths to extort and squeeze the city’s merchants.  He even managed to clash with elements of the US 15th Infantry Regiment that were stationed in the area.


These years were also a critical period in Li’s development as a martial figure.  One wonders if this is when the previously avid wushu student blossomed into a fully-fledged “sword saint.”  While Li consolidated his political/military base, he also turned his attention to the construction of a martial legacy.


A photograph from Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art by Huang Yuanxiu (Beijing, 1931). Source: Brennan Translation Blog.



The first step in this process happened back in 1920 when Yang Kui-shan became his first disciple while in Tianjin.  Yang personally attended to Li and served as his bodyguard for years.  Li later sent him to study with a variety of instructors and relied on Yang to handle much of the instruction of new students and disciples.


Later, in 1922, another officer who had been quartered in the house of a local martial arts enthusiast brought his landlord, a sword master named Song Weiyi, to meet Li.  In some accounts this was the first time that the men met, and Li invited Song to live in his residence as his personal fencing instructor.  This was the beginning of the master/disciple relationship that would eventually see Li become the 10th inheritor of the Dan Pai Jian tradition and a tireless proponent of the entire Wudang tradition.


In another version of this story the two had first met in the old Qing Youth Corp and were surprised to be reunited after many years.  Song gave Li a copy of the Wudang Jian manual that he had authored making him the 10th generation inheritor of the tradition.  While the details of the stories differ, both accounts suggest that Li (who had previously studied other sword traditions) devoted himself to the Wudang style during the early 1920s.


Other accounts of the period note that Li ran a very busy martial household.  In addition to his own practice, he also instructed his three children (two sons and a daughter, born to a wife and two concubines) in the new Wudang sword method.  Many of his top officers were students as well.


The 1920s were also a period of substantial innovation.  Song’s jian curriculum lacked any set forms, though it did contain additional neigong and empty hand exercises.  The Wu Jian (sword dance) “set” which was passed on by Song was really a type of free play or shadow boxing in which the artist freely flowed between each of the system’s 13 techniques in an improvised pattern.  Other aspects of the system came down to technical practice and fencing.  As such, Song’s sword method relied heavily on personal instruction.


To make the Wudang Jian suitable for mass dissemination in “modern China,” Li came up with a number of sets that could aid in instruction.  The first of these was Xing Jian (continuous stepping sword) which borrowed directly from the footwork of Bagua.  Dui Jan was a two-person set that focused on the central lessons of Wudang combat.  A longer Six Section Sword form was also created.  Following Li’s premature death other students subsequently adapted and constructed a number of Wudang sword sets.


Not content to rest on his theoretical laurels, Li appears to have sought out opportunities to test his mastery.  He extended an open invitation to China’s swordsmen to visit his home, share his hospitality, and test his skill.  The folklore of many lineages contain accounts of masters who either beat, or were bested by, Li in these exchanges.  What is clear is that Li was assembling a vast network of contacts throughout the Chinese martial arts community that would later become very important.


The creation of the modern Wudang sword tradition took another step forward in 1923 when Song’s sword manual was published in Beijing.  So far as I can tell this was the first ever publication on the topic of Wudang sword.  Around that time Li also seems to have gained Song’s permission to begin to more widely promote what had previously been a closely held fencing system.


Li retired from active military service in 1927 after a falling out with Zhang Zuolin.  Initially Li moved to Shanghai (and later Guangdong) where he continued to devote himself to the martial arts and grow his network of contacts and disciples.  For instance, both Chen Weiming and Chen Zhijin studied Li’s Wudang sword method shortly after he arrived in the South.


What might have been a productive and quiet retirement was disrupted when the country was hurled back into conflict by the 1928 Northern Expedition.   Li threw his support behind General Chiang Kai-shek and after the conclusion of hostilities was rewarded.  In 1928 Zhang Zhijiang invited Li to join the KMT’s Military Council.


A year earlier Zhang, Li and Zhang Shusheng had began to plan the creation of a new martial arts association.  While the effort would be national in scope (similar to the now defunct Jingwu movement) the new organization would be backed by the KMT and carry a distinctly statist, rather than a simply nationalist, flavor.  Like its civilian predecessor it would seek to reform and strengthen the traditional martial arts (stripping out any sign of secrecy or feudal superstition) as a precondition for strengthening the Chinese body politic in their quest for national unification and an end to imperial threats.  In March of 1928 the KMT controlled government passed Decree #174 creating the “Guoshu Research Academy.”  Zhang Zhijiang was named the director of the ambitious new organization, and Li was named deputy director.


We have discussed the Guoshu movement in many other posts, so it is not necessary to review its structure or strategy here.  Yet it should be noted that Li was active in its early years.  In 1928 he helped to organize the (now famous) first national martial arts examination.  In 1929 he followed this up by promoting the Zhejiang Guoshu Performance Gathering.


This was not his only achievement. That same year Li cooperated with Yang Chengpu to produce the Shandong Guoshu Academy manual containing the simplified Taijiquan set and 88 movement set still promoted in China today.  Li left a notable mark on both the Taijiquan and the Wudang communities.


On a purely speculative note, I have always wondered whether the division of the initial Guoshu program into “Wudang” and “Shaolin” sections (rather than a scheme that would have made more administrative sense) reflected Li’s heavy proselytizing of the Wudang concept during this period.  While Wudang is mentioned in some late Ming and Qing era literary texts, Li seems to have more or less been responsible for its sudden explosion in the modern era.


During these years Li’s network of personal disciples is reported to have grown to a prodigious size.  Li is reputed to have had thousands of disciples with hundreds more joining him after major events in the Guoshu period.  Given Li’s political status one suspects that most of these people were not looking for fencing instruction.  Still, this is an interesting reminder of the many ways in which martial and political networks were expected to reinforce one another in Republican China.


Other disciples of note did begin to study with Li during this period.  He took Li Yulin as a disciple in Hangzhou (who later went on to teach Dan Pai sword in Beijing).  In the same year Li accepted Huang Yuanxiu as a disciple.  Huang had already studied the Wudang sword system and took extensive notes during his brief period of instruction.  Li approved these for publication and they were later released as the Essentials of the Wudang Sword Art.  North Atlantic Books titled their translation of the text Major Methods of the Wudang Sword (2010).


Students who studied with Li at various periods of his career worked on, and received, different things.  Indeed, the field of Wudang Jian is vast.  But Huang’s efforts provide students with a detailed snapshot of Li philosophical and technical thinking towards the end of his career.


In 1930 Li was once again tasked with organizing military attacks in Jinan in support of the KMT’s conflict with Yan Xishan and Feng Yuxiang.  That same year he helped to found the Shanghai Guoshu Institute.  Then, in 1931, the seemingly unstoppable “sword saint” fell ill.  He returned to Jinan and died shortly thereafter at the comparative young age of 47.  It is hard to think of many other individuals who had such a profound effect on the development of the Chinese martial arts in such a brief time.  Nor would the Wudang sword tradition exist in its current form without his pioneering efforts.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Five Moments that Transformed Kung Fu


Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (19): Cheng Zongyou, Shaolin’s Martial Missionary





Few individuals have influenced our understanding of the martial arts during the late Ming dynasty more than Cheng Zongyou.  His manuals provide historians a glimpse into a world of martial arts practice that is at the same time familiar and strange.  His works describe an environment that is characterized by a multiplicity of competing schools and ongoing disputes about the authenticity and legitimacy of various techniques.  Cheng’s frequent use of Buddhist metaphor when describing the Shaolin fighting method, while more superlative than theoretical, even seems to have resonances with the way the Chinese martial arts are often discussed today.


Yet his beloved pole fighting method was not only intended for the training ground.  Cheng was promoting the martial arts in an era when China’s people were threatened by insurrection, pirates and the rise of bandit armies.  Martial artists were in demand as military trainers.  At least one of Cheng’s instructors would die in battle while leading military expeditions in the field.  As the security situation deteriorated the gentry and rich landlords increasingly turned to private militias to maintain some semblance of order, if not actual peace.  This was the world that inspired Cheng Zongyou to take up the brush and to begin to systematically record and explore the era’s martial arts.


I have quoted Cheng’s various writings in many places on this blog. Yet by some oversight he has never received a post of his own.  As such I have decided to make Cheng Zongyou’s career the next addition to our ongoing “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” occasional series.  All the information here is available in the secondary academic literature.  Hopefully I will be able to clarify a few things for myself by gathering it all into one place.


Front Gates of the Shaolin Temple Prior to the 1928 Destruction of the Temple. This photo was part of a Republic of China era survey of the temple grounds.



Life and Career


Most entries in this series start out with a biographical discussions of the individual in question.  In this case, our exploration of Cheng Zongyou’s background must be brief as we do not know much about his life.  Stanley Henning reports that Cheng was probably born in 1561 (Martial Arts of the World, 95). Unfortunately, we do not know much about other life events, or even when he died.


Meir Shahar has written more about Cheng’s contributions to the martial arts than any other scholar in the English language literature.  His treatment of Cheng’s life can be found in his 2001 article “Ming-Period Evidence of Shaolin Martial Practice” (Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, Vol. 61, No. 2, pp. 359-413) or in a slightly expanded form in his 2008 volume, The Shaolin Monastery: History, Religion and the Chinese Martial Arts (Hawaii UP, see especially 56-62). Readers should also note his translation in the 2005 Hawaii Reader in Traditional Chinese Culture titled “Cheng Zongyou’s Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method.”  Most of the research on this figure in the Chinese academic literature remains untranslated.


While many details about Cheng’s life are a mystery, we know a bit more about his family.  Shahar notes that he was a son of a wealthy gentry family in southern Anhui province.  There had been a number of degree holder’s in the Cheng clan, but in Zongyou’s generation the deteriorating security situation seems to have shifted the family’s interests in a notably martial direction.


Cheng Zongyou was far from alone in his interest in the martial arts.  We know that several brothers shared his interests, and that he had both uncles and nephews who also took the military exams and devoted themselves to the martial arts.  In fact, Shahar reminds us that during the late Ming many young gentlemen (the author Wushu being a prominent example) turned their interests to military matters.  Rather than this being a hobby one suspects that their families decided that this was necessary to defend their economic and social status in changing times.  As such, Zongyou’s study and research appears to have been both financially and socially well supported.  Returning to his hometown after decades of study and travel Cheng Zongyou managed to raise a model militia, trained using his own techniques, composed of at least 80 members of his own estate.  This framework is important to bear in mind when discussing his earlier training.


As a younger man Cheng Zongyou (and a number of other close family members) traveled to the Shaolin Temple in Henan province.  His subsequent publications claim that he studied with a succession of renowned teachers and mentors for over a decade before finally following one of his instructors on expeditions outside of the temple.  The instruction that he received within the walls of the temple seems to have been the basis for much of his later activity as an author.


Henning characterizes this as a “claim,” rather than as a fact, in his 2010 article for Green and Svinth (“China: Martial Arts” 95).  His caution should be carefully considered.  We do not have any independent documentation (that I am aware of) that places Cheng Zongyou at Shaolin during this period.  And even during the Ming, many martial artists were attempting to ride the venerable temple’s coat tails.


When we turn to circumstantial evidence is the picture is mixed, but it seems to lean in Cheng’s favor.  It is odd that in his extensive discussion of Shaolin’s pole fighting Cheng makes no mention of the simplified system that General Yu Dayou introduced to the temple a generation before.  That might reflect the interests of his teachers, or that as a relatively recent addition, it did not appear to be “authentically Shaolin” from Cheng’s point of view.  Indeed, he mentions the supernatural origins of the Shaolin method in multiple places in his subsequent publications.


A detailed view of one of the 19th century murals at the Shaolin Temple in Henan. Original published source unknown.



On the other hand, Cheng does discuss several teachers who do appear in other period texts and records.  Further, he describes the process of learning at Shaolin in some detail, as well as exploring new trends that he has seen at the sanctuary.  For instance, in his 1610 Exposition on the Original Shaolin Staff Method we find the following aside on the growing popularity of unarmed boxing (still at this point a new trend) at the temple:



“Someone may ask: “As to the staff, the Shaolin [Method] is admired.  Today there are many Shaolin monks who practice hand combat (quan), and do not practice the staff.  Why is that?

I Answer: The Shaolin Staff is called the Yaksa (Yecha) [method].  It is a sacred transmission from the Kimnara King (Jinnaluo wang) (Shaolin’s tutelary diety, Vajrapani).  To this day it is known as “Unsurpassed Wisdom (Bodhi)” (wushang puti).  By contrast, hand combat is not yet popular in the land.  Those [Shaolin monks] who specialize in it, do so in order to transform it, like the staff, [into a vehicle] for reaching the other shore [of enlightenment.]”

(Shahar’s  2008 translation of Shaolin Gungfa, page 114).



Cheng Zongyou paints a fascinating picture in which the late Ming Shaolin monastery has come to function as a military school for the state.  Within the sanctuary one can find dozens of instructors who are offering classes to a variety of students rather than promoting the highly exclusive lineage systems that we tend to associate with the martial arts today.  That makes sense as Shaolin was attempting to offer all the basic skills that a young officer might need.  Cheng Zongyou mentions receiving instruction in not just pole fighting but also the spear, fencing, archery and even riding.  Of all these subjects, Shaolin was most famous for its expertise in the pole, and Cheng’s description makes it clear that this topic was being tackled by many teachers.


Returning to Henning’s original question, is Cheng Zongyou offering us an “authentic” glimpse at the Shaolin staff method?  Or to put it differently, is he acting as a good Confucian and simply relating the learning of the sages for the edification of his readers, or is his work more innovative than its title may suggest.  Did later readers inherit Shaolin’s pole method, or Cheng’s?


The nature of instruction at the Temple itself, as described by Cheng, complicates any attempt to answer such a question.  Rather than there being a single unified Shaolin approach to pole fighting the temple featured a variety of teachers.  Their approaches were apparently different enough that students made conscious decisions to seek out some mentors rather than others.  Cheng describes the composition of his first major work as follows:


“My great uncle, the military student Yunshui and my nephews Junxin and the National University student Hanchu had studies with me once at Shaolin.  They pointed out that so far the Shaolin staff method had been transmitted only orally, from one Buddhist master to the next.  Since I was the first to draw illustrations and compile written formulas for it, they suggested I publish these for the benefit of like-minded friends.  At first I declines, saying I was not equal to the task. But then illustrious gentlemen from all over the land started commending the supposed merits of my work.  They even blamed me for keeping it secret, thereby depriving them.  So finally I found some free time, gathering the doctrines handed down to me by my teachers and friends, and combined these with what I learned from my own experience.  I commissioned an artisan to execute the drawings, and, even though my writing is somewhat vulgar, I added to the left of each drawing a rhyming formula (gejue).”


Given that Cheng was combining the insights of some instructors, but not all, while at the same time adding his own experiences and insights, one wonders whether his work should actually be regarded as an innovation within the Shaolin pole fighting method rather than a simple transmission.  Indeed, the very act of taking an exceedingly complex body of material and reducing it to a single text implies not just a loss, but also a transformation of the material.


Cheng seems to have suffered remarkably few misgivings regarding the nature of his project.  In the current era we almost reflexively question one’s ability to “learn Kung Fu from a book.”  Cheng, on the other hand, informs his readers that with the addition of woodblock images (a recent trend in Ming era publishing) readers would be able to do just that:


“Just casting a glance at one of the drawings would probably suffice to figure the position depicted therein.  Thus the reader will be able to study this method without the aid of a teacher.  Despite an apparent simplicity, each sentence captures the secret of victory and defeat, each drawing harbors the essence of movement.  Even though staff fighting is called a trivial art, its explication in this book is the result of strenuous effort.”


Many martial artists in both China and the West have spent a good deal of time attempting to reconstruct Cheng’s various methods, and it seems that the process is generally more difficult than he suggests.  It is likely that Eric Burkart’s recent work on European fight books may be of some help here. Cheng simply assumed that any reader who picked up his book would already share much of his knowledge about specific techniques, vocabularies and even basic (culturally determined) habits of movement.  Given the constraints of space inherent in the publishing enterprise, that which is assumed to be “common knowledge” is almost always left out of a fight book.  This makes their later reconstruction (centuries after these deep forms of cultural knowledge have died) a fundamentally creative and rhizomic process.  Thus, another layer of interpretation and mystery is inserted between modern readers and the actual substance of Ming era Shaolin practice.


While Cheng did not restrict his writing to the Shaolin pole method, it was clearly his passion.  The 1610 Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method is longer than his next three books combined.  These were released in 1621 (along with the Staff Method) in a collection titled Techniques for After-Farming Pastime.  While outwardly bucolic one suspects that this title was meant to hail other landlords and members of the gentry who were thinking of organizing their own community militias out of the ranks of local peasants.


This collection included works on the crossbow, the spear and the saber.  Of these efforts, the last is probably the best known.  Rather than discussing the Chinese military dao this work reflects the interest in Japanese swordsmanship that had been inspired by the coastal raids of the 16th century.  Peter Lorge notes that Cheng had studied his “Dandao” techniques with Liu Yunfeng, who in turn was a direct student of Japanese fencing (2012, 179).  This work begins with a number of combat applications against the spear, before providing a dulon suitable for solo-practice.  This comes with a movement diagram similar to those used in the Staff Method.


Lorge observes that while this was popular among Chinese martial artists at the time, the actual practice of the dandao and other schools of Japanese fencing appear to have died out quickly.  General Qi Jiguang proved that better training and the use of pole arms was the easiest way to defeat Japanese swordsmen.  Of course, that same trend was playing itself out on Japan’s battlefields and the sword increasingly became a weapon of personal defense (179).  This suggests that subsequent flurries of interest in the dandao (and Cheng’s text) in the Qing and Republic eras might best be understood as revival movements.


In 1629 Cheng went on to publish another manual titled History of ArcheryStephen Selby suggests that like his Staff Method, this work is inherently conservative.  It again ignores the innovations that General Yu Dayou and Qi Jiguang introduced to simplify military archery and instead favors the older techniques of the early Ming dynasty.  Still, Cheng’s illustrations were path breaking.  Selby states that his manual was the first to provide detailed illustrations of techniques that had been written about for hundreds of years but were never clearly visualized (2000, 276).


A different view of the same mural. Shaolin, 19th century. Original published source unknown.





Unfortunately, we do not know how Cheng’s story ends. Perhaps that is poetic justice as his contributions to the Chinese martial arts live on.  At multiple points (during the Republic, after the end of the Cultural Revolution, and today) Chinese students have exhibited renewed interest in his work.  Nor can scholars deny the historical and descriptive importance of his writing.


Cheng Zongyou paints an image of the Chinese martial arts that is almost intoxicating for modern readers.  It all seems so familiar.  His descriptions of a thriving Shaolin temple, or the era’s many disputes and rivalries, sound so vivid.  The images in his texts are evocative, if not always descriptive.  Likewise, his use of Buddhist metaphors promises a merging of the martial and philosophical realms that has proved deeply appealing to individuals in both the East and West.  Cheng seems to function as a bridge between the present and a past that we wish existed.


Yet careful readers will also detect disjoints that, in their own way, are just as informative.  His was a world in which unarmed Boxing was just starting to capture the public imagination, and most martial arts instruction happened on the militia training ground.  Rather than learning in modern schools, those who could afford to do so hired instructors who became part of their estates, or traveled to defacto military schools like Shaolin or Emei.  Nor were these skills purely academic.  Even famous teachers might be cut down while fighting bandit armies, as was the fate of one of Cheng’s Shaolin instructors.


While at a recent workshop I was listening to several scholars debate the translation of a 17th century Japanese medical text.  One of the diseases that it mentioned seemed to share many of the characteristics of Anorexia.  But other elements of the description did not fit that pattern.  And still others pointed to behaviors that may have been more religious in nature.


As the conversation went on a more experienced researcher, with considerable expertise in this area, stepped in to remind the group that, in general, it is just not possible to impose modern disease diagnosis on older medical texts.  Our world view is not their world view.  Our empirical observations are not their empirical observations.  When we impose modern categories on ancient documents we inevitably damage our ability understand the world that they lived in while still failing to make the facile analogies that we seek.


I was reminded of this conversation as I reviewed the sources on Cheng Zongyou and the ways that they were sometimes used in popular discussions.  Like that medical text, he is challenging precisely because he seems to hover right on the edge of our modern understanding of the Chinese martial arts.  And it is just so easy to romanticize his decade at Shaolin at the height of its Ming glory.  Who among us would not jump at the chance to do that?  Yet we cannot fully appreciate Cheng’s vision of the Chinese martial arts if we ignore the many differences in an attempt to bring his experiences closer to our own.



Preface – Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method

The Shaolin Monastery is nestled between two mountains: that of culture (wen) and that of fighting (wu). Indeed this monastery has transmitted the method of staff fighting and the doctrines of the Chan sect alike, for which reason gentlemen throughout the land have always admired it.

Since my youth I was determined to learn the martial arts.  Whenever I heard of a famous teacher I wouldn’t hesitate to travel far to gain his instruction.  Therefore I gathered the necessary travel expenses and journeyed to the Shaolin Monetary where I spent, all in all, more than ten years.  At first I served Master Hongji, who was tolerant enough to admit me to his class  Even though I gained a sketchy understanding of the techniques’ broad outlines, I didn’t master it.

At the time Master Hongzhuan was aleady an old man in his eighties.  Nevertheless his staff method was superb, and the monks venerated him the most.  Therefore I turned to him as my next teacher, and each day I learned new things I had never heard of before. In addition, I befriended the two Masters Zongxiang and Zongdai, and I gained enormously from practicing with them.  Later I met Master Guang’an, one of the best experts in Buddhist technique.  He inherited Hongzhuan’s technique in its entirety, and had even improved upon it.  Guang’an tutored me personally, and revealed to me wonderful subtleties.  Later I followed him out of the monastery and we traveled together for several years.  The marvelous intricacy of the staff’s transformations, the wonderful swiftness of its manipulations—I gradually became familiar with them, and I attained sudden enlightenment (dun).  I chose this field as my specialty, and I believe I did have some achievements.

As for archery, riding, and the arts of the sword and spear, I paid quite some attention to their investigation as well, however by that time my energy of half-a-lifetime had already been spent.  My great uncle, the military student Yunshui and my nephews Junxin and the National University student Hanchu had studies with me once at Shaolin.  They pointed out that so far the Shaolin staff method had been transmitted only orally, from one Buddhist master to the next.  Since I was the first to draw illustrations and compile written formulas for it, they suggested I publish these for the benefit of like-minded friends.  At first I declined, saying I was not equal to the task. But then illustrious gentlemen from all over the land started commending the supposed merits of my work.  They even blamed me for keeping it secret, thereby depriving them.  So finally I found some free time, gathering the doctrines handed down to me by my teachers and friends, and combined these with what I learned from my own experience.  I commissioned an artisan to execute the drawings, and, even though my writing is somewhat vulgar, I added to the left of each drawing a rhyming formula (gejue).

Together these drawings and formulas constitute a volume, which I titled: Exposition of the Original Shaolin Staff Method.  Just casting a glance at one of the drawings would probably suffice to figure the position depicted therein.  Thus the reader will be able to study this method without the aid of a teacher.  Despite an apparent simplicity, each sentence captures the secret of victory and defeat, each drawing harbors the essence of movement.  Even though staff fighting is called a trivial art, its explication in this book is the result of strenuous effort.

If this book serves like-minded friends as a raft leading them to the other shore [of enlightenment], if they rely upon it to strengthen the state and pacify its boarders, thereby spreading my teachers’ method and enhancing its glory, yet another of my goals would be accomplished.

(Shaolin Gungfu circa 1610.  Translated by Shahar (2008) 56-59).


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read:  Writing (and Reading) Better Martial Arts History in Four Easy Steps


Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (13): Zhao San-duo—19th Century Plum Flower Master and Reluctant Rebel


The Yellow River Breaches its Course.  Water Album by Ma Yuan.  Source: Wikimedia.

The Yellow River Breaches its Course. Water Album by Ma Yuan. Source: Wikimedia.


***I am happy to report that the book chapter that I have been working is going well and that I can finally see some light at the end of the tunnel.  Once I have time to get back to regular blogging there are a bunch of biographies that I want to write up.  And since I have spent most of the last week writing about the legacies of the Boxer Uprising….today seem like the perfect time to revisit the life of martial artists and rebel leader from that period.  Enjoy!***





In the summer of 1902 a martial artist and rebel leader named Zhao San-duo (alt. Zhao Luo-zhu) was arrested in the course of a tax uprising in Guangzong County. Betrayed by a local wu juren (a holder of a military degree) Zhao was imprisoned and starved to death. His head was then displayed in front of the Wei county yamen. The events that led to Zhao San-duo’s (b. 1841 – d. 1902) death have colored the way that he has been remembered among local martial artists and Marxist historians in the PRC where he is seen as a proto-revolutionary. In the west he is best known for his earlier contributions to the region’s growing epidemic of anti-Christian violence and the eventual outbreak of the Boxer Uprising (1899-1900).

This post will review the final phases of Zhao San-duo’s career. Beyond his connection to important local events, he makes an interesting case study for anyone attempting to understand the social importance of hand combat groups during the Qing dynasty. Nor do I think that Zhao has received the attention that he deserves among martial arts historians.

As one of the few popular martial artists of the period who makes extensive appearances in both regional folklore and official records this is unfortunate. Perhaps this relative wealth of information is itself part of the problem. Knowing how Zhao’s story ends, it is entirely too easy to see in his life the stereotypical narrative of heterodox northern rebellion and late 19th century anti-Manchu fervor. After all, these themes appear in the oral history of his style and they are perpetually favorite notes in modern martial arts fiction.

When we read these elements backwards onto Zhao’s life we begin to collapse the depth of his historical experience into a stereotyped two dimensional image. He looks increasingly like the sort of figure that the PRC’s historians, eager to find any evidence of incipient anti-capitalist revolution among the peasants, would want to find. Practically all of the discussion of Zhao’s life that is available in the English language literature comes out of a handful of sources. Perhaps the most important of these is Joseph Esherick’s landmark study, The Origins of the Boxer Uprising (University of California Press,1988).

When dealing with the rapidly evolving situation in Shandong Province at the end of the 19th century Esherick frequently cautions his readers against making anachronistic judgments. Given the fluidity of the situation it is impossible to attempt to guess the motivations of some local official in 1896 by the preferences that their actions or statements in 1899 might seem to reveal. This was a point in history in which a lot could change in even a few years.

This same warning certainly applies to the actions and motivations of Zhao San-duo. Even though he is executed for treason it would be a mistake to think of him as a firebrand revolutionary or to draw too many assumptions about the nature of his boxing society. If we make a more measured study of the final phases of his career we discover that Zhao was at best a reluctant rebel.

He was drawn into repeated conflicts with the government not by his own choice or ideological leanings, but through the pressures of his disciples and the expectation that as a martial arts leader he should be able to mediate a wide range of disputes in local society. As the government weakened, “law and order” became a privatized commodity with boxing groups playing an important part in their enforcement. In this increasingly complex environment Zhao’s web of local alliances and master-disciple relationships, which had been the source of his social standing, increasingly drew him towards disaster.

By better understanding the sources of Zhao’s rise to prominence and eventual downfall we will gain not only a better understanding of the place of local martial arts societies, but also the nature of northern China’s unique social structure and political economy of violence. Why was the area around southwestern Shandong so unstable? Was this totally a result of local imperialism and natural disasters? Or did it have to do with the remoteness of these border regions and the traditional difficulty of projecting military and cultural power into the hinterlands. When the center could not muster the strength to maintain a rigid hierarchy was the devolution to local chaos and rebellion inevitable? Or was it something else altogether?

Rather than being the result of a weakened state, do the disturbances that led to Zhao’s downfall reveal the extent to which local officials were forced to tolerate and even rely on violent factions in their own areas to keep the bandits at bay and ensure a modicum of good governance. If that is the case than the emergence of martial arts masters like Zhao San-duo is not an artifact of periods of social chaos (thought that may be where they are the most visible as the Confucian historians who keep the records can no longer ignore their presence). Rather they are a feature of the Chinese marketplace in violence, and not the exception.

In an attempt to answer this question will look at the final five years of Zhao’s life. We can think of this period as being characterized by three distinct phases of conflict. The first of these centers around a civil dispute between two domestic groups in Chinese society. More specifically, we will see Zhao and his network of martial artists being dragged into a dangerous (and exceptionally complicated) conflict with a local Christian community and its missionary backers by a newly admitted clique of disciples.

In the second phase the locus of conflict shifts. Zhao is now forced to come to an accommodation with the Chinese state in the form of the provincial government. Rather than simply exterminating the troublesome martial artist, local officials are eager to offer him a deal in exchange for assurances that they can enroll his network of boxers into the quickly growing gentry led militias of the region. Still, the weakness of the local government makes it difficult for all sides to come to agreement and it proves to be impossible to enforce. In the final phase of the discussion we will see Zhao move into open and direct rebellion against the state.

The government’s ability to capture and kill him with relative ease strongly suggests that at prior points in his career, even when he may have been formally wanted, he and his social network were seen as a potential asset that could be exploited by local officials rather than an actual threat. That suggests something very interesting about the political economy of violence in the late Qing era and the social role of martial artists. Yet before we can explore these historical issues we will need to know about Zhao’s background and association with Plum Flower Boxing (Mei Hua Quan), one of the region’s most popular and iconic styles.


Zhao San-duo and the Plum Flower Boxers

Plum Flower Boxing has a long and complicated history across much of northern China. Nor is it always clear what this style entails. In addition to Plum Flower Boxing there is also a “Plum Flower Religion” in many villages which until recent years has been suppressed by the national government. This practice has a number of rites and festivals (which seem to vary from place to place) and is often associated with boxing. A few participants in the 1813 Eight Trigram Rebellion seem to have been Plum Blossom Boxers. This has led certain local officials and later Chinese historians to strongly link the style to the area’s White Lotus tradition.

While noting the existence of Plum Blossom Religion, Esherick finds that this approach misunderstands the essential nature of late 19th century Mei Hua Quan. While the art had both a civil (including religion and medicine) and military (focusing on boxing) side, there is no evidence that it was ever associated with rites or beliefs specific to the area’s more millennial religious cults. He characterizes the rituals of the group as being basically indistinguishable from the popular religious observances of the areas that the style spread into.


The Yellow River running along side the great wall of China.  Frequent floods of this silt laden waterway both impoverished sections of Shandong and contributed to the rise of banditry and disorder.

The Yellow River running along side the great wall of China. Frequent floods of this silt laden waterway both impoverished sections of Shandong and contributed to the rise of banditry and disorder.


Nor was Plum Flower Boxing strongly associated with rebellion. If anything the opposite is true. While a small number of recent Plum Blossom disciples may have joined the Eight Trigram’s rebellion, the school as a whole wanted nothing to do with the affair. They excommunicated those members who cooperated with the rebels while joining with the local government’s militia to help put down the uprising. Later in the 19th century they once again took vigorous steps to separate themselves from the growing anti-Christian violence and sided strongly with the government whenever anti-Manchu sentiments were expressed.

This is exactly the opposite of the public image that Mei Hua teachers often attempt to cultivate today. Following 1911 and the move towards the building of a strong national consciousness, the idea of “revolution” gained a romantic popularity among the population that was actually very different from attitudes in the 1880s-1890s. All sorts of styles were retrospectively reimagined as fonts of revolutionary fervor, when in historical fact most martial artists had actually made a living by fighting for the government, not against it. Indeed, one of the really interesting things about the extensive research that has been done on the groups involved with the Boxer Uprising is that it has helped us to understand exactly what the extent of this retrospective myth-making has been and how the process has unfolded.

In actual fact Plum Blossom Boxers were tolerated by most officials in northern China precisely because they organized publicly, made no attempt at creating secret societies and had no noteworthy heterodox religious practices (beyond their involvement with the ordinary cults of the local religion). After reviewing the historical record, Esherick characterizes the group as politically cautious and ideologically neutral. This, combined with their occasional cooperation with bandit suppression and the formation of local militias, probably helps to account for their long and prosperous history in the region. While other boxing groups were suppressed after only a few years, Plum Blossom societies thrived in the regions for centuries. In fact, it can still be seen today.

Meir Shahar, in his review of the late Ming and early Qing boxing styles of the region, looks at the question of Mei Hua Quan’s ultimate origins. He notes that family genealogies suggests that the art was first developed in Xuzhou, Jiangsu, by the Zou family sometime in the late Ming or early in the first years of the next dynasty. As this clan moved towards Hebei in about 1700 they spread the art.

Along the way the new style picked up disciples in Henan Province and ultimately the Shaolin Temple. A remarkably early text (1742) on Plum Flower boxing was authored by Yang Bing (b. 1672) who achieved the third ranks in the government’s highest military exam and is known to have served in the metropolitan garrison. Shahar points out that Yang’s 1742 text, Introduction to Martial Practice, is significant as it was one of the very earliest hand combat manuals to integrate the cosmic process of evolution seen in the “Classic of Changes” into a martial arts system. In that sense this text appears as a forerunner of some of the more important developments that would later appear in northern China’s martial culture (p. 154).

While Yang’s 18th century treatise is a critical source, readers should recall that there is often a great deal of variation in how a particular style can be practiced in two different places and over the decades. While we know a lot about current practice in the area, it is actually somewhat hard to speak with certainty about what Zhao’s style in the late 19th century was actually like. Still, we know something about the organization of his community from period documents.

To begin with Zhao’s group was structured through the typical sorts of master-disciple relationships that one might expect to see in the martial arts. In fact, Zhao seems to have been quite a successful teacher and between both his own students and grand-students he controlled a network of a few thousand individuals. Better yet, many of his students were yamen runners, clerk and other minor local functionaries.

This was critical as one of Zhao’s social roles seems to have been to mediate, or otherwise settle disputes, between local claimants. Having access to the information that these officials could provide, as well as the ability to suggest that his clerks look at (or away from) certain issues, probably gave Zhao a notable degree of clout.

Social influence was likely critical for Zhao as his family fortunes were flagging. His grandfather had been a degree holder and at one time his clan had been wealthy and important. Yet in the following generations they had failed to produce another degree holder and their monetary wealth had largely evaporated, leaving them no better off than prosperous peasants.

Yet this monetary situation actually obscures more about Zhao than it reveals. As a youth he had taken up the study of Plum Flower Boxing and by the late 1890s was a well-respected master. His connections as a martial artist allowed him to maintain the family contacts with the local militia leaders, military degree holders and the minor gentry. Zhao’s network of boxers made him a “useful person,” and that ensured a greater degree of social relevance than one would have suspected for someone of his station in life.


Gong-sun Sheng, a fictional character from the locally significant novel Water Margin.

Gong-sun Sheng, a fictional character from the locally significant novel Water Margin.


Zhao and the 18 Chiefs

Of course a reputation as a boxer who both loved justice, and possessed an unusual talent for being able to secure it, came at a cost. Zhao did not really have any independent base of power within local society. He was socially relevant only so long as he was solving problems and mediating disputes.

It seems that individuals seeking his influence would apply for his services by declaring themselves to be his disciples. Like other martial arts masters, as Zhao accepted these individuals (and most likely their payments) the difficulties of his disciples became his own. As such his career likely required just as much political as physical skill.

Esherick repeatedly makes the point that the most obvious aspect of European imperialism in northern China in the 1890s was the presence of Catholic and Protestant missionaries. These individuals sought to win souls by demonstrating that their power to protect the social and economic interests of their converts was much greater than the local government. Marginal people (including bandits) seeking protection from the state sought conversion as did landless and destitute peasants. The Catholic missionaries of Shandong in particular meddled in all manner of court cases to both secure advantageous outcomes for their converts and to discredit the power of the provincial government.

This pattern of interference in the details of regional life led to a number of festering and perpetually unresolved feuds between local residents and Christian converts. One of the most byzantine of these affairs had to do with the ultimate fate of an abandoned temple to the Jade Emperor in Liyuantun which at one point had been sold to the local Christians as the site for a church.

The deal was approved and then reversed multiple times due to political pressures. Ultimately a group of minor gentry figures got involved with the struggle to restore the temple. Yet larger geo-political considerations ensured that the Christian side of the dispute was strongly favored. While the government was able to convince the gentry to step back, a new group of “18 Chiefs” (mostly struggling peasants with nothing to lose) took up the fight to oust the Christians from the site.

A number of these individuals were also boxers and the leader, Yan Su-qing, was a student of Red Fist or Hong Quan. This style tended to be favored by local bodyguards and members of the armed escort companies. It was not quite as large or popular as Plum Flower Boxing. Still, Hong Quan had an important presence in the area.

After the loss of their gentry backing the aggrieved Chiefs realized that they needed additional support if they wished to pursue their case. The courts had already been compromised by outside pressure and the gentry were helpless. As such they turned to the world of boxing as a privatized mechanism of dispute settlement. Specifically, the 18 Chieftains became disciples of Zhao San-duo (even though they did not share the style) and appealed to him for help.

Zhao was initially hesitant to accept these new students or their cause. He did not approve of the violence that they had previously displayed and he must have known that confronting the Christian’s at a delicate time in China’s diplomatic history would arouse the ire of the provincial government. Still, there was no denying the fact that the Christian community had become a powerful irritant and many of his preexisting disciples began to demand that he become involved with the problem. Given that Zhao’s status depended on his ability to manage what were essentially voluntary relationships, he was left with little option but to enter the fray.

His initial strategy was characteristically cautious. Zhao began by directing a large number of Plum Flower boxers to stage a public demonstration in Liyuantun directly across from the church. While no direct references to the controversy were made, and no anti-Christian slogans were employed, the entire thing was an unmistakable show of force. Rather than fleeing the local Christians instead took shelter in the building and refused to leave.

At that point discipline among the boxers seems to have broken down. Esherick reports that group of between 500 and 2000 martial artists attacked the structure and looted the homes of the village’s Christian population. The Christians counterattacked and there were a number of casualties including a single death. Ultimately the town’s Christian population was forced to flee and their homes were robbed or destroyed.


The Yellow River.  Source:

The Yellow River. The flatness of the surrounding land makes areas like this both fertile and subject to devastating floods.  Source:


From Boxers to Militia and Back

The area’s conservative local officials were sympathetic to the boxers and would have let the situation stand except for the sudden eruption of the Juye Incident. Two Catholic missionaries in Juye were killed by a mob that attacked the vicarage for reasons that are still not historically well understood. This provided the German government with the pretext that it had long desired to both seize a port on Shandong’s coast and to extend its influence inland. As a result of these setbacks the imperial court ordered that all outstanding missionary issues be settled immediately and in the favor of the local Christians (thereby denying the Germans an excuse to further project power in the region.)

The situation in Liyuantun was once again reversed. The Italian Bishop (who oversaw the area) demanded that the new Chinese temple be torn down and a Catholic church be constructed on that very same site. Nor were the local Boxers willing to concede the field. While the international situation may have changed, this had little impact on their more parochial concerns.

The atmosphere in the boxer camp became tenser when Zhao was joined by another Mei Hua Quan elder who, while lacking his social influence, outranked him in the organization’s hierarchy. A drifter and itinerant potter, his name was Yao Wen-qi, of Guangping in Zhili. While Zhao was naturally somewhat cautious, Yao was a more radicalized figure. Perhaps he lacked Zhao’s extensive ties and social relationships in the area and therefore had less to lose.

Not only did Yao take a more militant line towards Christians, but some of his own disciples even quietly promoted anti-Qing sentiments. This was simply too much for Shandong’s conservative Plum Blossom community. While they had tolerated Zhao’s earlier adventure, they wanted no part of Yao’s growing radicalism. It was all too clear how this was going to end. A number of elders visited Zhao and attempted to convince him to distance himself from the 18 Chiefs and Yao. When he refused they effectively excommunicated him and demanded that in any future actions Zhao cease to use the name of their organization. In this way the “Yihi Boxer” of Guan County (or Boxers United in Righteousness) were born.

The local government was also struggling to understand the rapidly evolving situation and the role of the various boxers in shaping these events. Eventually they gathered enough intelligence to determine that while Zhao was the social leader of this group, he did not have complete control over the movement. Nor was he all that enthusiastic about the way the situation in Liyuantun was shaping up.

As such Zhao was eventually approached by a number of officials who offered him amnesty (and even money and an awarded degree) in exchange for disbanding the Liyuantun operation. To do this they attempted to drive a wedge between Zhao, on the one hand, and Yao and the 18 Chiefs on the other. The leader of the Chiefs had new murder charges filed against him while Zhao did not. In fact, the local political leadership was even interested in working with the more moderate boxers who were loyal to Zhao and using them as a tool to combat the banditry problems that were endemic in the regions.

The negotiations were tense as Liyuantun lay at the intersection of a number of municipalities and Zhao would not simply disband his troops until he received firm guarantees of his safety from all of the local leaders. This took some time and the details need not concern us here, but eventually he dismissed his forces in a public ceremony and apparently blessed the efforts to then recruit large segments of them into a more effective gentry led militia.

Unfortunately this was not the end of Zhao’s involvement with the government. In fact, his inability to stay out of the fray betrays a weakness in both his own organization and the discipline of the local government’s forces. The root cause of the continued problems was the government’s inability to reassure the remaining boxers (those not incorporated into the militia) that the government could shield them from Christian reprisals or lawsuits once they disbanded. Rumors were rampant (and not entirely unfounded) that the Christians, who now had the upper hand, intended to pursue and exterminate their old tormentor. Nor did anyone really believe that the local courts or officials could stand up to this political pressure or German gun-boat diplomacy.

The situation continued to escalate and finally came to a head in the fall of 1898. After the harvest was in the administration of Shandong began to make plans for further arrests in an effort to put the Liyuantun incident behind them once and for all. In the course of this campaign a group of soldiers stationed at a missionary compound in Xiaolu, Linqing, crossed directly over the border into Zhili where they pillaged some beef from Shaliuzhai during a search of the village. Unfortunately this area was central to Zhao San-duo sphere of influence. Eshereick characterizes it as his “home base.”

Given that Zhao’s reputation stemmed from his ability to solve disputes and insure “justice,” this was a serious affront. Still, he was hesitant to move directly against the state. Others were not so concerned. Yao Wen-qi had decided, probably correctly, that the Christians would not stop until he personally was dead. Along with the 18 Chiefs he actually kidnapped the reluctant Zhao and his entire family in an effort to ensure that both he and his network would come to the aid of an old comrade in arms.

The entire incident reads like a lost chapter from Water Margin, but apparently Yao’s plan worked. Zhao was stirred up to remember his duty. With a number of horses borrowed from sympathetic local villagers the Yihi Boxers rode out carrying banners that read “support the Qing, destroy the foreigners.” This slogan, and the name of the movement, would be the two things that the Guang County Boxers would contribute to the outbreak of the more general “Boxer Uprising” which would actually be ignited by an entirely different group further to north. Still, Zhao and his allies rode through the countryside, destroying property and burning homes in an attempt to eradicate the local Christian population in an act that would inspire countless others in the next few years.

Needless to say such “support” was bound to be detrimental to the Qing who were focused on keeping additional European gun-boats out of their ports. At this point one might expect the state to crack down on Zhao and his boxers. They had crossed a line and were on the verge on becoming a security threat in their own right.

Troops were dispatched from both Shandong and Zhili in an attempt to contain the violence, but once again the government went to some lengths to avoid a direct confrontation with Zhao. Representatives (local militia leaders) were sent who successfully brought all of the parties back to the bargaining table. These were likely individuals that Zhao had longstanding relationships with.

Again a negotiated settlement was reached allowing the boxers to disband. Unfortunately that was not enough. As these martial artists returned to their homes they were once again subject to taunting and harassment from local villagers including a number of Christians. For Yao and his followers this proved to be too much. He assembled a small group and fought an unsuccessful battle with the militia of a French missionary while burning and looting other homes in the area. Eventually the Qing army caught up Yao and executed him.

The government promised a general amnesty to all of the remaining boxers except for Zhao. Even then they made no serious attempts to pursue him or his supporters and he was allowed to return to his base of operations in northern Zhili. Nor was this the end of his career. He would ride out in anger at least two more times.

During the height of the Boxer Uprising in 1900 (after the movement had been legalized by the court) Zhao led a group that attacked Christians in the Guan county enclaves where he spent so much of his career. Then again in 1902 he lent his support to Jing Ting-bin, a wu juren military degree holder, who led a local militia unit in rebellion after the governor (breaking with convention) refused to grant Guangzong county tax relief following a severe drought. While the provincial authorities had been willing to overlook almost any social conflict that Zhao had involved himself with because of his general usefulness to their ongoing efforts to strengthen the local militias, a direct assault on the state was too much. Zhao’s surprisingly long and violent career was swiftly brought to a humiliating end.


Boats on the Yellow River in Shandong.  Source: Vintage Postcard.

Boats on the Yellow River in Shandong. Source: Vintage Postcard.


Conclusion: Martial Artists in the Political Economy of Violence


Zhao San-duo’s life opens an important window onto the world of late 19th century martial artists in northern China. A fuller biography might be useful in addressing any number of questions, but what can the brief account offered here suggest about the nature of Chinese society and the role of martial artists within it? Esherick, perhaps reflecting the bias of the elite sources that he relies so heavily on, appears to see Chinese society as essentially bi-modal.

During times of good governance the discipline of the central government is strong. This manifests itself in a number of ways. Corruption is kept to a minimum and officials remember their core duties, keeping the roads free from bandits and repairing the elaborate earthworks that prevent flooding.

As the central government weakens there is a move towards the “privatization of justice.” The state can no longer maintain order in the periphery and a host of other forces, be they gentry led militias or martial arts societies, become the main means by which chaos is kept at bay. These forces are more likely to be heterodox in nature, to be liable to corruption and ultimately to contribute to the sources of local disorder.

I suspect that the actual contours of Zhao’s life story complicate this narrative. The Plum Flower Boxers from who he drew his strength did not emerge only in the middle of the 19th century when the region was hit by serious shocks. This movement was almost as old as the dynasty itself, and for most of this time it had been tolerated precisely because it served a useful social function.

David Robinson, in his analysis of the late Ming dynasty (Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven 2001, University of Hawaii Press) suggests that a bi-modal reading of Chinese society, vacillating between strong central control and more localized outbreaks of disorder, is essentially incorrect. This view of Chinese society represents the ideological ideal of Confucian elites which was subtlety (even subconsciously) woven into the ways in which they understood and recorded their history.

Yet a more balanced reading of the era would admit that even prior to the Sino-Japanese war, the garrisons of Shangdong were horribly understaffed. At no point could either the Ming or Qing dynasty actually afford the troops that would have been necessary to control banditry and put down local rebellions throughout most of the country. Violent men with local connections were critical to ensuring good governance because their patronage networks provided more penetration into local society, and could be activated more cheaply, than anything that the government could muster.

That did not mean that the state was powerless. The sort of strength that Zhao could wield was sufficient to fight bandits or settle social disputes. Yet it was clearly not the sort of force that could keep the Germans at bay. Martial artists were basically useful as a means of internal social control and discipline. As Esherick’s volume makes clear, once the government decided to execute a martial artist they generally had very little trouble in doing so.

Still, what is remarkable is the degree to which regional officials (even very conservative individuals) were forced to rely on Zhao and people like him to stock their own militias and provide good order in the countryside. That all levels of traditional Chinese society seem to continually create and support individuals like Zhao is a feature of the systems and not a bug. The Chinese martial arts were allowed to exist precisely because they played a certain social role. Nor have their functions always been as marginal as conventional histories might lead one to suspect.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: What Can the Opera Rebellion Teach us about the Social Toleration of Violence (and the Martial Arts) in Late Imperial China?


Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (18): Xiang Kairan – Imagining the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

Woodblock print of Chinese warrior holding a sword. All of the illustrations in today's post come from Scott M. Rodell's excellent Tumblr "Steel & Cotton."
Woodblock print of Chinese warrior holding a sword.


“When the Nanjing Martial Arts Institute was opened, I was in Hankou [in eastern Hubei], where I noticed in a newspaper that they were dividing their curriculum into two schools – Wudang and Shaolin – and appointing specialists for each of them. For “Wudang” to be isolated like this in the promotion of our martial arts is really not a good idea, and so I sent a letter to a friend in Nanjing who was working at the Institute, discussing in detail the pros and cons….

Certain styles were passed down from certain people, but so long ago that it cannot be verified, unlike schools of painting and literature, for which there is no confusion. The categorizing of the two branches as Wudang and Shaolin has been made on the basis of ignoring the records of other martial arts. But whether or not what is being spread these days can actually be classified as Wudang or Shaolin, how could these two branches be able to comprise all of Chinese martial arts, including those that were transmitted by itinerant performers, or martial artists who taught their skills to make a living? In order to cater to our national habit of venerating ancient people, we have arbitrarily dragged forth ancient figures known to everyone, even to women and children, and assigned them the roles of founders of our arts simply for the sake of advertising.”


Xiang Kairan. 1929. “My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing.” Translation by Paul Brennan, July, 2016.





Recently Paul Brennan posted his new translation of a lengthy personal essay by Xiang Kairan titled “My Experience of Practicing Taiji Boxing.”  I highly recommend that you read it. Written in 1929 and finally published in 1940, this essay provides an invaluable record of the world of Republic era martial artists.  It is exactly the sort of document that makes the history of the Chinese martial arts such a fascinating subject.

Yet that is not what we will be discussing in this essay.  Instead I would like to turn our attention to the life and career of its author, Xiang Kairan (1890-1957).  Writing under the pen-name “Pingjiang Buxiaosheng” (which translates roughly to “an unworthy son of Pingjiang”), no less a source than the Oxford Handbook of Modern Chinese Literatures has called him the “Father of [modern Chinese] martial arts fiction” (532).  The acclaimed author Jin Yong has cited him as an early influence, and since about 2010 there has been a growing awareness of his many contributions to the development of popular literature (particularly with regard to the refashioning of the idea of the “Rivers and Lakes”) by scholars in both China and the West.

Once again, this is not the only realm in which Xiang has made critical contributions.  My initial plan upon reading’s Paul’s new translation of his seminal essay was to write a post looking at the influence of the 1928 martial arts film “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” on modern martial arts cinema.  It would be hard to overstate the importance of this film in Republic era popular culture.

An immediate success it spawned no fewer than 18 sequels in a period of less than three years.  Collectively these movies created a new genre while launching a “Kung Fu craze” on the same scale of Jet Li’s later Shaolin Temple.  The sudden popularity of these stories was so great that in 1931 a government censorship board actually banned the production of new Wuxia films, effectively creating a niche in which Hong Kong film makers would eventually find great success.

The first, wildly popular, installment of this film series was based on Xiang’s 1923 novel   Stories of Marvelous Knights of the Rivers and Lakes.  Nor was that his only breakout novel.  In 1923 he also published Stories of Righteous Heroes, a collection of chapters exploring the life and world of Huo Yuanjia, the titular founder of the Jingwu or Pure Martial Society.

The success of this second novel propelled the rapidly expanding Jingwu Association further into the spotlight.  While Marvelous Knights was set in a timeless realm characterized by competing schools of wandering heroes and shamans wielding amazing magical powers, the stories of Heroes were markedly different.  They folded themselves seamlessly into a contemporary setting and introduced readers to the sorts of lineage disputes and rivalries that actually characterized the Chinese hand combat community.  This feeling of authenticity is so convincing that a number of readers have been tempted to accept his fictional novel as a historical record.   This other, more grounded, school of story-telling would go on to influence the development of the “Kung Fu” (as opposed to “Wuxia”) school of Hong Kong film making.

In short, through his innovations in how martial arts stories were told, both on the page and secondarily on screen, Xiang either created or popularized much of what we now take for granted as the public image of the Chinese martial arts.  His contributions to mediatized martial arts discourses in both the East and West easily deserve posts of their own.  But they too will need to wait for another day.

Less known is that fact that Xiang himself was both a talented and dedicated practitioner of the martial arts.   Throughout the course of his life he studied many styles including jujitsu, Japanese swordsmanship, the external schools of the traditional Chinese martial arts, and multiple styles of Taijiquan.  Xiang helped to establish, promote and organize multiple martial arts clubs and organizations. He discussed some of these efforts in various personal essays and newspaper articles.  At the time of his death he was even working on a longer volume on the history of the Chinese martial arts that, unfortunately, was never finished.

Xiang thus presents students of martial arts studies with a rare opportunity.  Within his body of writings we have an chance to see how the evolving practice of the martial arts in the Republic era directly influenced the sorts of publishing and media discourses that were growing up around them.  Far from these being totally disconnected spheres; at least some martial artists were helping to shape the larger discussions of these styles in the realm of popular entertainment.

It has been noted that recent attempts to reevaluate Xiang’s significance tend to focus on either the contributions that he made to the developments of modern Wuxia novels or his martial arts interest.  But there are yet more elements of his life that may deserve our close consideration.

In her recent doctoral dissertation, Fairy Tales for Adults: Imagination, Literary Autonomy, and Modern Chinese Martial Arts Fiction, 1895-1945 (2016, UCLA) Lujing Ma Eisenman has noted that it is almost impossible to fully grasp Xiang’s martial or literary activities without contextualizing them within the larger framework of his political (and occasionally military) activities.  Indeed, his discussion of the “Rivers and Lakes” of martial arts fiction as a “stateless realm” was deeply informed by the events of the Warlord era.  Such a realization may even change the way that we think about his involvement with the Guoshu movement and other martial arts activities.

In short there are literally dozens of posts that could be written about Xiang Kairan’s contributions to our modern understanding of the martial arts.  Yet he is rarely discussed outside of literary circles.  In the remainder of this post I will provide a brief biographical sketch of his literary, martial and political careers.  Hopefully this information will inspire and facilitate future research on an important, but often forgotten, modern Chinese martial artist.

Achieving Softness Society, group photography. 1925.
Achieving Softness Society, group photography. 1925.



Life of Xiang Kairan


Xiang Kairan was born to a wealthy family in Pinjiang, Hunan Province in 1890.  Given his family’s social status he received a traditional Confucian education.  Later he was sent to the provincial capital where he studied at the “Hunan Industrial School.”  It seems likely that he was first introduced to the martial arts in childhood.

His childhood was also marked by signs of growing political activism.  Sometime around 1905 he was expelled from school for taking part in a student demonstration against the provincial government.  The radical dissident Chen Tianhua had killed himself while living in Japan in an effort to raise awareness for his causes and the provincial government attempted to refuse the revolutionary a “martyr’s funeral.”  This event also seems to have set the pattern for Xiang ending up on the losing side of what could become costly causes.

Due to his family’s wealth and social status this was not the end of Xiang’s education.  Like other members of the New Gentry he was sent to Japan to also receive a modern and international education.  It is unclear what he studies on his first trip to Japan.  Later he would publish a supposed expose of the lifestyles of elite Chinese students abroad.  Like much of his writing, this first novel collapses the narrative space between representations of reality and pure fiction.  Thus it’s a little difficult to read his accounts of this period as biography.

His growing interest in the martial arts during this period are another matter.  In a separate essay Xiang reports that while in Japan he was visited by a friend from back home in 1907.  This account likely refers to Wang Zhiquan.  Wang discussed the various boxing styles of Northern China sparking what would become Xiang’s long running fascination with the theory of Taijiquan.  Unfortunately Wang could not yet demonstrate the art.  Undeterred Xiang went on to study much of what was available locally.  It was during this period that his personal identity as a martial artist appears to have solidified.

His interest in the martial arts continued after his return to China.  In 1913 Xiang reports meeting Li Cunyi’s students Ye Yunbiao and Hao Haiping.  He states that they exposed him to Xingyi and Bagua, but could not satisfy his desire to learn more about Taijiquan.  It was during this time that Xiang helped to co-found the “National Skills Association” in Changsha.  To put this timeline in context it might be helpful to remember that Sun Lutang published his well-known manuals on Xingyi and Bagua in 1915 and 1916, but his major work on Taiji did not come out until 1921.

1916 saw Xiang set out on his next (more dangerous) political adventure.  Immediately after his home province withdrew from the Republic he joined Hunan’s military forces in an effort to personally repel Yuan Shikai’s monarchist troops.  Unfortunately Hunan’s forces were defeated leaving Xiang in a difficult position.  At this point he decided to return to Japan, this time to study law.

This second period of study, while productive, was also brief.  Sometime during 1917 Xiang returned to China and settled in Shanghai.  He would spend much of the next decade in this city.  His adopted home was the cultural hub of the country and it seems to have fed both Xiang’s desire to write as well as his legendary work ethic.  Many of his most famous novels, essays and articles were completed during this decade.

In 1923 Xiang published what were probably his two most important novels, Stories of Marvelous Knights of the Rivers and Lakes and Stories of Righteous Heroes.  The later helped to define and spread the myth of Huo Yunjia and pioneered a more modern and realistic way of discussing martial artists in fiction.  The earlier book was focused on Wuxia stories and magic.  It is often credited with bringing forth the modern literary notion of the “land of Rivers and Lakes.”   Both of these works have proved critical in shaping the way that the martial arts are positioned and used by the entertainment industry today.

This decade was fruitful in other ways as well.  In 1925 Chen Weiming moved to Shanghai and established the now famous “Achieving Softness Boxing Society.”  Xiang, who had spent the better part of two decades trying to learn about Taijiquan immediately became a student.  But as the old adage goes, when it rains it pours.

Wang Zhiqun, now a disciple of Wu Jianquan, and teacher within his Taijiquan lineage, moved to Shanghai a few months later.  After reuniting with his old student and friend Wang actually ended up moving in Xiang.  It seems that at this point Xiang focused most of his day to day Taiji study on Wang.  By May of 1925 he was finally able to begin to practice the Taiji solo set.

Two years later the demands of political activism again intervened, shaping both Xiang’s literary and martial destiny.  In 1927 he broke from his studies and ended his work on the serialized production of Marvelous Knights so that he could return to Hunan as a military secretary in the Army of Tang Shengzhi.

This is not the proper time to delve into the details of the Northern Expedition and the various Warlord conflicts that were consuming much of the country.  But it is interesting to note that it was during this period, immediately following his exit from Shanghai, that Xiang’s novels achieved their greatest popularity and cultural impact.

As Lujing Ma Eisenman has noted, his concept of the “Rivers and Lakes” as a society that existed in the absence of a state, and the sorts of conflicts that could grip and order such a space, resonated with readers who saw in his novels a discussion of China’s stateless nature during the Warlord era.  It was also not a coincidence that “The Burning of the Red Lotus Temple” whose screenplay was based on one of his most popular stories, also came out in 1928, touching off a new round of “Kung Fu fever.”

In his personal essays Xiang provides some interesting commentary on how the political machinations of the times impacted the world of real martial artists.  He noted for instance that after the government was moved to Nanjing, the city of Beijing fell into a deep economic depression.  It became impossible for many martial arts teachers to make a living.  And with the establishment of the new Guoshu system, many of them moved south, abandoning the old capital.

This pattern of out-migration, in conjunction with the new Guoshu Academy that was promoting the “Wudang arts,” meant that after 1928 Taijiquan became increasingly popular in both Nanjing and Shanghai.  Yet in the same year a mini-scandal erupted when the various exponents of this style did poorly in the first government sponsored martial arts examinations, losing many matches to the supposedly inferior “external styles.”  In fact, the essay that Xiang undertook in 1929 (and Paul Brennan recently translated) was explicitly apologetic in nature, attempting to both re-situate the art and examine what had gone wrong prior to this tournament.

Following the ultimate defeat of his military unit, Xiang took the opportunity to travel around much of Northern China for a year.  Later in 1930 he returned to Shanghai where he remained until 1932.  Yet given the economic success of his various writings his attention drifted to other interests.  Xiang decided to return to Hunan where he would dedicate himself to the promotion of the Guoshu system and the teaching of the traditional martial arts.

This would not be the quiet retirement that he had hoped for.  Following the 1938 invasion General Liao Lei invited Xiang to join his anti-Japanese troops.  He was subsequently stationed in Anhui province, where he would remain for the next nine years.

In 1946, with the resumption of the Chinese civil war, Xiang embarked on another major writing project.  This was titled An Unofficial History of Chinese Revolution.  In 1948 he was finally able to return to Hunan province and became a member of the Provincial Parliament under Governor Cheng Quian.  This was followed soon after by his surrender to Communist forces in the region.

The following year (1950) saw the publication of Chinese Revolution.  For various reasons the book did not sell well.  Given his numerous recent reversals of fortune Xiang was left destitute.  I have seen at least one account suggest that during the early 1950s he left his family and took up the life of a Buddhist monk.

Whatever his economic circumstances, Xiang’s interest in the martial arts continued unabated.  In 1955 he composed another personal essay (also translated by Paul Brennan) titled “On Studying Taiji’s Pushing Hands.”  Unfortunately this would not be published until his novels began to be reprinted in the 1980s.

Two years later, at the suggestion of a regional official, he began what would have been his final major work.  It was tentatively titled A History of Chinese Martial Arts.  It was never completed.  Like other martial artists, Xiang became a target of the anti-rightest campaigns that were launched that year.  He died of a brain hemorrhage with his major statement on his beloved art left unfinished.


A Still from Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.
A still from Burning of the Red Lotus Temple.  I guess we have found the cinematic origins of “Force Lightening!”


The need for an interdisciplinary approach to Chinese martial studies.


It is a tragedy that a figure who had seen so much of the modern history of the Chinese martial arts was not able to leave a complete record of his thoughts.  Still, we must be grateful for the many novels, stories and essays that he left behind.  Within these works we have an unique opportunity to observe not just the development the modern cultural discourses that surround the Chinese martial arts, but to see the ways in which these were shaped by both the realities of publishing markets and trends in the development of the arts themselves.

In many of his writings Xiang is concerned with the fate of old things in a new world.  How does transmission work?  How are Hunan’s folktales of the supernatural and strange to be passed on?  How can the intricate theories of Taijiquan be transmitted in an era that privileges market transactions over long-term human relationships?

His stories speak directly to these concerns.  In them we see the rare emergence of a mind that can value the past without romanticizing it.  We see an individual who realizes that both publishing and the martial arts must evolve and is willing to engage in a hard discussion of the values at stake.

Perhaps the most important realization to emerge from the recent wave of scholarship on Xiang is an appreciation for the complexity of the world of “River and Lakes” which he created in his fiction.  His readers found it to be entertaining not simply because of its escapist qualities, but rather because it so accurately reflected the stateless society that China became for much of the 1920s and 1930s.  Perhaps his greatest contribution was the argument that the martial arts, far from being the backward looking superstition that the May 4th reformers feared, could provide the tools that society needed to formulate its own vision of Chinese modernity in the face of an ongoing crisis.

Yet as Lujing Ma Eisenman has noted, it is difficult to see how Xiang presented these ideas, or his audience read them, if we ignore the political and activist context from which these stories emerged.  Indeed, Xiang Kairan’s career is an excellent illustration of why Chinese martial studies must proceed as an interdisciplinary exercise.  It is impossible to understand the social function of the Chinese martial arts today if we ignore the media driven discourses that surround them.  Yet his career suggests that these discourses interacted with the changing nature of martial arts practice in complex way.  Lastly, all of this was shaped by the unfolding logic and trauma of the Warlord era.

If we examine only a single dimension of his legacy Xiang appears to be a curiosity, a historical footnote.  He is a forgotten commercial novelist, a wealthy “Kung Fu bum,” an unlucky military adventurer.  It is only when we put these images together that his true importance comes into focus.  Yes, the Chinese art would have continued to exist without him, but our popular (and subconscious) notions of them would be very different.




If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (8): Gu Ruzhang-Northern Shaolin Master and Southward Bound Tiger.


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