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The Boxer Rebellion and Stories We Tell about Chinese Martial Arts

Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.

 

 

 

Confronting the Boxers

 

It is probably an irony that I have written so little on the Boxer Uprising during my casual and academic discussion of the martial arts.  It was a chance encounter with the Boxers some years ago as I was exploring the connection between religiously generated social capital and violence that first convinced me to take a closer look at the Chinese martial arts as a possible research area.  Still, it has been a slow return to a case that first inspired me.

 

There are multiple reasons for this.  As my research progressed I found myself more drawn to the Republic period.  The ill-fated Boxers of Shandong sit as a perpetual prologue to most of the questions that I ask.  Further, my practical interests in Wing Chun led me to focus on Guangdong, which was about as far away from the events of 1900 as one could get while remaining within China.

 

It may also be that I am somewhat uncomfortable with this historical event. That feeling is also multi-faceted.  The Boxers are often portrayed (even in historical sources that should know better) as an embodiment of “traditional” Chinese culture.  Yet their unique combination of martial arts, ritual, theater, invulnerability and sorcery was seen by their contemporaries as being dangerous precisely because it was an innovation.  Even that statement requires quick clarification.  There was nothing new about martial arts, war magic or theater.  And these things had always been mixed to one degree or another (much to the consternation of the Republic era nationalists and martial arts reformers).  Yet the way in which these forces came together in northern China during 1899 and 1900 hit the region, already weakened by drought and social upheaval, like a wildfire.

 

Though destructive, such fires also have a way of quickly burning out.  While Western discussions of the event tend to focus on suffering within the foreign military (David J. Silbey), or the diplomatic and missionary communities (Diana Preston), Paul A Cohen, in his groundbreaking History in Three Keys reminds us that these losses were dwarfed by the tens of thousands of deaths (most entirely senseless), and immense deprivations, experienced by the region’s civilian Chinese population.  It is entirely possible to read the entire conflict as a civil dispute between two marginal groups in local society (Christian converts and a certain class of loosely organized poor peasants with an interest in martial arts) that spun out of control before being co-opted by larger geo-political actors.

 

Dealing with these events in a historically responsible way means addressing the enormity of the suffering and human loss that they unleashed.  It also necessitates taking a closer look at the Boxers themselves and asking difficult questions.  Should we think of these individuals as martial artists? How must our (often narrow and modern) understanding of “martial arts” change to accommodate their magical practices and spiritual beliefs?  Under what circumstances do the martial arts, a set of practices that many of us are emotionally attached to, become a threat to social stability?  Are there lessons to be learned about the role of the martial arts in spreading violence like a contagion that we are turning away from?  If it is really true that the martial arts are fundamentally peaceful (a proposition that I find doubtful no matter how frequently it is repeated), what went wrong in this case?

 

It is easy for current practitioners of the Chinese hand combat systems to distance themselves from these issues precisely because reformers spent much of the 1910s-1940s systematically redefining, rationalizing and modernizing their (supposedly still traditional) practices precisely to insulate them from such accusations coming from modernizers within Chinese society.  In practice that meant distancing these practices from their roots in rural society, “superstitious beliefs” and any association with opera.  One suspects that it is not a coincidence that even dedicated historians find the subtle social relationships between the martial arts, opera and ritual practice difficult to reconstruct.  Even more telling is how few people ask the question at all.  Despite the almost subconscious habit of appending the term “traditional” to every written occurrence of the phrase “Chinese martial arts”, in practice most of us are comfortable reading a very modern view of these practices back through the centuries.

 

Given that my personal research interests have focused on later periods, and have been grounded in the distinct local culture of the Pearl River Delta region, it never seemed like the right time to delve into these questions.  Nevertheless, research programs evolve.

 

My current “Kung Fu Diplomacy” project begins with a discussion of how some in the West used the discussion of martial arts to establish an image of China that was advantageous to their cultural, economic and political agenda.  These discussions of the martial arts, while often framed in terms of popular culture, have sometimes had important implications for both how we understand our selves and interact with the wider world.  Nor can one fully understand how this process unfolds, or the foundation on which our current engagement with the Chinese martial arts rests, without coming to terms with the Boxer Uprising.

 

Leipzig Illustrierte Zeitung 1900, reproduction in Peking 1900, The Boxer Rebellion by Peter Harrington, p.24. Source: Wikimedia.

 

 

Boxers in the Popular Press

 

The first step in reconstructing the image of the Boxers in the Western imagination is to go back and examine the various ways in which they were discussed in the popular press during the violent and confusing summer of 1900.  For Western readers in London, New York, or even Shanghai, confusion as to what was happening in Northern China was probably the most memorable aspect of the period.  Paul Cohen dedicated an entire section of his study to the topic of “rumors.”  One imagines that by the autumn of 1900 any Western newspaper reader would have sympathized with his interest in the topic.

 

During the second half of July even reputable papers like the New York Times were reporting graphic accounts of the various ways in which crowds of Boxers had overrun the foreign legation, murdered its inhabitants, and paraded their mutilated corpses through the streets.  Obviously, no such thing ever happened.  The legation was successfully defended until reinforcement arrived and seized control of Beijing itself.  Yet in the final weeks of July newspaper readers would be treated to one independent account after another, each purporting to be the real story of the massacre of white men, women and children at the hands of a literal Boxer army.  I can think of no other group who died so many deaths, day after day, on the front pages of the world’s leading papers.  The irony of the situation is that not only did most of the legation residents survive, but that death in Beijing was disproportionately inflicted upon Chinese civilians who were neither soldiers nor Boxers.

 

Such failures of journalism notwithstanding, the Boxer Rebellion was one of the most important media events of the first decade of the 20th century.  Newspapers carried countless harrowing accounts of attacks on outlying missions and the murder of Chinese Christian converts.  Later announcements that the armies of rival imperialist powers were combining forces to fight the rising tide of disorder captured the imaginations of those with more humanitarian passions.  Meanwhile diplomats and businessmen wondered what this meant for the balance of power in Asia, and how long the alliance could possibly hold.  At its height, the Chinese Boxers even managed to upstage a US presidential election.

 

It might be natural to assume that this volume of press coverage would lead to a growing curiosity about the Boxers themselves.  After all, if it was true that the Chinese martial arts were basically unknown in the West (a proposition I find dubious), one would think that newspapers would be obligated to fill their readers in on the emergence of a fearsome new threat to Western values and influence in China.  That is what I expected to find as I undertook a systematic survey of newspapers (including the New York Times and The Times (of London), and popular publications (The National Geographic, the Illustrated London News and The Sphere among others).

 

What I actually found (in addition to an astonishing tangle of rumors and false reports) was somewhat different.  During the spring of 1900 the lines of communication with Northern China were open and so the quality of information being reported was still good.  As the violence escalated in the countryside reports of Boxers attacks became more common.  Yet the general assumption seems to have been that anyone reading such accounts was already interested in China or Chinese culture, and thus needed no education as to what a “Boxer” was.  While the specifics of this situation were new, the general outline of Chinese boxing was already firmly established (for at least this segment of the audience) and required no further explanation.

 

Nor can we really fault editors in this regard.  While the claims of invulnerability being made by the Yihi Boxers were novel, the Chinese martial arts and traditional modes of hand combat had been discussed in some detail in the West for decades.  J. G. Wood, one of the most popular writers of the era (and someone cited by a variety of other novelists and authors) discussed the traditional Japanese, Chinese and Indian combat methods at length in his best-selling (but unfortunately titled) The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries. Given the centrality of large and fearsome swords in almost all early Boxer accounts (indeed, their association with the “Big Sword Society” of richer areas of Shandong was sometimes asserted), Western students of China would no doubt recall these memorable passages from Wood:

 

 

“Of swords the Chinese have an abundant variety.  Some are single-handed swords, and there is one device by which two swords are carried in the same sheath and are used one in each hand.  I have seen the two sword exercise performed, and can understand that, when opposed to any person not acquainted with the weapon, the Chinese swordsman would seem irresistible.  But in spite of the two swords, which fly about the wielder’s head like the sails of a mill, and the agility with which the Chinese fencer leaps about and presents first one side and then the other to this antagonist, I cannot think but that any ordinary fencer would be able to keep himself out of reach, and also to get in his point, in spite of the whirling blades of the adversary.

Two-handed swords are much used.  One of these weapons in my collection is five feet six inches in length, and weighs rather more than four pounds and a quarter.  The blade is three feet in length and two inches in width.  The thickness of metal at the hilt is a quarter of an inch near the hilt, diminishing slightly towards the point.  The whole of the blade has a very slight curve.  The handle is beautifully wrapped with narrow braid, so as to form an intricate pattern.

There is another weapon, the blade of which exactly resembles that of the two handed sword, but it is set at the end of a long handle some six or seven feet in length, so that, although it will inflict a fatal wound when it does strike an enemy, it is a most unmanageable implement, and must take so long for the bearer to recover himself, in case he misses his blow, that he would be quite at the mercy of an active antagonist.

Should they be victorious in battle, the Chinese are cruel conquerors, and are apt to inflict horrible tortures, not only upon their prisoners of war, but even upon the unoffending inhabitants of the vanquished land.  They carry this love for torture even into civil life, and display a horrible ingenuity in producing the greatest suffering with the least apparent mean of inflicting it.  For example, one of the ordinary punishments in China is the compulsory kneeling bare-legged on a coiled chain.  This does not sound particularly dreadful but the agony that is caused in indescribably, especially as two officers stand by the sufferer and prevent him from seeking even a transient relief by shifting his posture.  Broken crockery is sometimes substituted for the chain……”

J. G. Wood. 1876. The Uncivilized Races of All Men in All Countries. Vol. II. Hartford: the J. B. Burr Publishing Co. Chapter, CLIV China—continued. Warfare.—Chinese Swords. pp. 1434-1435.

 

 

Wood’s discussion in this case was driven by the Western fascination with the collecting and display of all sorts of ethnographic Weapons.  Yet it is interesting to note the other ideas regarding the nature of Chinese martial arts that crept into Wood’s discussion.  On the one hand the efficacy of these methods is questioned.  Readers are assured that a western fencer, let alone a professional soldier, would be more than a match for any boxer, no matter how fascinating his armaments.

 

So why might a group cling to an ineffective combat system?  Perhaps their obsession with the martial arts masked a propensity for sadism and cruelty.  The fact that Wood’s discussion of traditional Chinese swords terminates in an extended discussion of torture (most of which has been omitted in the interests of brevity) would seem to indicate that he, and much of the reading public, saw these practices not so much as a set of skills to be mastered as a reflection of some sort of character defect on the part of the Chinese people.  The Chinese martial arts, to put it slightly differently, were not “arts” at all.  These were not rational and scientific practices (like Judo) that westerners might find interesting.  They were instead a reflection of everything that was seen to be threatening about the Chinese nation.

 

As the summer wore on the frequency of Boxer discussions in the popular press escalated and editors became aware that what had been a niche story was now sitting on the front page and selling newspapers.  As the readership for these accounts grew, so did the need to retroactively describe and explain the Boxer to a non-specialist audience.  In a few cases papers like the New York Times printed frank admissions by American diplomats in China (or Chinese diplomats in the US) that the Yihi Boxers were a fundamentally new and not yet understood group.  China was full of Secret Societies and voluntary associations and so simply noting that a group engaged in boxing did not really tell one very much about their motives, origins or potential actions.

 

More common were reprints of accounts by missionaries who had witnessed the build-up of the Boxers in various small towns.  They tended to dwell on the “gymnastic exercises” and “military drill” practiced by the Boxers, as well as their belief in their own invulnerability to swords and rifle fire.  In other cases experts in Chinese culture were called upon to explain the sudden emergence of the Boxer threat.  Falling back on what was already known about Chinese martial artists and their association with secret societies, they tended to see the Boxers as simply another manifestation of the later. Chinese triads, and their revolutionary intentions, had been discussed in the Western press for at least two generations and were a popular topic. One could even read cheap novels on their exploits.

 

While it was acknowledged that the Boxer threat was new, the few explanations of the group that emerged tended to see it simply as an extension of what Westerners already believed about patterns of Chinese social violence.  This resulted in a paradox that called out for a solution.  If what was being seen related to well-known propensities in Chinese society, why did it emerge only in 1899-1900?  How could the crisis be unlike any event in living memory, yet at the same time be deeply traditional?

 

Missionaries noted the role of the drought in the emergence of the Boxer threat and offered their own prayers for rain.  Yet the role of the Western clergy in sparking the crisis did not go unnoticed in the West.  Indeed, the missionaries seem to have had something of an image problem in both America and China in 1900. More secular commentators on Chinese matters laid much of the blame directly at the feat of Catholic missionaries and their propensity to meddle in local court cases.  Protestants, while less egregious in their methods, were also seen as foolish as setting up missions that would be impossible to defend, or even evacuate, in case of trouble.

 

Later scholars such as Cohen and Esherick would discuss both factors at length.  Yet the most common explanation offered at the time was simply that the Boxers were pawns.  Rather than being independent actors with their own motivation, they had been set in motion by the Dowager Empress as part of a coordinated, multi-year, scheme to rid China of all foreign influence.  While this explanation enjoys no historical support, it seems to have satisfied the greatest number of readers at the time.

 

A still from Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon’s “Boxer Attack on a Mission Outpost” (1900). Note the central actor holding the dadao.

 

 

Boxers and the Invention of the Martial Arts Film

 

Though the public showed less curiosity than one might have expected regarding the origins and motivations of the Boxers, they were fascinated by questions of their physical appearance and behavior.  The illustrated magazines of the period enjoyed a distinct advantage over the daily press since their engravings could illustrate this exotic threat, and therefore shape the image of the Chinese martial arts in the West.  Images of Chinese soldiers, archaic weapons and seemingly impregnable fortresses filled the pages of many of these publications.  These pictures were accompanied by vivid descriptions of the latest fighting outside of Beijing, or reports of Boxer massacres at remote missions.

 

Yet the emergence of new technologies ensured that magazines would not retain a monopoly on graphic depictions of Boxer violence.  Film was still in a state of relative infancy when fighting first broke out late in 1899.  The first public performance of a film had taken place in Paris in 1895, and most of the movies that were being produced between 1895 and 1899 were relatively simple set piece affairs featuring only one performer captured in a single static shot.  Yet by the turn of the century filmmakers were striking out in new directions which would affect how the Western public encountered the Boxer Rebellion.

 

There seems to have been some competition between early film makers attempting to satisfying the public’s interest in these events.  Perhaps the first of these films (though the timeline is a bit unclear) was Sagar Mitchell and James Kenyon’s “Boxer Attack on a Mission Outpost” in 1900.  This short film lasted just under a minute and was shot as a single scene.  It told a simple story in which a Western missionary greeted his wife and daughter as they head out.  A second later they can be seen running back while the mission falls under attack by a mob of colorfully (if not authentically) dressed “Boxers” employing a mix of traditional weapons (including a Dadao) and clubs.  The European missionary resists gamely with his cane (referencing turn of the century interest in the gentlemanly arts of self-defense), until a group of British soldiers appear and restore order through the use of superior firepower.

 

Mitchell and Kenyon’s film was following up on a previous hit which had focused on the (then ongoing) Boer War.  While audiences almost certainly understood that the footage was staged, there seems to have been a great deal of enthusiasm for “realistic” recreations of these events. The most interesting aspect of this film is probably the appearance of Western cane fighting and a Chinese dadao in the same scene.  This must have been the first time that Occidental and “Oriental” fighting skills were called upon to square off against one another on screen from the enjoyment of a paying audience.

 

Mitchell and Kenyon were not the only directors looking to capture the essence of the Boxer Rebellion on film.  Even more important, and certainly better known, is James Williamson’s “Attack on a China Mission”, also screened in 1900.  Williamson’s film is in many ways the more ambitious of the two.  Its original running time was probably close to two minutes, but in its current edited form we have only 1:15 worth of material.

 

A still from. James Williamson’s “Attack on a China Mission” (1900). The lead Boxer in this frame appears to be holding a Japanese katana.

 

 

The project was also notable for its technical complexity.  It employed a cast of over 20 individuals (most of which were either British sailors or a Boxer mob) and attempted to tell a complex story through the four discrete shots and (the first ever) reverse angle cut.  In this film Boxers break through a gate to assault a mission house.  They are better armed than the previous group and came at the settlement with rifles, swords and clubs, with the aim of slaughtering its inhabitants and burning the place down. The missionary and his wife whisk multiple children inside, and he then returns to the yard to defend the settlement with his own firearm.  The missionary is overwhelmed and killed by a Boxer armed with some sort of saber.  The wife can then be seen calling for help from the balcony as the house begins to issue smoke.  At that point a detachment of painfully well-ordered British sailors appear on the scene and begin to lay down fire, thereby preserving the honor of white womanhood in China.  This last point appears to be a none too subtle subtext in both films.

 

This film was a pioneer in a number of respects.  Employing a greater number of shots and camera angles to tell an engaging story was an innovation that helped to set the stage for a new era of plot-centric action films.  Williamson also put his background as chemist to good use as he attempted to replicate gunshots, smoke and explosions in a way that would capture the audience’s attention.  Yet he did not intend to tell a story about victory through technical superiority.  Simply firing a gun was not enough to save his missionary as the Boxers were also well armed.  It was the superior martial character and discipline of British troops, advancing in tight ranks (rather than the more “realistic” rush seen in Mitchell and Kenyon’s film) that won the day.

 

These two films were joined by at least one other, more mysterious, production titled “Beheading a Chinese Boxer.”  This was the shortest and simplest of any of the productions.  It showed a single Chinese captive being forced to kneel and then beheaded (again with what appears to be an authentic dadao).  Identical execution scenes had been described in popular publications since the 1850s and were even shown on Western postcards.  The actual staging of the execution is surprisingly realistic.  Additionally, most of the surrounding soldiers carry red tasseled spears that would be immediately recognizable to any Sinophile in the audience.  Special effects are again employed in the actual beheading, and the head itself is placed on a pike at the end of execution for good measure.

 

This shorter film is often attributed to Mitchell and Kenyon.  It should be noted that their other production ends with the British forces seizing a single live captive.  One wonders if we are witnessing his ultimate fate.  Yet the BFI Player webpage states that there are questions regarding the accuracy of this attribution. Contemporary catalogs note that something resembling this film, and possibly produced by Pathé or Walter Gibbons, was distributed by Warwick Trading Company.  Or this could indicate that there were at least four Boxer Rebellion films circulating in 1900 (that we know of), with three currently surviving.

 

 

 

Conclusion: The Boxers as a Familiar Foe

 

 

I recently had an opportunity to see a much more current documentary on the martial arts.  It was a BBC production that discussed the introduction of the martial arts to the UK. Given that most such discussions focus on the US, I was very interested to see more of the European side of this story.  Nor did it hurt that some friends and colleagues (including Stephen Chan and Paul Bowman) made appearances throughout.

 

The emphasis on the UK notwithstanding, I think that most American students of martial arts history would find the basic outline of story to be very recognizable.  The Japanese martial arts (beginning with Jujitsu, and hybridized as Bartitsu) are first “discovered” in the West at the turn of the century.  Judo is then popularized.  Next, American servicemen in the Pacific return after being introduced to Karate.  Finally, in the early 1970s the world hears (apparently for the first time) that there is thing called “Kung Fu.”

 

The outlines of the narrative are familiar, and in a certain sense they are true.  A whole generation of youth and teenagers who did not previously know about the Chinese martial arts did discover them in the late 1960s and early 1970s.  And Bruce Lee was absolutely instrumental in popularizing them (as well as all of the other Asian martial arts if we are being honest).

 

Yet as a historian I know that this simplified account leaves out quite a bit.  And the story that is excluded is just as interesting as the one we typically choose to emphasize.  For instance, when we focus on Bruce Lee introducing Kung Fu to rambunctious (mostly male) youth in the 1970s, we seem to conveniently forget about Sophia Delza and Gerda “Pytt” Geddes introducing a very different (and more female) demographic to Taijiquan in the 1950s.  What is at stake when we tell one story to the exclusion of the others?  When we discuss the absolute secrecy with which Chinatown residents in the US and the UK guarded their martial arts in the 1960s we forget the almost desperate attempts of China’s Republican government to promote their martial arts to the English speaking world (even showcasing them at the Olympics) during the 1930s and 1940s.  Indeed, as far back as the 1860s Wood could write with authority about the Chinese martial arts demonstrations that he had witnessed…in London.

 

The story of the Western discovery of the Chinese martial arts that we most frequently tell is not wrong, but it is a partial picture.  As students of martial arts studies, we need to ask not only whether this historical discourse is correct, but also what sort of social or cultural “work” it is currently doing.

 

When we remember the discovery of Bruce Lee, who specifically is the “we” in this equation?  And who is being forgotten?  When we put forward a narrative that privileges only a single aspect of the Chinese diaspora (supposedly secretive working class Chinatowns in London and San Francisco), what other elements of the Chinese community (often with very different, more nationalist, goals) are encouraged to fade into the background? Even if it is true that large numbers of people did not begin to practice to the Chinese martial arts until the 1970s or 1980s, might it be worth asking what previous generations thought about these practices?  Or why they might not have been interested in pursuing them in one decade, but found new meanings in almost identical symbols in the next?

 

The Boxer Rebellion is interesting as it reminds us that, contrary to the dominant narrative, the Western public did not first encounter Chinese martial artists in the 1970s.  Nor was Bruce Lee the first Chinese individual who appeared in Western popular culture who was physically dangerous and capable to defeating a white opponent.  What was new was that this was no longer viewed as being as fundamentally threatening or as dangerous as it once would have been.

 

We must acknowledge the fact that the image of the Chinese martial artist has long stalked the Western imagination.  Whether labeled a “sword dancer”, acrobat or boxer, the figure he or she has always been present.  While their multiple meanings might have been recast by the post-war counter-culture movements, their origins are deeper.  There might be no better evidence of this than the media explosion that accompanied the Boxer Rebellion.

 

Rather than agreeing that the portrayal of the traditional Chinese martial artists (however badly acted) on Western movie screens is a relatively new thing, imported from Hong Kong in the 1970s, what we instead see is that these images were instrumental in laying the groundwork for all modern action films.  Indeed, colonial adventures in Africa and Asia gave us the genres of adventure stories that we still enjoy today.  Rather than Asian identity becoming a foil against which Western notions of self and nationalism were shaped in the post-Vietnam War era, the same process can be seen at play in the 1850s, and again following the events of 1900.

 

A close examination of martial arts history shows that Chinese and Western identity have long been intertwined in a process that can only be described as mutually constitutive.  This is not to imply that things have always been harmonious.  The Boxer Rebellion was not only a paradigm defining moment in Chinese history, it is also critical for understanding questions of identity in the modern West as well.

 

oOo

 

If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: David Palmer on writing better martial arts history and understanding the sources of “Qi Cultivation” in modern Chinese popular culture.

 

oOo

Remembering Yim Wing Chun, the Boxer Rebellion and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

 

 

 

What at first appears new is often something remembered.  The human mind has trouble categorizing and finding meaning in anything that is truly unique or alien.  Good storytellers know that originality is not always a virtue.  The construction of meaning is rooted primarily in what we feel to be familiar.

 

The symbolic building blocks of popular culture do not change so much as they are transposed, placed in a new setting, or revealed to a different segment of the audience.  It is precisely the memory of everything that came before which allows the “new” to be subversive, even when the images themselves are very familiar.  This is certainly the case with Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  It is equally true of the constantly evolving iterations of the martial arts which have appeared in global markets for the last five decades.

 

One would not necessarily guess this given the slew of articles that have been published over the last week celebrating the 20th anniversary of the first airing of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  While the show (which was produced by the WB) never won the huge audiences reserved for programing on the major networks, Buffy managed to create both a devoted following and to capitalize on the early development of on-line fan communities.  The show became something of a cultural event.  It even spawned an entire cottage industry of academic books and articles as scholars in fields like cultural studies, sociology and philosophy sought to parse the show’s layered discourses or discern what it suggested about the nature of social change in the post-Cold War period.  Yes, “Buffy Studies” is a thing.

 

I should hasten to add that it is not necessarily my thing.  Which is not to say that I have not been a fan of the show.  I first became aware of Buffy the Vampire Slayer as a freshman in college.  While I have never loved the horror genre, I was captivated by the shows’ witty writing and the fearless ways in which it delved into social debates.  A single episode might introduce a theme being played out in the lives of the (human) cast, which would then find odd echoes in the main plotline.  That usually involved saving the world from some sort of demonic menace.  Then, just to provide a third layer of meta-commentary, the show’s more ancient heroes and villains could often be seen to discuss events like some sort of divine (or demonic) chorus in a Greek tragedy.

 

Combined with the evolution of characters and storylines that can occur during a seven-year run, the result was the creation of topical stories that defied the TV’s normal urge to underestimate its audience.  Given the self-conscious way Buffy dealt with themes cherished by cultural and media studies scholars, it is really no surprise that so many of them seem to have fallen in love with the series.  In fact, a study conducted by Slate in 2012 found that (as of that year) more academic literature (at least 20 books and 200 articles) had been produced on this show than any other popular culture property.

 

I will admit to being blissfully ignorant of most of this literature.  I was always attracted more to the show itself.  Every fan has their favorite episodes.  Hands down mine  would have to be “Hush,” a symbolically fought tale in which a group of traveling “Gentleman” (escaped from either a fairytale or a nightmare) have stolen the voices of an entire city’s inhabitants.  With their first task complete they then proceed to collect the hearts of seven residents in glass jars.  Of course, the only thing that can defeat the Gentleman is the sound of a human voice.  Every couple of years I break this episode out and watch it on Halloween.

 

Unfortunately, I won’t have time to delve into a narrative or social analysis of Hush in this post.  And even if I did, I am not sure that it would really tell us much about either Buffy or the place of the martial arts in modern society.  That story is scary precisely because its villains are so alien in nature as to be basically inscrutable.  They certainly feel like something that escaped from a fairytale, but it was clearly a story that the Brothers Grimm neglected to write down (possibly with good reason).

 

Instead I would like to ask what Martial Arts Studies might reveal about the shows popularity and its enduring legacy decades after its first release.  Joss Whedon deserves a huge amount of credit for his ability to tap into young adult interests and insecurities, and to draw from them universal stories about growing up and growing old, finding your place in the world, and then discovering that this is daily process rather than a singular glorious achievement.  He deftly wove together horror, comedy, adventure and drama in a way that few have.

 

Yet even the most casual visitor to the Buffyverse would quickly notice that the martial arts were one of the most important tools employed in telling these stories of victory and stoic defeat.  For a demonically empowered group of superhuman predators, the average vampire in these episodes expressed a notable interest in taekwondo.  One newly risen fiend even bragged about having studied taekwondo in college! (He did not last long, but I still found the reference fascinating).

 

The martial arts appeared throughout the series in many modes.  Even though Buffy’s calling as “the slayer” gave her access to superhuman strength and reflexes, it was very clear that diligent training and a killer instinct were the actual keys to her success.  Her on-screen martial arts were enhanced with gymnastic feats, wide telegraphed kicks and punches (similar in style to those used by Chuck Norris), and an abundance of weapons.  The show also made use of Hong Kong style wirework and often exaggerated throws.  The audience saw the martial arts not only in instances of pitch combat, but also in training sequences.  The ensouled vampire Angel even turned to Taijiquan as part of his physical and psychological rehabilitation program after a quick trip to hell.

 

This is not to say that the fight scenes in the show were always great.  Indeed, the action choreography in Buffy is one of the elements of the show that has not aged well.  I remember my Sifu using Buffy fights as an example how not to execute a throw.  While one can build great dramatic tension by throwing your opponent across the room (thus giving them a chance to get up and recover), it is much more efficient to simple drop them straight down and then stomp on their neck.  In short, I don’t think that anyone should be turning to this show for self-defense advice.  Yet it seems likely that it inspired many fans to take up self-defense or martial arts training.

 

The campy quality of many of the fights notwithstanding, it cannot be denied that there was something wonderfully subversive about the entire exercise.  Who is going to take a blond high school cheerleader seriously?  As so many other commentators have noted, such people are the fodder of horror films, not their heroes.  Indeed, there is some evidence that large parts of the potential TV audience refused to take the show seriously simply because the name “Buffy” was used in the title.  It seemed to signal a mixture of triviality and feminine values that society finds easy to ignore.   Yet if you tuned in, what you found was a very relatable and complex female character saving the world on a weekly basis with little more than her friends, a wooden stake and her trusty arsenal of taekwondo kicks.

 

Nor was Buffy (played by Sarah Michelle Gellar) forced to carry this burden alone.  The show advanced an entire set of female heroes and villains, each more interesting than the last.  Faith, a somewhat fallen Slayer, was every bit as kinetic as Buffy but suggested what she might have become without her family and support system.  Willow Rosenberg preferred to do combat with magic rather than her fists, yet she was also a complex individual with a dark side of her own.  The show’s villains also reinforced this same feminist discourse.  In the first episode a teenage boy, and seemingly nervous girl, can be seen breaking into a deserted high school at night.  The audience naturally assumes that the male has the upper hand in this fraught teenage situation. Yet the tables are quickly turned when it is revealed that the “girl” is actually the coquettish vampire Darla and the boy is lunch.

 

A common thread seems to run through the dozens of articles that have come out in the last few weeks celebrating the cultural impact of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  While a few raise critical notes (highlighting, for instance, the show’s lack of racial diversity, or its campy fight choreography), almost all of them locate its innovative genius in its portrayal of strong female heroes and villains.  Indeed, Buffy’s script writers went beyond duels with the powers of darkness to explore themes like consent, abusive relationships, systemic discrimination and intergenerational conflict.

 

Yet how original was this?  The 1960s and 1970s generated an entire legion of fearless female heroes and adventures.  They seem to have been mostly forgotten in the current crop of Buffy inspired think pieces.  It may be the case that Buffy appeared to be very novel to a new generation of fans who had grown up in the 1980s.  This was a decade in which the traumas of the Vietnam war ensured a turn towards increasingly masculine heroic figures.  It is easy to name the male martial arts and action stars from the period (Bruce Lee, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, Van Dam and Sylvester Stallone), but coming up with a list of their female counterparts is more difficult.  For a generation of teens in the 1990s, Buffy may have felt very new.

 

Yet Joss Whedon was tapping into a more fundamental shift in cultural currents rather than creating a trend on his own.  In terms of television shows, Buffy’s appearance was matched by other iconic hits like Xena Warrior Princess and La Femme Nikita.  Perhaps victory during the Cold War helped to heal the cultural neurosis left over from the loss of the Vietnam war.  It is thus helpful to remember that the original source material for the Buffy series was the less successful 1992 feature length film.  Or maybe it was something else altogether?

 

This is where a certain awareness of recent trends in the martial arts becomes especially helpful.  As I sit at my desk I can look across my study and see an entire bookshelf full of modern publications on Wing Chun and other forms of Chinese martial arts.  If you flip through these books it quickly becomes apparent that their production is not scattered evenly over the last 40 years.  Rather they have come in distinct waves.  The early and middle years of the 1970s saw the first big wave of Kung Fu books.  This was followed up by another wave in the early 1980s.

 

Yet the current era of martial arts discussions really seems to have begun in the late 1990s.  That is when I see the first wave of books, both Wing Chun manuals and even academic studies, that I personally identify as being truly “current” in feel.  Ip Chun helped to kick this era off in the Wing Chun literature with his co-authored volumes with Michael Tse and Donny Connor.  Rene Ritche’s Yuen Kay-San Wing Chun Kuen: History and Foundations, is also a classic.  And the list could easily go on.

 

What is interesting to note about these books is that they were published within a year or two of the debut of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.  Each was practical in nature, yet they also showed an increased appreciation of history, attempting to draw on interviews and new theories to “set the story straight.”  In the context of Wing Chun, that meant a lot of discussion and debate of the legend of Yim Wing Chun.

 

Yim Wing Chun herself was not new to Western martial arts culture.  She had been discussed in magazines and books since the 1960s.  Knowledge of her story appeared at roughly the same time that the Southern Chinese martial arts gained popularity.  Yet while some individuals were certainly interested in her story during the 1960s and 1970s, she does not appear to have acquired the status of an easily recognizable “feminist icon” until the 1990s.  While a few women studied with Ip Man in Hong Kong, the vast majority of his students were male.  Their interests in the story (to the extent that they cared at all) were likely historical and philosophical in nature.

 

By the late 1990s much has changed.  Arts like Wing Chun have become much more accessible in the West, and an ever-increasing number of female students were deciding to train in these systems.  As the audience consuming these stories changed, so did their inflection and meaning.  Publishers in the late 1990s were producing a new generation of books only because there was already a new generation of students waiting to buy them.  And this social shift was underway prior to, but in the same basic era as, Buffy’s release on the small screen.

 

Spike and his vampiric friends out for a stroll during the middle of the Boxer Rebellion.

 

The Buffy-verse directly addresses the Chinese martial arts on a few occasions.  As was previously mentioned, the ensouled vampire Angel turns to Taijiquan as a healing practice during the series.  Perhaps the other significant exploration of the Chinese martial arts occurs in the episode “Fool for Love.”  After a close call with a local villain, Buffy turns to the relatively experienced (and at this point semi-domesticated) vampire Spike to learn how he had been able to defeat two previous slayers during his dissolute demonic “youth.”  By going through the exercise Buffy hoped was that she would learn something that would allow her to guard against a similar fate.

 

After revealing parts of his own backstory, Spike proceeds to narrate his first victory.  In 1900 he and a small group of fellow vampires had gone to Beijing to revel and feed in the then erupting Boxer Rebellion.  As the city burned around them Spike managed to corner a Chinese slayer (who was, as one would expect, a phenomenal martial artist) named Xin Rong, in a Buddhist Temple.  Xin Rong, played by the Wushu performer and stunt woman Ming Qiu, repeatedly advanced on Spike with elegant jian techniques, and managed to cut him above one eye.  But a random explosion in the street caused her to lose her weapon just as she was about to finish him.  Spike used the opening to kill the slayer as she reached for her fallen weapon.

 

Even though the audience knows that Spike is narrating the death of a previous slayer, Xin Rong’s death hits the viewer like a slap.  The entire premise of the series has been that seemingly weak, underestimated and female characters can come out on top.  Of course, this is the same promise that has drawn so many generations of Eastern and Western students to the martial arts.

 

Played by the talented Ming Qiu, the audience is left with no doubt about this slayer’s martial abilities.  Yet in this case both spells, the martial and the occult, are broken.  Predatory masculine strength wins the day.  One is also forced to ask if the English vampire’s murder of the teenage Chinese martial artist is meant to be read as a post-colonial commentary on the vast destruction of life that consumed Beijing as the Western forces faced off against (and ultimately defeat) the traditional Chinese boxers and the imperial army in the summer of 1900.

 

Adam Frank has noted that when imagining the ideal Chinese martial arts teacher, most individuals, in both China and the West, seem to conjure up nearly identical images of a “little old Chinese man”, wizened by age but driven by an unseen well of vitality.  That very idea, in pop culture garb, even makes an early appearance in Buffy when Spike, confronting his former vampiric mentor, shouts angrily “You were my Sire. You were my Yoda!”

 

Yet in Joss Whedon’s universe the frame of reference, while basically familiar, has subtly shifted.  He, like so many other Chinese martial arts students in the 1990s, seems to turn to a figure very much like Yim Wing Chun as the ideal Kung Fu hero.  Both Xin Rong and Wing Chun are young females, marginal members of rigidly patriarchal societies, staving off predatory male advances against the backdrop of Buddhist imagery and memory.

 

Yet Whedon reminds us that even the best training cannot always compensate for random chance.  The terrible truth of Buffy’s world is not that there are monsters who do bad things.  The reality that she is forced to confront (most notably with the death of her mother) is that often the worst events come to pass for no discernable reason at all.  Part of the warrior ethos, in both Buffy’s universe and the real martial arts, has always been learning to accept that much will always be beyond one’s control, but choosing to fight anyway.

 

 

 

A quick comparative study of the lore surrounding Yim Wing Chun and Buffy reveals both important parallels and differences.  Taken as a set these may help to shed light on the growing popularity of both figures at roughly the same time.  Both Buffy, the blond cheerleader, and Yim Wing Chun, an adolescent female refugee living in a province far from her birthplace, began their martial journeys as somewhat marginal figures.  Obviously, Buffy enjoys a degree of economic privilege that Wing Chun does not share.  Yet it is probably significant that both come from single parent homes in societies that values the nuclear family and heteronormativity above almost all else.

 

Indeed, the “call to adventure” (to borrow a phrase from Joseph Campbell) issued to both characters comes because each has been marked as a potential victim.  It is their struggle for safety and normalcy (Yim Wing Chun wished to go through with her childhood betrothal, fulfilling Confucian expectations, while Buffy just wants to live long enough to graduate from high school) that forces them to step out into the larger world.

 

Both Buffy and Yim Wing Chun are given a guide along the way, and in both cases these are bookish, quasi-monastic figures (the Shaolin Abbess Ng Moy vs. the aggressively English Watcher Rupert Giles).  Buffy has the benefit of super-human abilities that Wing Chun does not possess, but so do her enemies. Ultimately both figures become not just skilled warriors, but also “culture heroes” (meaning individuals who transmit a new set of values to a community of followers).

 

It is no coincidence that this happens at the moment of their transition between adolescence and adulthood.  Both seize the fertile potential inherent in the moment of liminality and grow into something more than what their parental figures and local social elites anticipated.  Both then vanish rather abruptly leaving the audience to contemplate their accomplishments but giving little indication as to what came next.

 

Who are the real villains both stories?  In one instance we have local gangsters, and in the other considerably more colorful demonic forces.  Yet both stories are broadly relatable because the immediate villains can be seen as stand ins for other types of systematic oppression that robs one of agency.  These were stories meant to empower.  But whom, and for what purpose?

 

Perhaps we can learn more by considering the endings of both stories in more detail.  In the seventh and final season, Buffy unleashes a generation of “slayerettes” by using magical means to empower all of the potential female slayers in the world to rise at once.  In so doing she created an army and assured that no one girl would ever have to fight the darkness alone again.  Yim Wing Chun, on the other hand, is both the first and last step in an esoteric, quasi-monastic, martial tradition that sees Wing Chun spread first (in legend) throughout the Rivers and Lakes of the Pearl River Delta, and then (in reality) throughout the entire globe in a remarkable 50 year period between the 1930s and the 1980s.

 

Yet there are also some important differences to consider when thinking about the villains of these two stories and how the protagonists responded.  It is hard not to read the legend of Yim Wing Chun, and many other Shaolin focused martial arts legends, as examples of late 19th and early 20th century nationalist mythmaking.  At the end of the tale Yim Wing Chun receives the commission to oppose the Qing (China’s foreign Manchu rulers who had come to be seen as oppressing the people) and to restore the Ming (which appears to have simply been a stand-in for Han ethnic rule).  Interestingly, some of the old secret society lore (explored in depth by ter Harr and others) sees the Qing as a fundamentally demonic force that must be fought as much through exorcism as on the battlefield.  Indeed, it’s a world view that Buffy would be comfortable with.  Yet the story of Yim Wing Chun itself (probably composed in the 1920s or 1930s) provides a more straight forward nationalist gloss on the issue.

 

Buffy, by comparison, is not concerned with questions of nationalism or imperialism.  Rather the main conflicts that drive the narrative are social and cultural in nature.  The vampires and monsters are as much a personification of our personal and social dark-side as anything else.  Buffy can be a feminist iconic, rather than just an action hero, because the show quite self-consciously enters this territory as it explores the nature of the monstrous realm.

 

In that sense, we would seem to have a clear distinction.  The Yim Wing Chun of the early 20th century inspired a community to train to face an external enemy, and became a marker of local identity.  Buffy assembled her forces for what was ultimately a more introspective task.  Yet stories cannot travel through geographic and temporal space without being in some way transformed. As such, when Yim Wing Chun captured the imagination of a generation of Western students in the 1990s, she was no longer being read as a symbol of Chinese nationalism in the face of foreign (often Western) imperialism, or even local identity.  Instead she too was transformed into a figure promising social empowerment, and the creation of a different type of community.

 

Thus we find a deeply recursive relationship between the worlds of Buffy and the Asian martial arts.  Far from being unique, Buffy drew on images and stories of unassuming female martial artists defeating fearsome foes which had been circulating throughout Western popular culture since the late 19th century.  Indeed, without the figures like Yim Wing Chun one wonders whether Buffy would have existed at all, and if so, how she would have been different.

 

On the other hand, Buffy revealed changes in how these stories came to be read in the post-Cold War period.  The massive popularity of this show provided a template by which a new generation of martial arts students would encounter traditional Asian figures as symbols of social, rather than national, empowerment.  Buffy the Vampire Slayer both illustrated and helped to popularize new trends in the Asian martial arts.  Yet to do so it drew on some of the most popular 20th century images of these fighting systems, including China’s rich traditions of sword maidens.  If she could have seen the show, I suspect that Yim Wing Chun would have been a fan.

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If you enjoyed this you might also want to read:  Through a Lens Darkly (22): Heavy Knives and Stone Locks – Strength Training in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

 

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Rebellion and the Chinese Martial Arts

Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.

Rebel Yell

Its hard to deny that there is something a bit subversive about the martial arts. Or maybe that’s not quite right. Dutiful law enforcement officers and loyal soldiers spend as much time actually training in these systems as anyone else. Maybe it would be more accurate to say that there is often a whiff of rebellion in our pop-culture attraction to these fighting systems.

Even more remarkable is how many different environments this can be seen in. As I scrolled through a list of kung fu films (most shot during the 1960s-1980s) on Amazon Prime last night I noted that many focused explicitly on themes of rebellion and resistance against unjust rule. This is a theme that goes far beyond stock stories like the burning of the Shaolin temple. Nor is it always easy to separate these larger motives from the more typical “revenge narratives” that drove so much of Hong Kong’s classic film making. If one were to expand the pool of films to include kung fu comedies (my favorite genre) one finds characters resisting social norms on topics as diverse as drinking and gender performance.

Hong Kong films are far from alone in this fixation. Kung fu schools across the West continue to tell stories about the Manchu oppression of innocent Han martial artists even as they market their own dreams of resistance against the sterile mediocrity of modern life.

I suspect that this same thirst for rebellion has even infiltrated some corners of martial arts studies. Within academic culture nothing is more problematic than physical violence. Thus there is a certain perverse thrill that comes from throwing ourselves into the sensuous experience of punches, kicks and locks while letting the Human Subjects Research Committee worry about the complex ethical dilemmas that such “embodied research strategies” may pose. Everyone, it seems, loves a rebel.

And that is precisely our problem. When everyone loves something it is not very likely that they love it for exactly the same reasons. The more we stop to consider things, the less likely it seems that shared symbols of “rebellion” carried the same weight in Shanghai in 1918 that they do in Manhattan in 2018.

Fighting systems need opponents (both real and imagined) as a basic condition of their existence. It goes without saying that some of this need for conflict may be structurally given. Other elements of it are likely culturally constructed and more variable.

So why might martial artists in various contexts choose to align themselves so closely with the symbolic language of rebellion? What sort of social work are these symbols likely to perform? Lastly, can the martial arts in the modern era ever act as vehicles for radical change, either at the social or the individual level?

One cannot help but notice that these fighting systems get a fair amount of support from societies and states around the globe. It thus seems logical that these institutions expect to reap some sort of benefit in return. Does this undercut the revolutionary potential of the martial arts?

 

Chinese Soldiers and Officer in Beijing. Source: Illustrated London News, July 14th, 1900.

 

The Chinese Case

Many fighting systems romanticize images of rebellious martial artists. The Japanese have their ronin, the American West glorified gunfighters and rural Venezuelans told stories about local stick fighters who managed to fend off greedy outsiders, just to name a handful of examples. Yet no country has a richer history of martial artists taking to the streets (or hills, or pirate ships) than late imperial China. Indeed, such critical events as the Taiping Rebellion, the Eight Trigrams Revolt, the Opera (Red Turban) Uprising, the rise of the Red Spears and the Boxer Rebellion all helped popularize the image of rebellious secret societies and martial arts clans. When seeking to understand the popular appeal of such figures, China is the ideal place to start.

It is thus somewhat ironic to discover that for much of the late imperial period any notion of rebellion was distinctly unpopular within Chinese popular culture. The problem arose not so much from literary images of these events, but being forced to deal with the visceral terror and aftermath of mass social uprisings. The Red Turban revolt (which was confined to the waterways of the Pearl River Delta region) was clearly the smallest and least destructive of the events listed above. And yet it claimed the lives of close to a million individuals, many of whom were the victims of indiscriminate mass executions that were part of the gentry led white terror that followed the initial conflict.

The region’s economy was devastated, major manufacturing centers were burned to the ground and trade was badly disrupted. And that was a real problem as Guangdong province (which in the 1850s focused on the production of export crops such as silk, sugar and various dyes) was dependent upon the import of basic food stuff to stave off starvation. And all of this pales in comparison to massive loss of human life that the Taiping Rebellion was claiming further north.

As with so many other products, the Chinese people found that actual experience of rebellion failed to live up to the advertising hype. Lots of people die, everyone starves, and what comes next is often more oppressive than what you started out with. Drawing on these basic facts Christopher Hamm noted that rebellious martial artists, while a stock figure in late 19th century Guangdong novels, were rarely the sort of anti-heroes that they would come to be accepted as after the 1911 revolution. While their antics were considered entertaining, ultimately what both readers and censors demanded was that the government use a heavy hand to restore social order (and avert regional disaster) in the final chapters of the book.

The rebellious monks of Shaolin were just not sympathetic figures in the wake of the Boxer Uprising. Small groups of revolutionaries not withstanding, most of the Chinese public was not very keen on the notion of rebellion during the 19th century.

All of this changed as China approached the 1911 Revolution. Once it became clear that the Qing were gone and a new, modern, Republic was to be established, there was both an explosion of popular nationalism and an immense outpouring of interest in stories about revolutionary figures. On the one hand it was certainly safer to stand up to the “Manchu princes” in 1912 than it would have been in 1910, and everyone likes to imagine that they had been part of the process of settling old scores. Yet when reading the literature of the period (and even more importantly, the contemporary political statement extolling “revolutionary values”) it quickly becomes apparent that many of these supposedly historical narratives were actually more concerned with inspiring the people to stand up to outdated social traditions and foreign imperialism than the defeated Qing.

This is when we see the explosion of revolutionary creation myths in the southern Chinese martial arts. Such narratives would have been extremely unpopular in the 19th century, when even real rebels often claimed to be trying to “rescue” the Emperor or the clutches of “evil advisors.” While we tend to see these stories as the ultimate proof of a style’s “ancient history” and deeply “traditional” nature, at the time they were probably an attempt to align the martial arts with the modern and progressive trends that were sweeping through Chinese society.

 

 

But How About the Theory?

Of course, it is often necessary to clear away the old before one can build something new. This is what narratives glorifying rebellion seem to do. To paraphrase the important sociologist James C. Scott (who spent a good chunk of his career studying the ways that popular storytelling might be politicized in peasant societies), they are the ultimate “weapon on the weak.” Narratives of rebellion emerge during moments of social upheaval, when its possible to upend the social values that define society’s winners and losers. Obviously Republican China was one such era.

Or is all of this just a false promise? At worst, it might even be another layer of social control. Why would society be so tolerant of discourses that are genuinely subversive? That is a question that runs as a subtext throughout Avron Boretz’s pioneering ethnography of marginality and masculinity in Southern Chinese life.

In his discussion of “martial values” Boretz insightfully recognizes that you cannot really separate questions of social marginality and rebellion from the construction of masculinity. By this he does not mean to imply that Chinese notions of masculinity are inherently violent or transgressive. In fact, that is the entire crux of the problem.

Boretz notes that rather than being automatically accorded respect, men in rural Taiwan and southern China are forced to earn recognition of their masculinity through social performance. Popular interpretations of Confucian norms have provided a standard way for this to happen. Sons wait to inherit a position of leadership (and hence the mantle of masculinity) first from the father, and then from their older brothers. It is thus the orderly transfer of property that signals the gaining of respect and the cementing of one’s patriarchal status. And both Confucianism and popular norms are very clear that any attempt to simply seize this authority by force is illegitimate.

There are two things to note about this situation. First off, within this ideal situation individuals signal their personal virtue by exercising self-control and waiting to achieve status within their local communities or clans. Secondly, such a system will immediately create a severe crisis of masculinity for many men at the margins of community life who simply have nothing to inherit. Lacking a familial estate and temple, they will never really be able to claim status as full members of the community.

Boretz notes that it is precisely these sorts of individuals who are most likely to rebel against dominant social norms. And they often do so by either joining martial arts groups, local temple societies, or criminal brotherhoods. These overlapping organizations share a mutual interest in promoting an alternative set of norms which claim that it is in fact possible to become a fully realized masculine individual through following a disciplined path of “martial attainment.” By observing a different set of behavioral regulations and denying themselves other physical pleasures (often in the form of sexual relationships), these “rebels” prove that they can be just as disciplined as their middle class brethren, even if they accept as normal the sorts of violence that Confucian thought eschews.

Many authors have noted that traditional martial arts have always faced a certain sense of illegitimacy within Chinese society that goes well beyond anything that we might see in Japan or the West. Boretz’s points help to illustrate why. The very idea of “martial virtue” functions as a mechanism of social legitimation that self-consciously violates the rest of society’s rules about what “the good life” should look like.

Further, in an era of rapid economic growth and expanding opportunities, why should individuals turn to alternative lifestyles to gain social prestige? A booming job market suggests that there are now many other ways to demonstrate one’s social success that are less likely to inspire neighborhood gossip. This alone probably explains why enrollments in kung fu classes are down across China from their high-water mark in the 1980s. (Other factors including skyrocketing rents and an aging population certainly haven’t helped).

Still, Boretz notes that while this critique of middle-class values may seem radical, looks can be deceptive. After all, this is simply a different way of attempting to claim a very familiar type of masculine legitimacy. No one in this process is seriously questioning whether this should be the basis for community authority. What is more, both systems (Wu and Wen) are actually signaling their virtue in very similar ways. Under a more orthodox set of rules one abstains from grabbing wealth through forceful or less than legitimate means. It is violence, real or implied, that is unbecoming of a gentleman. In the martial realm violence is valorized, as is the ability to “get rich quick.” But the ideal warrior must observe the many taboos (often involving sex) of the martial code to demonstrate that they too are capable of exercising self-control and thus paragons of virtue.

 

“Local Militia Shandong. 1906-1912 by Fr. Michel de Maynard.

 

Conclusion

All of this leads Boretz to a clear conclusion. While Chinese martial artists and members of dark brotherhoods may wrap themselves in the banners of social rebellion, in actual truth they are not very good at it. Their rhetoric of protest actually reflects a set of broadly shared values. Rather than tearing these down they reinforce them, and sometimes become their most ardent (if not their most respected) defenders. While the excesses of marginal young men may need to be channeled and occasionally reeled back in, local society doesn’t move against them as they are fundamentally eufunctional. Rather than challenging the system, the sorts of narratives that we see in the modern Chinese martial arts allow individuals to take personal characteristics that are supposed to be a source of shame (such as one’s poverty, or maybe too much of a love of fighting), and subvert these into a set of behaviors that can be seen as personally empowering while remaining socially non-threatening. This is a sort of rebellion that takes the potentially political and makes it safely personal.

I think that Boretz’s argument is very insightful, and it explains much of what we see in the Chinese martial arts. Actually, I would like to generalize and argue that functionally similar mechanisms can probably be identified in martial communities in the West as well. After all, MMA students seem to like rebelling against petty bourgeois values as much as anyone else. Yet social leaders in the West do not seem overly concerned about the proliferation of BJJ and Muay Thai classes, despite the image of impending, barely contained, violence that something like the UFC likes to project.

In considering how these arguments might apply to the West, I have begun to wonder if Boretz’s model might benefit from the addition of one more variable. What happens when we move from a theoretically timeless world of small communities and clan structures, to a modern world characterized by a transition to large scale states, nations and social structures? Or to put things slightly differently, how do these mechanisms change when we make modernity our key independent variable?

Again, the case of Republican China is instructive. Reform minded martial artists (such as those of the Jingwu movement) continued to see the martial arts as a means of social mobility for the potentially disenfranchised. In fact, they exerted tremendous resources to remake these fighting practices as a predominantly middle class pursuit. And once again, self-discipline and self-denial was the key to bolstering China’s threatened masculinity.

Yet in large part they succeeded because in embracing modernity they shifted the frame of reference from the clan or village to society and the state. Where as self-denial and masculinity had previously been ontologically given values whose superior virtue was simply self-evident, within a modern framework they were transformed into an instrumental strategy by which individuals could contribute to the strength of the “nation-state.” And because the need’s of the state were so pressing, this set of values (and the tools that promoted them) would get official backing from the government. This effectively moved the martial arts from the fringes of the social world and placed them squarely in the middle of the nation’s high schools and universities. The sort of individuals who could contribute the most to the growth of the “New China” (a young person, living in an urban environment, possibly a solider, with a modern education), was very different from the country patriarch envisioned by Confucianism.

This then brings us back to the Republic period’s love of rebellious heroes. It might also help to explain why period reformers were so quick to shine the spotlight on female martial artists and militia leaders in the popular press. After 1911 the martial arts became a mechanism by which these individuals could articulate their vision of what a modern, reformed, Chinese nation might be.

Still, as Boretz’s ethnography suggests, this didn’t happen everywhere. Like so much else in the period, the martial arts became contested ground. As I discussed in my book on the southern Chinese martial arts, debates emerged that pitted locally focused martial traditions against quickly growing, nationally oriented, reform movements. Nor was it always clear which approach was favored by economic markets in this free exchange of ideas.

Unsurprisingly both sides loved stories of a good kung fu rebellion. Stories of burning temples, assassinated grandmasters and bloody revenge were just too good to pass up. They continue to be the stuff that martial arts films are made of.

Still, when we look at the similarities and differences in what these groups did with those narratives, patterns emerge. In cases where the performance of “martial virtue” remained focused on seeking personal legitimacy within the local community, martial arts groups seem to have played a conservative, or even reactionary, role. When “martial virtue” was subverted and linked to strengthening of the state and nation as a whole, traditional modes of identity and sources of social influence were undercut. And that could feel very liberating.

It may be true that even in this latter case one hegemony was simply being replaced with another, but it was still a vision that the martial artists themselves had some hand (how ever limited) in shaping. Maybe, under the correct set of circumstances, a good kung fu rebellion really can save the day.

 

 

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If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Telling Stories About Wong Fei Hung and Ip Man – The Evolution of a Heroic Type.”

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The Soldier, the Marketplace Boxer and the Recluse: Mapping the Social Location of the Martial Arts in Late Imperial China.

 

***As I mentioned earlier this week, I am currently preparing for the upcoming Martial Arts Studies conference in Cardiff.  As such I have decided to revisit one of the earlier major essays that I wrote for this blog (all the way back in 2013).  Kung Fu Tea was just starting to grow at that point, so my guess is that this will be new material for most of you.  And its always interesting to look back and see how the conversation has evolved over the last couple of years.  Enjoy!***

Introduction

 

How should we understand the traditional Chinese martial arts?  Are these practices really intended to be a form of practical self-defense, or are they actually some other sort of social performance? Are the arts that we practice today “authentic?”

These are a few of the large questions that really drive the field of Chinese martial studies.  Recently I reviewed a now classic article by Charles Holcombe (“Theater of Combat: A critical Look at the Chinese Martial Arts” in the Historian (Vol. 52 No. 3, May, 1990) which attempted to provide an answer to each of these queries.  The author argued that the traditional Chinese martial arts are largely ineffective as actual combat systems as they were never really intended to function as such.  Rather than being a practical program of military training, Holcombe claimed that these fighting systems were really an outgrowth of popular Daoist and Buddhist mystical practices.

Henning has argued elsewhere that this aspect of Holcombe’s argument falls flat because of his extensive reliance on Joseph Needham.  While a preeminent historian Needham never made the martial arts the main focus of his research and his conclusions on this subject should be regarded with caution.

Nevertheless, Holcombe was on firmer ground when he pointed to the centrality of opera and other forms of public entertainment in late imperial China.  The martial arts could always draw a crowd, and this is how a great many professional hand combat experts made a living.  Holcombe argued that in the minds and rhetoric of millennial cult leaders it was all too easy to conflate the staged performance of social violence with the real thing.  This then is the true nature of the Chinese fighting systems.  They are primarily social in orientation, and it was really the modernizers and reformers of the 1920s-1930s, intent on transforming them into a practical system of self-defense, who were fundamentally mistaken.

Much of the subsequent development of the martial studies literature has argued against this early thesis.  Shahar, Henning, Lorge, and Kennedy have all argued that the martial arts were both more tied to actual violence than their critics might like to admit and much less dependent on any specific philosophy or theology.

This sounds like progress, except that we are still having the same very basic conversation that Holcombe introduced in 1990.  The historians in the field have introduced a lot of important nuance into our discussion.  Yet the anthropologists who write on the Chinese martial arts simply take it for granted that they are mostly about social performance.  Nor do their ethnographic observations do anything to challenge that view.  If this is true today it is entirely possible that it was also true in the past.  Further, while the persistent connection between boxing societies, millennial cults and late imperial rebellions may be difficult to theorize, one cannot simply ignore it.

I concluded my review of Holcombe by arguing that the problem may not actually be in how we are looking at the historical record.  Indeed, Holcombe and his later critics actually show a remarkable degree of agreement on this front.  Rather, the real issue is that we have not thought carefully enough about our core concepts.  This creates a certain degree of slipperiness in our theories.  The end result is that some individuals have one view of what constitutes the “authentic martial arts,” while other students may come to very different conclusions.

This is not surprising.  The idea of the martial arts was introduced and popularized in the west by the Japanese.  Their ancient feudal structure and later program of promoting “Budo” as an official ideology in the early 20th century led to a very unique relationship between their hand combat systems and the rest of society.  There is simply no reason to think that these basic ideas should provide a workable map for understanding the intricacies of Chinese popular culture.

Conceptually speaking the term “martial arts” is a modern invention.  It is an attempt to group like categories (from many cultures and different areas of the world) together because that project makes sense in relation to certain other modern ideas.  But it is extremely unlikely that a 19th century bandit in the hills of southern China would see himself as a member of the same class of beings as a medieval Japanese warrior/bureaucrat simply because they both owned a couple of swords and a rifle.

The current post attempts to expand on this same basic idea.  In my last essay I focused on how Chinese martial culture might look if we were to break things down by occupation and profession.  Of course that is not the only way to map out what these relationships may have looked like.  In fact, it simply pushes our question one step back.  It is all well and good to say that village militia members may not have identified all that much with urban street performers, but the real question is why?   Why did some groups develop shared identities, in certain times and places, while others were excluded?

If we could answer that question we might start to actually open a new window onto popular culture in late imperial China.  Further, we might also have a better understanding how it was possible to eventually craft the (relatively) unified identity behind “Guoshu” (National Arts) and “Wushu” (Martial Arts) in the 20th century.  Exploring these questions in depth would take a book, but in the current post I hope to point to a few places where we can start.

Taijiquan being practiced at Wudang. Source: Wikimedia.

 

 

Mapping the Social Landscape of Late Imperial China

 

Dr. Victoria Cass (currently a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University) writes on Chinese literature and religion.  She is perhaps best known for her 1999 volume, Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).  This popular work provides a highly accessible introduction to many of the central questions of gender studies in late imperial China.  In fact, I used it as a source in my recent discussion of the literary antecedent of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.

One of the reasons why Dangerous Women works so well as a general introduction is that Cass realizes that it is not possible to talk about complex social structures as though they exist in a vacuum.   These things occur in a specific time and place, and it is vitally important to understand that terrain.  The social geography of late imperial China is complex and far from uniform.  It is bisected by political upheavals and colored by competing vision of what the ideal society, and life, should look like.

As a result it is not enough to discuss “Chinese women” in the abstract.  Rather, to have any level of real comprehension they must be examined in relation to these larger structures.  The variety of choices and life-pathways that different women adopted are meaningless without at least some explanation of the environment that they lived in and the social and philosophical currents that informed their world.

Of course it is possible to make exactly the same argument about the “martial arts.”  The traditional hand combat styles were a specific expression of larger trends within “martial culture.”  However, like gender, martial culture is such a broad category of thoughts and values that it touches on practically everything.  It is simply not enough say that it affects something.  Rather the question is why does it express itself in a specific way in this setting, and yet it looks very different in another environment?  In short, why is there no simple answer to the riddle of the Chinese martial arts?

To begin to examine these questions we need a map of the social geography of late imperial China.  Since this is a brief blog post we will need a simple map that still has the necessary information to get us where we need to go.  Luckily Cass provides us with just such an outline in the introduction to her volume.  If you are interested in understanding more about Ming and Qing era popular culture, but you lack a background in the subject, this one chapter provides a pretty useful overview of the big trends that you should be aware of.  Obviously Cass’ essay focuses on the role of women, but the basic discussion that she gives could inform any number of investigations.

Her basic argument is that popular culture in the late imperial period can be thought of as a dynamic interaction between three different sets of norms.  In turn these yielded three competing visions of the ideal society.

The Cult of Piety

The first of these, and most widespread, was a “cult of piety” focused around proper behavior in the family (its major center of worship).  The more common term for this “cult of piety” is Confucianism.  Prof. Cass dislikes this label as the actual social performance of “virtue” often went beyond what any scholar or philosophical thinker might explicitly demand.  Further, when discussing Confucianism the emphasis has historically been placed on elite males who comprised the government bureaucracy and local gentry.  However, the more general cult of piety found expression in every facet of Chinese culture, even within areas that were traditionally treated with disdain, such as among women and martial artists.

The City Centered Romantic Movement

The Ming was also a time of economic growth and dynamism.  This was seen in a number of areas but it was the most obvious in the expanding cities that attracted large populations during this period.  The rise of a new strain of urban culture was most obvious in the south, in areas like Fujian and Guangdong.  Both provinces were blessed with a number of good ports and they were nourished by the triangular trade between South East Asia, Southern China and Japan.

Urban spaces had definitely begun to develop their own character during the Song dynasty.  However this process quickened during the late imperial period.  Cities developed a new middle class with their own sense of identity and value.  This new urban class gave rise to its own unique culture.

The cult of piety (which reigned in the countryside) was premised on an absolute devotion to the ancestors who had gone before; individuals who had quite literally become “household Gods,” who could only be appeased through the rigorous observation of propriety and filial decorum.  This was the basis of all proper family arrangements, and by extension the state (which was seen as a family on an almost cosmic scale).

The piety demanded by this cult was dangerous because it called for the sacrifice of the self to uphold the norms of the systems, not just in abstract ways, but often also in very concrete and final terms.  Scholars who accepted death rather than serving a new government, widows who committed suicide at the death of their husband and soldiers who fought hopeless battles against impossible odds were the saints and martyrs of this system.

Cass argues that these were not marginal or victimized people.  Rather they were the fanatical followers of a very specific set of moral ideas.  They believed that by enacting huge sacrifices to maintain virtue in their own lives, their families, communities and even the state would be blessed with stability and prosperity.  Further these beliefs were reinforced and supported by the state who, through the Bureau of Rites, sought out those who had made heroic sacrifices and built monuments in their honor.

Yet this “Confucian” view of the family and the ideal society did not sit well with many members of the newly ascendant middle class.  After all, these were the values of social elites and the rustic peasants who had a limited sense of their own class identity.  Merchants and craftsmen were not particularly well regarded in the traditional Confucian social hierarchy and it seems that for many members of the middle class the feeling became mutual.

While success in the official examination system remained the only real means for political advancement, many of these urban families decided to instead turn their attention to building their own personal economic empires.  I know from my historical work on Foshan that while these families continued to produce degree winners, very often these individuals made no effort to seek a career in government.  Instead they turned their attention to the economic marketplace and the development of their own local communities.

China’s cities during the Ming were among the largest and most sophisticated in the world.  Compared to those of a previous era, these would have been remarkably recognizable with businesses dominating the downtown and smaller shops and housing spreading out in rings.  Entertainment was a major part of city life.  Theaters, tea houses, street performances, displays of art and poetry, sophisticated geisha establishments and martial arts demonstrations were among the luxuries that could be found in any southern urban area of sufficient size.

What is most interesting to me about these urban areas is that they were so self-conscious of their identity and status.  They fully realized that they were developing a new culture that differed radically from the cult of piety.  They even coined a name for the process.  It was called “ju bian” or the “great change.”

“Passion” and “authenticity” were at the heart of this transformation.  Traditionalists found meaning through group membership and sacrifice.  Yet the process of urbanization disrupted many of the most important traditional groups.  The clan and the extended family became less relevant in urban areas as it was simply too expensive for all but the richest families to maintain a clan temple (though they did provide economic advantages if you could afford to build one).  Instead smaller social guilds, literary schools and reading groups came to dominate the social scene.  Some of these groups even adopted a reformist and political stance.

These associations helped to spread a new philosophy of the life throughout the urban middle class.  They claimed that the key to a good life was to live with “passion” or “qing.”  In modern terms we might say that this was a decisive turn away from the repression of the self for the benefit of others in favor of living an authentic life based on the expression of powerful and impulsive feelings.

The word “qing” refers specifically to romance and passion.  Not surprisingly this new philosophy led to a profound shift in family life.  Husbands and wives started to view each other as potential artistic and life partners rather than simply leaders and subordinates.  Yet the “qing revolution” went far beyond the bedroom.

This same sense of authenticity came to be applied to every aspect of daily life.  Urbanites came to appreciate, and find ecstatic meaning, in a well carved ink-stone, a miniature potted tree or the perfectly poured cup of tea.  Some educated members of this class were even responsible for the renewed interest in Chan Buddhism which happened during the late imperial period.

The Revival of Reclusive Living

Taken to its furthest extreme the urban middle class evolved into something very different.  The third social movement that Cass described was the path of the mystical (or simply mad) recluse.  Such individuals were by no means a new element in Chinese culture.  Daoism had long promoted a certain political quietism, encouraging truly cultured gentlemen to shun office, seeking instead the solitude of wild places and deep contemplation.

Nor, in all honesty, was this basic impulse really confined to a single philosophical movement.  The Chinese popular religion had venerated mountains and grottos as sacred spaces from time immemorial. Nor was it all that uncommon for certain schools of Confucianism to claim that one could not be a truly cultured gentleman without being a recluse.  Ironically it actually became something of a prerequisite for high office in certain times, meaning that it was not uncommon to find a fair number of “urban recluses” in Beijing or other important cities.

The obsession with living a natural and authentic life among the urban middle class in late imperial China set the stage for an explosion in the number of mystical recluses.  These individuals tended to follow certain social scripts which made them easy to identify.  Some hermits were actually able to find a place in the countryside, while others, because of career and business commitments, were instead forced to live out their calling in the cities.  For such individuals a natural looking garden, a rustic study and an art collection assembled to express the power of wild, untamed spaces was the key to living the proper life.

On a certain level it did not really matter where most reclusive individuals lived.  Indeed they could be found all over the country.  Yet they were all united by a few key characteristics.  What motivated them was a burning desire to somehow transcend the normal and “mundane.”  Whereas the peasant might extoll the virtues of the clan, and the merchant the consumption of fine object, the hermit wished to rise above all of this.  A return to nature and a “natural state” suggested one obvious way to accomplish this.

In practice this turn to the transcendent often necessitated some sort of ascetic practice.  For the less dedicated urban recluse this might simply mean making a big show of turning away callers.  But many individuals made more substantial sacrifices.

It was not uncommon for famous recluses to adopt vegetarian or other odd diets.  Ascetic practices were the norm.  Of course the Daoist longevity arts were pretty common, including both breathing exercises and more vigorous gymnastics.  Military training occasionally fell into the realm of ascetic practices that might be adopted by an eccentric gentleman.  If you really were planning on living by yourself deep in the wilderness such skills became very practical.

Confiscated weapons. Shanghai Municipal Police Department, 1925. University of Bristol, Historical Photographs of China.

 

Bringing the Martial Arts Back Into Popular Culture.

 

I think we are now in a good position to reintroduce the traditional fighting styles to our conversation.  We can gain a much better understanding of what the Chinese martial arts were by asking how they might have been expressed within each of these three different movements within popular culture.

In many ways the “cult of piety” forms the baseline that the other two social movements described by Cass grow out of and react against.  As such it is appropriate to start here.

One might assume that the hand combat would be shunned in this sector of popular culture given Confucianism’s discomfort with martial values.  Yet there were probably more martial arts practitioners who emerged out of this milieu than anywhere else.  In fact, I would speculate that one of our great failings as a field has been our lack of attention to how Confucianism informed the ways that ordinary soldiers and militia members thought about their craft.

Where in the historical record do we find instances of martial artists coming out of, and responding to, the “cult of piety?”  Many important military officers clearly fit this model.  Traditional Confucian models of authority and social order are important for understanding the life of General Qi Jiguang.  For instance, while he initially included a now famous chapter on the use of unarmed boxing in the training of military units in the military encyclopedia that he authored as a young man, he actually omitted that same discussion from the much better known second edition that was published later in his career.  Why?  It is likely that the more mature officer decided that the subject was not fit for high level official discussions.  After all, boxing itself was a marginal practice that was often seen as being at odds with good social order.

The Loyal Soldier

Perhaps the most obvious place where you see these values played out are in the various clan militias of Southern China.  Clan structures exist across China but for reasons that go beyond the point of this post they tended to be much stronger and more influential in Guangdong and Fujian.  These clans routinely owned large amounts of property and even controlled local industries.  In effect they functioned both as kinship groups and large private corporations.

Their need to collect rents, taxes and to protect their assets from encroachment by other clans, led these organizations to create their own military organizations.  These existed “off the books” and were largely independent from state control.  Such units would often hire professional martial artists to act both as instructors and as mercenaries to “stiffen the ranks” of their part-time militia members.

It was not unusual for clashes inspired by the economic interests of the various clans to escalate and turn deadly.  When that happened the state was forced to step in.  Of course the local government had no interest in actually dismantling the clan militias.  These family based fighting units were the basic building blocks that the state controlled and gentry led militia system was constructed out of.

Still, publicly delivering “justice” is a critical aspect of good governance.  When this happened the clan that was determined to be responsible for a death or outbreak of severe violence would be forced to turn over to the state a number of individuals.  Interestingly these were usually not the actual individuals who were responsible for the actual attack (at least if they had any value), but were instead much less important male members of the clan who were probably already wanted for a more minor offense.  The state could then make a great show of publicly executing these individuals who, in effect, sacrificed themselves for the protection of the clan as a whole.

Many of our more modern Kung Fu tales also make extensive use of the cult of piety.  In the martial novels of Jin Yong heroes willingly sacrifice themselves for the nation and will go to almost any length to avoid breaking a promise of marriage.  Their behavior is in line with the expectations of the cult of piety.

Such exaggerated acts function as important signals to the readers.  In normal society physical violence is frowned upon and it raises serious questions about an individual’s character.  Yet an exaggerated sense of loyalty, chastity or patriotism all demonstrates that a hero is capable of self-denial.  In this way he is able to enact the quintessentially masculine virtue of the Confucian system.

Big City Boxers

All of this stands in stark contrast to the vision of martial excellence that emerged in the rapidly growing cities of late imperial China.  Here the call to arms was not glorious martyrdom but rather commerce and enrichment.  Of course the average soldier was not paid very much and it seems that many militia members made even less, so it is fortunate that the urban markets created new opportunities for a skilled boxer to monetize their skill.

Street performers and patent medicine salesmen were everywhere.  They used martial arts displays to attract a crowd and sell their wares.  Opera companies that could only perform a few times a year in the countryside found steady employment in the red-light districts of southern China’s cities.  Further, organized crime needed a never ending supply of muscle.

Chinese cities could be dangerous places, and local businesses took precautions.  Boxers were hired as warehouse and pawnshop guards.  While steady employment these jobs lacked the prestige and pay of a position as a bodyguard or a position with an armed escort company.  Professional martial arts instructors, some retired from the military but others from the civilian realm, were needed to teach all of these people.  And the fact that they were paid in actual money meant that they could in turn pay for their instruction.

Other urban professions also called upon the expertise of martial artists.  It was not uncommon for medical doctors or pharmacists to occasionally employ boxing training as a means of improving a patient’s health or stamina.  Some of the most famous martial artists in all of southern China, including Leung Jan and Wong Fei Hung, actually made their living in medicine.  While the connection between TCM and the martial arts would become much deeper and more robust in the Republic era, it is important to note that the roots of this connection can clearly be seen in the thriving urban culture of the late imperial period.

If martial arts training was motivated by simple necessity and service to the group in the countryside, when transplanted to the city it found itself incorporated into the larger structures of the rapidly growing economic markets.  A wide variety of instructors, guards, gangsters, performers and even doctors had an opportunity to mix and exchange notes.  In this way they formed their own “martial arts subculture,” one that was probably quite distinct from the militias and military units that dominated the country side.  It is interesting to note that it was this urban faction of hand combat experts who probably contributed the most to the martial arts which were actually passed on to the modern era.

Retreating from the World of Rivers and Lakes

Still, this does not exhaust the list of social possibilities.  As Cass reminds us the urbanization of the late imperial period gave rise to (or enabled) a resurgence of interest in the “reclusive life.”  The most dedicated of these individuals hoped to attain a mystical level of “transcendence” beyond the concerns of ordinary life by cultivating the proper aura and engaging in certain ascetic practices.  No doubt there were others who simply followed the fad as it was fashionable.

Cass makes it clear that this movement was so popular that it touched practically every area of Chinese popular culture and social life.  As she eloquently (and ironically) put it, everyone knew a recluse.  In what ways do we see these same basic tendencies reflected in the Chinese martial arts of the period?

This question gets to heart of our current controversy.   Holcombe explicitly tied the martial arts to Daoist longevity practices and eccentric heterodox religious teachers.  In effect he claimed that the “reclusive current” dominated the development of the Chinese martial arts.  Others have argued against this.  In basic historical terms there is a lot more evidence of purely secular practice than Holcombe was willing to admit.  But where in the Chinese martial arts do we actually see the influence of the reclusive and mystical school?  Again, it would be very odd if this trend touched all other areas of Chinese popular culture at one time or another, but managed to totally miss boxing.

Zhang Songxi (c. 1520- c.1590) was a martial artist from the city of Ningbo, a busy port in Zhejiang Province (immediately north of Fujian).  The oldest and most reliable information we have on Zhang Songxi comes from Shen Yiguan (1531-1616).  Shen was a Confucian scholar who served as the Emperor’s Grand Secretary from 1594-1606.  While it is not clear what Shen thought of martial artists in general, he was from Ningbo and was quite proud of his hometown and its role in fighting off the Japanese.  In fact, it was Shen who actually ordered trade with Japan suspended, triggering the Piracy Crisis that would catapult Qi Jiguang to national fame.  Shen recorded and discussed the careers of some of his hometown’s local “heroes” in his essay “The Biography of Boxer Zhang Songxi” which was part of the larger “The Government Records and Annals of Ningbo City.”

Shen begins by noting that Zhang Songxi is not the best known martial artist from the area.  That honor would go to one named Bian Cheng.  However Bian Cheng was a rude fellow.  His life did not conform to Confucian values (the cult of piety).  Instead he sought fame and wealth.  He must have been unusually persistent because even managed to find it, twice.

Bian turned to the martial arts to solve his personal problems and he taught widely, without showing any discrimination about the character of his students.  On the bright side he did manage to defeat a group of Shaolin Monks, brought to the area to help quell the pirates, when they sought to challenge him.

Better still in Sheng’s opinion was Zhang Songxi.  He was taught by another formidable, socially unreconstructed, local boxer named Sun Thirteen.  Shen describes Sun as “rough and brutal.”  We also know that he valued simplicity and directness.

Apparently he also valued theoretical parsimony, a trait still seen in Southern China’s compact, jewel-like, hand combat systems today. Sun claimed that his entire art could be described by just three keywords or guiding principles.  His most talented disciple was Zhang Songxi.

Zhang was not a full time professional boxer but was actually a tailor by trade.  He earned the respect of Shen because he took what he learned from his master and he added the dimension of ethical refinement to it.  Rather than Sun’s three principles, Zhang taught five, with the last two being ethical and highly Confucian in nature.

Whereas Bian had sought fame and brawled with the ill-behaved Shaolin monks, Zhang Songxi was retiring and refused guests or callers who were interested in his martial skills.  He spent time in isolation, and favored the life of an eccentric gentleman farmer.

The contrast between Bian and Zhang is fascinating.  Clearly Bian and Sun represent the milieu of southern urbanism.  They were professional teachers and they accepted money for their services.  They advertised their skills widely and invested in building a reputation that could support them.

Zhang appears to have taken a different path.  Not only did he refuse to serve the government, but he also withdrew from the life of the city.  He is portrayed as having turned towards the reclusive path precisely because he had a richer understanding of the philosophy of boxing.  Further, his biographer seems to grant him a certain level of transcendence.  Of course this is only a single account, but it does indicate that even court historians were willing to admit that martial artists could become recluses or mystics.

A number of other examples of important martial artists being influenced by these same currents also come to mind.  For instance, Chen Zhong You, famous for his Ming era study of Shaolin fighting techniques, spent the better part of his youth following martial monks on their various military missions and studying at Shaolin.  Yet Chen was not from a military background.  He was a younger son from a well to do gentry family.  One would normally expect an individual like him to dedicate his life to earning a degree in the imperial exams.  Instead he decided to leave home, live in the mountains and make a decades long study of pole fighting.  It is hard to imagine a more ascetic route to personal cultivation.

There are a lot of things about his life and personal motivations that we do not know, and probably never will.  However, it seems that one possible strategy for interpreting the facts that we do have would be to situate them within the “reclusive current.”  Like so many other young men in the late Ming he seems to have developed an interest in the esoteric side of life and to have turned his back on more normal pursuits.  Even the title of his volume on the Shaolin fighting arts, “Techniques For After-Farming Pastime” indicates that he was consciously emulating the mode of the outwardly rustic (yet inwardly cultured) hermits who dominated the period’s public imagination.

Of course otherworldly recluses have always been closely tied to the martial arts in the world of Kung Fu fiction.  Countless stories, and more creation myths than I can count, start when the young hero meets a mysterious monk, nun, priest or hermit on the side of a mountain.  Most of these stories are pure fiction.  Yet in both the Ming and the current era a number of people did go to sacred or wild places explicitly to transcend the concerns of a normal life through one dedicated to practice and natural living.

A typical market place demonstration featuring socially marginal martial artists.

 

Conclusion

 

It may be impossible to give any simple answer to the question of whether the traditional Chinese martial arts were actually meant to be an effective means of self-defense.  Not only did the profession of individual students and practitioners vary, but there are other factors that need to be considered as well.  The late imperial period saw a number of different trends within Chinese popular culture.  In the current post we have reviewed three, but a more detailed treatment would certainly reveal others.

Each of these currents was broadly based and affected many areas of Chinese society.  We should probably not be surprised to learn that they also had an important impact on the way that the traditional martial arts were expressed.  In fact, the core values of “martial culture” could vary tremendously depending on whether the individuals in question were coming out of the “cult of piety”, the new urbanism or the resurgent rustic tradition.

If we wish to really appreciate the lives of China’s various martial artists, whether they were war heroes like Qi Jiguang, urban instructors like Chan Wah Shun and Leung Jan or reclusive masters like Zhang Songxi, it is important to situate them within the social landscape of their day.  Only then can we really understand what they hoped to accomplish through their mastery of the martial arts.

 

oOo

 

If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read:  “The Professor in the Cage”: Can Gottschall Bring Science to the Study of Violence?

 

oOo

How did China’s Boxers become “The Boxers”?

 

 

A Girl Who Lived with Monkeys

 

No text can be read in isolation.  Each is connected to other works through a network of invisible threads.  These are the product of suggestion, desire, memory and meaning.

 

The job of a historian is to tell us what happened. Often such stories are resolved through chains of causality. Yet when we come to questions of interpretation, the significance that something held for an audience, we are faced with entire fields of meaning that emerge from these more complex webs of association.  As such, there is a very strong tendency to make our understanding of new events conform to a socially significant preexisting pattern.

 

Nor is this characteristic of human thought something that is confined to the remote past.  Recently it was reported that a young girl had been discovered deep in a forest in India.  After being spotted by travelers a police officer was sent to collect the girl.  She was found living with a group of monkeys who had raised her.  She could not talk or walk on two legs.  Her nails had grown long and claw like.  When the police officer grabbed her, the girl’s simian family screamed and chased his car down the road.  The press quickly dubbed her “girl Mowgli” after another animal raised child made famous by Rudyard Kipling and Walt Disney.

 

Very little of this story was actually true.  There was a girl, and there was a police officer, but that was about the extent of it.  In reality an abandoned child was found sleeping by the side of the road in a part of the jungle that did contain monkeys, but also enough traffic to make it highly unlikely that the girl had been in the area for very long.  Rather than having been “raised by monkeys” the girl suffered from some sort of developmental disability, which was likely the reason that she had been abandoned by her parents and left to die.  The last article I read suggested that girl’s condition was starting to improve, but I doubt that this story will ever supplant the first one in the public imagination.  It was the very fact that she seemed to fit an archetypal myth of a human being raised in a “state of nature” that gave her plight meaning.  It was impossible to hear about a child found among monkeys and not read these events in terms of the preexisting folklore.  If that was not the way her life happened, perhaps it should have.

 

The Boxer Uprising has a very similar quality to it.  As these events unfolded there was a very strong tendency to read them in terms of other dominant patterns in Western thought and history.  Perhaps the strongest and most defined parallels were drawn with British colonialism in India and the Sepoy Mutiny.  Period journals and letters inform us that foreigners living in the legation were acutely aware of these parallels.  The weight of history informed their decision not to accept the Chinese government’s offer of safe passage to the coast as a similar offer in India had resulted in a massacre.  This degree of self-conscious identification with the events of the Sepoy Mutiny as a means of making legible the unfolding crisis has been explored by Robert Bickers in the Introduction to Bickers and Tiedmann’s edited volume, The Boxers, China and the World (Rowman and Littlefield, 2007).

 

A similar pattern emerged in popular literature, especially mass market novels aimed at boys.  In China and the Victorian Imagination (Cambridge UP, 2013) Ross G. Forman asks what these tales of the Boxer Uprising suggest about China’s role in turn of the century popular culture.  One of the most striking elements of his discussion is how quickly these stories began to be produced.  Indeed, they could come to market with such speed only because authors and publishers took preexisting tales of adolescent adventure set in India or South Africa, and transposed them directly to a Chinese context.  While certain elements of the Chinese landscape were introduced, at heart these stories remained a vehicle for exploring and promoting the logic of empire.

 

When reviewing the primary sources surrounding the Boxer Uprising it is vitally important to remember that newspaper readers in June or July of 1900 did not know how these events would end.  Lacking the foreknowledge that we bring to the event, period actors and the wider public attempted to make sense of these events through the geo-political lens of their day.  These had been shaped by events in South Africa, the Philippines, and most importantly, India.

 

Yet there was another source that readers drew from.  That was the popular image of Chinese martial artists that had developed over the course of the 19th century.  It was the image of Chinese sword dancers, gymnasts, boxers and secret society members, inherited from countless newspaper and magazine articles which shaped the image of the turn of the century “Boxers” in the public imagination.  Again, additional information was processed in light of one’s existing understanding.

 

A Banner from the Boxer Uprising. Source: Prof. Douglas Wile.

 

 

Who Are the Boxers?

 

 

Nowhere is this more evident than in the way that Boxers were discussed in period media accounts.   As I reviewed the New York Time’s coverage of these events during the summer of 1900 I noticed that name “Boxers” always appeared in quotes.  The editorial board of the times knew the proper Chinese name of the group.  They had even published imperial edicts commenting on Boxers, as well as translated copies of Boxer posters and placards.  Experts on Chinese culture had been interviewed.  They were not “boxers” due to a lack of knowledge.  This was the product of an editorial decision.

 

Yet the dutiful reliance on scare quotes suggests a level of discomfort with this moniker.  These were not the sorts of boxers that Western sportsmen would be most familiar with.  Nor, truth be told, were they identical to the types of Chinese boxers who had occasionally made appearances in the pages of English speaking newspapers and missionary journals throughout the 19th century.  While those individuals might entertain (or disappoint) with their sword dances and gymnastic contortions, no one had viewed them as particularly dangerous. And yet they were a ready-made image.  Their shared interest in martial practices made the Yi Hi Society more like China’s other boxers than anything else in the West’s lexicon.

 

Given the importance of the Boxer Uprising as a media event, one would think that the very first thing that newspapers would have been forced to do was to define and describe these “Boxers” for their readers.  That was not the case.  In looking at the early reports of violence that began to emerge in the spring of 1900 the “Chinese Boxer” construction is clearly present.  Yet no effort is made to expand upon what a boxer might be.

 

Given that the full scope of the crisis was not yet clear, updates in May and early June tended to be small news items.  There was likely an expectation that the only people who would find them interesting would be individuals who already followed Chinese events and culture.  Such individuals (as I have argued in other places) didn’t need a basic discussion of Chinese Boxing. That had become more or less common knowledge.

 

All of this changed as Boxers entered Beijing and the scale of the violence escalated in June and July of 1900.  Suddenly the crisis in China was front page material.  All readers began to take an active interest in these events, which, even if one was not concerned with China, were seen to have critical geo-political ramifications.  It was only in June and July, as the violence escalated, that articles began to appear attempting to explain who the Boxers were and to describe their unique modes of violence.

 

Perhaps the most important examples of these discussions can be found in the weekly and monthly magazines of the period.  These publications offered readers a more detailed and sustained discussion of the events of the day.  And if that was not sufficient to entice them, they also published lavish illustrations, engravings and photographs which promised readers a glimpse into the reality of world events.

 

Readers hoping to get a glimpse of the boxers would certainly have been disappointed by what they found.  The Boer War in South Africa had exhausted the art department of most of these magazines.  Given how few professional artists were located in the Beijing area, most magazines made due with stock photos relabeled in ominous, and sometimes outrageous, ways.

 

Perhaps my favorite example of this is the June 9th edition of the The Sphere.  In it we find a photograph of a supposed “Boxer.”  Only the picture shows nothing of the sort.  Rather it’s an image of a random man walking down a flooded street carrying an umbrella.  Given the role of persistent drought in setting the stage for the Boxer Uprising, one suspects that the picture in question was not particularly recent.  Another photo from the same article purports to show a boxer exercise ground.  Yet the scene looks suspiciously like a city street, and the presence of a European gentleman walking through the frame (complete with one of the 19th centuries finest beards) makes one doubt the competence of these supposed “Boxers.”

 

Such visual enthusiasm notwithstanding, these articles did a somewhat better job of introducing readers to the suddenly globally important Boxer movement.  This was accomplished by  introducing the group, describing its origins and training methods, and then theorizing about its possible motivations and place in the large scheme of things.  Consider, for instance, the following excerpt taken from the previously mentioned article in The Sphere.

 

A group photograph of an archery class or society. Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.

 

 

 

The Sphere. June 9th, 1900, p. 619

THE CRISIS IN CHINA—The “Boxers,” and who they are. by Alfred Edmonds

A society with so militant a title as the “Righteous Harmony Fists” could hardly be expected to be other than belligerent in its character.  This is the society which has caused so much perturbation in the foreign settlements in North China during the past week.  The jocular students of the legations have converted the high sounding designations which the Chinese gave the rebels into the more blunt and expressive of “Boxers.”

The movement had its origins some years ago in Shantung, the province in which Germany has secured so firm a foothold, and its aims were to drive everything of foreign origin out of the country.  The society quickly spread to the neighboring province of Pechili, where it found fruitful soil in the Manchu or northern portion of Pekin, the capital of the empire.  Here, under the guise of indulging in gymnastic exercises, such as throwing of stones and shooting with bows and arrows, it scattered the seeds of an anti-foreign agitation which had its first serious outbreak in 1898, when the Legations had to be guarded by troops sent up from Taku.

Foiled in their attempts to frighten the foreigners from the city, they redoubled their efforts at organization, and the society soon had ramification throughout the whole of the metropolitan province.  The reactionary policy adopted by the wily Dowager-Empress has tended to foster rather than discourage the movement, and unless prompt and vigorous action is taken by the Powers much mischief may be done.

 

 

 

It goes without saying that the term “Boxing” predated the effort of any translation students involved in the siege of the foreign Legation.  Yet this article demonstrates that the group’s real name was well known to at least some Western readers by June, and the term “Boxer” was adopted a conscious shorthand.

 

This article is interesting in that it describes archery as one of the major boxing activities, though most contemporary accounts instead emphasize sword and unarmed forms.  It is also important to note that rather than being the new phenomenon the Boxers are here seen as being “some years old.”  In strictly historical terms, this is not correct.  Eshrick has detailed the forces and timeline behind the rise of the Yi Hi Boxers. While this region of China had a rich tradition of banditry and disorder, this particular movement was actually both innovative and new.  Yet as we will see in the following accounts, there was a strong tendency to see the Boxers as a much older movement that only recently emerged as a threat.  Consider the following treatment from the Harpers Weekly.

 

 

 

Harpers Weekly, June 16th 1900, p. 556

“The Boxers” By Isaac Taylor Headland, Professor in Peking University

 

The present condition of affairs in China is the logical outcome of conditions which began more than a year ago.  The provinces of Shantung and Honan have always been the centre not only of learning and of great men (Confucius and Menicus have been born there), but also of secret societies, and consequently of such uprisings as that which is at present disturbing China, and especially Peking.

The society called Boxers originated many years ago and is of a twofold or perhaps manifold character.  It is a partly athletic, and partly moral and religious.  As an athletic association it goes under the name of the Big Knife Society (Ta Tao Hui), and as a moral or religious society under the name of Righteous and Peaceful Fist.  It is organized for the most part in the rural and village districts, and, it is said by the officials, is for the mutual help and protection of the country people—help in times of famine, and protection from their enemies, and in case of necessity against oppression of avaricious officials.

During the governorship of Yu Hsien there was constant trouble arising from thieves and robbers, who were made such by the famine caused by the annual overflow of the Yellow River.  This society was organized in its present form with the consent and protection of the Governor, and, it is said, with his own son as a member.  The Governor gave them swords and constituted them a sort of rural police, who were to protect the people against famine brigands….

About one year ago the Society of Boxers transformed themselves from keepers of the peace to a band of marauders, robbing, murdering, pillaging, and looting all of the Christian villages in Shantung….

 

 

 

 

Isaac Headland was both a missionary and college professor living in Beijing.  Again, I have included only the most relevant section of his article here, but the whole thing is worth reading.  While much of the missionary community was in a state of panic by June, Headland was unusually calm.  His explanation of the sudden uproar over the Boxers noted that it could not be explained by secret societies, xenophobia or drought.  These things were constants in China, and the Boxer panic in the foreign community was new.  He attributed the uproar to the arrival of a Times correspondent in the capital rather than novel events on the ground.   In short, he goes on to argue that the initial reports of the Boxer Uprising are overblown and “fake news” (to use a modern phrase).

 

Headland turned out to be wrong on many accounts.  Six days before this article was finally published the telegraph cables connecting Beijing to the outside world were cut.  The situation in the Foreign Legation had become tense, and the Japanese Chancellor had just been murdered.  Only a day after Headland’s assurances reached the public, the bombardment of the Taku Forts by the combined allied fleet would commence.

 

The accuracy of his description of the Boxers is also mixed.  Rather than identifying them as a new and fundamentally destabilizing presence in local politics, he too argues that they are one of the regions secret societies that had been present for many years.  Headland reveals a bit of his thinking on this when he notes that secret societies tend to have an outer and inner aspect.  In this case the outer/athletic group is the “Big Sword Society,” and the inner group (which no one in Beijing had heard of before) was the “Yi Hi Society.”

 

Eshrick investigated the connection between the Big Sword Society and the Yi Hi Boxers at some length and concluded that ultimately theories like Headland’s are wrong.  The Big Sword Society was a local militia organized by rich landholders.  While it also practiced invulnerability rights and feuded with local Christians, it was a much more conservative force in local society.

 

The Yi Hi Boxers, in contrast, emerged later and tended to spread in a rhizomic and leaderless fashion among displaced and out of work peasants.   While the memory of the Big Sword Society may have inspired members of the later group, that organization had been put down by the Chinese government prior to the eruption of the Boxer crisis.  Still, the superficial resemblance between these two groups might help to explain why so many commentators mistook a disruptive new actor for yet another manifestation of a “timeless tradition.”  Ultimately such confusion would prove costly.  But it is another example of how prior knowledge about Chinese martial artists conditioned the Western understanding of the Boxers.

 

It is also interesting to note the fuller development of an idea that was only hinted at in the Sphere.  Namely, any group as successful and as deeply entrenched as the Boxers could not be a mere popular movement.  It could only succeed with elite backing.  Rather than being a peasant revolt, the Boxers, like all good secret societies, were a bit more like a conspiracy.  The note about the provincial governor providing arms to the group advances this narrative.  Yet it will find a fuller expression in our next article.

 

This picture, published in the July 7th edition of Harpers is one of the few images from the early phase of the conflict with actual martial content. In this case a group of imperial soldiers.

 

 

The National Geographic Magazine, July 1900, p. 281

The Chinese “Boxers” by Llewellyn James Davies

 

The society or league which is now turning China upside down and forcing the attention of the whole world is known by various names.  The most commonly seen in the American papers is the “Boxers” or “Spirit Boxers.”  The origin of this name is to be found in the gymnastic exercise which constitute the drill of the society and in the mysterious incantations used.  In the Shan-tung Province the society is commonly called the “Ta Tao Hui,” or “Great Sword Society.” This is one of the names used by the society itself, and is a general name.  On the cards and posters issued by the society other names occur, which I understand to be of local use.

The “Boxer” society is one of the many secret societies of China, and, as is usual with such societies, has both a political and a religious significance.  It is said to be of ancient origin.  One Chinese tells me that it had its origins in the opposition to the “Manchu dynasty”, which has ruled China for the past two hundred and fifty years.

Whatever may have been its past history, the society has now collected its forces against the foreigners within the Chinese Empire.  It has been preparing for this present outbreak for several years.  About three and a half years ago I learned from Chinese friends that such a society was organized, and that it was growing rapidly.  Its anti-foreign purpose was known distinctly from that time.  It was said to be spreading from south to north….

In organizing this movement the leaders established at convenient centers what were called “ying,” or “encampments.” The members of the society living in the neighborhood met to drill and recite their incantations at these places, and here new members were initiated. Each encampment had, of course, a leader who was responsible to the higher officers.  A card sent to each of these encampments, naming the place of the proposed attack and stating the number of men required from each, called out a party of such size as the leader enjoyed….

They have confidently stated that those properly initiated into the mysteries of the cult, and whose “Kung Fu” or exercise of its rules was perfect, would by virtue of this practice become invulnerable, and thus be protected against all bullets or knives.  This was not left to future tests entirely.  Several intelligent Chinese have told me that they had themselves seen advanced members of the society strike different parts of their bodies with sharp knives and swords with no more effect upon the skin than is produced by wind.  The members of the society believe that the claim is well founded.  No difficulty is found in explaining the death of society members in battle.  In one instance, occurring early last fall, 30 or 40 miles from Tsi-nan-fu, 10 or 12 “Boxers” were killed by Catholics whom they had attacked.  It was then discovered that on the evening before or on the morning of the battle these men had broken the rules of the society by eating certain proscribed articles of food.  In this way their deaths but strengthened the faith of those remaining.

It was proposed at first to use no firearms in the extermination of foreigners, but to trust to the sword alone.  Great reliance was placed on certain callisthenic exercises and posturings which were expected to hypnotize or terrify the enemy.

 

 

 

 

Given the nature and mission of the National Geographic, one can assume that this was a source American readers looked to for detailed answers.  Once again, the magazine turned to a member of the missionary community for their regional expertise.

 

This is one of the more detailed early descriptions of the Boxers, and it contains many interesting points.  Attentive readers may have noticed the use of the term “Kung Fu” in reference to the diligence with which a Boxer took to his exercises and maintained the group’s many taboos.  The role of these taboos in building the faith of new members in the invulnerability rites is also explored in some detail.

 

Yet any descriptive progress that is made is quickly lost when the author turns to speculation on the group’s origins.  The memory of the late “Big Sword Society” is again invoked.  Yet in a fascinating twist we are also informed that this was an old society that was originally dedicated to the overthrow, rather than the defense, of the Qing.  The author goes on to relate that this group does not have its origins on Northern China’s drought afflicted plains.  Rather, his informants tell him that the group originated in southern China.

 

One suspects that these informants had no knowledge of what was going on in China as this is incorrect.  Instead they were simply describing the sorts of secret societies (all tied to the myth of the burning of the Shaolin temple) that were common in Guangdong and Fujian provinces.  Indeed, such societies had even managed to plant seeds in the new world, and were occasionally discussed in magazines like the Harpers Weekly.  Period readers who followed China would have been familiar with them.

 

 

 

Conclusion

 

 

A few common threads runs through all of these articles and sheds important light on how the martial arts (and Chinese social violence more generally) were imagined in America at the turn of the century.  Rather than accepting the fundamentally new and disruptive nature of the Boxer Uprising, in the popular imagination it was seen as simply the latest incarnation of something very ancient.  It quickly became just one more element of the type of “secret societies,” “superstitions” and “boxing” that had been a part of popular conscious for decades.

 

This reading of the situation leads to a paradox.  If the fundamental impulses and organizations were ancient, why did the crisis erupt only recently?  Rather than accepting the Boxers as a genuine popular (or even proto-national) movement ,Western readers tended to look to geo-political machinations for their answers.  In a few cases the Russians were blamed for inspiring the uprising.  Yet most commentators perceived instead a carefully planned ploy by the Dowager Empress to remove all foreign influence from China.  While the court did, after much debate, support the Boxer cause, this was certainly not a conspiracy that had been years in the making.  The alliance between the Boxers and China’s political elites in the summer of 1900 was much more opportunistic and fragile than that.

 

This intrusion of geopolitical logic into the Boxer crisis serves to bring our attention back to this essay’s main argument.  It was difficult for both elites and the reading public to make sense of the Boxer Rebellion in large part because they did not perceive the rapidly unfolding events clearly.  The ghosts of India, South Africa and the Philippines haunted their efforts.  It was precisely these parallels (whether real or imagined) that allowed the crisis in China to be integrated into the preexisting mental map of imperialism.  All of this is important to remember when thinking about the meaning of these events in popular culture.

 

Yet we too frequently forget the importance of China’s recent past in shaping this narrative.  Authors were just as able to draw parallels with events of the Opium Wars as they were the Sepoy Mutiny.  Further, the West’s image of both Chinese boxing and secret societies, topics explored in newspapers and magazines throughout the 19th century, had perhaps the largest impact in shaping how the Yi Hi Boxers were imagined.  In the early phases of the crisis the nature of Chinese boxing was so taken for granted that explanations were thought to be unnecessary.  The language adopted in the more explicit treatments of the subjects that arose in the summer of 1900 again reinforced, rather than undercut, these mental models.

 

The result was the creation of a paradox, one in which the Boxers were at the same time ancient and a new disruptive force.  Students of martial arts studies might note the irony that more than a century later we still debate whether the latest incarnation of the Chinese martial arts are fundamentally timeless or something much more modern.  Some debates, it seems, are just too interesting to let go.

 

 

oOo

 

Are you interested in delving further into the martial arts of the Boxer Uprising Period?  If so see:  Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (13): Zhao San-duo—19th Century Plum Flower Master and Reluctant Rebel

 

oOo

Another Look at a “Young Boxer” – Martial Arts and National Humiliation in Early 20th Century China

Vintage postcard showing a "Young Boxer" with sword.  Early 20th century.  Source: Authors personal collection.
Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.

 

 

Another Look at a “Young Boxer” – Martial Arts and National Humiliation in Early 20th Century China

By Benjamin Judkins and Doug Wile

 

 

Introduction

 

Earlier this year I published an image of a “Young Boxer” found on a vintage postcard, mailed between Tianjin and Beijing in 1909.  This was used as a jumping off point for a short essay that attempted to illustrate how various theoretical approaches (in this case social history, religious studies and critical theory) could create contrasting and complimentary views of the same subject.  Because these theories have different underlying assumptions and associated methodological tool kits, each is capable of generating a different set of conclusions about the same image.  When faced with any question of sufficient complexity, students of martial arts studies might find it worthwhile to apply a series of lenses, rather than a single approach.  Of course this is only one possible way of conceptualizing “interdisciplinary work.”

Yet the benefits of such an exercise go beyond the ability to acquire additional theories.  Interdisciplinary work can be exciting because of the conversations that it stimulates.  These sometimes lead one in new and fruitful directions.

It is thus interesting to note that my previous post on the “Young Boxer” generated as much email correspondence between students of martial arts studies as any other post that I have published here at Kung Fu Tea.  Interestingly most of these messages did not attempt to weigh in on the three views (social history, critical theory and religious studies) presented before.  Led by Prof. Douglas Wile (author of the Lost Tai Chi Classics, among other important contributions to Chinese Martial Studies), they instead sought to open a conversation on linguistic based approaches to this image.

As we will see, the Chinese language inscriptions on this postcard may well generate more questions than answers.  Yet the issues that they raise are fascinating.  While I am not clear that we have totally resolved all of the puzzles surrounding this image, it opens a valuable window onto the public discussion of the traditional Chinese martial arts in the early 20th century, prior to their rehabilitation by various reformers and modernizers (including the Jingwu Association) in the 1910s.

 

What is this a case of?

 

In order to understand how this postcard managed to generate so much interest it might be helpful to compare it to a few other images that I have previously posted here at Kung Fu Tea.

 

A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
A Vintage Postcard showing a Shanghai Sword Juggler. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

 

 

"Well Known Sword Juggler n Shanghai City" Vintage postcard, 1907-1914.  Source: This particular scan from the digital collection of the NY Public library.  They managed to get a better reproduction that I could.
“Well Known Sword Juggler n Shanghai City” Vintage postcard, 1907-1914. Source: This particular scan from the digital collection of the NY Public library. They managed to get a better reproduction that I could.

 

Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.
Detail of postcard showing traditional practitioners performing in a marketplace. Japanese postcard circa 1920.  The image dates to the final years of the Qing Dynasty.

 
In comparing these images readers will immediately note multiple similarities.  All of these photographs were taken prior to the 1911 revolution.  They all feature men with swords.  Indeed, an individual holding a sword (or less commonly a spear) was probably the dominant image of Chinese martial artists available to Western consumers prior to the 1960s.  Thus “Chinese Boxers” tended to be imagined quite differently from their Japanese counterparts (usually seen in their identical white Judo uniforms) during the first half of the 20th century.

Given the great variety of actual practices found within the Chinese martial arts, one might wonder how such a uniform set of images emerged.  Why do we have so few postcards featuring wrestling competitions, or middle class archery practice on university campuses?  The historical record informs us that these other sorts of things happened as well.

The nature of the medium itself may be partially to blame to this homogenizing effect.  Most postcards were shot in one of the few larger treaty ports or cities with a substantial Western presence.  Further, readers must remember that practically all of these images were produced for sale to Western (rather than Chinese) consumers.

Additionally, while huge numbers of unique images were marketed through early postcards, Thiriez notes that almost all of them (following the conventions of early photography) can be thought of as falling into one of only four genres.  The most popular category was “topography” in which prominent features of the landscape (including city walls, ancient monuments and tourist attractions) were documented.

Also important were “portrait” cards.  These tended to feature composed scenes of individuals (often women, occasionally prostitutes) or families.  It is interesting to note that with the exceptions of high officials and other important individuals, these images were almost always marketed in general terms (such as “Chinese family” of “Chinese beauty”).  This stripping of individual identity is also seen on most martial arts related postcards.

The remaining two genres of postcards seemed to work at cross purposes with each other.  The first warned its readers of the imminent disappearance of “old China,” while the second served to reassure them that such a thing could never happen.  As such, the first class of postcards focused on images of Western innovation and modernization within China.  Popular subjects seem to have included Christian Churches, industrial factories and newly paved streets lined with European style architecture.  Modern military units and naval vessels also make regular appearances.

This frank acknowledgement of the process of rapid change and urbanization in China was counteracted by the final, and probably most popular, genre of postcards.  These were images of “authentic” Chinese life and customs.  Of course how one understands “authenticity” is always something of an issue.  Almost all of these photos were taken in public spaces.  It appears that neither western photographers nor Chinese models had much interest in actually entering the domestic sphere of Chinese homes.  That would have violated an unspoken sense of propriety for both groups.

While early 19th century photographers often went to some lengths to capture detailed, almost ethnographically accurate, images, their later followers tended to be more sensational in taste.  Photographs were also reused for decades after their first production.  This can make dating postcards difficult and it certainly contributed to the West’s allochronistic view of China.  For better or worse, the Western public seemed to have an unending appetite for images of “traditional” Chinese barbers, dentists, grocers, farmers, beggars, soldiers, criminals, merchants and fortune tellers, all plying their trade (Thiriez 2004).

Almost all of the early postcards featuring Chinese martial artists fall into this last category.  There are some exceptions.  Hand painted images of martial artists often touched on different themes.  But they are a subject for a future post.  The images of Chinese Boxing that were produced for Western consumers tended to place these activities almost exclusively in the public arena and to focus on the sorts of activities and performances that were either deeply romanticized or an aspect of everyday market life.

When viewed in these terms, there is much about our image of the Young Boxer that is already well understood.  It clearly sits within a tradition of imagining Chinese martial artists (or more likely “sword dancers”) that early 20th century consumers would have readily understood.

Yet when compared to the images above (or the many additional examples posted previously at Kung Fu Tea), a few differences are also evident.  Whereas many postcards alluded to some aspect of China’s ancient and “unchanging” nature (either in terms of its landscape or the supposedly entrenched customs of its people), this card was specifically referencing the Boxer Rebellion.  At the time it was sent (1909) this was still a recent (and feared) event, rather than a matter of “timeless imagination.”  Indeed the, the Boxer Rebellion spawned its own cottage photography industry seeking to satisfy the appetites of curious western consumers.

Yet such postcards, printed in Europe and intended for Western audiences, were not labeled in Chinese.  Nor did they generally feature much Chinese linguistic content of any kind.  This image is an exception as it bears both a Chinese language label (along the left hand side) and an inscription (on the boy’s chest badge).  Almost none of the postcard’s intended consumers would have been able to read these lines.  And yet they may have a critical impact on how we understand the intentions of the individuals involved with the initial production of this photographic image.

 

Another image of the chest badge.

 

A Foolish Farmer

 

As I mentioned in my previous post, this particular postcard comes up at auction frequently enough that one suspects that it must have been fairly popular when it was first published in the early 20th century.  As such the vertical inscription on the left hand side of the image has been previously addressed.  Scott Rodell and Peter Dekker noted that it reads “Stupid Farmer Practicing Boxing.”  Douglas Wile concurred and read the same phrase as “Ignorant Peasant Practices Martial Arts.”

Given the financial ruin and national humiliation that the Boxer Rebellion unleashed on the state, the hostility of this title is not surprising.  As I have mentioned elsewhere, the Chinese martial arts probably came closer to actual extinction during the period that this card was produced than at any time since.  It would be another decade before the hard work of a group of nationally minded reformers would launch these fighting systems back into the national consciousness.

Yet for much of the first decade of the 20th century the rapidly urbanizing Chinese population took an increasingly hostile view towards anything related to the martial arts.  These fighting systems had traditionally been associated with poor youth from the countryside.  Rapidly unfolding processes of modernization shifted the center of social power decisively into the urban sphere.

Thus it seems likely that there is a double mockery embedded in this title.  In addition to taking a swipe at the despised legacy of the Boxer Rebellion, this postcard also appears to take aim that the ignorant, “backwards youth” of the countryside who have not yet been swept up in the unfolding process of urbanization and modernization.

More interesting is the inscription on the boy’s chest badge.  When first thinking about this postcard I simply ignored this inscription.  I had assumed that it would be uninteresting because of the way that most of these images were produced.

Rather than capturing subjects in their natural state, it was common for photographers (either in the street or working in their studios), to provide a variety of props to the individuals that they were photographing.  This might include stock weapons, costumes and furniture.

Further, when examining the boy’s ill-fitting uniform more closely it looked like it was made up of random bits of other cobbled together military uniforms.  As such it was unlikely to be of any significance to its intended audience.  Doug Wile, however, pointed out that there seemed to be something interesting about the boy’s badge.  Rather than simply being recycled costuming, of the sort often found in early studios, the photographer appears to have been attempting to broadcast a more pointed message.  But to who?

After blowing up and enhancing the photo to make it more legible, it was determined that the bottom most vertical line read “Yi He” (義合).   Wile noted that while this particular set of characters was not common, it was an early, previously attested, variant of name “Yi Hi Boxers” (or the Righteous and Harmonious Fist) typically written as 義和.  See for example the 1899 edition of the Wanguo gongbao and A. Henry Savage-Landor’s 1901 China and the Allies.

Of course this is the proper name of the spirit boxing movement that swept across northern China between 1899-1900.  Wile further speculates that a third character (團 or 拳) is hidden under the boy’s sash, completing the typical formulation of the movement’s name.

 

A Banner from the Boxer Uprising.  Source: Prof. Douglas Wile.
A Banner from the Boxer Uprising using the more commonly seen characters. Source: Prof. Douglas Wile.

 

The top two lines are almost certainly meant to be read as place names, noting where the boy’s “Boxer unit” originated.  Oddly it seems that neither of these places actually exist.

Prof. T. J. Hinrichs read the top line as “Ling” (or numinous) township.  Another friend at Cornell thought that it might be rendered “Saint township/county.”  In this case Wile was more circumspect noting that the first character of the name doesn’t appear in any of the standard dictionaries at his disposal.  But all readers seem to agree that this is meant to denote a fictitious place name.

The second line poses similar challenges.  It is not possible to make out all of the characters with the naked eye.  But with some magnification it appears to say “迷谷莊” (Maze Valley Village).  Wile notes that while the name “Maze Valley” is well attested in a number of places, none of them end with the “莊” character (Wile, personal correspondence).  Once again, this is a name that meant to seem real, but is almost certainly fictitious.  As my friend Xiao Rong put it, “such a place cannot exist.”

While looking at the magnified image I realized something else.  The script in question was entirely too legible.  If the boy were really wearing the badge one would expect that it would twist and turn in a natural fashion.  Instead it appears that photographer “whited out” the area and used a brush to paint these cryptic locations directly onto the badge.  One might guess that this was done at the same time that the inscription on the left hand side was added.  The trouble that was gone through to add this detail begs the question of motive.  Who modified this image?  Who was the intended audience?  And what messages were they expected to receive?

 

Conclusion

 

Or perhaps a different question might be a better place to start.  Given that Shandong and Zhili were full of villages that actually contributed “Boxer Bandits” (as the official reports of the day often referred to them), why were they not named?  After all, the one thing that seems certain about this image is that the individual who produced it was hostile to both the martial arts and rural life more generally.

On this point Wile notes:

“At the end of the day, the only explanation I can come up with for the two unattested place names is that they were deliberately invented “to protect the innocent,” so to speak, or in this case possibly to protect the guilty, or at least not point fingers or expose any real people…..” (Personal Correspondence)

One suspects that this photograph was not originally produced for a Western postcard at all.  If a western audience could read it, perhaps the message that they might have received was that despite the Boxer’s turn of the century setbacks, the Chinese Tiger still had its teeth.  Indeed, in a mere two years from the time this card was mailed the country would once again be swept up in the tide of revolution.

Nevertheless, the more likely intended audience of the image was Chinese.  In such case meeting the demands of an increasingly urbanized market, while avoiding the attention of the censors, was probably the original publisher’s key aim.

Clearly some questions still surround this image of a “Young Boxer.”  Yet the linguistic approach has made a unique contribution to revealing the origins and semiotic value of this photograph.  It has also provided us with a vivid reminder of the precarious existence of the traditional Chinese martial arts during the long decade between the close of the Boxer Rebellion and the Republic era revival and reinvention of their practice.  The association of these practices with nationalism and pride during the 1920s and 1930s was an accomplishment rather than a given.

 

A Note of Thanks

I must extend my sincere thanks to a number of individuals who contributed to the discussion of this image.  They include Douglas Wile, whose comments sparked this conversation, T. J. Hinrichs of Cornell University, William Brown of the University of Maryland, Xiao Rong of the University of Shenzhen, Scott Rodell and Peter Dekker.

 
oOo

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to see: Reforming the Chinese Martial Arts in the 1920s-1930s: The Role of Rapid Urbanization.

oOo

 

Through a Lens Darkly (41): Three Views of a Young Boxer

Vintage postcard showing a "Young Boxer" with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.
Vintage postcard showing a “Young Boxer” with sword. Early 20th century. Source: Authors personal collection.

 

 

 


Meeting the Boxer

 

I recently had the good fortune to meet one of my favorite Chinese Boxers.  I had been stalking him for years.

This early 20th century postcard was probably purchased in Beijing and then mailed to Tianjin on February 5th, 1909.  The card itself was published by J.H. Schaefer’s Kunstchromo, Amsterdam.  While this firm used a number of Chinese images, I have never seen any others dealing with the same model or subject.  Given that this postcard was printed in the Netherlands (or possibly Germany) it seems safe to assume that it was sold all over Europe.

This particular example also seems to have been fairly popular.  Only a small proportion of the postcards printed in the early 20th century have survived.  As a result, many of the images that circulated during that period are probably lost to history.  Yet I have seen at least three different copies of this postcard come up for sale in on-line auctions over the last two years.  As such, I suspect that it must have circulated in some quantity.  From a social scientific standpoint this document is doubly interesting, not just because of the early 20th century image of the Chinese martial arts that it preserves, but also for what it suggests about the intended audience of such products.

 

 

Postmarks indicating that this card was sent from Beijing to Tianjin on the 5th of Feburary, 1909. Source: Author's Personal collection.
Postmarks indicating that this card was sent from Beijing to Tianjin on the 5th of February, 1909. Source: Author’s Personal collection.

 

 

The front of the postcard presents readers with a supposed image of a “young boxer” (named “Joung Ping Fou”) hard at work on his exercises.  The card’s model appears to be a child and the sword that dominates the upper part of the frame seems to be both intimidating and comically large.  The boy himself is dressed in what appears to be a military uniform of some type.  The darker colored turban on his head and belt at his waist were almost certainly red.  The boxer appears to be well fed and well clothed.  Further, his stance is both stylized and vaguely “operatic.”

These are the facts that we can be certain of.  Yet what meaning did this image convey to those who produced, mailed and received this piece of ephemera?  And what subsequent impact may it have had on the Western understanding of the Chinese martial arts?

As we have seen throughout this series, such images always present complex interpretive problems.  To deal with some of these issues I would like to briefly consider this postcard from three different perspectives.

While talking with Paul Bowman recently I noted that he used a metaphor which I thought readers of Kung Fu Tea might find helpful.  He casually mentioned that rather than sticking too closely to any one intellectual tradition, he preferred to “use his theories like lenses.”  When presented with a difficult interpretive problem he would move from one theory to another for much the same reason that an astronomer might switch eye pieces on a telescope.  The different concerns and assumptions of each theory sometimes revealed something new that the others had missed.
I have certainly done the same thing in parts of my own writing (including the discussion of globalization in the Epilogue of my book on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts).  Yet to more succinctly illustrate the possibilities of this approach I would try it here.  If we were to examine this image through the lens of social history, religious studies and critical theory, what would we see?  Given the brevity of this post what follows will be quick suggestions rather than fully formed theoretical arguments.  Still, the exercise reveals some interesting possibilities for future consideration.

 

A Historical Reading

 

Any social historian worth their salt would probably begin by establishing both the setting and the players involved in the actual production of this document.  While many similar images were staged in studios, this image appears to have been taken outdoors, probably in some sort of marketplace.  We must also consider the question of timing. Given that the Boxer Uprising ended only in 1901, and the postcard itself must have been printed prior to 1909, that violent outburst becomes the major social event that frames and gives meaning to this postcard.

Still, it goes without saying that this image was not produced during the conflict itself.  This is not an example of “war photography.”  Esherick, in his landmark study of the event, noted that many of the Spirit Boxers were quite young, just as we see here.  Yet the level of photographic technology at the time strongly suggests that this image was not casually snapped on a street corner.  Rather, it must have been carefully (and patiently) composed.

Given his willingness to work with a Western photographer we can be fairly certain that the boy in question was not a violent anti-Christian radical.  In fact, we know that in the aftermath of the conflict both local models and foreign photographers produced images exactly like this one to sell to a western public who wanted to see what the much feared “Boxers” had looked like.  Other photographs produced in this genre featured scenes of battlefield destruction, or the execution of captured Boxers.

In short, while the image evokes the memory of anti-Western violence, the actual production and marketing of this postcard is an example of the degree to which both Chinese and western individuals were being drawn into the same global productive and commercial networks.  Further, the selection of this model suggests an attempt to diminish the actual dangers of the recent uprising, as well as the military and cultural strength of the Chinese themselves, by mapping all of that onto the body of a single child.  In the image of the young Boxer we see a country that is, paradoxically, both too “old” (superstitious, backwards) and too “young” (just undertaking the process of serious reforms) to stand on its own in the international system.

By reducing the Boxer Uprising to an item for commercial consumption, the reader is reassured of the legitimacy of the foreign presence in China, as well as the inevitability of that country’s defeat.

 

Why Red?

 

While not disagreeing with these basic conclusions, a student of Chinese religious history might note that this discussion of globalization and exploitation is not really capable of answering some of the more interesting questions about this image.  Specifically, globalization might account for the existence of such an item, but can it explain the image’s content?  If not, is the model in this image really complicit in nation’s exploitation?  Or might he be using this exercise to appropriate certain symbols as aspects of his own identity?

On a technical level it seems certain that a professional photographer composed this shot.  Just getting the lighting right in an outdoor environment must have been tricky.  Yet one suspects that there are layers of meaning in this image that its Western recorder may not have been fully aware of.  Why, when asked to portray a Boxer in training did the young model (probably a marketplace performer) choose this operatic pose?  And what was the meaning of the costume that he wore?

Western observers noted at various points during the 19th century that Chinese rebels had a propensity to adapt red “turbans” and belts as their defacto uniform.  Indeed, this same basic tendency was seen during the Boxer Uprising.

While discussing rebellions and secret society uprisings in Southern China Barend J. ter Haar notes:

 

“The use of a piece of cloth wrapped around the head or waist is also common amongst religious officiants, such as Daoist priests (especially those performing the vernacular rituals), shamans and mediums, and lay people engaged in religious activities.  Strips of red paper are also attached to holy trees and rocks.  It has been a common practice throughout Chinese history for rebels to wear a piece of red cloth around the head to indicate vital power.  Red cloth or paper is a general indicator of divine power, undoubtedly derived from the reddish color of blood and the fact that blood was perceived to be a concentrated life force.” (Ritual & Mythology of the Chinese Triads, p. 116)

 

Thus the costume seen in this postcard is highly significant.  The Boxer Uprising was fought, in large part, by young peasants who believed themselves to be shamanistically possessed by the gods and heroes of vernacular opera and ritual.  All of this is captured in the image at hand.

Indeed, the large sword which seems to dominate the image may hold another clue to help us more fully interpret this scene.  One of the more common gods encountered during the Boxer Uprising was Nezha, a hero discussed in the popular novel Canonization of the Gods.  A dangerous child warrior, Nezha was said to be the protector of Beijing and was the chief of the eight thunder gods who guarded the city’s gates.  Scott Phillips has noted that Nezha’s imagery seems to have had some impact on Baguazhang.  This is particularly evident in its eclectic weapons (including the two headed spear, the hoop and very large ox-tail dao), all of which are associated with the iconography of the capital city’s mythic and popular protective deity (p. 49-50).

In short, the image used on this postcard evokes a rich complex of cultural symbols that were central to the popular culture of Beijing in the final years of the Qing dynasty.  Some of these found expression in the violence of the Boxer uprising, and others lived on in the area’s operatic and martial traditions.  Focusing only on the technical production of the image may cause us to miss much of what such a scene would have conveyed to a local audience in a city like Tianjin or Beijing.

 

The Boxers and the Oriental Obscene

 

Yet what marketplace was really driving the production of this image?  And what other discourses and texts did these early images of the Boxer Uprising go on to influence?  Did they set the stage for the development of Western images of the “dangerous Orient” throughout the 20th century?

A critical theorist interested in both the media and Western portrayals of the martial arts might look at this this (or other images) produced in the aftermath of the Boxer Uprising and think immediately of Sylvia Chong’s The Oriental Obscene: Violence and Racial Fantasies in the Vietnam Era (Duke University Press 2012).  Paul Bowman (in Martial Arts Studies: Disrupting Disciplinary Boundaries, 2015) has already argued at length that her treatment of film in the wake of the Vietnam War is of general relevance to the field of martial arts studies.

I think that this and other postcards might be used to argue for an even broader relevance for her work.  Chong is primarily interested in how the violence of the Vietnam War found its way onto the screen and into American popular culture during the 1970s and 1980s.  Yet this was not the West’s first imperial misadventure in Asia.  More specifically, one must wonder whether some of the cultural patterns and discourses that Chong notes were actually pioneered over the course of earlier conflicts (such as the American occupation of the Philippines, the “island hopping campaigns” of WWII or the Korean War).

Further, it is not clear that the basic logic of Chong’s psycho-analytical arguments must be limited to the realm of film.  In particular, her treatment of three famous photographs, Eddie Adams’ Saigon Execution (1968), Ronald Haeberle’s My Lai Masssacre (1968) and Huynh Cong Ut’s Napalm Girl (1972) suggest possibilities for understanding how previous generations might have reacted to visual images of violence.  The Boxer Rebellion is culturally significant in part because it was the first of imperialist campaign in Asia to leave behind a rich visual record as well as media accounts that both traumatized and titillated the Western reading public with their graphic descriptions of anti-Christian violence.

Consider again the age of the sword wielding martial artist in this postcard.  Western newspaper readers surely would have noted the paradox that it was youth like this who were responsible for the murders of so many Christian women and children.  And of course the vast majority of these victims were themselves Chinese.

The fact that the Western public understood the Boxer intervention as an easy (one might say inevitable) victory makes this case quite different from the post-Vietnam era.  Many aspects of Chong’s discussion will not be applicable here.  Still, the publication of images of violence inflicted on Chinese bodies for “the continuation of a larger tradition of racial sentimentalism or melodrama, in which the spectacle of the suffering racial other is staged for the moral uplift of a middle-class, white and often female audience” seems to suggest the existence of deeper discourse that did not begin with Vietnam. (p. 77)

The fear of a class of “Oriental others” who are, on the one hand, the victims of unspeakable violence, and yet threaten to bring that same destruction to the imperial center, is precisely the specter that haunted Sax Rohmer’s popular Fu Manchu novels.   It is interesting to note that the “East-West” violence of the Boxer Uprising is invoked in those stories.  Indeed, one wonders to what degree these images linking the Chinese people to racial prejudice and bizarre forms of violence, influenced the development of later cultural discourses during the 1970s and beyond.

 

 

Conclusion

 

Examined from three different theoretical perspectives, a single image can yield a wealth of meaning.  Each of these approaches begins with its own basic assumptions.  Further, each directed our attention towards a different set of issues.

I should caution that it would be a mistake to assume that all of these theories naturally coexist or that focus only on a single aspect of any problem.  Indeed, the instability of meaning and identity that makes so many “critical theories” possible might cut directly against the basic methodological assumptions employed by an economist in her formal model of global trade and violence.  When we employ a variety of theories, understanding where (and why) they clash is a vital part of the exercise.

And yet the exercise is often worthwhile.  The present case reminds us that these fighting systems have always existed within, and contributed to, a media rich environment.  Some of what we think of as quintessentially “modern” may be more “traditional” than we ever suspected.

 

oOo

 

If you enjoyed this post card you might also want to see: War Junks, Pirates and the Commercialization of Chinese Martial Culture

 

oOo

Through a Lens Darkly (39): The Strength of Chinese Boxers

Vintage photography, circa 1860-1900. Photographer unknown.
Vintage photography, circa 1860-1900. Photographer unknown.

 

Introduction

Some of the most popular posts at Kung Fu Tea have examined vintage images of traditional martial artists.  These are also among my favorites to research.  Yet it seems that I have neglected this subject with all of the other projects that have come up this summer.  Hopefully this post will go some distance towards rectifying that oversight.

The internet is both a blessing and curse to those doing research.  It allows us to regularly discover new treasures.  Yet such finds are often presented in a decontextualized way that makes interpreting them challenging.

This post adds two new vintage images to our discussion.  Unfortunately both are “orphaned,” meaning that I have yet to locate the exact place and date of their creation.  Nor do they share a single medium.  Nevertheless, these images are thematically linked in ways that suggest an interesting moment in the evolution of Western views of Chinese boxing.

 

Two Images, One Theme

 

Our first image is a late 19th century albumen print showing four martial artists.  I have not been able to locate any information about the photographer who produced it.  The dress and hair styles of the athletes suggest that it cannot have been taken later than 1911.  The fact that this is almost certainly an albumen photo (note the sepia tones and the ease with which the corner of the thin photographic paper bent off its backing) suggest a date prior to 1900, at the latest.  Thus this photograph dates to somewhere from 1860 to 1900.

Perhaps, if we allow ourselves to indulge in a little speculation, it might be possible to shave a few decades of this interval.  The fact that this was shot in a photography studio against a backdrop suggests the need for a longer exposure time. Consider also the subject matter and composition of this image.

The mirrored symmetry in the shot is remarkable.  Three of the individuals are shirtless, revealing highly muscled bodies.  The two boxers in white stand at ease, meanwhile the inner pair appear to be wrestling.

At first it appears that the theme of the photograph might be something like “physical strength through struggle.”  No one would doubt the athletic ability of these individuals.

This point is further emphasized by the heavy stone weights (commonly used by wrestlers, boxers and soldiers) that define the physical space on which the camera focuses. Given the faded nature of the photo it is hard to make out any details of the ball in the foreground, but I suspect that upon closer inspection we would discover that it is carved from stone as well.

But brute strength is not the only idea that this shot is meant to evoke.  While the inner pair is involved in combat, the boxers on the outside stand at ease.  The photographer also chose a painted backdrop meant to evoke the bucolic Chinese countryside of rivers, mountains and quaint cottages.  Given the importance of Willow Ware in creating the romanticized early 19th century Western mental image of Chinese life, such an artistic choice is unlikely to have been unintentional.

The symbolic nature of the composition is further confirmed by two seemingly out of place artifacts in the foreground.  Here the viewer finds a tea pot and cup.  Of course China was famous for its tea exports.  Interestingly both tea and China serving ware were among the few export items that could be found in pretty much any middle class house in the West.  They were both ubiquitous and evocative of material comfort and success.  China provided the indispensable goods that for many people symbolized a “civilized” life.

At first glance we might assume that the intended subject of this image is the traditional martial arts.  Yet upon further meditation I suspect that this is not really the case.  Instead the photographer has taken China writ large as his subject.  It is in the juxtaposition of the heavy training weights and the delicate teapots, or the violent wrestlers and the peaceful countryside, that the true intent of the image appears.

What at first appeared to be a simple symmetry is really a sort of visual dialectic.  This is not so much “China” as any visitor would visually see it on the street.  Rather, the composition of the various elements suggests that this may have been an attempt to communicate the nature of China as the photographer had experienced it.  Or perhaps it might be more accurate to say as the viewer wished to understand it.  In its mix and juxtaposition of symbols the image resembles the still life paintings of a previous era.

Given the wonderfully evocative nature of this photograph it’s a shame that I have not been able to figure out who produced it.  Yet rest assured, the search continues.

 

preperation for the military exam in Canton.corrected

 

 

While thinking about my frustration in researching the first image, I was reminded of another piece of hand combat related art that has also been on my mind.  A few years ago I first encountered an engraving by the French artist Felix Elie Regamey titled “La Preparation Aux Examens Militaires, A Canton.”

It’s a great image, and at the time I had very much wanted to add it to my collection.  Yet as I researched it I quickly discovered that compared to his better known Japanese subjects, Regamey’s Chinese works do not seem to have received very much attention.  In fact, it is hard to know exactly when this piece of art was first done (engravings, by their very nature, lend themselves to reproduction and subsequent republication throughout an artist’s career.)

Later in his life Regamey adopted a more relaxed style which, to my untrained eye, looks as though it may have been influenced by Japanese or Chinese brush paintings and wood block prints.  He does seem to have produced other Chinese subjects in the more structured and formal style seen above between roughly the middle of the 1860s and the middle of the 1880s.  It seems likely that this particular study also dates to the same basic time period.

Again, the dominant theme of the image is physical strength.  Here we see two martial artists preparing for the military service exam by lifting the sorts of heavy stone weights used in the testing of candidates.  Around them are the other implements used in the exam.

On the left wall we see a rack of the heavy knives, or halberds, that one was expected to wield.  On the other side of the image hangs archery equipment, perhaps the most critical aspect of the exam.  All that is missing is a horse, as candidates were also expected to know how to ride.  The two martial artists are at the same time highly muscled yet relaxed.

Once again, it is impossible to miss the unique mirrored symmetry of this scene.  The only item that is out of place is the stone block that is currently being used.  The natural result of this composition is to focus the viewer’s attention on the only singular item in the image, the religious altar placed in the center of the composition.  Here we see the expected lamps, incense and offering table.  Yet as the eye expands outward we quickly encounter something else, calligraphy.

By this the viewer learns that these exam candidates are not mere day laborers or common soldiers.  Rather they are educated individuals, masters of both the body and the mind.  Of course basic literacy skills were necessary to complete the military exam, yet one did not have to be a trained scholar to do well.

The important thing in this case is not how accurately this image captured the actual level of literacy possessed by the average examination candidate.  More critical is what it communicated to its Western viewers about the nature of Chinese life and society.

A dialectic logic again emerges from the composition.  The overriding impression is of a balance between physical strength and cultural attainment.  The “mysterious orient” is shown as existing in that liminal joining of the body and the mind.  Of course such suggestions would have resonated with the romantic turn in late 19th century European thought.

Yet in some respects this engraving is more complicated than the photograph.  Boxing and wrestling were popular 19th century pastimes in both the East and West.  Athletics never really needed any justification for a Western consumer.  A fast paced wrestling match was a good in and of itself.  The virtue bestowed by success in such a realm was self-evident to all.

In contrast, the individuals in the second image are not really “athletes.”  They are aspiring military officers.  And Western viewers surely would have noted that they were training with the bow well into the age of the rifle and revolver.  While a generally positive image, and one that noted the physical strength and dedication of the Chinese people (e.g., it is an image of daily physical training, and not the exam itself), this picture also would have underlined China’s militarily backwardness.

If the audience is meant to approach this piece from a more “romantic” perspective, an emphasis on physical effort rather than mass produced industrial goods is not necessarily a bad thing.  Yet while the overall aesthetic of the first photograph is rather “modern,” (wrestling was just as popular in 1900 as it had been in 1800) there can be no doubt that the second image plays into widespread notions of the “timeless and inscrutable orient.”

 

 

Chinese Boxers before the “Sick Man of Asia”

 

A number of Chinese and Western commentators in the early 20th century went out of their way to paint the Chinese as physically weak, often unhealthy, individuals.  Many of China’s economic, social and political struggles were laid unfairly at the feet of its citizens.  This tendency reached its zenith in the early 20th century when long running debates about the effects of opium use and a string of military defeats coalesced in a (mostly domestic) debate as to whether, and why, China was the “Sick Man of East Asia.”

I have discussed these developments in other posts. One should not underestimate how important these debates were in shaping the TCMA in the modern era.  After the humiliating setback suffered during the Boxer Rebellion (when the martial arts were very nearly driven out of the social discourse), these discussions opened a space in which martial artists could claim to advance the national good through a return to traditional values.

The impact of these discussions can still be felt today.  The mythology of the Jingwu Association, as well as Bruce Lee’s films, ensures that these images (and insecurities) live on.

What interests me about both of these images is that they predate this entire social discourse.  I suspect (admittedly with insufficient evidence) that both the engraving and the photo date to roughly the early 1880s.  But even if that estimate is off by a decade in either direction, they are clearly a product of the period of China’s “Self-Strengthening Movement.

The enthusiasm and self-confidence in these images is palpable.  They neither doubt the physical capabilities of the Chinese people, nor do they seek to turn away from core cultural values in the quest for athletic excellence (as recommended by the May 4th reformers).  Nor are they shy about communicating this self-confidence to the world.

In terms of geo-political events, the 1880s came a generation after China’s defeats by the British in the South, and 15 years before its diplomatically devastating loss to the Japanese.  While China clashed with France in the middle of the 1880s, it managed to win a number of battles and avoided the same sense of military humiliation.  The production of such images even suggests some sort of market for visions of a stable and strengthening China in the West.  Meanwhile, the Self-Strengthening Movement was giving rise to diverse efforts, some of which contributed to the rise of modern Taijiquan as well as other martial arts. Yet all of this would be abandoned following the national defeats suffered in 1895 and 1900.

Eventually the fierce public debate over China’s status as the “Sick Man of East Asia” would subside, and a growing sense of cultural confidence would again characterize the traditional martial arts.  Still, images from an earlier era force us to ask how the evolution of these fighting systems would have unfolded in the absence of the Sino-Japanese War and the waves of revolution, political chaos and cultural self-doubt that followed in its wake.  Both images offer us a glimpse into this realm of alternate possibilities.

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Two Encounters with Bruce Lee: Finding Reality in the Life of the Little Dragon

 

oOo

Through a Lens Darkly (26): Taking a Second Look at “A Group of Chinese Boxers”

A group photograph of an archery class or society.  Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.
A group photograph of an archery class or society. Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.

 

 

A Second Look at a Rare Photograph

 

It would be an understatement to say that period photographs of Qing-era martial arts activities are rare.  For a variety of reasons these themes were less popular with both western and Chinese photographers than a number of other images.  The various social disruptions of the 20th century (particularly the Cultural Revolution) also helped to insure that much of the material that once existed was destroyed.  One of the purposes of this occasional series is to gather and discuss those images that students of Chinese martial studies still have access too.

Today’s post begins by revisiting an image that I first introduced in a discussion of photographs of Qing era archery training.  Given the nature of early camera technology one can basically assume that all pictures form this period were composed by the photographer, and hence in some way “artificial.”  Still, even highly contrived images can convey important ethnographic or social information.  If nothing else they may at least offer a window into how their intended audience viewed Chinese martial culture at the time.

With the exception of a few newspaper engravings and photographs most of these images never really enjoyed a huge circulation when they were first produced.  That is one of the factors that makes the above photograph (which was also discussed in previous post) so interesting.  In the late 19th and early 20th century cigarette cards were a popular collectible which circulated widely in both Europe, North America and Asia.  The images that they carried both reflected and helped to shape popular beliefs about China.

Interestingly martial themes were not among the most common images of China to be included on these cards.  Give the amount of press that the “Boxer Rebellion” generated one might have suspected that publishers would have gone to greater lengths to feed the public’s desire for pictures of the conflict.  Still, while searching the internet I did locate at least one image of “Chinese Boxers” provided by the Ogden Cigarette Company.  This photograph shows at least ten men and a boy who are evidently part of some type of martial group.  Most of the men hold bows and arrows.  Also present is one individual leaning on a thick pole that somewhat resembled a “jingal” or heavy wall gun.  A second individual (of higher social status) and is seated next to a white horse.

It seems highly unlikely that the people in this image are actually related to the peasant spirit-boxers of Shandong who rose up in 1900 and laid siege to the foreign ligation in Beijing.  To begin they are entirely too well dressed.  Nor can I imagine a group of armed and vehemently anti-foreign Boxers stopping to have their picture taken with western technology.

Of course there were lots of other types of martial groups in late Qing China.  These individuals might belong to some sort of local militia or defensive league.  I also speculated that they might be a more formal group of archery students who (judging from their clothing and boots) had a greater degree of status or social aspiration.  While a rare and fascinating image, its hard to say exactly what we are seeing here.

 

 

Another version of the previous image featured on an Ogden Cigarette Card.  Source: Author's Personal Collection.
Another version of the previous image featured on an Ogden Cigarette Card. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.

 

 

This bring us to the next photograph.  A few weeks ago I decided to try and locate a physical copy of the previous image to add to my collection of vintage photographs and postcards.  Given that most individual cigarette cards are not very expensive, and the fact that Ogden mass produced these images by the tens of thousands, I didn’t think that it would be hard to track down a study specimen.  I found one on ebay later that evening and purchased it for a few dollars.

After receiving it in the mail I sat down to compare it with the previously discussed photograph and discovered, to my surprise, that these two cards were not the same.  While similar in most respects, my newly purchased image included a much wider scene.  Apparently the more commonly seen card is actually a later reissue of the original picture which was cropped to focus on the central figures.  The earlier photograph includes a couple of additional individuals, also armed with bows and arrow.

The greater height of the original image also reveals that the man leaning on the heavy pole was not armed with a jingal, as I had at first guessed, but was instead holding the longest Wukedao (Heavy Knife) that I have seen in a period photo.  These heavily built weapons were employed as a test of strength and skill in the Imperial Military Examination system.  It was common for Qing era martial artists to practice with Wukedao of various seizes and weights as they built up their strength and prepared for the test.  Still, the size of this example, which appears to be almost twice the height of most of individuals pictured in the photograph is exceptional.

After finding this image I began to contact some collectors of cigarette cards to find out if it would be possible to date these two specimens.  Unfortunately it is impossible to say much with certainty.  Ogden produced a staggering 27,000 distinct cards within the “Gold” series between 1897-1907.  Nor is anything like a comprehensive catalog of images available.  While it seems reasonable to assume that the uncropped card is the older, and that they were published during or after the Boxer Rebellion, we cannot say much more than “circa 1900-1907.”

Still, the appearance of the second version of the photograph may be more helpful in terms of interpreting the subject matter of the image.  Given that the Imperial Military Examination consisted of tests of mounted and standing archery, as well as the use of the Wukedao, pulling heavy bows and lifting stones, I am now more inclined to see this as a group of examination students as opposed to militia members.  The appearance of a horse and a heavy knife in the same picture just seems to be too evocative of the examination system.

We may yet discover more about the individuals in this photograph.  Given the huge number of cards that Ogden was producing it seems unlikely that they were doing much original photography.  If this is a reproduction, the original (and hopefully information about the photographer and his subjects) may yet turn up in a museum, university or private collection.

 

 

oOo

If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (22): Heavy Knives and Stone Locks – Strength Training in the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

oOo

The Soldier, the Marketplace Boxer and the Recluse: Mapping the Social Location of the Martial Arts in Late Imperial China.

Since its the 4th of July I thought that some classic images of fireworks (a Chinese invention) would be in order.  This signed watercolor dates from about 1900.
Since its the 4th of July I thought that some classic images of fireworks (a Chinese invention) would be in order. This signed watercolor dates from about 1900.

Introduction

How should we understand the traditional Chinese martial arts?  Are these practices really intended to be a form of practical self-defense, or are they actually some other sort of social performance? Are the arts that we practice today “authentic?”

These are a few of the large questions that really drive the field of Chinese martial studies.  Recently I reviewed a now classic article by Charles Holcombe (“Theater of Combat: A critical Look at the Chinese Martial Arts” in the Historian (Vol. 52 No. 3, May, 1990) which attempted to provide an answer to each of these queries.  The author argued that the traditional Chinese martial arts are largely ineffective as actual combat systems as they were never really intended to function as such.  Rather than being a practical program of military training, Holcombe claimed that these fighting systems were really an outgrowth of popular Daoist and Buddhist mystical practices.

Henning has argued elsewhere that this aspect of Holcombe’s argument falls flat because of his extensive reliance on Joseph Needham.  While a preeminent historian Needham never made the martial arts the main focus of his research and his conclusions on this subject should be regarded with caution.

Nevertheless, Holcombe was on firmer ground when he pointed to the centrality of opera and other forms of public entertainment in late imperial China.  The martial arts could always draw a crowd, and this is how a great many professional hand combat experts made a living.  Holcombe argued that in the minds and rhetoric of millennial cult leaders it was all too easy to conflate the staged performance of social violence with the real thing.  This then is the true nature of the Chinese fighting systems.  They are primarily social in orientation, and it was really the modernizers and reformers of the 1920s-1930s, intent on transforming them into a practical system of self-defense, who were fundamentally mistaken.

Much of the subsequent development of the martial studies literature has argued against this early thesis.  Shahar, Henning, Lorge, and Kennedy have all argued that the martial arts were both more tied to actual violence than their critics might like to admit and much less dependent on any specific philosophy or theology.

This sounds like progress, except that we are still having the same very basic conversation that Holcombe introduced in 1990.  The historians in the field have introduced a lot of important nuance into our discussion.  Yet the anthropologists who write on the Chinese martial arts simply take it for granted that they are mostly about social performance.  Nor do their ethnographic observations do anything to challenge that view.  If this is true today it is entirely possible that it was also true in the past.  Further, while the persistent connection between boxing societies, millennial cults and late imperial rebellions may be difficult to theorize, one cannot simply ignore it.

I concluded my review of Holcombe by arguing that the problem may not actually be in how we are looking at the historical record.  Indeed, Holcombe and his later critics actually show a remarkable degree of agreement on this front.  Rather, the real issue is that we have not thought carefully enough about our core concepts.  This creates a certain degree of slipperiness in our theories.  The end result is that some individuals have one view of what constitutes the “authentic martial arts,” while other students may come to very different conclusions.

This is not surprising.  The idea of the martial arts was introduced and popularized in the west by the Japanese.  Their ancient feudal structure and later program of promoting “Budo” as an official ideology in the early 20th century led to a very unique relationship between their hand combat systems and the rest of society.  There is simply no reason to think that these basic ideas should provide a workable map for understanding the intricacies of Chinese popular culture.

Conceptually speaking the term “martial arts” is a modern invention.  It is an attempt to group like categories (from many cultures and different areas of the world) together because that project makes sense in relation to certain other modern ideas.  But it is extremely unlikely that a 19th century bandit in the hills of southern China would see himself as a member of the same class of beings as a medieval Japanese warrior/bureaucrat simply because they both owned a couple of swords and a rifle.

The current post attempts to expand on this same basic idea.  In my last essay I focused on how Chinese martial culture might look if we were to break things down by occupation and profession.  Of course that is not the only way to map out what these relationships may have looked like.  In fact, it simply pushes our question one step back.  It is all well and good to say that village militia members may not have identified all that much with urban street performers, but the real question is why?   Why did some groups develop shared identities, in certain times and places, while others were excluded?

If we could answer that question we might start to actually open a new window onto popular culture in late imperial China.  Further, we might also have a better understanding how it was possible to eventually craft the (relatively) unified identity behind “Guoshu” (National Arts) and “Wushu” (Martial Arts) in the 20th century.  Exploring these questions in depth would take a book, but in the current post I hope to point to a few places where we can start.

A more modern Japanese print showing summer fireworks.  Artist unkown (at least to me).
A more modern Japanese print showing summer fireworks. Artist unknown (at least to me).

Mapping the Social Landscape of Late Imperial China

Dr. Victoria Cass (currently a visiting professor at Johns Hopkins University) writes on Chinese literature and religion.  She is perhaps best known for her 1999 volume, Dangerous Women: Warriors, Grannies and Geishas of the Ming (Rowman and Littlefield Publishers).  This popular work provides a highly accessible introduction to many of the central questions of gender studies in late imperial China.  In fact, I used it as a source in my recent discussion of the literary antecedent of Yim Wing Chun and Ng Moy.

One of the reasons why Dangerous Women works so well as a general introduction is that Cass realizes that it is not possible to talk about complex social structures as though they exist in a vacuum.   These things occur in a specific time and place, and it is vitally important to understand that terrain.  The social geography of late imperial China is complex and far from uniform.  It is bisected by political upheavals and colored by competing vision of what the ideal society, and life, should look like.

As a result it is not enough to discuss “Chinese women” in the abstract.  Rather, to have any level of real comprehension they must be examined in relation to these larger structures.  The variety of choices and life-pathways that different women adopted are meaningless without at least some explanation of the environment that they lived in and the social and philosophical currents that informed their world.

Of course it is possible to make exactly the same argument about the “martial arts.”  The traditional hand combat styles were a specific expression of larger trends within “martial culture.”  However, like gender, martial culture is such a broad category of thoughts and values that it touches on practically everything.  It is simply not enough say that it affects something.  Rather the question is why does it express itself in a specific way in this setting, and yet it looks very different in another environment?  In short, why is there no simple answer to the riddle of the Chinese martial arts?

To begin to examine these questions we need a map of the social geography of late imperial China.  Since this is a brief blog post we will need a simple map that still has the necessary information to get us where we need to go.  Luckily Cass provides us with just such an outline in the introduction to her volume.  If you are interested in understanding more about Ming and Qing era popular culture, but you lack a background in the subject, this one chapter provides a pretty useful overview of the big trends that you should be aware of.  Obviously Cass’ essay focuses on the role of women, but the basic discussion that she gives could inform any number of investigations.

Her basic argument is that popular culture in the late imperial period can be thought of as a dynamic interaction between three different sets of norms.  In turn these yielded three competing visions of the ideal society.

The Cult of Piety

The first of these, and most widespread, was a “cult of piety” focused around proper behavior in the family (its major center of worship).  The more common term for this “cult of piety” is Confucianism.  Prof. Cass dislikes this label as the actual social performance of “virtue” often went beyond what any scholar or philosophical thinker might explicitly demand.  Further, when discussing Confucianism the emphasis has historically been placed on elite males who comprised the government bureaucracy and local gentry.  However, the more general cult of piety found expression in every facet of Chinese culture, even within areas that were traditionally treated with disdain, such as among women and martial artists.

Japanese woodblock print.
Japanese woodblock print.

The City Centered Romantic Movement

The Ming was also a time of economic growth and dynamism.  This was seen in a number of areas but it was the most obvious in the expanding cities that attracted large populations during this period.  The rise of a new strain of urban culture was most obvious in the south, in areas like Fujian and Guangdong.  Both provinces were blessed with a number of good ports and they were nourished by the triangular trade between South East Asia, Southern China and Japan.

Urban spaces had definitely begun to develop their own character during the Song dynasty.  However this process quickened during the late imperial period.  Cities developed a new middle class with their own sense of identity and value.  This new urban class gave rise to its own unique culture.

The cult of piety (which reigned in the countryside) was premised on an absolute devotion to the ancestors who had gone before; individuals who had quite literally become “household Gods,” who could only be appeased through the rigorous observation of propriety and filial decorum.  This was the basis of all proper family arrangements, and by extension the state (which was seen as a family on an almost cosmic scale).

The piety demanded by this cult was dangerous because it called for the sacrifice of the self to uphold the norms of the systems, not just in abstract ways, but often also in very concrete and final terms.  Scholars who accepted death rather than serving a new government, widows who committed suicide at the death of their husband and soldiers who fought hopeless battles against impossible odds were the saints and martyrs of this system.

Cass argues that these were not marginal or victimized people.  Rather they were the fanatical followers of a very specific set of moral ideas.  They believed that by enacting huge sacrifices to maintain virtue in their own lives, their families, communities and even the state would be blessed with stability and prosperity.  Further these beliefs were reinforced and supported by the state who, through the Bureau of Rites, sought out those who had made heroic sacrifices and built monuments in their honor.

Yet this “Confucian” view of the family and the ideal society did not sit well with many members of the newly ascendant middle class.  After all, these were the values of social elites and the rustic peasants who had a limited sense of their own class identity.  Merchants and craftsmen were not particularly well regarded in the traditional Confucian social hierarchy and it seems that for many members of the middle class the feeling became mutual.

While success in the official examination system remained the only real means for political advancement, many of these urban families decided to instead turn their attention to building their own personal economic empires.  I know from my historical work on Foshan that while these families continued to produce degree winners, very often these individuals made no effort to seek a career in government.  Instead they turned their attention to the economic marketplace and the development of their own local communities.

China’s cities during the Ming were among the largest and most sophisticated in the world.  Compared to those of a previous era, these would have been remarkably recognizable with businesses dominating the downtown and smaller shops and housing spreading out in rings.  Entertainment was a major part of city life.  Theaters, tea houses, street performances, displays of art and poetry, sophisticated geisha establishments and martial arts demonstrations were among the luxuries that could be found in any southern urban area of sufficient size.

What is most interesting to me about these urban areas is that they were so self-conscious of their identity and status.  They fully realized that they were developing a new culture that differed radically from the cult of piety.  They even coined a name for the process.  It was called “ju bian” or the “great change.”

“Passion” and “authenticity” were at the heart of this transformation.  Traditionalists found meaning through group membership and sacrifice.  Yet the process of urbanization disrupted many of the most important traditional groups.  The clan and the extended family became less relevant in urban areas as it was simply too expensive for all but the richest families to maintain a clan temple (though they did provide economic advantages if you could afford to build one).  Instead smaller social guilds, literary schools and reading groups came to dominate the social scene.  Some of these groups even adopted a reformist and political stance.

These associations helped to spread a new philosophy of the life throughout the urban middle class.  They claimed that the key to a good life was to live with “passion” or “qing.”  In modern terms we might say that this was a decisive turn away from the repression of the self for the benefit of others in favor of living an authentic life based on the expression of powerful and impulsive feelings.

The word “qing” refers specifically to romance and passion.  Not surprisingly this new philosophy led to a profound shift in family life.  Husbands and wives started to view each other as potential artistic and life partners rather than simply leaders and subordinates.  Yet the “qing revolution” went far beyond the bedroom.

This same sense of authenticity came to be applied to every aspect of daily life.  Urbanites came to appreciate, and find ecstatic meaning, in a well carved ink-stone, a miniature potted tree or the perfectly poured cup of tea.  Some educated members of this class were even responsible for the renewed interest in Chan Buddhism which happened during the late imperial period.

The Revival of Reclusive Living

Taken to its furthest extreme the urban middle class evolved into something very different.  The third social movement that Cass described was the path of the mystical (or simply mad) recluse.  Such individuals were by no means a new element in Chinese culture.  Daoism had long promoted a certain political quietism, encouraging truly cultured gentlemen to shun office, seeking instead the solitude of wild places and deep contemplation.

Nor, in all honesty, was this basic impulse really confined to a single philosophical movement.  The Chinese popular religion had venerated mountains and grottos as sacred spaces from time immemorial. Nor was it all that uncommon for certain schools of Confucianism to claim that one could not be a truly cultured gentleman without being a recluse.  Ironically it actually became something of a prerequisite for high office in certain times, meaning that it was not uncommon to find a fair number of “urban recluses” in Beijing or other important cities.

The obsession with living a natural and authentic life among the urban middle class in late imperial China set the stage for an explosion in the number of mystical recluses.  These individuals tended to follow certain social scripts which made them easy to identify.  Some hermits were actually able to find a place in the countryside, while others, because of career and business commitments, were instead forced to live out their calling in the cities.  For such individuals a natural looking garden, a rustic study and an art collection assembled to express the power of wild, untamed spaces was the key to living the proper life.

On a certain level it did not really matter where most reclusive individuals lived.  Indeed they could be found all over the country.  Yet they were all united by a few key characteristics.  What motivated them was a burning desire to somehow transcend the normal and “mundane.”  Whereas the peasant might extoll the virtues of the clan, and the merchant the consumption of fine object, the hermit wished to rise above all of this.  A return to nature and a “natural state” suggested one obvious way to accomplish this.

In practice this turn to the transcendent often necessitated some sort of ascetic practice.  For the less dedicated urban recluse this might simply mean making a big show of turning away callers.  But many individuals made more substantial sacrifices.

It was not uncommon for famous recluses to adopt vegetarian or other odd diets.  Ascetic practices were the norm.  Of course the Daoist longevity arts were pretty common, including both breathing exercises and more vigorous gymnastics.  Military training occasionally fell into the realm of ascetic practices that might be adopted by an eccentric gentleman.  If you really were planning on living by yourself deep in the wilderness such skills became very practical.

Women on a boat watching fireworks.  19th century Japanese woodblock print.
Women on a boat watching fireworks. 19th century Japanese woodblock print.

Bringing the Martial Arts Back Into Popular Culture.

I think we are now in a good position to reintroduce the traditional fighting styles to our conversation.  We can gain a much better understanding of what the Chinese martial arts were by asking how they might have been expressed within each of these three different movements within popular culture.

In many ways the “cult of piety” forms the baseline that the other two social movements described by Cass grow out of and react against.  As such it is appropriate to start here.

One might assume that the hand combat would be shunned in this sector of popular culture given Confucianism’s discomfort with martial values.  Yet there were probably more martial arts practitioners who emerged out of this milieu than anywhere else.  In fact, I would speculate that one of our great failings as a field has been our lack of attention to how Confucianism informed the ways that ordinary soldiers and militia members thought about their craft.

Where in the historical record do we find instances of martial artists coming out of, and responding to, the “cult of piety?”  Many important military officers clearly fit this model.  Traditional Confucian models of authority and social order are important for understanding the life of General Qi Jiguang.  For instance, while he initially included a now famous chapter on the use of unarmed boxing in the training of military units in the military encyclopedia that he authored as a young man, he actually omitted that same discussion from the much better known second edition that was published later in his career.  Why?  It is likely that the more mature officer decided that the subject was not fit for high level official discussions.  After all, boxing itself was a marginal practice that was often seen as being at odds with good social order.

The Loyal Soldier

Perhaps the most obvious place where you see these values played out are in the various clan militias of Southern China.  Clan structures exist across China but for reasons that go beyond the point of this post they tended to be much stronger and more influential in Guangdong and Fujian.  These clans routinely owned large amounts of property and even controlled local industries.  In effect they functioned both as kinship groups and large private corporations.

Their need to collect rents, taxes and to protect their assets from encroachment by other clans, led these organizations to create their own military organizations.  These existed “off the books” and were largely independent from state control.  Such units would often hire professional martial artists to act both as instructors and as mercenaries to “stiffen the ranks” of their part-time militia members.

It was not unusual for clashes inspired by the economic interests of the various clans to escalate and turn deadly.  When that happened the state was forced to step in.  Of course the local government had no interest in actually dismantling the clan militias.  These family based fighting units were the basic building blocks that the state controlled and gentry led militia system was constructed out of.

Still, publically delivering “justice” is a critical aspect of good governance.  When this happened the clan that was determined to be responsible for a death or outbreak of severe violence would be forced to turn over to the state a number of individuals.  Interestingly these were usually not the actual individuals who were responsible for the actual attack (at least if they had any value), but were instead much less important male members of the clan who were probably already wanted for a more minor offense.  The state could then make a great show of publically executing these individuals who, in effect, sacrificed themselves for the protection of the clan as a whole.

Many of our more modern Kung Fu tales also make extensive use of the cult of piety.  In the martial novels of Jin Yong heroes willingly sacrifice themselves for the nation and will go to almost any length to avoid breaking a promise of marriage.  Their behavior is in line with the expectations of the cult of piety.

Such exaggerated acts function as important signals to the readers.  In normal society physical violence is frowned upon and it raises serious questions about an individual’s character.  Yet an exaggerated sense of loyalty, chastity or patriotism all demonstrates that a hero is capable of self-denial.  In this way he is able to enact the quintessentially masculine virtue of the Confucian system.

Big City Boxers

All of this stands in stark contrast to the vision of martial excellence that emerged in the rapidly growing cities of late imperial China.  Here the call to arms was not glorious martyrdom but rather commerce and enrichment.  Of course the average soldier was not paid very much and it seems that many militia members made even less, so it is fortunate that the urban markets created new opportunities for a skilled boxer to monetize their skill.

Street performers and patent medicine salesmen were everywhere.  They used martial arts displays to attract a crowd and sell their wares.  Opera companies that could only perform a few times a year in the countryside found steady employment in the red-light districts of southern China’s cities.  Further, organized crime needed a never ending supply of muscle.

Chinese cities could be dangerous places, and local businesses took precautions.  Boxers were hired as warehouse and pawnshop guards.  While steady employment these jobs lacked the prestige and pay of a position as a bodyguard or a position with an armed escort company.  Professional martial arts instructors, some retired from the military but others from the civilian realm, were needed to teach all of these people.  And the fact that they were paid in actual money meant that they could in turn pay for their instruction.

Other urban professions also called upon the expertise of martial artists.  It was not uncommon for medical doctors or pharmacists to occasionally employ boxing training as a means of improving a patient’s health or stamina.  Some of the most famous martial artists in all of southern China, including Leung Jan and Wong Fei Hung, actually made their living in medicine.  While the connection between TCM and the martial arts would become much deeper and more robust in the Republic era, it is important to note that the roots of this connection can clearly be seen in the thriving urban culture of the late imperial period.

If martial arts training was motivated by simple necessity and service to the group in the countryside, when transplanted to the city it found itself incorporated into the larger structures of the rapidly growing economic markets.  A wide variety of instructors, guards, gangsters, performers and even doctors had an opportunity to mix and exchange notes.  In this way they formed their own “martial arts subculture,” one that was probably quite distinct from the militias and military units that dominated the country side.  It is interesting to note that it was this urban faction of hand combat experts who probably contributed the most to the martial arts which were actually passed on to the modern era.

Retreating from the World of Rivers and Lakes

Still, this does not exhaust the list of social possibilities.  As Cass reminds us the urbanization of the late imperial period gave rise to (or enabled) a resurgence of interest in the “reclusive life.”  The most dedicated of these individuals hoped to attain a mystical level of “transcendence” beyond the concerns of ordinary life by cultivating the proper aura and engaging in certain ascetic practices.  No doubt there were others who simply followed the fad as it was fashionable.

Cass makes it clear that this movement was so popular that it touched practically every area of Chinese popular culture and social life.  As she eloquently (and ironically) put it, everyone knew a recluse.  In what ways do we see these same basic tendencies reflected in the Chinese martial arts of the period?

This question gets to heart of our current controversy.   Holcombe explicitly tied the martial arts to Daoist longevity practices and eccentric heterodox religious teachers.  In effect he claimed that the “reclusive current” dominated the development of the Chinese martial arts.  Others have argued against this.  In basic historical terms there is a lot more evidence of purely secular practice than Holcombe was willing to admit.  But where in the Chinese martial arts do we actually see the influence of the reclusive and mystical school?  Again, it would be very odd if this trend touched all other areas of Chinese popular culture at one time or another, but managed to totally miss boxing.

Zhang Songxi (c. 1520- c.1590) was a martial artist from the city of Ningbo, a busy port in Zhejiang Province (immediately north of Fujian).  The oldest and most reliable information we have on Zhang Songxi comes from Shen Yiguan (1531-1616).  Shen was a Confucian scholar who served as the Emperor’s Grand Secretary from 1594-1606.  While it is not clear what Shen thought of martial artists in general, he was from Ningbo and was quite proud of his hometown and its role in fighting off the Japanese.  In fact, it was Shen who actually ordered trade with Japan suspended, triggering the Piracy Crisis that would catapult Qi Jiguang to national fame.  Shen recorded and discussed the careers of some of his hometown’s local “heroes” in his essay “The Biography of Boxer Zhang Songxi” which was part of the larger “The Government Records and Annals of Ningbo City.”

Shen begins by noting that Zhang Songxi is not the best known martial artist from the area.  That honor would go to one named Bian Cheng.  However Bian Cheng was a rude fellow.  His life did not conform to Confucian values (the cult of piety).  Instead he sought fame and wealth.  He must have been unusually persistent because even managed to find it, twice.

Bian turned to the martial arts to solve his personal problems and he taught widely, without showing any discrimination about the character of his students.  On the bright side he did manage to defeat a group of Shaolin Monks, brought to the area to help quell the pirates, when they sought to challenge him.

Better still in Sheng’s opinion was Zhang Songxi.  He was taught by another formidable, socially unreconstructed, local boxer named Sun Thirteen.  Shen describes Sun as “rough and brutal.”  We also know that he valued simplicity and directness.

Apparently he also valued theoretical parsimony, a trait still seen in Southern China’s compact, jewel-like, hand combat systems today. Sun claimed that his entire art could be described by just three keywords or guiding principles.  His most talented disciple was Zhang Songxi.

Zhang was not a full time professional boxer but was actually a tailor by trade.  He earned the respect of Shen because he took what he learned from his master and he added the dimension of ethical refinement to it.  Rather than Sun’s three principles, Zhang taught five, with the last two being ethical and highly Confucian in nature.

Whereas Bian had sought fame and brawled with the ill-behaved Shaolin monks, Zhang Songxi was retiring and refused guests or callers who were interested in his martial skills.  He spent time in isolation, and favored the life of an eccentric gentleman farmer.

The contrast between Bian and Zhang is fascinating.  Clearly Bian and Sun represent the milieu of southern urbanism.  They were professional teachers and they accepted money for their services.  They advertised their skills widely and invested in building a reputation that could support them.

Zhang appears to have taken a different path.  Not only did he refuse to serve the government, but he also withdrew from the life of the city.  He is portrayed as having turned towards the reclusive path precisely because he had a richer understanding of the philosophy of boxing.  Further, his biographer seems to grant him a certain level of transcendence.  Of course this is only a single account, but it does indicate that even court historians were willing to admit that martial artists could become recluses or mystics.

A number of other examples of important martial artists being influenced by these same currents also come to mind.  For instance, Chen Zhong You, famous for his Ming era study of Shaolin fighting techniques, spent the better part of his youth following martial monks on their various military missions and studying at Shaolin.  Yet Chen was not from a military background.  He was a younger son from a well to do gentry family.  One would normally expect an individual like him to dedicate his life to earning a degree in the imperial exams.  Instead he decided to leave home, live in the mountains and make a decades long study of pole fighting.  It is hard to imagine a more ascetic route to personal cultivation.

There are a lot of things about his life and personal motivations that we do not know, and probably never will.  However, it seems that one possible strategy for interpreting the facts that we do have would be to situate them within the “reclusive current.”  Like so many other young men in the late Ming he seems to have developed an interest in the esoteric side of life and to have turned his back on more normal pursuits.  Even the title of his volume on the Shaolin fighting arts, “Techniques For After-Farming Pastime” indicates that he was consciously emulating the mode of the outwardly rustic (yet inwardly cultured) hermits who dominated the period’s public imagination.

Of course otherworldly recluses have always been closely tied to the martial arts in the world of Kung Fu fiction.  Countless stories, and more creation myths than I can count, start when the young hero meets a mysterious monk, nun, priest or hermit on the side of a mountain.  Most of these stories are pure fiction.  Yet in both the Ming and the current era a number of people did go to sacred or wild places explicitly to transcend the concerns of a normal life through one dedicated to practice and natural living.

Detail of a figure lighting fireworks.  Artist: Utamaro.
Detail of a figure lighting fireworks. Artist: Utamaro.

Conclusion

It may be impossible to give any simple answer to the question of whether the traditional Chinese martial arts were actually meant to be an effective means of self-defense.  Not only did the profession of individual students and practitioners vary, but there are other factors that need to be considered as well.  The late imperial period saw a number of different trends within Chinese popular culture.  In the current post we have reviewed three, but a more detailed treatment would certainly reveal others.

Each of these currents was broadly based and affected many areas of Chinese society.  We should probably not be surprised to learn that they also had an important impact on the way that the traditional martial arts were expressed.  In fact, the core values of “martial culture” could vary tremendously depending on whether the individuals in question were coming out of the “cult of piety”, the new urbanism or the resurgent rustic tradition.

If we wish to really appreciate the lives of China’s various martial artists, whether they were war heroes like Qi Jiguang, urban instructors like Chan Wah Shun and Leung Jan or reclusive masters like Zhang Songxi, it is important to situate them within the social landscape of their day.  Only then can we really understand what they hoped to accomplish through their mastery of the martial arts.

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