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Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (23): Fu Zhen Song – Southbound Tiger



History as the cure for Ideology

Everyone has a personal mental image of the Chinese martial arts.  The detail may vary, but there are some undeniably common elements.  Grainy photos, complex postures, exotic weapons, strangely vigorous old men. The few remaining images of Fu Zhen Song, especially those in which he is holding his signature Bagua Dao, a gift from the general and warlord Zhang Zoulin, check all of the boxes. I suspect that a non-trivial number of practitioners actually imagine one or more of these photographs when they hear the words “traditional Chinese martial arts.”

In discussions of martial arts history my friend TJ Hinrichs is fond of saying that history, despite its challenges, is the cure for ideology. When we really understand the past we also realize where our images of it come from, how they have been shaped, and what work they have done in shaping our current society.  The present and the past never exist as two entirely separate entities. Nowhere is their mutual dance more apparent than in our imaginations of these traditional fighting systems.

This is not to say that a close examination of history always tames our vision of the past. It may remain as confusing or bewildering as ever. Seeing the past and really understanding it on a personal level are two different things. As we have been warned, it is a foreign country. Sometimes our examinations of it only serve to bring those paradoxes into sharper relief.

Still, in a time and a place where everyone is sure that they know exactly what the traditional Chinese martial arts really are, that they have studied their boundaries and can comment on their weaknesses, a little disorientation might be a good thing.  Becoming uncomfortable with our past is often the first step in wondering how many other things the present might be.  What latent potentials have we not exhausted in our parade of viral YouTube videos?

Few martial artists are more interesting than Fu Zhen Song (1872-1953) in this respect. Students of Baguazhang, his primary art and the area in which he achieved the greatest fame, may already be familiar with his legacy.  Fu style Bagua remains popular in Guangdong, Hong Kong and in some diaspora communities. History aficionados might recognize him as one of the famed “South Bound Tigers” who in 1928-1929 brought the new Guoshu program, and a variety of Northern styles, to Southern China. I have already discussed those events in some detail in my book on the social history of the southern Chinese martial arts, but Fu was only mentioned in passing in that work as he didn’t engage in the sort of systematic institution building which was the focus of that project.

This is a shame as few of the Republic’s masters had a more varied or fascinating career.  Fu’s peripatetic life contains many twists and suggests lingering, unanswered, question. Yet it also exemplifies the ability of the Chinese martial arts to function as a pathway for social mobility for poor youth from the countryside during times of almost unimaginable political and social upheaval. Fu’s life was shaped by the banditry and militarization that defined the end of the Qing dynasty, and the early years of the Republic. The social networks shared by martial artists, soldiers, armed escort companies and bandit chieftains proved to be essential in not just surviving, but thriving, in the volatile world of the 1920s and 1930s.

Through of his expertise in the martial arts, Fu received the support and sponsorship of some of the most powerful men in China. In exchange he would support their mission of building a strong and unified state through martial practice. The entrance of the northern fighting systems into the south was not a matter of happenstance.  Both his contributions to that event, and life in general, can only be understood when we place them in the proper social/political context.

As with other entries in this series, I should begin with the disclaimer that I am not a Baguazhang student and my own practice of the southern arts falls far outside Fu’s sphere of influence. This biographical sketch does not claim to use any secret or closely held information. I have relied on a handful of published sources that have discussed Fu Zhensong’s contributions to the internal arts as well as my own understanding of political and social worlds that he attempted to navigate.

By far the most helpful of the existing sources is Lin Chao Zhen’s (edited by Wei Ran Lin and Rick L. Wing) Fu Zhen Song’s Dragon Bagua Zhang (Blue Snake Books 1997, 2010). While not attempting to be a scholarly book, the historical discussions in the first two chapters of this work are truly important.  At one point in time, prior to the current explosion of publications on the topic, this would have been one of the best sources on modern Chinese martial arts history that readers could hope to encounter. The editors of this work did an excellent job parsing conflicting accounts and reconstructing the most likely course of events. Yet as a popular work they did not list the specific sources they were dealing with, and there appear to be a few minor mix-ups as they move into discussion of the politically chaotic environment within the KMT during the 1920s. Still, their book is clearly where anyone interested in reading more about Fu’s life should begin.




Bandits and Boxers

Fu Qian Kun was born to a farming family in Mape Village in Henan province sometime around 1872. The exact date, like many other details of Fu’s early life, remains a matter of dispute.

Students of Chinese martial history will no doubt be familiar with the many surveys of this region that have been completed by scholars such as Esherick, Perry and Cohen as they attempted to deal with the region’s long history of social unrest and the eventual outbreak of the Boxer Rebellion in 1899-1900. While most details of Fu’s childhood and early life are missing, we actually know quite a bit about the world that he grew up in. Shaped as it was by successive waves of famine and banditry, it is unsurprising that the martial arts would be a critical force during his formative years.

Tradition within the Fu family lineage note that Mape followed the common regional pattern of setting aside a plot of land as a communal boxing ground. The village would hire outside instructors who taught skills that could be used for community defense, or simply for entertainment during the agricultural slack season. Such village boxing grounds would become central locations in the rise of Plum Blossom Boxing, the Big Sword Society and later the Yihi Spirit Boxing movement. They would survive as a social institution well into the twentieth century when they were repurposed as the training ground from the Red Spears that resisted local warlords, KMT tax collectors, and Japanese invaders with equal ferocity. Given the weak position of the gentry and landlords in these more marginal areas, boxing grounds became an important mean of social organization in a crisis and a means of asserting local autonomy.

Lin notes that in 1888, when Fu Qian Kun was about 16, the village decided that it was expedient to hire a communal martial arts instructor. Chen Yanxi (father of Chen Fake) received a contract and traveled from Chen Village to begin teaching at the Mape boxing ground. It is believed that his curriculum would have included “Old Frame” Chen-style Taiji (larger circles, with a pronounced emphasis on striking), a push-hands method and probably spear work (a Chen family specialty and practical skill for a community worried about bandit incursions).

Lineage tradition states that Fu’s family was poor and, not being able to afford the tuition, he stood outside the boxing ground copying the movements from afar until Chen Yanxi took notice of him and, realizing his dedication, accepted him as a student. Lin and Wing note this reading of events sounds suspiciously like a number of other stories. Such stereotyped tales are probably retold as a way to emphasize the dedication of the student and the virtue of the teacher. A more likely scenario is that, given the lack of security in the region, all available young men would have been encouraged to study with the boxing master as this functioned as a type of militia training that the community as a whole benefitted from. Indeed, Fu’s martial practice would remain intertwined with military for most of his life.

It is unclear exactly how long Chen Yanxi remained in Mape. We know that after he left the village hired Jia Qi Shan, a Bagua master and student of Dong Hai Chuan, as their next instructor.  Sources say that Fu studied with Jia for 8-9 years and may have become his formal disciple. Lin and Wing caution that those numbers don’t actually fit well with Fu’s life. This may be the amount of time he worked with both Chen and Jia, or he perhaps he continued his association with Jia after they both left the village.  The existing accounts are not clear on this point.

What we do know is that Fu began to go by the name Fu Zhen Song (“to overcome the mountains”) around this time. With a background in both Chen Taijiquan and Baguazhang, Jia encouraged his student to travel to Beijing in order to gain connections and experience the larger world of martial arts mastery for himself.  It seems likely that Fu was in his mid 20s when he took this step. There are also accounts that suggest that Fu himself may have served as the village boxing instructor at some points during this period.

If so, his tenure was likely to have been an eventful one. 1900 saw widespread violence as the Yihi Boxer movement swept the countryside of Northern China before centering its fury on the foreign presence in Beijing.  The immediate aftermath of this was more bloodshed and foreign military raids into the countryside around Beijing as the seven powers attempted to hunt down any remaining Boxers. Nor can we forget the lingering effects of the famine that motivated so many young men to join the ranks of the Yihi Boxers in the first place.

Social violence echoed throughout the countryside and Mape village was not spared. There are accounts of Fu personally facing down a small gang of local bandits while armed with a pole (possibly made of iron) in 1900.  In another account, which Lin and Wing deem to be credible, Fu was forced to interrupt his time in Beijing (where he was studying Bagua with Ma Gui, a senior disciple of Yin Fu) to return to his village in 1908 where there were rumors of trouble.

In the most spectacular versions of the story Fu, discovering the villagers massively outnumbered by a force of 300 bandits, Fu offered to fight a duel with their top 20 men.  The bandit leader was so impressed with his subsequent victory that he broke off the assault.  However, Lin and Wing note that Fu’s own account of the events (while cryptic) is far more realistic.  When directly questioned later in life he told his student Lin Chao Zhen “They told me there was trouble, so I grabbed a spear and went out to face them.  There were about 30 of them. I fought them, they left.”

According to Lin and Wing, it seems likely that Fu killed two of the raiders in a clash between roughly equal numbers of villagers and bandits. The legal repercussions for killing someone in Imperial China were serious, and on the dusty northern plains the line between one village’s militia and the next’s bandit gang was paper thin.  It was not uncommon for villages militias to turn bandit and raid neighboring settlements in times of famine, or for them to be used to settle disputes.  We don’t really know what sparked this particular clash, but its implications were serious enough that Fu left home and he doesn’t seem to have really returned. Instead this clash seems to mark the beginning of a long period of martial pilgrimage that would only end with his settlement in Guangzhou in 1928.

Banditry was a major problem in the final years of the Qing dynasty.  Successful groups could assemble forces numbering in the thousands and occasionally tens of thousands. These bandit armies would lay siege to small cities and challenge the authority of civil and military authorities. Lacking other options, the state sometimes dealt with particularly successful bandits by offering them commissions as military officers in exchange for their services hunting down other bandit groups or suppressing insurrection in the countryside. Like the martial arts, banditry proved to be a pathway for social advancement for some of China’s landless youth during volatile times.

Nor should we underestimate just how high one’s fortunes could rise.  Republic era generals Zhang Zuolin and Li Zongren were important figures in the political history of the 1920s and 1930s. Both men also crossed paths with Fu at various points.

Zhang and Li each began their rise to power as bandit chieftains in some of the same areas of Northern China that Fu would explore as a member of an armed escort company.  Both men would successfully parlay their original commissions by the Imperial military into positions of influence, and immense personal enrichment, in the armies of the 1920s and 1930s.  During the early 20th century they would also use their followers as “armed escort companies” when periods of relatively peace allowed regional trade in Henan and Shandong.  Fu’s formative years occurred in decades when the line between martial artists, bandit, soldier and armed escort/security guard were thin and ever shifting.  Indeed, these social networks would have an important shaping impact on Fu’s own rise to prominence.

Between the years 1910 and 1913 Fu Zhen Song traveled widely, exploring northern China.  In 1910 he was hired by one of Henan’s many armed escort companies, the Heng Xin Bio Ju. While working with them he traveled the dangerous routes between Henan and Shandong until the firm was ultimately forced to close by the conclusion of the revolution in 1912.

Fu continued to travel for another year, apparently seeking out martial arts instruction.  During late 1912 or 1913 he encountered noted Daoist and swordsman Song Wei Yi (1855-1925). While he may have studied some sword material with him, Lin and Wing report that his main aim was to learn Taiji Lightening Palm and Rocket Fist.

During this time Fu somehow found the opportunity to marry Han Kunru, the daughter of another martial arts teacher from Northern China. They would eventually have four children in total, two sons and two daughters. The elder son would go on to inherit his father’s martial lineage, and later taught Mark Bow Sim, the mother of film star Donnie Yen. While the younger son was not interested in martial arts, there are accounts of both daughters assisting their father in Taijiquan demonstrations.




Soldiers and Warlords

Fu’s life began to head in a different later in 1913.  At the age of 41 he formally enlisted in the military after receiving an invitation to act as a drill and martial arts instructor for General Liu Zhenhua.  At the time Liu was a prominent figure in the Beiyang army. That institution would fragment following Yuan Shikan’s attempts to declare himself emperor (and his subsequent death) in 1915. Its disintegration would put China firmly on the path to warlordism in the early years of the Republic.

The upheavals of 1915 saw Fu resign from the military and leave his post training a dadao unit. Still, he would not stay away from the military for long.  After a few more years of travel and work as an independent martial artist, Fu would re-enlist in the military in 1920 (now age 46) with the combined Heibei-Shandong United Army under the command of renown General Li Jinglin. Known as the “Sword Saint,” Li is best remembered for his support of the Chinese martial arts (especially Song Wei Yi’s Wudang sword method) later in life. Yet in the early 1920s his troops saw frequent action, often in alliance with the military faction led by General Zhang Zuo Lin.

The sources that I have seen are silent as to why, and under what capacity, Fu decided to reenlist. Perhaps he was working as a trainer, but it seems that it took some effort to attract Li’s attention and to achieve a command of his own. This occurred only after Fu managed to distinguish himself in a martial arts exhibition with a display of his external styles that the General (always a boxing enthusiast) was attending. Fu was given command of a 100-man martial arts company that was drilled in a variety of more combative techniques.

At this point Fu’s fortunes began to rapidly accelerate. In 1921 (or possibly 1922) Fu took part in a martial arts exhibition in Tianjin. General Zhang Zoulin (the “Old Marshall”) was so taken with this performance that he awarded Fu the not insubstantial prize of $1,000 and a huge dadao or baguadao, that would go on to become Fu’s signature weapon, seen in so many of his existing photos and used in countless public demonstrations.  Later General Zhang appointed Fu as a coach at the Northern Martial Arts Institute where he would have the privilege of training two of the General’s sons.

Still, I don’t think that this should not be understood as a fundamental shift in patronage. I suspect that General Li Jinglin remained Fu’s main benefactor throughout this period. After being routed by Wu Peifu in 1922, Li sought refuge with Zhang brining his still intact forces with him. One suspect that Fu’s various appointments happened at Li’s suggestions or instigation. Nor would this be the last time that Li recommend Fu for a high-profile teaching assignments.

Li and Fu also engaged in a productive exchange of skills.  Both had a prior relationship with Song Wei Yi, though it seems that they studied different subjects.  Fu learned Song’s sword system from Li, who was a major promoter of Wudang sword.  In exchange Fu taught him Bagua.

Zhang’s somewhat tumultuous career would shape the lives of both Fu and Li for the next five years. The civil regime that Zhang established in Manchuria proved to be one of the most effective local government in all of China for a time, encourage economic growth and trade. Still, Zhang’s military ambitions would ultimately undermine this, leading to his own murder at the hands of his supposed Japanese allies.

After the tumult of the second Zhili-Fengtain War in 1924, Zhang’s military forces underwent a fundamental reorganization. As a result of this, General Li Jinglin’s portfolio was expanded and he was named the Commander-in-Chief of the Three Eastern Provinces. Fu received a promotion of his own, now being tasked with a battalion of 500 soldiers.

Again, the situation proved to be short-lived. Zhang’s military and economic position were ultimately unstainable. After a final falling out with Zhang, Li resigned and retired in 1927. Fu also retired from the military at roughly the same. While he would not return to active service, his contacts with various officers and warlords would continue to shape his career in the coming decades.

The timing of Li and Fu’s retirement left them well position to find a place within the newly unified government that Chiang Kai-shek built in the wake of the Northern Expedition. For martial artists the most important institutional innovation of this period was the creation of the Guoshu movement, which received strong backing from some elements of the KMT. Indeed, the new institute in Nanjing proved to be the perfect job for General Zhang Zhi Jiang (director), and the newly retired Li Jinglin (vice chairman) who remained a major force promoting the martial arts as a unifying and strengthening force for the new China.  Zhang Zhi Jiang appointed Fu as a chief instructor in the Wudang section of the organization, likely at Lin’s instigation.

This was an important time for Fu. His training of military personal tended to focus on practical skills and the use of the dadao rather than the intricacies of Baguazhang or Taijiquan performance. His association with the Central Guoshu Institute allowed him to return his focus to the more civil aspects of his training, all of which would become critical as he later turned his attention to the formulation of a unique “Fu-style” of both arts. While in Nanjing he was also able to renew his contacts with other luminaries within the Chinese martial arts community.

Among the most important of these were Sun Lu Tang (1862-1933) and Yang Cheng Fu (1883-1936). Fu studied with both men, and exchanged his newly acquired knowledge of Wudang sword for Sun’s own style of Taiji and Xingyiquan. Lin and Wing conclude that Fu was influenced by Sun’s more philosophical theories of the martial arts and that they became a major motivating force in his own creation of the Fu style Baguazhang and Taiji.




The Southbound Tiger

Still, Nanjing was not to be Fu’s long-term home. He acquitted himself well in the Central Guoshu Institute.  Lin and Wing note that in April of 1928, at the age of 54, he fought and defeated a challenger in a tournament in Beijing who had already defeated multiple younger martial artists aligned with the Guoshu program. Later that year he gave a public Bagua demonstration at the first national martial arts examination in Nanjing.

This proved to be a fateful event. One of the many spectators at the proceedings was General Li Jishen, commander of the Eight Route Army and the Governor of Guangdong. He was impressed with the new Guoshu program and resolved to fully back the movement in Southern China. I have discussed the details of this episode in my book on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. Briefly, Li saw the martial arts as a tool that could strengthen the people while promoting a greater sense of national, rather than regional, identity. The new Guoshu program, which was strongly oriented towards the northern arts, provided him the perfect instrument for accomplishing this goal.

At General Li Jinglin’s recommendation, Li Jishen invited five master to come to Guangzhou and, with a generous budget, establish a branch of the new national program there.  Once again, Li recommended his protégé Fu for the prestigious teaching position.

Upon arriving in Guangdong, the ambitious scale of what Li Jishen intended became clear.  Legislation was drawn up requiring the registration of all independent martial arts schools in the region.  Second, local martial arts associations and instructors were prohibited from opening any new schools. All new schools in the region would have to adhere to the official Guoshu curriculum and philosophy. If any of these policies had actually been enforced with the full weight of the local government and military, the results would have been catastrophic for the development of the Southern Chinese martial arts.

Yet, as so often happened, infighting and rivalry within the KMT undercut policy implementation. Within a few months of establishing his new Guoshu program, General Li Jishen found himself intervening in a leadership crisis that would see him marginalized within the Nationalist Party and ultimately turning to the Communists. His replacement, General Chen Ji Tang, immediately went about dismantling his predecessor’s expensive, and socially intrusive, Guoshu program.

This was not end of Gusoho in Guangzhou. Gu Ruzhang, another of the Li’s South Bound Tigers, created a second, much more modest, Gusohu organization which absorbed many of the government civil servant who had dominated the student body of the first school. However, without the lavish levels of government budgetary support (as well as legislation suppressing the other southern styles), Guoshu was now forced to compete on a more or less equal footing in what was already a very vibrant marketplace.

In the long run this seeming setback probably helped to spread and popularize the Northern arts in southern China. Li’s “South Bound Tiger” were forced to open their own classes throughout the region which would only succeed to the extent that they actually served the needs of the local population, as opposed to wished of the provincial governor and the military. Fu even found himself cooperating with the erstwhile competition. In addition to teaching both his own private classes, and those in the new Guoshu academy, he also became a fixture in Guangzhou’s Jingwu branch.

Originally Guoshu had been imagined as a replacement, not a compliment, for the waning Jingwu program. Where as Jingwu had promoted a vision of Chinese strength and nationalism that was mostly apolitical, Guoshu was aggressively statist in its orientation and took as its central goal increasing the loyalty of the people to the KMT and Chaing Kai-shek. These avowedly political values were the reason why Guoshu tended to position itself as a replacement, rather than a compliment, to other martial movements. It was also the reason why the leaders of areas of China that were not strongly in Chiang Kai-shek’s camp tended to avoid the program all together. It is thus politically and socially important to note that while Fu and his fellow Tigers eventually enjoyed success in the spreading of Northern styles throughout Southern China, this success came through marketplace competition and even cooperation with the Jingwu Association.

Sadly, there is less reliable information about this period than one might like.  Lin and Wing rightly note that there are many stories of brutal challenge fights between Northern and Southern masters but its hard to know what to do with these. It is interesting to note that in the folklore of the Northern systems, it is inevitable that the Northern master wins.  Yet somehow when Southern lineages tell these stories the victors are always the resilient local masters.  In any case, so many of these stories contain clearly borrowed or stereotyped elements that it seems unlikely that we can use them as a historical guide.  For instance, the authors one instance in which Fu supposedly injured a rival Taijiquan instructor in a bout of push-hands, and was then forced to rely on his knowledge of internal medicine and energy flows to heal his erstwhile rival. This same feat has also been attributed to countless other masters.

What does seem to be clear is that Fu continued to draw on his contacts with various high-ranking military officers as he built his organization and gained students.  General Li Jinglin moved to Guangzhou for a time during this period. While I have seen no indication that Fu taught at the Whampoa military academy or its successor, it is clear that he continued to train a number of soldiers during the 1930s.  Lin and Wing indicate that these students generally received practical combative drills, while most of his civilian students were interested in Taijiquan. Up until 1935 Fu taught Sun Lu Tang’s approach to the art, before moving to his own synthesis.  While Fu was best known for his contributions to Baguazhang, that system tended not to be as popular with average students.  Finally, he taught his now completed Fu style to a handful (6-7) of personal disciples as well as his son. Perhaps his most important private student during this period was the young General Sun Baogang.

Fu seems to have become unexpectedly wealthy for a martial arts instructor during the 1930s.  In a period when few individuals in China could even aspire to own a car, he had two, including an imported British Austin. Lin Chao Zhen discussed his Master’s popularity during this period and his frequent public appearances. Still, there are some suggestions in these accounts that Fu might have been a difficult collaborator. Lin Chao Zhen notes that Fu would refuse to attend any festival or demonstration where he did not receive top billing. If he discovered that he was not the highlight of the program after arriving, Lin notes that his teacher would simply walk out without a word of warning to the organizers.

General Sun was accepted as Fu’s personal disciple in 1937 or 1938. One suspects that this marked the highpoint of his influence within the Southern Chinese martial arts community. In October of 1937 the Japanese invasion forced the closure of most of the martial arts schools in the region. Fu, like others, began to offer instruction to various patriotic groups and hastily arranged Big Sword chapters. More specifically, he took up a position at the People’s Anti-Japanese Athletic Association in Guangzhou. He was 66 years old at the start of the war.

Like so many other martial artists, Fu retreated before the Japanese advance. Before leaving the Pearl River Delta he buried his prized Baguadao, awarded to him by General Zhang Zoulin in 1921. Sadly, he would be unable to retrieve the sword after the war either because it was looted (a fate shared by many buried treasures) or its actual location was forgotten.

Taking his family, Fu moved to the small village of Qujiang, near Shaoguan (then called Kukong), in the far northern reaches of Guangdong.  It was in Shaoguan that the provincial government established its temporary headquarters.  Fu does not appear to have been inactive during this time. Lin and Wing note that in 1938 he started his own Taijiquan journal titled the Taiji Special. This publication ran for about a decade (though I am uncertain as to how wide its circulation was). The editorial statement, which they were kind enough to partially translate, suggests a fairly mainline Guoshu orientation.

The years following the end of the war in 1945 were difficult ones for Fu, now 73. He returned to Guangzhou and lived in a house owned by General Sun, along with the General’s sister and her son. Fu provided private lessons for the General’s nephew. He was less successful in reestablishing his network of personal students and classes. Given the general hostility toward the martial arts in the immediate aftermath of WWII, this is not really a surprise. Still, his situation improved when his family returned to the area and his son could help with the teaching load. Fu continued to do larger public demonstrations. He also enjoyed leading a rotating two month Taijiquan class at the local YMCA.

The KMT finally collapsed in 1949 as the Communists seized control of the rump national government in Guangzhou.  General Sun Baogang fled to Hong Kong.  Following a well-established pattern he turned to martial arts instruction as a retirement job and spread his teacher’s Fu style of Baguazhang and Taijiquan throughout the colony. Indeed, Hong Kong proved to be an excellent platform for launching a number of Chinese martial arts, including Fu’s synthesis, into the global marketplace.  But that story will have to wait for another day.

Fu Zhensong and his family remained in Gungzhou as the city transitioned to the new order. Fu would even live to see the reemergence of interest in Wushu (as the term Guoshu was now distinctly out of favor) in the early 1950s.  He gave his final public performance of his beloved Dragon Baguazhang to thunderous applause at a public demonstration in 1953. He would die later that same evening at the age of 81.





While not a Bagua student, I find it hard not to be fascinated with Fu’s life and contributions. Clearly his role in the promotion of the Northern arts in southern China was critical. He also seems to have been the only one of the South Bound Tigers to really make Guangzhou his home.  One can only imagine what he would have thought of the near tropical south after half a lifetime spent on Northern China’s cold and dusty plains.

Yet as a student of Chinese martial studies, I believe that the value of Fu’s life transcends his contributions to Baguazhang or Taijiquan. His career bears vivid testimony to the ways in which the martial arts could open possibilities for travel and social advancement that would be otherwise unthinkable for so many young men from modest backgrounds. None of the biographies I reviewed mentioned any period of prolonged formal education in Fu’s background.  One rather suspects that he would agree with General Li Zongren (another northern bandit chief turned warlord and acquaintance) that the education he received came directly from the “university of the Greenwood Forest.”  Still, in the tumultuous years of the 1920s and 1930s, that was enough to rise to surprising heights.  Further, Fu’s career is important in that it illustrates the continued importance of military associations and sponsorships to so many of China’s professional martial arts instructors during the Republic period.

This does not mean that Fu was teaching complex Buagua routines to General Li Jinglin’s dadao troops.  Indeed, he was quite explicit in noting that what he taught to his military and civilian students was actually very different.  Still, Fu’s career stands as an important reminder of a time when martial arts training allowed one to travel not just the countryside, but to cross the boundaries between farmer, bandit, soldier and respected teacher.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Lives of Chinese Martial Artists (21): Zhang Zhijiang, Father of the Guoshu Movement


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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

Gu Ruzhang: Creating a Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Gu Ruzhang: The South Bound Tiger.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusion: Gu Ruzhang as a Wandering Tiger

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bringing Northern Styles South: A Brief History of the Liangguang Guoshu Institute



Transforming Southern Martial Culture


How did Taijiquan, now ubiquitous, establish itself in Southern China?  What about the other northern Shaolin systems? I would think that the lion’s share of the credit must go to the Jingwu Association which introduced and popularized several systems throughout the 1920s.  Still, the institutional structure of the modernist Jingwu Association tended to absorb sets from various arts rather than presenting them as distinct, self-contained, lineages.  The other actor, frequently noted in this equation, is the Guoshu (National Arts) movement.

Guangdong province established its own branch of this national organization relatively early on. I recently heard the assertion that all of the “traditional” practices of southern China could be classified into three categories.  First, one had the local Cantonese arts (Hung Gar, Choy Li Fut, etc..), next there were the Hakka styles (White Eyebrow, Dragon) and finally there are the northern arts (Taijiquan, Northern Shaolin). The argument went that it was ultimately the Central Guoshu Association, and their program to promote national unity through martial arts training, that should receive the credit for disseminating these styles to the south.

This particular assertion was made much too quickly, and the author was speedily on to other topics. Still, I think it would be worth our time to go back and parse these events more carefully. Guoshu, as both a term, idea and a historical movement, seems to be enjoying a mini-renaissance at the moment.  Speculation as to why this is, and what it ultimately suggests about contemporary Chinese martial arts culture, will need to wait for a separate blog post. Yet, at least in the case of Southern China, it is interesting to note that many of the organization’s greatest contributions to martial culture are rooted in its institutional failures, rather than success.  The following meditation on these questions is based largely on research conducted for my co-authored volume (with Jon Nielson) on the social history of the Southern Chinese martial arts. If you are interested in chasing down a more complete account of Guoshu in the Pearl River Delta (or my footnotes) take a look at chapter three.

In a certain sense the prior assertion by the unnamed author is absolutely correct.  Even if the Jingwu Association whetted the public’s appetite, the Guoshu movement was directly responsible for the export of many important styles and lineages to the south. Still, if we succumb to a type of easy romanticism about this process, we risk misunderstanding both the nature of the Southern Chinese martial culture and the severity of the challenge that it posed to a program consciously designed to displace regional traditions with a more universal set of practices and identities. Yes, national reformers were able to use the martial arts to shape debates about what the “New China” should be.  Yet local society could also turn to these practices in launching their own broadsides against outside forces.




A group photo of organizers and athletes at the 1928 National Guoshu Examination.


A Governor Goes North

The first common misconception that casual readers might have is that the Guoshu organization was truly national in scope. Andrew Morris has noted that the movement’s pretensions to universality and sectoral dominance never materialized in real life.  Indeed, it would have been practically impossible for any organization to fully integrate itself into Chinese life, in both the city and the countryside, in only a few years during the turbulent 1930s. China was just too large and complex for this to happen.  Further, many of the specific challenges that Guoshu faced stemmed from the group’s unapologetically partisan nature.

Unlike the Jingwu Association, the Central Guoshu Institute was not dedicated to vague notions of Chinese nationalism.  Its goals were much more statist in orientation. While encouraging patriotism was important, the group received enthusiastic government backing as it also sought to indoctrinate its practitioners with loyalty to the KMT, and to Chiang Kai-shek in particular. This became an issue as, his victory in the Northern Campaign notwithstanding, not all of the KMT’s notoriously independent cliques and generals were equally enthusiastic about aligning themselves with Chiang and his program.  As such, many regions of China actually resisted the spread of the Guoshu.  Or, to be more precise, while they may have enthusiastically embraced the name Guoshu, and certain philosophical notions about national strengthening through the reform of the martial arts, they were not about to turn local “paramilitary” assets over to Chiang and his allies.

Morris asks us to consider the case of Shanxi Province in the 1930s.  Long a stronghold of traditional boxing, readers may be surprised to learn that it had no official Guoshu chapter.  This fact may not at first be evident.  The province actually boasted over 500 registered martial arts societies in the 1930s, and many of them using the term Guoshu in their names (evidence of the fashionable nature of the word).  Yet the entire area was administered by the independent warlord Yan Xishan who carefully avoided any contact with a program that was (quite correctly) perceived as a tool of Chaing Kai-shek’s close backers.

A very similar pattern could be seen in Fujian and Guangdong.  Both provinces were formally administered by the KMT, yet in the post-1927 era their leadership was sometimes protective of their local autonomy.  This institutional weakness within the KMT impeded the expansive vision of the Guoshu Institute.

That is not to say that the new movement didn’t have important allies.  In October of 1928, General Li Jinshen (governor of Guangdong and an important military figure at the time) visited the first national martial arts examination hosted by the newly organized Central Guoshu Institute in Nanjing. He was so impressed with what he saw that he decided to commit substantial resources to promoting the Guoshu program in Guangxi and Guangdong.  He invited Wan Lai Sheng (a Six Harmonies and Shaolin Master) and Li Xian Wu (Taijiquan and a native of Guangdong), to return with him to Guangzhou.

Li quickly drew up plans that were approved by the local government. Wan Lai Sheng was formally appointed the head of the new provincial organization by General Li’s Eighth Army. Given the ambitious nature of Li’s plans, Wan then went about recruiting a number of high-profile instructors.  These included Fu Zhensong, Li Xian Wu, Wan Laimin and Gu Ru Zhang (who many readers will already be familiar with).  Gu would go on to become the central figure in the promotion of Bak Shaolin (Northern Shaolin) in Guangdong province.  These instructors, and Wan, were known in the press as the “The Five Southbound Tigers.”

Li’s Liangguang Guoshu Institute first opened its doors in March of 1929, hosting three sets of two-hour classes a day.  The organization had an initial enrollment of 140 students, which quickly increased to close to 500.  Still, a closer examination revealed something odd. Rather than filling its ranks with local martial artists looking to get on board with the new national program, almost all of these students were low ranking civil service personal. Still, there was enough “official” demand to both expand the class structure and to begin to offer off-campus instruction at any business or office which could meet the financial requirements and guarantee at least 20 students.  Chinese sources note that, once again, it was government offices that dominated the off-campus study program.

Despite these initial struggles to penetrate the local martial arts sub-culture, or perhaps because of them, Governor Li pressed ahead with an ambitious agenda for the Liangguang Guoshu Institute.  This was aided through the efforts of the local government.  First, an ordinance was passed mandating registration and licensing of all martial arts organizations or schools in the province.  Second, the creation of any new martial arts school or organization not administered by the institute’s (mostly Northern) staff was banned. Finally, money was set aside for the creation of a regional publication dedicated to advancing the nationalist and pro-KMT “Guoshu philosophy.”

Backed by the full might of the Eighth Army, the provincial government, and an enthusiastic governor, such a set of reforms could have had stifled Southern China’s vibrant martial culture. Indeed, that seems to have been precisely the goal of their effort.  General Li Jishen was quite sincere in his desire to bring the local martial arts community to heel, effectively transforming it into a tool to be exploited by the state. While it remains unclear to me whether these sorts of orders could have been enforced in the countryside, their impact on urban Choy Li Fut or Hung Gar schools would have been disastrous.  Deep pools of local knowledge and experience were about to be sacrificed on the altars of “national unity.”

It is interesting to speculate on whether, and how successfully, the local martial arts sector would have resisted these efforts.  Fortunately, historians have no answer to that question as Li’s ambitious plans fell apart almost immediately. Indeed, the great weakness of Guoshu’s rapid expansion was that its success depended not so much on popular demand as the political calculations of often unpredictable leaders.

In May of 1929, General Li Jishen took the spectacular step of resigning as governor and traveling to Nanjing with the intention of mediating a truce between Chiang Kai-shek and the “New Guangxi Clique.”  This was, to say the least, a serious strategic miscalculation.  Negotiations went badly and Chiang (quite predictably) was furious. He had General Li arrested and held until his eventual release in 1931, after which he drifted towards the Communist Party. This left Guangdong in need of a new governor. They received one in the form of Chen Jitang, who is still remembered for his social reforms (the creation of a very basic social safety net) and building programs (he paved the streets of Guangzhou).

One of Chen’s first acts upon taking office was to disband the Guoshu Institute. It is likely that Chen saw this organization as a potential political threat. After all, he did not create it, and many of the individuals within it were loyal to his predecessor. It is also likely that Chen did not want to be that closely associated with a group that was so much under of the influence of Chiang’s most ardent supporters. Whatever the actual reason, budget concerns were cited as the precipitating factor.  With a total budget of 4,500 Yuan a month, the Institute was a notable undertaking. But that figure hardly seems outrageous given Li’s expansive vision for the organization.  All told the Liangguang Guoshu Institute closed its doors after only two months, and without making any progress towards its ambitious goals.

That is where its story ends.  The initial attempts to establish Guoshu in Guangzhou immediately fell victim to internal politics within the KMT. In retrospect it is almost too predictable.

All of which is great, because what happened next had an actual shaping effect on the development of Southern martial culture. The surprising collapse of the Liangguang Institute left a number of extremely talented Northern martial arts exponents unemployed (and more or less stranded) in Guangzhou.  This seeming setback created new opportunities that spread the Northern arts more effectively than anything that Li had envisioned.  After all, most of the instruction that had been provided in these initial months was directed at a relatively small group of government employees.  Chen’s forced dissolution of the organization allowed its instructors to enter into a much broader (and truly competitive) marketplace for martial arts instruction. It was within these smaller commercial schools that arts such as Bak Siu Lam and Taijiquan really took off and came to be accepted by the general public.

Following the breakup of the Guoshu Institute, Li Xian Wu was hired by the Guangdong branch of the Jingwu Assocation as its new director of academic affairs. He later published a well-known guide to taijiquan. Gu Ru Zhang proved to be among the most influential of the remaining staff. Attempting to capitalize on the work that was already accomplished, he sought to create the Guangzhou Guoshu Institute (formally established in June of 1929).  Gu was selected as its president, Wang Shaozhou was named its vice president and Re Shen Ku, Li Jing Chun and Yang Ting Xia (the wife of Wang), were all hired as instructors.

This new, smaller, organization enjoyed a measure of official backing and was housed in the National Athletic Association building on Hui Fu East Road in Guangzhou.  That said, the new institute never subscribed to the grandiose policy objectives of its predecessors. Rather than regulating Southern China’s martial arts sector, it essentially entered the economic marketplace as one school among many.

And as fate would have it, Gu’s new efforts found some real success. In 1936 the Guangdong Province Athletic Association sponsored a martial arts exhibition at the Guangzhou Public Stadium.  Gu’s Guangzhou Guoshu Institute performed for an enthusiastic crowd and received an award from the local government.  Still, like most of the other local martial arts organizations it was forced to shut its doors in 1938 during the Japanese occupation. Yet it was due to the more private efforts of Gu and his fellow instructors, rather than the grandiose machinations of General Li, that the Northern arts established long lasting schools and lineages in Southern China.  They did so by entering the marketplace and providing a good that consumers actually wanted.


An image of a now famous postcard that Gu Ruzhang sent to his students.



Martial Arts and the Weakness of “Established Churches”

It would be impossible to tell the story of China’s twentieth century martial arts without carefully reviewing the political opportunities, alliances and entanglements that presented themselves in each era.  Still, as we review this material it quickly becomes evident that political sponsorship is a double-edged sword.  More than one martial arts organization was destroyed by the capricious winds of change blowing through China’s political history.  Political alliances proved to be a pathway to rapid growth, but also rapid obsolesce.

Leaders have repeatedly sought to use the martial arts as one element of larger campaigns to shape society more to their liking.  In the short-run this creates funding and promotional opportunities. But it also creates martial arts institutions that are more responsive to the demands of political elites than the public who must actually attend classes and pay their sifu’s rent.  Such a bargain is rarely good for the martial arts in the long-run as it prevents them from establishing the type of relationship with consumers that is necessary to survive periods of rapid social change.

The story of the Liangguang Guoshu Institute offers a critical insight into the strengths and weaknesses of “established” martial arts (to borrow a term of religious studies.) As a government backed institution, the only students it seemed capable of recruiting were individuals already dependent on the governor for their paychecks. Yet when its instructors were released into the competitive marketplace, they created popular schools and practices that quickly spread the northern styles across southern China. That has had a lasting impact on Guangdong’s martial culture.



If you want to delve deeper into these questions check out: Government Subsidization of the Martial Arts and the Question of “Established Churches”




Views from the South – Martial Arts of Vietnam, Part I

Giáng long thôi sơn (“Descending dragon presses the mountain”)—Vietnamese martial artists training amidst Cham ruins in Bình Định of southcentral Vietnam. Source:  ZingNews.


***Greetings!  What follows is the first installment in a short series discussing the martial arts and martial culture of Vietnam.Trần Khải Hoài is a talented young scholar who I had the pleasure of getting to know while I was a Visiting Scholar at Cornell. He is also a dedicated martial artists who shares our passion for the academic exploration of these topics. I have been thinking about the Vietnamese martial arts community for some time, so I was very pleased when he approached me about the possibility of contributing a couple of guest posts on the topic. It is my hope that this will get the ball rolling as scholars increasingly turn their attention to another, even more southern, martial arts community.***


Views from the South

By Trần Khải Hoài

‘O soul, come back!  In the south you cannot stay.
There the people have tattooed faces and blackened teeth;
They sacrifice flesh of men and pound their bones for meat paste.
There the venomous cobra abounds, and the great fox that can run a hundred leagues,
And the great nine-headed serpent, who darts swiftly this way and that,
And swallows men as a sweet relish.
O soul, come back!  In the south you may not linger.’
                                               —Song Yu (fl. 277–263 B.C.E.)[1]

Of keen interests for readers of this blog has been questing for ways to imagine southern Chinese martial arts in particular and positioning Chinese martial arts more broadly across time, spaces, and societies.  Sometimes during this journey about history, states, and peoples, it is helpful to reorient our bearings.  In light of this, I thought it befitting to reflect on the view from the peripheral south: Việt Nam.

What kind of place is the peripheral south?  In the above poem from Songs of the South, Song Yu impresses us with quite harrowing a world inhabited by tattooed, black-toothed men of the wilds cavorting among strange and awesome beasts.  The South is no place for holiday.  On the contrary, for Song Yu’s “Summoning the Soul,” a funerary song incanted by a female shaman, the South is literally hell.  The power of the shaman’s spell is that, as she casts her gaze out towards the remote periphery, her voice bellows from the sanctuary of a centered realm, where men do not cure human flesh and snakes have only one head.  Her call resounds with the centripetal tug of civilization that beckons the wildered soul to seek refuge in the Middle Kingdom of the Central Plains, in this case the state of Chu along the Yangtze River south (Jiangnan).       

Still, as the shaman espies the southern horizons, her gaze belies her own enchantment.  The south effuses its own allure marked by wonderment and awe.  If the north could be stable, civil, and safe, then the south could be adventurous, exotic, and seductive.  In the medieval Chinese imagination, the remote south evoked all sorts of exotica from frightful miasmic (malarial) rains, meteoric thunder axes, elephant-swallowing serpents, and manslaying crabs “capable of fighting a tiger” to the captivating beauty of coy maidens gathering water lilies (the fabled Xi Shi among them), numinous turtles, night-shining moon pearls, and the so-called Bird of Yue/Việt (i.e., peacock).[2]  


Southeast Asia 1000–1100: The yellow region indicates the former Champa Empire, while  Great Yue/Việt is in blue. Source: Wikimedia.


The name of the latter fowl begs pause for some reflection about nomenclature.  “Yue” and “Việt” are different pronunciations of a single lexical item, the first being Mandarin and the second Vietnamese.  In the Sinitic literary tradition, “Yue/Việt” encompassed various regions of the Yangtze River’s south, at first the lower Yangtze River Delta but, by the second century before the common era, also the regions of Fujian, Guangxi, Guangdong, and Việt Nam.  For a millennium, connotations and associations of “Yue/Việt” continued to add new layers to the medieval core of the Sinitic literary tradition.  “Chinese” and “Vietnamese” polities may have gone their separate ways in the tenth and eleventh centuries, but they continued to share a literary heritage, including the accreted meanings of “Yue/Viẹt.”[3]  Indeed, the now familiar differentiation between the Sinographs for Cantonese 粵 and Vietnamese 越 was not completely systematized until well into the twentieth century.  (And by then literate Vietnamese were already making the switch from Sinographs to French and Vietnamese romanization).    

Medieval Chinese views of the Yue/Việt south as revealed in ancient odes like “Summoning the Soul” betray an otherizing gaze.  Yue/Việt did not denote a geographic space so much as it signified an elusive beyond, the “out there,” where Chinese civilization fades away in increasing gradations toward an ever-distant south.  In this sense, Yue/Việt does not suggest a geographic space as much as a liminal space, a transition zone between cultured humanity and animalian wilderness.  This is one reason, in addition to their watery environs, that Yue/Việt peoples of the lower Yangtze were described as aquatic creatures with fishlike or reptilian tattoos living among seductive serpents and nine-tailed foxes (or shapeshifters of such visage).[4]


Image circa 1908 of woman with turban and blackened teeth at Yên Bái in Tonkin of French Indochina.  Source: Wikimedia.


Yet, there is a semblance of truth behind northern visions of the Yue/Việt south.  Austroasiatic and Austronesian peoples south of the Yangtze actually did tattoo their bodies and pursue maritime or riverine livelihoods.  Water dominated their views of both themselves and their domain.  For them, even the afterlife could be a waterscape navigated by canoe-shaped coffins.[5]  (And in one case, at least, royalty actually did inter the dead with human sacrifices).[6]  In fact, today, water continues to abound in the landscape, culture, and idioms of the people of southern China and Vietnam.[7]  In some remote places, “Yue/Việt” peoples can still be found with apotropaic tattoos and teeth blackened from areca nut and betel leaves.  Sometimes urban spaces, too, accord with old views of the south.  For instance, in Việt Nam today, it is still customary for high school and college maidens to dress up and stage photoshoots of themselves bashfully plucking lotus blossoms in what has become almost a rite of passage.  

What does all this mean for southern Chinese martial arts?  By way of example, let us revisit a figure who has frequented these pages before, the Maiden of Yue/Việt.  Dr. Judkins has previously provided us with Stephen Selby’s translation of this tale from Zhao Ye’s (fl. 1st–2nd C.) Spring and Autumns of Wu and Yue.  I retranslate an excerpt below. My work is not superior, but my rendering brings into relief certain elements conducive to our discussion.

[King of Yue/Viẹt’s strategist said], “Now I have heard that in Yue/Việt is a virgin girl who emerged from the southern forests.  The kingdom’s people regard her as excellent.  I pray that the king invite her so that you may see her stand [before you].”  

King of Yue/Việt then sent and emissary to arrange for her and inquire of the arts of the sword and dagger-axe spear.  

The virgin girl went north to present herself to the king.  On the way, she encountered an old man, who called himself Mr. Yuan.  He inquired of the virgin girl, “I have heard that the master excels at the sword.[8]  I wish to see it just once.”

The lass said, “Your lady does not dare conceal what she has.  Sir, just test me.”

Thereupon, Mr. Yuan drew a large, thinly leafed stalk of bamboo.  The top of the bamboo stalk was dry and stale.  Its end snapped off and dropped to the ground.  The lass immediately snatched the branch up.  Mr. Yuan wielded the stalk and thrust at the virgin girl.  The virgin girl received him, immediately closing in.  Three times she closed in, raising her stick to strike Mr. Yuan.[9]  Mr. Yuan then flew atop a tree, transforming into a white gibbon, and took off.[10]       

When [the maiden] appeared before the king, the Yue/Việt king asked, “As for the Way of the sword, what is it like?”

The lass said, “Your lady was born within the depths of the forest.  I matured in the wilderness absent of men.  There is no Way that I failed to practice.  Without attaining to feudal nobles, I secretly loved the Way of striking.  I mastered it restlessly until it was second-nature.  Your lady, without ever receiving it from any person, suddenly, naturally possessed it.”[11]

Maiden of Yue.  Today, such romantic images of the maiden owe much to Jin Yong’s short story about her, “Sword of the Yue Maiden” and its cinematic spinoffs. Source: Xuehua Xinwen (Snowflake News).


Thereafter, the maiden proceeds to explicate her thoughts on swordsmanship.  Personally, I am skeptical of attempts to identify a style of second century swordsmanship based on this passage (omitted here, see Selby).  As Erik Zurcher described decades ago, specialist knowledge in China often becomes differentiated only at elite or institutional peaks that emerge from a common cultural base.[12]  Expressions like yin-yangjing-shen (essence and spirit), and men-hu (gates and doors) can be readily found at the foot of China’s cultural mountainscape.  Accessing these items from a shared “cultural repertoire” does not in itself constitute a distinct method of swordplay.[13]  Furthermore, sometimes Chinese terms can sound more esoteric in translation than in their source language.  We can render tianqi “Qi of Heaven,” but simply calling it “weather” is fine, too.  Such processes often tell us more about the target language’s audience and the lives such operations are intended to italicize than they elucidate meanings for people of a distant past.  All in all, I have to say that looking for tangible sword techniques in the Maiden of Yue/Việt’s speech is about as substantiative as seeking ancient schools of ox-cutting and carpentry in Zhuangzi’s butcher and wheelwright.            

But as far as we might allow that the Maiden of Yue/Việt’s words do reflect her vision of swordplay, we must also take seriously her rustic self-introduction.  We cannot help but notice that the king and the lass seem to be talking past one another.  The king asked about pedagogy and method, but, for the maiden, swordsmanship is just fun.  Students of Austronesian martial arts in Southeast Asia such as those of the Cham, whose contributions to Vietnamese martial arts are as legion as they are left uncredited, will quickly recognize in the maiden’s words the role of flow and play for these arts in waking up the inherent, natural fighting movements of the human condition.  However historically specious, this observation begins to arrive at the heart of the issue.  It is in this tenuous intercourse between the “cultured” Sinitic north and the organic “wild” south that the meaning of “Yue/Việt” becomes apparent.  Thus, what interests me about this story is not whether it says anything about tactile motions of the sword but rather its suggestion of movement from the southern periphery to a conceptual civilized center up north.  In other words, the story speaks to the circulation of peoples, cultures, and ideas.    

With our eyes keen to such movement, the first thing that strikes us is that the maiden is not actually from Yue/Việt, but rather the depths of an unnamed southern forest.[14]  Only after she fully matures does she emerge from this wilderness to inhabit Yue/Việt and, eventually, venture further north for audience with the king.  Considering that, in the fifth century B.C.E., the ancient state of Yue/Việt at the lower Yangtze River was at the far reaches of Chinese civilization, the maiden’s origin is literally off the map.  Described as a virgin girl (chunǚ), she is immaculate and pristine, an elusive creature of an untamed periphery who belongs among the seductive, shape-shifting tree sprites, serpents, nine-tailed-foxes, and simian transcendents of the far south.  She is an enigma, relentlessly unattached and yet eternally available.  She eschews noble suitors and, only after the king “arranges for her,”[15] does she allow herself to be adopted as a “Daughter of Yue.”  Finally, when the king demands of her discursive tactics and practical techniques, the virgin girl only responds in the poetic (and, therefore, mystical) language that Dr. Selby has so inimitably captured.  Absent men, it is the only language she knows.       

What we see then in the story of the Maiden of Yue/Việt is the tentative domestication of the periphery and the concomitant infusion of remote mystery into a disciplined center.  Yue/Việt is thus a transformative space, where southern exotica meet the civilizing forces of the north.

The transfer of talent and knowledge in the story from south to north implies that the South could become its own center.  Indeed, this was the case.  Even before medieval times, Yue/Việt southerners transmitted Buddhism and medical knowhow to the north.[16]  In another particularly instructive instance, the Ming compelled a Vietnamese prince to train northerners in the art of artillery.[17]  Over time, this southern center grew increasingly distant from the north’s.  At first, Yue/Việt referred to an independent state just south of the lower Yangtze, roughly the area around Tai Lake with its center at Shaoxing, Zhejiang (where our swordswoman alighted).  With the rise of the Han Dynasty, this center shifted further south with the emergence of two Yue/Việt kingdoms that coexisted with Han, Min-Yue or Eastern Yue in Fujian and Southern Yue/Việt in the Pearl River Delta.  The latter was established by a diehard Qin general who ruled from Panyu over the regions of modern Guangdong, Guangxi, and northern Vietnam.[18]  

The Han eventually succeeded in conquering both Yue/Việt kingdoms by 111 B.C.E.  Nevertheless, it is worth musing about what may have come to be had they persisted, especially as it concerns Southern Yue/Việt.  There may be no “what ifs” in history, but sometimes such fantasies can shake us from retrospective bias.  As much as anyone may be inclined to behold the imperial legacy of the Han Dynasty as the cultural fodder that, after centuries of warring among disparate kingdoms, rekindled northern empire in the name of Sui and Tang, so one must also allow that the memory of Southern Yue/Việt coalesced in the eleventh century with the resurfacing of a new dynastic tradition in the Red River Delta of the far south, Great Yue/Việt.     


“Chinese Regular”—A member of the Black Flags, a bandit group that occupied sections of the Black and Red rivers in the later half of the 19th C. Source:  Charles-Edouard Hocquard, Une Campagne Au Tonkin (Paris: Hachette, 1892), 91.


Great Yue/Việt was a prime site for cultural alchemy, where Sinitic civilization met the “untamed” Việt and Mường peoples of the far south.  Even after Great Yue/Viẹt emerged as a sustained independent polity early in the eleventh century, “Vietnamese” ruling elites continued to speak a local dialect of Chinese as the prestige language for another three centuries, and they perpetuated their sense of cultured Efflorescence (Hua/Hoa) up through the modern era.[19]  It is not hard to understand why Hanoi like the maiden’s Yue of the past had its own West Lake and attendant lore about magic swords, reptilian spirits, elemental sprites, and nine-tailed foxes.[20]  Even as far south as the Mekong plains, Cantonese Yue from southern China, who sojourned and settled at Hà Tiên at the farthest reaches of Vietnamese empire, found common ground with their Việt interlocutors in their self-representation as “fish-dragons” of the South.[21]

But allusion to Yue/Việt of old could be provocative, too.  Great Việt imagined herself in the likeness of Southern Yue/Việt, and this always ran the risk of stirring trepidation in the North about the South’s dynastic pretensions.  Imperial China could brook only one emperor under heaven just as the sky would harbor but one sun.  That the movement of culture could reverse to course from an impertinent, “wild” South and upset the North’s centrality was anathema to Chinese empire.  This is why Ming power brokers launched a “decivilizing mission” to recast Great Yue/Việt as a backwater in the sixteenth century (we don’t have to worry about the Việt if they’re irredeemable fishy savages), and a Qing emperor took offense when, in 1802, a Vietnamese prince had the gall to declare himself the emperor of Southern Yue/Việt (the prince yielded and instead called his kingdom Yue/Việt South or Việt Nam).[22]

This is why visions of Yue/Việt matter to the martial arts of southern China, formerly the domains of Southern Yue (Cantonese) and Eastern Min-Yue (Fujianese).[23]  Yue/Việt is the locus of cultural negotiation between peoples of the north and south.  Regular readers of this blog would surely recognize the north-south circulation of cultures and peoples in these pages.  For instance, we see this dynamic at play in the lives of southbound masters, (including Leung Gee, a son of Leung Jan, and Yuen Chai Wan, both of whom taught Wing Chun to Yue/Cantonese migrants in Vietnam),[24] action films like Grandmaster (2013) and Final Master (2015), and the mainland’s angst that unruly ideas from the far south might upset the order up north.  In this sense, recent re-imaginings of the Little Dragon are only one more iteration of the Maiden of Yue/Việt.


 “Chinese Pirates”—river pirates in Tuyên Quang circa 1884. Source:  Charles-Edouard Hocquard, Une Campagne Au Tonkin (Paris: Hachette, 1892), 417.


Finally, consideration of the accreted, multivocal meanings of Yue/Việt invites us to think in terms of circulation rather than transmission.  Ultimately, stories like that of the Maiden of Yue/Việt are just snapshots of a larger phenomenon.  When we cast our gaze more broadly to those places, layered over time, that saw waves of northern “Chinese” migration and sojourns to lands inhabited by Austroasiatic and Austronesian peoples and subsequently came to be called Yue/Việt, we see a Yue/Việt littoral world that ranges across the coasts of southeastern China (Fujian, Guangdong, Hong Kong) and the Tonkin floodplains (Red River Delta, Mã River Basin) to the former maritime empire of Champa (Hội An, Đà Nẵng, Qúy Nhỡn, Phan Rang, etc.), the once Khmer Mekong Delta (Sàigòn), and the Cantonese founded entrepot of Hà Tiền.  From this purview, Yue/Việt becomes not only the place of contact between Sinitic civilization and the southern periphery, but it is also that of continental southeast Asian and the larger oceanic world.  From the vantage of the sea, Vietnam and southeastern China are but one circuit in the maritime coursings of the Pacific, and this implies that Yue/Việt entails a different kind of periphery, those shores lapped upon by the cultural and human waves of the seagoing world.[25]  

As such, can we reimagine Yue/Việt martial arts, including their subset of southern Chinese martial arts, as “Chinese circulations” that moved through Southeast Asian waters alongside a host of commodities, cultural manifestations, and their human vectors?[26]  For example, looking to other tales, can we see instead of the transmission of martial arts from Fujian (Fuzhou) to Ryukyu through Chinese seafarers their circulationthrough the overlapping, multidirectional currents that coursed the (predominantly Austronesian) Asian Pacific?  Can we see in these “Min-Yue” (Minnanese) the fish-dragons who interacted with their Okinawan counterparts, encountered participants of sprawling, stateless maritime networks (or, if you prefer, pirates), and alighted in distant places like say, Hội An, the former Cham turned Vietnamese entrepot that once received vast numbers of Japanese and other foreign seafarers?[27]  And if so, then how did (and do) Yue/Việt martial artists’ experiences with the sea create networks that like the Cham Whale God of the Southern Seas circle across oceans to bridge so-called Boat People and Yue/Việt diasporic communities with peoples of their homelands?


 Song long xuat hai—“Twin dragons emerge from the sea.” Source: ZingNews

[1] Liu Xiang, et. al., Chʻu Tzʻŭ: The Songs of the South, an Ancient Chinese Anthology, trans. David Hawkes, (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1959), 104.  Although the poem’s authorship is debatable, it is traditionally attributed to Song Yu.

[2] Edward Schafer, The Vermilion Bird: T’ang Images of the South (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 83, 130–131, 153, 160, 169–170, 209, 215, 225, 237.

[3] Ibid., 4–7; Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue: Perceptions and Identities on the Southern Frontier, c. 400 BCE–50 CE (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2015), 35–39.

[4] Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue, 173, 186–187.

[5] Ibid., 88–91, 164–168.

[6] Ibid., 210.

[7] Huỳnh Sanh Thông, “The Vietnamese Worldview: Water, Water Everywhere” Vietnam Review 2 (1997): 16–97.

[8] It was reported elsewhere on this blog that Stephen Selby’s text uses “stick” as a euphemism for sword.  This was not the case in all versions of the text that I have consulted; they consistently use jian.

[9] As is the case with English, the Chinese can be read to mean both “she closed in, raising her stick, and struck Mr. Yuan” and “she closed in, raising her stick to strike at Mr. Yuan.”

[10] Zhao Ye surely chose the name of the old stranger because his surname Yuan puns with the word for gibbon.  “White ape” is a more conventional translation than “white gibbon,” and, perhaps, more befitting a blog about martial arts, since White Ape is a well-known style of kung fu.  However, in the context of periphery, the smaller, tree dwelling gibbons of southwest China and Southeast Asia are better in light of the gibbon’s geography and literary function as a creature of mystery.  Edward Schafer, Vermillion Bird, 231.

[11] Zhao Ye, Xinyi Wu Yue chunqiu, ed. Huang Rensheng and Li Zhenxing (Taibei: Sanmin shudian, 1996), 305–306.  For netizens, reliable source text can be found at Chinese Text Projectedited by Donald Sturgeon. 

[12] Erik Zürcher, “Buddhist Influence on Early Taoism: A Survey of Scriptural Evidence,” T’oung Pao 66, no. 1 (1980): 146.

[13] Robert Ford Campany, “On the Very Idea of Religions (In the Modern West and in Early Medieval China),” History of Religions 42, no. 4 (2003): 317–319.

[14] Song commentators located the southern forest in Shanyin District (now part of Shaoxing, Zhejiang).  However, by Song times the “Yue/Việt” South had already shifted to the Pearl River and the Red River Deltas, so the literary connotation of periphery implied by “southern forest” was lost to them.  Instead, they tried to find it in the vicinity of Ancient Yue’s old capital Kuaji (Shaoxing).  Zhao Ye, Xinyi Wu Yue chunqiu, 307.

[15] Zhao Ye, a skillful writer, repeatedly implies courtship of the maiden through suggestive diction; here, his use of pin can mean “enlist,” but, in Ye’s day, it was also commonly used to arrange a marriage.

[16] C. Michele Thompson, “Selections from Miraculous Drugs of the South, by the Vietnamese Buddhist Monk-physician Tuệ Tĩnh,” in Buddhism and Medicine: an Anthology of Premodern Sources, ed. Pierce C. Salguero (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 561–568.

[17] Kathlene Baldanza, Ming China and Vietnam: Negotiating Borders in Early Modern Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2016), 65, 71.

[18] Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue, 92–111.

[19] K.W. Taylor, “Vietnamese Geopolitical Constraints,” LIMES 8 (2015),

[20] To folks curious about Hanoi’s place in Yue/Viet lore, I recommend chapter two of my forthcoming dissertation.

[21] Claudine Ang, Poetic Transformations: Eighteenth-century Cultural Projects on the Mekong Plains (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2019), 145–161.

[22] Kathlene Baldanza, Ming China and Vietnam, 1–4, 102–106.

[23] Erica Fox Brindley, Ancient China and the Yue, 92–111.

[24] Benjamin N. Judkins and Jon Nielson, The Creation of Wing Chun: A Social History of the Southern Chinese Martial Arts (Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2015), 174, 198.

[25] Li Tana, “A View from the Sea: Perspectives on the Northern and Central Vietnamese Coast,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 1 (2006): 83-102.

[26] Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-Chin Chang, “Introduction: The Arc of Historical Commercial Relations

between China and Southeast Asia,” in Chinese Circulations: Capital, Commodities, and Networks in Southeast Asia, ed. Eric Tagliacozzo and Wen-Chin Chang (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 1–17.

[27] On Vietnamese piracy, see: Stefan Eklöf Amirell, “Indochina,” in Pirates of Empire: Colonisation and Maritime Violence in Southeast Asia (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 161–208; Robert J. Antony, Like Froth Floating on the Sea: The World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China (Berkeley, CA: Institute of East Asian Studies, 2003), 38–43; ________, “Turbulent Waters: Sea Raiding in Early Modern South East Asia,” The Mariner’s Mirror 99, no. 1 (2013): 23-38; George E. Dutton, The Tây Son Uprising: Society and Rebellion in Eighteenth-Century Vietnam (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2006), 219–227; Dian H. Murray, Pirates of the South China Coast, 1790-1810(Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1987), 6–56.  For Hội An (Faifo), see: Charles Wheeler, “Re-thinking the Sea in Vietnamese History: Littoral Society in the Integration of Thuận Quảng, Seventeenth–Eighteenth Centuries,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 37, no. 1 (2006): 123–153.  Charles Wheeler has written extensively about Hội An.  Netizens may want to see his “Maritime Logic to Vietnamese History? Littoral Society in Hoi An’s Trading World c.1550-1830.”



About the Author

Trần Khải Hoài is a PhD candidate in the field of Vietnamese Literature, Religion, and Culture at Cornell University.  His connection with martial arts is as a choreographer of martial arts inspired routines for Cornell’s Chinese dance troupe Illuminations and an informant for Augustus John Roe’s The Martial Arts of Vietnam (Boston: YMAA, 2020).  

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