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Through a Lens Darkly (60): The Weapons Rack

Vintage Chinese postcard. Weapons in front of the Chongzheng Hall in the Mukden Palace Complex. Source: Author’s personal collection.


A Recent Find

Chinese martial arts themed (or simply adjacent) postcards from the pre-WWII era are not very common.  These things certainly existed and circulated, but they are now difficult for most researchers to find. That is one of the reasons why I have tried to catalog as many of these images as I could locate here at Kung Fu Tea.

During the course of my research it has become apparent that there are at least a few readily identifiable sub-categories within this genre.  The solo “sword dancer” exhibiting his skills in either a marketplace, or occasionally a more formal demonstration, is a common figure.  The soldier or guard wielding a dadao also makes frequent appearances.  And who could forget the ever popular “kung fu kids.”

Yet another readily identifiable set of cards focuses on the material culture of the Chinese martial arts.  More specifically, it tends to examine groups of weapons.  What topic could be more exotic?

If the first set of cards are derivative of the larger “scenes from daily life” genre, I have always felt these other images are basically a variation on the architectural photographs showing China’s traditional palaces, monuments and temples, all stubbornly resisting the tide of global modernization.  Needless to say, these exotic (and supposedly timeless) scenes were among the most commonly purchased and collected cards.  I don’t think its surprising that we see some of the same cultural themes repeated in so many of the period’s visual treatments of Chinese weapons.

Nevertheless, simply getting my hands on one of these postcards proved to be something of a challenge.  Several publishers distributed a card like the one above, featuring selected pole-arms in a stand against a traditional architectural backdrop.  But for whatever reason these images and cards seem to be fairly popular with other collectors, so actually finding an example at a reasonable price took a while.  I finally succeeded about a month ago.

I particularly like how the assorted weapons in this image are arranged.  Both the shorter weapons (the mallets and maces) and the longer spears were placed in an order of descending height to giving the scene a sense of forced perspective.  The broken, slightly asymmetric, weapons rack certainly feels authentic. Still, its difficult to say much about the quality of the weapons themselves in this photo.  They were the sorts of arms that were typically carried in processions.  But by the 1920s-1930s much of this material had been relegated to either museums or the scrap heap of history.

In this case the inscription at the bottom of the card lets us know that we are firmly in the realm of the museum.  The weapons seemed to be labeled on the left, while the right half of the inscription informs readers that these are being exhibited at the Mukden Imperial Palace Museum.  Perhaps that explains the slightly forlorn feel of the image.

Within a traditional procession or temple display, a rack of assorted pole arms (and it was almost always an assortment, rather than a more militarily sensible collection of uniform spears or halberds) signaled a depth of human capital and achievement.  This was a community that had mastered the many nuances of these weapons, and hence the martial realm.  Within western popular culture that same rack of pole-arms was more likely to evoke a morbid fascination with “Chinese pirates,” and play to the perception that the people who produced such arms were both paradoxically obsessed with violence in its more primate forms, but ultimately unable to modernize themselves and master its modern varieties.  A Republic era museum commemorating both the glory and vanquishing of China’s imperial past would seem to sit exactly at the confluence of these streams of discourse.



that same quality can be felt in other photos in the same genre, such as this rack of weapons in front of an old guard house in Quanzhou.  This photo was probably taken by a visiting missionary.  I personally suspect that those weapons may have been a bit more functional.  I, for one, would not want to be on the wrong end of either of those Tiger Forks.  Still, these photos were being collected and passed around because of the discursive, rather than the practical, value of these weapons.

In any case, we can easily verify the Chinese language caption on the first card.  The roof line and staircase behind the weapon rack confirms that this photo was taken in the Qing palace complex.  More specifically, it was taken just in front of the Chongzheng Hall (built, I believe, in 1627) which once housed the Emperor’s throne and office.


A much more recent photograph of the Chongzheng Hall. Sadly no weapons are currently displayed in front of this structure. Source: Wikimedia.


In conclusion, we should note that some things never change.  The Mukden Palace remains a popular tourist destination.  And just as in the Republic period, various traditional weapons are displayed on the grounds as part of the effort to interpret and understand the Imperial past. Indeed, I spent the better part of an afternoon looking at tourist photos to see if there was any evidence that the pole-arms in our initial postcard are still on display.  While I found a number of spears, sadly I didn’t find anything matched this particular set.  But there were quite a few interesting swords.  The Qing dynasty evokes very different feelings today than it did in the 1910s or 1920s.  What was once widely despised for its failure to modernize and stand-up to the West is now appreciated as cultural and historical heritage. Yet traditional weapons are still called upon to act as physical manifestations of an imagined past.


A more modern weapons display at the Mukden Palace. Source:




If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (54): Preserving a Fading China


Through a Lens Darkly (59): John S. S. Leong and Southern Kung Fu in 1969.

“It’s Done With Sticks,” Feb. 13, 1969. A Local Newspaper Photograph. Source: Author’s Personal Collection.


A Quick Note

Last week I noted that I would be taking a short break from blogging to finish off a few projects (conference papers, book chapters and article drafts) with upcoming deadlines.  I haven’t worked my way through all of this material quite yet. But I just polished off one of the major items on my plate and decided to celebrate by sharing a photo that I recently came across in an auction.  After this it will be back to archives for a few more weeks.

As many of my regular readers will already know, I have spent the last few years working on a book project looking at the public diplomacy efforts surrounding the Chinese martial arts, and consequentially their development within the popular imagination in the West.  Most of this research has been done chronologically (starting in about 1800) and I am happy to say that I am now up to the post-WWII era. As such, our last few “research notes” have focused on the various ways that propaganda publications produced in the PRC portrayed wushu during the Cultural Revolution.

Nevertheless, this was also the era when China’s many hand combat systems began to explode into the consciousnesses of a new generation in the West due in no small part to the TV and film exploits of Bruce Lee.  While Lee clearly touched off the “Kung Fu Fever” of the 1970s, we must also remember that he could not sustain it all alone.  Reforms to the American immigration system after WWII allowed more Chinese immigrants to settle in the United States, and they brought their hand combat systems with them. There are other factors to consider as well. As a number of theorists have hypothesized that America’s difficult experiences in both the Korean and Vietnam Wars served to increase interest in the Asian martial arts for a variety of reasons.  Some of which were very practical (returning GI’s who set up Judo schools), while others were more cultural in nature.

There were also trends within the martial arts community that pointed to a growing interest in the Chinese martial arts even prior to “Enter the Dragon.” Specifically, the eruption of debates between the Karate and Judo camps in the 1960s led to increased interest in the striking arts.  As a result, a number of American martial artists began to avidly research “Kung Fu” as the predecessor of (and possibly the key to) Karate a few years before Bruce Lee became a household name.

This image is remarkable for its ability to capture so many of these currents in a single moment. Briefly, this nine-inch by eleven-inch press photograph (though slightly under exposed and wrinkled) shows two individuals with poles in a dramatic pose.  On the right we can see Sifu John S. S. Leung (1939 – ), while on the left we find his student Wai Mar.  They are training in the Seattle Kung Fu Club.  Behind them one can make out racks with various weapons and Lion Dance gear. Punching bags have also been suspended from the ceiling.

The photograph’s verso is stamped Feb. 13, 1969.  It also bears a newspaper clipping marked with the same date.  Sadly, there is no indication of which paper this article actually ran in.  The photo originally included a caption stating:

“IT’S DONE WITH STICKS: Attack and counterattack in Kung Fu stick fighting were demonstrated by John Leong, right. Si-Fu or master, and Wai Mar, Si-hing or advanced student, at John Leong’s Seattle Kung Fu Club. The club is on the Chinese New Years Tours.—Times photo by Larry Dion.”

Beneath this photograph, readers found the following notice:

Kung-Fu, the oldest Oriental art of self defense, may be seen in today’s Chinatown at 656 ½ King Street in John Leong’s Seattle Kung-Fu Club.

The Si-Fu, or master or instructor is John Leong, who learned the art in China.

“Kung-Fu is the great grandfather of Karate,” Leong said. Much of modern karate has been taken from the art of Kung-fu.”

Stance is a first step towards learning this self-defense. Without a proper stance, it is extremely difficult to advance in Kung-Fu.  Other Skills follow until the advanced students can use offensive and defensive actions in lightning-fast sequences.”

One of the most interesting things about this photography from my perspective is that it bridges the gap between the development of the Chinese martial arts in America and the current era. The Seattle Kung Fu Club is still active, and we know quite a bit about Master John S. S. Leong as he has made many appearances over the years.  Born in Guangdong province in 1937 he began to study Hung Gar at the age of 12 (1949).  He is a student of Wong Lei, who in turn studied with the famous Lam Sai-wing.


John S. S. Long training with his teacher, Wong Lei, in Hong Kung, 1960. Source:


Like many others of his generation, Leong ended up in Hong Kong, where his training took place.  He then moved to the United States and started teaching Hung Gar in Seattle in either 1962 or 1963 (I have seen slightly different dates mentioned in various sources).  In either case, these dates are interesting as they remind us that Leong was a contemporary of Bruce Lee, and both were active in Seattle for a brief period before the later left for Oakland.

Leong has stated in various interviews that during the 1960s and 1970s he worked hard to educate the public about the existence of the Southern Chinese martial arts.  Starting in 1968 he began to host large annual events to aid in this effort.  The photograph provided here was taken the very next year and suggests that his efforts enjoyed some success.  Still, he notes that after Bruce Lee’s explosion to super-stardom in the early 1970s, Kung Fu became a household term.

The joy of working with slightly more recent sources is that you can see the various ways in which history has shaped the formation of both practice and community.  YouTube has many films (both vintage and surprisingly recent) recording Leong’s demonstrations.  One can read interviews with him, and even find a video walkthrough of the Seattle Kung Fu club.  One can even spot the exact location where this picture was taken.  I hope that you enjoy reviewing these resources as much as I did.  Taken as a set they do a remarkable job of chronicling the spread and acceptance of the Chinese martial arts in post-war America.



If you enjoyed this you might also want to read: Local Resistance and Guoshu: The Foshan Zhong Yi Martial Arts Athletic Association


Through a Lens Darkly (58): Contesting Wushu




I recently noted that it is necessary to begin historical discussions by specifying whether we are examining events (or practices) as they actually happened, or the evolution of ideas about them.  This is not to say that these two spheres are totally separate.  Indeed, our beliefs about what is proper, and where practices came from, tend to have a notable effect on how things like the martial arts develop.  But different types of research questions often call for their own sources and methods.

Once we decide that we are going to address the history of an idea, we must still specify who held these beliefs and how they evolved over time.  While ideas about martial arts might be more widely spread than their actual practice, they are still far from universal. Such images are always partial, fungible and slowly shifting.  It is that incompleteness that makes them useful to advertising agents, diplomats or anyone who would like to alter the way that an audience perceives the world.  One must first be able to load social content into an image before it can be deployed in the tricky business of cultural diplomacy or propaganda.

That may sound complex, but like so many other things in life, it can be illuminated by referencing a popular meme.  Imagine, for instance, that we are cultural historians attempting to establish what the American public believed the Chinese martial arts were in 1975.  It is easy to write about this in sweeping terms, perhaps referencing the social trauma unleashed by the nation’s misadventures first in the Korean and the Vietnam War.  Other writers have already advanced a number of theories running along these lines. And I am sure that there is a great deal of truth to them.

Still, if I were to offer my own assessment of the situation, I think we would have to begin by acknowledging two points.  First, even during the “Kung Fu Fever” of the early and mid 1970s, the Chinese martial arts remained a somewhat empty category in most people’s minds.  There was a sense of mystery around the whole thing. Yes, there were some powerful guiding images. But for many people (even those who were already deeply involved in the actual practice of the Asian martial arts), it was a vast territory waiting to be explored. Anything felt possible. Secondly, this territory was contested.  As is often the case with partial and fragmentary cultural categories, not everyone imagined the Chinese martial arts in the same way.


Social theory as meme…



Consider my own, somewhat crude, take on a popular category of meme.  Readers may discover that heading over to a meme generator, and choosing your own categories and years might be an interesting way of starting to think through the various strands that always comprised our social understanding of any complex phenomenon.  This simplified version of a popular meme lays out only four categories, rather than the customary six.  But I think that is still enough to hit on some of the major cleavages of the day.

To begin with, there is the issue of generational perception.  Individuals who grew up with stories of Chinese boxing, “dirty judo” and Big Sword troops during WWII were likely to have a very different set of cultural memories associated with the Chinese martial arts than their baby boomer children.  Indeed, personal accounts suggest that many children of the 1960s and 1970s had very few mental images of these practices prior to their exploding onto first the small screen (the Green Hornet, Avengers and Kung Fu) or the big one (Enter the Dragon and everything that came next).  Those images had a powerful formative effect on a generation of young minds.  Yet as I have sought to demonstrate in numerous previous blog posts, it is simply not the case that the parents and grandparents of these children had never heard of the Chinese martial arts before.  Indeed, the Boxer Rebellion had been a major moment in American media history, as had the stand of the Dadao armed troops against the Japanese invaders during WWII.

Yet even if we were to focus only on mediatized images of the 1970s, the sudden appearance of Kung Fu did not go uncontested.  The Chinese government began to formulate strategies of cultural diplomacy drawing on images of Wushu at almost exactly the same time.  Rather than riding the coat-tails of popular films or TV programs, they promoted their own aesthetic, cultural and ideological vision of Chinese martial prowess.  This was seen in an increasing number of propaganda publications, features in mainstream Western magazines and newspapers, and even staged spectacles as Wushu teams began to undertake “good will” tours across the West.

Other viewpoints were also starting to come into play.  The loosening of laws that had restricted Chinese immigration would have a profound effect on the development of the martial arts in North America.  As martial arts teachers immigrated from areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan and South East Asia they created a new generation of schools.  These would project yet another set of images directly into local neighborhoods, ones that did not necessarily conform to the theatrics and violence of popular Kung Fu films, but which were also resolutely opposed to the professionalized Wushu performances that the PRC was starting to make available as the era of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” progressed.

If we want to understand why certain aspects of China’s cultural diplomacy strategy succeeded or failed in this era, it is important to have some sort of base-line understanding of what Americans knew, or were at least was culturally conditioned to accept, about Wushu long before Jet Li ever performed for Henry Kissinger and Richard Nixon on the White House lawn.  That answer might seem obvious if we approach the question only from the perspective of a film studies textbook, or perhaps the oral history of our own Kung Fu school.  But as this meme seeks to reminds us, by the 1970s competing images were already in play, each contesting the notion of what it really meant to be a Chinese martial artist.  That, in turn, impacted how audiences might come to understand China itself.







It is within this context that we return to the pages of China Reconstructs, the PRC’s most influential English language propaganda outlet during the 1970s.  While discussions of the martial arts had been uncommon in the pages of this magazine during the 1950s and 1960s, it is not surprising that they seem to gain to new prominence in the 1970s.  Interestingly, all of this starts just before Bruce Lee ignites the era’s “Kung Fu Fever”. Whether that was simply a matter of good fortune, or if China’s propagandists were reading the cultural currents carefully enough to detect the same sorts of market demand that Hollywood also foresaw, is an interesting question that will need to be investigated later.

Perhaps the clearest evidence of this shift occurs in June of 1972 when Wushu is featured on the cover of China Reconstructs.  Readers should recall that, given the ideological struggles of the era, this outlet mostly featured articles about China’s massive construction projects, the growth of improbably high-tech industries, and the heroic struggles of its people to build socialism.  I suspect that given its theme, this issue’s cover would have stood out to readers of the period. It featured a young girl (dressed in red) holding an acrobatic pose with a jian (double edged sword).

This cover was the reader’s down-payment on a short photo essay to follow.  The whole thing feels a bit like it was rushed into production.  On the first page of the feature readers are informed that, “Wu shu, a traditional form of physical culture, is a popular sport in China. It includes both shadowboxing and exercises with weapons such as broadswords.” Yet apart from this partial definition, no other substantive text is included with the article. Instead the editors seem to rely on the evocative photography that follows to demonstrate, rather than describe, the finer points of the art.

Excluding the cover, the essay includes five other photos.  They share many thematic similarities.  In each case the central subject is a child or young teen who is engaged in either learning or demonstrating wushu.  All of the students are carefully attired in matching, modern, uniforms.  These are the forerunners of the matching track suits that dominate China’s current Wushu academies. Students are seen exhibiting both empty hand and weapon-based techniques, just as the definition suggested that they would.  It should also be noted that there is no sign of Sanda or any type of sparring, whose practice was banned during the Cultural Revolution.  Everyone is involved in taolu practice.

The highly visual nature of this text brings us back to the problem of interpretation.  One suspects that the magazine’s editors were attempting to simultaneously give readers a light “popular interest” feature (something that would humanize the Chinese people) while at the same time subtly contesting the images of kung fu that were just on the cusp of exploding into the American subconscious.  But with virtually no text, it is hard to know with certainty.  Another article, also focused on the characteristics of Wushu, was published a few years later that would seem to help us confirm that this might have been the authorial intent. The two make a nice pair as the later lacks the spectacular photography of this piece, but it does make the “proper” ideological interpretation of Wushu quite clear.

Still, authorial intent can only take us so far. When analyzing a cultural diplomacy or propaganda campaign, its utility is even more limited. The real question is how diverse segments of the American population reacted to these images, or ones like them. Sadly, those sorts of sources are very rare.  We have better accounts of what individuals thought when they first encountered the Kung Fu television series or Bruce Lee’s films.  I suspect that is one of the reasons why so much of the literature has focused on these events rather than stories in news outlets or staged spectacles. Still, there are some gems that are worth considering.

One of my favorites can be found in the September 1975 issue of Black Belt magazine.  All of this is happening in the wake of Nixon’s opening with China, so there was a fair amount of interest in what life was like behind the “bamboo curtain.”  Unsurprisingly, martial arts publications were leading this curve.  After close to a century of living in the shadow of Budo, the Chinese martial arts were finally getting their due.  In an effort to show readers what they were going to get, the cover of the September 1975 issue featured a man in a Mao suit, performing some sort of martial art, transposed against the great wall of China.



This was not the first time that Black Belt had run features purporting to reveal the state of Wushu in the PRC. The February 1968 issue again gave Chinese systems the cover and ran a lengthy article entitled “The State of the Martial Arts in Red China Today.”  Both features are worth reviewing.  But while the 1968 article relied on recent publications and testimony by expatriate authors, the 1975 article offered a detailed eye witness account.

This came in the form of an article submitted by Jerry E Fisher.  Mr. Fisher was invited to China to participate in one of the events that characterized the first stages of commercial opening with the West. Ironically, the purpose of his visit had nothing to do with the martial arts.  Because of his prominence in the American carpeting industry, Fisher was actually invited to spend close to a month in China to attend a trade show on that topic. But like any dedicated researcher, he did everything in his power to thwart his political handlers and investigate the martial arts at every turn.

There is no need to transcribe the full account of Fisher’s adventures here as google has thoughtfully scanned and made available most of Black Belt’s back catalog.  As such I would encourage readers to study his article at their leisure. It is a fascinating look at travel in China during the Cultural Revolution, and attentive readers might even spot a cameo appearance by George Bush.

After repeated false starts, Fisher eventually concluded (basically correctly) that by the early 1970s the Chinese martial arts existed only in two places.  Formal, government designed, Wushu programs were still operating at the middle school level (where as the more advanced University programs had been forced to shut down by the Red Guard).  While he identified this as the ultimate source of the prior year’s “good will” diplomacy tour in the US, there was no program in place to introduce Western visitors to China to these practices.  All of that would come decades later.

The other place that one might find martial art practice was in the public parks, early in the morning, before the first work shift.  Fisher describes some of these study groups, though language barriers prevented him from learning too much about them.  Still, it is clear that most were small (between a dozen and two dozen people), and while he was able to identify a “teacher” in each group, there was not yet much in the way of vertical organization.  Indeed, the eyewitness account that Fisher provides are in many ways very similar to what we already saw in the 1975 China Reconstructs article.

Nevertheless, a simple agreement on material acts should not imply an acceptance of interpretation.  Throughout his piece Fisher seems to be sensitive to his identity as a capitalist in communist China.  And while he was careful not to criticize his Chinese hosts (and those people who generously exchanged techniques with him in the park), he clearly was not accepting of  everything that he saw.  While he was happy to discover a vibrant martial arts scene in Beijing’s parks, he observed that the ideological environment was thwarting certain aspects of practice, and hence the development of the martial arts.

What might be the most important thing about this account for our current purposes is that Fisher understood and framed his physical experience of Wushu in China in terms of the prior media exposure that he had received the year before while still in the United States.  Again, this was when the PRC sent a Wushu team to perform in multiple locations as part of a good will tour.  It is clear that this tour had a profound impact on the way that he understood and evaluated the Chinese martial arts.

All of this was then processed, repackaged, and distributed to martial artists across the English-speaking world in the form of Fisher’s 1975 Black Belt article. It is worth noting that the Chinese government never intended to make him a spokesperson for Wushu.  Indeed, various low-level agents actively attempted to thwart his curiosity on the subject.  Yet this account is a good example of the ways that mass media campaigns and cultural exchanges can create a pool of individuals who, while still ideologically independent, are capable of acting as “cultural interpreters.”  Even if unintended, the publication of images and accounts such as those reviewed here must be considered as a measure of the success of China’s martial arts diplomacy during the final stages of the Cultural Revolution.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (52): Taijiquan in Communist China and the United States in 1972


Through a Lens Darkly (57): The Asian Martial Arts and Modern Primitivism

This advertisement is from the 1970s, but it hits many of the same notes as the one discussed in this post and I love its graphic nature.




My ongoing research on the public diplomacy of the Chinese martial arts has taken a decisive turn.  The Second World War is one of those historical calamities that defines an era, and I now find myself venturing into the post-war era.  This is something of an adventure for me as I have gotten rather comfortable with the first half of the twentieth century.

Adventures are fun.  But any journey worth the trip is also a bit intimidating. Moving into a new era inevitably means loosening my grip on old assumptions and trying to see familiar processes through new eyes.  More specifically, if we are going to understand how various Asian states engaged in “Kung Fu Diplomacy” in the 1950s and 1960s it becomes vitally important to learn a little more about the attitudes of the Western public that they were attempting to appeal to.  What sorts of desires and predispositions do we find here?  Why might images of the martial arts have appealed to them? What did they make of updated martial arts practices in the post-war period?

Such answers might help to explain some of the remaining paradoxes regarding the post-war globalization of the Asian martial arts. For instance, it makes sense that Americans would have found the Japanese martial arts more interesting than their Chinese cousins during the 1910s.  Japan had just shocked the world with their defeat of Russia, and all sorts of travel writers were commenting on the rapid modernization of its society. It was inevitable that the Western public would develop an interest in their martial arts as it sought to come to terms with a newly ascendant Japan.

This is a logical, cohesive, and widely shared narrative. It also makes what happens after WWII something of a paradox.  If there had been a degree of polite interest in the Japanese martial arts during the 1910s-1930s, it paled in comparison to the boom unleashed during the 1950s.  Yet this was a humbled Japan, one that had been exposed as a brutal fascist power and utterly broken on the battlefields of the Pacific. China, on the other hand, had been on the winning side of this conflict and an ally (if a somewhat reluctant one) of the West.  Yet American GI’s remained vastly more interested in judo than kung fu.

Perhaps Japan’s status as an occupied country after 1945 made its culture available for colonial appropriation in ways that had not really been possible in the 1920s-1930s.  If nothing else, the country was hosting a sizable occupation force? Yet China’s status as a defacto colonial state in the late Qing and early Republic period did not seem to make its physical culture all that attractive to the many missionaries, government functionaries and YMCA directors that administered the Western zones of influence there.

Donn F. Draeger explained his interest in the Japanese martial arts by noting the superior performance of Japanese soldiers on the battlefield. Yet surely that had as much to do with their superior weapons, officers and communications systems as anything else. Something in this equation remains unexplained.  Japan continued to possess a store of cultural charisma (or “soft power”) that was intuitively obvious to individuals at the time. But what exactly was it? Ruth Benedict’s controversial book, the Chrysanthemum and the Sword, has been widely criticized for what it got wrong about Japanese society.  Yet we still need to come to terms with its popularity.  What does this say about the Western adoption of the martial arts, and their continued preference for Japanese, rather than Chinese, fighting systems in the 1950s and early 1960s.  After all, it was an era when American servicemen and women were being in posted in Taiwan and all over the Pacific region.  Why not a sudden interest in White Crane?


Funny story, I decided to write this post while listening to a DJ on NPR’s Retro Cocktail Hour play this record.



Visiting the Tiki Bar

We can shed some light on this small mystery by turning our attention to a larger paradox, emerging from the realm of architecture.  In 1949 the Eames finished construction on “Case Study Number 8”, now known simply as the Eames House.  This masterpiece of modern design was an experiment in using newly available “off the shelf” materials (many invented during WWII) to create functional modern dwellings to address America’s post-war housing crisis.  If one were searching for a harbinger of mid-century design, something that would begin to push its simplified, functional, glass and steel lines into the mainstream of American culture, this might well be it.

Yet this was not the only architectural trend to explode in the early 1950s.  At exactly the same time that Americans were building mid-century masterpieces, they were also creating thousands of cringeworthy Tiki bars.  It would be hard to think of two aesthetic visions that could be more opposed to each other.  Why would the flannel suit clad worshipers of America’s modernist temples spend their evenings in Tiki bars, listening to an endless supply of ethnically inspired vinyl records that inevitably featured the word “savage” in their titles?

Americans are restless spirits searching for paradise.  Their popular culture has been shaped by reoccurring debates about where it is to be found, and how one might acquire such an ephemeral state.  Much of the 19thcentury was invested in debates between pre and post-millennial religious movements.  In the early 20thcentury these currents secularized and reemerged as a debate between what I will call “progressive modernism” and “modern primitivism.”

It was the core values of progressive moderns that the period’s architecture rendered in steel and concrete. This social movement exhibited an immense faith in the ability of technology to address a wide range of material and social challenges, and the wisdom of human beings to administer these ever more complex systems. The era that gave us the space race promised that man’s destiny lay among the stars, and it was only of matter of time until well ordered, rational, societies reached them.  Of course, there were underlying discourses that found a certain expression in the 1950s.  It is clear that science and modernism had been looking for a future paradise in the stars since at least the time of Jules Verne.  But the 1950s threatened to make this vision a reality.

Reactions against progressive modernism also had their roots in the pre-war period.  Post-impressionist artists were becoming increasingly concerned about the sorts of social alienation that technological change brought.  They turned to African, Native American and Asian art as models because the abstract forms they found within them seemed to symbolize the alienation of modern individuals, cut off from traditional modes of understanding.  Yet these “primitive” models also offered a different vision of paradise, the promise that an earthly Garden of Eden could still be recovered if we were to turn our backs on a narrow vision of progress and attempt to recapture the wisdom that “primitive” communities possessed.

The current of “modern primitivism” surged again in the post-war era, a period of unprecedented economic and technological change.  A wide range of thinkers once again became concerned with creeping alienation.  Some noted that that Eden could be found within.  Joseph Campbell, drawing on the work of Jung and Freud, released his landmark Hero with a Thousand Faces in 1949.  Rather than seeing happiness and fulfillment as something to be achieved through future progress, Campbell drew on psychological models to argue for a return to something that was timeless.  The stories of forgotten and “primitive” societies were a sign post to our collective birth right.  Likewise, Alan Watt’s the great popularizer of Zen Buddhism, published prolifically throughout the 1950s and 1960s, feeding an endless desire for an internal technology that could insulate us against fears of displacement, alienation and even nuclear annihilation.

It is easy to discount the Tiki Bar, to treat it as an architectural oddity.  Yet it was simply a popular manifestation of a fascination with naturalism and primitivism whose genealogy stretches back to the first years of the twentieth century. The easy play with sexual innuendo and hyper-masculinity that marked these spaces makes sense when placed within the larger discourses on the stifling effects of modernism, social conformity and the need to return to a more “primitive” state to find human fulfillment.  The savage was held up as someone who bore a secret vitally important to navigating those temples of glass and steel that marked the American landscape.




A Kendo Lesson

The pieces are now in place to approach the central subject of this essay.  Throughout the 1950s and 1960s Canadian Club whisky ran an advertising campaign attempting to associate their product with notions of exotic travel and (luxurious) adventure. In an era when much of the advertising in the alcohol market focused on nostalgic images of hearth and home (situating the consumption of whisky within a comfortable upper-middle class heteronormativity) Canadian Club asked its drinkers to aspire to something more.  It featured images of archeological expeditions to Central America, safaris in Africa, and (of course) adventures in the exotic east.

Yet the fulfillment in these adds was not simply the product of getting back to nature, or living in a more primitive condition. It was necessary to physically strive with the citizens of these realms to capture some aspect of their wisdom.  At times these advertisements, each of which reads like a miniature travelogue, seem to spend as much time advertising hoplology as whiskey.  Of course, nothing as prosaic as judo was featured in these adds. One did not need to join the jet set to experience Kano’s gentle art.  More exotic practices, including jousting matches between Mexican cowboys, stick fighting in Portugal, and Japanese kendo were held up as the true measure of a man.

Judging from years of watching eBay auctions, the Kendo advertisement was Canadian Clubs most successful excursion into hoplology. Or, more accurately, people have been more likely to preserve its clippings than some of the other (equally interesting) campaigns.

Titled “In Japanese Kendo its no runs, all hits and no errors” the advertisement tells the story of a traveler who comes to Japan and, after a brief period of instruction, joins a kendo tournament.  Readers are informed:

“A greenhorn hasn’t a chance when he crosses ‘swords’ in a Japanese Kendo match,” writes John Rich, an American friend of Canadian Club “In Tokyo I took a whack at this slam-bang survivor of Japan’s 12thcentury samurai warrior days.  The Samurai lived by the sword and glorified his flashing blade.  His peaceful descendant uses a two-handed bamboo shinai in a lunging duel that makes Western fencing look like a dancing class.”

Predictably, things go badly for Mr. Rich who is immediately eliminated without being able to get a blow in against his first opponent. His instructor informs him that he “needs more training.” But its ok, because even in an environment as exotic as this, one can still enjoy Canadian Club whisky with your fellow adventurers. Interestingly, the advertisement places Mori Sensei within the category of fellow travelers when he opens a bottle from his personal reserves.  Thus, a community is formed between the jet setting adventurer and the bearer of primitive wisdom through their shared admiration for the same popular brand.

So what is the ethos of a kendo tournament, at least according to a 1955 alcohol advertisement?  It is challenging and painful.  But is it primitive?  Is it savage?

Historians of the Japanese martial arts can easily inform us that Kendo is basically a product of the 19thand early 20thcenturies.  Yet this advertisement repeatedly equates it with the world of the samurai, thus suggests that something medieval lives on in Japan.  According to mythmakers in both East and West, this is a defining feature of Japanese culture.  So clearly there is a type of “primitivism” here.

Nor does one need to look far for the savagery.  It is interesting to think about what sorts of practices we don’t see in these advertisements.  I have never seen a Canadian Club story on judo, Mongolian wrestling or professional wrestling. Not all of these adds focus on combat, the jet setter had many adventures to consume. Yet when the martial arts did appear, they inevitably involved weapons.  I suspect this is not a coincidence.

Paul Bowman meditated on the meaning of these sorts of issues in his 2016 volume Mythologies of Martial Arts.   While those of us within the traditional martial arts think nothing of picking up a stick, training knife or sword, he sought to remind us that to most outsiders, such activities lay on a scale somewhere between “deranged” on one end and “demented” on the other.  While one might argue for the need for “practical self-defense,” it is a self-evident fact few people carry swords in the current era and even fewer are attacked with them while walking through sketchy parking garages. There is just very little rational justification for this sort of behavior.  Those of us who engage in regular weapons training can speak at length about why we find these practices rewarding, or how they help to connect us with the past. But all of that rests on a type of connoisseurship that most people would find mystifying.  For them, an individual who plays with swords has either seen too many ninja movies or is simply asking for trouble.  Training with traditional weapons (as opposed to more responsible pursuits like jogging, or even cardo kick-boxing) is almost the definition of “savage.” It is seen as a conscious turning away from modernity.

But what about an entire society that plays with swords? What if one has been told, rightly or wrongly, that this is a core social value?  It is that very disjoint with modernity that would make such a group a target for the desires of modern primitivism.  The problem with the Chinese (and hence the Chinese martial arts) was not that they won or lost any given war.  Rather, it was the (entirely correct) perception that the Chinese people did not valorize violence.  Despite all of the critiques that were directed at their “backward state” and “failure to modernize” in the 1920s-1930s, their pacific nature was seen as a positive value widely shared with the West (indeed, it was a point of emphasis in WWII propaganda films).  Ironically, that similarity would serve to make Chinese boxing less appealing to the sorts of individuals who consumed Canadian Club whisky, or at least its advertisement.  Nor did the actual performance of real Japanese troops on specific battlefields determine the desirability of their martial arts.  It was the image of cultural essentialism (carefully constructed by opinion makers in both Japan and the West), which made kendo desirable because of its “primitive nature,” not despite it.

Seen in this light, the early global spread of the Japanese arts makes more sense.  What had once been a modernist and nationalist project could play a different role in the post-war American landscape.  These arts promised a type of self-transformation that placed them in close proximity to the currents of modern primitivism.  While the Tiki bar appealed to those who sought temporary release from the strictures of progressive modernism, the martial arts spoke to others who sought a different sort of paradise.  Theirs was an Eden to be found in the wisdom of “primitive” societies and the search for the savage within.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Tao of Tom and Jerry: Krug on the Appropriation of the Asian Martial Arts in Western Culture


Through a Lens Darkly (56): New York City’s Kung Fu and the Roaring 1920s




While I have a few connections in New York City’s TCMA community, it has always been my experience that one turns up different sorts of insights by getting out and exploring the terrain on one’s own.  It was with that notion in mind that my wife and I set out to reconnoiter the older Manhattan Chinatown, which now seems almost quaint when compared in scale to its larger and more vibrant neighbor in Queens. The weather was great, and we got some memorable photos of tourists from China stopping to take photos of Chinese-American businesses and families.  The gods of globalization move in mysterious ways.

The afternoon was not a total bust.  We briefly made contact with two people working on Xingyi in a local park, though it was abundantly clear that no manner of martial art was going to distract the local residents from the many card games that dominated the district.  After purchasing a book (by my friend Mark Wiley) from a local martial arts business, we were able to learn a little more about the neighborhood’s martial arts scene.  Things sounded quiet, but we found out about two other instructors (Taijiquan and Wing Chun) who occasionally taught in the same park.

Still, there was very little evidence of the vibrant martial arts scene that had been so prominent during the late 1970s and 1980s. While the gentrification that has reshaped so much of the island was less evident south of Canal Street, Chinatown evolves and changes, like everything else.  It seems that the warehouse schools which I read about in memoirs and doctoral dissertations have suffered the same fate as many of the more colorful elements of New York life.

In search of some historical perspective my wife and I next visited a local non-profit dedicated to preserving as much of Chinatown’s local and oral history as possible. The young employees (all in their 20s) thought that our subject sounded fascinating. Yet as they searched their databases and various key-word indexes they didn’t hold out much hope of finding anything useful. While they approached their job with infectious enthusiasm, they freely admitted that most of the neighborhood’s older residents didn’t share their zeal for preserving the past.

In fact, convincing older Chinese-Americans to sit down for oral history interviews was proving to be every bit as difficult as one might suspect.  While there was some interesting history available on various musical and opera societies, once the tape recorders were turned on no one seemed willing to admit to knowing anything about martial arts instruction or Lion Dancing. In fact, the young researchers who staffed the office were hopeful that as a “total outsider” I would have better luck than them when it came to interviewing individuals and ferreting out this chapter of the historical record.

The situation was even bleaker when looking for resources that might discuss martial arts training in the pre-war period.  Outside of a few stories and names, not much of substance seems to have survived. Giving me a mournful look, my ever-earnest historical guide explained that with so few surviving sources much of the texture of the community had been irrevocably lost. So ended my hopes of unearthing a rich trove of New York’s early Chinese martial arts history.

Or so I thought. Research is a funny thing.  All of our sources are oddly specific, and even the most comprehensive database catches only a fraction of what is already sitting in some archive or library. While conducting a search for Chinese newsreel footage of martial arts practice during the Guoshu decade (1928-1938), I stumbled across something much more valuable. I found perhaps the best preserved and oldest footage of North American Southern Kung Fu practice that I had yet seen.  Even better, it was shot on the same New York City streets that my wife and I had recently explored.



The Footage

Anyone interested in viewing this film can do so by clicking this link. This priceless visual record has been preserved on a reel of out-takes and raw newsreel footage that is held by the Historic Film archive.  The entire reel is quite important as it helps to contextualize how images of the Chinese martial arts were classified and framed at the time of their production and cataloging.  All of the clips on the reel were produced during the 1920s and most of them focus on scenes of entertainment. The period’s jazz tradition is well represented, and scenes of Chinese-American life find themselves juxtaposed with visual records of the African-American community.  It should be noted that there are multiple recordings of Chinese New Year Festivals on the reel, suggesting a persistent interest in the subject.

At minute 19:42 viewers will encounter footage of a New Year celebration which happened on January 10th, 1929. In addition to the more common scenes of enthusiastic crowds, fireworks and Lion Dancing, two minutes of footage was also shot of the sorts of martial arts exhibitions that accompanied these festivals. While such exhibitions are occasionally noted in period newspaper reports, this is the most complete visual record of such a performance (in North America), that I have yet encountered.

This material rewards a close examination. None of this footage has been narrated, nor are there scene cards. As such I suspect that most of this material was probably treated as “out takes.” Still, it’s a rich source.  While we might lament that we only have two minutes of material, by the standards of a 1920s newsreel, two minutes is an eternity.

This footage is composed of a series of much briefer clips (most ranging in length from 10 to 30 seconds) which focus on the performance of individual martial artists, all performing on a single day in what appears to be the same crowded outdoor venue.  In total 11 sequences are shown, each focusing on some sort of forms performance. Both unarmed and weapons sets are represented in the sample, as well as a few two-person weapons sets. (For the sake of clarity this post is discussing only the martial arts demonstration, and not the excellent Lion Dance footage found on the same newsreel which probably deserves specialized treatment of its own).

If we assume that most of these sets could be introduced, set up and performed in about two minutes, it seems that the original demonstration was at least 22 minutes long. Even more remarkable is that very few individuals (maybe one or two) made any repeat performances in this show. Thus it took at least a dozen martial artists to stage this demonstration.

Most of the individuals in the show were wearing regalia suggesting that they had just come from (or were headed to) Lion Dancing.  The standard uniform appears to have been a white shirt, black bowtie and Kung Fu pants, but a number of individuals can also be seen to wear the typical street clothing of the period. All of the performers in this film are male (though I have seen newsreel footage of female martial artists in NYC in the 1930s).  Some are dressed as common laborers, while other have the air of shopkeepers or clerks.



A detailed breakdown of the film is as follows:

19:49-19:53     Unarmed Solo Set 1 (conclusion)

19:54-20:05     Unarmed Solo Set 2 (opening)

20:06-20:29     Unarmed Solo Set 3 (opening)

20:30-20:36     Solo Weapon, Eyebrow Staff

20:37-20:40     Solo Weapon, Southern Style Long Pole

20:41-21:08     Solo Weapon, Pudao

21:08-21:22     Solo Weapon, Hudiedao (Butterfly Swords)

21:23-21:32     Two Man, Long Poles

21:33-21:52     Solo Weapon, Rattan Shield and short saber

21:53-21:55     Two Man, Spear vs. Shield and Sword

21:56-22:00     Two Man, Spear vs. Shield and Sword





So what sort of demonstration are we looking at? To begin with, one of remarkable sophistication.  The conventional narratives suggest that modern Chinese martial arts schools, as we know them today, did not begin to appear in Chinatowns in cities like New York, San Francisco and Toronto until the 1950s.  Prior to that it is not the case that the martial arts were never taught. Rather, their instruction tended to be sponsored by the various fraternal societies, theater groups and criminal organizations that dominated much of these neighborhoods’ associational life. Indeed, as Charlie Russo has demonstrated in his book on the Bay Area martial arts community, the first generation of public instructors often opened their school after having first established a reputation in community these group. For their part, the various Tongs are generally thought to have been more interested in training “street soldiers” capable of collecting gambling debts, acting as bouncers in a variety of establishments and dealing with belligerent tourists.

Still, the existence of this film problematizes any attempt to bifurcate early 20th century Chinese-American martial arts into a “practical” pre-war phase and a post-war era that might be more recognizable.  While it seems unlikely that any of the individuals received their instruction in public commercial martial arts schools in New York City during the 1920s (to the best of our knowledge there simply weren’t any), it is now clear that there were a large number of individuals who were regularly gathering to train in the traditional martial arts.  Further, staging a Lion Dance and demonstration with as many individuals as we see on this film suggests a fair degree of organizational sophistication.  While they may not have been organized as a public school, it would appear that their institutional Kung Fu must have been pretty good.

What about their physical practice?  All of this film was shot from a single elevated camera angle, so the various martial artists move in and out of the frame.  This combined with the repetitive nature of many Southern sets, and the short duration of most of the clips, makes it very difficult to positively identify the various forms being displayed. After sharing this film with Hung Gar instructors on various continents, and a couple of Choy Li Fut students, we were not able to identify any of the sets with 100% certainty.  Most of the unarmed and weapons work bears a resemblance to pre-Wong Fei Hung style Hung Gar. Alternatively, the one set in which we see the rattan shield and sword combined with tumbling is highly suggestive of some sets that are still practiced in Choy Li Fut.

Identifying these sets has proved to be somewhat frustrating. The film suggests that the general movement culture (or possibly “habitus”) of the Southern Chinese folk arts have remained remarkably consistent over the last century. It was genuinely interesting to see how the seventh performer moved with the hudiedao. Figuring out just what these guys were doing might be an important clue in reconstructing the early TCMA community as it existed in New York city during the 1920s. If anyone has any insights into the identities of these sets (or better yet, the martial artists) please leave a comment below.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: Lion Dancing, Youth Violence and the Need for Theory in Chinese Martial Studies



Through a Lens Darkly (55): Taijiquan and the Soft Power Paradox



As previously noted, I have been taking a couple weeks off from the blog to focus on another writing project that needs my attention. Nevertheless, I ran across an image that I wanted to share. As I did a bit of research it occurred to me that this photo suggests a theoretical dilemma that may be relevant to that project as well. It seems that I just cannot stay away from Kung Fu Tea. But in this case that might actually be for the best.

Let us begin with the photograph that tempted me out of my blogging vacation.  It is an eight by eleven-inch glossy print showing three Chinese martial artists with swords (jian) in a Beijing park.  This particular photo was previously part of the Houston Chronicle’s photo archive before I purchased it at auction.  The stamps on the back indicate that it was published on December 26th1984, and that it was provided by the Financial Times’ newswire service. Unfortunately, the digital archives for the Houston Chronical begin in January of 1985, so I am not sure what article this ran with.

The image itself speaks volumes.  In my opinion it is one of the best photographs of the folk martial arts in China that I have seen from this period.  Taken on “Jade Flower Island” in Beihai Park, the image features both architectural and martial points of interest.  The composition of the picture mirrors the conventions of traditional Chinese painting where we see human figures in the foreground dwarfed by the enormity of their environment.  The eye is naturally drawn upward from our elderly martial artists towards a tiled roof, and then to the distinctive outlines of the White Pagoda.  That seems to blend into the surrounding sky.  Our swordsmen wield wooden blades and move in slow circles that balance the vertical sweep of the image. It goes without saying that the entire scene projects a carefully calculated image of timelessness.

This allochonistic element is probably the key to understanding the photograph’s appeal.  The more western cut of the trousers and shirts worn by the men strongly suggest that this image post-dates the Mao era, but I have a feeling that the average Western viewer would have a difficult time estimating the age of this image. It exudes the same timeless aesthetic that seems to draw so many to the Chinese martial arts.

Still, 1984 is hardly the distant past and Beihai park remains full of retired Taijiquan practitioners. Knowing this I set out to do what any self-respecting martial arts blogger would do. I began to search the internet for recent pictures of more contemporary martial arts students practicing in this same spot. The juxtaposition would have been lovely, but unfortunately my search turned up nothing.

What I did manage to locate, however, were dozens of mentions of Taijiquan in major American newspapers during the year 1984. Specifically, Proquest Historical Newspapers came up with 35 mentions of “Tai Chi” for that year in its sampling of national and local newspapers. If one were to rerun that same search for a more recent year you would simply be inundated with references. But given that fewer stories about China and the Chinese martial arts were produced in the mid 1980s, it was possible to examine every reference to “Tai Chi” that showed up in the search.

This exercise (while not entirely scientific) proved to be heuristically useful. The first thing that became apparent was that by 1984 it was not at all difficult to find a decent beginner’s class if one lived in any good-sized city in America. The vast majority (70%) of the references were advertisements for instruction.  The local advertisements in one Boston newspaper were really quite interesting.  While there was a single advertisement for a “Wushu” school, and another for a “Ving Tsun” studio, at least eight other teachers and schools listed “Tai Chi” instruction, making it the most commonly available Chinese martial art at the time. While the activity in the Houston Chronicle photograph may have struck the average American as “exotic” or “mysterious,” it seems that many readers would have known exactly what they were doing.

Indeed, by 1984 so many Americans were familiar with “tai chi” that it could simply be mentioned in passing without any additional explanation being necessary.  A number of articles in the Proquest sample did just that.  One Chinese-American dancer noted with ambivalence that people simply assumed that she must have studied taijiquan simply because she was of Chinese decent (she did not). Ronald Reagan’s trip to Beijing in in 1984 also provided an opening for a number of reflections on Chinese culture or society which contained passing references to Taiji. In one such essay the noted humor columnist Andy Rooney reminisced about visiting China while in the Army and advised President Reagan to “skip the Tai Chi” as “the television cameramen are bound to get shots of you doing it and you could look pretty silly.” Indeed, the underlying premise that ran throughout Rooney’s essay was that somehow China hadn’t really changed that much from the 1940s and that much of life in “the real China” (something that Nancy Reagan had noted that she wanted to see) was bound to make an American president appear either uncomfortable or foolish.

Only a handful of articles took “Tai Chi” as their central object of inquiry. These were inevitably profiling new martial arts classes or Chinese teachers. Their descriptions of the art emphasized that it was best understood as a type of “moving meditation” that was beneficial to one’s health. Indeed, moderate exercise and stress relief were the main draw.  One woman who had recently started a career as a computer programmer decided that “Tai Chi classes” were just the thing to help her destress after a long day of writing code. Gone were the modernist and scientific explanations of taijiquan that Chinese reformers had promoted in the 1920s and 1930s. In their place readers found references to profound philosophical ideas and mysticism. A few intrepid reporters even tried to figure out how all of this related to “Tai Chi’s” ability to convey actual self-defense skills with little success.


Another press photo capturing a larger group of Taijiquan practitioners in Beijing in 1984.


Just as interesting were the elements absent from these discussions. In the entire sample of articles, I did not come across a single refence to Chinese action films, Bruce Lee or even other Chinese martial arts. Indeed, there didn’t seem to be any sort of reference to modern visual media at all. Likewise, the pre- and post-war experience of China’s many martial artists was entirely absent.  “Tai Chi” was portrayed as an entirely timeless art that was known only through embodied practice. It didn’t seem to exist in relation to any outside reference points at all.

Whether any of that is true is highly doubtful. It is likely that the people signing up for all of those beginners’ classes had some sort of expectation as to what they would be getting.  And it is very likely that those expectations were shaped by films, television and popular publications in some way.

Perhaps the strangest omission of all was the wall of silence separating the discussion of taijiquan as a cultural practice from the realities of life in China in 1985. President Regan’s upcoming trip ensured that there were many profiles of the state of both Chinese politics and society.  Yet these tended to carry a notably different tone than the largely positive (if unabashedly orientalist) discussions of “Tai Chi.”  American readers were informed that China remained a largely impoverished country. Few individuals could afford cars and even a black and white TV set was a luxury beyond the means of most families. In 1985 bicycles remained the nation’s dominate mode of urban transport and hand-drawn wagons could be seen transporting bulk goods on practically any street.  As the title of an April 26tharticle in the Hartford Courantput it, “Poverty Ridden China Struggles to Catch Up With the World.”

By 1984 taijiquan had come to be seen as a positive and desirable past-time, enthusiastically embraced by middle class students across the West. Yet few other elements of Chinese society shared that honor. What a close reading of this year’s newspapers suggests is that while Americans were increasingly willing to embrace Taijiquan, by in large their attitudes toward China remained ambivalent.  Indeed, it is useful to look back at the press coverage of the mid 1980s to remind us of not just how rapid China’s economic growth has been, but also the degree of cultural respect that it now commands. The rise of China’s social standing within the global community has been every bit as rapid as its economic ascent.

Political scientists developed the concept of “soft power” as a way of theorizing these moments of transformation.  Joseph Nye coined the phrase in an attempt to capture the force of cultural attraction that some leading states (though not all) are able to exert in international politics.  It refers to the degree to which citizens of other countries come to regard another state’s cultural products, norms, political institutions or modes of social organization as desirable and worthy of emulation.  We might think of soft power as a nation’s charisma.

Both large and small states can cultivate soft power resources and employ them as part of a public diplomacy strategy.  Yet Nye theorized that its especially important for the leading, or hegemonic, states of the global system to command this sort of cultural respect.  Simply put, even the most powerful states (say, the USA at the end of WWII) have finite resources. Yet the actual costs associated with maintaining a peaceful and cooperative international order are almost limitless.

If every diplomatic action, or the establishment of every international organization, were to require costly negotiation no state could afford to play a leadership role in global politics.  Yet through the spread of soft power citizens in other countries might decide to accept certain shared norms, cultural standards or expectations that naturally advantage the hegemonic state. This outward flow of domestic cultural acceptance lowers the cost of global leadership and actually helps to stabilize the creation of a cooperative and peaceful international order.  It goes without saying that in the current era China’s leadership has become obsessed with cultivating its soft power within the global system.  Its current support of the traditional martial arts through various cultural diplomacy programs is just one aspect of a much larger effort.

In some ways the concept of soft power seems to explain a lot about the global spread of the Asian martial arts. Why were Westerners so interested in Judo during the 1910s and 1920s, while a concerted public relations campaign by the KMT to promote Chinese boxing in the 1930s was largely ignored? Simply put, Japanese culture captivated the West in ways that Chinese culture never did in the pre-war period. Japan’s rapid modernization and victory over Russia in 1905 convinced many individuals that it possessed some sort of cultural secret that led to this victory, and Japanese martial artists loudly advertised that this secret could be found in judo, kendo and jujutsu. In contrast, China suffered a string of military defeats and seemed to fall ever further behind Japan’s benchmarks for economic modernization.

Americans were not, for the most part, hostile towards the Chinese state during the 1920s or 1930s.  But they saw little that was worth emulating.  This would seem to explain why the efforts of Chu Minyi or Zhang Zhijiang were bound to fail when it came to popularizing the Chinese martial art.  China lacked soft power during the era’s critical public diplomacy battles.

This is an attractive narrative, and it has the virtue of being relatively parsimonious.  Unfortunately, our discussion of the state of taijiquan in the mid 1980s complicates things. In the 1970s-1980s we see the popularity of this martial art skyrocket prior to the improvement of China’s image on the global stage.  Kung fu and taijiquan both began their ascent into popular consciousness at a time when China was largely viewed as an impoverished state and a negative example.

Clearly Bruce Lee and the popularization of Southern Chinese action films have something to do with this.  Though it is interesting that neither of those factors were ever discussed in any of the “Tai Chi” articles that found their way into my sample set. It has been widely theorized that America’s disastrous loss in the Vietnam War may also be linked to the growing popularity of the Chinese martial arts in this period as a wounded American popular culture struggled to appropriate the forces that had caused it so much pain. That certainly seems plausible. But then again, there is very little discussion of any sort of foreign policy (let alone the Vietnam War) in the era’s taijiquan literature.  And in any case, a survey of articles in Black Belt magazine suggests that curiosity about Chinese hand combat was growing within the American martial arts community well before the end of the Vietnam War. I suspect that the popularity of karate in the 1960s (which came to replace judo as the most commonly available martial art) may have been even more important in planting the seeds of kung fu’s eventual rise.

What is striking is that most of the newspaper discussions of “Tai Chi” in 1984 focused on the personal needs and growing discontents of the American students who were taking up these practices.  They felt unhealthy and stressed about work. They were aware that they were out of shape. It was a personally driven search for wellness in the face of growing levels of social stress (and a perceived need to resist or subvert these trends through individual action) that drove individuals towards the practice of taijiquan.

On the surface this might seem like a facile finding.  Yet its important as it reminds us that no single model can account for the global spread of the Asian martial arts.  The factors that explain Western interest in judo in the 1900s-1910s (growing admiration for, and fear of, Japanese society) were quite different from the individually experienced anxieties that attracted middle class Americans to taijiquan in 1984.

The growth of a nation’s soft power can clearly aid in the popularization of its martial arts or combat sports.  Yet the case of Taijiquan reminds us that it is not a necessary condition.  Put simply, not all practices in all times and places are easily interchangeable. The fact that various arts might perform a variety of social functions suggests that we should not expect so see all styles following the same linear pathway towards social acceptance and respectability.  Indeed, it was entirely possible for Americans to discover much to admire in taijiquan at a time when they could find very little else that attracted them in Chinese society as a whole.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to read: What is a lineage? Rethinking our (Dangerous) Relationship with History


Through a Lens Darkly (54): Preserving a Fading China

Daoist priests perform a “traditional dance” on Hua Mountain in the 1935. Source: Photo by Hedda Morrison, Harvard digital archives.



You may not know her name, but if you have any interest in modern Chinese history, it is almost certain that you have seen her photographs. Hedda Morrison (1908-1991), while not acknowledged as a leading artistic photographer during the prime of her career, had almost unprecedent opportunities to explore and photograph what she considered to be vanishing aspects of Chinese culture during the 1930s and 1940s.  Images of traditional handicraft workers, and portraits of women and mothers, have proved to be among her most popular subjects. Since the 1980s (when many of her most iconic images were finally published in two important collections) they have increasingly come to define “traditional” Chinese life in the popular imagination.

Best of all, the occasional martial artist, street performer and weapon smith all make appearances in her photographs.  Morrison did not actively seek out these more sensational themes.  In fact, soldiers and other “martial” subjects make relatively few appearances in her catalog.  Still, she did photograph these subjects when she encountered them leaving us with not just an invaluable collection of images, but also important clues as to the social context of these practices.  Yet who was Hedda Morrison?


Daoist priests perform a “traditional dance” on Hua Mountain in the 1935. Source: Photo by Hedda Morrison, Harvard digital archives.


Life and Career

Hedda Hammer was born in Stuttgart in 1908 and it was her German heritage that first inspired me to take another look at her catalog of images. While researching the global understanding of Chinese martial arts during the Republic period, I became interested in the work of both private citizens and agents of the German government in shaping the image of China on the world stage. While few of Hedda’s photographs tackled explicitly political subjects, the turbulent politics of the period certainly shaped her career.

At the age of three Hedda was struck with Polio, then a common childhood disease.  Despite an operation as a teen she would walk with a limp throughout the rest of her life. This is an important piece of background information as it illustrates something about the texture of a life spent in exploration. After completing high school her parents sent her to the University of Innsbruck with the hopes that she would take up the study of medicine.  The subject proved to be uninteresting to her and, being an avid amateur photographer, she eventually transferred to the Bavarian State Institute for Photography in Munich.

Following her graduation in 1931, Hedda took jobs as photographic assistants in studios in Stuttgart and Hamburg.  However, she felt hemmed in by a lack of economic opportunity and was alarmed by the rise of the Nazi regime.  Looking to make a personal change she accepted an offer to direct the German run Hartung Studio in Beijing.  She explored and photographed the city until the Japanese invasion in 1938. Her German passport proved valuable during the early years of the occupation, but due to the deterioration of the situation in the capital she decided to leave and take up work as a freelance photographer.  This choice initiated a seven-year period (1938-1946) of almost constant travel which must be considered among the most fruitful phases of her career.  Most of the photographs discussed in this post were actually produced between 1935 and 1945.


A sign for a shop selling swords in Beijing by Hedda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives


Rather than attempting to capture the rapid social and economic transformation that was already underway in cities like Beijing, Hedda trained her lens on “vanishing” aspects of traditional Chinese life. Many of her photographs have a strong ethnographic flavor, and they often treat their subject with a degree of sympathy or respect.  At times this seems to border on romanticism. Indeed, Hedda’s empathy as a social observer grounds her approach to photography. Perhaps that is why her portraits are always more powerful than her numerous landscapes or architectural collections.


A “Sword Dancer” by Hadda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


In 1940 Hedda met the British ornithologist Alastair Robin Gwyn Morrison and the couple were eventually married in 1946. They initially planned to live in Hong Kong, and some of Hedda’s best images of market and street culture were taken during this short interval.  However, Alastair accepted an appointment in the British Colonial Service and the two were transferred to Sarawak where they would spend the next 20 years.


Patent medicine seller of body-building ointments flexing a bow in front of a crowd at Tianqiao Market. Photo by Hadda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Hedda continued to work and go on personal expeditions throughout this period producing thousands of photographs, but those are more likely to be of interest to students of the South East Asian Martial Arts. Eventually she retired to Australia where she remained active in the photographic community until her death in 1991. Many of her most important Chinese images where not published in collections until the 1980s.


The construction of a traditional Chinese bow in a shop in Beijing. Photo by Hedda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Hedda Morrison’s long career produced a veritable mountain of important historical, artistic and ethnographic material.  Her final catalog of tens of thousands of photographs and over 60,000 undeveloped negatives (most of which were medium format) were donated to Harvard and Cornell.  The Harvard library has digitized much of this material and made it freely available online.  They seem to have gotten the bulk of the material produced in China during the 1930s and 1940s.  Cornell’s collections have not been as extensively cataloged or digitized. The library catalog suggests that most of her work in Special Collections pertains to her period in Sarawak and other travels in South East Asian (Vietnam, Thailand, the Philippines). Sadly, I have yet to find the time to pull this collection and go through the various albums, but I am sure that the exercise would be fascinating.



The construction of a traditional Chinese bow in a shop in Beijing. Photo by Hedda Morrison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.



Given the vast size of her catalog, this post will introduce only a small selection of Hedda Morrison’s work. In 1935 she traveled to Hua Shan, an important mountain in Daoist tradition, yet one that was remote enough that it was (until recently) relatively free of tourists.  However, it did possess multiple Daoist sanctuaries complete with priests and students. Hedda recorded two of these individuals carrying out a “traditional dance” in which one participant armed with a jian attacked another with a fly whisk.  Hua Shan has been associated with a number of martial traditions since at least the Ming dynasty.  Unfortunately, the catalog contains no additional information about these individual’s affiliation or practices.  Perhaps a deep dive into her papers and notebooks might reveal more information about this incident.  But in any case, visitors to the Harvard digital collections can see the complete photo album of the expedition which includes some stunning landscape photography.


Making arrows in a Beijing archery shop. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.


Hadda also took some significant images while in Beijing, including a few that we have previously seen on this blog.  Readers might recall the shop signs of the city’s swordsmiths, designed to function as a catalog of the arms that they carried. On the internet photos of these signs have sometimes been erroneously attributed to Sidney Gamble, an important sociologist and amateur photographer of the period.  I mistakenly accepted that attribution in this post.  Further exploration has shown that they are definitely the work of Hadda Morrison.


A display of newly forged knives and cleavers, Beijing. Photo by Hadda Morison. Source: Harvard Digital Archives.

Hadda also photographed marketplace performers and martial artists, as well as traditional craftsmen who were involved with the martial arts.  One individual can be seen with hooked swords, while another demonstrated his ability to pull heavily weighted bows in one of the era’s many marketplace performances. This was a standard feat for Chinese strongmen which seems to have had its roots in the imperial military examination. This last photograph is particularly interesting as it also includes a glimpse of the table of patent medicines that the performer is selling.


A warrior performing a dance in Sarawak. Hadda Morrison. From the Cornell Library.


Also important is an extensive series of photographs showing the construction of traditional bows and the fletching of arrows by Beijing’s Republic era craftsmen.  Again, I have selected only a few of the best images from this series, but all of them will certainly be of interest to archery students.  Other images show blacksmiths and knife makers hard at work, including one great photograph of a rack of finished cleavers. Finally, the last image in this set suggests that anyone with the patience to go through boxes of notebooks, photos and negatives in the Cornell achieves may also turn up interesting material related to the South East Asian martial arts.  I have not yet attempted this feat, but the one image included here is a reminder of the rich resources that Hadda’s keen powers of empathetic observation bequeathed to future generations.





If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Doing Research (8): Taking Seriously the Mundane, or How I Learned that a Choke is Never Just a Choke


Through a Lens Darkly (53): Traditional Weapons in China’s 20th Century Militia Movements

Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an with sword. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive. This is probably my favorite image by Forman in this series.


They say a picture is worth a thousand words.  If true this will be a weighty essay.  Yet that was always the thing about Harrison Forman, the renowned photo-journalist, writer and explorer.  As a correspondent he was a double threat, capable of producing both beautiful images and the narrative that went along with them.

This essay, which features a number of his photographs (all of which are housed in the University of Wisconsin Milwaukee’s digital collection) is something of a departure from my normal posts.  It is more of an photo essay than an academic discussion.  Still, I think that Harrison’s image can help us to come to terms with a critical historical point.

It is all too easy to create simplified accounts of the Chinese martial arts.  This is true at any point in time, but our discussions of comparatively recent, 20th century, events seem particularly prone to this.  When faced with the very forceful modernizing and nationalizing argument of the Jingwu movement, it is easy to forget that more traditional schools existed across China.  Often located in secondary cities or more rural areas, they typically wanted nothing to do with these approaches.  Indeed, both the Jingwu and Guoshu movements struggled to succeed outside of China’s rapidly growing urban centers.  As I explored at length in my volume on the history of the Southern Chinese martial arts (written with Jon Nielson), instructors in places like Foshan resisted these pressures and continued to explore the ways in which regional fighting traditions could reinforce local power networks and modes of identification.

Likewise, when we focus only on the lineage histories of Southern Kung Fu schools, it is possible to forget that certain professions, from armed escort services, to itinerant doctors, to opera troops, had their own reasons for pursuing martial arts training.  All of this existed in a different social sphere from General Ma Liang’s efforts to introduce his New Wushu into national school curriculums, or the efforts of Chu Minyi to create a middle class system of “Taiji Calisthenics.”

We have recently explored these efforts, and our post on the 1936 Guoshu Oympic exhibition team reinforced our understanding of the modernizing trends within the world of Chinese physical culture.  But it would be a mistake to assume that this was all that there was, or even that it captured the texture of most individuals’ interactions with the martial arts.

The modernizing groups are comparatively easy to study as they had a coherent ideology and left a trail of documents that consciously framed and situated their efforts within Chinese history.  Yet while the Guoshu movement, at its height, could claim tens of thousands of members, it is easy to forget that China’s self defense societies, crop watching groups, and village militias counted their collective memberships in the many millions.  These groups were omnipresent in the countryside during the chaotic years of the 1920s, several survived the comparative calm of the mid 1930s, and they erupted back onto the scene as China was dragged into war by the Japanese at the end of the decade.

It is difficult to generalize when it comes to these sorts of local self-defense groups.  Many did hire local martial arts instructors as trainers.  This was generally a good idea as the expense of buying rifles and handguns meant that traditional weapons, including spears and swords, continued to be seen in large numbers through the end of WWII.  While it might seem as though such weapons had no place on a modern battlefield, they were ideally suited to controlling small civilian population centers located across China’s vast landscape. “Protecting” the civilian population, rather than directly fighting the Japanese, was a typical mission for many of these groups.

The amount and type of training that any group received varied tremendously.  And some of the most successful movements, including the Red Spears, also drew on ritual practices and invulnerability magic in addition to more mundane weapons training.  That movement was especially important during the Warlord period as protecting village resources from both hostile neighboring towns and predatory tax collectors became a priority.

It is ironic that we have so few good photographs given the millions of people who actually served in Chinese militias during the 1920s. However, the globalized nature of conflict during the 1940s guaranteed that the final incarnation of these militias would be better documented.  In many ways this was the last great hurrah of the traditional Chinese village militia.  But thanks to the photographs of individuals like Harrison Forman, we not only have a better idea of what mass peasant mobilization looked like in the 1940s, but can hazard a guess as to what similar formations of Red Spears might have looked like a decade or two earlier.  It is also important to note that while such images have largely been absent from academic discussions of Chinese martial arts history, they were widely circulated in newspapers throughout the 1930s and 1940s.  As such they likely helped to shape period notions of traditional Chinese hand combat methods in the West.


A sea of red tasseled spears. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


A collection of sword wielding militia members. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


Who was Harrison Forman (1904-1978)? Born in Milwaukee, he was trained initially as an artist and later graduated from the University of Wisconsin (1929) with a degree in Asian languages.  Flying was an early passion, and Forman first travelled to China to sell American aircraft.  However, a career in sales was quickly derailed by his adventurous spirit.  Forman became an early explorer in Tibet and quickly earned the title of “the modern Marco Polo.”  Like his predecessor he came to be known to the public through his talent as both a travel writer and the producer of popular newsreels.  It was as a journalist that Forman would be best remembered.

Critics might contend, however, that Forman’s reporting was flawed.  While often richly descriptive, he seems to have had a disturbing habit of trading access to hard to access locations for positive coverage.  Of course this was an era in which all foreign journalists were subjected to heavy censorship.  Still, one cannot help but notice that when embedded in KMT controlled areas Forman wrote glowingly reports of the Nationalist government.  After convincing Japanese administrators (during the early stages of WWII) to allow him to photograph the interior of Taiwan, he produced highly complimentary articles about their administration as well.  And later in the war, when he was posted to the Eighth Route Army, he wrote very positive assessments of the Communist Party and its leadership.  Indeed, his rose-colored assesment of this last group ensured that he would be criticized and marginalized as the debates over “who lost China” heated up in the domestic American political arena after 1949.  I personally suspect that Forman was, at heart, an adventurer and explorer, and may have been a bit too eager to say what needed to be said to “get the story.”


Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an with sword. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.




Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an with dadao and an older rifle. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


Still, the stories he got were often marvelous.  Of particular interest was his time following the Communist Eight Route army with a group of Min Ping (or People’s Militia) members in Yan’an in 1944.  All of the photos in this post are drawn from that particular expedition.  Nor have I even scratched the surface of the visual record that Forman captured.  He literally took more pictures of these groups than I could count, and he produced many thousands of images of the war in China.  But all of this is really a footnote in his career.  In most circles he is best remembered for his newsreel footage of the Japanese bombing of Shanghai in the opening stages of the conflict, as well as the many special reports that he produced for the National Geographic Society (of which he was a life long member) and the New York Times.  After his death his papers (including many volumes of hand written diaries and tens of thousands of photographs, slides and undeveloped negatives) were donated to the University of Wisconsin.  Much of the collection has now been digitized and made publicly available.  I would suggest that anyone who is interested in the period take a look at the collection. But be warned, fully exploring all of his writings and images will be a long term project.  I have only scratched the surface over the last few days.




More spearmen of the Min Ping Militia in Yan’an. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.




Children, both boys and girls, training with the Min Ping Militia in Yan’an. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.

Not surprisingly I found myself especially drawn to Forman’s photographs of martial artists, soldiers and militia members.  A number of his shots recorded rallies and meetings of huge groups of militia members that seemed to fill entire valleys.  These incredible images give one a real sense of what it must have been like to see a group of thousands of Red Spears preparing for a skirmish a decade earlier.  Yet Forman never seemed to lose sight of the individual story, either as a journalist or photographer.  These group shots were juxtaposed with carefully composed portraits, some of which could easily hang on a gallery’s wall.

Readers should not assume that the small group of photos that I used in this post are entirely represantitve of his body of work.  Obviously I was more interested in the images of militia members armed with spears rather than those featuring rifles or machine pistols, yet both types of soldier could be found in abundance.  Forman also took many shots showing militia members at work.  One group of photos recorded individuals carving wooden cannons (used as primitive mortars), while another series of photographs showed militia members boobytrapping furniture as a village was abandoned ahead of a Japanese advance.  Other photos showed soldiers laying landmines or carrying equipment.

Collectively Forman has left us with a remarkable visual record of a Chinese militia group in the the final years of WWII.  Military historians will find much of interest in these images.  But for students of martial arts studies they are a stark reminder that the urban and middle class approach to hand combat was not the only one that exited during the Republic era.  Indeed, it wasn’t even the most commonly practiced.  Rather, these Chinese martial arts have always reflected the values and conflicts of the communities that supported them.  They have been, and continue to be, many things to many people.


***A special note of thanks goes to Joseph Svinth who first told be about University of Wisconsin’s collection of Forman’s photographs and sent some examples of his work that really sparked my interest.  This post would not have happened without his generosity.***




More spearmen of the Min Ping Militia in Yan’an. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.


Member of the Min Ping militia in Yan’an, armed with a dadao ad grenades. Photo by Harrison Forman, 1944. Source: University of Wisconsin Milwaukee, AGSL Digital Photo Archive.



If you enjoyed these photos you might also want to see: Tai Hsuan-chih Remembers “The Red Spears, 1916-1949”


Through a Lens Darkly (52): Taijiquan in Communist China and the United States in 1972

A press photo of a Taijiquan practitioner in China, 1972. AP photo by Faas. Source: Author’s collection.


The First of Five Photos by Horst Faas to accompany story on the practice of Tai Chi Chuan.

An older Chinese man practices the calisthenics called Tai Chi Chuan, sometimes called shadowboxing by Westerners, in the city of Shanghai recently.  The calisthenic is done voluntarily and often alone. (AP Newswire 1972)


Taijiquan on a Cold Day in 1972


Occasionally you get lucky.  You might find a photograph of the Chinese martial arts that distills a lot into a single image.  That is what Horst Faas, the famed German war photographer, was known for.  His photographs of the Vietnam war came to define the public perception of that conflict.  Those images were complex and politically challenging.  Perhaps we should expect nothing less from his photos of Chinese martial artists?

This particular photo, one of a series that ran along side an AP newswire article in 1972, managed to capture the complexity of the traditional martial arts in mainland China during the closing years of the Cultural Revolution.  It also hints at the contradictory attitudes of Americans towards them on the eve of the eruption of the Bruce Lee/Hong Kong film inspired “Kung Fu fever” of the later 1970s.  Every photograph captures a moment in time, but this was a particularly important one.

In the foreground we find a male martial artist dressed in a hat and mittens to stave off the cold.  He strides purposefully, advancing through a set of movements described to the Western audience as “Tai Chi Chun”, a Chinese form of calisthenics often practiced “alone and voluntarily.” (We will return to the significance of this last clause shortly).

Nevertheless, the dynamism of his movements seems to be swallowed up by the sheer scale of the setting.  Rather than the groups of martial artists that inhabit so many of China’s pubic spaces, here we see only a single individual in an impersonal space, dwarfed by an oversized propaganda poster in the background.  What mere traditional practice could stand in the face of such a “heroic” message?  The mythic worker in the background stands unmoving with his arm aloft, yet it is his ideological call that dominates the frame.  Undeterred and alone, a single martial artist carries on in the shadow of “the Revolution.”  This was Taijiquan in 1972.


The Thing vs. the Idea of the Thing

What are we to make of this image?  How should we explain it?  What dimensions of information has it captured, and what has it excluded?

The very composition of Faas’ photograph suggests a method for its interpretation.  In the foreground we see an embodied practice.  A man practicing Taijiquan is, in some ways, a very concrete thing.  His practice is a result of technical transmissions and historical processes.  We might study his movements and master his techniques. If interviewed he could tell us about his teacher and students.

Yet this scene derives its visual tension from the immense propaganda poster in the background. That is not simply paper and ink.  It is the tangible representation of a powerful set of ideas being consciously projected into the nation’s shared public spaces.  In this photograph it is actually these ideological facts that construct and give meaning to the man’s embodied practice, not his personal history or embodied skill.  They are also present.  The two seem to exist in a powerful dialogue between that which is individual and peculiar, and that which is collective and universal.  Nothing gives a slightly subversive subtext to an “individual and voluntary” activity quite like doing it in front a call to collectivist and revolutionary action.

This is a critical point whose utility is not restricted to this photograph.  Scholars construct the object of their study in very specific ways so that we can gain analytical purchase on a variety of theoretical problems.  The Chinese martial arts are typically treated as either objects, a sort of cultural or embodied artifact, best understood in technical terms, or as an idea, a collection of images, texts and concepts that evolve through time.  


Another image of Taijiqan (this time being performed domestically) that appeared in the American Press in 1972. Source: LA Times, March.



For the purposes of any individual project we might choose to focus on one or the other of these approaches.  In a paper on Huang Fei Hung in Hong Kong cinema I might be much more concerned with the ways in which this southern art is presented to the audience rather than in how it was actually practiced “on the street.”  Likewise, most of our historical discussions of the origins of Shaolin Boxing ignore more modern legendary stories attributing the art to Bodhidharma or some other legendary figure.  Instead they focus on a vision of the art that arrises from contemporaneous historical documents or the careful reconstruction of physical training methods.  And there is certainly much room in martial arts studies for both types of projects.

But what does it all mean?  Taking a step back, it becomes obvious that it is impossible to understand what a martial art means to the people who practice it in a cultural sense if we systematically ignore the stories that they tell (or consume) about their own practice.  Likewise, if we cannot appreciate the technical practice of Hung Gar we will miss the social significance of something like the “ethnographic turn” in the early Wong Fei Hung films.   

We may occasionally bracket the study of the martial arts as object/practice or idea/media discourse.  Yet we cannot understand much about their development or place in the modern world if at some point we don’t struggle to bring these perspectives together.  Ideas motivate and give meaning to practice.  New types of practice lead to new ideas.  This cyclic relationship, as much as anything else, dictates the fundamentally interdisciplinary nature of martial arts studies. 

Lets reconsider this image from first a technical and historical perspective.  Daniel Amos has noted that we are mistaken when we assume that the Chinese martial arts reemerged on the mainland only after the conclusion of the Cultural Revolution in 1976.  Indeed, we are also largely mistaken when we assert that it was the Cultural Revolution that led to their disappearance in the first place.

To simplify a complex paper, Amos argues that in fact most (non-professional) individuals gave up the martial arts at a much earlier date than is generally assumed.  The far reaching social reforms enacted by the new Communist regime meant that the old social institutions that supported boxing (and gave people an incentive to promote it), were basically wiped out by property and community reform programs by the end of the 1950s.  Once it became clear that it was local party officials and the state that ensured one’s safety, not voluntary social networks of traditional practitioners or secret society members, most people very quickly gave up the martial arts.  The world in which they had previously existed had simply vanished, cutting off the demand for these practices.  

In a perverse way the Cultural Revolution may have actually saved the practice of the Chinese martial arts on the mainland.  Many important texts and weapons were destroyed by over-zealous Red Guards or those who feared their wrath.  But as it became clear that the local party officials had lost control of the situation and could no longer protect individuals from the Red Guards, former practitioners and “reformed” secret society members once again started to rebuild martial arts networks as a form of private protection.  

Seeing public Taijiquan practice in the early 1970s is, in some ways, less surprising than what one might assume.  Further, David Palmer has suggested that individuals turned to activities like Qigong and Taijichuan as a way of dealing with the psychological trauma and repression that was inflicted on the population by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution. And both of these scholars have noted that the trends which began in the 1970s only accelerated in the 1980s.  

Seen in this light our lone martial artist is neither an aberration nor an illustration of the futile nature of trying to bring modernity to the Chinese people.  He is a pioneer who suggests what the future of the Chinese martial arts will be, as well as the political subtext that will accompany these activities.  After all, as Faas notes, these are voluntary and individual exercises which served to purposefully set people apart from the mandatory and collective daily exercises that were practiced by pretty much every work unit in the country.

This turn towards the question of ideology brings us to the second half of our interpretive equation.  What did such an image suggest to Western readers about the nature of Chinese society and martial arts?  Few Americans knew that much about what was going on inside the globally reclusive Chinese state during the Cultural Revolution.  And why is it significant that pictures like this, and so many other discussions of Taijiquan, begin to appear in the press in the years 1972 and 1973?

We know that the popularity of the Chinese martial arts exploded in the mid 1970s.  The release of Enter the Dragon in August of 1973 catapulted Bruce Lee to superstardom and ensured that the public would have a healthy interest in the Chinese martial arts.  But other factors must also be considered.  While Bruce Lee would set the match to the powder, other forces had been laying the groundwork for this explosion of interest in Chinese culture.  Nor did all of these actors share the same vision of the practice or meaning of the traditional arts.

The politics of the Cold War played a large part in this.  Note for instance that in February of 1968 Black Belt magazine ran a historically important feature on the martial arts of “Red China.”  Readers of Kung Fu Tea may be interested in its brief discussion of Wing Chun and the early photo of Ip Man which it published.  But if we take a step back and read the entire issue its interesting to note how the discussion of the Chinese martial arts is repeatedly framed within a larger political discussion of Chinese Communism and whether it should be seen as threatening in a global context.  Indeed, the article makes an effort to try and understand the CCP’s ideological stance towards the martial arts and cites books published by mainland presses earlier in the 1960s.

In 1972 President Nixon provided the ultimate answers to these geopolitical questions when news of his historic opening to China became public.  This tectonic political shift dominated public discussions at the time and it continued to reverberate throughout the early 1980s.  Intensive media coverage during the era of “Ping Pong Diplomacy” ensured that there was a growing interest in many aspects of Chinese culture.  

Once the table tennis was over, the Chinese government staged martial arts demonstrations for dignitaries (and journalists) on both sides of the Pacific.  Who can forget the pictures of a young Jet Li visiting the White House in 1974? In many ways this was the beginning of the modern era of Chinese “Cultural Diplomacy,” and it was clear from the start that the martial arts would play a major role in these efforts.  Indeed, the Communists seemed to be picking up right where the Nationalists had left off in the 1930s.  Americans remained curious about Chinese martial arts, and the government was eager to show off the achievements of the newly reformed wushu system.

What did American readers see when looking at this photograph in 1972?  Generalizations are difficult, but I suspect that most individuals probably felt an anticipation of change.  Clearly this photo was intended to capture a moment of social transition.  But the political atmosphere of 1972 probably led a great many readers to assume that it was the collectivist and revolutionary ideology in the background (represented by the Maoist propaganda poster) which was about to recede into history, while the “traditional” yet voluntary practice in the foreground represented China’s hope for the future.    

 While not immediately obvious, this reading of the photograph does something interesting.  Rather than leaving Taijiquan as an unchanging relic of “ancient China,” it acknowledges that it is a practice caught up in the churn of geopolitical events.  As such, it has a real history.  We might even be able to understand broader patterns of change within both Chinese and global society by studying this fighting systems.  Such a reading also brings the historical and technical discussions of scholars like Amos and Palmer into close alignment with trends that were emerging from Western media discourse.  Rather than an artifact of the allochronistic past, the reemergence of Taijiquan was proof that the long prophesied “New China” was finally on the horizon.



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Inventing Kung Fu


Through a Lens Darkly (51): Early Kendo in California

Boy Scouts practice Kendo in California, 1928. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.


Of Boy Scouts and Kendo

A recent post focused on the role of the global scouting movement in promoting the spread of the Asian martial arts during the first half of the 20th century. In that essay I mentioned a photograph of Japanese-American and Caucasian scouts practicing Kendo together in California during the 1920s. Yet observant readers may have noticed I did not actually include that photo in the post.

Sadly I had misplaced that particular photo so it didn’t make it into that piece. But it recently resurfaced as I was shuffling through my collection. Better yet, I came across another related item which also helps to add detail to our understanding of Kendo in America prior to 1941.

I quite like the first of these press photos. In it we see two figures seemingly locked in a bind. Both boys wear a complete set of kendo gear over western clothing and shoes. While Kendo is traditionally practiced barefoot, the shoes are probably necessary in this case as the boys are practicing on an asphalt rooftop. While the publisher’s caption doesn’t say where the photograph was taken, our young combatants are framed by a well-developed cityscape in the background. The composition of this photograph is excellent, and it lends a real sense of drama to this moment of martial exchange.

The publisher’s complete caption (pasted to the verso of the photograph) reads as follows:


Japanese Boy Scouts of the Pacific Coast have taught white scouts some of the sports of ancient Japan. Here are a couple of the scouts practicing the ancient Samurai sport of sword play with bamboo swords.

April 17, 1928

While brief, this caption is quite revealing. It is likely that any Boy Scout of this age would have been born in the United States, yet the author seems unsure as to whether they should rightly be classified as “Americans” or not. If one were to read this description too quickly it might be possible to assume that it is discussing the visit of scouts from Japan to California, when in fact this was an exchange between two local troops, both comprised of US citizens. This same sense of self-inflicted confusion as to the actual identity of Japanese-American citizens would bear tragic fruit following the commencement of hostilities in the Pacific.

The irony is that whoever organized this activity likely believed that throwing scout troops from the white and Japanese-American communities together would lead to a greater sense of understanding and civic empathy. That sort of bridge building has long been a core function of the Boy Scouts. Yet rather than simply educating the public about their community, practices such as Kendo could be interpreted as markers of the “indelible strangeness” of the Japanese American community.

Nevertheless, the popularity of Kendo expanded rapidly on the West coast after the 1920s. Anyone interested in an overview of this period should be sure to check out Joseph Svinth’s 2003 chapter “Kendo in North America, 1985-1955” in Thomas and Svinth’s Martial Arts in the Modern World. This chapter is an excellent example of the ways in which a focused study of martial arts communities can make important contributions to our understanding of local and regional history. Svith’s comparison of the ultimate fate of the pre-war Kendo communities in the USA and Canada is also a nice case study in the politicization of the martial arts.

As Svinth notes, during the late 19th and early 20th century American kendo was mostly dominated by visiting elites from Japan rather than local immigrants. The expense of establishing schools, hiring instructors and importing gear from Japan was more than struggling local communities could bear. Yet by the end of the1920s things start to change. The growing economic security of the Japanese American community, as well as the immigration of a handful of instructors from Japan, set the stage for a kendo boom. By the middle of the next decade there were dozens of clubs up and down the west coast of Canada and the US, most of which were led by local instructors. The following photograph, also collected from a newspaper archive, records this moment in history.


T. Shimada leads a Kendo class in Los Angeles, 1933. Source: Vintage Press Photo. Author’s Personal Collection.


Los Angeles.

[A] new sport gains vogue in America, Kendo, the Japanese art of fencing with bamboo swords finds enthusiastic devotees in Los Angeles, under T. Shimo who is said to conduct the only class in the ancient sport outside of Japan. Young American born sons of Japanese residents are his pupils but so many occidentals have been attracted by the spectacular fencing that Shimo may break the traditional president and initiate a class of Americans, anticipating future international competition. Heavily padded headgear, gloves and breastplates are used to prevent injury in the sword duels which call for a high degree of skill and physical endurance. These young Japanese fencers, shown with Shimo. Have been studying under the fencing master for two years at Los Angeles.


One of the basic questions that Svinth attempts to tackle in his chapter is the actual popularity of Kendo on the West Coast. Certain sources indicated that more than 10,000 people were studying Kendo by the end of the 1930s. Svinth, however, is unconvinced that a handful of clubs could support such numbers. He views such reports as a self-reinforcing cycle of over-enthusiasm on the part of ambitious Kendo instructors and latent “yellow peril” fears on the part of Western reporters and government officials who were predisposed to worry about the growing strength of the Japanese American community.

The caption that circulated with this photo seems to touch on many of these same issues. It is certainly true that the practice of Kendo in America expanded rapidly between the time of our first and second photographs. At the same time there is an air of self-serving exaggeration in all of this. If Shimo’s class really started in 1931 it was far from the first Kendo class in Southern California, let alone “outside of Japan.” Still, it would be interesting to know if his plans to expand instruction to the local Caucasian community ever came to fruition.

Svinth notes that by the middle of the 1930s local merchants had started to stock Kendo gear and this dropped some of the economic barriers to participation. Proud parents, eager to use Kendo as a means of preserving their national identity, were quick to take formal photos of their children in Kendo gear and send them to relatives in the US and Japan. Unfortunately, between the internment of these citizens in North America, and the firebombing of Japanese cities, few of these photos now survive. Thus the newspaper photographs discussed here are an important visual record of what is largely a lost era of martial arts history.

While Kendo has a healthy following on the West Coast, Svinth notes that in the US the entire art had to be re-introduced and re-organized following the Second World War. While young students during the 1930s may have viewed their practice as a way of competing, winning trophies and making friends, their parents tended to associate these practices strongly with Japanese cultural identity. It was this sort of identity work that inspired the community to throw its support behind the rapid expansion of the practice in the first place.

After the attack on Pearl Harbor this became the source of an immediate crisis. All of the West Coast kendo schools were shut down and many of their instructors were detained by both the Canadian and US governments. Faced with a crisis of identity, many Japanese-Americans responded by destroying anything too closely linked with traditional Japanese culture or militarism. This included the burning of Kendo gear, photographs, books and the destruction of ancestral swords. While some individuals continued to practice Judo in the internment camps (which was deemed permissible as the art was adopted as part of American military training in 1943), Svinth notes that Kendo was largely shunned except by those seeking a form of passive resistance.

Such a path was not that popular in the American camps, where large numbers of young Japanese-Americans enlisted to fight in the pacific. As a result Kendo largely faded as part of the community’s identity. Its popularity in the second half of the 20th century was due to its re-introduction by returning veterans who had studied the art in occupied Japan, or later immigrants. Interestingly the path of peaceful resistance proved to be much more popular in the Canadian camps. As a result much of the pre-War Kendo community managed to survive in that country.



Its comforting to think that the more two communities learn about each other the less likely conflict becomes. This hope often functions as an implicit assumption within many discussions of value of the global spread of the Asian martial arts. It is simply one more facet of the ever-popular paradox of the “fighting arts” functioning as a pathway for peace.

Political scientists, however, have known for quite some time that greater empathy does not always lead to more peaceful outcomes. Sometimes additional information just ends in more finely calibrated attacks. Simply put, the exchange of knowledge (embodied or otherwise) never happens in a vacuum. Structure matters, and so does discourse. One must think carefully about the larger frameworks surrounding martial exchanges to understand likely outcomes.

The case of kendo’s rapid expansion on the West Coast in the early 1930s is an interesting case study. While press coverage of these clubs may have created a more informed reading public, it probably wasn’t a more sympathetic one. Perhaps things would have been different if greater efforts had been made to racially integrate classes. Indeed, both of the photos discussed above hint hopefully at that possibility. But in an era when Kendo itself was being promoted as a way to reconnect with one’s Japanese roots, and American life was dominated by the institutions of segregation, such an outcome was unlikely. Still, the visual record of these historical moments lead us to wonder about what might have been?



If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to see: Conceptualizing the Asian Martial Arts: Ancient Origins, Social Institutions and Leung Jan’s Wing Chun.


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