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Through a Lens Darkly (61): The Shifting Social and Economic Value of Traditional Chinese Weapons


Vintage postcard (1907-1914) showing a collection of Chinese and other weapons, musical instruments, pipes and other artifacts.


One of the most notable trends over the last decade has been the rapid appreciation of prices for antique Chinese weapons.  There is more variability in markets for antique objects than one might think.  Simply being rare was does not make something valuable.  Antique Chinese blades in good condition have always been somewhat hard to find.  But when I first became interested in them, serious collectors seemed to only be interested in Japanese arms. Their main piece of advice was to avoid Chinese weapons all together.

Needless to say, things are quite different now.  As China’s status as a global power has risen the domestic market for its own antiques has exploded, and the competition for those pieces that reside outside the country has likewise increased.  I have recently been wondering if changes in the prices of certain types of antique ethnographic objects (including weapons) might not correlate with shifts in China’s soft power position more generally.  Might it be possible to construct some sort of measurable “soft power index?”

It’s a question that deserves some study.  Though it is also interesting to note that the social status of the traditional Chinese martial arts has been falling at exactly the same time that the price of antiques associated with these practices have skyrocketed. It seems that it is the image of China itself, as either an entitiy to be feared or desired, which is the critical factor here.  The performance of TCMA practitioners “in the octagon” seems to be less of an issue.  At least in the short run.

I began to think about shifts in the antique market after running across the postcard at the top of this post.  In some ways it makes a nice companion piece to our last entry in this series. That also featured traditional Chinese weapons.  But in that case the weapons were displayed in a prominent location in their homeland and in a traditional way.

This photograph features what appears to be the collection of a European official or military officer.  I suspect that he was an administrator of some sort as his own pith helmet, displayed in the upped right hand corner of the image, is purposively contrasted with the traditional feathered hat of a Qing official on the other side of the display.  One is thus forced to conclude that the collection of these weapons represents, at least on a visual level, the spoils of China’s transformation from a traditional Empire to a modern nation in close communication with outside powers.

The most interesting items are all displayed in the central part of the image. Readers will immediately identify two sabers that both appear to be well made but of a civilian rather than military pattern.  Along with these we find a single hooked sword and a broad, flat, guard-less blade that resembles some sort of machete.  Whether this specimen is actually Chinese in origin is an interesting question.

Beneath the swords we find a collection of ancient Chinese coins, juxtaposed with what appears to be old style black powder rifle cartridges.  The lower half of the display keeps with the martial theme, but leaves the Chinese cultural sphere.  We now find a collection of arrows that appear to be from Papua New Guinea and which have nothing to do with the Chinese style bow at the very top of the display.  These are accompanied by a traditional paddle from the area, as well as a banner of some sort.  Unfortunately, this postcard is badly faded and I can’t quite make out the image on the cloth. One wonders if the machete grouped with the swords originated with this part of the collection.  The scene is then rounded off with a collection of musical instruments, pipes, a bamboo umbrella and a rustic bench.

Again, one strongly suspects that this collection represents the curios brought home by an official stationed first in China and then in New Guinea in either the late 19th or early 20th century.  Such an individual may have been German, British or something else.  If a sharper image of this postcard ever surfaces, perhaps the pith helmet (which seems to have some sort of insignia) will yield additional clues.

Still, I would expect that a German collector is probably a good bet.  Prior to WWI the Germans held colonies in Shandong (areas that saw a good deal of violence during the Boxer Uprising), and they also colonized much of Papua New Guinea.  Thus a bureaucrat’s or military officer’s career trajectory might very well connect these two otherwise distant places.  Further, the specimen has an early divided back indicating that it was likely printed in Germany sometime prior to WWI (between 1907 and 1914), when they lost their monopoly on the export of high-quality photographic postcards. Sadly this postcard is not labeled in any way. We don’t even know who actually printed it.  But it seems likely that it was printed in the pre-WWI period using an early 20thcentury (or late 19thcentury) image.

How much did our unknown collector pay for these trophies?  Luckily we have a wonderful, if often overlooked, source on what was happening in the market for antique Chinese weapons as the nation’s military rushed to modernize.  Dr. Edward Bedloe, who was the US Consul in Xiamen from 1890-93, wrote a very interesting article documenting how the bottom fell out of the market for antique Chinese swords and other arms in the last two decades of the 19th century. Of course these were also years when China’s status as a major power were in decline, coming to a head with Japan’s defeat of the larger empire during the Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895).

Some context may be necessary before we can interpret the prices in Bedloe’s article. He notes that Chinese swords could be had for $1 or less, with good condition Qing military sabers selling for about $5.  To put this in perspective, a plain double barrel shotgun in the Sears Catalog for 1892 sold for $7, and a Winchester repeating rifle went for $14.  Most sportsmen in the US could afford the former firearm, but not the latter.  New Winchesters were always something of a luxury.  Perhaps those benchmarks will be useful when evaluating the perceived cultural value of a “$10 halberd” or a “$25 suit of armor.”  While you could buy a good sword for less than $50 in today’s money, the very best antiques might still cost between $500-$2000.


Volkerkunde by F.Ratzel.Printed in Germany,1890. This 19th century illustration shows a number of interesting Japanese and Chinese arms including hudiedao.


Arms and Armor of Xiamen, 1892.   

Consular Reports on Commerce, Manufacturing, Ect.  No. 147. December, 1892.  US Congress: Washington DC.


Report by Consul Bedloe, of Amoy.

Few collectors in the United States are aware of the wealth of China in all sorts of oddities and curios.  There is an army of connoisseurs among the rich Mongolians, but they display little or no energy is accumulating art treasures.  If they see something that strikes their fancy and they are satisfied with the price, they take it without a murmur.  If it be 10 cents beyond what they regard as a fair limit, they walk off in high dudgeon.  As a consequence, the curio market has few ups and downs.  Nevertheless, it does an immense business the year through.  The best patrons are naturally wealthy natives.  Then come some European collectors and experts.  Ship captains and missionaries are also buyers of considerable importance.  Last and least are the collectors of the United States.

There is hardly an artistic taste but can be gratified in the Flowery Kingdom.  A full description of the art treasures to be seen in its great cities would fill many volumes.  A resume may be of interest to both the collector and the reading public.

Arms and Armor.

Of the former there are 1,100 types and 1,200 of the latter.  The best workmanship in this line comes from Japan, and some admirable pieces are said to be of Korean origin.  The Chinese work is extremely variable in quality and character, also in price, and, strange to say, the oldest and rarest weapons are sold at prices much below the charges for more modern and less curious implements of warfare.

In offensive weapons there is remarkable variety.  On the coast its soldiers are armed with the latest rifles, while in the far interior they employ the same arms as were used by the vast hosts of Tamerlane and Zenghis Khan.  Taking the empire as a whole, the student or collector can find in use today every weapon that has been employed within its borders since the time of Confucius.  In addition to this, the mandarins and high officials arm their retinues with conventional weapons representing different periods in the history of the nation.  On account of the changes wrought by time, many of these martial instruments are so incongruous as to be positively funny.  This, for example, the Mongolian Tartars did their fighting on horseback, and one of their most formidable arms was a pole to which was attached a hook edged on the inside like a reaper’s sickle.  With this they would pull a rider from his steed, wounding or killing him in the action, or would hamstring the horse at a single stroke.  This pole hook is no longer used by the few cavalry squadrons of China, but is found carried by footmen in nearly all the retinues of great nobles.  It looks formidable, but when used by infantry against infantry would be as serviceable as an Indian club fastened securely to the end of a broomstick.

A glance at a collection of these arms shows that military uniformity was almost unknown to the Chinese generals of the past, and that the armies were up of divers elements, armed usually with such implements used in peaceful pursuits as could be used in war.  A common weapon is a trident, tined and barbed exactly as those employed by fishermen in spearing eels.  Similar to this is a three-prong hay fork.  Of equally bucolic origin is a long pole to whose end is fastened the end of a scythe or sickle.  The European mace is suggested by a long handled, light-headed hammer similar to that with which Charles Martel is said to have won his quaint name.  It is obvious that these weapons were of harmless origin.  The first was the favorite instrument of fishermen and the second, third and fourth of agricultural people.

Of the five types described here there are no fewer varieties.  The poles are bamboo or solid wood.  They are plain, carved, or decorated with mother of pearl, metal or cord.  The heads are copper, brass, iron, pewter, or steel.  Sometimes they are silvered, sometimes bronzed, lacquered or gilt.  Handsome ones are the exception and not the rule.  The average retainer of a high official carries an arm whose pole is of the commonest wood stained red and whose head is of the poorest kind of cast iron or impure pewter.  Many of these ominous-looking implements of war would not stand a light blow, both head and pole breaking at a very slight shock.

I have never seen any lances. [Recall that he was stationed in Amoy, and not in the north]  The deficiency is made up by a surplus of spears and halberds.  Of these the designs are varied, running from light and efficient points and edges to grotesque and hideous shapes that would frighten more than they would hurt.  At times the workmanship is admirable.  A spear captured by the French from the Black Flags in Tonquin is 8 feet long.  The shaft is of ironwood, round, polished and varnished and reinforced here and there by wrappings of fine copper wire, and at the upper hand is incrusted the distance of a foot with mother-of-pearl.  The end is ferruled with a large copper band, in which is set the spearhead.  This is made of fine steel 6 inches in length and triangular in cross section.  One face is deeply grooved so as to allow a large amount of poison.  These spears are used with great skill by the Chinese.  Lee-Yun, a famous bandit, could throw one through a man at 50 yards.  In the franco-Tonquin war a powerful Chinese foot soldier drove his weapon entirely through two French infantrymen.  It is claimed that the finer and handsomer spears are not of Chinese workmanship, but are made by Japanese, Korean, Anamite, and Malayan ironsmiths.  How true this is I am unable to determine. [Note: what he describes in the preceding passage is almost certainly a Japanese Yari (spear) which was sold on the secondary market in southern China before ending up in a battle with the French.]

Of halberds there is great variety, ranging from simple lochaber ax and poleax to the cumbrous and complicated masses of metal that were so common at the close of the age of chivalry.   The oddest specimen was one which, instead of an ax blade on one side, had what appeared to be a hammerhead.  It would make a serviceable implement for driving picture nails in walls near the ceiling.

In archery the Chinese have long been experts, especially those of Manchooria and Se-Chuen.  Their bows are of three types: the long bow, which is over 5 feet in length; the short bow, which is about 4 feet long; and the crossbow.  The strings are made of silk, of gut, or of very strong homemade twine wrapped with fine silk in the middle.  Bows are graded according to their pull, the standard being 100 catties (about 135 pounds).  To determine the pull the bow properly strung is suspended from the middle and weights hung to the middle of the string until the latter is nearly an arrow’s length from the bow.  Famous bowmen use bows with heavier pulls, ranging from 150 to 200 pounds, and one distinguished Robin Hood is said to have drawn a 200-catty bow (about 270 pounds).  The bows vary greatly in materials, construction, decoration, and finish.  They are made of one or several pieces of wood and are frequently inlaid or engraved until they are true works of art.

Worthy of mention are the tiger bows.  These are extra large and heavy and are generally fastened to a framework near a path or road frequented by tigers or other large animals.  It requires two men to set them, and they are so arranged that the moving of a cord stretched across the road disengages the bowstring and sends the arrow on its way.  The force is so great that the shaft frequently comes out of the other side of the tiger, deer, or buffalo.  To insure success the arrow is usually double barbed and envenomed.  On the mainland, opposite the island of Amoy, these tiger bows are in constant use and annually kill at least 50 of these big beasts.

The weapons named are much cheaper than corresponding ones in the United States and Europe.  The cheapest spears and halberds bring about 40 cents and bows 25 cents.  From these figures the prices run slowly upward.  A handsome poleax is easily had for $1, while weapons of the highest artistic value and finish can be secured for less than $5 each.



The Armory of the Wang-Ho as seen on an early 20th century postcard. Note the Hudiedao in the rack on the back wall. Source: Author’s personal collection.



A handsome stand of arms, containing poleaxes, spears, halberds, swords and daggers—two each—can be procured for about $25.  A stand equally attractive in appearance, but made in imitation materials, can be had for about half that amount.

Volkerkunde by F.Ratzel.Printed in Germany,1890. This 19th century illustration shows a number of interesting Japanese and Chinese arms including hudiedao.  Bedloe indicates that this sort of a collection could have been bought in Xiamen in 1892 for less than $50 USD.

An American resident in Amoy was requested to execute a commission for a distinguished divine of the United States, a gentleman who, though a man of peace, has the finest, if not one of the best, collections of swords and other deadly weapons in the world.  This led to the examination of several hundred rare and curious weapons sent him for inspection and approval.  No two were alike of the lot selected, and not one that did not display rare skill on the part of the Chinese sword smith.

The handsomest of all is a general’s saber about 4 ½ feet long, slightly Japanese in style, with an edge like a razor and a point that would extort admiration from an Italian bandit.  Unlike our own, the thickest part of the blade is the center.  This gives great weight to the weapon, joined with an appearance of great lightness.  The scabbard is made of hard, tough wood, lacquered to represent black iron incrusted with mother-of-pearl.  The hilt is of black iron molded in form of a full-blown rose, the petals of which have been drilled with small holes and these filled with bright brass bars.

The most curious of the lot is the so-called warrior’s two-bladed sword, from Ho-Nan.  It is only about 2 feet long, and in the scabbard looks very like the sword bayonet from our own army.  The Scabbard is plain, but very neat, and covered with white shagreen (or shark skin) and trimmed with brass mountings.  When you draw it the blade divides into two, each a facsimile of the other, double edged and spear pointed.  The twin blades have a remarkable decoration made by drilling seven holes about an inch and a half in diameter and put in a zigzag line from hilt to point.  These are filled with pure copper, which is ground down to form a smooth surface flush with the steel and polished to a mirror-like brightness.  These seven stars, as they are called, are found in nearly all martial weapons of Ho-Nan and are relics of the old astrological faith that still prevails in many parts of China.  Its hold is so strong that if the copper falls out of one of the sword hole it is accepted as a sure precursor of death, and the luckless wielder of the blade usually commits suicide to escape further trouble.

The short stabbing daggers, which find favor chiefly with pirates and revolutionists, form a strong contrast to with the weapons described.  They are generally so ugly that they would be ludicrous were it not for the purposes to which they are applied.  I have one which looks like a queerly made ace of spades fastened into a wire-bound handle.  To increase the artistic effect of the weapon, the armorer has hollowed out a shallow, spoon-shaped concave on either side of the blade and filled it with blood-red lacquer, the effect of which, when suddenly drawn from a black sheath, is very startling.  Spades are not the only suit in the pack that is popular in the Mongolian mind.  I have another weapon whose blade is a perfect ace of Diamonds.  All four sides are ground down to an almost concave edge, and the blade is made hideous by Chinese red lacquer work made to represent drops of blood and gouts of gore.

Still another dagger is about the clumsiest affair of the kind I ever handled.  The blade is foot long, about 3 inches wide, and half an inch thick.  With its heavy brass hilt and gigantic guard it weighs over three pounds.  If set with a long handle it can be used as an ax [Note: he may be describing a single “hudiedao shaped” short-sword with a brass hand guard.  These are often carried and used with a rattan shield.]  It is used chiefly by the Black Flags and other celestial outlaws, who, in addition to using it in the ordinary manner, throw it with fatal precision.  The ex-resident of Tonquin told me that during the late war he had known instances in which knives were thrown with such force that they would go through a man’s body and show 2 inches of bloody steel beyond his back.  The handles of many of the instruments of death are finished with what we call pistol grips.

The most dreadful looking weapon of all is the executioner’s sword, used by the late headsman of Amoy.  It is of Manchoorian type, being long, almost straight, very heavy, and keenly edged.  It is used with one hand, and is shaped and wound so as to give the executioner a powerful hold upon his weapon.  Upon the blade near the hilt are Chinese characters recording the tragic events in which it has taken active part.  My interpreter told me that it records no less than one hundred and ninety-three human lives which it has taken out of this world.  This record enhances its value.  A new sword of the same kind could be bought for $10 or $12, but for this sword, with its ghastly history, the thrifty broker wanted $200 cash.  He evidently thought that, although it came high, I must have it and accordingly raised the price.  He was a very heart broken creature when I declined it with thanks.

A word of caution as to these Oriental swords and daggers: Very many of them are poisoned, so that a mere scratch will cause death.  The venom is produced by steeping the blade in decayed human blood, and is one of the deadliest known to physiological science.

From now on for the next five years will be the golden opportunity for the collector to secure the finest specimens of swords.  The market has never before contained and never will again such an assortment as regards either beauty, economy, historic value, variety, or workmanship.  The reasons are simple enough.  The opening of China and Japan to the outside world and the introduction of firearms was a fatal blow to the sword smiths’ industry.  Before that event the makers of swords formed the wealthiest and most powerful guild in the East.  The medieval rivalry between Milan, Toledo, and Damascus was insignificant alongside of that of the great armorers of the Orient.  Competition caused experiments in metallurgy, alloying, forging, and tempering that produced results of high value and disclosed mechanical secrets to the workers in steel that are unknown to the best cutlers in Europe and America today.  They produce blades with perceptible tints in violet, blue, green, red, silver and gold.  Saladin’s sword that would cut a veil or a cushion and Richard Coeur de Lion’s, which would sever a steel mace, could have been duplicated in a hundred shops in the days of the Shogunate and the eighteenth-century mandarins.

Upon the sword, art ran mad.  The smiths learned to arrange the fibers of the metal so as to form geometrical patterns, the figures of flowers, fruits, and leaves, and even the Chinese characters composing quotations from the great poets and philosophers.  Their skills in this field bordered on the marvelous.  You can obtain superb weapons even now which in the brightest sun seem made from metal mirrors.  Put them in the sunlight so as to cast a reflection on a dark surface, and in the illumination you will see in faint lines every pattern I describe.  The effect is the same as that produced by the magic mirrors of Japan, but how its done no one knows.

The appearance of this flood of weapons upon the market is due to an additional cause.  Under the ancient regime every noble, high and low, in Japan was attended by two-sworded men at arms, just as the robber barons of the middle ages were accompanied by steel clad swash-bucklers.  In 1860 there were, it is estimated, at least 400,000 “two-sworders” in Japan.  The revolution of 1868 changed all this in a twinkling.  Sword-wearing, except by the police and soldiery, who had ordinary European weapons, was made a crime.  The two-sworder lost his occupation, and his tools of trade locked up as mementos of the golden past.  But twenty years have come and gone since then, the Mikadate is an established fact, and all hopes and desires of a return to the old feudal system have become mere echoes.  A new generation has arisen which cares for money and not for the “hero’s weapon,” and the old one, which loved the blade for its past, is rapidly dying out.  The consequences is that young Japan, with admirable thrift, is putting the weapons of his sires and grandsires in the curio shops to exchange them for yen and sen, the dollars and cents of their mint.

In China the mandarin has sold his grandsire’s blade and carries an umbrella instead.  So many have taken this course that the market is more than glutted.  Two-thirds of these weapons have tasted blood.  All are interesting, a majority are very handsome, while a few hundred are simply superb works of art.  The prices at times are so low as to be laughable; $3, $2, $1.50, $1 and even 75 or 50 cents will procure a weapon such as a Broadway and Strand dealers have frequently sold for $50 and upwards.  The low prices have put many noble weapons to ignominious uses.  Here and there in rich farming land the Orient goes beyond the Biblical prediction and turns the sword into a plowshare, a reaping hook, a pruning knife, a carver, a poker, and even a skewer.  One day I saw two fishes being roasted on a blade that may have swung in the great wars between China and Japan.

There is no more handsome ornament to a drawing-room or library than a trophy of arms, and of these the most attractive is a set of eastern swords, with their exquisitely carved hilts, their noble blades, and their fantastic yet ever beautiful scabbards.

While China cannot compare with Europe in the beauty, richness, or variety of the defensive armor, it nevertheless can show many ingenious and interesting types.

The original armor of the north (Manchooria and Mongolia) seems to have been leather, and in shape was more like a blouse than a jerkin.  In the course of years the skin was doubled, trebled, and quadrupled, and a Chinese lower garment that might be called leather greaves and cuirasses combined was added to the upper one.  The Mongolian Nomads learned at an early age that a coat or cuirass made of sheepskin in several thicknesses made a very warm garment and would turn a spear, arrow, or sword.  Apparel of this class is in use to-day and may be bought very cheaply in Sha-Toong.  Parallel to this alternating leather and wool in the north was that of paper and cotton cloth in the south of China.  It seems ridiculous to call such combinations armor, and yet they made an armor superior in many instances to steel.  Thirty thicknesses of alternate calico and paper will resist a pistol bullet or one from a rifle at a distance of 100 yards.  A spear-man who thrusts his weapon into a man clad in this kind of garment can neither wound his enemy nor extract his weapon, and, if the enemy is an archer or is armed with a long sword, he is likely to lose his life for his mischance.  The suit of the famous Yun-Nan bandit consisted of sixty thicknesses of cotton cloth and paper and made him practically invulnerable.  These suits are comparatively light, are very durable, and, of course, extremely cheap.

Between these extreme types lie many kinds of plate, scale, and chain armor.  Plate mail never reached a high development in the far East.  I cannot find that it ever passed beyond the combination of breastplate, backplate, and shoulder pieces.  Scale mail, on the other hand, at an early period was carried to a high perfection.  The scales were applied to cloth or leather at first as spangles are to gauze and later as tiles or slates are to the boards of a roof.  They were composed of iron, pewter, silver, gold, or of various Oriental alloys.  In making a suit scales of one kind were usually employed, but combinations were frequent in which metals of contrasting colors were used.  A good suit of armor can be bought at prices ranging from $10 to $15.

Of the different pieces of armor the helmet alone deserves attention.  The Chinese artists worked along a different channel from his European colleagues and tried to make the headpieces monstrous and terrifying rather than protective.  Designs representing the jaws of serpents, griffins, and dragons are very common, but such affairs as the barred visor and vizored helmet which Dore loved to draw are entirely unknown.   Morions and skullcaps were also in general use and are to-day.  The queerest type of all is the executioner’s helmet.  It resembles a high mouse trap or flytrap in wire and painted the conventional vermilion.  Centuries ago the wires were flat and so arranged as to defy swords and ax, and, owing to their great height, disconcerted the archers of the opposing army.  In the north, where wood is scarce, the helmet is made from woolen cloth, leather and metal; in the west, where there are forests, wood was frequently employed; while in the south, in addition to these materials, cotton cloth and paper were also used.  Helmets very in cost according to workmanship and materials, ranging from 50 cents to $50.

Shields and bucklers have been in vogue from time immemorial.  The favorite type is a bossed circle from 2 to three 3 feet in diameter similar to those employed by the Highlander.  Its composition is leather, metal, or woven split bamboo.  Bamboo shields are very strong and durable.  They are made of a certain variety of that vegetable, which must have attained a certain size and hardness of the fiber before it was fit for this particular purpose.  The bamboo is split into piece an inch in width and 4 feet in length, softened and braided in basketwork over a frame the size of the desired shield.  It is dried in the sun and then in a kiln and afterwards polished and varnished.  Its great strength and elasticity and lightness rendered it an admirable weapon of defense.  A double thickness of bamboo with a metal rim makes a buckler unlike any to be found elsewhere, and costs 50 cents.  Unlike at home, the new weapon costs more than the old.  Antiquities can be had for a third or a fourth of the cost of new reproductions.  Rich men in China prefer cheap imitations to originals, whether new or old, and the curio market scarcely knows armor as an object of virtue.



If you enjoyed this discussion you might also want to see: Through a Lens Darkly (33): Two Views of Chinese Fencing (and a Lesson in Dating Postcards)


Through a Lens Darkly (14): Archery Practice in Late Imperial China

A group photograph of an archery class or society. Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.
A group photograph of an archery class or society.  Note that one individual leads a horse while another carries a large wall mounted gun. Ogden Cigarette Card, circa 1901.


***Kung Fu Tea is having a birthday!  The blog has now been up and running for seven years. Its hard to believe how much it, and the Martial Arts Studies community, has grown in that time.  As such I thought I would take well deserved evening off.  Ha!  Just kidding.

Actually I am working desperately to complete a book chapter that I promised a colleague last year. Of course I will be posting on that a little later.  But in the mean time, this does seem like a good opportunity to sit back and reflect on the many things that this blog has done.  I think one of my proudest achievements (or possible just the most fun) has been the long-running “Through a Lens Darkly” series in which I introduce and discuss various image of the traditional martial arts.  Its always rewarding when I see images that I first uncovered and published here floating around in the various corners of Facebook.  So what better way to celebrate is there than to look back at this early entry in that series.  Enjoy!***


Introduction: Archery and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

I have recently been reading Stephen Selby’s book Chinese Archery (2000, Hong Kong University Press).  It is a very important contribution to the Chinese martial studies literature and one of the few book length studies that we have which has been published by a university press.  I am actually surprised that it does not get more attention in Chinese martial studies circles.  Of course Chinese archery students love it, but there is a lot of interesting historical and social data spread throughout the book which should make it useful to any student of military history.

I would like to review this volume in an upcoming edition of the “Book Club” here at Kung Fu Tea, but I need a little more time to digest and think about it.  Archery is one of those subjects that is a little intimidating to write about.  There is such a wealth of information out there that just summarizing it can be daunting.  The number of surviving manuals, descriptions and accounts are enough to make any traditional boxing student more than a little jealous.  That in itself is a powerful testimony of the long-lasting importance of archery.  It was the most important discipline within China’s vast corpus of military practices and traditions for most of the empire’s history.  A little humility is required at the outset of any such project.

Rather than just jumping in at the deep end, I think I will wade into this subject with a few preparatory posts.  The first of these introduces a number of historically important images of the Chinese archers.  All of these photographs date to the final decades of the Qing dynasty.  Firearms had come to dominate the battlefield in China, just as they had in the rest of the world, yet archery remained an important social and military practices.  Specifically, the military service exams stressed archery as a core skill throughout the 19th century.  Any individual who wished to become an officer had to hone these skills.  Further, archery and mounted archery practice remained a key component of the “Manchu ethnic identity” up until about 1900.

In more general terms, archery was associated with a certain degree of refinement.  It had a “moral respectability” that other martial disciplines, such as boxing, fencing or pole fighting, lacked.  Archery also had a more “elite” following than most other period martial arts.  For instance, a gentry officer of the local militia might drill some of this troops in archery and he might go into battle carrying a bow (which was as much a sign of rank as anything else by the late 19th century).

The end result of all of this is a series of informative contradictions.  Following the Taiping Rebellion rifled muskets became the dominant weapon on the battlefield.  Even caravan guards and bandits started to carry rifles and revolvers as standard tools of the trade.  Yet the bow did not disappear.  It continued to be promoted by the government for a number of reasons.

As a result there were a number of competing schools of thought on archery, each of which supported its own professional instructors.  Archery manuals were published and read by a relatively wide range of individuals from the Ming on.  Yet within a few years of the end of the Boxer Uprising, military archery would totally vanish as a discipline and most of the various schools would close up shop and disappear.

There were a few attempts to resurrect archery as a martial arts discipline during the Republic of China period.  Certain branches of the Jingwu Association offered classes in archery.  Sadly these never gained a large or enthusiastic following.

Traditional Chinese archery is going through something of a renaissance today, but the situation is different from Japan where the discipline actually survived and made the transition to “civilian martial art” more or less intact.  There were few Chinese archers left by 1949, and almost none by the end of the Cultural Revolution.  What we are seeing now is a “resurrection” of an art that was lost in the early 20th century.

This raises a number of potentially interesting research questions.  Spear play, archery and boxing all seem ill suited to the modern world.  So why did two of these practices find followers and survive, while the third did not?  Given this sport’s long running association with the upwardly mobile “middle class” (a group that hand combat schools struggled to attract), this failure to survive is actually somewhat surprising.  I think that we could learn a lot about the development of martial culture in late-Qing and Republic era China by investigating these questions.  Hopefully we will have an opportunity to turn to these issues in later posts.

Traditional Archery as a Social Practice

I would now like to turn our attention to a number of interesting early photographs.  Each of these has been selected because it shows archery as a social practice.  Pictures of groups of archers in their native practice environments are harder to find than studies of posed individuals.

I have also paired a few of these pictures with early 19th century European accounts of Chinese archery demonstrations.  These sorts of events were a common occurrence and were therefore usually ignored by the individuals in the local community.  In contrast they were quite novel to visiting western observers.  They left accounts of these demonstrations that are both detailed and of interest to students of Chinese martial studies.

I would like to begin our discussion by examining the picture at the top of this article.  It shows at least ten individuals and a young boy gathered in a semi-circle.  At the middle of the group we find what appears to be a slightly older member of the local gentry.  All of the individuals are dressed in clean, good quality clothing, but he stands out in the group.  It is also likely that he owns the white horse seen in the background and practices the more elite mounted archery.

All of these individuals carry their own bows, but lack any other sort of armament.  They also all appear to wear boots.  It is also interesting to note that this is not a Manchu group.  Rather this is likely a civilian archery society organized and promoted by the local gentry.  Such groups have been described from the Song dynasty onward, but this is the only picture of one that I have been able to locate.

It goes without saying that the information on the photograph is spurious.  This image was widely reproduces on trading cards distributed by the Ogden tobacco company.  The editors of that series erroneously labeled the group in the picture as “Boxers” in an attempt to cache in on the uproar following the Boxer Uprising in 1900-1901.  It is a shame that we do not know where this picture was actually taken, though it clearly dates to the last years of the 19th century.

Something, something, something. Source: Something.
Anonymous, ca. 1870. Source: Throckmorton Fine Arts, New York.

Our second image shows a different side of late 19th century Chinese archery.  The individuals on this photograph appear to be Manchu soldiers practicing archery.  In fact, I would guess that the somewhat dilapidated buildings behind them are actually barracks.  Notice that the men are also dressed in courser (if well insulated) clothing.

There are a number of interesting details in this photograph.  Notice for instance the target leaned casually against the fence behind the group, as well as the arrows on the ground.  I like this picture as it appears to be a minimally staged, very realistic look, into the reality of late 19th century military life.  It also pairs well with the eye-witness account bellow in which we see an almost identical scene (in Guangzhou) described in some detail.

“Archery is inculcated by the classics, and required by the laws, of China, as a fit exercise for the soldiers of the celestial empire.  This afternoon, walking across the ‘sandy ground’ near the river and just beyond the western suburbs of the city, I met a small party engaged in the exercise.  They were Tartars, a corporal and four privates, who had been sent out on a drill.  The target was placed about eight rods distant from them.  They had each a bow, strong and neatly made; and their arrows were pointed with iron and feathered.  The corporal was an adept; every time he drew the bow, an arrow hit the mark.  The bow and arrow were grasped at the same instant a la Tartare; the heels were placed together, with the body erect, the mark being off on the left.  As the archer drew the bow-strong, he poised on his right foot, throwing the left a little out, bending the body forward, swelling the breast, and extending the arm at full length, with the hands elevated at the level of his eyes, gave a savage grin, and let fly the arrow.  June 16th.” P. 103.

Elijah Coleman Bridgman, editor. “Journal of Occurrences: Archery” in the Chinese Repository, Vol. IV May, 1836 to April 1836. Canton: Printed for the Proprietors, 1836.

The Archery Lesson

I have been unable to locate the original source or title of the following photograph, but it also seems to exhibit a number of interesting features.  For lack of a more specific name I am going to call it “the archery lesson.”

A pair of Chinese archers. Late 19th century. Original source unknown.
A pair of Chinese archers.  Beijing, 1899. Original photographer and source unknown.

We can tell from the hair and clothing that neither of the individuals in the photograph are members of the Manchu ethnic group.  Rather they both appear to be regular Chinese civilians.  The individual who is drawing the bow is demonstrating a very different technique form either of the Manchu archers above or below.  In fact, he appears to be shooting out of what is called a “horse stance” in traditional boxing.  His feet are two shoulder width apart, legs bent at the knees, back straight and toes forward.  It may be possible to identify the different techniques seen in the various photographs, but I have yet to acquire that degree of expertise on the subject.  One strongly suspects that the individual above is actually practicing his draw for the mounted section of the military service exam sans mount.

We do have some period accounts of what late 19th century archery instruction was like.  It actually sounds remarkably similar to how many traditional Chinese martial arts are taught today.  A professional teacher might take on multiple paying students, who treated the exercise with the utmost respect.  One of the more colorful of these accounts was published in the British Quarterly in 1867.  In this article we find the author describing his personal observations in some detail as he attempts to explain an idiomatic references to archery in the Chinese Classics:

“At the foot of the last noted page we have the following comment on the phrase ‘there is the target to exhibit their ‘true character.’ ‘Archery was made much of anciently in China’: and the follow the words of a native writer:-

‘The archers must advance, retreat, and move around, according to the proper rules.  Where the aim of the mind is right, the adjustment of the body will be correct; and thus archery supplies an evidence of character.  Unworthy men will not be found hitting frequently.

There were three ceremonial trials of archery, belonging to the emperor, the princes, the high ministers and the great officers.  First, there was the great archery used to select those who should assist at the sacrificial services.  Second, there was the guests’ archery, used on occasion of the princes appearing at court, and their visiting among themselves.  Third, there was the festive archery, used at entertainments generally.

From the first kind expectant scholars were excluded, but they could take part in the other trials.’  This writer then goes on to describe the various targets used at those trials.  ‘What we call the “bull’s eye,” was the figure of a small bird.’ ‘Confucius more than once spoke of archery as a discipline of virtue.”*

Certain vices will, of course, unfit men for the successful practice of archery; but to lay down success in archery as a test of moral character is tearing the subject to tatters.  ‘The most famous archers of antiquity were very bad men.”** ‘There is the scourge to make them remember.’ ‘The archery field was, according to this, truly a place of discipline.’

In reference to archery it may be mentioned that it is practiced in modern China, and still keeps its place on the list of military exercises, the study of which an aspirant for a commission is required to apply himself if he wishes to succeed in his object.  The attitudes are regarded as of prime importance.  The writer had not long ago an opportunity of observing a teacher of the art while engaged in the practice of his profession; he was seen placing the student in what seemed a most ungainly position; nor was the pedantic martinet satisfied with the result till, after frequent manipulations of his pupils legs and arms, he succeeded in getting him into exact conformity with rule.

In this cramped attitude he as to hold the bow (which, however, was not as yet placed in his hands) for a certain length of time, with the view of making the pose familiar to him; and then another set of operations was commenced with reference to an attitude further on in the exercise.  All this was gone through with the utmost gravity, so that the uninformed spectator was apt to suppose that some religious ceremony was going on, in which deliberate motion with great solemnity were indispensable requisites.  After having made some progress in attitudinizing, the students are taught the art of holding the bow, and shooting, and subjected to trials of skill.

In every regular corp of one thousand men, one-fifth are archers, with regular officers; and, during actual warfare they go to the field, armed with bows and arrows which they never use and are not expected to use.  Imagine all this attention to archery, not as an elegant accomplishment for the display of the male or female toxophilite’s skill and gracefulness, or even as a means of muscular development, but as an arm in military service, if not, as hinted in the above quotation as a discipline of virtue!  How ludicrous this looks in the days of Armstrong and Whitworth—of rifled muskets and rifled cannon!…………” pp. 41-42.

Robert Vaughan. “The Chinese Classics.” The British Quarterly Review. Vol. 45. January and April, 1867. London: Jackson, Walford and Hodder.

This account raises a number of points that are worth discussing.  The author’s general disbelief at what he saw stemmed not from the fact that the Chinese regularly practiced archery, but rather that in the post-Taiping period they were still treating it as a central military discipline.  After reading his account a few times I decided that he was willing to admit that these schools of archery were interesting in and of themselves.  One might even claim that they promoted a certain type of grace, strength and accomplishment.

In short, he appears to be willing to accept archery as a “martial art” (in the modern sense of the term).  His disgust was specifically aimed at the fact that this was not how the Chinese were treating it, even though they knew that very few arrows would ever be fired on the battlefield again.  One wonders how much of a role this basic impulse to transform something in order to “save” it played in the creation of the other Chinese martial arts.

The other thing about this account that I found highly suggestive was the association between archery and self-cultivation.  After all, the entire passage begins as a discussion of the connection between virtue and archery in the Confucian Classics.  Further, the actual practice of archery was described as taking place in almost ritualized terms.  This emphasis on decorum and self-cultivation certainly would have made these practices more acceptable to the late-Qing Confucian elites, though it is clear that most of them were never won-over by the argument.

I also found it significant that our author compared the solemnity and decorum of this instruction to a religious ceremony.  Of course he turned around and dismissed this thought almost as quickly as he put it on paper.  These were, after all, simply anachronistic lessons in the arts of war.  Yet the “atmosphere” of the lesson must have made quite an impression on him.

Of course he would not be the last western observer to wonder whether there was a spiritual or religious component to Asian archery.  Students of Kyudo, or Japanese archery, will no doubt be aware that there is a huge debate as to whether Zen philosophy ever played a role in the practice and development of that art, or whether this connection is a spurious 20th century fiction based on the eccentric theories of a single instructor and the misconceptions of his one western student.

Nor is this response confined to archery.  Many western observers have been fascinated by what they have seen in Asian martial arts classes and have sought to find some spiritual meaning in it.  Sometimes the creators and teachers of these arts (such as Ueshiba in Aikido) make that those connections easy to find.  In other cases there is no concrete reason to expect any cross-overall at all.  Yet that rarely stops students from trying to make these connections anyway.  In short I like this account because it is one of the first western descriptions of the traditional Chinese martial arts that I am aware of which on the one hand describes them in completely secular terms, and yet also notes the presence of some sort of pseudo-religious glamor.


Manchu Archers. 1872 by John Thompson. Source: National Library of China.
“Manchu Archers.” 1872. Photograph by John Thompson. Its interesting to compare the posture of this archer to the gentleman in the second photograph.  Their body geometry is almost identical.  Source: National Library of China.


Traditional Chinese archery is a rich field of inquiry with much to offer students of Chinese martial studies.  It was actively practiced by a notable segment of Chinese society right up until the 20th century, and it has left behind many reminders including an extensive literature of manuals, photographs, accounts, poems, debates and even physical artifacts.  Students of other aspects of Chinese martial culture may well envy these resources.  But taken together they paint a picture of continuity and change in late 19th century Chinese popular culture that is of very general interest. In future posts we hope to explore some of this material.


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to check out:

Through a Lens Darkly (6): China Rediscovers the Shaolin Temple, Igniting a Kung Fu Craze.

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”


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