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Through a Lens Darkly (67): Winter Training in Japanese Martial Arts

Group 1. Yonezawa Industrial School’s Midwinter Training General Meeting.

Winter Training

In the “before times” some readers will remember that I ran a lightsaber combat club in Ithaca. To say that it was a lot of fun would be an understatement. Lightsabers are highly motivational. If you simply invite your friends (even your martial arts friends) to join you in the park for some sword work, no one shows. Except possibly the police. But if you hand them a lightsaber they will literally line up to work on Wudang jian. Such is the nature of life. We are all slaves to the power of myth.

Still, motivation can be an issue, even when wielding a weapon as iconic as the lightsaber. Because most people do not have large dedicated studios in their homes, lots of weapons work must happen outside. In the winter that means fun the snow, at least if you live in Ithaca.

For those who practice the traditional Chinese martial arts this is not a huge deal. Many groups meet outside all year long. Obviously there are some days when it is just too dangerous to practice outdoors, but I have done my fair share of taolu in the snow. It is a rite of passage.

This line of thinking was a hard sell for my lightsaber students. When was the last time you saw Yoda training in the snow? The Jedi, it seems, prefer the warm breeze of tropical, or at least temperate, environments. That is probably why the Sith were able to take them out so easily.

In an attempt to normalize the idea of year round daily practice for my students I turned to the idea of kangeiko. It is very common for Japanese martial arts schools (particularly Kendo, Aikido, Judo and Karate groups), to get together for a special session of “midwinter training” very early in the morning which goes for hours in literally freezing conditions. This sort of group suffering builds all sorts of admirable qualities that no aspiring Jedi should miss out on. And so the “Hoth Challenge” was born.

I would select the snowiest and coldest day in February and we would explore just what what you could do in the snow. It warmed my heart to see that the latest incarnation of Ithaca Sabers has decided to carry on the tradition in my absence. This weekend they are holding their own version of a kangeiko.

Group 2. Yonezawa Industrial School’s Midwinter Training General Meeting.


All of which brings me to the topic of today’s post. I recently ran across a pair of postcards in an online auction showing a high school martial arts club in the prewar period. There were two images in the set. In one we see a large group portrait with students outfitted both for Kendo and Judo. A number of coaches, teachers, local dignitaries and children in warm winter clothing cluster around them.

This was accompanied by an “action shot” in which Kendo matches are happening in the foreground while judo is being performed in the back of the hall on tatami mats. I say performed quite intentionally as the photo is staged so that everyone is in frame and no one is disrupting the shot, as would immediately happen in a real kendo match. A table holding what appears to be a stack of towels, and likely other less visible things, sits in the middle of the room bisecting the two performance spaces. This is exactly the sort of gathering where people might receive rank and certificates would be distributed.

Upon receiving these postcards I sent scans to my friend and fellow martial arts studies enthusiast Jared Miracle. He shares my interest in martial arts ephemera but has vastly more experience with the Japanese systems than I do. He quickly noted that this set of postcard showed the Yonezawa Industrial School’s (米澤南業学) mid-winter training (kangeiko) “general meeting,” and that they were labeled “Group 1” and “Group 2.”

It is always great to find a set of related images. What is even more interesting is that the Yonezawa Industrial School appears to still be with us today, marking a point of continuity. I also have to note that I just love the architecture of the school dojo. With that much open floor space and high ceilings, winter training would not involve nearly as much snow. Still, the Hoth Challenges has its own rewards.

If you are wondering what you should do on a snowy and cold February day, I would suggest grabbing your shinai, jian, or lightsaber, heading out to discover just how good your footwork is on live terrain. If you bring a group of students or friends, you might even find something more as well.

Ithaca Saber at the conclusion of its annual “Hoth Challenge.”


If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.


Through a Lens Darkly (8): Butterfly Swords, Dadaos and the Local Militias of Guangdong, 1840 vs. 1940.

A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals. Unknown Photographer.
A studio image of two Chinese soldiers (local braves) produced probably in Hong Kong during the 1850s. Note the hudiedao (butterfly swords) carried by both individuals.  The individual on the right seems to be carrying a single sword crafted in the style of a hudiedao, while the one on the left a true set of double swords. Unknown Photographer.

Introduction:  The Butterfly Swords and Southern Martial Arts Defend the Nation

I recently ran across two photographs that I think students of the southern Chinese martial arts may find very enlightening.  They speak to interesting tactical and cultural questions.  On the one hand they provide a record of how individuals fought and the specific weapons that they used.  But on a deeper level they reveal subtle cultural trends that were effecting the martial arts of Guangdong during the 1920s and 1930s, a key period in their evolution and development.

The martial arts have long been associated with military training and local defense.  These links, however, are more complex than they first appear.  From at least the time of the Song dynasty officials were able to make an increasingly clear distinction between the martial arts as a social practice (predominantly carried out by civilians) and actual military skills (as practiced by soldiers).  The two areas were seen as clearly distinct, if still related, fields of studies.  One might lead to a career in the other, or it could lead to a number of other things.

And that was the problem.  Many of the activities of martial artists tended to be less than savory.  During the Ming and Qing dynasty opera and other street performers were often associated with the martial arts.  These rootless individuals were looked down on by most elements of society.  Other martial artists got jobs as military escorts or guards for local businessmen or property owners.  The state was not always enthusiastic about the creation of independent pockets of military power controlled by these sorts of free agents.  Finally, a disproportionate number of martial artists seem to have run afoul of the law and ended up as bandits or pirates.

Surely some of the accounts of the associations between martial arts schools and criminal organizations are exaggerations, but there is a disturbing grain of truth behind many of these stories that needs to be acknowledged if one really wants to understand the place of the martial arts in Chinese society.  This reputation for links to the criminal underground was one of the main sources of tension between martial artists and mainstream society in Hong Kong during the 1970s and 1980s.  I have recently heard some disturbing reports that the same sort of reputation is starting to reemerge in the current era as more Chinese parents are actively discouraging their children from taking up the traditional arts.

Robert J. Anotony discusses one of the common strategies employed to deal with the problem of wayward tough kids (often with some training in boxing and weapons) in his monograph Like Froth Floating on the Sea: the World of Pirates and Seafarers in Late Imperial South China.  When the piracy or banditry problems flared up in Guangdong one of the first things that the local government often did was to start hiring “braves” (basically independent mercenaries) to stiffen the local regiments and to organizing village, clan and gentry led militia units.

This was not an entirely new strategy, though the south did tend to embrace it with a particular enthusiasm.  During the 1510 Rebellion a Confucian statesman named Yang Yiqing (1454-1530) proposed a strategy for containing the spread of the violence by actively absorbing into the state as many under-employed young men with military training as was financially possible.  He petitioned the throne to authorize the Minister of War to hire civilian volunteers for limited terms of service (most of the Ming army was hereditary at that point) and to institute a special set of military exams that would select civilians who possessed great strength, archery skills, the ability to ride, and martial artists who specialized in the pole, spear, sword, chain or unarmed boxing as well as those who had studied military texts.  These individuals were to be recruited on generous terms, payed and equipped well, and given low-level leadership posts, such as being named a “military trainer.”  The suggestion of Yang and others were accepted and this strategy became a common practice for dealing with security concerns during both the Ming and Qing (David Robinson, Bandits, Eunuchs and the Son of Heaven, pp. 84-85).

Both Robinson and Antony point out that there is one critical element of Yang’s plan at is often missed by modern readers.  Rather than just bolstering local defense, Yang was really attempting to engage in direct economic competition with local bandits chieftains, rebels leaders or invaders who might also wish to employ the services of these same young men.  Creating extensive militias in times of crisis not only gave the state a valuable source of reserve troops, but it also made the situation less volatile by controlling a large and unpredictable set of actors.

It is critical to understand this so that we can really grasp the full relationship between martial arts training and militia service in southern China during the Qing dynasty.  From at least the Ming period on both the state and society were making increasingly clear distinctions between the martial arts as a civilian social institution (which was sometimes implicated in low level violence) and the actual business of warfare (which involved rifles, cannons, fortifications and massed cavalry charges).

Yes knowing some boxing could be an asset to military training.  Knowing pole or spear fighting would be even better.  But martial artists were intentionally sought out for recruitment into militias in large part because of their social marginality.  This was a crowd that was overwhelming young, it worked cheap and local leaders were worried about what they might do if left to their own devices.  Putting them to work for the duration of the crisis seemed to be a good idea.

This brings us to our first picture.  This photograph probably dates from the 1850s.  The photographer or circumstances of its creation are unknown.  It was probably taken in Hong Kong some time after the First Opium War (and likely after the Red Turban Revolt), but prior to the Second Opium War.

The two “soldiers” in the photograph look to be teenagers.  I suspect a disproportionate percentage of local militia recruits during both the Ming and Qing were likely very young adults.  There certainly seems to be some demographic issues at play here that need to be more fully explored in a future post.

Obviously this photograph was taken in a staged studio setting.  Still, the uniforms, helmets and weapons are very real.  The models look to be quite real as well.  While a recreation, this is probably the most accurate and detailed representation of mid 19th century Cantonese militia members that I have ever seen.

Both boys are wearing a rough uniform that includes a dark tunic, shoes, a helmet and a label which reads “zhuàng yǒng.”  Translated literally these characters mean “strong and courageous,” but a more colloquial reading might be “valiant” or “brave.”  The uniforms, standardized weapons and the labels suggest that these individuals are mercenary martial artists, usually referred to in the historical literature simply as “braves,” who were so common in this period.  Its interesting to note that both of these individuals have been issued hudiedao as part of their “official” gear.  One individual carries this weapon as a sidearm accompanying his rifle, while in the other case they are the primary arms.  This matches quite closely the written descriptions of civilian troops from the period which we previously reviewed here.

We can now compare this photograph with another image of a militia unit.  This image clearly shows a local village militia group somewhere outside of Guangzhou.  Maybe it would be better thought of as a martial arts class that has been dressed and used as a militia.  These “soldiers” appear to be shockingly young.

Another picture of the same young militia group, thistime in their home village. Luckily the hudiedao of the leader have become dislodged in their sheath. We can now confirm that these are double blades, and they are of the long, narrow stabbing variety seen in some of the prior photographs. Source http:\
A local village militia group outside of Guangzhou, probably in the mid. 1850s. Source http:\

This village militia does not seem to have the same level of economic support as the “braves” hired in the major urban areas.  Most of the soldiers are without shoes, they have no semblance of uniforms, and their weapons vary greatly.  However, it is interesting to note that the leader of this group is clearly carrying a set of hudiedao (butterfly swords), and other photographs in this series suggest that the individuals with the shields are as well.

These two photographs represent two different elements of the late Qing militia strategy.  The first set of soldiers are likely youths from a city (sometimes referred to as “urban toughs” by local officials) who were likely involved in boxing and were recruited into military service directly by officers of the state.  The second photo shows a much more organic group.  These youths were likely part of a crop-watching society or martial arts class in a small village.  There is a very good chance that most of these kids are related to each other (either as siblings or cousins).  During a time of crisis a local landlord or degree holder would recruit multiple groups such as this, and organize them into a fighting unit.  This force would be supplied and coordinated through the gentry led militia system.  The standardized helmets and shields (as well as the presence of some rudimentary firearms and hudiedao) would seem to indicate that this organization had already happened, but there is no sign of the larger military or social structure that this unit is supposed to be embedded in.

Guangdong Militias of the 1930s and 1940s.

The martial arts continued to be associated with the formation of militias and the defense of local communities in the 1930s.  While hand combat was quickly disappearing from the battlefield, these skills remained an important part of the repertoire of local militia men.

In fact, there is a notable change on this front from the pattern that we just reviewed 100 years previously.  In that case the government was free to recruit martial artists in large numbers.  They did so both to bolster the number of fighting troops at their disposal, but also as a means of temporarily strengthening their control over local society at a potentially sensitive and volatile time.

During the 1930s and 1940s most residents of urban areas had no martial arts training.  It appears that many of these individuals were first introduced to the martial arts when they joined a local militia group, or “Big Sword” (Dadao) training class to help to defend the nation.  The Nationalist Party consciously used the martial arts (regulated though their Guoshu program) as a means of strengthening the people, both physically and psychologically.

In the countryside these steps were less necessary.  Farmers still had to form crop-watching societies, bandits still plagued the roads and the martial arts were a popular pastime in a number of agricultural communities.  In short, the situation for many of the province’s rural martial artists was not markedly different in 1940 than it had been in 1840.  The greatest difference between the time periods would be the sudden increase in urban middle class martial artists that started to be seen in the 1920s.  Yet most people still lived in the countryside, and there life went on pretty much the same as always.

As such you might guess that the sorts of militias, technologies and weapons used would be pretty similar.  This turns out to be only partially true.  It is still the case that most peasants could not afford to buy a rifle, but the rifles that were seen in the 1940s were overwhelmingly bolt action designs.  While their state of repair might be variable, they were actually broadly comparable to what the average Japanese infantryman might carry.

Those members of the militia and rebel groups that could not be armed with guns still carried traditional weapons.  The following two photographs are very instructive in this regard.  The first of these was part of a series of images of a rural militia group organizing outside of Guangzhou in 1938 taken by Robert Cappa.  Other images in the same series can be seen here.

Member of a local militia outside of Guangzhou, 1938. Source: Vintage war photography by Robert Cappa.
Member of a local militia outside of Guangzhou, 1938. Source: Vintage war photography by Robert Capa.

I quite like this image for a variety of reasons.  First and foremost it is simply an excellent photo that humanizes its subject.  That is something that many early western photographers of China utterly failed to do.  It seems that they took their task to be the illustration of “difference” rather than an exploration of our shared humanity.

On a more mundane level this photograph also offers one of the most detailed studies of actual spears from the 1940s that one is likely to ever see.  The nature and construction of the spearhead is clearly visible.  Again, some individuals in this unit are armed with rifles, and the others carried spears.

For all of their actual practicality, spears are not the weapon that most people associate with the patriotic martial artists of WWII.  That honor would go to the “Dadao” or the “Military Big-Saber.”  These large two handed swords are the most iconic weapon to emerge from China during the early 20th century.  I discussed the origins and social history of these blades here.

While a few regular units were issued this weapon and organized into “Big Sword Teams,” its important to remember that the vast majority of the regular KMT army was armed just like any other modern military of the time.  They were issued bolt action rifles, semi-automatic handguns, grenades and sub-machine guns.  I have spent quite a bit of time searching old books and photo archives for good images of soldiers with dadaos in the field (as opposed to in a photography studio or on a parade ground), and I can tell you that such images are rarer than one might think.  They certainly exist, but finding good shots is a challenge.

Most of the individuals who were issued these weapons were in fact second line troops such as militias, rural guerrilla groups, military police units and railway guards.  Issuing traditional arms to these groups freed up more advanced weapons for those soldiers actually fighting the Japanese.  Further, these groups actually spent the majority of their time securing villages, protecting fixed assets and dealing with Chinese civilians.  In those settings a dadao was both very intimidating and very effective.

Again, this is not to say that there were not a few important battlefield clashes where dadao were used, but those instances are remembered precisely because they were the exception rather than the rule.  For the regular army the dadao seems to have functioned as a moral boosting weapon.  Those individuals who actually used it in anger tended to be concentrated in guerrilla and militia units.

A Chinese guerrilla team armed with rifles and dadaos near Guangzhou in 1941. Source: Vintage War photograph, Everett Collection.
A Chinese guerrilla team armed with rifles and dadaos near Guangzhou in 1941. Source: Vintage War photograph, Everett Collection.

The preceding photograph was taken of a group of Chinese guerrillas who were actively resisting the Japanese outside of Guangzhou in 1941.  I have not been able to figure out who the original photographer was (though I have a couple of guesses).  The individuals in the image are dressed in the almost universal garb of insurgents in Asia and are armed with a variety of weapons including modern and older firearms, and dadaos.

A number of interesting features of these blades are visible.  To begin with both of the blades in the foreground have holes in the back of the spine near the tip of the blade.  On civilian swords these often contain a brass or metal ring.  In the current case I suspect the hole is meant to hold a cord or a sling so that the sword can be worn across the back.  Note that neither sword appears to have come with a scabbard.

The sword on the right also shows an intricately wrapped handle.  This contrasts markedly with the sword on the left.  While the blades appear to be absolutely identical, its handle has a plain cord wrap.  Given the humid wet conditions of southern China, period handle wraps in good condition are rare.  This photo yields some interesting evidence as to what these swords looked like and how they were used in the early 1940s.

On a deeper level it is interesting to ask why these troops are armed with dadaos at all.  At first glance this seems to be a very “traditional” weapon inherited from the ancient past.  Yet that is mostly an illusion.  While militia forces from the area traditionally did use a variety of different types of swords, the dadao was not one of them.  There are no accounts of troops using these sorts of swords against the British in Guangzhou in the 1840s.  At that time chopping weapons were common but they were always mounted on longer poles (pu dao) giving the wielder the advantage of leverage, speed and reach.

Instead the hudiedao seems to have been the favored sidearm of martial artists and militia members in the region for much of the 19th century.  During the 1840s and 1850s the government purchased huge numbers of these arms and trained thousands of people in their use.  Double swords really were an “official” weapon of local government backed paramilitary groups.

That may seem odd from a modern perspective.  We tend to treat butterfly swords as a highly exotic “Kung Fu” weapon.  They are regarded with an aura of supernal mystery.  But the truth is that if you already know how to box, its not that hard to give someone the rudimentary training they might need to use this weapon effectively.  Additionally the hudiedao were small enough to be treated as a sidearm that would not get in the way of a bow, rifle or spear (the primary arms of most local troops).  Given that the militias of the 19th century were actively recruiting martial artists and boxers, issuing hudiedao made a lot of sense.

By the 1930s this weapon had vanished from the battlefield.  Southern martial artists still practiced with it, and criminals occasionally employed it on the streets for their own nefarious reasons.  However I have never seen any indication that militia groups in Guangdong continued to use this familiar local weapon.  Instead most of them seem to have issued the dadao, a fundamentally different two handed saber from the north, as the predominant sidearm.

It would not be too difficult to teach most peasants to use a dadao as they all used two-handed tools in their daily lives.  Then again, many of these same peasants were already martial artists, swords were common, and very few individuals in southern China used double handed blades.  Introducing a totally new type of bladed weapon seems to be a needless complication.

Nor am I really convinced that the dadao was adopted simply because it could be made “cheaply and easily by anyone.”  Cheaply perhaps.  But given how heavy and clunky some of the dadao are that I have handled, their production must not have been all that “easy” for some facilities.  If the provincial government could produce somewhere between 3,000 and 10,000 hudiedao in the year 1838-1839, I am not sure why the much more efficient and industrial government of 1937 would not have been able to do the same thing.

Far from being a “traditional weapon,” the dadao is really better thought of as a new invention in the 1920s and 1930s.  While swords of this type had existed in the past they had never been issued on such a massive, near universal, scale.  Nor had they ever been asked to do so much.  The dadao succeeded not only because of its low price, but also because it reminded individuals of a mythic time in the past when the country was unified and strong.  Specifically, it reminded them of the Ming dynasty, when China had defeated the Japanese twice.

The dadao became a successful national icon only after it was imbued with these meanings.  It was adopted into the universalizing and modernizing vision of the Central Guoshu Institute and from there it was exported to southern China precisely because it spread these norms and identities.  Any sword could do what the dadao did in purely physical terms.  Many probably could have done it better.  Yet the image of the guerrilla savagely resisting the Japanese with his trusty dadao became a touchstone in the national discussion of resistance and identity.  And that is precisely what the martial arts were supposed to do under the guidance of the Central Guoshu Institute.  They were supposed to strengthen and unify the people.

Conclusion: A Complicating Twist

Can we then conclude that the dadao is an example of the export of a northern martial art and set of concepts into the southern hand combat marketplace?  Does its presence, popularity and wide scale adoption in Guangdong indicate a broader acceptance of, and standardization on, the northern martial arts in the 1930s?  Did this indicate that the traditional southern arts were seriously damaged by the various northern led reform movements that swept through the nation’s martial arts in the 1920s and 1930s?

Not necessarily.  It is true that the residents of southern China signed up for “Big Sword” classes with as much enthusiasm as anyone else.  But the entrepreneurial martial arts teachers of the south treated this new weapon as a way of drumming up interest in the martial arts more generally.  I have never seen anything to indicate that they viewed it as a threat or resisted its importation.  In fact, southern hand combat teachers were some of biggest material beneficiaries of the creation of Big Sword units and militias throughout the region.

Various police and military academies had to hire local martial arts instructors to teach dadao classes.  Very often these same schools had full time martial artists from the north, but these individuals were already quite busy teaching the “official” military, police or Guoshu curriculum.  The inclusion of additional material was thus an economic windfall for well connected local martial artists who competed for these side-jobs.  Not only did they come with a government backed paycheck, but they were an important way of networking and connecting with students from other parts of society.  One could even use these sorts of appointments to forge connections with various police and military officials, as was demonstrated by Cheung Lai Chuen, the creator of modern White Eyebrow, during his stint as a “Big Sword” instructor.

These teachers turned to their own stores of local knowledge to develop their own curriculum and style for “Big Sword” instruction.  Just as the physical details of these swords tend to differ from specimen to specimen, so to did the techniques and forms developed by different local matters.  For instance, in the south instructors from Choy Li Fut, Hung Gar and White Eyebrow all developed their own dadao techniques and trained their own students.  Presumably each of these styles drew on the martial insight of their respective styles.

The move from the hudiedao to the dadao in the Guangdong militia is interesting as it demonstrates the limits of what the Central Guoshu Institute could really accomplish in terms of promoting a modern universal standard of practice based on the northern martial arts.  Even in areas of the country where they were represented and could openly operate (mostly the coastal urban zone), their actual presence on the ground was pretty thin.  While they were able to craft a discourse and create the demand for certain types of knowledge and services, as often as not it was local martial artists who provided the actual training.  This was especially true when it came to the vital task of drilling militia and paramilitary groups.  On the surface it appears that the adoption of the dadao by China’s martial artists in the 1930s was a universal phenomenon.  But if you scratch beneath the surface it becomes apparent that even this trend was really reinforcing the local and the particular.

Through a Lens Darkly (11): Japanese Martial Artists in China.

Vintage Japanese Postcard. Circa 1920.
Vintage Japanese Postcard. Circa 1920.

Introduction: Addressing a Difficult Subject

No topic is more difficult to approach than the varied roles that traditional Asian fighting systems have played in defining and strengthening nationalism during the 20th century.  Governments in Japan, China and later Korea all realized that the martial arts were ideal platforms from which they could train, strengthen and indoctrinate civilians as part of their broader political projects.  Of course the martial arts have their roots in an era well before the formation of anything like the “national consciousness” as we know it.  They have traditionally been linked to local goals, rather than the “national interest.”

In the late 19th and early 20th century Japanese statesmen realized that if the martial arts were to be used to fill this new purpose they would have to be detached from their “feudal” mornings.  Further, these arts would have to be reformed, rationalized and brought under the control of national federations or even the government.  The creation of “Budo” philosophy, spread along with martial arts instruction in Japanese primary and secondary schools, was the main avenue by which these reforms were enacted in Japan.  In China the Jingwu (Pure Martial) Association was an early advocate of a similar approach and laid the groundwork for the Nationalist Party’s Central Guoshu Institute.  This was the group which was responsible for promoting and nationalizing the traditional Chinese arts.

The Chinese and Japanese reform and nationalizations programs did not happen in a vacuum.  These movements were well aware of each other.  Many young reformers from China studied at universities in Japan and saw firsthand the potential of Budo.  The prominent martial historian Tang Hao was one such individual.  He returned from Japan convinced that the reform of the Chinese martial arts were critical to the “salvation” of the Chinese nation.

To really achieve these goals it was necessary to first create a new mythology for the traditional fighting systems.  Only in this way could they truly be used to promote mass nationalist ideologies.  Still, there were complications.

As a matter of historical fact the Japanese arts are deeply indebted to China.  Jujitsu, Karate, spear fighting strategies and even basic sword construction technologies were all imported either directly from China or came via the Okinawan trade route.  Further, important contacts between Japanese and Chinese martial artists continued right up until the 1920s.

Likewise, by the Ming dynasty the Chinese had gained an insatiable appetite for the superbly made and elegant swords of Japan.  Rich collectors admired these blades and working martial artists sought them out.  Japanese fencing techniques and manuals were in high demand.  Its seems that throughout the 1500s Japanese Samurai came to China to learn spear and pole fighting techniques and they left behind swords and fencing skills.  While the volume and frequency of these exchanges ebbed and flowed over the next few hundred years, they continued right up until the early 20th century.

If the martial arts were to become tools of nationalism, all of this messy historical reality needed to be forgotten.  It could no longer be the case that the martial arts of Japan had their ultimate roots in China.  Instead they had to be re-imagined as a pure expression of the “Japanese spirit.”  Likewise Chinese arts, rather than being pragmatic and strengthened by global exchange, had to be re-imagined as the acme of pure Han ethnic identity.  They became the very fulcrum of what it meant to be “Chinese.”

Just as Benedict Anderson might expect, the creation of a national education bureaucracies and policies of linguistic and social homogenization through newspapers, radio, and later movies helped to bolster the growing sense of national identity in both China and Japan.  The adoption of the “national” fighting arts into the physical education curriculum of schools was an important part of this process.

And yet this is one area where the intended speed of reform seems to have outpaced the reality of what was really possible.  In some ways the martial arts proved to be remarkably resistant to this modernizing and nationalizing discourse.  One of the main problems was the martial artists themselves.  While professional martial artists in both Japan and China were glad to have government support and patronage, they could not simply forget what they knew.  While their hand combat systems were reformed for mass consumption, they also tended to continue to pass on their own more esoteric systems to their direct students and successors.  The strong tendency towards “lineage” within the martial arts seems to work against larger identities such as “nationalism.”

High school students were easily indoctrinated into this new vision, yet older and more experienced members of the martial arts community remembered that Jujitsu had its roots in China.  In fact, at least some of these teachers felt that they actually had more in common with their fellow martial arts teachers in China than they did with the young, aggressive and totally modern lieutenants of the Japanese military.

As a result an odd thing happens between the 1920s and the 1940s.  As large numbers of Japanese individuals start to enter China (first in port cities like Shanghai, later through the military) some of them turn out to be dedicated martial artists who are very interested in what Chinese boxing masters are doing and are willing to go to great lengths to track down potential teachers.  Even when they did not seek direct instruction these Japanese students sometimes collected accounts, photographs and information in their attempt to understand the Chinese fighting arts.

On the surface all of this seems very strange.  After all, we all know that the Japanese occupation forces in the late 1930s and 1940s banned the practice of most Chinese martial arts (however they often encouraged the creation of local Judo or Kendo clubs).  And “we all know” that the Japanese arts and the Chinese systems were totally separate expressions of the “national soul.”  At the very least the search for instruction put Chinese teachers who did not want to be accused of being collaborators in a very difficult position.

Yet on a deeper level, if you peel back that veneer of 20th century nationalist myth-making, what was happening here was the continuation of a very old cultural pattern, one stretching back at least to the Ming dynasty, if not earlier.  We should not be surprised to learn that there are some decent Japanese language sources of interest to students of Chinese martial studies.  Better yet, Japanese photographers captured and brought home many interesting images.

Most of the older photographic record of the martial arts in China was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution.  It was dangerous to be found with images of such “feudal” and “backwards” activities during those years, especially if those photographs were evidence that you yourself had an interest in boxing. The end result of this is that very few vintage images of the Chinese martial arts remain in China itself.  One of the purposes of this series of post is to collect surviving images, and foreign collections, such as those in Japan, turn out to be great resources.

Detail of previous postcard. Circa 1920.
Detail of previous postcard. Circa 1920.

The first image is a typical example of the general interest in Chinese boxing among Japanese martial arts enthusiasts.  This is a vintage “double postcard.”  It was produced sometime in the 1920s and was probably printed in Shanghai.  The top image shows a lively marketplace martial arts demonstrations.  In the foreground are two young adult students demonstrating popular pole arms.  Note how long and thick the shaft of the spear is compared to modern examples.

Behind these individuals is the leader of the group, and probably the teacher of a small local school.  He is posing with a type of dao that was popular with civilian martial artists during that period.  Lastly there is a young apprentice who is displaying the flag of the school.  He would likely have demonstrated feats of flexibility and would have helped in collecting money from the crowd.

As marketplace demonstrations go, this one looks pretty robust and prosperous.  Everyone appears strong and well fed, and that is not always the case with such displays.  The structure of the performance suggests an underlying social organization or school.

There is also an interesting gendered aspect to the composition of the postcard.  The second image is a domestic scene.  While the first portrays the public and martial realm of men, the second image focuses on two women in a domestic environment playing mahjong.  If there is more than a whiff of adventure to the first image, the second is reassuring familial and stable.

The Japanese inscription between the two images reads as follows:

  • Martial arts on the street
  • Flawless (impeccable, satisfactory) performance.
  • A game of mahjong.

Our next image shows a different aspect of the Japanese martial experience in China.  Rather than seeking out local teachers many Japanese martial artists helped to create or participate in local schools dedicated to Japanese styles.  A variety of arts were taught but Judo and Kendo were probably the most popular.

Such schools played an important part in the life of the Japanese expatriate community.  Nor were they unique to China.  Japanese Americans were also teaching Judo and running a vibrant set of kendo schools and tournaments all up and down the west coast at exactly the same time.  Joseph R. Svinth has written extensively on how these arts helped to preserve and consolidate identity in the US (“Kendo in North America, 1885-1955.” In Green and Svinth eds. Martial Arts in the Modern World. Praeger. 2003) and it seems likely that the same basic processes were at work in China as well.

Kendo in Shanghai, pre-1920.  Period reprint of a vintage photograph.  Original photographer unknown.
Kendo in Shanghai, pre-1920. Period reprint of a vintage photograph. Original photographer unknown.

This reproduced photograph shows an outdoor Kendo match or exhibition in the Japanese quarter of Shanghai sometime before 1920s.  The image itself appears to have been taken and reproduced by a local photography studio for future resale.  Such photos were popular with both local residents and tourists.  It appears that a large segment of the Japanese community had come out to watch the exhibition and it is very interesting to note both the style and neatness of their dress.  This is a nice “action shot” of an early Kendo match in China.


Exchanges between Japanese and Chinese martial artists have not always been easy or without coercion.  However, the reality of the interaction between these groups is often different from what later 20th century nationalist myth-making might have you believe.  While the image of the “traditional fighting arts” became bound up with the nationalist project, the actual life experience of these martial artists often resisted this dominant social narrative.  Many Japanese martial artists remained accurately aware of their historic connections with the Chinese fighting arts and collected information and images that may now be of interest to students of martial studies.

At some point in the future I would like to work on a comparative study of Japanese/Chinese martial exchange in the 1500s, the 1800s and the 1900s.  I think that such a volume could do much to illuminate the history of the martial arts in both traditions.  It would also demonstrate that, nationalist myth-making aside, the martial arts seem to thrive in environments of free exchange and cooperation.

Through a Lens Darkly (9): Swords, Knives and other Traditional Weapons Encountered by the Shanghai Police Department, 1925.

An "entry team" of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown.
An “entry team” of officers in the Shanghai Foreign Concession, trained and led by a British officer. The police needed serious training and firepower to stand up to the strong criminal gangs that controlled much of the city. Photographer is unknown.


Introduction: Practical Martial Arts in the Age of the Gun

As I have mentioned elsewhere, when thinking about the traditional Chinese martial arts we have a tendency to assume that these systems were created in an era without firearms.  With the coming of the almighty gun they either became obsolete or were preserved for their spiritual, philosophical and traditional value.  This theme became a troupe in countless Kung Fu movies, novels and newspaper stories.  Of course it is totally untrue.

Worse than that, it is almost exactly backwards.  The current complex of ideas and institutions that we identify as the “Chinese martial arts” seem to have first arisen and come together in the middle or late Ming dynasty.  This was a time when both early rifles and artillery were coming to dominant the battlefield’s of Asia, the Middle East and Europe.  China was no exception to this trend.

As social order disintegrated in the 19th century the Chinese martial arts once again started to gain social momentum around the country.  This was a period characterized by banditry, urban crime, and the rise of organized narcotics smuggling (first opium, later morphine and heroine).  From the mid 19th century onward criminals and bandits had disturbingly easy access to both rifles and handguns.  During this same period the Colt revolver became the preferred weapon of many “armed escort” companies.

Of course this is exactly the same time that the foundations for the modern Chinese martial arts were being laid.  Many of the most popular styles practiced today were invented during the end of the 19th century, and other older styles were reformed and repackaged to make them appealing to a new generation of students.  Rather than martial arts and firearms being substitutes, they are actually complimentary goods.  The consumption of both goods actually rose at the same time.

This should not be a huge surprise to modern readers.  After all, firearms are a plentiful feature of the modern world.  For that matter crime and a pervasive feeling of insecurity are still with us today.  These are some of the very factors that drive individuals in the West to study martial arts in the first place.  Nor has the plentiful supply of modern firearms led police, intelligence or military organizations to abandon hand combat training.  Far from it.

I want to reiterate this point because it reminds us of a fundamental, but often overlooked, truth.  The martial arts, as they exist today, are a fundamentally modern phenomenon.  For all of the rhetoric of  “traditional culture” and “ancient customs,” the truth is most of the arts of Japan and China that are actually practiced are a product of the late 19th or early 20th century.  They survive and thrive today because at least some of the tactical and cultural issues that they were attempting to address at that time are still problems that we face today.  The feeling of vulnerability in the face of social decay, or the need to find a means of self-actualization in an increasingly hostile world, are not problems that any one culture has an exclusive monopoly on.  That is good news for students of the traditional fighting arts.  It means that we can find new ways to adapt and stay relevant.


The Weapons of the Chinese Martial Arts as Encountered on the Streets of Shanghai

I recently ran across a set of wonderful photographs that really illustrated this tension between the coexistence of multiple types of violence during the Republic of China era.  This was a time when the martial arts were experiencing rapid growth in China.  In fact, these different technologies of violence did not just coexist, rather they interacted with and fed off one another, leading both to evolve and change in the process.

Nowhere is this mutual give and take more apparent than in Shanghai during the 1920s and 1930s.  We are quite fortunate as a number of good studies of both the cities various police efforts and its prodigious supply of organized criminal factions have been written over the years.  Other research has focused on the importance of the foreign concessions or the different intelligence agencies and secret police forces in shaping life in the city.  I have only investigated the question briefly, but I have not been able to find a similar literature on police and crime for any other Chinese city, or region, during the 1920s.

Students of Chinese martial studies are often interested in the relationship between law enforcement and criminal groups as these two sectors of society were among the largest, and best funded, employers of martial artists.  Police departments hired martial arts instructors and were interested in the creation of new hand combat skills to solve concrete tactical problems.  Likewise the various secret societies and criminal factions of urban China also employed boxing instructors and used these skills in both their business ventures (gambling, protection, prostitution) and their frequent disputes with one another.  By the 1920s and 1930s it was not uncommon for the Triads and other gangs to use both martial arts schools and lion dance associations as fronts for their criminal enterprises.

This created something of a problem for the police.  On the one hand most serious criminal gangs were armed to the teeth with modern rifles and handguns.  At this period of time basically anyone who could write a large enough check could buy a tommy gun through the mail.  As a result the police also began to carry automatic handguns, flak vests and carbines.  The photograph at the head of this article is of a set of police officers in Shanghai in the 1930s.  In most respects they look exactly like any modern unit that you might see today.

However, the older modes of violence never totally lost their place in the criminal order.  Swords, knives and daggers continued to be commonly encountered weapons, and they were used to kill people on a routine basis.  A wide variety of other weapons were also encountered by police officers in the course of raids and arrests.  These weapons are interesting as they give us a glimpse into the milieu that the modern Chinese martial arts came of age in.

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

The University of Bristol has an extensive collection of photographs of the Shanghai Municipal Police Department in the 1920s.  Many of these are interesting, but while going through the files I found six that were of particular use.  Each focused on a rack of traditional arms that had been confiscated by the police.  Frederick Wakeman tells us that because of budget problems the Shanghai police department reissued modern handguns and rifles that fell into their hands.  As such we should not assume that criminals did not have these weapons simply because we don’t see them in the photos.  But it is fascinating to see documented examples of what the police were turning up,

The first rack of weapons, seen above, contains four heavy sabers.  Three are ox-tailed daos (niuweidao), and the fourth has a clipped blade very much resembling the dadao which was just starting to rise in popularity among civilians.  All four of these swords appear to be the sort favored by street performers and public martial artists.  I suspect that this is exactly where they came from.  Martial arts performers were often viewed as a public nuisance and were subject to a fair degree of police harassment.

There is also a very nice set of shuangdao in this collection.  The blades look practical and the hilts appear to be well made.  This is the first of many sets of paired weapons that will appear in these photographs, perhaps indicating something about their popularity with local martial artists and criminals alike.

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

The second set of swords is slightly more interesting.  Here we see a selection of shorter swords and jians.  These straight, double edged, swords were also a type of weapon favored by martial artists.  One can still see Taijiquan students practicing with these sorts of swords in pretty much any public in China (and quite a few in the west).  The second lowest Jian has an exceptionally long blade, and all of the swords look heavy and functional.  The bottom example also appears to have a finely worked guard.

Hidden behind the other weapons at the bottom of the rack are two thin blades.  I suspect the lower example is attached to one of the more rapier like examples of a hudiedao.  Above that is the thin triangular blade of a rifle bayonet.

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

From my perspective the third rack of weapons is the most interesting.  These are blades that look more like weapons than the confiscated props of martial arts schools or street shows.  A number of these blades appear to have hand guards.  In fact, that seems to be the reason that they were grouped together by who ever assembled the display.

The topmost blade is in a configuration that is not often seen today, though I suspect that swords like this were more common in the 19th century.  I particularly like the two ring-handled sabers.  These swords were evidently intended to be used as a set and were about 15 cm longer than the hudiedao below them.  That would be a very good length for practical fencing, and the blades look as though they would be devastating slashers.

The Hudiedao (butterfly swords) have heavy choppy blades and thick brass hand-guards.  These are much longer (and more practical) than sorts of butterfly swords that are favored by martial artists today.  The hatchet point is a common design feature and suggests that the creator wanted a strong stabbing point.  These swords are very similar to ones that date to the mid to late 19th century.

While Hudiedao were originally popularized in the south, by the 1920s and 1930s they had spread across China.  We normally think only of northern martial arts masters spreading the craft to the south.  Yet the presence of these swords is mute testimony to the fact that exchange of “practical ideas” in the Rivers and Lakes was often a 2-way process.

Careful observers will also note not one but two Yataghan style bayonets.  Given that there are multiple pairs of “double swords” on this rack, one wonders if their original owner also intended to use them as a set?  With a ready supply of cheap surplus bayonets after WWI, I had always wondered why various martial artists and criminal factions did not make better use of them.  Apparent at least some individuals in Shanghai had the same thought.

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

The fourth rack displayed a collection of various types of projectile weapons and firearms.  Three older revolvers are clearly visible, including one a black-powder “pepper box” design.  There are also two examples of sawed-off shotguns in the display.  Also worthy of consideration are three 19th century rifles that have had both their barrels and stocks shortened.  One suspects that these arms have been modified to serve as single shot, black-powder, sawed-off shotguns.  If so, such a weapon could be a danger to anyone in the immediate vicinity when it was fired.

The most interesting feature of this display can be seen along the top shelf.  Six small throwing darts have been arranged, complete with their streamers.  While one frequently encounters accounts of “concealed throwing darts” in period martial arts fiction, I basically assumed that most of these stories were exaggerations or rumors.  It was certainly interesting to see a collection of authentic throwing darts in police custody.

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

The last two cases feature a wide variety of fighting knives and related weapons.  One has a very strong feeling that these sorts of weapons were fairly common along Shanghai’s “Rivers and Lakes.”

The first rack presents us with a couple of puzzles.  The easiest weapons to identify are a pair of very large fighting knives in the middle of the display.  These look to have been about the same size as large 19th century bowie knives.  Spear pointed, their blades both show a double fuller and the handles have matching ornamental rivets.  Evidently this set of knives was made as a pair and one suspects that they may have also been used as such.

Below them is a very long thin knife.  Looking at the geometry of the tip one wonders if perhaps this is actually a modified sword blade.  It is not uncommon to see re-purposed or reshaped blades on antique Chinese weapons today.  This may be an example of that same practice.

Hanging from the right edge of the case one can see the lower links and handle of a “chain whip.”  Again, its interesting to see this weapon in a very different environment from the modern schools and flashy public performances where it is often encountered today.

Lastly are three weapons with enclosed hand-guards.  While somewhat similar in size and shape to a hudiedao, two of these are actually bar-maces.  The “blade” of the third weapon is not visible, but it appears to have integrated a shallow cup into its D-guards, much like a European small sword.  The final weapon is yet another WWI era bayonet.  This particular model is long enough that it could have served as a short sword.

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

Last we have a large assortment of much smaller knives.  A couple of these have the coffin-shaped blade that is often marketed in the west as a “River Pirate Knife.”  Apparently the more urban, and less nautical, toughs of Shanghai also employed the weapon.  A number of ring-handled daggers can be seen in the display.  Forms for this particular weapon (often used in pairs) are common in the Northern Shaolin styles, so it is useful to see some period examples.  Smaller double edged daggers and throwing knives also appear to be very common.

This display presented two other oddities.  There is a set of “brass knuckles” at the top of the display.  To their right is yet another pair of modified hudiedao.  These have very long, thin, rapier like blades.  The hook shaped quillion at the back of both blades has been intentionally straightened out.  In this shape it would be impossible to “catch a blade,” but they likely afforded better protection to the users hands and wrists.

My Sifu and I have suspected for some time that this was actually the original function of the quillion. Many older hudiedao actually have very shallow “hooks” (no good for trapping), which lends some credibility to that theory.  Perhaps the idea of using the quillion to trap or encumber an opponents blade came along later.  Nevertheless, a basic understanding of the principal of leverage will reveal that even if one can pull the maneuver off, its not without its risks.

Strongly hooked quillions also have a tendency to get caught on one’s own clothes and other unintended targets.  I have seen examples of the knives where the quillions were cut short or removed.  Apparently the original owner of these knives had a different solution to the problem.


Conclusion: Traditional Weapons in a Modern World?

The forgoing collection should help to clarify our thinking on a few points.  To begin with, its interesting to see what sorts of traditional weapons were showing up on the streets of Shanghai in the middle of the 1920s.  Knives of various lengths and styles appear to have been very common.  A surprising number of short swords and hudiedao also make appearances in this collection.  However, aside from some bar-maces and a chain whip, many of the more exotic Kung Fu weapons are notable by their absence.

A certain western influence was also detectable in the bladed weapons of Shanghai.  A few of the knives were crafted in what appeared to be a more Western style.  Further, western military bayonets made repeated appearances throughout the display.  The brass knuckles also appear to fall into this category.  Obviously this speaks not just to the Shanghai’s role as a gateway to the world, but to the rapidly globalizing nature of the Chinese economy as a whole during the early 20th century.

These photos also help to build up our basic knowledge of the milieu that the Chinese martial arts came of age in.  While we tend to divide weapons into “traditional” and “modern” categories, that may not be entirely appropriate when thinking about their use in the late 19th or early 20th century.  To the individuals who carried these weapons, they were not “traditional knives” or “traditional swords,” they were simply knives and swords.  It sometimes surprises us that these weapons remained in use in an era dominated by firearms, but the nature of crime itself often provides openings for these sorts of weapons to not just survive, but excel, long after they are no longer used on the military battlefield.

About a year ago I was looking at some FBI crime statistics for my Sifu and was surprised to see that knives and blunt instruments are still the cause of death in a very large percentage of deadly attacks in the United States today.  Apparently the ready availability of shotguns and revolvers has not made the baseball bat “obsolete.”  Similar processes seem to have been at work in China in the early 20th century.  Once again, the more things change….

Still, its important to be aware of the limitations of an exercise like this.  Any statisticians would remind us that the weapons in the photos above are not a “random sample.”  Obviously large numbers of modern handguns and carbines were simply reissued or sold, and are therefore photographed.  Other weapons were selected for display most likely because the police found them to be “interesting.”   That probably means that they were a little out of the ordinary.  While these photos are suggestive of the sorts of weapons that were being used by martial artists and criminals in the 1920s, it is clearly not a “scientific sample.”

Luckily I have discovered some older law enforcement records (from the 1870s) that paint a much more complete picture of the sorts of weapons that gangsters and criminals from Southern China actually carried.  Of course the 1870s is a critical time in the formation of the southern martial arts.  Styles such as Wing Chun, Choy Li Fut and Hung Gar were all going through important transformations in that decade.  That makes it all the more important to know exactly what sorts of weapons a martial artist from this period might actually expect to encounter.  An exploration of that data will be the subject of an upcoming post.

Through a Lens Darkly (7): Selling Swords and Printed Martial Arts Training Manuals in a 19th century Guangzhou Market.

flea market swords


***Recently I was having a discussion about the state of Kung Fu in China with a friend.  (You can see his detailed post on the topic here).  He was lamenting the general decline of interest in the arts and their simultaneous “commercialization.”  After thinking about his comments for a few hours it struck me as something that should be addressed.  Certainly some forms of commercial exploitation can be bad for the TCMA.  I think that we have all seen examples of this at one time or another.

Yet we tend to forget that the martial arts, as we know and experience them now, were born out of trade and commercial markets.  In fact, if one were looking for a tool to promote the arts so that they could be spread to the greatest number of people, markets would be a great place to start.  The disdain for markets and “selling one’s skills” that we often encounter in the TCMA seems to be a remnant of Confucian thought.  Certainly these sorts of sentiments have been popular in some (often privileged) circles.  But to what degree did they reflect the actual lived experience of Chinese martial artists?  In today’s post we will be headed back to archives to briefly explore a little of what we know about the martial arts in China’s 19th century marketplaces.  If this is a topic that interests you be sure to see the link provided at the end of this essay.***


Introduction: Exploring the martial marketplace.

It is clear that the traditional Chinese martial arts, as practiced in the Qing dynasty, were many things to many people.  Still, for most of their practitioners they were first and foremost an economic resources.  Soldiers, caravan guards, and watchmen all depended upon the martial arts to make a living.  So too did opera performers, rural bandits and urban gangsters.

Pharmacists and doctors often practiced martial arts to demonstrate their mastery of the unseen forces of the universe.  A respectable clinic might rent space to a martial arts school and prescribe martial arts training to sickly patients.  Less reputable medical figures, such as traveling patent-medicine men, would journey from place to place displaying their martial skill to draw a crowd before plying them with their wares.

Of course other individuals also found themselves on this same economic circuit.  These might included professional challenge-match fighters, wandering martial arts teachers, and even popular Daoist priests who would sell charms to the populace that were empowered by their martial performance.

As diverse as this list of people is, there are a few things that unite them (other than their reliance on the martial arts.)  All of these individuals depended on economic markets to make a living.  Some of these markets were permanent, others opened only seasonally or on certain days.  Only the most prosperous merchants and professionals could afford a large permanent storefront in the heart of a busy market.  Most other vendors set up stalls or traveled from town to town as the different market days opened and closed.

Opera singers, story tellers, musicians and puppeteers all flocked to populated areas where it was possible to draw a crowd and sell their skills.  Pawn shops dominated the area as they were one of the only sources of liquidity in the local economy.  They also tended to attract resentment.  As a result they were usually housed in multistory tower-like buildings that loomed over the single-level landscape.  Such facilities were major employers of guards and watchmen.  While a steady paycheck, this was considered a fairly low prestige occupation, even for a martial artist.

Traveling merchants with valuable goods would frequently retain the services of armed escort companies.  Likewise visiting challenge fighters would raise a stage and try their best to attract a paying crowd on market days.  All sorts of traveling martial artists and performers congregated in these marketplaces.  In some places (such as Foshan at the end of the 19th and the start of the 20th century) this density of expertise even led to the growth of a competitive market in martial instruction.


Selling Swords: What would a martial artist need to buy in a market?

I have discussed some of these individuals elsewhere, so today I would like to turn my attention to the commercial institutions of the marketplace itself.  What sorts of merchants met the needs of working martial artists?  By answering that question we will create a more complete picture of the martial world as it actually existed in southern China during the 19th century.

In an upcoming post I hope to discuss the world of elite sword collecting by wealthy individuals and scholars during the Qing dynasty.  This is a fascinating topic.  As near as I can reconstruct most of these individuals seem to have acquired their weapons through specialty brokers and treated them as “objects of arts.”

Needless to say, things were very different for the average working martial artist or guard in the local marketplace.  If one worked for an armed escort company or other type of large firm it was the employers responsibility to provide weapons (including expensive rifles and handguns).  Wandering performers and free-lancers were on their own.  They generally had to either commission a smith to make a weapon (probably a rare event) or else buy them from a local pawn shop or junk dealer.

A typical market place demonstration. Note the two oxtailed Dao's held by the central figure. these swords are very similar to the ones being sold above.

Our first photo of the day is a wonderful set of stereoscopic images showing a market place junk dealer displaying his wares.  Prominently placed in the foreground are four long ox-tailed daos.  This is interesting as these swords were never issued to the military, but they were highly favored by civilian martial artists of the period.  None of the blades appear to have scabbards.  The quantity of nearly identical swords is also interesting.  Many traveling sales acts or martial displays including more than one performer and they often displayed bundles of weapons.


Martial Arts Training Manuals in Guangdong’s 19th Century Markets

Weapons are interesting as they tend to photograph well.  But these were not the only goods that lower class martial artists were interested in.  There was also a steady trade in small, cheaply printed, martial arts manuals or guidebooks during the 19th century.  Currently the received wisdom is that printed martial arts manuals were mostly a product of the Republic of China period.

This may certainly have been true in some parts of the country.  Nevertheless, China is a very regional place and that makes generalization difficult.  It now appears that the dense commercial networks and high concentration of martial artists in the Pearl River Delta region may have led to the early emergence of a commercial markets for hand combat resources and instruction substantially before this appeared in other areas of the state.

In my previous post, I documented an account and partial translation of a martial arts manual from the 1870s, aptly titled “The Nobel Art of Self-Defense.”  Readers will recall that this small book (really a pamphlet) was about a dozen pages long, and it contained wood block prints and brief descriptions of a number of postures from boxing, pole fighting and fencing.  The translator of that manual described in some detail how it was possible to buy many such printed manuals in the market place, and that better books on the martial arts were available if one went to a specialty book dealer.

The following report from the Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register (dated June 1830) provides us with a much earlier account and discussion of another such early training manual (again illustrated with roughly executed wood cuts).


“Pugilism in China.—The art of self-defense is regularly taught in China.  It is much practiced, although not countenanced by the local governments.  In the penal code, nothing appears concerning it.  Tracts are printed which would, in all probability, accompanied by their wood-cuts, amuse the fancy in England.  The Chinese have no pitch battles that we ever heard of; but we have seen a pamphlet on the subject of boxing, cudgeling, and sword-exercise, in which there are many fanciful terms.

The first lesson, for a Chinese boxer, consists of winding his long tail tight around this head, stripping himself to the buff, then placing his right foot foremost, and with all his might giving a heavy thrust with his right fist against a bag suspended for the purpose.  He is directed to change hands and feet alternately, restraining his breath and boxing the bag of sand right and left, for hours.  This exercise the fancy call “thumping down walls and overturning parapets.”

In the second lesson, the pugilist grasps in each hand a “stone lock,” i.e., a heavy mass of stone worked into the form of a Chinese lock.  Then, being stripped and tail arranged as before, he practices thrusting out at a man’s length these weights, right and left, till he is tired.  Hi is to change feet and hands at the same time.  This lesson is called “a golden dragon thrusting out his claws.”  Next comes “a crow stretching his wings—a dragon issuing forth from his den—a drunken Chinaman knocking at your door—a sphinx spreading her wings—a hungry tiger seizing a lamb—a hawk clawing a sparrow—a crane and a muscle reciprocally embraced,” with various other specimens or fanciful nomenclature for divers feats of the pugilistic art. –Canton Reg., June 18.”

The Asiatic Journal and Monthly Register for British and Foreign India, China and Australasia. Volume 1 (New Series). January-April, 1830.   p. 326 (Paragraphs breaks added by myself).


It is interesting to note that the basic outlines of this particular boxing manual seem to be similar to the one discussed last time.  Again, boxing, pole fighting and fencing are all covered. Still,  There are some important differences as well.  It is clear that this pamphlet devotes much more time to basic strength training and conditioning.  I found the account of early bag-work very interesting, and it seems that the colorfully named “lessons” at the end of this work are probably identical to the similarly named two man illustrations found in section four of the Bubishi (See Patrick McCarthy’s 2008 translation).

In fact, the pamphlet described above dates to roughly the same era as the Bubishi, the longest and most detailed 19th century Southern Chinese martial arts manual that has yet been published.  These accounts, from 1830 and the 1870s, collectively demonstrate the importance of cheaply printed pamphlets and manuals to the late Qing martial marketplace.  They appear to have been mass produced and widely available, yet were illustrated and written in such a way to be accessible to individuals with limited literacy.

This discovery provides a new context in which to view the longer, often more complicated, hand-copied martial manuscripts tradition that existed simultaneously during the late Qing.  While these books have previously received all of the scholarly attention, it does not appear that they were the most common sort of literature a hand combat student might encounter.  It is interested to speculate as to whether cheaper editions of these more elaborate books were ever printed.  Given that L.C.P. states that they could be bought from local book sellers, that seems like a possibility.  Still, that is a research question for another day.  We may now conclude that inexpensive books, pamphlets and manuals played a more important role in the development of southern China’s martial culture than most scholars have previously realized.



If you enjoyed this post be sure to see: Through a Lens Darkly (17): “Selling the Art”: Martial Artists in the Marketplace, 1900-1930



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

Shi Dechan, a master of traditional Chinese medicine and the acting abbot of the Shaolin Monastery in 1982. I have not been able to identify the individuals on the stairs behind him.

Accepting the“traditional” Chinese martial arts as a product of the modern world.

If I were to conduct a pole and ask the average student of the Chinese martial arts when the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu was, what sort of responses do you think we would get? The Han dynasty? The high Ming? The 1700s? All of these would be wrong. There were fewer people studying anything that would look even remotely like the martial arts in China at those points in time than there are today, and by a quite substantial number at that.  Village militia training has never been quite the same thing as the “martial arts.”

A few students of history, realizing that the modern Chinese hand combat styles are a lot younger than most people assume, might put forward some more reasonable guesses. Maybe they would place the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in Shanghai in the 1920s and 1930s, or Taiwan in the 1950s and 1960s. These would be good guesses.  They were certainly seminal moments in the development of the Chinese martial arts.

Nevertheless, I suspect the real “Golden Age” of Chinese martial arts didn’t start until 1982 and it ran through sometimes in the late 1990s. It is hard to imagine isn’t it. The traditional Chinese martial arts reached the pinnacle of their popularity, social acceptance, and (truth be known) quality, in the post-Cultural Revolution period. At least this is when their popularity seems to have peaked in mainland China. Places like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Japan and the west are all on slightly different historical trajectories.

The 1980s and 1990s were remarkable decades.  At no other point in Chinese history had so many people taken up the martial arts or done them so well. The current situation in mainland China is bleaker. Some things are going rather well. The martial sports, Sanda and performance Wushu (subsidized and protected by the government) are quite popular. Wushu may even be accepted as an Olympic sport at some point, though it still has a number of hurdles to overcome. And the idea of the“martial arts” remains a hot commodity with consumers. Lots of good books and movies are being produced. There is even an unprecedented outpouring of high quality academic writing on the history and sociology of Chinese martial studies.

Still, other developments look ominous. Due to increased competition and economic changes, enrollments are dropping in all sorts of “traditional” (non-Wushu) hand combat schools. Further, the market for traditional martial arts is being dominated by a handful of quickly growing styles that have managed to catch the attention of the media while other arts sink into obscurity. The future of Taiji Quan and Wing Chun seems secure. The ultimate fate of many other traditional arts is less certain.

In order to better grasp the changes that we are currently seeing, it is necessary to be able to put all of this in its proper historical perspective. The images that I selected for this week are designed to help us do that. They look back to the events that sparked the 1980s Kung Fu craze (in mainland China) and remind us that we are actually living in the first post-Golden Age generation of the Chinese Martial Arts. The declines that we are seeing now are not as deeply rooted as the popular imagination makes them out to be.

While subtle changes in the economy and society are important when attempting to understand these declines, on a fundamental level they have nothing to do with the “modernization” of China.  When properly understood, it becomes apparent that the specular growth of interest in the Chinese martial arts in the 1980s and 1990s was itself a result of the modernization of the Chinese economy and the liberalization of society. When we look at the “traditional” arts that exist today, we are looking at a quintessentially “modern” phenomenon. While some of these arts may need to adapt, they remain fundamentally compatible with the modern world. The main question is, can they do it in time?

“The Shaolin Temple” Ignites a Kung Fu Craze

Both of our pictures today are original press photos taken by a press photographer in China in 1982. The newspaper industry has long since gone digital and it is often possible to buy original press photos on ebay for almost nothing as the old collections and archives are liquidated and smaller publications go under. I was quite lucky to find these. Both photos were in basically good shape, though the one with the three children was slightly damaged as can be seen in the scan below.

In 1982 the Hong Kong director Chang Hsin Yen released “The Shaolin Temple” staring Jet Li, a young Wushu performance champion. This was the first Hong Kong based martial arts movie to be filmed in China. More importantly, it was also the first martial arts film of any kind to be shown in China since the Cultural Revolution.

The Chinese government tightly controlled the film industry and attempted to improve the morality of the people by strictly censoring most portrayals of violence and nearly any allusion to sex. It must then have come as a shock to mainland movie goers in 1982 to sit down to a film and to be immediately thrown into a three hour orgy of Hong Kong style violence.  All of this emotional energy within the audience was then linked to the martial arts, a topic that had been strictly forbidden only a few years before, and had been neglected in favor of more conventional western sports since the end of the Cultural Revolution. Add in a graphical revival of the traditional Shaolin mythology and Chang Hsin Yen succeeded in creating what was essentially dynamite on celluloid.

It is hard to overestimate how much of an impact “The Shaolin Temple” has had on the Chinese public.  Gene Ching has rightly called it the “Star Wars of China,” but in some senses even that analogy falls short.  Star Wars debuted at a time of national anxiety, after the loss of the Vietnam War, when Americans were questioning their values. The Shaolin Temple followed a much worse period of national disruption. The Cultural Revolution has been described as a period of collective national insanity for China. Jet Li’s performance dramatically closed the book on this hated chapter in Chinese history and was graphic visual proof of the increasing liberalization of society.

In short, by the time this film hit the street the traditional Chinese martial arts were primed for an explosion. The social energy unleashed by this film was so massive that it even reached the pages of the NY Times.  In 1982 and 1983 the Times ran a couple of very interesting, and even insightful, articles on both the film and the broader revival of the actual Shaolin temple.

Shi Dechan, Guardian of the Wisdom of Shaolin

Like so much else in China, the monks of the Shaolin Temple had fared badly during the Cultural Revolution. The community shrank and many individuals were forced to flee into the hills and local communities to avoid persecution. The filming of this movie, using the actual temple as its backdrop and the aging community of monks as extras, signaled a new era of social acceptance and respectability for the monks. Shortly thereafter individuals began to return to the community and the long hard work of rebuilding could begin.

Our first picture is a wonderful portrait of Shi Dechan (b. 1907-1993), the acting or “honorary” Abbot of Shaolin.  Today Shi Dechan is probably best known for the small cameo he was given at the beginning of the film where he can be seen welcoming foreign dignitaries from Japan. However, he made a number of other much more substantive contributions to the Shaolin community over the years.

Probably born in 1907 he was sent to the Shaolin temple in 1916 following the deaths of his parents. He was liked by his teachers and was eventually accepted as a member of the community. Shi Dechan’s specialty was always medicine. As a young monk he traveled to a number of different temples to learn Traditional Chinese Medicine, Qi manipulation techniques and Bonesetting. I have seen some sources that list him as a master of Xiao Hong Quan (Small Red Fist) but I have not been able to confirm this or to locate a list of his martial students.

Shi Dechan had the misfortune to see, and even lead, Shaolin through some of its darkest chapters. He returned to the temple from his medical studies in 1927, just as the conflicts during the warlord period was reaching a crescendo.  He returned only a year before the Temple would be burned to the ground by a local warlord.

He was one of the few monks who remained at the community and assumed increasing leadership responsibilities. It seems that by the start of the Cultural Revolution he may have been the defacto leader of the remaining Shaolin community. I ran across the following reminisce in the obituary of another monk who survived the same period:

“In order to protect the cultural relics from future damage and loss, Ven. Suxi assisted the then honorary abbot of Shaolin Monastery, Ven. Shi Dechan in distributing a portion of the Sutras and inscribed tablets to each of the monks, ordering them to memorize them completely- even so far as the calligraphic style used to write them and their dates. It all had to be memorized accurately. That way after all had passed they could be recovered. After reciting and memorizing, the monks then buried the texts and statues underground.”

Shi Dechan also played a critical role in Shaolin’s modern history by serving as a Master and mentor to Shi Dequan.  Dechan passed on to Dequan his vast knowledge of traditional Chinese medicine.  Dequan later had the opportunity to attend a modern medical school but he practiced extensively in very poor areas with no access to modern pharmaceuticals and little equipment or support. He was forced to draw on the totality of his medical knowledge and local resources to help his patients.

Dequan’s life history is fascinating and I should probably profile him on our “Lives of the Chinese Martial Artists” series. Looking at the challenges that faced both him and his teacher, I can say with all honesty that you just could not make this stuff up. No one would believe you. Dequan is best known now as the author of the“Shaolin Encyclopedia.” This four volume, 1000 page publication, is the most complete database on monastic Chinese fighting systems currently available.  It even includes a selection of texts that were copied by a monk who visited and left Shaolin in 1927, months before its original library burned to the ground.

Three unidentified children practice Kung Fu near the Shaolin Temple (probably at a newly established school in Dengfeng). This photo was taken in 1982 and it captures the first moments of the “Golden Age” of Kung Fu in mainland China.

The Children of Shaolin

One of the most striking things about any of the early pictures of Shaolin is the total absence of middle aged adults. Pictures from the early 1980s inevitably show a combination of aged monks and large numbers of young enthusiastic children, dreaming of being the next Jet Li.  But the intervening generations are simply not there. Very few people outside of official sports training facilities were able to study traditional Chinese boxing during the 1960s and 1970s.  Needless to say, the Red Guards of the Cultural Revolution also took a rather dim view of individuals seeking to following a religious vocation of any kind.  These two decades constitute a “lost generation” in the history of the Chinese martial arts on the mainland, and nowhere is that void thrown into starker relief than in the photographic record of Shaolin.

If the resurrection of the Shaolin temple was a profound event for many of China’s adults, it became something of a mania for its children. Across the country elementary and middle school students quite literally dropped what they were doing, picked up a staff, and started studying Kung Fu.  They overwhelmed the few existing schools within weeks and quickly sought out anyone who had any degree of prior training.

Nor was the struggling Temple prepared to deal with the onslaught of youthful enthusiasm it was about to receive. A New York Times article from 1983 notes:

“Shaolin’s monks today go about their duties with shaved heads and coarse gray robes, oblivious to the stream of tourists. But they also have tales to tell. Fu Yun, now in his 60’s, recalled how the monastery had 300 monks when he joined as a child novice in 1930. In those days, he said, the monks practiced wushu six hours a day as a respite from meditation. ”The basic lessons in wushu were to keep us fit,” said Fu Yun. He was forced to go home to work as a farmer in 1949 but returned after the Communist authorities adopted a greater tolerance for religious belief after the repressive Cultural Revolution.

To the disappointment of many visitors, the monks [of Shaolin] no longer perform wushu. ”I can still play but not very well,” Fu Yun confessed. ”To be good at wushu, you must be obedient and willing to bear suffering and hardship.” Chuan Qing, a 24-year-old monk from eastern China, said he was not interested in wushu because ”it is very hard to do.” For the monks, who rise at 3 or 4 A.M. and subsist on vegetables and rice, life is not much more glamorous than that in other Buddhist monasteries in Asia.


Shaolin’s traditional martial arts are being preserved at the nearby town of Dengfeng, where a sports school specializing in wushu opened two years ago. Its 140 or so pupils practice wushu every afternoon following their academic classes. The pupils, some of whom are only 10 or 11 years old, frequently stage fighting displays for foreign tourists on the packed dirt of their outdoor practice field.”(“Of Monks and Martial Arts.” By Christopher Wren, NY Times. 11thSeptember, 1983. A. 41.)

Across China tens of thousands of children ran away from home, intent on traveling to Shaolin and becoming martial arts masters. It seems that most of these children never actually made it to the Temple, but they were a headache for police and school officials. Local lore in Dengfeng even states that the government had to commission special trains to ship the truant youth who managed to make the journey back home.

Still, this groundswell of the enthusiasm presented a business opportunity that could not be ignored. Just before the release of the movie, a Wushu school (basically a boarding school that taught martial arts to prepare students for careers in the police and military) had opened in Dengfeng. It was quickly overrun with students. More schools were rapidly opened by other shaolin disciples, monks and former novices. Currently most of these are located in Dengfeng, where they are an important part of the local economy.

The three children in this 1982 photograph would have been among the first to be accepted as students in the new extended shaolin community. What they lack in skills they more than make-up for in raw energy and enthusiasm. Note also the spartan, barracks-like buildings behind them. I am not sure but I suspect that these structures were their school. Even today Chinese students as young as 10 years old are sent to boarding schools in Dengfeng where they train under less than ideal conditions including little heat, bad food, substandard medical care and brutally long hours. The very best of these students are then invited to join the various “Shaolin” performance teams that often stage shows around the world.  Most will end up in the military, local police forces or working for private security companies.

This image is interesting precisely because it captures the exact moment in history in which the modern “Shaolin-Industrial Complex” sprang to life. This was the place where the “Golden Age” of the Chinese martial arts was born.  I must say that I find it remarkable that so many individuals within the field of Chinese martial studies are reluctant to talk about Shaolin. Often they claim that the Temple’s martial heritage is overblown and that it creates a distorted view of the traditional Chinese martial arts.

I suppose that in a limited sense all of that is true.  It is mostly true if you are interesting in the pre-Ming era fighting arts.  But it also manages to ignore the rather inconvenient fact if it were not for the “rediscovery” of Shaolin in the early 1980s the “traditional” Chinese martial arts would never have gone into revival in mainland China.  If not for Shaolin, how many of us would even be talking about Chinese martial studies at all?  A little credit where credit is due.  The “traditional” Chinese martial arts are a modern revival and re-imagination of the ancient past.  Not only is that true today, it was even true of the revival of interest in hand combat at the end of the Ming dynasty.  The Shaolin temple, both as a place and as a myth, has played a central role in both of these episodes.  Its contributions deserve very careful study.

Through a Lens Darkly (3): Chinese Martial Artists in a Local Marketplace


***Many traditional Chinese martial artists today actively distance their practice from its more “theatrical” aspects which may have been displayed in theaters propers or marketplace demonstrations. Still, these were the activities that supported countless martial artists over the centuries.  Here is an early discussion of the topic from 2012.***


Our image for this week (two of them actually) come from J. A. Hammerton’s encyclopedic People of All Nations (volume 5, circa 1920).  I don’t normally condone cutting up of old books.  I had actually attempted to buy just the bottom picture in an on-line auction, thinking I was getting an original postcard or photo.  Alas it was not the case.

When thinking about the emergence of modern Chinese martial culture I often speak about the “martial arts marketplace.”  I use the phrase as a metaphor for the subaltern space within Chinese society where hand combat ideas and philosophies competed for an audience, legitimacy and paying students in China in the 1920s and 1930s.  Still, it is worth remembering that there is a much older, and more concrete, association between martial artists and marketplaces.

Market days and temple festivals were times when large numbers of potential consumers came together in a single place.  More importantly, the peasants had just sold their produce and were walking around with money.  That made these gatherings a good venue for popular entertainment.  Common forms included storytellers, puppet shows, opera performances, acrobats, traveling patent medicine sales demonstrations and martial artists.

The martial arts were much more popular in the country side than in urban areas (with a couple of notable exceptions), and martial culture could easily suffuse all of these forms of entertainment.  Story tellers might recite the exploits of the great heroes from Water Margin, puppet shows would portray “Monkey” fighting various monsters with his magical staff, and I recently saw an estimate that up to 1/3 of all of the plays in the traditional repertoire of Cantonese Opera troupes were probably stories of adventure and daring do that focused on the exploits of famous martial artists.  These often features extended fight scenes.  In fact, opera troupes quite literally competed with one another to offer the most impressive martial displays and showcase the most exotic styles.

And then there were the straight up martial artists.  These seem to have come in three varieties.  There were local martial arts masters who put on displays, organized classes and recruited students at these events.  This sort of market organization was a major force in the growth of Plum Blossom and other styles in Shandong and northern China.  Secondly there were traveling bands of performers who attracted a crowd with their displays of strength, dexterity and hard Qi.  The resulting crowd was then plied with patent medicines, charms or cheap martial arts manuals.  At the end of the day the performers pulled up stakes and moved on to the next town.

Lastly there were the “lei tai” fighters.  A lei tai was a raised platform that would be erected so that a large audience could (for a small fee) watch a fight.  Professional fighters would come into town and set up the stage.  They would usually begin by issuing an open challenge to local fighters, and they would continue to perform for as long as they kept winning.  And the longer they performed the larger and more animated the crowd became.  Needless to say, big crowds were good for business.

There is a lot of loose talk and gossip about the “good old days” of lei tai fighting that still circulates in martial arts circles today.  Having a great grand-master who killed a man in a lei tai fight is seen (for some inexplicable reason) as the ultimate proof of the superiority of ones style.  I do not mean to disrespect anyone’s style or creation mythology, but such stories need to be approached with extreme caution.

Martial arts demonstrations could exist only when they were not seen as a threat to law and order by the government.  In practice that meant they were a lot more common in the countryside where there were fewer officials and it was easier for a snake-oil salesman to ply his wares.  Yet some of this stuff was seen everywhere and you always had to be careful not to let it go to far.  Why?  Because if the local government decided that you were a trouble causer or were “disturbing the peace” the typical punishment was to literally stake the offender to the ground, strip them naked and them beat them with switches until they bled.  If you killed someone in a fight, justified or not, the typical response was a short trial and a public beheading, also conducted in the market place.


Public execution photographed for a Qing era postcard, hand-tinted. Postcards such as this one are relatively common and reflect the raciest bias of western consumers in the early 20th century who saw the Chinese as implacably violent, subversive and threatening. Unfortunately they also accurately reflect the swift and brutal nature of justice in late imperial China. Public executions were often used to deal with market thieves.

As brutal as this sounds, the truth is, the government had its reasons for taking a very dim of highly publicized violence.  If a leit tai fighter from one village were to kill a fighter from a neighboring village who was a member of a different clan, the result could be a spiral of revenge attacks and and score-settling that would escalate into a mini-civil war.  No one wanted to see an outbreak of organized community violence, and stuff like this did happen.

You also have to think about the lei tai fighters (and later western boxers and wrestlers) who became involved in this sort of thing.  These people made a living doing this, and if they didn’t fight, their ability to continue to eat was jeopardized.  They had no health or disability insurance.  They had to travel far from home and their support network to ply their trade.  And lets just say that turn of the century health care in the Chinese countryside left something to be desired.  People wanted to attract a crowd, and they wanted to fight, but no one wanted to get hurt.  It should not then be a shock to discover that not all of these fights were “on the level.”  The higher the profile of the fighters, the greater the chance that the matches were fixed.  Add a healthy dose of illegal gambling to all of this…and it should all sound very familiar.

Before long Russian and European fighters were traveling to China and getting in on the game.  These guys traveled internationally as part of their profession, so what really happened was that China was added as one more stop on the pro circuit.  This won’t come as a surprise to anyone who is familiar with the popular martial arts mythology.  It seems that half of all of the Kung Fu movies made today tell one side of this story.

A foreign boxer comes to town, insults the fighting ability of the local peasants, whips the population into such a frenzy that everyone is willing to pay two bits to see him get his comeuppance.  Next a mysterious stranger shows up.  It turns out that he is a martial arts master who has heard of the problem and he then proceeds to clean the mat with the a fore mentioned foreigner. The town celebrates, local honor is restored and the managers of the two fighters split the revenue 50/50, usually after paying the local officials to look the other way.  Everyone agrees to do this again in six months when they get together again in Shanghai or Malaysia or Hong Kong.

In truth this sort of activity had a lot more in common with professional wrestling than professional boxing.  On the odd chance that someone showed up to fight who didn’t get the memo the professionals would just move on to the next town in the middle of the night and try it again.  Again, this was first and foremost a type of entertainment.  It was wildly popular and lucrative.  It stirred up a lot of local passion, but it was entertainment, not private war.

Now this is not to say that all challenge matches were faked.  At the local level you actually did have something that looked more like professional boxing.  Certainly legitimate lei tai matches did happen, and fighters were injured, but a fair amount of discernment is needed when dealing with much later retellings of these stories.  Whenever stories of multiple dead fighters start to be thrown around (especially if one of them happens to be a once famous European whose name has been lost to history) its time to become very suspicious.

Back to our two pictures.  The picture on the bottom is the more interesting so I will start there.  Here we have a pre-1912 revolution marketplace and three martial artists (probably a teacher and two students) carrying swords and spears.  The central figure is displaying an ox-tail dao, a type of sword that was never used by the Chinese military (at least no officially) but was favored by civilian martial artists.  Both of his swords have a nice elegant sweep to them.  The two assistants are carrying spears, and you get a great detailed shot of one of them in the fore ground.  This is a heavily shafted weapon that tappers as you approach the tip.  The spearhead itself looks small and sharp.

It makes a nice contrast with the picture above.  The spear being used by the central figures in their display of hard-chi is obviously very supple and skinny compared to the weapons being carried by the martial artists bellow them.  There is a stack of other weapons in the background including a spear, a flail and a couple of long handled choppers (its hard to tell from the pictures exactly what sort they are).

The publication does not list exact dates or places for either picture, which is unfortunate.  I notice that in the top picture about half of the crowd is wearing ques and the other half isn’t.  Take that for what you will.  Judging by the style of cloths and dress I would guess that this photon was taken closer to 1910 than 1920.

Given that the vast majority of individuals in China never studied hand combat, marketplace displays like this (or opera performances) would have been the closest that most people ever came to them.  Its also worth reminding ourselves that these performers were not held in great esteem.  They were quite literally the social equivalents of vagrants or prostitutes.  In fact, opera singers and their children, like prostitutes, were even prohibited by law from taking the civil service exam, the one great avenue for social advancement that the state offered.  Even if they managed not to hurt anyone in their demonstrations or challenge matches, getting hassled by the authorities (and being scorned by the better parts of Chinese society) was their daily lot in life.

And that brings me to this (you knew I had to mention Wing Chun).

When I was little, I used to see people doing martial art demonstrations in the streets. When they were finished, they would sell Chinese medicine to you. These people would travel from province to province and in this way, they would make their living. I never imagined, that when I got older, that I would be doing a similar thing.  Instead of showing my martial art skill in the street, I teach seminars on Wing Chun Kung Fu.

Ip Chun, 2000

In an interview titled “Fifteen Years – Traveling the World to Sell My Skills” (Qi Magazine, March/April 2000, issue 48 pp. 26-28) Ip Chun candidly discussed the fact that while he is a famous martial arts teacher he doesn’t really like the martial arts.  As a matter of fact, he actively dislikes them.  He would much rather be doing something socially respectable with his time, and as he has got older the rigors of constant travel were starting to take a toll on him.  He continues in the profession out of a sense of respect and obligation to his father, the much more famous Ip Man. Its all very Confucian.

To better illustrate the deep irony of his situation he mentioned his distaste as a child when he and his upper-class father came across martial artists selling their skills in the market place.  Now, all these years later, he finds himself in an oddly similar situation.  Sure he is paid better and the police don’t hassle him.  But its still not respectable or fun.  This just goes to show that you cannot be too careful of the judgements that you place on others.  Their fate may be your own!

Through a Lens Darkly (1): Images of China’s Martial Culture

Chinese martial arts display. Northern China, sometime in the 1930s.

***Greetings!  As I noted in my last post I am taking a (hopefully) short hiatus from multiple-essays-a-week blogging as I adjust to the demanding schedule of a new job.  But rather than let things get stale I decided to use this time to go back and systematically review some of my 800+ posts (over 3 million words) which I have written since the inception of KFT in 2012. This a personally useful exercise in that it gives me a chance to see where my thinking has changed and where I have stuck with patterns I laid down very early on. I am also betting that most of my current readers won’t have seen any of this material before.  So without further ado, here is the very first “Through a Lens Darkly” post that I ever did, from all the way back in the autumn of 2012.  Better yet, its still one of the more interesting images of the CMA that I ever came across.  Enjoy!***


This is the first entry in what I hope will be a periodic series where we examine and discuss period ephemera (1850-1970) relating to Chinese martial studies.  Ephemera is very interesting to me as it is closely tied to questions of class, identity and popular culture.  It’s a valuable source of evidence as to what was going on at a given point in time, and how that was perceived by other groups.  Not only does the camera lens record the past, but it also records the ways in which we frame, display and distort our collective memory.

One of the largest groups of ephemera to emerge from China prior to WWII were postcards.  These inexpensive items were sometimes meant for internal consumption or, more often, they were produced by Japanese, British, German, French or American firms with the expectation that they would be purchased by expatriates and sent back to the home country.

Not surprisingly, the postcards produced by foreigners in the early 20th century often descend into a protracted exercise in racism and orientalism.  The most common themes seen in postcards from the 1900s-1930s are attractive Chinese women, the on-the-spot beheadings of street criminals and occasionally beautiful black and white images of ancient temples, Ming era tombs and picturesque architecture.  Less common (but by no means rare) cards include pictures of drug addicts, foot binding or brightly dressed opera singers.

A typical period postcard featuring female drug addicts. This post card was also published in Japan, probably in the 1920s.

The overall message of this trade in appropriated images is clear.  “The Chinese are different from us.  They are lascivious, degenerate, murderous and whatever greatness their civilization possessed is now in ruins–ruins that westerns have a duty to document and preserve.”  Of course nothing could have been further from the truth.  The average Chinese citizen of the 1930s was very distressed by the breakdown of civic and personal virtue in places like Shanghai.  The warlords of the period were ruling the populace through campaigns of terror directed at their own citizens.  No one saw this violence as a model of good government. Lastly, far from falling into obscurity, Chinese society was modernizing incredibly swiftly.  It managed to do in just a few decades what had taken Europe hundreds of years to accomplish.  Of course no one enjoys watching the sausage of modernity being made.

The one thing you don’t see very often are postcards with martial artists on them.  They exist (like the one above) but they are hard to come across.  This silence is informative as westerns were certainly interested in Chinese hand combat.  It fit their dominant cultural narrative and boxing was a “quaint,” quintessentially “oriental,” behavior.  When you go through Japanese post cards of the same period it is not all that hard to find individuals dressed as Samurai or in period armor demonstrating the traditional martial arts.  The rareness of images of martial artists in China really testifies to the cultural marginality of hand combat throughout most of the country prior to the 1980s.

Of course things vary by year and location.  The nadir of Kung Fu’s popularity was reached around 1900, following the defeat and national disgrace of the Boxer Uprising.  Martial arts schools across the country were closed (many by local governments) at that point in time.  Yet by the mid-1920s tastes were once again beginning to change.  There was growing excitement about a variety of “traditional” Chinese activities, including the martial arts.  Jingwu (the Pure Martial brand) sought to capitalize on this, and later the nationalist government attempted to subvert the growing enthusiasm for traditional boxing to its own ends.

All of which brings us back to the image above.  It records a martial arts display that was probably staged sometime in the 1930s given the style of clothing seen in the photo.  This would mean that the photo was taken during the Guoshu, or “National Arts” period when the Nationalist KMT party was promoting their version of the traditional arts through centrally organized tournaments, publications and martial arts academies.  Unfortunately I have not been able to identify exactly when or where this image was taken.  The verso is little help in this regard.

The postcard itself was produced in Japan in the 1960s and was probably an attempt to capitalize on the resurgence of interest in the martial arts that was going on at that point in time.  It was marketed to both a Japanese and English speaking audience.  Contrary to the assertions of so many Kung Fu films, traditional Japanese martial arts masters were certainly aware of their debt to their Chinese brethren and were often very interested in the Chinese martial arts.  The interests and attitudes of real martial artists are often quite different from how they are portrayed in nationalist myth-making.  In both China and Japan, government sponsored myth-makers sought to use the mystique of the martial arts as a tool to unify and radicalize the population.  For much of the 20th century Asian martial culture was used to create a certain type of nationalism.  This postcard seems remarkably free from such sentiments and is a valuable historical document.

The weapons seen in this photograph are particularly interesting.  Obviously the closest martial artist to the viewer is demonstrating the use of the Shuang Gou.  These hooked swords are one of the more exotic pieces of weaponry sometimes seen in the Northern Kung Fu arsenal.  Yet is should be noted that most of the weapons carried by the masters on stage are actually quite traditional.  We see a horse knife, a couple of period ox-tail daos (always popular with civilian martial artists), what appears to be a Qing regulation military saber from the mid-19th century (something that would have already been an antique in the 1930s), at least four spears (one of which is quite long), multiple jians and one (comparatively rare) double handed straight sword right in the middle.  This is one picture that certainly suggests a thousand stories. I wonder if there are any other postcards in this series?  If anyone has any information as to when or where this picture was taken I would love to hear it.

Through a Lens Darkly (66): The Dramatic Aspect of Chinese Martial Arts



We must thank Joseph Svinth for this post. He came across the following photo essay during his research and was kind enough to share it with me. It was clear that this needed to be included in the “Through a Lens Darkly” series as we just don’t have that many great images of TCMA practice from seventy years ago. Given my interest in traditional weapons, I was also fascinated by the range of armaments that this piece featured.

Most early and mid 20th century treatments of the Chinese martial arts demonstrate a fascination with weaponry. The reasons for this are varied. Lion dance celebrations, one of the few places where non-Chinese residents in the West might reliably encounter these fighting systems, often included extensive demonstrations of weapon sets. That sent a strong visual message that these fighting systems were fundamentally unlike Judo and Karate, the two best known Asian martial arts in the West during the post-war period. The preference for demonstrations with steel, as opposed to wood or bamboo, would have also set these systems apart from Kendo.

It is hard to deny the romance of the sword. While most period sources used the term “Chinese boxing” as a reference point for readers (the current nomenclature of “martial arts” would not stabilize in English language publications until the 1970s), others underlined the importance of these arms by referring to these fighting systems as “sword dancing” or “Chinese fencing.” Weapons convey a sense of danger, and that can lead in different directions. On the one hand, they inspire a certain amount of respect. The memory of Chinese “Big Sword troops” during the Second World War did enjoy some of this in the West. Yet they also generate an innate fear and sense of revulsion that anyone in the modern world would revel in such primitive and bloody means of violence. This was obviously the dominant response a generation or two prior when the Boxer Uprising was the major cultural signifier of Chinese martial arts in the West.

Thus Chinese martial artists, and journalists wishing to write sympathetic stories about these systems, spent a lot of time explaining this deadly menagerie. These explanations typically broke down into one of two categories. Advocates of “scientific training” noted the ways in which weapons practice built strength and coordination. More culturally minded practitioners discussed them as a heritage project. During the 1930s it had been popular to promote spear and sword training within China as a means to defend the nation, but by the end of WWII that idea had fallen out of favor.

It is thus interesting to note that the journalist who wrote this piece went in a slightly different direction. He humanized his subject by exploring the many connections between the traditional Chinese martial arts and theatrical performance. Researchers like Daniel Mroz, Charles Holcombe and Scott Phillips have all made the same point in our current literature. Martial arts training was often a core aspect of one’s apprenticeship in any traditional opera company. Likewise, practicing martial artists might use their skills to engage in amateur performances, which we often forget was pretty much everyone’s favorite pastime in the Late Imperial period. Before TV, and in a largely illiterate society, people had to make their own fun. Various types of performance were one way that people at all levels of society did that.

This is not to say that the martial arts weren’t also practiced by soldiers, criminal enforcers and security guards.  They certainly were. But despite the protests of modernists attempting to save (or really create) a “pure” version of martial arts in the 1910s-1930s, fighting systems free from the taint of traditional village folk culture, there has always been a lot of cross-over between these realms. This remains one of the main reasons why there is still so much confusion about the goals of much traditional practice today.

The 1951 Pix magazine photo essay goes in another direction, celebrating the links between martial practice and stage performance. The gentleman interviewed (Lao Hu) makes a living teaching opera students and gives a bit of detail on how different roles are performed. I think that this makes sense as there was more popular interest in Chinese theater in the mid twentieth century than there is today.

While reviewing English language propaganda magazines produced by the PRC in the 1950s, I was surprised to discover that almost every issue had not one, but often two, features that would explore some aspect of traditional Chinese performance. In comparison, the martial arts would get a couple of articles a year. This seemed to be an attempt to tap into the same (somewhat elite) cultural enthusiasm that led Maya Deren to feature abstract operatic/martial performance in her groundbreaking 1949 avant guard film “Meditations on Violence”, or Sophia Delza to study theater while living in China at the same time. Her work as an early promoter of Taijiquan in the United States was really something of a side effect of her initial interest in actor and dance training. (However, it should be noted that Delza explicitly rejected the notion that Taijiquan derived from operatic performance, seeing it as an independent form of artistic expression with its own internal logic.)

The notion that Kung Fu could somehow resolve the Judo vs. Karate debates of the early 1960s, tipping the scales in favor of the supremacy of striking arts, really put the public discussions of the Chinese martial arts on a different track. This was somewhat ironic as wrestling was hugely popular in traditional China, probably more so in many places than “boxing.” Still, the emergence of Bruce Lee as a media superstar, and the publication of early books by authors like R. W. Smith, crystalized a different and much more combative image of what the Chinese martial arts should be. That is largely the framework that continues to shape the public imagination of these systems today.  Still, it is interesting to be reminded of the somewhat different discussions that emerged in the 1950s.



Chinese Fencing

PIX, December 29, 1951, 40-41.

Chinese Fencing

Fencing in the Western world is the art of offense and defense with a weapon. In China it is more a specialized form of harmony between mind and body and is generally linked with dancing and acting. European fencers use foils, epees, sabres. Orientals are trained with a great variety of weapons—from hinged sticks to sharpened steel rings with fearsome barbs.

Actors learn swordplay to enact duels, suicides or war dances in traditional plays.  All movements are strictly stylized. Numerous schools teach fencing.








Sadly, I have not been able to identify “Lao Hu.” Without having the actual characters, I am not even sure if this is really his name. Perhaps “Lao” is being used here in an honorific sense, and sometimes Fu was transcribed as Hu. If anyone has a lead on the identity of the martial artist in these photos (most likely a Bagua instructor in Beijing in the early 1950s) please feel free to drop a hint in the comments below!


If you enjoyed this photo essay you might also want to read: The Sword Shops of Beijing’s Bow and Arrow Street


Through a Lens Darkly (65): Filipino Knives, Imperialism and the Asian Martial Arts

Vintage Postcard. Source: Author’s Collection

It sometimes seems as though I am only Wing Chun aficionado who doesn’t have a sideline in the Filipino martial arts. On a cultural level we can thank Bruce Lee and his high-profile relationship with student and friend Dan Inosanto for what might be seen as one of the most profitable partnerships in the modern martial arts. One of the local clubs that I do ethnographic research at teaches Wing Chun and Kali classes side by side. It is not all that unusual to look over and see the FMA martial arts students doing a bit of Siu Lim Tao, or the Wing Chun instructor illustrating some point with a stick and knife. Nor is this arrangement all that unusual in the modern martial arts landscape.

I suspect that the attraction between these different fighting systems works because they have affinities that stretch beyond the cultural history of the 1970s.  As always, generalizations are dangerous as we are discussing two very distinct, and vastly complex, phenomenon.  But it seems that the physical realities of Wing Chun’s swords, and the knives of the FMA, have conditioned both systems to emphasize a type of short-range infighting. While traditional Chinese fencing is very distinct, it seems to me that it is often Wing Chun instructors with the most interest in weapons that are drawn to the FMA. Cultural history and pedagogical issues aside, there are really only so many ways to use knives of a certain length, or any configuration of medium sized paired weapons. It may well be the vast arsenal of blades offered by the FMA that has caught the eye of so many stylists from other systems.

This is in no way a new phenomenon. Americans have been fascinated by Filipino weapons since at least the turn of the 20th century. Sailors and solders brought them back in large numbers as prized souvenirs of a tour in the pacific.  Those with more money and less time to travel could actually order ethnographic arms, including kris and bolo knives, out of department store catalogs during these same years. And as this post makes clear ephemera, such as postcards and newspaper articles, satisfied those on a more modest budget.

I spend a fair amount of time searching auctions and antique stores for postcards or photos showcasing the Chinese martial arts. Such images, while not unheard of, are relatively rare, which is why it’s such a big deal when someone comes up with a new one. What I encounter much more frequently are image of Filipino weapons, soldier and traditional warriors. Usually I just ignore these.  But after a chance encounter with a newspaper article, I decided that perhaps this is the right moment to consider what they mean.

Moro weapons from a postcard circa 1900.

The article in the second half of this post caught my eye for a couple of reasons.  The first was that it was a lengthy attempt to lay out the connections between various fighting knives, class distinctions and ethnic groups in the Philippine islands. As such we might actually thing of this as a very early attempt at hoplology, but without Burton or Draeger. The other thing that caused me to really focus on this piece was that it was published in the Democrat and Chronicle, a local paper from Western NY that I grew up reading. Given the hometown connection, how could I not dig a bit further?

Needless to say, Rochester NY wasn’t really a hub of Filipino immigration in the late 19th century.  Rather than this being a matter of local interest, the paper must have been devoting so many inches of column space to the detailed classification of Filipino fighting knives because of the raging American-Philippine War. A careful reader can actually detect the outlines of America’s foreign policy in the region in this article. At the time we were still in a defacto alliance with the Moro, though that would change within two years.

Whenever we discuss martial arts history it is important to make an initial separation between two different subjects of inquiry.  The first is the practice of a set of physical techniques, supported by a community, and everything that goes along with that. Equally important, yet conceptually distinct, is how these practices have been imagined by society as a whole.  

For instance, it is difficult to talk about the spread of the Japanese martial arts in North America without noting the role of films like the Karate Kid as harbingers of their widespread and final acceptance as “safe” youth activities. Ultimately, it is impossible to fully distinguish our two subjects as how one understands or imaginings an art will impact the way that it is practiced. Still, for the sake of conceptual clarity it helps to pursue these subjects as distinct lines of inquiry at first.  

Within this sort of framework an interesting disjoint begins to emerge.  If we ask about the globalization and widespread practice of the FMA (or most other Asian systems other than Judo) within the United States, we often end up looking at the time period of the very late 1960s through the 1980s.  It was also at this time that the Chinese martial arts started to gain traction with the general public.  As such, we hear all sorts of talk about the “discoveries” of this period, as though no one had ever heard of these things before.  

While it is entirely possible that young children watching the Green Hornet had never heard of the Chinese martial arts, or their Filipino cousins, I guarantee you that both their parent and grandparent had. Chinese “Big Sword troops” and loyal knife fighting Filipino soldier were a big deal during WWII.  They were the sorts of stories that ran on the front pages of newspapers to sell war bonds. Yet even before Japan’s march across the Pacific, Americans were acutely aware of these combat arts because of our own history of imperialism and colonial conflict. It is interesting to note that both the Boxer Rebellion in China and the war in the Philippines dominated the newspaper headlines of 1900. Indeed, America actually had to ship soldier from the later to take part in the former. It is not a surprise that the reading public wanted to know more. Not only was the public aware of Moro Warriors and Chinese Boxers, in the early 20th century they obsessed over them.

Another cultural type also figured strongly in the American imagination of Asia during these years.  That was the proud, and unconquered, Samurai warrior. Judo was beginning to put down its roots in the West at exactly the same time that we were also coming into contact with Chinese and Filipino martial arts.  Yet while this Japanese system would thrive both before and after WWII, the Chinese and Filipino arts would have to wait for the closing of the Vietnam War to be taken seriously in the West.  This despite the fact that during the first half of the 20th century vastly more American soldiers were stationed in both China and the Philippines than ever saw Japan.

While its worth asking why the Japanese fighting arts gained a foothold while the other did not, I think the answer to our question is too obvious to require much unpacking.  Japan occupied a very different place in the imperialist hierarchy of the early 20th century than either China or the Philippines.  They were seen as conquered (Philippines), or at least pacified (China), places. Japan, however, sat victorious on the other side of the table.

Another vintage postcard (this one circa 1930) showing a variety of blade forms.

Given the awe and paradox that Japan inspired with its rapid victories over China and Russia, it is perhaps understandable that Western citizens would be curious about that country’s martial culture. It was the first Asian nation to successfully cultivate global cross-cultural desires, not just for its trade, but its culture. Soft power victories followed after Japan’s military and economic successes. As the subjects of imperialism, Chinese and Filipino culture could not generate the same sort of mystique.

Again, we can’t really chalk this lack of desire up to ignorance. The cultural and social processes behind imperialism actively cultivated a type of curiosity about the world. During the late 19th century the single most popular genera of literature in the United States was the travelogue. Americans read voraciously about life across the pacific and yearned to travel.  They attended lectures by famous writers to hear their accounts of the mysterious Orient.  Indeed, they even collected ethnographic arms or, for those on a more limited budget, postcards of Filipino weapons. 

Yet the same cultural mechanism that produced this wave of information also cultivated its own type of ignorance. In order to justify the West’s expansion across the globe, the culture and societies of so many other peoples needed to be denigrated and mentally subjugated. While some of these early travelogues have interesting descriptions of local fighting arts, by modern standards many of them are also shockingly racist and ethnocentric. 

Fed on such a diet, why would anyone seek to study the arts of the Philippines or China? It seems that for most collectors accumulating ethnographic artifacts from these areas was not really an attempt to meet another culture on equal ground. The costs of such a global system (and the world view that supported it) were immense. Yet for the purpose of our current discussion, perhaps the most relevant would be that they slowed the creation and diffusion of some of the most popular Asian martial arts by more than half a century.

For these reasons the practice of any Asian (or African, or South American, etc…) martial art in the West today is a structurally anti-imperialist act. This is not to say that every individual who has studied these fighting systems holds to liberal theories of international relations, or even that they have all been good people. Still, the active cultivation of an appreciation for some aspect of another nation’s culture, or the belief that people from different cultures can make common cause in areas of true importance, strikes at the heart of the world view that upheld late 19th and early 20thcentury imperialism. Of course, the political, economic and social systems of the 21st century have laid their own traps.  But an appreciation of what can be accomplished when people work together, or the decades that are lost when they do not, may help us to avoid them as well.

Bolo’s Part in Filipino Life

National Weapon, in One Form Another, Owned by Every Man, Woman and Child.

Written for the Democrat and Chronicle, (October 28th, 1900. Page 10.)

While much is heard of the bolo men in the Philippine islands, little is known of the bolo itself, and the important part it plays in the Filipino civilization. Every Filipino and Moro has his bolo. He does not necessarily carry it as a war weapon. It enters into his life and marks his social and professional rank by its shape and ornamentation. A Filipino who has improved his opportunities and risen from the laboring class to the rank of an officer in the Filipino army preserves carefully the bolos which have followed him in his upward career. At home the bolo is kept in a place sacred to itself, usually over the door of the main room. Sometimes one will see in a wealthy Filipino or Moro home as many as four or five of these blades ranging from the sundang to the ornate Kris (pronounced creese). These will indicate that the owner has risen in life from the laboring class to the landowning class, or that he has held office, possibly reaching the height of a general in the native army.

Mindanao is the home of the bolo. Nearly every bolo of any value at all comes from the island, which is next in size to Luzon.  So far as the social and professional significance of the arm is concerned the classification of the Moros of Mindanao is tacitly accepted all over the Philippines as official. The officers and men of importance in the Filipino army and government have adopted the classifications along with the weapon itself. 

How the Weapon is Made

All these instruments are made by hand. There are several bolo factories in Mindanao, mostly located in interior and mountainous towns. There are also some factories of importance in Samar and Leyte, two other large islands. Criminals are usually made to work in the bolo factories, though there are special experts paid by the towns to superintend the labor. A factory or “Fabrica de bolo” consists generally of a large nipa shed with huge pieces of iron and steel lying about to be beaten into shape. Some of this work is so ornate and beautiful that one might easily imagine that it the product of skilled mechanics. A criminal can secure his liberty very often by turning out some special piece of work. Many of the men become experts in wood and ivory carving as the handles of the bolos plainly indicate.

Commonest of the forms of the national weapon is the bolo proper which gives the generic name to all of this class of weapons. Simple in design. And without ornamentation it is primarily a weapon of war. Officially the carrying of the bolo proper indicates rank or position. Its handle is cut from carabao horn and its blade is hammered out of a piece of steel. The bolo of the Filipino does not enter onto the religious life of the owner as does that of the Moro and the native of the Southern islands of the group. In some islands it is the center of strange and secret rites. Men and women perform intricate and picturesque bolo dances, the signification of which they cannot be prevailed upon to reveal. Often a native will dance with the bolo until he or she falls from exhaustion. During the mystic dance the bolo plays a most important part, all member of the family or clan finally prostrating themselves before it and swearing allegiance to it should the marriage contract ever be violated.

In the north of the archipelago a form of bolo is used as an agricultural instrument for the gathering and harvesting of crops. Of late years these implements have become weapons of war and as agencies of death are far more effective than the Cuban machete. This particular weapon is known as the sundang, which, when carried places the owner in the laboring class. It is now the regular weapon of the private soldier in the Filipino army in Luzan and the northern islands. It is hammered out of an old piece of iron or steel, while the handle is usually of wood or horn. The scabbard is cut roughly out of two pieces of wood tied together by strips of bamboo. The weapon is curiously shaped and cunningly balanced so as to throw the weight toward the striking end. Even a light blow is terribly effective. The average Filipino is as dexterous in handling the sundang as a fencing master is with the rapier.

Campilan, Bald and Hirsute

The campilan is the regular arm of the Moro private soldier. It is about four feet long and very sharp. Its scabbard consists of two pieces of wood loosely tied together with a single piece of bamboo thread. It is carried over the shoulder and is never unsheathed for the first stroke. When necessity for its use arises it is brought down on the head with the scabbard on it.  The blade cuts through the thread thus unsheathing itself. This is a device used to disarm the enemy of suspicion.  There is a regular drill that the Moros go through with this weapon, cutting and chopping with extraordinary swiftness while continually leaping hither and thither to avoid the return of the enemy.  An individual encounter between two natives armed with the campilan presents a curious and startling spectacle. One sees the sudden stroke, hears the clap and rattle of the wooden scabbard as it lands and watches it fall to the ground in halves, as if the blow had been effective only in breaking the weapon. It seems hideously incongruous that the recipient of the stroke should go down with his skull split at the same moment. But the unsheathed steel does its work swiftly and such duels are over with the first swing that reaches the mark. The handle of the campilan is always of hard wood, usually ebony or mahogany.

The hairy campilan is the mark of the officer below the rank of major. It differs from the ordinary campilon only in the detail of the carving of the handle and in the fact that a long tuft of hair is attached to the handle. This hair is dyed with vegetable dye; usually a deep red, but sometimes bright yellow or green. In former times the hair ornament was from the head of a slain enemy. It is said that even now the scalp of the dead foe is in some of the islands a source of [illegible].

Kris Weapon of Staff Officer

Among the staff officers the kris is the favorite weapon. It is from two to three feet long. One third of the way down from the tip if ripples in little wavelets of steel. It is said that this small sword inflicts a ghastly wound, and from the appearance one would choose it last of any to be perforated with. The approved kris stroke is for the body with a peculiar weaving motion of the wrist, supposed to send the blade home and spread the wound. Artistically the kris is one of the most beautiful weapons of the world. The blade is often magnificently inlaid with gold and sometimes with pearls and other jewels. In theory this is to make it flash in the light as it is brandished above the head of the charging leader, a beacon of victory. Every officer wears one strapped or tied to his belt.

Very similar in design to the kris is the terciada. One hardly ever finds a Moro child with any pretension to family and breeding who isn’t the proud possessor of one of these diminutive but deadly weapons. Occasionally they come into play in childish quarrels and the disadvantage of arming an irresponsible human with a lethal implement is sufficiently attested in the subsequent funeral, not to mention the feud that may result. The woman of the better classes takes the same pride in her punal de kris as does her more civilized sister in stylish apparel. Seldom is this weapon more than a foot long, and usually it is not more than seven or eight inches, but the blade is well pointed and sharpened. In shape it is an exact replica of the kris on a small scale: sometimes even more ornate in inlaid device. A punal de kris’ beaten blade, handle and scabbard from solid silver is no uncommon thing, and I have heard of punals beaten from gold.

The quinbasi is the knife of the private soldier. He carries it very much as the American private does his bayonet. It is his general utility blade, and not needed much in actual warfare. His whittling, brush-cutting and foraging bring it into play, and it is his table knife when he feels the need for any. Generally speaking it a utensil rather than a weapon, though by no means to be despised at close quarters. 

One of the most interesting weapons of the Moro is the talibong, a sort of headsman’s ax. It is from four to five feet long and weighs anywhere from four to eight pounds. In time of war certain companies are equipped with these arms exclusively and were used as an advanced guard. They were also used by the official headsmen in decapitating criminals. The chief use of the talibong from which it got its name was to sever the head of the victim fallen in battle. The Moro when warring with other tribes or even among themselves never took prisoners. After a battle, men armed with the talibong were sent among the slain to finish the work. The weapon has now no significance, but it is held sacred in the families of those who were once commissioned to use it. While there are other special designs of the bolo among the natives of the Philippines, the implements here in described constitutes the conventional types of the bolo, as officially recognized by the Moro. 

Filipino Cabby Has His Bolo

The distinction between the different types of weapons drawn so close among the Moros of Mindanao have lost much of their force in Luzon, and the section immediately under the influence of Manila. Still, even here the old families keep sacred their bolos though the weapons do not enter into the religious life of the people as they do further south. But even in Luzon the native without his bolo stands as a man without a trade. Every cab driver has one under his clothes or concealed among his worldly goods.

During the continuous warfare between the Moros and the Spaniards the Moro army was armed almost exclusively with bolos. There is peace between the Moros and the Americans and the greatest good feelings exists between them. In Zamboanga and Parang-Parang, the chief Moro cities of Mindanao, it is as safe for an American soldier to go about unarmed at night as it is in an American city. The Moro is not deprived of his bolo, but since peace has been established many have given their bolos as presents to the officers. The majority of natives, however, have sold them as souvenirs. They are in great demand and the various ships and transports entering these southern ports have run the price up to an abnormal point.


If you enjoyed this essay you might also want to read: The Purpose of “Place” in Wing Chun and the Chinese Martial Arts


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