Kung Fu Tea

Martial Arts History, Wing Chun and Chinese Martial Studies.

Search results

"through a lens darkly"

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


Through a Lens Darkly (64): Military Exercise Among the Chinese

A guard house, Canton, China, illustration from the magazine The Graphic, volume XXV, no 655, June 17, 1882.

Photography vs Illustration

There was just some discussion on the Kung Fu Tea Facebook page of a 19th century illustration generously shared by Scott M. Rodell.  The scene showed half a dozen soldiers relaxing at a guard house or yamen in Guangzhou. Published in The Graphic in 1882, the scene seems to contain much of the true to life detail that the magazine staked its reputation on. Scott noted that one could see a see a rack of polearms in the print, as well as large painted rattan shield. One individual could be seen wearing either a piadao (single short knife meant to be used with a shield) or possibly a set of hudiedao (butterfly swords). Of course, even in the very best print it would probably be impossible to determine exactly what weapon hung in that scabbard.

Given my background in Wing Chun, and curiosity about an early written account I encountered suggesting that the Green Standard Army in Guangzhou had hudiedao in their inventory, the image immediately caught my attention. The fact that both the shield and knife wielding soldier were leaning against the same structure suggest that perhaps we should understand it as piadao. That was a weapon carried by all sorts of soldiers. Still, one can hope.

Yet now we find ourselves in the murky realm of discerning authorial intent rather than just identifying weapons.  What did the artist behind this piece intend for us to take away? It is an interesting question as The Graphic was well known for hiring socially liberal artists to fill its pages with often complex images designed to promote a progressive, or at least humanizing, view of the world.

I say “often” as a few different genres of illustrations would appear in The Graphic over the years.  In addition to the afore mentioned images we also find the sorts of romantic portrayals of colonial and military adventures that one would expect in a publication of this period. There are comic illustrations as well, my favorite being an account of a rather primitive round of golf on the Scottish Highlands.

All of which is to say, the illustrations in The Graphic (or any other period news magazine) are not photographs and need to be understood in terms of a particular publication’s editorial policy. In this case I think we can all be certain that the British reading public did not have strong opinions on the question of hudiedao vs. piadao. They would have noted what was shown was far from a modern and efficient military.  In truth, by the 1880s the Chinese Army utilized many rifles (or rifled muskets) and other firearms. This more modern hardware seems to make infrequent appearances in period illustrations. Nevertheless, they are certainly more common than pole-arms in vintage photos of actual Chinese military units during the last couple of decades of the Qing.


A group of Western trained Qing dynasty soldiers in China during the later 1860s. The use of Western military advisors was increasingly common throughout this period. Source: Wikimedia.


Beyond that, the reading population would likely have noted something else.  These were scenes of a military at leisure. The soldiers can be seen smoking, chatting or playing games, all under the supervision of a small alter in the courtyard wall.  They are not, however, patrolling, training or keeping the peace.

Given that this composition is almost surely an artistic creation after the fact, one suspects that this is not a coincidence.  19th century Western readers tended to see Chinese men as effeminate and poorly suited to martial pursuits. Further, one of the main complaints of period travelogues was that their soldiers were indolent and lazy. Rather than marching in industrious straight lines and polishing boots like their British and French counterparts, they were always in their barracks smoking and gambling. I never visited 19th century Canton so I really can’t say way whether this stereotyped image had a grain of truth behind it. Yet we should not be surprised to find the notion being replicated in a period illustration in a popular magazine.

All of which is to say, an illustration isn’t a photograph.  And maybe that is a good thing. Photographers are just as much artists as illustrators, and their editors must also respond to market trends and pressures. Yet there might be a tendency to accept photos at face value, whereas we remember that prints in 19th century magazines require a fair degree of cultural interpretation.  Perhaps if this had been a photograph, I would be one step closer to finding solid proof of the existence of hudiedao in military use in Guangzhu. But what else would I actually know?

It is likely that much of how that photograph is interpreted would remain a matter of projection, just as late 19th century British readers were likely projecting their stereotyped views of Chinese masculinity onto figures in the guard-house illustration.  We thus find ourselves in the rather odd position that detailed photos might, in some cases, convey less useful information than fanciful artistic renderings. When faced with a photo I mostly see what I think I already understand about the scene.  But in looking at a vintage engraving, I remember to ask critical questions about how a specific audience, in a particular time and place, would have understood it, and how those attitudes shaped public perception of Chinese martial arts for decades to come.


Chinese Military Exercises. The Graphic. Volume XV , No 379, March 3 1877. Note the title of the image and description.


Chinese Military Exercises

All of this bring us to main subject of today’s essay. The previous print was not the only portrayal of Chinese soldiers to grace the pages of The Graphic. A little earlier, in 1877, the magazine printed another item titled “Chinese Military Exercises.” Once again, the artwork betrayed no hint that many soldiers were armed with rifles by this point. Those were the arms that brought an end to the Taiping Rebellion and everyone knew that there was no going back after that cataclysmic event.  Rather, what we have are four vignettes of individuals performing what most readers would now identify as “traditional Chinese martial arts.”  On the top we see two individuals going through a choreographed spear routine.  On the bottom left an individual performs an unarmed taolu.  In the center a group of soldiers practice forming a shield. Finally one individual at the far right can be seen wielding a set of twin hook swords against “an imaginary enemy.”

The question then emerges, how would a 19th century reader have understood these assorted images? The term “martial art” would not enter general circulation as an English language catch all phrase for traditional Asian combative practice for close to a century after this image was published. In the late 19th and early 20th century there was no single universally accepted terms for these practices in Western publications. Period authors speak of Chinese boxing, pugilism, gymnastics, sword dancing, assaults at arms, national boxing, physical culture and even juggling when attempting to describe behaviors that readers today would immediately understand as “martial arts.” Incidentally, the term “Kung Fu” first begins to appear in English language treaty-port newspaper articles during the 1920s as part of the Jingwu Associations efforts to standardize and popularize the image of the Chinese martial arts in the West, though at the time it failed to catch on.

A common assumption in the literature is that prior to Bruce Lee individuals in the West had never heard of the Chinese martial arts.  This isn’t exactly true. From yellow peril novels centering on nefarious boxers in the 1910s through New York Times profiles of the fading glory of traditional boxing after WWII, Americans had actually heard a surprising amount about Chinese martial artists. Still, they lacked was two things.  First, they had no overarching conceptual framework allowing them to sort and aggregate these facts into a coherent understanding.  Second, there wasn’t much cross-cultural desire to do so as (unlike the Japanese) Westerners saw Chinese people as uninterested in military pursuits and thus poor models of martial virtue.  All of this would change during the Asian wars of the mid twentieth century. Leaping into public consciousness at the end of the Vietnam War, and during a period of growing interest in counter-cultural movements, Lee was well positioned to take advantage of the erosion of this second barrier. The term Kung Fu, which had failed to catch on 50 years earlier, would quickly become a household word.

Those attempting to do archival research should add “military exercises” to our growing list of search terms, and students of Martial Arts Studies should ask how 19th century readers  would have understood it. From a strictly visual perspective, I find it fascinating that three of the four vignettes in this print featured individuals wearing military uniforms. We have numerous accounts of military demonstrations from the 1870s-1930s all indicating that (their growing stores of modern weaponry notwithstanding), when local governments staged military reviews it was often the more traditional cold weapons that were featured. It is thus not outlandish that a Western newspaper correspondent might witness one of these events and report on it under the title “military exhibition.”


An original photograph (probably 1920s or 1930s) showing a marketplace martial arts demonstration. Note the Shuang Gau led by the man on the left. Source: The private collection of Benjamin Judkins.

Still, I personally suspect that this reading of the term is a bit too narrow. I need to do some additional media searches over the coming weeks, but the last figure in this collection is important. He is the only one not wearing a military uniform. Further, both period accounts and even vintage photos, suggest that hook swords were a commonly encountered weapon in marketplace demonstrations around China. Unlike the paidao or even the hudiedao, there is no hint that these were ever used by military units. As such, this appears to be an image of a purely civilian martial artists. While the Western reading public may have missed much of the cultural nuance in any photo or illustration, surely anyone who looked at this would realize that one of the “military” figures was actually a civilian.

We are thus left with an interesting paradox. The “military exercises” described in this illustration do not include most of what the Chinese military actually did during the 1880s. Nor do they describe a type of activity that is confined to military personal. Instead, it seems to be a type of easily identifiable physical culture often (though not always) involving weapons, open to both civilian and military practitioners. Lacking any urgent necessity in a period in which firearms ruled the battlefield, such activities would likely have been understood by Western readers as essentially recreational in nature. The entire montage may even have been assembled to further reinforce Western stereotypes of China’s indolent, backwards and lazy soldiers.

In short, the real value of this print may lay not in its visual portrayal of the Chinese fighting arts, but rather in how it attempted to classify them. The term “military exercises” seems to foreshadow the later stabilization of “martial arts” in the Western imagination.  Once again, the most interesting question is not what they hint about practice in China, but rather how these things were being understood by a quickly growing Western middle-class audience.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Advance of the Tigers Through Western Eyes.



Through a Lens Darkly (63): Romance of the Single-Stick

Shipboard training in single-stick. Vintage postcard.

An Eternal Passion

As a martial artists that I work with likes to tell his students, “Hitting someone with a stick is not difficult.  Noting getting hit with a stick is…a lot of fun.”

The history of Western single-stick practice suggests that innumerable soldiers, fencers, students, athletes and regular people have come to the same conclusion.  Perhaps this explains the repeated rebirths of these systems of weapon practice.

My own brush with single-stick occurred rather recently.  A local instructor had agreed to introduce me to a system of early 19th century American military saber.  Of course I brought my fencing mask, gloves and other gear.  While I had been informed that we would be working with “historical training methods” I was nevertheless surprised when I was presented with a set of slender rods fitted with tough leather bell guards.  What followed was one of the most enjoyable afternoons of training that I have had in a while.  At least part of that, I think, had something to do with the simplicity of the sword analogs themselves.

I haven’t yet made a detailed study of the history of single-stick practice in the West, nor am I sure that such an adventure is in the cards.  That is a shame as most of the material on this topic is in languages that I can actually read.  Still, a few general points are clear.  First off, what we now think of as single-stick seems to have started off as a training regime for back-sword, and latter saber, practice in the UK.  Something like single-stick was being practiced as early as the 16th century.  During the first half of the 18th century, single-stick seemed to hit the peak of its popularity in both cities and the countryside and was widely practiced.

This sort of mania has not always been the norm.  The popularity of the practice has waxed and waned (somewhat cyclically) through the decades.  The construction of the sticks, their hilts and other safety equipment has also evolved as different rule-sets were invented, or as the practice was adapted for different social uses.  This makes for an interesting case study within the field of Martial Arts Studies precisely because we have a long history of continuous usage which nevertheless shows a distinct pattern of stochastic innovations.

Nor has the humble stick attracted the sort of nationalistic myths that follow the katana or the jian.  As such we seem to have hit something of a sweet spot.  This practice was popular enough that it left a documentary record.  Yet it was not so popular that 19th or 20th century nationalist myth-makers would be tempted to rewrite it, in essence obscuring the past.  In that sense single-stick has benefited from being viewed as “just a game” and not a “martial art,” where a good dose of myth making and invented tradition seems mandatory.

While fairly common in the early 19th century, its popularity later declined.  During the final years of century, and the first years of the early 20th, it seems to have enjoyed a short lived (but influential) return to popular consciousness.  This resulted in a flurry of articles in magazines, newspapers and other sources.  Of course, some militaries had continued to use it as a training method all along.

The late 19th century resurgence seems to have been culturally driven. There was something about single-stick that fit with the era’s notion’s of “muscular Christianity” and the supposed benefits of living a “strenuous life.” We should note that its brief revival also coincided with other trends including an expansion in boxing’s popularity outside the working class, jujutsu’s entrance into the West, and the rising tides of nationalism and imperialism that would set the stage for the First World War.



This reemergence was ideally timed to provide us with some great vintages images and sources which will be of interest to martial arts historians.  Much of this material is not cataloged in libraries as it initially circulated as ephemera.  Single-stick postcards seem to have been quite popular for a while.  Many of these had a naval theme and showed sailors training on ships.  Other sorts of soldiers can also be seen drilling on land.  One commonly encountered card even shows a group of Canadian Mounted Police engaging in a mass melee.  This cannot have been an uncommon activity as other images, and even films of similar events, exist.

Other surviving bits of ephemera suggest that single-stick had come to be accepted as a civilian game and an ideal pastime for boys with too much energy.  The Boy Scouts included it (along with boxing, wrestling, staff fighting, fencing and jujutsu) in their short lived  “Masters at Arms” merit badge program.  Teddy Roosevelt also lent some of his own mystique to the practice by training in the White House.  And multiple groups promoted the walking stick as a weapon with practical self-defense benefits.  Indeed, the cultural multi-vocality of single-stick, its ability to be all things to all people, foreshadows in some ways the social position of the Asian martial arts in the post-WWII period.

This conceptual flexibility sometimes leads to confusion.  For instance, “single-stick” can refer to a type of training tool, or a very specific set of competitive rules coming out of the UK.  As such, some sources draw a clear distinction between English and French practices (Canne de combat) while others do not.  Yet one gets the sense that in the late 19th and early 20 century it was precisely the perceived universality of the phenomenon that gave it a degree of cultural power.


Single-stick in the White House. Harper’s Weekly, February 1903.


Single-stick is currently going through yet another period of increased visibility.  As HEMA grows more popular, people are once again taking an interest in it as a historical practice.  But I wonder if its former status as the ideal adolescent recreation has had other, less obvious, implications.  I was recently talking with a HEMA instructor who has started a lightsaber club.  He was noting how difficult it was to get long sword and rapier guys to get their heads wrapped around this new weapon analog.  But he noted that “everything finally clicked when I told them to think of it as a single-stick or longer two handed staff.”

This makes perfect sense when you consider the geometry and round blade profile of both training analogs.  But it also suggested something else.  Perhaps lightsaber combat is growing so fast because it owes more to prior cultural mythologies than we may have guessed.  Whereas early Boy Scouts with their single-sticks may have dreamed of pirates and colonial adventure, their modern counterpart envision the Sith (space pirates?) and Jedi (no doubt colonizing some newly discovered planet for the Republic).  The more things change…

To give readers a better sense of how single-stick was discussed in the late 19th century I have concluded this post with a short excerpt from the fourth chapter of R.G. Allanson-Winn and C. Phillipps-Wolley’s comprehensively titled, Broadsword and Single-stick, with Chapters on Quarter-Staff, Bayonet, Cudgel, Shillalah, Walking-Stick, and Other Weapons of Self-Defence, as published in New York City in 1898. Please note that I included these passages for historical interest only. Few modern coaches would endorse the author’s notion that we should go without (readily available) safety gear because one learns faster and “build character” through pain or injury.  That is just the Muscular Christianity talking.




SINGLE-STICK is to the sabre what the foil is to the rapier, and while foil-play is the science of using the point only, sabre-play is the science of using a weapon, which has both point and edge, to the best advantage. In almost every treatise on fencing my subject has been treated with scant ceremony. “Fencing” is assumed to mean the use of the point only, or perhaps it would not be too much to say, the use of the foils; whereas fencing means simply (in English) the art of of-fending another and de-fending yourself with any weapons, but perhaps especially with all manner of swords.

In France or Spain, from which countries the use of the thrusting-sword was introduced into England, it would be natural enough to consider fencing as the science of using the point of the sword only, but here the thrusting-sword is a comparatively modern importation, and is still only a naturalised foreigner, whereas broad-sword and sabre are older than, and were once as popular as, boxing. On the other hand, the rapier was in old days a foreigner of particularly shady reputation on these shores, the introducer being always alluded to in the current literature of that day, with anathemas, as “that desperate traitour, Rowland Yorke.”

“L’Escrime” is, no doubt, the national sword-play of France, and, for Frenchmen, fencing may mean the use of the foil, but broad-sword and sabre play are indigenous here, and if fencing is to mean only one kind of sword-pay or sword-exercise, it should mean single-stick.

Like the swordsmen of India, our gallant fore-fathers (according to Fuller, in his “Worthies of England”) accounted it unmanly to strike below the knee or with the point. But necessity has no laws, still less has it any sense of honour, so that before long English swordsmen realised that the point was much more deadly than the edge, and that, unless they were prepared to be “spitted like cats or rabbits,” it was necessary for them either to give up fighting or condescend to learn the new fashion of fence.

As in boxing, it was found that the straight hit from the shoulder came in quicker than the round-arm blow, so in fencing it was found that the thrust got home sooner than the cut, and hence it came that the more deadly style of fighting with the rapier supplanted the old broad-sword play.

Single-stick really combines both styles of fencing. In it the player is taught to use the point whenever he can do so most effectively; but he is also reminded that his sword has an edge, which may on occasion do him good service. It seems then, to me, that the single-stick is the most thoroughly practical form of fencing for use in those “tight places” where men care nothing for rules, but only want to make the most out of that weapon which the chance of the moment has put into their hands. It may further be said that the sabre is still supplied to our soldiers, though rarely used for anything more dangerous than a military salute, whereas no one except a French journalist has ever seen, what I may be allowed to call, a foil for active service, the science of single-stick has some claim to practical utility even in the nineteenth century, the only sound objection to single-stick being that the sticks used are so light as to not properly represent the sabre.


Details of the grip and guard of a typical single-stick. Source:


This is a grave objection to the game, when the game is regarded as representing the real business; but for all that, the lessons learnt with the stick are invaluable to the swordsman. The true way to meet the difficulty would be to supplement stick-play by a course with broad-swords, such as are in use in different London gymnasiums, with blunt edges and rounded points.

But gunpowder has taken the place of “cold steel,” and arms of precision at a thousand yards have ousted the “white arm” of the chivalrous ages, so that it is really only of single-stick as a sport that men think, if they think of it at all, today. As a sport it is second to none of those which can be indulged in the gymnasium, unless it be boxing; and even boxing has its disadvantages. What the ordinary Englishman wants is a game with which he may fill up the hours during which he cannot play cricket and need not work; a game in which he may exercise those muscles with which good mother Nature meant him to earn his living, but which custom has condemned to rust, while his brain wears out; a game in which he may hurt some one else, is extremely likely to be hurt himself, and is certain to earn an appetite for dinner. If any one tells me that my views of amusement are barbaric or brutal, that no reasonable man ever wants to hurt any one else or to risk his own precious carcass, I accept the charge of brutality, merely remarking that it was the national love of hard knocks which made this little island famous, and I for one do not wish to be thought any better than the old folk of England’s fighting days.

There is just enough pain in the use of the sticks to make self-control during the use of them a necessity; just enough danger to a sensitive hide to make the game thoroughly English, for no game which puts a strain upon the player’s strength and agility only, and none on his nerve, endurance, and temper, should take rank with the best of our national pastimes.

Gallant Lindsey Gordon knew the people he was writing for when he wrote –
“No game was ever worth a rap,
For a rational man to play,
Into which no accident, no mishp,
Could possibly find its way.”

Still, there comes a time, alas! In the lives of all of us, when, though the hand is still ready to smite, the over-worked brain resents the infliction of too many “merry cross-counters,” and we cannot afford to go about with black eyes, except as the occasional indulgence. Then it is that the single-stick comes in. Boxing is the game of youth, and fencing with foils, we have been assured, improves as men fall into the sere and yellow leaf. Single-stick, then, may be looked upon as a gentle exercise, suitable for early middle age.

There is just enough sting in the ash-plant’s kiss, when it catches you on the softer parts of your thigh, your funny bone, or your wrist, to keep you wide awake and remind you of the good old rule of “grin and bear it;” but the ash-plant leaves no marks which are likely to offend the eye of squeamish clients or female relations.

Another advantage which single-stick possesses is that you may learn to play fairly well even if you take it up as late in life as five and twenty; whereas I understand that, though many of my friends were introduced to the foil almost as soon as to the corrective birch, and though their heads are now growing grey, they consider themselves mere tyros in their art.

That single-stick is a national game of very considerable antiquity, and at one time in great repute on our country greens, no one is likely to deny, nor have I time to argue with them even if I would in this little brochure. Those who are interested in spadroon, back-sword, and broad-sword will find the subjects very exhaustively treated in such admirable works as Mr. Egerton Castle’s “Schools and Masters of Fence.” These pages are merely intended for the tyro – they are at best a compilation of those notes written during the last ten years in black and white upon my epidermis by the ash-plants of Serjeants Waite and Ottaway, and Corporal-Major Blackburn. Two of them, unfortunately, will never handle a stick again, but the last-named is still left, and to him, especially, I am indebted for anything which may prove worth remembering in these pages. A book may teach you the rudiments of any game, but it is only face to face with a better player than yourself that you will ever make any real advance in any of the sciences of self-defence.


Apparently one could advertise cigarettes directly to Boy Scouts during the 1920s.


And here, then, is my first hint, taught by years of experience: If you want to learn to play quickly, if you want to get the most out of your lessons, whether in boxing or stick-play, never encourage your teacher to spare you too much. If you get a stinging cross-counter early in your career as a boxer, which lays you out senseless for thirty seconds, you will find that future antagonists have the greatest possible difficulty in getting home on that spot again. It is the same in single-stick. If you are not spared too much, and are not too securely padded, you will, once the ash-plant has curled once or twice round your thighs, acquire a guard so instinctively accurate, so marvellously quick, that you will yourself be delighted at your cheaply-bought dexterity. The old English players used no pads and no masks, but, instead, took off their coats, and put up their elbows to shield one side of their heads.

There are today in England several distinct schools of single-stick, the English Navy having, I believe, a school of its own; but all these different schools are separated from one another merely by sets of rules, directing, for the most part, where you may and where you may not hit your adversary.

The best school appears to be that in which all hits are allowed, such as might be given by a rough in a street row, or by a Soudanese running a-muck. The old trial for teachers of fencing was not a bad test of real excellence in the mastery of their weapons – a fight with three skilled masters of fence (one at a time, of course), then three bouts with valiant unskilled men, then three bouts against three half-drunken men. A man who could pass this test was a man whose sword could be relied upon to keep his head, and that is what is wanted. All rules, then, which provide artificial protection, as it were – protection other than that afforded by the swordsman’s guard – to any part of the body are wrong, and should be avoided.



If you enjoyed this post you might also want to read: Pushing and Pulling: Scouts and the Spread of the Asian Martial Arts



Through a Lens Darkly (47): The Sword Shops of Beijing’s Bow and Arrow Street

The sign of a shop selling swords in Beijing during the 1920s. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source:

***I am currently preparing for a demonstration and tournament which I will be hosting on Friday.  As such, we are turning to the archives for today’s post.  This essay offers readers a unique look at the nexus between the martial arts and the marketplace in Beijing during the Republic period.  Enjoy!***


Looking over my posts from the last few months I realized that it has been too long since we discussed new (to us) images of the Chinese martial arts.  In this post our friend Sidney Gamble will help to rectify that oversight.  Regular readers may recall that Gamble was an American sociologist who documented daily life in Republican China’s major cities.  His observations were recorded in several academic books.  Yet Chinese martial artists are likely to be more familiar with his passion for photography and amateur film making.  Some of this material found its way into Gamble’s various publications.  But he left behind a much larger archive of images, most of which was only discovered after this death.  We have already discussed the importance of his recording of the “Five Tiger Stick Society” and the Miaofeng Shan pilgrimage.

While northern China’s martial artists were never a subject of sustained study, Gamble’s interests in urban sociology seems to have brought him into frequent contact with such individuals.  Both his professional and personal interests ensured that he would spend a great deal of time exploring, and photographing, China’s marketplaces and festivals.  These were also great places to find martial artists, opera performers, patent medicine salesman, soldiers and a wide variety of other colorful characters.  From time to time such figures would make it into his books.

The photographs discussed in this essay explore the nexus of his encounters with marketplaces and the martial arts.  As part of his effort to document China’s changing cityscapes, Gamble took many pictures of Beijing’s shops and storefronts.  Some of these buildings were quite humble.  Others featured elaborately carved wooden screens and bright tile work.  He was particularly taken by the almost universal habit of fashioning shop signs from the objects that one sold.


The sign of a shop selling swords in Beijing during the 1920s. The placard (too fuzzy to decipher in places) reads, in part, “Qingyigong, specializing in the manufacture of Flowery Spears [huaqiang], military swords [jundao], and waist swords [yaodao]. Timely fulfillment of orders.” Special thanks to Douglas Wile and Chad Eisner for translating this sign.  Wile further notes that the Qingyigong was a reference to a 50 tael silver ingot minted during the Ming Dynasty.  Invoking this large sum of money probably suggested something to potential patrons about the quality of the products offered. Wile also notes that the shop was probably in an area of Beijing outside the main gate in the northwest corner of the Chongwen
District, famous for manufacturing grinding and sharpening stones.  
Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source:

Its hard to think of a better way to advertise one’s wares, and such signs might appeal to customers with limited literacy.  Still, a number of these signs also featured written descriptions, and various trades seem to have had their own stylized approach to signage.  Nowhere was this more evident than in the shops selling swords and knives.

Gamble photographed at least three different sword shops during his survey of Beijing’s markets.  Each sign was constructed of seven to twelve wooden sword replicas suspended one above another.  Perhaps the shape of the sign was meant to remind patrons of blades of various sizes and shapes on a rack.  Most of these wooden replicas portrayed the single edge dao, but occasionally other weapons appeared including spears heads, daggers or short and sturdy dadao.

I was somewhat surprised when I first came across these images.  The commonly heard troupe is that the Qing dynasty outlawed the civilian ownership of weapons as well as the practice of the martial arts so such things could only be found in secret societies.  Still, period accounts of the final decades of the dynasty (when the countryside was littered with militias and awash in traditional arms) would strongly suggest that those regulations were often observed only in the breach.  While researching accounts of the Boxer Rebellion I ran across one ominous note recounting how all of the storefronts in Beijing put up signs advertising swords and knives as the displaced Yihi Boxers streamed into the city during the spring of 1900.

The sign of a shop selling swords in Beijing during the 1920s. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source:


Period observes noted that the market for swords and other traditional weapons had been in serious decline from the final decade of the 1800s onward. I assumed that the industry would have basically collapsed by the 1930s.  Apparently that was not the case, and a variety of weapons continued to be created, collected and sold in the sorts of small shops that Gamble frequented.  Indeed, as the following quote indicates, they continued to be indicative of the types of handicraft manufacturing that dominated much of Beijing’s economy.

In the northeast corner of the district was a group of streets, Kung Chien Ta Yuan (Bow and Arrow Street), that was as interesting as any we found in the city.  There, away from the bustle and traffic of the highway, were grouped the shops of the bow and arrow makers, some making long bows and others feathered-tipped arrows, others making cross bows to shoot clay marbles.  And many a boy can be seen bringing home a string of small birds that he has shot with one of these cross bows.  Then there are gold and silver shops where men, sitting on benches like saw horses and working with simple tools, make dishes of elaborate pattern.  In one corner is a shop where the men are busy cutting out saddle trees and making material for boxes, while just next door they are making copper kettles, dishes and pans, starting with the sheet copper and gradually beating it out with hammer and anvil into the desired shape and thickness.  There are stores occupied by the curio dealers with their assortment of porcelain, bronze and other things, wonderfully interesting places to spend an hour and keen men with whom to make a bargain.  Besides these there are cloth and tea shops, pipe stores, shops where they make reed mats, another for paper clothes, silk thread stores, a sword shop and one that deals in pig bristles. (Sidney David Gamble, John Stewart Burgess. 1921. Peking: A Social Survey. New York: George H. Doran Co. P. 322)

After reading this excerpt from Gamble’s survey, the next question must be, who patronized these sorts of shops?  Unfortunately, his writing gives no indication of who was buying traditional recurved bows in the 1920s-1930s.  But the patrons of the various sword shops do make the occasional appearances in his work.  Most often they can be spotted on the more vibrant market streets closer to the highway or at local festivals.

Through his films we have already met the 13 martial arts societies that took part in the annual Miaofeng Shan pilgrimage, which was an important social event in the Beijing area during the 1920’s.   Clearly schools and temple societies such as these would have patronized the shops that Gamble recorded on Bow and Arrow street.  And we have already reviewed numerous accounts of the sorts of martial artists, strongmen and patent medicine sellers that one was likely to encounter in more ordinary marketplaces.  Luckily Gamble also recorded some important images of these individuals.

A martial artist and street performer in the 1920s. Note the three sectional staff in the foreground. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source:


Yet ever the sociologist, he was more interested in the question of how martial arts groups related to society, rather than simply seeking out feats of arms.  That turns out to be an interesting question as a great many martial arts schools in the 1920s-1930s had committees to provide either basic services to their members, or to raise money for community causes.  When we look at the groups that these martial arts schools cooperated with in their charitable work, it’s a little easier to see where they fit in the broader social structure.


Some $300 is annually raised for the chou ch’ang by a three day benefit given on the grounds of the Peking Water Company, outside of the Tung Chih Men.  This consists of an entertainment of singing, acting and acrobatics given by some nine groups of men who not only come and give their services but often pay their own expenses as well.  These men usually belong to some club or secret society and come year after year to make their contributions to the poor of peking.  One of these clubs, the Cloud Wagon Society, sent 40 members for the three days and subscribed $35 for their expenses.  This group sang old Chinese folk songs.  The Old Large Drum Society, founded in 1747, sent a group of 60 dancers and musicians.  The Centipede Sacred Hell Society, with some thirty-five members, gave demonstrations in the use of the double-edged sword, chains, pikes and other implements of combat.  The Sacred Jug Society was a group of 15 men from the village of Tuen Van, who amused the crowd by juggling jugs.  A group of actors gave their plays walking and dancing on four-foot stilts.  The Old and Young Lions Sacred Society made sport for the people with five lions of the two man variety, and whenever the lions moved the drum and cymbal players were sure to call attention to the fact by beating on their instruments. (Sidney David Gamble, John Stewart Burgess. 1921. Peking: A Social Survey. New York: George H. Doran Co. P. 208).

A young female martial artist performing with a jian in the Tianqiao market. Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source:


For better or worse, Sidney Gamble never set out to document China’s Republic era martial artists.  Perhaps that is just as well.  It is all to easy to read only the discussions of a single topic that interests us and begin to assume that such practices were omnipresent.  The challenge facing students of Chinese martial studies is not only to reconstruct the history of these fighting systems, but to understand their place in a much broader society where most individuals had little interest in the subject.

Gamble’s work is interesting to me precisely because it never places the martial arts at the center of the discussion.  And yet, these topics and practices are never totally out of view.  Even Beijing’s foreign residents and newspapers followed (from a distance) the developments of the Jingwu or Guoshu associations, and everyone could relate stories of particularly impressive (or pathetic) marketplace performances.  Yet far from being the center of the social universe, these martial organizations and practices remained one social movement among many.  The key to winning influence was in the friends you made, and how the martial arts sought to rhetorically position themselves.

Historians are most familiar with the modernist (Jingwu) and statist (Guoshu) discourses seen in the major reform movements of the period.  Yet in Gamble’s various home movies, photos and written accounts we see smaller martial arts groups continuing to be involved in local events and making common cause with other guardians of China’s performance and folk cultures.  In recent years this pathway (mostly ignored by elites in the 1920s) has come to the fore as China’s “folk” martial artists have attempted to position themselves as the vanguard of attempts to promote the nation’s “intangible cultural heritage” both at home and abroad.  Gamble’s work suggests that perhaps we should also be looking to the fruitful 1920s to locate the origins of this movement as well.


Another martial arts performer and strongman selling his patent medicines. Since imperial times pulling heavy bows had been used as a means of testing and demonstrating one’s strength.  Photo by Sidney Gamble. Source:



If you are interested this you might also want to read: Collecting Chinese Swords and other Weapons in late 19th Century Xiamen (Amoy)


Through a Lens Darkly (62): Chan Bing’s Choy Li Fut Students, 1967

Chan Bing’s students performing a Lion Dance in Seattle in 1967. Source: Vintage newspaper Photograph, author’s personal collection.


Unfolding a Story

When the opportunity presents itself I try to collect vintage photographs, postcards, illustrations and other ephemera touching on the martial arts.  As someone who writes and publishes on these subjects, it is very helpful to have a small collection of unique images to draw from.  Yet over the years I have come to believe that the true power of these images lays not in their ability to illustrate a story, but in how they encourage me, as a researcher, to jump into new subjects, or to see things from a slightly different perspective.  The world and the Chinese martial arts looked very different to the intended consumers of much of this ephemera than it does to us today.

From a historical perspective the best images are not necessarily the flashiest or the most spectacular.  They are the ones that lead to a slowly unfold a story, giving us a chance to appreciate layers of history or evolving ideas that might otherwise be forgotten.  Sometimes they help us to remember the contributions of individuals who are less frequently discussed, or put into perspective the actions of individuals who dominate the modern conversation.

The preceding photograph does all of these things.  It is an eight inch by ten inch (faded) newspaper photo taken from the archives of the Seattle Times.  Published on September 19th 1967, it records a Lion Dance being performed on 7th Avenue in front of the regional offices of the Gee How Oak Tin Association (which the Lion is facing).  A news clipping pasted to the back of the photo notes that the occasion of this demonstration was a six day convention bringing together members of the association from all fifty states.  Apparently these gatherings were a regular thing, but this was the first year that the meetings had been held in Seattle since 1937.

Other than the Lion Dancing, there is not a lot of outward evidence of Kung Fu in this image.  We see a row of students holding weapons, watching the performance.  Things become more interesting when we note the caption of this photograph which informs us that these students have traveled all the way from San Francisco and represent the “Lup – Mo Studio.”


Lau Bun (top center) with senior students in his Hung Sing School of Choy Li Fut in San Francisco’s Chinatown, one of the oldest martial arts schools in America. During the summer of 1959, 18-year-old Bruce Lee had a little-known run-in with Lau Bun and his senior students. I believe that Chan Bing is the second indvidual from the right in this photograph, holding the butterfly swords. (Photo courtesy of UC Berkeley).


We know that this school was run by Master Chan Bing.  A Choy Li Fut instructor, Chan Bing was a senior student of the much better remembered Lau Bun.  Of course Lau Bun (previously discussed here) was a fixture in the Bay Area Chinese martial arts scene.  He was one of the earliest instructors to operate openly in the area and his name frequently comes up in discussions of which instructor first broke the “Tong Code” to accept Western students.

In point of fact, affluent and educated Chinese martial artists in both China and America had been openly demonstrating and attempting to teach their art to Western students since at least the 1920s.  Central figures in the Guoshu Movement, most notably Chu Min-Yi, attempted to frame the Chinese martial arts as a potentially global practice as early as the 1920s and even set up classes for Westerners living in cities like Shanghai.  So whenever engaging in debates about “who did what first,” we should remember that the Chinese martial arts have never been just one thing.  Historically they have existed as a collection of different social movements carried on by very different communities and groups.  Often these trends have lined up with each other, but sometimes they have clashed, denying us easy answers to several of our favorite debates.

Still, there is wide agreement that Chan Bing was one of the first instructors in the San Francisco Chinatown area to accept large numbers of Western students when he opened his school in 1967.  Chan further broke with the old “Tong Code” when he accepted and encouraged a fair number of female students as well. This was the era when the dam broke on such social restrictions (both real and imagined) and we begin to see a true global uptake of the Chinese martial arts.

How can we explain the timing of this shift? Loosening immigration restrictions meant that more instructors were arriving in cities like San Francisco (Wong Jack Man comes to mind).  Further, Bruce Lee’s run as Kato on the Green Hornet electrified American martial artists in 1966 and 1967.  All of this played into the quickly emerging Karate vs. Judo debate which was then occurring in the pages of Black Belt magazine.  As the Japanese striking art gained ground, Western martial artists began to ask about its Chinese antecedents.

Again, all of this is well underway before Bruce Lee exploded as a global superstar in the early 1970s. Enter the Dragon was clearly responsible for making Kung Fu a household term.  But it is also important to realize that increased interest in the Chinese fighting system among Western martial artists in the late 1960s was already established.  This helped to lay the foundation which supported everything that would occur in the 1970s and 1980s.

Nevertheless, oral histories from the period suggest that there probably weren’t all that many Bruce Lee fans in this photograph.  Charlie Russo’s Striking Distance: Bruce Lee & the Dawn of the Martial Arts in America is very instructive in this regard.  Several of Chan’s students were in the theater that night in 1964 when Lee made his fateful open challenge to the traditional martial artists of the Bay Area. Of course this would culminate in his now legendary fight with Wong Jack Man.

Russo’s account of the incident draws on interviews with Adeline Fong, one of Chan’s female students, and one of the first female Lion Dance performers in the city.  I can’t help but wonder whether she might be one of women pictured with Lion Dance team above.  Kenneth Wong, her classmate and another student of Chan’s, was the individual who accepted Lee’s offer to act as a “demonstration partner” on stage that night and effectively derailed his performance, leading a flustered Lee to issue his challenge.  Russo reports that upon hearing about the incident Chan reprimanded Wong for not retaliating against Lee’s insults on the spot.

It is easy to become distracted by the ghost of Bruce Lee.  I like this photograph as it reminds us of the rapid growth that was occurring in the West Coast kung fu scene in the late 1960s.  At the time Chan Bing was a rising star.  He was respected as one of Lau Bun’s senior students, and press reports suggest that he was actively participating in public demonstrations and Lion Dances.  Sadly this would not last.  In 1968, only a year after opening his own club, Chan Bing died unexpectedly.  Many of his students were taken on by other instructors trained by Lau Bun.

That tragedy was not yet on the horizon when this photograph was taken on a fine September day.  In 1967 it must have seemed that Lup – Mo had a bright future.  Such moments should remind us of the role of contingency in the development and global spread of the Chinese martial arts.  That, in turn, suggests that much of what these arts could be, their social potentialities, remains submerged just under the layers of history and controversy that we debate so well.



A contemporary view of the same location seen in the initial photograph on 7th avenue in Seattle, across the street from the Gee How Oak Tin Association.



If you enjoyed this reflection and want to think a little more deeply about Bruce Lee’s impact during this period you might want to read: Chinese Martial Arts, Opera and Globalization: Kung Fu as a “Blurred Genre”



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


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


Arms and Armor of Xiamen, 1892.   

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


Report by Consul Bedloe, of Amoy.

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

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

Arms and Armor.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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



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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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


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

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


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

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


Introduction: Archery and the Traditional Chinese Martial Arts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Traditional Archery as a Social Practice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Archery Lesson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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


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

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

Up ↑